The Best Intel Processors for 2021: Top CPUs for Team Blue

Intel has processors for any budget or application, but only select few can join the pantheon of the best Intel processors. Recent Intel releases haven’t been the most groundbreaking, especially against the AMD Ryzen competition, but there are still plenty of CPUs from Team Blue that are worthy of your time.

From the top of the line to the most wallet-friendly, our guide runs down the top Intel processors on the market to help narrow your search. The Core i5-10600K tops our list with its balance of price and performance, despite the release of the newer Core i5-11600K. 

The best Intel processors at a glance

Intel Core i5-10600K

Intel Core i5-10600K package
Intel

Intel’s 10th-gen Comet Lake processors arrived in 2020, and in 2021, the leading i5 from the lineup remains our top pick. Intel is pushing ahead with its 11th-gen desktop platform, but the 10600K provides most of the performance of its next-gen counterpart at a significantly lower price. Plus, the 10600K is compatible with cheaper motherboards and is far less demanding on your PSU and cooler.

The 10600K has a 4.1GHz base speed and a maximum single-core boost clock of 4.8GHz. The TDP is slightly higher than the previous-generation model at 125 watts, but with clever power management, it doesn’t run much hotter. It does not ship with a stock cooler, so be sure to grab one along with this top pick (our best CPU cooler guide has a few options).

In benchmarks, the 10600K nearly matches Intel’s Core i7-9700K, an older $300 eight-core, eight-thread chip. It stacks up well against a competing AMD processor (the 3600X), which has six cores and 12 threads for $290. It doesn’t perform as well as AMD’s $300 Ryzen 5600X, but the 10600K can still hold its own in gaming.

One amazing facet of this processor is its overclockability. With the right cooling and tweaking — read our best AIO cooler guide to get started — it can reach frequencies well above 5.0GHz and gaming performance close to that of the stock 10900K, a processor that’s almost twice the cost.

Overall, the 10600K provides a lot of bang for your buck, especially if you intend to overclock. It’s not much slower than the Core i7-10700K right out of the box, making it ideal if you want to save some money, and can go much further still. Keep in mind this chip only works in the LGA 1200 socket, so if you’re interested, grab a board with the Z490 or Z590 chipset.

Intel Core i5-11600K

Intel Core it 11600K in box.

Intel’s 11th-gen Rocket Lake platform isn’t perfect, which is why most of our recommendations focus on the previous generation. For gaming, however, the i5-11600K is an exception. It’s slightly more expensive than the 10600K but comes with the same six cores and 12 threads. It bumps the base clock speed down from 4.1GHz to 3.9GHz, but comes with a higher boost clock speed at 4.9GHz. It has better integrated graphics, too, but you should pair it with a dedicated GPU.

It depends on the game, but the 11600K maintains a small but measurable lead over the 10600K in most titles. In some games, such as Death Stranding, the 11600K actually beats last-gen’s 10700K and can match the 10900K in others. Although not quite the generational improvement Intel fans hoped for, the 11600K proves that you don’t need a high-end processor for gaming.

The gen-on-gen improvements are clearer in non-gaming tasks. The 11600K blows past Intel’s last-gen offerings and offers more credible competition to AMD’s mid-range chips in productivity tasks, leveraging application-specific accelerators to great effect.

Intel charges for this performance, though — not in dollars, but in power. Despite an advertised TDP of 125W, the 11600K can draw well above 200W under load. With more power, and thus more heat, you need a decent power supply, cooler, and motherboard for the 11600K. Intel is switching sockets with its upcoming Alder Lake launch, too, so you’ll need a new motherboard if you decide to upgrade down the line.

Still, the 11600K is a great gaming processor. It comes with enough juice for gaming while offering decent power for productivity tasks, and that combination is tough to find under $300. That said, the 10600K gets most of the way there, so consider it as an alternative if you can’t find an 11600K in stock.

Intel Core i5-10400F

Intel Core i5 10400F box in front of a PC.

