Best CPUs for Gaming: October 2021by Dr. Ian Cutress on October 6, 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, October 2021
As we approach the holiday season, we continue to be in a period between processor launches. Nonetheless, there are two main processor lines to talk about.
Stock of both AMD’s Ryzen 5000 and Intel’s 11th Gen Rocket Lake processors seems to be healthy, with almost all models now up for sale around MSRP. Find the right processor at the right time, and you may spot a good price or discount, however as stock comes in and out, there are times when a $50 premium might be on the cards for the best processors.
Best CPUs for Gaming October 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||AMD Ryzen 7 5800X (8C)||$400|
|The Smart Option for Today||Intel Core i5-11600KF (6C)||$250|
|Budget-No-Object||Ryzen 9 5950X (16C)||$800|
|For Everything Else||Get a Console|
|On The Horizon||Intel Alder 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
AMD Ryzen 7 5800X (8-core, $400)
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. This is why we’re recommending the Ryzen 7 5800X.
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.
After this, you’ll be looking at a DDR5 build anyway, and in 2024 we should see all the wrinkles smoothed out of that market.
The Smart Options for Today
Intel Core i5-11600KF (6c/12t $250 Newegg)
If the budget doesn’t stretch as far as the $400 processor suggested, then stepping back to something more comfortable for today’s workloads brings us to the Core i5-11600KF, currently available for $250. There’s going to be some extra spend for a cooler as these chips can run warm, but with six high-performance Rocket Lake cores it will blast through any game available today, at high settings, as well as most of next year as well.
The Core i5 could also be used for streaming, if you’re willing to knock down some quality pegs perhaps, but that also depends on the title. Almost every gamer would be happy with the Core i5-11600KF sitting in their build, with a potential upgrade to a higher performance Core i9 later down the line, depending on how the market turns with the launch of next-generation Intel processors later this year. In terms of price/performance, the Core i5-11600K is a smart choice for today.
The Budget-No-Object Gaming CPU
Ryzen 9 5950X (16c, $800)
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, such as Threadripper, which is great if you need the PCIe lanes. However we’re still waiting for Zen 3 based Threadripper to appear, and we don’t have a release date – so to that end, we’re recommending the Ryzen 9 5950X as the budget-no-object gaming CPU.
With 16 cores running peak over 5 GHz (it’s technically rated for 4.9 GHz, but our review sample did 5050 MHz), and an all-core frequency around 4.3 GHz for only 142 watts, the Ryzen 9 will chew any workload going its way, whether that’s gaming or anything else. A CPU of this caliber should be sufficient for a gaming build for the next three years easily, if not more, and the only limit you might come up against is the cost of the GPU you need to buy for it.
Right now, watching a number of journalists that follow prices a lot more closely than we do, anecdotally I’m seeing a considerable number of R9 5950X+RTX 3090 from people who can afford the best, and want the best from their gaming setup. At the end of the day, running at 4K and 144 Hz, the Ryzen 9 might not be any better than a good Core i7 in frame rates, but it gives the space for users to do anything else they want while also playing those games.
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
With Intel launching Rocket Lake at the beginning of the year, and AMD stock returning with the launch of the 5000G APUs, we’re still a month out from either company launching something substantial.
On Intel’s side, at the beginning of the year, Intel teased its next-generation Alder Lake platform, which uses 8 high-performance cores and 8 efficiency cores. Intel said it would launch later in 2021, but didn’t say what date. Intel has said that it is gunning for laptops and desktops, and given a recent presentation to OEM partners, we suspect that actually the desktop is coming first. Intel showed off a desktop-like Alder Lake system in a demonstration at CES, however Intel often uses desktop demonstration units to show off laptop processors as well. There’s also the question around DDR4 vs DDR5, and whether Intel should wait and make Alder Lake a DDR5-only platform on the desktop, or if we will have a mish-mash of DDR4 and DDR5 supported motherboards.
For AMD, we were teased with its new V-Cache technology at Computex in June. 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 5950X equivalent. AMD confirmed that it will be launching V-Cache enabled processors on Zen 3 silicon, but also at the same time saying that Zen 4 will be coming out in 2022. I fully suspect that we’ll see Zen 3+VCache in production around the end of 2021, with launch in the early part of 2022 on the current AM4 platform. Then a fully upgraded AM5 platform for Zen 4 at the end of next year.
If we look at time frames:
AMD Ryzen 1000 (Zen): March 2017
AMD Ryzen 2000 (Zen+): October 2018 (+13mo)
AMD Ryzen 3000 (Zen2): July 2019 (+15mo)
AMD Ryzen 5000 (Zen3): November 2020 (+16 mo)
AMD Ryzen 5000XT/6000 (Zen3+V-Cache): Expected Q1 2022?
AMD Ryzen 6000/7000 (Zen4): Expected Q4 2022?
Those last two entries are subject to speculation – AMD hasn’t confirmed any names or branding quite yet, and timeframes are our best estimates. On top of all this, we are waiting for Zen 3 based Threadripper to come to the market, which we thought would happen a couple of months ago, but we’re still waiting. While that’s not a gaming product, it’s still desired in some segments of the market for rendering and game development.
One recent idea that might put this AMD timescale into doubt are the recent leaks of AMD server CPUs with V-Cache, which have been coined ‘Milan-X’. We’re seeing leaks about Milan-X today, but nothing regarding Ryzen with V-Cache, which might suggest that AMD is focusing the V-Cache technology on server CPUs first. If that’s the case, there might be a delay to the desktop versions. Just something to think about, for those waiting for V-Cache hardware to hit the market.
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|
|All of our processor benchmarks can be found in Bench, our database.