Looking for a primer on choosing a CPU? In this post, we’ll go through everything you need to know in order to choose a processor.
If you’re in the market for a new computer and you are planning on building your own system, the component you’ll likely choose first is your processor (CPU). But, if you’re new to building a computer, choosing the correct processor might seem like a daunting task.
To the beginner, CPUs have intimidating names like, Intel Core i7-14700K or AMD Ryzen 9 7900X3D. Then there are a lot of specs & features you’ll have to sort through, like operating frequency, cores, threads, and TDP. There is also the concern of compatibility and what other components will and will not work with a given CPU.
And, of course, there is the ongoing debate on whether you should choose an Intel or AMD CPU…
With so much to take in, it’s easy to see how a first-time PC builder could be overwhelmed choosing a CPU, let alone a complete set of parts for a new system.
In this article, though, we’re going to walk you through everything you need to know in order to pick the best processor for your budget and needs.
Watch: What to Look for in A CPU
If you prefer the video format of this guide, you can watch it below, or on our YouTube channel.
1. How Will You Use Your Computer?
If you’re looking to build a new computer and you’re wondering what CPU you should get, you first need to consider what you will be using your computer for.
If you’re looking for a new computer that you can use to browse the internet, send emails, or watch videos, you won’t need as powerful of a processor as if you were looking to play demanding games, or use your system as a workstation.
Or, if you’re a gamer, but you only play non-demanding games like Rocket League, or Roblox, or League of Legends, you don’t have to spend as much on your components.
If you’re looking to build a high-end computer for video editing, graphics design work, or for playing CPU intensive games like City Skylines II, you’ll want to look for a higher-end processor with more cores/threads.
But, ultimately, the first thing you’ll want to consider when buying a new CPU is what exactly you will be using your system for.
2. How Much Do You Have to Spend?
The most significant determining factor in what kind of processor you can get is how much money you have to spend. Obviously, the more money you have to spend, the better processor you can get.
However, even if you have a lot of money to spend, that doesn’t necessarily mean you have to get the best processor money can buy. As we noted above, how you plan on using your system is also important to consider.
Again, if you’re only looking to build a computer for light use (browsing the internet, sending emails, etc.), you don’t have to spend a ton of money to get a CPU that will do what you want it to.
And, if you’re a gamer that is looking to play more demanding games, you’ll want to spend at least a moderate amount on your processor. While having a high-end processor is good for gaming, though, the reality is that allocating more money towards a stronger GPU is going to provide better in-game results.
This is because your CPU won’t have as big of an impact on your in-game performance as your GPU will. So, if you don’t have an unlimited budget, you want to make sure that you’re finding a balance between the CPU and GPU you choose.
Also Read: How Much Does Your CPU Affect FPS?
For gaming-oriented PC builds, we recommend spending ~15-20% of your total budget on your processor and ~40-50% on your GPU.
On the other hand, if you’re looking to edit videos or do design work, or you play games that are more CPU-intensive, then you’re going to want to spend more money on your processor.
3. Different CPU Options
There are a lot of different CPU options available at any given time. Some of these options are high-end CPUs that will deliver extreme performance. Others are budget options that will provide less performance.
You’ll need to be able to differentiate between the options available to you so that you can not only choose the right processor for your needs, but also so you can choose the appropriate components to go with it.
For starters, both AMD and Intel offer different levels of CPUs:
AMD CPU Levels:
- Ryzen 9: Most performance, highest cost
- Ryzen 7: High performance, high cost
- Ryzen 5: Good performance, moderate cost
- Ryzen 3: Least performance, lowest cost
Intel CPU Levels:
- Core i9: Most performance, highest cost
- Core i7: High performance, high cost
- Core i5: Good performance, moderate cost
- Core i3: Least performance, lowest cost
Within each CPU level AMD or Intel may offer more than one CPU option, where the higher series/model number means better performance.
For instance, AMD’s newest generation of CPUs offer more than one Ryzen 7 option. In order of performance, there are the Ryzen 7 7800X, and the Ryzen 7 7700X. So, the 7800X will offer more overall performance the 7700X.
The same is true for Intel. Intel’s 13th Generation lineup offers a handful of i5 options, including the Intel Core i5-13600K, the 13500, and the 13400.
