The processor is one of the key components of a computer, whether it be a desktop or a notebook. But why is the CPU so important? Because it is the component responsible for the calculation of all generic operations. The processor is therefore crucial and determines the type of use of a PC.
Before listing the best processors you can buy today I would like to clarify how to orient yourself when choosing a new processor.
How to choose a processor
The first question everyone asks when buying a new processor is: AMD or Intel? For better or worse, there is no clear answer. My answer is: “it depends”. In the past, Intel offered the fastest but also the most expensive PC processors, while AMD offered more balanced and more affordable solutions.
With the advent of AMD’s Ryzen architecture, the two manufacturers are now equally capable of creating great products. Today you can buy a great PC processor from both Intel and AMD, and both companies offer solutions capable of delivering performance according to the price range.
Intel processors are divided into several families: the cheapest and lowest-performing ones are the Pentium and Celeron families, which represent entry-level products, ideal for light productivity tasks or basic multimedia applications.
Then there is the Core family, which is divided into four main series, differentiated in capacity and performance.
- Core i3 — This is Intel’s low-end processor family which lacks performance.
- Core i5 – this is the ideal processor for most tasks. In fact, these are among the most popular processors in the market. Great for both gaming (using a dedicated video card) and heavy-duty productivity (video editing).
- Core i7 — this is the high-end that until recently represented the pinnacle of Intel’s processors. They are capable of any type of assignment and usually have a large number of cores.
- Core i9 — this is the most recent series and represents premium models. These processors are designed for enthusiasts, that demand the very best performance.
Example: the Intel Core i9-9900K processor. The first digit represents the generation of the processor, in this case, the ninth, the other three digits indicate the SKU (Stock Keeping Unit). The last letter indicates the type of CPU: K, for example, means overclockable, while U indicates the processors with lower power consumption.
As for the naming of AMD processors, in this case, we have three main families: the A and Athlon series are the low-end entry-level solutions.
The Ryzen family is the most interesting one and the one for most people. Here’s how to recognize the various models of this family.
- Ryzen 3 — these are also entry-level processors, but they are much more performing and efficient than the A-series and Athlon series.
- Ryzen 5 — these are Intel’s Core i5 counterparts, so they offer the best bang for your buck.
- Ryzen 7 — this family includes AMD’s high-end and high-performance processors, comparable to those of Intel’s Core i7 family.
- Ryzen 9 — this is AMD’s “enthusiast” family, directly comparable to Intel’s Core i9 series.
There is also a Ryzen Threadripper series of processors, but they are specifically designed for very heavy tasks of a certain type (handling servers or databases, or for heavy-duty multimedia processing).
Example: the AMD Ryzen 5 3600X processor. The “3” after the Ryzen 5 represents the generation, the “6” reveals the performance (the higher the better). The last two digits represent the SKU. The letter indicates different types of models; the “X” in our case indicates a high-performance processor! A “G” indicates a processor that integrates a Graphics Processing Unit so that you do not have to buy a dedicated GPU separately.
You can analyze the capabilities of a processor by analyzing its technical characteristics. It’s an articulated topic but with a little patience, you will be able to understand the essential terms such as clock frequency, L1, L2 or L3 cache, core number, TDP, and IPC.
Each processor has a number of pins that serve to communicate with the motherboard socket. Usually, same generation Intel processors all use the same socket, and the same goes for AMD.
However, the two manufacturers never use sockets that are compatible with each other, so if you have an Intel processor you will need a motherboard compatible with Intel processors, and if you have an AMD CPU you will need an AMD compatible motherboard.
Each motherboard also has a chipset, which offers different amounts of performance features. The most popular Intel chipsets are B360, B365, H370, Q370, and Z390 with the latter being the best. AMD’s most popular ones are: B350, X370, B450, X470, and X570, with again the latter being the best.
The clock frequency is one of the parameters that determine the speed of a processor, but be careful – it’s not the only one. It is measured in gigahertz.
Most processors show two clock frequency values, the basic one and the “boost” or “turbo” one. In addition, all processors can reduce the clock frequency when idle to reduce consumption and decrease operating temperature.
Processor Cores and Threads
Having multiple cores within a single processor increases performance by n times (where n stands for the number of cores), especially in applications that support “multi-threading”. Processors with multiple cores are also great in all tasks that involve calculations done in parallel (video processing, for example), and when multi-tasking. On the other hand, there are certain applications that do not scale in a linear way, thus it is very rare that a quad-core processor (four cores) has double the performance a dual-core equivalent model can achieve.
Then there are threads, which represent the number of independent processes that each core can calculate at a given time. A common processor can perform only one “task” with each core, while more advanced processors, thanks to multi-threading technology, can perform at least two tasks with each core.
Intel calls this technology Hyper-Threading, while AMD uses the name SMT (Simultaneous Multithreading). Multi-threading can be very effective in some applications, but its benefits are not comparable to those achievable by multiple physical cores.
TDP stands for Thermal Design Profile/Power. it is, in short, the maximum heat that a chip generates measured in Watts. This value is very useful for determining the CPU’s consumption and also for choosing an adequate cooling solution.
The cache is a processor’s internal memory. There are typically three types of cache: L1 cache, which is the fastest but also the smallest one; L2 cache, more spacious but also slower; and L3 cache, way larger but also way slower. The cache has lightning-fast performance, compared to the PC’s RAM.
IPC stands for Instructions Per Clock Cycle and indicates the overall performance and efficiency of a CPU under certain conditions. Even if you know the clock frequency and the number of cores it is impossible to evaluate the real performance of a processor because the architecture of each one plays a vital role. Intel and AMD use different architectures for their processors, so you can not compare the two just by looking at their respective spec sheets.
Sadly most manufacturers do not declare an IPC value and therefore we can only measure it via benchmarks.
Several processors now have a GPU (Graphics Processing Unit) built into the chip. As a rule of thumb, built-in GPUs are great for video playback, even 4K, but do not perform very well with games.
Which processor to buy
Now that you know everything about processors and are ready to make your choice continue with our selection of best CPUs.