If you're after the best processor for work, a lot comes 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.
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 that represent the best bang for your buck in common productivity tasks, based on our years of benchmarking and testing data.
If you're headed back to college or school soon, you may be searching for a CPU that can handle some serious productivity work as well as gaming during your down time. You'll find plenty of processors that can handle both below. And if you're participating in distance learning, check out our must-have tech for students and teachers alike.
Quick Shopping Tips
When choosing a non-gaming-focused CPU, consider the following:
- Know the apps you use: If your apps take advantage of AMD's superior cores / threads per dollar, you might want to get an AMD chip. But if you're using lightly-threaded apps or Adobe products, Intel will 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 3970X
2. Intel Core i9-10980XE
3. AMD Ryzen 9 3950X
4. AMD Ryzen 7 3700X
5. AMD Ryzen 5 3600
6. AMD Ryzen 3 2200G
Best Desktop CPUs for Work 2020
Intel's seemingly-endless delay in transitioning to the 10nm node for the desktop, not to mention a new architecture beyond Skylake, has left the industry ripe for disruption. As a result, AMD's new Threadripper 3000 processors march into the upper segment of the HEDT market uncontested.
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. Just for comparison's sake – the overclocked W-3175X pulled 768 watts under load, while the overclocked Threadripper 3970X peaked at 356 watts while often providing more performance in threaded workloads. That math is easy. Threadripper 3000 also brings a solid gain on the single-threaded performance front, too.
Finally, 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
For streamers and professionals who can make use the extra I/O of and quad-channel memory, Intel’s Cascade Lake-X flagship earns its niche, but the 3950X is 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.
Intel's tactic of slowly bumping up clock speeds and adding more features across its product stack, like Hyper-Threading, has proven to be a good-enough strategy to fend off AMD's increasing pressure with the first-gen Zen chips, but the arrival of Zen 2 and the 7nm process blow that approach out of the water.
So what's left? Competing on price by dropping Cascade Lake-X pricing roughly 50% across the entire stack, thus dealing with AMD's lesser-equipped processors. That does improve Intel's value proposition, but AMD still looms large.
The refined 14nm process equates to faster clocks 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 3950X comes at a $230 premium and requires more robust cooling and power delivery, so you should factor that into your purchasing decision.
High end desktop processors have long offered the ultimate in performance, as long as you were willing to pay the price. Aside from high MSRPs, the chips also require expensive accompanying parts, like beefy motherboards and fully populated quad-channel memory controllers. Add in the inevitable trade-offs, like reduced performance in lightly-threaded applications and games, and most budget-strapped users who could benefit from the threaded horsepower of a HEDT chip just settle for mainstream offerings.
Now AMD's Ryzen 9 3950X, with 16 cores and 32 threads brings HEDT-class performance to mainstream motherboards, lowering the bar for entry. The 3950X carries a $749 price tag, but that’s downright affordable compared to competing HEDT processors.
As a general rule, we don't recommend HEDT processors for enthusiasts that are only interested in gaming. Gamers are best served by mainstream processors (with fewer cores and higher clocks) that are often faster in games; the Ryzen 9 3950X also falls into the same category. However, if you're after a chip and platform that can do serious work seriously fast, but still be nimble enough deliver high-refresh gameplay at the end of the day, the Ryzen 9 3950X fits the bill like no other CPU before it.
Read: AMD Ryzen 9 3950X Review
AMD continues to offer as much backward compatibility as it can given its expanding portfolio, earning kudos from the enthusiast community, and is also staying true to its standard value proposition of offering more for less.The Ryzen 7 3700X comes with a beefy bundled a cooler that can even provide a bit of overclocking headroom, too.
AMD also continues to offer fully unlocked processors for all Ryzen models and allows overclocking on value-centric motherboards, which has long been a sore point for enthusiasts that have to pay a premium for access to Intel's overclocking features. AMD is even expanding on that with the introduction of Precision Boost Overdrive and AutoOC features that bring overclocking to mainstream users through a few clicks in its easy-to-use Ryzen Master utility. Intel still holds the overclocking crown, but that's becoming less of an advantage in the face of processors that come with up to twice the cores at similar price points.
