If you're after the best processor for work, a lot of the decision boils down to just what your work is. Most processors can handle just about any workload you throw at them, given enough time. But faster CPUs (with more cores and/or faster clock speeds) chew through tough workloads in much less time, making them great CPUs for productivity. This list focuses on performance in productivity applications for workstations, while our Best CPUs for Gaming article will give you a better picture of gaming performance. For an even more in-depth look, our CPU Benchmarks Hierarchy has all the processors ranked based on performance in gaming, single- and multi-threaded workloads.
A processor that excels at gaming isn't always the best CPU if your workload is productivity-focused. In fact, as highly threaded CPUs become more common, gaming CPUs and work CPUs are increasingly different silicon beasts, making it tougher to choose which CPU is the best for your workload. So we've compiled a list of processors representing the best bang for your buck in common productivity tasks, based on our years of benchmarking and testing data.
As for recent releases, the workstation CPU market is in a lull as we await the arrival of AMD's next-gen Threadripper processors. Those processors should shake up our rankings when they come to market before the end of 2021.
For now, AMD's Threadripper Pro 3995WX remains the most powerful workstation processor on the market. This fire-breathing 64-core 128-thread processor is aimed right at the meat of the OEM workstation market, but now it's available through retail channels, too. This chip comes armed with eight memory channels and 128 lanes of PCIe 4.0 connectivity, marking a big advantage over the consumer-class Threadripper processors described below. However, in most workloads, its high price point might not be worth the slim performance advantages over the consumer models, meaning that its higher number of memory channels is the primary draw.
Luckily, supply has improved for workstation processors, and now you can find most of these chips at retail near or below recommended pricing. However, there are still pockets of reduced supply, so we've included alternate recommendations as well.
Quick Shopping Tips
When choosing a non-gaming-focused CPU, consider the following:
- Know the apps you use: If your apps take advantage of superior core counts or memory channels, you might want to get an AMD chip. But if you're using lightly-threaded apps or want the broadest spate of officially supported software, Intel tends to perform better.
- Get the latest gen: You usually won't save a lot by going with an older chip, and you may limit your upgrade options down the road.
- Keep the motherboard in mind: The priciest CPUs require more expensive motherboards than cheaper chips.
For even more information, check out our 2020 CPU Buyer’s Guide, where we discuss how much you should spend for what you’re looking to do, and when cores matter more than high clock speeds.
Best processors for productivity at a glance:
1. AMD Threadripper 3995WX
2. AMD Threadripper 3970X
3. AMD Ryzen 9 5950X
4. AMD Ryzen 7 5900X
5. AMD Ryzen 5 5600X
6. AMD Ryzen 5 3600
Best Desktop CPUs for Work 2021
Intel's seemingly endless delay in transitioning to the 10nm node and a new architecture has left the industry ripe for disruption. As a result, AMD's Threadripper 3000 processors rule the upper segment of the HEDT market uncontested. The Threadripper 3990X established itself as the fire-breathing standard-bearer for the entire consumer market, but AMD has brought a very similar model to retail that's specifically designed for workstations.
AMD's Threadripper 3995WX slots in as the workstation market's uncontested leader in multi-threaded work with 64 cores, 128 threads, and supports up to 2TB of memory spread out among eight memory channels, not to mention 128 lanes of PCIe 4.0 connectivity. AMD also has less-pricey downstream WX models, too.
The Zen 3-powered Threadripper 3995WX is pretty much exactly what AMD says it is: A highly specialized processor that provides incredible performance in a narrow cross-section of workloads, but at an extremely attractive price point given its capabilities.
AMD's decision to pair 64 cores and 128 threads with higher boost frequencies pays big dividends in VFX, 3D animation, and ray tracing workloads with more performance than you would expect from any comparable workstation-class solution, not to mention even some dual-socket servers. The higher boost frequencies provide snappy performance in everyday lightly-threaded applications and devastating threaded performance in workloads that scale well.
