So you’re looking for the best Intel CPU, but you aren’t sure which one is right for you.
Fortunately for you, we have you covered! We’ve written this extensive guide on the best Intel Gaming CPU for 2020, including our picks and a detailed buying guide at the bottom of the article in order to help you make an informed buying decision. Even if you don’t buy anything today, we want to make sure that you’re armed with the knowledge necessary to make intelligent buying decisions in the future.
Whether you just want the cheapest Intel CPU you can get, or the best bang for your buck in terms of gaming performance, we have you covered. Let’s dive into it!
Note: when we refer to gaming performance, we’re referring to performance with a suitably powerful discrete GPU, not Intel integrated graphics.
Best Intel CPUs For 2020
Cores: 2 | Threads: 4 | Base Clock: 3.8 GHz | Overclockable?: No | Out-of-Box Supported Chipsets: Intel 300 Series
The Intel Pentium Gold G5420 is one of Intel’s cheapest CPUs, but it makes a compelling value for those who are trying to make functional budget builds for media consumption or even some modern games at ~60 FPS, provided the GPU can keep up and the CPU requirements aren’t too high. For older games, basic use, and media consumption, though, this CPU has all of the raw power that you really need.
While Hyperthreading doesn’t provide the same massive gains here as it does with higher-end Intel processors, it comes in clutch to make this humble dual-core chip a worthy competitor for the money. If your needs are basic and you really can’t afford to bump up to one of the next CPUs on this list, then this is a perfectly fine option for you.
Verdict: Best Cheap Intel CPU
Cores: 4 | Threads: 4 | Boost Clock: Up to 4.2 GHz | Overclockable?: No | Out-of-Box Supported Chipsets: Intel B365, Intel Z390, Others May Require BIOS Updates
The Intel Core i3-9100F is our pick for the best value Intel CPU. This is one of Intel’s cheapest 9th Gen chips, but with a superb level of performance for entry-level users.
For modern gaming at 60+ FPS, you’re more than set with the i3-9100F. Its four powerful cores make it perfect for most games currently available on the market, and so long as your GPU can keep up, pushing playable framerates shouldn’t ever be an issue. In fact, older games or modern games that are lighter on CPU requirements may see you pushing as high as 100+ FPS…provided your GPU can keep up or you lower your graphics settings, of course.
Due to the higher CPU power baselines that will be established by the next-gen consoles, though, we wouldn’t recommend this for next-generation games. Additionally, we wouldn’t recommend this CPU for professionals or live-streamers due to the low thread count.
For gaming and multitasking, though, this is a perfectly fine CPU pick. In our opinion, it’s the best value Intel CPU for the money.
Verdict: Best Value Intel CPU
Cores: 6 | Threads: 6 | Boost Clock: Up to 4.6 GHz | Overclockable?: Yes | Out-of-Box Supported Chipsets: Intel B365, Intel Z390, Others May Require BIOS Updates
The Intel Core i5-9600K is a gaming powerhouse.
Let’s just go ahead and get that part out of the way. If all you’re interested in is playing modern games at higher framerates, then the Core i5-9600K should be all that you really need. We aren’t sure how it’ll stack up against games designed around next-gen consoles due to their fairly high core and thread counts, but we doubt those games will be genuinely unplayable or anything with this CPU.
For gaming purposes, we’d recommend this CPU for 100+ FPS modern gaming and ~60 FPS next-gen gaming, provided your graphics card is able to keep up.
Outside of gaming, this CPU sees fair boosts to other workloads. Productivity becomes viable with this CPU, for instance. While we’d only recommend live-streaming older games with this CPU (since newer games will use more cores and lower your FPS while you stream), CPU-intensive tasks like video rendering should have adequate speeds for pro users on a budget.
Additionally, the unlocked ability to overclock should enable you to push even better performance for gaming and productivity tasks, provided you’re willing to invest in a compatible motherboard and cooler.
For common media consumption, multi-tasking, and regular use, you are already well beyond the level that you need. From here on out, these CPUs are for gamers, professionals, and enthusiasts.
