Best CPUs of 2020 So Far (Gaming, Workstation, Overclocking Round-Up)

By Published May 28, 2020 at 2:49 am

With the new influx of CPUs from AMD and Intel, and more rumored on the horizon, we wanted to round-up all of our recent testing into one concise piece for people looking for recommendations on the best CPU for different tasks. We’ve published several hours’ worth of content in the form of reviews, tuning, and follow-up coverage, so if you want the full details and depth for anything check those pieces. We’ll be focusing more on firm recommendations for each category in this video and less on the deeper details, with our categories including: Best gaming CPU, best budget gaming CPU, best small business or hobbyist production CPU, best workstation CPU, best overall, most fun to overclock, and most disappointing.

This content is intended to be a simpler buyer’s guide to the best CPUs in 2020 (so far). We’re not going to run this one as data-heavy as our reviews, so if you’re after really detailed information and all the charts and CPU benchmarks possible, check the individual reviews. This round-up will offer the only form of shortcut we ever publish, helping to cut through the heart of the hours of content we’ve published over the last few months.

Recent reviews will be linked below to help get to more details. CPUs are linked to retailers, from whom we may receive a commission for the sale, as is standard at this point. Our reviews and recommendations aren’t influenced by this. A few charts will be included from various reviews, but some may be from older content and so might not be ‘compatible’ between test methodologies for direct comparison chart-to-chart. For that, you’ll want to see the standalone reviews.

Resources: Recent Reviews for More Depth

If you want additional resources on any individual CPU, including a more data-centric approach, we’ve linked our reviews below. Note that some are video-only right now.

On the AMD side, we’ve recently looked at:

Best Gaming CPU - Intel i5-10600K

Buy the Intel i5-10600K on Amazon.

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Intel’s new Core i5-10600K is the one we’re giving “Best Gaming,” despite the 10900K running higher performance stock. We have good reasons, the first of which is that it can achieve 10900K levels of performance with an overclock, particularly when considering the inevitable GPU bottleneck in many games. That’s not to discredit the 10900K, but we’ll come back to that.

The 10600K is a genuine leap for Intel, which has been stuck for multiple generations on unsellable i5 CPUs. This one, we think, redeems the i5 lineup and is the most compelling buy for someone heavily focused on gaming performance, maybe even with a minor, non-daily focus on video production, 3D modeling, or similar. Although the R5 3600 may be more well-rounded, particularly at its price-point, the 10600K is often within 4-5% of production-level performance of the 3600, while managing potentially significantly higher framerates. The 3600 is plenty capable to game, but if you really only care about gaming and don’t use workstation applications, the 10600K makes the most sense.

The 10600K combines well with Z490 for its overclocking support, discussed later, and is a good tuning base that can reach performance levels AMD can’t yet claim. Further, regarding the common misconception that AMD Ryzen CPUs are somehow “smoother” or “more consistent” in frametime delivery, our data doesn’t support that. The 10600K is higher in average FPS and also outmatches similarly priced Ryzen CPUs for frametime consistency, with overall few excursions from the interval n-1. Our criteria for the best gaming CPU includes price, but also absolute performance and ability to tune. In this regard, the 10600K can achieve 10900K stock performance in most games, and can be tuned until both hit a GPU limit. Until more threads are needed in games, this will be true in most cases, and so we give the 10600K our nod for best gaming CPU, particularly impressive at its price. Intel did well here to get back in the game, but it’s not uncontested. AMD still has a long way to go to compete head-to-head with Intel for the gaming crown.

Best Budget Gaming - AMD R3 3300X

Buy the AMD Ryzen 3 3300X on Amazon.

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Next up, our recommendation for Best Budget Gaming CPU. Where we might recommend the Intel i5-10600K for gaming with less restrictive of a budget, or the 10900K for the absolute peak of FPS for the few competitively privileged enough to really need it, we’d recommend something else for more budget-conscious gamers. The AMD Ryzen 3 3300X gets that recommendation. This CPU, with its pricing at $120 MSRP, is able to achieve 80-85% of the performance of higher-end CPUs in most games. It’s significantly better than the $100 3100 thanks to its 4+0 CCX configuration, rather than the 2+2 CCX configuration of the 3100, where cross-CCX latency affects performance. The 3300X, critically, can also be coupled with nearly any current generation video card without significant bottlenecking on the CPU for higher graphics settings. This becomes less true if you care more about low graphics, high-FPS competitive gaming, at which point our recommendation will shift toward the Intel parts. If you want more of a GPU-bind, though, meaning higher graphics settings and potentially resolutions higher than 1080p, GPU will rapidly become more limiting than the CPU, and so the 3300X makes sense as a starting point on the platform.