The $5,489 price tag is eye-watering, but for professionals that can benefit from the 3995WX's hefty allotment of cores and threads, it's worth every penny. If you are looking for a more price-conscious model and don't need support for eight memory channels or 128 lanes of PCIe 4.0 connectivity, then the consumer-oriented 64-Core Threadripper 3990X makes for a nice alternative.
While the Threadripper 3990X/3995WX brings the utmost performance possible to bear, the exotic design does result in slower performance in some common workloads, leaving room for the Threadripper 3970X to serve as the more reasonable option for the productivity-minded.
The 32-core, 64-thread Threadripper 3970X delivers devastating threaded performance in its price range, often trouncing Intel's most exotic silicon. Intel's Xeon W-3175X is ill-suited to take on the comparatively power-sipping Threadripper processors on a power efficiency basis, not to mention pricing. Threadripper 3000 also brings a solid gain on the single-threaded performance front, too.
AMD's forward-thinking adoption of the PCIe 4.0 interface is another attraction that will help win over the semi-professional crowd. While the faster interface isn't as useful on the mainstream desktop, the ability to stack up throughput-craving devices behind the chipset without the radical throughput restrictions we see with Intel's DMI is another big win.
Read: AMD Threadripper 3970X Review
The Core i9-10980XE is a solid alternative pick, just be aware that you'll sacrifice quite a bit of threaded horsepower by selecting the Core i9-10980XE.
For streamers and professionals who can make use of the extra I/O of and quad-channel memory, Intel’s Cascade Lake-X flagship earns its niche, but the Ryzen 5950X and 3950X are a better value for most productivity workloads where the more-robust HEDT platform is less important.
That leaves a preciously slim slice of the market where Intel has an advantage in this price bracket (users that need quad-channel memory or more PCIe lanes). Overclocking performance is a factor if you're willing to spend the cash. You can drop the -10980XE into an existing X299 board if you're willing to sacrifice a few PCIe lanes, but be aware that this is the end of the line for the X299 platform.
The 14nm process equates to faster clock speeds, and thus performance, at lower overall power consumption. The Core i9-10980XE also has much higher overclocking headroom than its predecessor. But the 10980XE’s advantage after tuning over the AMD Ryzen 5950X comes at a $280 premium and requires more robust cooling and power delivery, so you should factor that into your purchasing decision. In most cases, the Ryzen 9 5950X and 3950X, both listed below, remain the better choice if you can find those chips on shelves.
High end desktop (HEDT) processors have long offered the ultimate in performance, as long as you were willing to pay the price. Aside from high pricing, HEDT chips also require expensive accommodations, like beefy motherboards and the added cost of fully populating quad-channel memory controllers. Add in the inevitable trade-offs, like reduced performance in lightly-threaded applications and games, and any cost-conscious users who could benefit from the threaded horsepower of a HEDT chip just settle for mainstream offerings.
AMD's Ryzen 9 5950X, with 16 cores and 32 threads, expands on its predecessors' mission of bringing HEDT-class performance to mainstream motherboards, lowering the bar for entry. The 5950X carries a $799 price tag, but that’s downright affordable compared to competing HEDT processors that don't offer the same class of performance. You can even find it for as low as $750.
The Ryzen 9 5950X's healthy slathering of cores and threads are incredibly adept at productivity workloads. Still, it does come with a dual-channel memory controller that can restrict performance in workloads constrained by memory throughput. However, outside of that notable restriction, if you're after a chip and platform that can do serious work seriously fast, but still be nimble enough to deliver high-refresh gameplay at the end of the day, the Ryzen 9 5950X fits the bill like no other CPU before it, blurring the lines between HEDT and mainstream platforms.
Read: AMD Ryzen 9 3950X Review
The Ryzen 9 3950X is a previous-gen processor, and we typically don't recommend investing in older chips for productivity-focused builds. However, given sporadic chip shortages, the Ryzen 9 3950X might be the only option at times if you're looking for a 16-core 32-thread processor to drop into a mainstream motherboard.
AMD's 16-core 32-thread Ryzen 9 3950X brings HEDT-class performance to mainstream motherboards, lowering the bar for entry. The 3950X carries a $749 MSRP, but you can find this nimble chip for ~$715 at retail.