Verdict: Best Gaming Intel CPU
Don’t care about integrated graphics? Get the Core i5 9600KF instead, which will save you some money but offer the same level of performance.
Don’t care about overclocking or integrated graphics? Get the Core i5 9400F instead, which has most of the same performance at a much lower price.
Cores: 8 | Threads: 8 | Boost Clock: Up to 4.9 GHz | Overclockable?: Yes | Out-of-Box Supported Chipsets: Intel Z390, Others May Be Compatible, But We Don’t Recommend Them
The Intel Core i7-9700K is our pick for the best high-end Intel CPU. Going past here for today’s workloads is a little impractical unless you’re a high-end professional with high-end needs.
First up, gaming performance. For modern games, this should be within spitting distance of the previous i5-9600K, albeit with a slight advantage in some scenarios (where the game is explicitly optimized to use more threads). For next-gen games is where the i7-9700K should truly begin to shine in comparison to lower-tier and previous-gen CPUs, though, thanks to its whopping 8 cores.
Those 8 cores also make it a suitable fit for live-streaming and other CPU-heavy productivity tasks. The ability to overclock on top of that should allow you to push even higher peaks, but obviously the rest of your system- motherboard, cooler, RAM, PSU, etc- are going to need to be able to keep up with that.
For a truly high-end experience for today’s computing that doesn’t break the bank, the i7-9700K is a great option.
Verdict: Best High-End Intel CPU
Don’t want to overclock, and don’t care about integrated graphics? Get the Core i7 9700F instead, which will save you some money but offer the same level of performance. It also includes a cooler!
Cores: 8 | Threads: 16 | Boost Clock: Up to 5 GHz | Overclockable?: Yes | Out-of-Box Supported Chipsets: Intel Z390, Others May Be Compatible, But We Don’t Recommend Them
Last but certainly not least is the Intel Core i9-9900KS.
This is Intel’s current highest-end offering at the time of writing, and what an offering it is. While it has the same 8 cores as the 9700K, it adds hyper-threading for a massive leap in multi-threaded workload performance. Additionally, the 9900KS is verified by Intel to run at a 5 GHz turbo frequency on all of its cores- think of it as a pre-overclocked version of the non-S i9 9900K.
For pretty much everything you could want a high-end CPU for- next-gen gaming, live-streaming, video rendering, etc etc- the i9-9900KS is pretty much the perfect CPU, as long as you can afford it and as long as the rest of your system can keep up. That means a powerful CPU cooler, a high-end Z390 motherboard, fast RAM, and a great graphics card.
Verdict: Best Enthusiast Intel CPU
Want to save a little bit of cash? The regular Core i9 9900K performs mostly the same, and is far cheaper
FAQ and Buying Guide
In this section, we’re going to walk you through all of the information that you need to know in order to make an informed buying decision.
Chipsets and Compatibility
First up, let’s take a moment to talk about chipsets and compatibility. We’ve simplified our range of Intel CPU selections to mostly only use 9th Gen Intel processors, but 9th Gen and 8th Gen Intel processors are both known for using LGA 1151 sockets. That means that even if they can fit in the same socket, compatibility isn’t guaranteed, at least not without a BIOs update.
A better way to gauge out-of-box compatibility, then, is chipset. Here are the common Intel chipsets you can expect to see in your motherboards, and the difference in features on offer:
- B360/B365: Budget, no overclocking. Mostly the same, but B365 offers out-of-box support for 9th Gen processors. You’ll need to double-check Amazon reviews or manufacturer specs to verify if a B360 board offers 9th Gen compatibility without a BIOs update.
- H310/H370: Mid-range, no overclocking. Improves build quality and overall feature set, including RAM speed. Neither H310 or H370 offer guaranteed support for 9th Gen Intel CPUs, so double-check the product page before making a purchase.
- Z370/Z390: High-end, with overclocking. Has the most features. Recommended for making the most of any -K series processors you may find yourself with. Z390 has guaranteed support for 9th Gen CPUs, but Z370 does not. Double-check if the Z370 motherboard you want has 9th Gen support before buying it!
If you would like a selection of modern Intel motherboards to choose from, click here to see our grand roundup for Best Intel Motherboards in 2020!
