Best CPUs for Gaming: Holiday 2019by Dr. Ian Cutress on November 29, 2019 6:00 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.
Best CPUs for Gaming Q4 2019
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. Our Best CPUs for Gaming guide targets most of the common system-build price points that typically pair a beefy graphics card with a capable processor, with the best models being suitable for streaming and encoding on the fly.
|AnandTech Gaming CPU Recommendations: Q4 2019
(Prices correct at time of writing)
|Top Choice||Runner Up|
|Flagship Gaming||Intel Core i9-9900KS||$599||AMD Ryzen 9 3950X||$749|
|The $1500 Gaming PC||AMD Ryzen 7 3800X||$355||Intel Core i7-9700||$323|
|The $1000 Gaming PC||AMD Ryzen 5 3600X||$235||-||-|
|The $700 Gaming PC||AMD Ryzen 5 2600||$120||Intel Core i3-8100||$130|
|The $500 Gaming PC||AMD Ryzen 3 3400G||$130||-||-|
|The $300 Gaming Potato||AMD Athlon 3000G||$49||-||-|
|Ones to Watch||Intel Comet 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.
*Please note that the top image to our guide is just a fun picture, not actual recommendations.
Flagship Gaming PC
For the users that want a no-holds barred type of machine that specifically focuses on the system’s ability to push pixels proudly, then the key metrics of core frequency come into play. Going in at the high-end of the consumer market affords additional luxuries, such as the potential to game and stream from a single system, or multi-task between gaming and other uses. The top-end processors that fall in this category might not have the most number of cores, but they aim to offer the fastest user experience possible with your operating system of choice.
This year we’ve seen two high-powered processors battle it out on the stage. Intel has its new super binned Core i9-9900KS at $513 (1ku*), which offers more all-core frequency over its slightly cheaper i9-9900K at $488 (1ku*) which should give it a slight edge as games use more cores and users do more with it. The downside to this chip is that it needs to be cooled a lot (we saw 172W at peak), and users might have to add at least $80 or more for sufficient long-term cooling. But nonetheless, especially at low resolution high-frame rate gaming, the Core i9-9900KS hits the top spots.
*1ku means 1000 units, i.e. the price at which Intel sells to OEM partners who buy 1000 units at a time. Consumer retail price is usually higher than this by $15-$20, or more for premium CPUs.
There are two other caveats to this CPU, however. Firstly, Intel says that the 9900KS is only going to be produced for a limited time, so users who want one can’t sit waiting to decide. The other is the price – even though Intel’s OEM price is $513, it is currently listed for $599 on the popular online retailers.
The alternative is AMD’s flagship, the Ryzen 9 3950X which we reviewed very recently. This processor costs more ($749 is MSRP, expect it to be more if stock is limited), but claims to offer a 4.7 GHz single core turbo. The Zen 2 architecture technically has higher IPC than Intel’s Coffee Lake, so despite the lower frequency, should come out slightly ahead. In our testing, we see nearer 4.2 GHz when several cores are loaded, meaning that overall AMD is slightly behind, but the effective use of 16 cores means that for users that do workloads other than gaming, perhaps simultaneously, then this chip is preferred. It also runs at a lower power, offers direct M.2 storage, and PCIe 4.0 connectivity.
The Ryzen 9 3950X should be available at retail from the 25th November.
Both these systems, paired with something like an NVIDIA RTX 2080 Ti ($1100-$1200), with an appropriate motherboard, 32 GB of memory, at least a 1 TB SSD, case, power supply, and everything else, is going to cost $2500-$3000, and more if we add more memory, go for a high-end motherboard, NVMe storage, etc.
The $1500-$2000 Gaming PC
For anyone looking at a strong 4K gaming build, we have to look at the premium end of the consumer market in order to help drive those high-end graphics cards. Based on our testing at this resolution, the CPU starts to make little difference in frame rates, although as we look at higher refresh rates/lower frequency, getting a high frequency and high IPC does help. Both AMD and Intel have produced literature stating how their CPUs perform the best when it comes to gaming, but our pick here will be the AMD Ryzen 7 3800X.
At a price of $355 where available, users will be looking at one of NVIDIA’s Super cards for graphics, and then hopefully put together the rest of the system with a decent enough motherboard, storage, and DRAM. If we started looking at the $499 CPUs, then it would cut into that graphics card budget. Plus, at $349 we get the benefits of PCIe 4.0 with AMD, and in single chiplet mode there is no argument about cross-chiplet communication latencies. We have the Ryzen 7 3800X in our labs for testing soon, so stay tuned for that.
If users absolutely want Intel, then the Core i7-9700 is a good choice. It is slightly cheaper, but doesn’t come with a bundled cooler. It does peak at 4.7 GHz, and there’s likely to match the 3800X on variable core performance, although where the 3800X has 8 cores and 16 threads, the Core i7-9700 only has 8 cores and 8 threads, as well as slightly slower recommended supported memory. The potential upside is that there are plenty of cheap motherboards for the i7-9700 to go into, while the X570 motherboard market is still young and expensive.
The $1000 Gaming PC
AMD Ryzen 5 3600X ($235)
As we move down into more casual PC gaming territory, it starts to become difficult to recommend a good CPU at this price: naturally a lot of money will end up on graphics here, meaning that CPU+GPU could easily account for 60% of the total build cost. In that case, we have to make sure that the CPU can still take a good graphics card at high refresh rates or larger resolutions. For this, we’ve chosen the low-end of AMD’s newest offerings, the Ryzen 5 3600X, coming in at $235.