Read: AMD Ryzen 9 3950X Review
If you’re truly only concerned about the best gaming CPU and basic productivity tasks, you should go with the Ryzen 5 5600X and save yourself some money. However, if you prize a brutal mix of performance in all aspects, like single- and multi-threaded work and gaming, the Ryzen 9 5900X is your chip – it delivers in all facets.
The 12-core 24-thread Ryzen 9 5900X is rated for a 3.7 GHz base and 4.8 GHz boost, but we clocked it in at 5.0 GHz during our own testing. Not only is the 5900X incredibly potent in threaded applications given its price point - it is also the uncontested fastest gaming chip on the market, so you'll get the best of both worlds.
There’s also support for PCIe 4.0 and overclockability to consider. The Ryzen 9 5900X drops into existing 500-series and some 400-series motherboards (be sure to assure compatibility). You'll need to bring your own cooler, and the bigger, the better — cooling definitely has an impact on performance with the higher-end Ryzen 5000 processors. However, if you're looking for a chip with a great mixture of both single- and heavily-threaded performance, the Ryzen 9 5900X is a great option.
Read: AMD Ryzen 9 5900X Review
The AMD Ryzen 5 5600X offers a compelling blend of pricing and performance in its price range, but the six-core 12-thread chip lands at $299, a $50 price hike over its previous-gen counterpart. However, the 5600X brings more than enough extra application performance to justify the premium, not to mention that it's the most power-efficient desktop PC processor we've ever tested. That means it is easier to cool than competing chips in its price range, ultimately resulting in a quieter system.
AMD's Zen 3 microarchitecture results in a stunning 19% increase in IPC, which floats all boats in terms of performance in gaming, single-threaded, and multi-threaded applications. The 5600X serves up more than enough performance for day-to-day application workloads, but you'll need to align your expectations with the fact that this is a six-core processor. That said, you won't find this level of performance from any other six-core chip on the market. If entertainment is also on the menu, the 5600X is an incredibly well-rounded chip that can handle any type of gaming, from competitive-class performance with high refresh rate monitors to streaming.
The Ryzen 5 5600X has a 3.7 GHz base and 4.6 GHz boost clock, but with the right cooling and motherboard, you can expect higher short-term boosts. The chip also has a 65W TDP rating, meaning it runs exceptionally cool and quiet given its capabilities (the previous-gen model was 95W).
Existing AMD owners with a 500-series motherboard will breathe a sigh of relief as the 5600X drops right into existing 500-series motherboards, and some 400-series models (be sure to check compatibility lists). If you need a new motherboard to support the chip, both 400- and 500-series motherboards are plentiful and relatively affordable, with the B550 lineup offering the best overall value for this class of chip.
The Core i5-11400 represents the lowest-end processor we'd recommend for a productivity-focused machine. The 11400 is the best budget chip on the market, largely because AMD's only competing chip comes in the form of the two-year-old Ryzen 5 3600 that can't compete with the more modern 11400. You can also pick up the graphics-less Core i5-11400F for $157, which is a steal given its performance. (Remember, the 11400F will perform the same as the non-F model, but you lose QuickSync.)
Taken as a whole, the Core i5-11400 has a better blend of performance than the Ryzen 5 3600 throughout our full suite of application tests. The 11400's large lead in single-threaded work is impressive, and its only deficiencies in threaded work come when it is topped with its stock cooler. The 11400 roughly matches the 3600 in threaded work with a better cooler, even with the power limits strictly enforced, while removing those limits gives the 11400 uncontested lead.
The Core i5-11400 supports the PCIe 4.0 interface. Additionally, B-series motherboards, which make the best pairing with this chip, support both memory overclocking and lifting the power limits, both of which yield huge dividends. You'll have to overlook the higher power consumption if you go with the Core i5-11400, especially if you remove the power limits. Intel's stock cooler is also largely worthless, so you should budget for a better cooler.
Discounts on the Best Desktop CPUs
Whether you're buying one of the best CPUs we listed above or one that didn't quite make the cut, you may find some savings by checking our list of coupon codes, especially our lists of Newegg promo codes and Micro Center coupons.