Despite not sporting the Core i3 tag, the 10400F is one of Intel’s cheaper processors. It’s an incredible value at around $150, packing in six cores and 12 threads, a base clock of 2.9GHz, and a boost clock of 4.3GHz. It’s around $80 cheaper than the 10600K while sporting similar specs. The biggest difference is the “F” suffix, meaning that the 10400F requires discrete graphics.

Even with the low price, the 10400F performs well. In tasks like rendering, the 10400F is able to match the 9700K while surpassing AMD’s budget Ryzen 3000 chips. Although the 10400F is underpowered for most CPU intensive workloads, it’s still a great Intel processor for web browsing, light image editing, and office applications.

If you’re a gamer, the 10400F is an even better choice. With plenty of cores and a solid boost clock, the 10400F can put CPUs three times its price to shame. If you pair it with a nice graphics card, you can achieve gaming performance on par with an i7, and sometimes, even an i9.

The 10400F marks a sweet spot in Intel’s range. Below it, performance drops significantly without much cost savings, and above it, price scale faster than performance. If you’re looking for an everyday CPU with enough power for light productivity and gaming, it’s hard to beat the 10400F.

If you can afford it, a viable alternative is the new-generation 11400F. It is slightly faster for not much more — though its thermal demands are, like the rest of its generation, a little more costly.

Intel Core i7-10700K

Intel Core i7-10700K Package
Intel

If you want high-end performance without the paralyzing sticker shock of a Core i9 CPU, this is the Intel i7 processor to get. It packs eight cores and 16 threads along with a 3.8GHz base frequency and a hefty 5.1GHz maximum single-core turbo frequency.

As the “K” implies, this chip supports multiplier-based overclocking, though it doesn’t ship with a stock cooler. It’s a nice performance uptick from the previous generation Core i9-9900K for a lower cost, even more so after a little tweaking under the hood. It even gives the Core i9-10900K a run for its money, which is around $100 more.

Intel’s Core i7 processor targets AMD’s Ryzen 7 3700X, another eight-core 16-thread chip at a lower cost, but without integrated graphics. Benchmarks show that AMD’s chip follows behind the 10700K right out of the box, and even more so after overclocking both. The Ryzen 5800X puts the 10700K in its place, but it’s around $100 more expensive.

Like our top recommendation, the 10700K has a new counterpart: The 11700K. You can save around $50 by going with the 10700K without giving up much performance.

As with all other new Comet Lake desktop CPUs, you’ll need a compatible motherboard with the LGA 1200 socket for the 10700K. If overclocking is on the menu, grab a board with the Z490 or Z590 chipset.

Intel Core i9-10900K

Intel Core i9-10900K Package

When it comes to the best raw performance, this 10-core, 20-thread Core i9 chip tops the charts. The 10900K has a base frequency of 3.7GHz, while its maximum single-core turbo frequency is 5.3GHz, with the new Velocity boost algorithm. With heavy overclocking, some 10900Ks can even handle 5.3GHz on all cores.

Intel’s 10-core chip lists a TDP of 125 watts. If you raise the power limits while using a large enough power supply, some users report that heavy overclocks can cause this Intel processor to pull as much as 325 watts. If you make these changes, there are certain steps you should take to avoid overheating the Core i9 CPU, like adding a powerful cooler and some solid PC fans.

The 10900K remains one of the best gaming CPUs on the market today, and its price is dropping with the release of the 11900K. If you want to save even more, consider the 9900K. For gaming in particular, the 9900K matches the 10900K, and you can usually find one for around $300. Keep in mind that the 9900K is a couple of generations old, so it might be tough tracking one down.

The Core i9-10900K still is a gaming powerhouse in 2021, even if the AMD competition has long eclipsed it.

Intel Core i7-11375H

Laptop built with an Intel Core i7-11375H under the hood.

