Best CPUs for Gaming: Holiday 2021by Dr. Ian Cutress on November 22, 2021 8:30 AM EST
In our series of Best CPU guides, here’s the latest update to our recommended Gaming CPUs list. All numbers in the text are updated to reflect pricing at the time of writing. Numbers in graphs reflect MSRP.
CPU Market Overview, Holiday 2021
The launch of Intel’s 12th Gen Alder Lake processors has shaken up the market in the eternal battle of red vs blue, with seemingly a good number of processors to go around. The main limitations are still graphics cards for gaming, but also those looking for DDR5 are having to scout around as the dreaded ‘supply chain’ has limited how many modules have come to market. Nonetheless, platform costs aside, stock of both AMD’s Ryzen 5000 and Intel’s 12th Gen Alder Lake processors seems to be healthy, and both are aggressively priced.
A short overview of the best sellers updates:
AMD still holds the top 7 spots, with the four Ryzen 5000 processors based on Zen 3 taking four of the first five: the best seller since our last guide this time around is the Ryzen 7 5800X, which is around the $342 as this is being written. All of these parts seem to be sold at or below MSRP, and the range of supported motherboards in the ecosystem is healthy and varied.
The Top 10 looks like this:
|Top 10 Best Sellers, Amazon.com|
Links to Reviews
|#1||🔼3||Ryzen 7 5800X||Zen 3||8C/16T||$342|
|#2||=||Ryzen 9 5900X||Zen 3||12C/24T||$484|
|#3||🔼2||Ryzen 5 3600||Zen 2||6C/12T||$220|
|#4||🔽3||Ryzen 5 5600X||Zen 3||6C/12T||$299|
|#5||🔼1||Ryzen 9 5950X||Zen 3||16C/32T||$720|
|#6||🔼4||Ryzen 7 5700G||Zen 3||8C/16T||$314|
|#7||🔼7||Ryzen 5 5600G||Zen 3||6C/12T||$239|
Just below our top five are two of the Zen 3 APUs with built in Vega graphics, with AMD able to keep them in supply priced around the same as the non-APUs, exchanging a bit of that L3 cache for integrated graphics. The popular non-Zen 3 parts are also appearing on Amazon’s Top 50, with the Ryzen 5 3600 taking #3, priced well at $220, and even the Ryzen 3 1200 is at #28 for $140.
Intel’s best seller is one of the new Alder Lake entrants, the Core i9-12900K. Despite some of the online reviews preferring the i7-12700K (#13) or the i5-12600K (#31), it seems the Core i9 was the one that was able to keep supply and sell well. The current listed $798 price is well above MSRP, and it’s likely that Amazon is waiting on more stock and this is just the low stock price. The KF variants without integrated graphics, while cheaper in most cases were lower down the order (i9-KF at #23, i7-KF at #32).
For the rest of Intel’s hardware, we’re seeing the slow demise of 11th Generation Rocket Lake. Despite some big gainers (i5-11600K up 38 places), the 10th Generation hardware has almost double the number of entrants in the list, and even 9th Gen hardware has more CPUs in the top 50. It looks like a number of users are happy to invest in a cheaper Intel ecosystem or upgrade their mid-range 9th generation platforms for something more agreeable, and stay in the LGA115x form factor where Z series motherboards are cheaper and B-series motherboards are around. The 10th generation Comet Lake has four processors in the top 20, even if prices are actually slightly worse month on month. By comparison, 11th Generation hardware is 5-10% cheaper across the board. We might see a small balance shift here as we go through the holiday season.
As for banger deals, it’s going to be interesting to look day-to-day over the next couple of weeks in case someone offers an extra $50 here or there, or bundles in a good cooler. I will say this though – the first generation Threadripper 1900X (8-core) appears back on our list at #36 for $150. That’s higher than most of the Rocket Lake processors. Perhaps the recent news about mining on AMD CPUs is also enticing some older Threadripper action.