Here is a rundown of what the different letters mean for Intel and AMD CPus:
- K: The CPU can be overclocked, generally uses more power
- F: The CPU does not have integrated graphics
- KF: Both of the options above
For an Intel CPU like the i5-13400 that has no K or F designation, it means the CPU cannot be overclocked and uses less power, but it does come with integrated graphics.
- X: The CPU comes with a higher clockrate, generally uses more power
- F: The CPU does not have integrated graphics
For an AMD CPU like the Ryzen 5 7600 that has no X or F designation, it means the CPU does not have a boosted clock rate, but it does have integrated graphics.
Intel and AMD are continually improving the performance their processors offer. Every couple of years both manufacturers introduce new generatons of CPUs.
Newer generation CPUs typically offer more performance than older generation CPUs.
Sometimes, lower level CPUs from a newer generation can outperform higher levels CPUs from an older generation. As an example, Intel’s i5-13600K will offer better overall performance than the i7-12700K.
CPU generations are important to be aware of, because they will help you narrow down your choice. If you have the budget for it it’s always a good idea to opt for the newest generation processors.
However, older generation CPUs can still be excellent options, especially if you are budget-restricted and looking to allocate as much money to your GPU as possible.
4. Intel vs. AMD
If you’ve been researching which components to choose for your gaming computer, then you have undoubtedly stumbled upon more than one article pitting Intel processors versus AMD processors.
Each CPU manufacturer offers solid options at different price points.
In the past, Intel offered CPUs that provided better single core performance and AMD offered CPUs that provided better multi-core performance. But, with the introduction of new generations of CPUs, the performance gap in both single and multi-core performance has closed. AMD’s CPUs now offer single core performance on par with Intel and Intel’s CPUs have caught up to AMD’s CPUs in terms of multi-core performance.
In terms of in-game performance, both manufacturers offer options that will provide similar performance at a given pricepoint.
For instance, if you have ~$300 to spend, your two newest generation options will be Intel’s Core i5-14600K and AMD’s Ryzen 7 7700X. And, in most benchmarks, these two CPUs perform fairly similarly to each other.
Not to mention, because most modern games rely far more heavily on your GPU, the role that CPUs play on in-game performance is minimized. Therefore, when deciding between AMD and Intel, the best option would be to choose whichever processor of a certain tier is priced better.
And, that doesn’t just mean the price of the CPU itself, but the total combined price of the CPU, a compatible motherboard, and an appropriate cooling solution.
As an example, if the i5-14600K comes in at $310, but you’ll need to spend $200 for a motherboard, and $120 on an AIO cooler, you would be spending more than if you were to get the Ryzen 7 7700X for $320, a compatible motherboard for $190, and an adequate cooler for $100.
These numbers are generalized. It could be that at the time you go to make your purchase, the i5-14600K is the cheaper platform to build with. But, it’s important that you don’t just look at the price of the CPU itself.
Ultimately, though, while there are many different angles in the battle between Intel and AMD for gaming-CPU supremacy, the bottom line is that both processor manufacturers present CPUs that are more than powerful enough to handle any of today’s games. So, whether your decision comes down to price, performance, or a little of both, both companies have something to offer.
5. Do You Want to Overclock?
Another thing you’ll want to consider if you are looking for the right processor for your needs is whether or not you want to have the ability to overclock.
Overclocking allows you to “turn-up” the speed on your processor, which can help you gain more performance.
For the majority of users, overclocking isn’t necessary. However, if you want to build a new gaming computer, or you’re doing graphics design-type work, sometimes the more processing power you can get your hands on, the better.
An overclockable processor also has the potential to remain relevant longer. So, if you are working with a smaller-to-medium-sized budget and you don’t want to have to upgrade your processor in 3-4 years, choosing a CPU that can be unlocked might be a good way to go.
If you do want to overclock, just note that you’ll need to spend more overall to get the most out of your overclocking endeavor. For instance, “unlocked” CPUs (CPUs that can be overclocked) are typically more expensive than “locked” CPUs (CPUs that cannot be overclocked.)
Unlocked CPUs also typically require more expensive motherboards and CPU coolers to accommodate them.