What’s the difference between cores and threads?
For some CPUs, the number of cores and threads will be identical. For others, these numbers won’t be. Is that because we live in a brutal and chaotic world in which nothing has any true meaning and death could strike at any moment? If you’re super nihilistic or just feeling a little down, probably, but there is an actual reason for it. We’ll explain it in a moment.
First though, you need to understand what a CPU core is.
The original CPUs only had a single processing core. This single-core processing unit was considered for the longest time to be what a CPU was, but in the early 2000s, IBM made history by releasing the first dual-core CPU. AMD and Intel followed shortly after, and the rest is…history.
But this led to a new problem: PC processors now had not one, but two central processing units! Two cores! In a way, each individual core could be viewed as a processor in its own right, and you can still see this thinking in action if you ever take a look at Windows’ performance monitor on older versions, which shows cores as individual CPUs.
Wha we think of as cores today used to be thought of as individual CPUs in their own right, in other words. Each core can focus on an individual task, or thread, in a given instant, but juggles them at an utterly inhuman speed to give the appearance of multi-tasking. Chances are, your CPU is juggling literally thousands of threads as we speak.
But if you look at a CPU’s spec sheet, the number of threads will either match or double the number of cores.
In the context of a CPU spec sheet, “threads” refers to the number of threads a CPU can handle simultaneously and within the same instant. For most CPUs, this is one-per-core. But for CPUs with SMT (Simultaneous Multi-Threading, or Hyperthreading) enabled, each individual core can now handle two threads simultaneously and within the same instant.
In essence, a CPU thread is a CPU core as seen by your PC, or a virtual CPU core. When a CPU has more threads than cores, that means it’s using SMT in order to fool the PC into thinking your CPU has twice the processing cores.
SMT, or Hyper-threading when used in the context of Intel marketing, effectively doubles the power of your CPU when it comes to multi-tasking or handling single workloads that utilize more than one thread at a time (think streaming or gaming). At least, in theory: most apps can’t scale infinitely to core/thread counts, and games especially are limited in this regard. We’ll discuss this in more detail below.
How many cores do I need? How many threads do I need?
Now that you have a proper understanding of cores and threads, it’s time to discuss how many you need. In this context, the two become pretty much interchangeable.
For Basic Use: 2-4 Threads
For basic use, like web browsing, writing, light productivity (ie, nothing with heavy CPU requirements), two threads will do just fine. For most current and especially past-gen games (ie, PS3/PS4 generations), four threads will also do the job, but a select few titles may be able to utilize more threads, especially more modern ones.
For Modern Gaming Use: 4-8 Threads
For modern gaming use- that is, modern AAA games- you’ll want to have 4-8 threads. As CPUs continue to increase in both core and thread count, game engines are being built to utilize more and more of a CPU’s available resources. The days when a non-SMT 2-4 core processor was enough for gaming are ending rather quickly, and once we get a few years into the next generation of consoles, chances are you’re going to need even more raw processing power.
For Streaming/Productivity/Next-Gen Gaming: 8+ Threads
At this time, going to 8 threads or beyond is probably overkill for modern games, but is a great use for streaming and productivity. Video rendering, live streaming, and other CPU-intensive tasks will go much faster with 8+ threads available, especially since most of those tasks are optimized to use multiple threads.
Additionally, the next-generation consoles are expected to use 8-core processors with the ability to shift into SMT mode, doubling the core count to 16. While it’s unlikely that many developers will be using SMT right out of the gate, expect game engines optimized for heavy multi-core use to become more common during the coming console generation.
For High-End Streaming/Productivity/Next-Gen Gaming: 16+ Threads
For the relevant gaming point, look at the above bolded paragraph.
At the time of writing, though, 16+ threads and higher are genuinely unnecessary for the vast majority of users, even gamers. That’s because most game engines being used today are not yet capable of effectively utilizing that many threads.
However, 16+ threads become ever more useful for professionals or streaming enthusiasts. This is the range where processors like the Core i9-9900KS start showing meaningful improvements over other options- that is, when your CPU is being put through its paces and not being used just for video games.
What are base and boost clock speeds?