Best CPUs for Gaming Holiday 2021
Sometimes choosing a CPU is hard. So we've got you covered. In our CPU Guides, we give you our pick of some of the best processors available, supplying data from our reviews.
|AnandTech Gaming CPU Recommendations
(Prices correct at time of writing)
|The Future Proof Smart Money||AMD Ryzen 7 5800X (8C)
Intel Core i5-12600K (6+4C)
|The Smart-Budget Option for Today||AMD Ryzen 5 5600G (6C)||$240|
|Budget-No-Object||Intel Core i9-12900KF||$662|
|For Everything Else||Get a Console|
|On The Horizon||AMD V-Cache
Intel Alchemist (GPU News!)
AMD Zen 4 / Intel Raptor Lake
|To see our Best CPUs for Workstations Guide, follow this link:
The majority of our recommendations aim to hit the performance/price curve just right, with a side nod to power consumption as well.
You can find benchmark results of all of our CPUs tested in our benchmark database:
The Future Proof Smart Money
Regardless of the current graphics situation right now, a significant question on all system builders’ minds is if what they buy will last into the future, whether that’s gaming at 1080p or all the way up to 4K with high refresh rates. The best thing about the gaming market is that as you push higher and higher resolutions, the CPU matters less and less, but ultimately it still matters enough to get some minimum performance.
There is also often a discussion about how many cores make sense for gaming – depending on who you talk to, it’s either 4-core, 6-core, or 8-core, or even more, but as always the answer is not always as clear cut as that. Is that processor being suggested meant to only cater for this year, or next as well? Both what you’re playing now and predicting the requirements of future games is tough.
Most modern games can easily chew through four cores, and take advantage of six. When we’re getting up to that level, it also matters about single core performance too, and so trying to build in some headroom with what you can buy today obviously matters. But when buying, you also have to think about what’s coming up, and if you’re planning to upgrade or completely change systems. Something future proof has to work today, tomorrow, but also give options when tomorrow comes.
This is why we’re recommending two options here. The AMD Ryzen 7 5800X is a great processor that will power your workloads today, using fast Zen 3 cores, and offers an AM4 system that can be upgraded to a 16-core 5950X, or later down the line when AMD announces the V-cache processors on AM4, those as well. You can buy most of the hardware you need today, for that eventual end-game.
It has eight high-performance Zen 3 cores, peaking around 4.7 GHz and all-core around 4.3 GHz depending on your cooling and settings. It has more than enough cores for today’s games, some headroom for the future, and the single-core performance is mighty fast. Users looking for some more grunt for non-gaming workloads that can chew through cores can spend an extra $160 and get an extra four cores, especially if they want to couple gaming with streaming on the same system, however for most the Ryzen 7 5800X is a good spot for a future-proof system. There is also some room for minor overclocking, if the lifespan needs a little more.
Alternatively, DDR5 is just around the corner. Intel’s launch of the 12th Generation Alder Lake processors shows some impressive gains when using those efficiency cores and performance cores together, along with a nice bump in raw single core performance which lots of games love – especially those that are CPU bound or driving higher refresh rates. Something like the Core i5-12600K we’re recommending today, with six performance cores and four efficiency cores, will go great with gaming but also put the user in the driving seat for the 2023 processor launches. If you’re able to invest in the LGA1700 and DDR5 ecosystem today, those will all be ready to drop in Intel’s next generation hardware (on the relatively safe assumption that Raptor Lake will be socket compatible and Intel historically supports two generations per socket). The only issue here is that Z690 and DDR5 is a bit of an upfront outlay, and some users might want to wait until prices come down. Heading for DDR4, as our review showed, does stunt some of the performance benefits of Alder Lake. DDR4 will be around a while, but as far as new generations of hardware are concerned, it is now end of life, hence we recommend DDR5 in this instance. DDR5 price parity with DDR4 isn’t expected for another couple of years (2H 2023), so bear that in mind if you end up looking at 12th Gen + DDR4.