So, if you’re looking to build a budget gaming PC, overclocking may not be the route for you to go. But, if you’ve got a larger budget and you want to have the ability to overclock your processor, just make sure that you choose a motherboard and CPU cooler that will accommodate your processor.
6. Matching Your CPU With the Right Socket
If you’re building a computer, you want to make sure that the parts you are choosing are compatible with each other.
For your processor, there are a couple of things to consider on the compatibility front. The first is to ensure that you match the CPU you are choosing with a motherboard that has the correct CPU socket.
The CPU socket is the socket on the motherboard where the CPU gets installed. Not all CPUs can fit into all CPU sockets. For instance, an AMD CPU cannot fit into any Intel-based CPU sockets and vice-versa.
Also, as Intel and AMD come out with new processor architecture, they also come out with new CPU sockets to accommodate the new architecture. This means that some older AMD and Intel processors are not compatible with the CPU sockets that are made for newer AMD and Intel sockets.
For instance, an older Intel Core i7-4770K is meant to work with the LGA 1150 socket, whereas a newer Intel Core i7-14700K is intended to work with the LGA 1700 socket. You cannot use an i7-4770K in an LGA 1700 socket motherboard and you cannot use an Intel Core i7-14700K in an LGA 1150 socket motherboard.
So, the bottom line is that, when you choose your processor, you need to understand what CPU socket it is intended to work for so that when you go to select a motherboard, you pick the right one.
How to Choose A Compatible CPU Socket
Choosing a motherboard that has the right socket for your CPU is fairly simple.
All CPUs will list what socket they are compatible with in their spec sheet. These spec sheets can be found directly on their product listing on the manufacturer’s website.
For instance, take a look at Intel’s product page for the Intel Core i7-14700K.
If you scroll down to the section titled Package Specifications, you’ll see that the i7-14700K supports the LGA 1700 socket.
Now, when you go to look for a motherboard, you know you’ll need an LGA 1700 motherboard.
You can do the same for any CPU, whether it’s an Intel processor or an AMD processor.
7. Get the Right Motherboard Chipset
Along with ensuring that you understand that your CPU can only go into a specific socket, you also need to understand that the CPU you choose needs to be paired with a motherboard that has a chipset that accommodates your CPU.
While CPUs can technically work with a variety of chipsets, some chipsets might limit the performance potential of a specific CPU.
Essentially, chipsets determine what features come on the motherboard.
Different Levels of Chipsets
Some chipsets have more features/ports/are better-built and offer more power to your processor. And, some chipsets have fewer features and less power for your CPU, but are less expensive.
So, it’s important to note that the processor you choose will likely have a chipset that it goes best with.
For instance, an Intel CPU that can be overclocked is going to need to be paired with a motherboard that is built for overclocking. If you are getting an Intel Core i7-13700K LGA 1700 processor, you are choosing a processor that can be overclocked (designated by the ‘K’) and you’ll want to pair it with an LGA 1700 motherboard chipset that is designed for overclocking.
There are the Z790 chipset motherboards that are designed for overclocking. And, then there are the B760, H770, and H610 motherboards on the LGA 1700 socket that are not designed for overclocking.
And, so, if you’re getting an i7-13700K, you’ll want to go with a Z790 motherboard so that you can overclock your processor. If you don’t want to overclock your processor, you can go with the Intel Core i7-13700 (no ‘K’) and a B760 or H770 motherboard.
Of course, you could pair an i7-13700K with a non-overclocking B760 or H770 chipset motherboard. Technically speaking, they would work together. But, a B760 or H770 would not allow you to overclock the i7-13700K. The disadvantage here is that, since hardware that accommodates overclocking costs more, you would waste money pairing an overclockable CPU with a motherboard that doesn’t allow overclocking.
So, the right CPU and motherboard chipset for you comes mostly down to how much money you have to spend and whether or not you want to overclock. Both AMD and Intel offer a variety of chipsets for their processors. They provide higher-end chipsets for overclocking, as well as more budget-friendly options as well.
How to Differentiate Between Chipsets
Most chipsets feature 4-digit names. These digits give you an idea of what level of performance the chipset offers.