This six-core processor still has high frequencies, support for fast memory, and PCIe 4.0 for future upgrades, as well as a bundled stock cooler that’s pretty good. At this point, at this system price, it’s nice to be a little future proofed at any rate. Because of the microarchitecture, we still get real nice performance for day-to-day non-gaming workloads, and gaming still works out great for the price point. If we pair it with 8 GB of DDR4, a 512GB NVMe drive, and an RTX 2060, we’re at around $750, leaving $250 for a motherboard, case, and power supply.
The $700 Gaming PC:
For the market at this time, the $700 PC is a bit of a black sheep. At this price, you ultimately don’t want to still be on integrated graphics, but users will end up spending almost 40% or more of the build on a graphics card, so the CPU has to be just right. AMD has APUs in this space built on the older architecture, whereas Intel offers some high-frequency quad-core CPUs that will power a good graphics card just fine. In this case we’re putting in for the i3-8100/i3-9100, depending on availability, which should retail for around $130. Again, add in 8 GB of DDR4, a 512GB NVMe drive, and an RTX 1650, and we have just enough left for that motherboard/case/power supply. Unfortunately here you also need a CPU cooler, which adds another $25.
AMD doesn’t have any of its latest Zen 2 offerings at this price (except in places like Russia, where the Ryzen 5 3500 might be available), however the previous generation Ryzen CPUs are getting very cheap. The Ryzen 5 2600 is currently available for $120, and comes with six core and twelve threads, a lot more than Intel can offer at this price, making it a better option for anyone that does more compute than just gaming.
The $500 Gaming PC
AMD Ryzen 5 3400G ($130)
Crossing down into the $500 system market and we really have gone into APU territory. At this price, NVMe might not even be a valid option either, depending on how much needs to be spent where, and we’re on the verge of moving from integrated graphics to discrete graphics. For our recommendation, we stay on integrated graphics, which puts AMD’s APUs in line for consideration. At $99, the AMD Ryzen 5 3200G offers AMD’s latest APU with Vega 8 graphics, which is certainly sufficient for a large number of popular games. For users willing to scrimp on other parts of the system, the Vega 11 AMD Ryzen 5 3400G, currently available at $130, will be a sizeable upgrade. The latter will certainly be capable should someone want to add in a discrete graphics card at a later point.
The $300 Minimum Spec
AMD Athlon 3000G ($49)
There’s no way around it here – in order to afford the bare minimum on motherboard, case, DRAM, and storage, it doesn’t leave much options for a CPU, with probably $70 left at most. In this category we either have a range of Intel dual core Pentiums to choose from, or dual-core Athlons for better graphics. In a gaming system, I’d pick the graphics option here, and with AMD’s unlocked 45W Athlon 3000G being bundled with a 65W cooler, I’d again go for AMD here. (There’s also the fact that Intel’s high demand issues means they are focusing on the high-end of the market right now, rather than at this end.)
The AMD Athlon 3000G should be available from the 19th November.
Just Launched: High-End Desktop
When we reviewed the AMD Ryzen 9 3950X recently, with its 16 cores in the mainstream AM4 platform, I posed the question on social media if this chip counts as a high-end desktop part, given the high core count and the price, or if the use of the AM4 platform, with only dual channel memory and 24 PCIe lanes, meant it was still mainstream. After almost 850 votes, in a 79:21 victory, users said that because it was AM4 still, this processor was still mainstream. Since this poll, we have had two high-end desktop launches: one from AMD and one from Intel.
AMD launched its 3rd generation Threadripper platform, along with associated TRX40 motherboards and processors up to 32 cores, on November 25th. These processors have the same Zen 2 chiplets as the popular Ryzen 3000 series, but now it is in a platform with double the memory bandwidth (four channels rather than two) and more than double the PCIe lanes (64 on the processor, rather than 24), along with quadruple the CPU-to-chiplet bandwidth than Intel. These processors will start at $1300, and are geared towards the workstation market, so expect to see some mention in our upcoming workstation guide.
Intel’s efforts are directed at its new Cascade Lake-X processor family. The CPUs were also launched on November 25th, and give increased frequencies compared to the previous Skylake-X Refresh hardware. The top processor is the Core i9-10980XE, offering 18 cores for $999. Note that this is half the price of the Core i9-9980XE, which was released at $1979. These new Cascade Lake-X CPUs will fit in the same X299 motherboards, offer up to 48 PCIe lanes from the processor, and quad channel memory. But it is worth noting that Intel recently disclosed some security vulnerabilities which Cascade Lake-X is vulnerable to, and new microcode is being rolled out that could have a small performance deficit. At the same time, while Intel’s high-end desktop tops out at 18-cores, AMD’s HEDT platform starts at 24 cores. These are interesting times.
On The Horizon: Comet Lake?
Another wrench into the mix is Comet Lake, another round of Intel’s 14nm, coming to the desktop. We already know from various sources that parts and systems are being built for the new hardware, however Intel hasn’t mentioned it in any official briefing yet, nor is there a launch date, or how it will differ compared to the current Coffee Lake refresh hardware. Potential improvements could include Wi-Fi support directly on the chipset, or perhaps a higher binned memory controller, or perhaps more cores, but until Intel is ready to say something, we don’t know much at this point. We do have the annual CES trade show happening in early January, so come back then to see if Intel will say something more.