It’s 2021 and you’re trying to find the best budget gaming CPU for your needs.
Trouble is, the market’s a bit sideways right now and chances are it’s not going to improve any time soon. So in the meantime, what are the best budget gaming CPUs that you can get for your hard-earned money right now, without breaking the bank by spending $100 or more over MSRP?
We’ll give you our four top picks, then a buying guide in case you need any help making a final decision. Leave a comment below if one of them is missing or you have questions.
Best Budget Gaming CPU For 2021: Our Picks
We’ve done the research so you don’t have to, here’s our list of the best budget gaming CPUs.
Cores: 2 | Threads: 4 | Boost Clock: Up to 4 GHz | Overclockable?: No
The Intel Pentium Gold G6400 is our pick for best gaming CPU under $100. It doesn’t get much more budget than a dual-core CPU, even if dual-cores have four threads these days. With a boost clock of up to 4 GHz, the single-core performance of this chp is nothing to sneeze at, and will make it overkill for 60+ FPS in older games. More cutting-edge modern games, especially with lots of players (ie Battle Royales) may make this CPU work a lot harder though, especially if you have things running in the background.
If you just need a CPU for as cheap as possible, it’s pretty hard to go wrong with an Intel 400 Series Pentium. It should treat you well if you don’t expect it to play super-demanding games with it.
Verdict: Best Gaming CPU Under $100
Cores: 2 | Threads: 4 | Boost Clock: Up to 3.5 GHz | Overclockable?: Yes
The AMD Athlon 3000G APU may not have all the raw processing power of the Pentium Gold listed above, but it may not need to- because it has integrated Vega graphics. The Vega Graphics on the AMD Athlon 3000G APU make it surprisingly capable- you can even squeeze out Doom Eternal at 720p and 30 FPS with this baby. That’s Nintendo Switch-level performance and visuals, if not better!
Obviously, pairing this with an actual GPU will make it much better. In fact, if you’re looking to upgrade when the market stabilizes a little bit, getting a ~$200 GPU with this should have you comfortably gaming at 60+ FPS in most titles without much issue, thanks to the Zen cores chugging away inside. Later on, you can opt for a better Ryzen processor when you start wanting to push your framerates into the next generation.
Verdict: Best Budget Gaming APU
Cores: 4 | Threads: 8 | Boost Clock: Up to 3.6 GHz | Overclockable?: No
The Intel Core i3-10100F is the best budget gaming CPU we would recommend to most people. At the time of writing, it’s well under $150 and offers the best gaming performance of anything except an i5 in the sub-$200 price range. This is thanks to its 4 powerful cores, each running two threads and proving appropriate for modern game engines made to use multiple cores. Even for older games that can’t utilize this CPU to its fullest, the single-core performance in play should allow for easy play at 100+ FPS in all but the most demanding modern games.
Even outside of gaming, the Intel Core i3-10100F should prove capable of some light productivity work on the side- this is an eight-core CPU for a steal of a price, after all.
Verdict: Best Budget Gaming CPU
#4. Intel Core i5-9400F
Cores: 6 | Threads: 12 | Boost Clock: Up to 4.1 GHz | Overclockable?: No
If you want to spend as little money as possible but also maximize your performance-per-dollar, we hear you. If that describes you well, we recommend the Intel Core i5-9400F. It may be on the last-gen Intel 300 Series Chipset, but it offers most of the performance of the newer 10400F at a much lower price. With six cores and twelve threads, this CPU is more than well-equipped for 120+ FPS in modern games, and should even prove capable of some streaming and video workloads on the side.
However, this versatility does come at a higher price than any other option on this list- especially if you decide to opt for the newer 10400F instead, which you may have to when this one finally goes out of stock.
Verdict: Best Budget Six-Core Gaming CPU / Best Gaming CPU Under $200
This not available, or prefer to be on the Intel 400 Series Chipset? Get the Intel Core i5-10400F instead- it’s a slightly better version of this CPU.
Buying The Best Budget Gaming CPU: FAQ
Not sure what’s right for you after reading all of that, or just want some extra information? Keep reading, we have you covered.
AMD vs Intel: Platform, Compatibility, and Cost
While Intel dominates this list, there are still a few reasons to choose the AMD CPU instead, especially if you plan on getting future upgrades.
There are three primary chipsets featured in this article: 2 from Intel, 1 from AMD. The 2 From Intel are 300 Series and 400 Series for their 9th and 10th Gen Core processors, respectively. The 1 from AMD is the 3000 Series chipset, which corresponds with the AM4 socket and 3rd Gen of Ryzen CPUs.
Intel 300 Series and Intel 400 Series are on different sockets, meaning there is no compatibility between the two. And since it’s Intel, another socket will come in 2 years and cut off your upgrade options. If you do plan to upgrade with an Intel setup, though, we definitely recommend going with a 10th Gen Intel CPU and 400 Series motherboard.
The AMD option with the 3000 Series and AM4 Socket offers an interesting alternative. The AM4 socket is likely going to be replaced at some point in the next 2-4 years, but there is an abundance of AMD chips at superb prices (especially secondhand) available on the market, and the socket recently saw the release of the 5th Gen Ryzen 5000 CPUs. While a BIOS update may be necessary, going with AMD opens up your upgrade options to a much wider variety of CPUS at lower prices.
How many cores do I need?
For gaming? It depends.
In general, 4 cores is considered to be where you want to start for modern games, especially modern multiplayer games. 6 is where you’re doing great, especially if you have SMT to double the thread count as well. There are benefits seen going past 6-cores, but those are outside of this price range and are fortunately quite marginal, especially if you’re only aiming for 60+ FPS in modern games.
Outside of gaming, having a quad-core or better can assist in workloads like video rendering and live-streaming with very light (read: old) games on the side.
The dual-core processors on this list would normally not be suited for gaming at all, but the addition of SMT/Hyperthreading on both chips allows them to better juggle background tasks and focus the bulk of the core power on the games actively being run.
How much does clock speed matter, and should I overclock?
Clock speed will fortunately be a very good way of gauging how CPUs compare to each other in this article. This is because the bulk of our selection are modern Intel Core processors, so their underlying core architecture is near-identical. The chips with the higher boost frequencies will be able to achieve higher single-core speeds, which should result in slight increases in gaming performance- though the presence of more cores makes a bigger difference.
On the subject of overclocking, almost none of the CPUs we’ve selected can be overclocked- with the exception of the AMD Athlon 3000G. This chip can easily be overclocked to ~4 GHz, and doing so will further improve its performance in games, with or without the help of its integrated graphics. The Intel chips are still the better overall option if you aren’t using integrated graphics, though.
How does a CPU impact gaming performance? Isn’t my GPU more important?
interestingly, CPUs actually matter much more for gaming performance than most people might think. While it’s true that a great GPU is what allows you to push higher resolutions and visual fidelity, higher framerates can only be achieved by getting better CPUs. This is because the CPU determines the maximum possible framerate you can achieve with your system, even with in-game graphics settings turned to their absolute lowest.
However, if your only goal is achieving 60+ FPS in games, then getting a CPU much more expensive than one in this article stops making quite as much sense, especially if you aren’t planning to do any non-gaming with it. In that case, yes, spending more on the GPU will make a bigger difference in terms of visual fidelity and experience.
And that’s it!
We hope this article told you all you needed to know about budget gaming CPUs that are currently available on the market. Even if you only have $100 to spend on a CPU, there are a few good options for you.
Feel free to leave a comment below if you have any questions or concerns. Otherwise, we hope this article helped, and that AMD starts competing/being stocked in this range again!