Here’s an example of an Intel chipset:
- Z = the tier of the chipset (Z being the highest)
- 7 = the series of chipset
- 9 = the features on the chipset (the higher the more features)
- 0 = a filler number that means nothing
Here’s an example of an AMD chipset:
- X = the tier of the chipset (X being the highest)
- 6 = the series of chipset
- 7 = a filler number that means nothing
- 0 = a filler number that means nothing
Current Generation Chipsets
Both AMD and Intel offer different tiers of chipsets. Here is a list of the latest chipsets from both manufacturers.
Intel 13th Generation Chipsets (Socket LGA 1700)
- Z790: higher-end, allows CPU overclocking
- H770: mid-range, doesn’t allow CPU overclocking
- B760: mid-range, doesn’t allow CPU overclocking
AMD Ryzen 7000 Series Chipsets (Socket AM5)
- X670: higher-end, allows CPU overclocking
- B650: mid-range, allows CPU overclocking
- A620: budget, doesn’t allow CPU overclocking
The better the chipset the more power it will be able to deliver to your processor and the more and the better the connectivity options it will provide.
Budget-oriented chipsets may not even be able to provide enough power to properly run higher-end CPUs. So, as an example, while you could technically pair an Intel Core i9-13900K with an H610 chipset motherboard, the i9-13900K would be severely limited because of it.
Instead, you’d want to pair the 13900K with a Z790 chipset motherboard to properly support it.
How to Choose the Right Chipset
To choose the right chipset for your CPU, then, you need to pick a chipset that will accommodate the performance your CPU offers, provide you with the features you want, and do so without requiring you to spend more money than is necessary. Because, you don’t want to choose a $250 high-end chipset motherboard to go with your budget-friendly $110 Intel Core i3-13100 processor.
As a general rule of thumb, you should pair a high-end CPU with a high-end chipset, a mid-range CPU with a mid-range chipset, and a budget CPU with a budget or mid-range chipset.
And, if you want to overclock, make sure you choose both an unlocked CPU and a motherboard chipset that allows you to overclock.
8. Get the Right CPU Cooler
Finally, if you are planning on choosing a power-hungry CPU, or you want to overclock your processor, you’re also going to want to get a high-end CPU cooler to ensure your CPU runs at adequate temperatures.
The more power a CPU requires, the hotter it will get.
Processors can only get so hot before they are forced to slow down. However, if you can match the rise in the processor’s temperature with a superior cooling solution, you can keep your CPUs temperature in a moderate range.
Also, the better you can cool your processor, the higher you can overclock it (to an extent.)
Most budget-friendly power-efficient CPUs come with a stock CPU cooler. The stock cooler will work fine for these CPUs as long as you aren’t planning on overclocking them. Stock coolers (especially Intel’s) aren’t very aesthetically pleasing, though, and so if you are looking to build a computer that looks good, a third party cooler might be the better option for you—even if you aren’t planning on overclocking.
On the other hand, most high-end power-hungry CPUs do not come with a stock cooler because they would not provide an adequate amount of cooling.
So, if you are going to choose a higher-end CPU and/or you want to overclock your processor, you’re going to need to get an aftermarket CPU cooler.
Also Read: Do You Need a CPU Cooler for Your PC?
After Market Coolers
Fortunately, there are a ton of third party coolers that are designed to offer better cooling for your processor should you choose to overclock it. You can take a look at our CPU Cooler Buyer’s Guide for some of the better options currently available.
Most builders will opt for either an air cooler or an AIO cooler, though, as custom liquid configurations are expensive and can be complicated to setup properly.
Also, if you do go with an aftermarket CPU cooler, you’ll want to make sure that it is compatible with your motherboard. Most third-party coolers offer a variety of brackets and are compatible with most modern motherboards. However, there are a few instances where certain CPU coolers aren’t compatible with certain motherboard sockets.
So, before you make your purchase, just double-check that the cooler you are considering is compatible with the processor you have chosen.
- How Long Does Liquid Cooling Last?
- How to Lower Your CPU Temps
- Liquid Cooling vs. Air Cooling: Which Style CPU Cooler is Best?
- The Best CPU Temperature Monitor Tools
Choosing the Right Processor For You
While these factors aren’t the only things to consider before you buy a new processor, they are some of the most important.
For more information on how to choose the right components for your build, check out our extensive 17,000-word guide, How to Choose Parts for Your Gaming PC.