Clock speed refers to the speed, measured in Gigahertz, that a CPU’s cores are capable of running at. The higher the clock speed, the better the per-core performance, at least in theory. Lately, most CPUs are focused more on architectural improvements than raw clock speed improvements, which is why a 2020 3 GHz CPU is leagues faster than a 2010 3 GHz CPU, even if they may otherwise appear to have the same specifications.
As long as the CPUs share the same underlying architecture, though, the higher clock speed will indicate faster speed. For instance, an i9-9900K clocked at 5 GHz will be faster than one at 4 GHz, and so on.
The base clock spec is what the CPU can be expected to run at as a baseline, when needed. (CPUs downclock when they aren’t running heavy tasks in order to save on power consumption and prevent excess heat.) The boost clock spec is what the CPU can be expected to run at in ideal conditions without overclocking- that is, ideal cooling, ideal VRMs on the motherboard, and etc. To push a CPU higher than its boost clock specification, you’ll need an overclocking-capable CPU and motherboard.
Why does overclockability matter?
Overclocking in a CPU context gives the owner the ability to push their CPUs farther than they would otherwise be able to, which can help increase the longevity of their system before needing to upgrade or just give them desired improvements in raw performance.
How can I tell if I can overclock?
In the case of Intel CPUs, you’ll need both a CPU with a “K” in the title and a motherboard with a “Z” in its chipset name. Additionally, you’ll need to invest in your own CPU cooler, since K-series CPUs don’t come bundled with coolers, and even if they did, Intel’s stock cooler isn’t very adequate for overclocking purposes.
For AMD CPUs, the rules are comparatively lax: only their cheapest motherboards can’t overclock, and all of their modern CPUs are capable of overclocking. The included coolers tend to be adequate for at least light overclocking, too.
While Intel has advantages in raw single-core performance, which can be beneficial to gaming workloads, you will be paying more for the privilege of that performance, and for overclocking.
How does my CPU impact gaming performance?
More than you probably think!
When most people think “gaming”, they think “graphics”. After all, a high-end graphics card allows you to push higher resolutions and graphical settings without a loss in performance, so surely that’s the determining factor, right?
While it’s true that a graphics card is a determining factor in performance, it isn’t the determining factor. The arguably more important one is actually your CPU!
You see, your CPU is responsible for doing all the game logic calculations that are happening on your screen, your graphics card is just responsible for showing that work to you. Think of it as the difference between the data on a spreadsheet and that data in an easy-to-read bar graph.
You can lower resolution and graphics settings to increase performance on a weak graphics card, but you have no such recourse with a CPU. Your CPU will determine the maximum possible performance you can achieve in any game, regardless of settings or graphical horsepower.
For that reason, we seriously recommend getting a strong CPU today! It’s a lot easier to tweak a few graphics settings or replace a GPU than to replace a CPU, after all.
Does my CPU include a cooler?
Unless it has a -K or -X in its product name, Intel processors will ship with low-profile stock coolers. These aren’t particularly high-performance or anything, but they come free with your processor and are relatively painless to install.
If your CPU doesn’t include a cooler, or you want a more high-performance cooling solution for your system, check out our Best CPU Coolers article.
Does my CPU include integrated graphics?
Unless it has an “F” in its title, yes.
While Intel integrated graphics aren’t particularly well-suited for gaming purposes, they’re perfectly fine for common desktop use and media consumption. With older and more lightweight games, you may also find they make a surprisingly decent stopgap until you can afford a graphics card, but expect to play at 720p and low settings for any semblance of a playable experience.
If you don’t see yourself needing this stopgap, an F-series CPU will often be cheaper, and may even offer more overclocking headroom in some scenarios. (ie, the i9-9900KF). We recommend skipping out on integrated graphics if you don’t need them!
Where can I find compatible Intel motherboards for these CPUs?
Aside from 1 B360 board and 1 X299 board, all of these boards are compatible with 9th Gen Intel CPUs!
And that’s it!
This was a pretty massive-scale article, but we hope that it gave you all of the information you needed to know in order to get the best Intel CPU for your needs.
If you need any more help, leave a comment below and let us know!