Although a new Intel desktop processor can have some problems, the Tiger Lake mobile processors are excellent. For a great balance of performance and power, we recommend the i7-11375H. It comes with four cores and eight threads, a base clock of 3.3GHz, and a staggering boost clock of 5GHz, all while keeping power demands under 35 watts. The i7-11375H leads Intel’s new Tiger Lake H35 processors, which target portable gaming laptops with 14-inch screens.

The processor shows up in laptops like MSI’s Stealth 15M, but many manufacturers are still shipping notebooks with last-gen CPUs. Despite sporting similar specs, the i7-11375H passes even the top Tiger Lake chips with its extended power budget. That translates to some performance improvements in single-core performance. With the same underlying architecture, however, you should expect more of a performance benefit in multithreaded tasks.

It’s hard to say anything definitive about a mobile CPU, though. The wrong build can make even the best processors look weak, and a decent configuration can make underpowered CPUs shine. The i7-11375H is undoubtedly the most powerful mobile Intel CPU available, but it’s important to consult individual laptop reviews.

If you’re looking for more raw power, Intel also offers the Core i9-11980HK in premium gaming laptops. It comes with eight cores and 16 threads and a turbo speed of 5GHz, so it’s certainly faster than the i7-11375H. However, it mainly shows up in high-end gaming machines, so it’s not for everyone.

FAQs about Intel processors

What’s the difference between K and F Intel processors?

Intel uses multiple suffixes to indicate different features, but “K” and “F” are among the most common. “K” processors are unlocked, so you can overclock them with a compatible motherboard. “F” processors don’t come with integrated graphics, so you’ll need a dedicated graphics card. You may even find a “KF” processor, indicating that it’s unlocked and requires discrete graphics.

You can usually find variants of Intel’s leading i9, i7, and i5 processors with either or both suffixes. If you’re planning on building a gaming computer, you can save a few dollars by purchasing the “F” variant of a processor. On the other side, “K” processors are slightly more expensive with their overclocking capabilities. If you want a full breakdown on Intel’s naming scheme, make sure to read our CPU buying guide.

How good are AMD processors compared to Intel?

Intel and AMD both offers excellent processors at different price points and in different forms, so one brand isn’t definitively better than the other. That said, if you’re shopping for a desktop processors in the second half of 2021, AMD generally has better options. The newer Ryzen 5000 processors have better single-core performance and pack more cores compared to the Intel competition, making them great for gaming and content creation.

In the mobile world, Intel used to dominate. Now, you can find machines with AMD Ryzen processors, too, and they perform great. That said, there is still a far greater number of machines that come with Intel processors, and they stack up well against the AMD competition.

In short, an AMD processor is generally better on desktop, and Intel and AMD are evenly matched on mobile, though Intel has more options available. Keep in mind that the power balance between Intel and AMD changes with each processor release, so although AMD is better right now, it may not always be that way.

How do you know which processor is best for your needs?

To find the best processor for your needs, you need to consider the applications you want to run. If you’re into gaming, for example, a processor with strong single-core performance is a good choice because games usually stress only a handful of cores at a time. On the hand, content creation applications like Adobe Premiere Pro and DaVinci Resolve can take advantage of a greater number of cores, so a processor with a lot of cores is better for them.

Those are good rules to follow. Games like a fast processor over one with a lot of cores, and content creation apps like more cores over faster ones. Some processors, such as the Intel Core i9-10900K and AMD Ryzen 9 5900X, offer both. If you want a processor for browsing the internet and using basic apps, any processor with four or more cores from the last few years should work well.

How can you tell if a PC processor is any good?

The best way to tell if a PC processor is good is to look at individual benchmarks. Specs like core count and clock speed don’t tell the full story — they only show what the processor is capable of within its own range of products. If you’ve settled a certain brand or series, however, looking at core counts and clock speeds can show you where the processor sits in the range.

If you want to test your own processor, there are plenty of tools available. Cinebench is a great benchmarking tool that focusing solely on the processor, while PCMark 10 provides an overview of performance across a suite of day-to-day tasks.

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