The Smart Options for Today
AMD Ryzen 5 5600G (6C/12T, $240, with Vega Graphics)
If the budget doesn’t stretch as far as the $300 processor suggested, then stepping back to something more comfortable for today’s workloads brings us to the Ryzen 5 5600G, currently available for $240. Featuring six of AMD’s high performing Zen 3 cores, this is one of AMD’s processors with integrated graphics, and it surprises me that these are so high on the best seller list. But it also doesn’t surprise me, as these processors are a great way to get into a gaming system with a crazy GPU market right now. Users that want something fast and to play some easy games on without a GPU, but still have the trajectory to put in a beefy card or upgrade on the line, then the 5600G is a good entry point. It also comes with its own cooler, and it’s fairly good for this sort of APU, so no worries there.
The benefit the Ryzen 5 brings to a system and the reason why it gets a recommend here is that AM4 is so abundant right now. Compared to an Intel offering, which requires good cooling and a high-end motherboard to get the most out of it, pairing a Ryzen 5 5600G with a B550 around $100 and 16/32 GB of memory, an SSD, and you’re almost there for something that will run for years or look good with a big GPU in it later on. Make sure you spec out the power supply for that GPU though.
The Budget-No-Object Gaming CPU
Intel Core i9-12900KF (8+8c/24T, $662)
Regardless of your personal budget, there is always going to be another user with $6k burning a hole in their pocket ready to splash out on the best system available. At this price point there’s already a big GPU purchase coming, and so the rest of the system has to match, and it has to be the best. Some users might be inclined to go down the high-end desktop route, which is great if you need the PCIe lanes, but the launch of Intel’s Alder Lake has completely changed our recommendation here. What was the Ryzen 9 has now turned into the Core i9, simply because it offers the best gaming performance, and assuming your budget goes to DDR5 and a massive GPU with a high-refresh rate monitor, the Core i9 is the only way to go. We’re technically recommending the KF based on pricing today, although that might be subject to change.
With 8 performance cores running peak at nearly 5 GHz sustained, 5.2 GHz single core, and 8 efficiency cores which kick in for background tasks, as long as you can deal with the 220W-260W all core, Intel’s 12th Gen offers the best gaming performance at high refresh rates right now. When it comes to a workload-oriented setup, then in a lot of circumstances having the 12 or 16 performance cores on the AMD Ryzen might be better, although this is why Intel wants future products with efficiency cores – streaming and other features can run on those, while the performance cores focus on the heavy lifting.
For Everything Else
Upgrade what you have, or get a console, if you can
Unfortunately the market is still in shambles when it comes to graphics. Couple the manufacturing issues with the most recent shipping issues, and it’s hard to tell just how many graphics cards are currently sitting in container ships off the coast of California. Users are either holding onto their graphics cards and upgrading everything around them, or are looking to pre-built machines that offer reasonable value to which this guide would be useless anyway.
But if you already have a machine, that’s in reasonable shape, it might be cheaper to hold on to what you have, for now. For those with an older Haswell or Skylake system, perhaps going for the better CPU and selling on your old one is a minor enough upgrade to make a system feel better, and if that nets some extra performance, that could translate into your gaming. It won’t be earth-shattering, but there’s no point plumbing for a new LGA1200 or AM4 system right now only to be left with a mid-range CPU/GPU combination, especially for anyone looking to build brand new for under $1000. A good $1000 system is likely to end up with an 8-core Ryzen APU and no discrete graphics, while waiting for another $1000 for that graphics card.
For everyone else, the days of buying $600 gaming systems is pretty much gone. In this instance, if you can find a console, that’s our recommendation. Until this global situation with the semiconductor shortages, raw material prices, and shipping issues solves itself, we might never return to $600 gaming systems ever again, especially as developers want to put more and more features into their titles.
