How to Choose a CPU

There are few components in your system as important as the central processing unit (CPU). From generating game logic to running demanding applications to handling seemingly mundane computing tasks, your CPU handles most of the actual computing your computer does. That’s why, if you’re in the market for an upgrade, knowing how to choose a CPU is important.

Buying the right CPU can be confusing, though. Cores, threads, clocks, and cache are all numbers that we have ready access to, but making sense of them needs a little know-how. By the end of this CPU buying guide, you’ll know how to choose a CPU, what to look for, and, just as crucially, why.

Further reading

AMD vs. Intel

Stock photo of Intel 9th gen core processor
Intel Newsroom/Intel Corporation

There are two main CPU manufacturers when it comes to desktop PCs and laptops: AMD and Intel. Until 2017, unless you were going ultra-budget, Intel was the only real choice, but today, whether you opt for an AMD or an Intel CPU, as long as you buy the right one for what you want to do with your new system, you’ll have a fantastic experience.

That’s not to say that there aren’t instances where we’d likely recommend one company’s products over the other, but the difference isn’t as important as it once was, and there are other factors that may be more important for you (read our dedicated AMD versus Intel guide for more).

One important note, however, is that if you are planning to build a computer (here are some helpful tips on how), you must buy compatible components. An Intel motherboard will not work with an AMD CPU, and vice versa.

You can use an Intel solid-state drive in an AMD motherboard or an AMD graphics card in an Intel PC, but when it comes to CPUs and motherboards, you need to buy what’s compatible.

CPU labels and generations

You can figure out a lot about a processor simply by knowing the generation it’s from and the tier it sits in within that generation. AMD and Intel have different naming schemes for their processors, and being able to decode them is important. Newer processors are usually better, and as we’ll explain throughout this guide, being able to discern processors on an individual basis will allow you to pick out what’s relevant and what isn’t.

The latest AMD processors are part of the Ryzen 5000 series. The first number notes the generation, while the second number notes where the processor sits in that generation. For example, the 5600X and 5800X both come from the Ryzen 5000 series, but the 5800X is a faster, more capable processor within that generation.

Unfortunately, the numbers themselves don’t mean much. You’d be forgiven, for example, for assuming that the Ryzen 5000 processors are the fifth generation of Ryzen processors. But that’s not the case (it’s actually the fourth generation of Ryzen processors and only the third architectural change). Similarly, the 5800X is labeled with the Ryzen 7 tag and the 5600X with the Ryzen 5 tag, while the 5900X has a more fitting Ryzen 9 tag.

The numbers themselves aren’t important. It’s how they compare to each other. A Ryzen 5900X comes from a more recent generation than a 3900X, and a 5800X and 5600X are from the same generation, but the 5800X is faster.

Intel’s naming scheme is similar, using the first number to note the generation and the second number to note the place within that generation. Like AMD, Intel also categorizes its processors into tiers (Core i7 and Core i9, for example). Knowing that, we can pick out the Intel 10900K as a 10th-generation processor that’s in the i9 tier. Again, higher is better here.

Nothing is simple when it comes to CPU naming, though. Like AMD, Intel also breaks from its naming convention. The 10400 and 10600K, for example, are both 10th-gen i5 processors. Higher is still better, though, so the 10400 will generally perform worse than the 10600K.

Intel also adds a suffix to most of its processors that notes certain functionality (or the lack of such functionality). There really isn’t any reasonable explanation for the suffix letters and what they mean, so we’ll just list them instead:

  • G1-G7: Graphics level
  • E: Embedded
  • F: Requires discrete graphics
  • G: Includes discrete graphics
  • H: High performance optimized for mobile
  • HK: High performance optimized for mobile, unlocked
  • HQ: High performance optimized for mobile, quad-core
  • K: Unlocked
  • S: Special edition
  • T: Power-optimized
  • U: Mobile power efficient
  • Y: Mobile extremely low power

Thankfully, you won’t encounter most of the suffixes when shopping for a processor. The important ones to remember are F and K for Intel desktop processors. For mobile, HK and U show up the most.

Cores and threads

AMD Ryzen 9 3900x
Dan Baker/Digital Trends

If you want to know how to choose a CPU, you need to consider cores and threads. Cores are like individual processors of their own, all packed together on the same chip. Traditionally, they can perform one task each at a time, meaning that more cores make a processor better at m