Most processors can handle just about any workload you throw at them, but faster processors (with more cores and / or faster clock speeds) chew through heavy workloads faster, which ultimately saves time. A processor that excels at gaming isn't always the best choice if your workload is more productivity-focused, so we've compiled a list of processors that represent the best bang for your buck in common productivity tasks.
AMD's Ryzen and Threadripper processors excel in heavy workloads that respond well to increased cores and threads, like decompression, compression, video processing, and rendering applications. Intel's Coffee Lake and Skylake-X processors also provide acceptable performance in heavily-threaded applications, but they excel in lightly-threaded apps, like Adobe's Creative Cloud Suite, web browsers, single-core rendering workloads, and encoding.
Quick Shopping Tips
When choosing a non-gaming CPU, consider the following:
- Know the apps you use: If your apps take advantage of AMD's superior cores / threads per dollar, you might want to get an AMD chip. But if you're using lightly-threaded apps or Adobe products, Intel will perform better.
- Get the latest gen: You don't save a lot by going with an older chip.
- Keep the motherboard in mind: The priciest CPUs require more expensive motherboards than cheaper chips.
- Play it cool: Most expensive chips don't come a cooler, requiring you to buy your own.
For even more information, check out our CPU Buyer’s Guide, where we discuss how much you should spend for what you’re looking to do, and when cores matter more than high clock speeds.
Why Trust Us
Tom's Hardware has been reviewing PC components for more than two decades. We put each CPU through a bevy of benchmarks which measure everything from its single- and multi-core performance in applications and games, to its power consumption. We've tested hundreds of models, at both stock and overclock settings where applicable, so we can separate the best from the multi-core disappointments.
Best High-End Desktop (HEDT) CPU
If you commonly run workstation-class workloads or fall into the semi-professional category, high end desktop processors are the best solution. Intel's X299 and AMD's X399 platforms come with robust connectivity options, like expanded PCIe lanes that accommodate additives like high-speed LAN, more graphics cards, and quad-channel memory. Intel's Skylake-X family has a wide range of core counts that satisfy almost every use-case, but you'll have to pay a premium. Intel also restricts its Core i9 models to 44 PCIe lanes, which can't compete with AMD's hefty allotment of 60 usable lanes.
AMD's Threadripper lineup comes with three models with various core counts, but you'll pay far less per core than you do with Intel's processors. Intel still holds the per-core performance advantage, but AMD's less-expensive price points offset that. AMD also has its much-anticipated second-gen Threadripper models coming to market soon, which means you'll find great deals on the current models.
Best Mainstream Desktop CPU ($300 - $400)
Flagship mainstream desktop processors fall within sane price ranges and the motherboard selection can be both cheap and plentiful. You'll have only 16 usable PCIe lanes from the processor and dual-channel memory, but these processors satisfy the needs of all but the highest-end users.
For applications, the flagship mainstream models in Intel's Core i7 and AMD's Ryzen 7 product families offer the best value. Intel's Coffee and Kaby Lake models offer a strong blend of single- and multi-threaded performance in common applications, but AMD's Ryzen 7 series comes with more cores, which you might find attractive if you have more demanding requirements, such as rendering or streaming. You can also often find AMD's Ryzen processors well below MSRP.
Intel's sub-$400 processors come with an integrated graphics engine, meaning you won't need a discrete graphics card, but AMD only offers two models (Ryzen 5 2400G and Ryzen 3 2200G) with integrated graphics.
Best Mid-Range CPU ($200 - $300)
Mid-range processors typically land in the $200 to $300 price range and still offer enough power to handle heavy workloads, albeit at a slower pace. AMD's Ryzen processors have truly reinvigorated this segment and often come with a discount, too. This price range finds two distinct price tiers, but you can often find the best value around the $200 mark if the processor has an unlocked multiplier.
It's best to step up to the more expensive models in this class if overclocking isn't in your plans. If overclocking is on the menu, you'll have to select a pricier K-series Intel chip and pair it with a Z-series motherboard. Meanwhile, all of AMD's processors can be overclocked on value-centric B-series motherboards.
Best Budget CPU ($100 - $200)
The lower end of the processor spectrum is incredibly competitive, particularly with the copious core counts, bundled coolers, and unlocked multipliers you can find in the AMD lineup. Intel processors tend to offer the best single-threaded performance at stock settings. And since you can't overclock them, in this price range they're suitable for less-expensive B- and H-Series motherboards that can't overclock.
Best Sub-$100 CPU
AMD's less-restrictive feature set grants the Ryzen processors the uncontested lead in this segment of the market. Unfortunately, the Ryzen 3 2200G is the only model that falls into the sub-$100 category, but its support for AVX instructions and four physical cores easily beats the Intel Pentium lineup.
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