On The Horizon: Alder Lake and AMD V-Cache
Intel’s launch of Alder Lake has book-ended the year when it comes to end-user desktop processors. Off the back of AMD Zen 3 at the end of 2020, in March Intel showcased the retrofitted 11th Generation Rocket Lake. In August we saw AMD’s Zen 3 APUs, only two models, hit the shelves. Then at the end in November, Intel brings to market its 12th Generation Alder Lake – while this was only the K/KF hardware, it marks the first time in a long while that Intel has launched two generations in the same year (I’m not counting Broadwell/Skylake; that was a joke at the time). As a result, we need to look forward to 2022. We already have some interesting tidbits of information indicating that it’s going to be a fun processor year as we look at new microarchitectures and new packaging.
To start, we’re expecting as early as CES 2022 in January for AMD to announce its consumer Ryzen processors built on Zen 3 cores with V-cache enabled. We were teased its new V-Cache technology back at Computex - this stacked silicon technique allows AMD to add 64 MB of L3 cache per chiplet, allowing for a total of 192 MB on a ‘Ryzen 9 6950X’ equivalent. AMD stated that production would start in Q4 this year, which would usually lead to a Q1 launch. We expect these to be AM4 socket compatible, and AMD is showcasing a ~15% increase in gaming performance.
Shortly thereafter, while not a CPU, in the gaming world we’re expecting Intel’s discrete graphics card to come to market in the first few months of the year. Built on TSMC’s N6 process, a number of analysts are expecting Alchemist to help alleviate some of the constraints around the pricing and availability of hardware in the graphics market. It will be interesting to see how the hardware performs, where it will be priced, and in what quantities Intel and partners will create. Some are suggesting that to generate market share, the first hardware might cut in pricing just to get it into the hands of users. Intel does have sufficient capital to make it happen if it wants.
Fast forward through most of the year, and come the end of 2022, both Intel and AMD are expected to bring new generations of processors into the market.
AMD has already confirmed that Zen 4 will be available by the end of 2022, and we’ve seen a small glimpse of Zen 4 at AMD’s Data Center event when it disclosed slightly more information about a 96-core EPYC Zen 4 processor ‘Genoa’ and 128-core EPYC Zen 4c processor ‘Bergamo’, coming in late 2022/early 2023 respectively. We’re also expecting it to come to Ryzen by the end of the year, with PCIe 5.0 and DDR5, built on TSMC N5 with a new IO die, although estimates still put it as a 16-core processor, unless AMD is able to put three chiplets in there, taking another 50% of the silicon budget with it.
On Intel’s side, early in 2022 we should see the rest of the Alder Lake desktop family (Non-K, Core i3, Celeron) come to market, as well as notebook processors. Reports and rumors have been surfacing that an update to Alder Lake, called Raptor Lake, will be seen by the end of 2022. We’re not expecting new cores under the hood, however an optimized design, new power delivery, and some suggestions that Intel is going to focus on cache as well. To date all expectations are that Raptor Lake will still be built on Intel 7 and be a monolithic CPU with the same core counts as Alder Lake, or maybe more efficiency cores, but still within the same LGA1700 socket. It’s all still very unconfirmed from primary sources right now, although some direct Intel details have been spotted.
The AnandTech CPU Coverage
Our big CPU reviews for the last 12 months have covered all the launches so far, and are well worth a read.
|AnandTech Recent CPU Coverage|
|Special||CEO Lisa Su Interview||CEO Bob Swan Interview|
|January||Ryzen 9 5980HS||Core i9-10850K
|February||TR Pro 3995WX||-|
|March||AMD EPYC Milan||Core i9-11900K
|April||-||Ice Lake Xeon|
|May||-||Rocket Lake IGP
|June||Jim Keller Interview|
|July||TR Pro 3975WX
TR Pro 3955WX
|August||Ryzen 7 5700G
Ryzen 5 5600G
Ryzen 3 5300G
|September||-||Alder Lake uArch|
|October||Mike Clark Interview||-|
|November||-||Intel Core i9-12900K|
|All of our processor benchmarks can be found in Bench, our database.