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We’ve been flashing through some of our bottleneck charts, and you can check the previous content on that for more information on which GPUs make the most sense. Although we absolutely do not recommend coupling a $1200 2080 Ti with a $120 CPU, you could do it and get at least half the performance in most scenarios. The 2080 Super is about the peak for full performance, but something more reasonably priced makes more sense since GPUs are often easier to upgrade than CPUs. Either way, the 3300X offers plenty of room. If you want to get more out of it, look into our coverage with memory tuning and infinity fabric overclocking for AMD Ryzen CPUs. That’ll get you more mileage and increase FPS headroom.

Honorable mention: As an honorable mention, we’ll point out the Athlon 3000G. This is a good stopgap measure if you’re playing simpler games with less of a graphics slant. We’ve tested this one a lot over the years, so we’ll leave it as an honorable mention and just note that you can watch our previous content to get an idea of ideal use cases. It’s not what we’d call “good,” but it can certainly get you by if $100 on the CPU is out of reach.

Best Overall - AMD Ryzen 5 3600

Buy the AMD Ryzen 5 3600 on Amazon.

Next up is Best Overall, which goes to the Ryzen 5 3600. We awarded the 3600 this same honor in our Best CPUs of 2019 piece that we published for end of year. The R5 3600 maintains this title even under direct fire from Intel’s new 10600K, with the key distinction being that the 3600 in 2020 has had some of its viability in mid-range gaming installations eroded. That’s for reasons discussed in the Best Gaming section, but the 3600 still maintains its pricing advantage, its versatility in production and gaming applications, and maintains an average lead in applications like Blender, Premiere, V-Ray, and similar. It’s not as big a lead as once existed in the $200-to-$200 price class, but it’s still a lead, and it’s also about $100 cheaper at $180 on Newegg at time of writing, where the 10600K will be closer to $280.

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For anyone not as concerned about the highest framerates, the 3600 makes the most sense. It’s not as potentially core-bound as the 3300X might become in the future, and so provides some more reassurance for a longer lifespan. We view the 3600 as the new Sandy Bridge: This is the CPU that people will be happy to have bought in 8 years, and will have a hard time parting with when it’s time to upgrade. The price-to-performance was unbeatable at launch, and although it can now be beaten in gaming performance more consistently, the gap isn’t always wide enough to justify the cost jump. The 3600 hangs-on for another quarter in overall best value and best all-around, balanced performance; even for imbalanced workloads that are gaming-oriented, it’s hard to beat the 3600 in price-to-performance. The 10400 came close, but misses when paired with a non-Z490 platform.

Best SMB & Hobbyist Production - AMD R9 3950X

Buy the AMD Ryzen 9 3950X on Amazon.

Our next category is for the best small business & hobbyist production, which we assigned last year to the AMD R9 3950X. In light of current releases, that hasn’t changed. Threadripper still offers value for the high-end workstation users, but for people who might be hobbyist artists, editors, or coders, or maybe own small businesses, the 3950X is justifiable as a means to better enable making money off of the work. It’s not as full-on a financial commitment as Threadripper, but still provides most of the benefits. Your major loss, other than more cores, is in PCIe lanes, but the high core count and performance offers a lot for users of popular workstation applications or workflows.

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In our testing, we’ve seen the 3950X show expressive performance in code compiling on Windows, achieving the top rank on the chart outside of the significantly more expensive Threadripper series. Recently, we’ve also noticed that the 3950X has dropped from its launch price of $750 to an average of $700, which further strengthens the argument. In nearly every other production application we’ve tested, the 3950X has come out on top of the processors near its price class: It’s the top in Handbrake, compression and decompression workloads, tied with the 10980XE in V-Ray, tied or close by in Premiere video rendering tasks, and a firm chart leader -- again behind the 3970X -- in Blender for Cycles rendering on the CPU with heavy scenes.

As a bonus, the 3950X is capable of gaming. Unlike AMD’s original 16-core Threadripper CPU, the 3950X has solved many of the latency-related issues that caused problems where some games just didn’t work. You definitely shouldn’t buy it for only gaming, but if you mostly do work on the machine and sometimes play games, the 3950X is a capable performer. We see this as a good CPU choice for people who use or hope to use their computers to make money.

Best High-End Workstation - Threadripper 3990X

Buy the AMD Threadripper 3990X on Amazon.

Our next one is a natural transition into Best High-End Workstation. This is for people with thread-intensive, heavy production workloads, especially those who might be more established in their money-making endeavors. The 3990X came out between our previous Best CPUs piece and this one, and so it’s a newcomer to the round-up. In terms of best overall value for a production machine, the 3970X probably makes more sense, but the 3990X does get crowned for “best” in the purest sense of the word. The 10980XE and 3175X were Intel’s attempts, but our recent revisit of the Intel W-3175X showed it against the 3990X, and it was rare that the Intel part could outmatch the 3990X, and even rarer that the Intel part and a motherboard could be bought for anywhere near the combined price of the TR combination.