The eight-core 16-thread Ryzen 7 3700X slots in as solid performer for the mainstream that offers incredible power efficiency paired with powerful performance. The fully unlocked processor also supports the PCIe 4.0 interface and comes with a beefy Wraith Spire RGB cooler. The value seekers among us will also appreciate the backwards compatibility with X470 motherboards.
Note that we also recently reviewed Intel's top Comet Lake S CPU, the 10-core, 20-thread Core i9-10900K. With its high power consumption and thermal output (making it tough to keep cool without exotic chillers), it's tough to recommend for most people considering cheaper Ryzen competition. But for those looking for something for something more modest for gaming and some productivity, the lesser Core i5-10600K is worth taking into consideration. Its addition of Hyper-Theading means you get high clocks and 12 threads for a reasonable $262 price, or less if you opt for the KF model without integrated graphics.
Read: AMD Ryzen 7 3700X Review
It's clear the Ryzen 3000-series chips are the best bang for your gaming buck in this price segment. For gamers, the real choice boils down to the 3600 versus the 3600X. The Ryzen 5 3600X does have a bit more performance in the tank than the Ryzen 5 3600 in the overclocking department, which largely boils down to binning. It's also faster when we compare the two processors at stock settings, but the Ryzen 5 3600 slightly exceeds the stock X-model after tuning. In either case, the difference between the two chips boils down to a few FPS, which isn't worth the extra $50 unless you're chasing every last drop of performance. Also, bear in mind these deltas essentially vanish if you're gaming at higher resolutions.
The picture is a bit different when we switch over to productivity workloads. In threaded apps there really is no contest again: The Ryzen 3000 processors offer far more value than Intel's competing chips, and the lack of Hyper-Threading makes this a no contest for threaded applications. In gaming, we recorded slim differences between the overclocked Ryzen 5 3600 with the stock cooler and the Corsair H115i, but that delta widens in heavily-threaded tests.
If you plan on using a discrete graphics card, the Ryzen 5 3600 is hands-down the best value on the market. The 3600X might be worth the extra coin if you aren't interested in overclocking, as it does provide more performance out of the box and comes with a better cooler. However, it's hard to justify the $50 premium over the Ryzen 5 3600. For small form factor (SFF) enthusiasts, AMD has packed in quite a bit of punch into a 65W envelope, giving it the uncontested lead for small systems.
A Ryzen 5 3600 paired with a B450 motherboard will make a great setup for mainstream gamers, and you have the option to upgrade to a PCIE 4.0-capable motherboard in the future. We aren't sure when, or if, AMD's partners will push out new B-series motherboards, but that could be a compelling upgrade path in the future.
Read: AMD Ryzen 5 3600 Review
AMD's less-restrictive feature set grants the Ryzen processors the uncontested lead in this segment of the market. The Ryzen 3 2200G dips into the sub-$100 (£80) category, but its support for AVX instructions and four physical cores easily beats the Intel Pentium lineup.
The four-core, four-thread Ryzen 3 2200G is particularly appealing for budget gaming builders and upgraders. In multi-threaded workloads, the comparable Pentium dual-core models are no match for the Ryzen 3 2200G's four physical cores. The 2200G's single-threaded performance is also extremely competitive, and that's before we take overclocking into account. AMD also supports AVX instructions with all of its processors, an important consideration for productivity-focused workloads, while Intel disables the feature in its Pentium family.
The $99 (£82) Ryzen 3 2200G also comes with the powerful integrated Radeon Vega graphics engine and drops into existing inexpensive 300-series motherboards (after a requisite BIOS update), to form the basis of a surprisingly capable low-cost PC. It’s also unlocked, so, with proper cooling, you can tune the graphics or the CPU to best suit your needs.
Read: AMD Ryzen 3 2200G Review