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In Blender, the 3990X scales cleanly and holds a significant lead even over the 3970X (of about 39% in the GN Logo render). It’s not as advantaged in Premiere, where the cores aren’t fully leveraged, and so wouldn’t be our go-to choice for a video editing machine. It’s also somewhat truncated in performance in the compression and decompression testing, where the 3990X needs more memory bandwidth to really make full use of its cores. The CPU does, however, benefit directly in applications like Chaos Group’s V-Ray, in code compiling with Chromium, and a few of the other tests we’ve published. The biggest note is that you’ll want to buy more RAM with the Threadripper 3990X. The amount will depend on your projects, but in our code compile, we saw a huge hit to performance where it fell to 200 minutes to render when coupled with 32GB of RAM, while 64GB allowed it to finish in 22 minutes. That difference is thanks to paging out to the drive, which hurts performance. The 3990X really needs to be partnered with other high-end parts.

The best balance would be the 3970X, as you aren’t overspending for constrained scenarios. The 3950X would be the best price-conscious fallback that still achieves most of the performance of Threadripper in specific applications, like Premiere.

As a mention, we’ll note that Intel’s high-frequency parts, like the 9700K and 9900K, are among the best performers in Photoshop. That specific application still seems to like frequency.

Most Fun to Overclock - Intel i9-10900K

Buy the Intel i9-10900K on Amazon.

Warning: This one is still getting gouged by third parties on retailers, so be careful not to spend too much. It shouldn’t cost more than $500-$550, ideally. The Intel Core i9-10900K gets our recommendation as the most fun overclocking CPU. Intel’s Z490 platform is completely insane for overclocking, and has overclocking features in abundance. Buildzoid has called this platform the “easiest to overclock,” and we’ve heard similar accolades from Joe of Bearded Hardware. In our own experience, we’d agree, with the caveat that it’s not only the easiest to tune, but also the most scalable to user experience. You don’t have to be a pro to leverage the ease-of-overclocking features in Z490. If you want something that’s good out of box but can also be treated like a tuning project on days off, we can highly recommend the Intel i9-10900K and a Z490 board with it.

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We’ve overclocked the 10900K both with standard cooling and with extreme cooling, and the boards are supportive of both approaches. Z490 earmarks include the following:

  1. Per-core hyperthreading, which allows tuning for applications that may have an optimal count of threads for peak performance or enable core binning
  2. DMI and PEG overclocking for I/O performance increases
  3. Extremely capable memory overclocking support, with tuning upwards and beyond 5000MHz for better kits and skilled overclockers.

Although BIOS overall depends on the vendor, the Z490 core featureset of OC knobs is replete with tools to research and tweak, making it a great combination for enthusiasts more interested in the tuning aspect than the baseline performance.

Biggest Disappointment - Intel i7-10700K vs. i5-10400 CPU

Intel i7-10700K on Amazon.

Our next one is for biggest disappointment, a tradition for GN round-ups. We were between the 10400 and 10700K, but ultimately, we decided to give the honor to the 10700K. That’s because the 10700K is positioned in a way that doesn’t give it much selling room: For workstation tasks, AMD’s same-priced 3900X gets you up to 12 cores and it manages to win in nearly every production workload we tested. For gaming tasks, although the 10700K is objectively superior to AMD’s offerings, Intel’s own 10600K roughly matches -- or can be made to outmatch -- the 10700K. Meanwhile, $100 higher, anyone looking for the highest framerate possible without any compromise should be looking at the 10900K instead. The 10700K fails to prove much value as flanked between Intel’s 10900K and 10600K, and similarly by the 3900X.

Hopefully that helps make some decisions. Again, the reviews are linked above if you need more information on any individual part. Check the YouTube channel for more depth and recurring coverage.

Editorial, Testing: Steve Burke
Testing, Additional Reporting: Patrick Lathan
Video: Keegan Gallick, Andrew Coleman

Last modified on June 05, 2020 at 2:49 am
Steve Burke

Steve started GamersNexus back when it was just a cool name, and now it's grown into an expansive website with an overwhelming amount of features. He recalls his first difficult decision with GN's direction: "I didn't know whether or not I wanted 'Gamers' to have a possessive apostrophe -- I mean, grammatically it should, but I didn't like it in the name. It was ugly. I also had people who were typing apostrophes into the address bar - sigh. It made sense to just leave it as 'Gamers.'"

First world problems, Steve. First world problems.

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