CPU Buying Guide 2023: What to Look for in a Desktop Processor

Close up of a desktop CPU showing multiple metal pins

At the heart of every computer build is the central processing unit (CPU) – or more simply, the processor. Choosing a suitable processor in 2023 means you need to break through the marketing jargon, spec sheet overload, and your friends’ bias toward one brand or the other. Because different CPUs perform better at different workloads, the research becomes even more detailed. We can help make the process as simple as possible so that you can choose the best CPU for your needs in 2023.

Tip: if you’re building a completely new desktop computer this year, check out our gaming PC build considerations before you start.

Most Important Aspects of a CPU

1. Brand

There are two primary manufacturers of desktop CPUs: Intel and AMD. You might remember Intel comfortably leading the CPU market for years and being the only option for high-performing systems. AMD used to be relegated to a distant second, being a sensible choice only for budget and HTPC systems. But the story changed in 2017 with AMD Ryzen CPUs – the two companies are now fighting tooth and nail in the 2023 CPU market.

Intel’s 13th Gen and AMD’s Ryzen 7000 CPUs compete for desktop builders’ attention. Although both brands offer multiple options across their latest and previous generation lineups, Intel is leading with its more powerful and better-value products across all price segments. You can check out our AMD vs. Intel CPUs guide for a detailed breakdown of why Intel is the better choice in 2023.

2. Core Count

One of the first things you’ll notice is how many cores a CPU has. Generally, the more cores a CPU has, the more processing power it possesses. Most CPUs have at least four cores, which are generally suited to basic gaming and office use. If you’re building a new mid-range or high-end system, opt for at least a six-core CPU. But the core count alone doesn’t tell the story. Generational improvements in microarchitecture, core configuration, physical layout, and other factors can easily position a modern six-core CPU far above an 18-core workstation CPU from just four years ago.

Ideally, you should look at current-gen parts – or at least nothing older than two years. Furthermore, gamers should almost always prioritize overall performance over higher core counts, while productivity and workstation users should try to grab as many cores as possible within their budget.

Good to know: when comparing processors, you must look at each CPU’s process size and understand the differences.

3. Clock Speed

Clock speed explains how fast the individual cores can run on a CPU. Typically, the more cores you have, the slower their clock speed will be. This is why gamers and non-workstation users should value faster single-core performance over a higher core count and vice versa for productivity users. You’ll notice that AMD’s fastest Threadripper CPU, the 5995WX, has a boost clock of 4.5 GHz, lower than even the base clock of some modern six-core chips.

Cpu Buying Guide 2023 Cpu Clock Speed

For most users, clock speed matters more than the core count when comparing the performance of modern CPUs. If you use your computer for gaming, work, or casual browsing, a faster CPU would be much better than one loaded with more than eight cores (both performance and price-wise).

4. TDP

Thermal Design Power, or TDP, is the maximum amount of power (in watts) a CPU is designed to draw from the computer and affects the amount of heat it will generate. The lower the core count and clock speed, the lower the TDP.

But modern mainstream CPUs are increasingly drawing more power than previous workstation CPUs, as they spit out better performance gen-over-gen. The power efficiency crown in the current generation CPUs lies with AMD, as the Ryzen 7000 CPUs generally offer more performance per watt than Intel’s 13th Gen and 12th Gen CPUs.

Cpu Buying Guide 2023 Cpu Tdp 1

TDP has a limited impact when comparing different CPUs in desktop computers, as desktop CPUs are generally housed in relatively large PC cases with capable CPU cooling hardware to dissipate the heat produced. Despite having the more efficient chips, AMD is lagging behind Intel’s more powerful processors in 2023.

5. Platform

The platform of a CPU refers to the generation of processors it belongs to and the physical socket it is compatible with. For instance, Intel’s 12th Gen and 13th Gen CPUs are compatible with the LGA 1700 socket, while AMD’s Ryzen 7000 CPUs are the first to use AMD’s new AM5 socket. The CPU platform will decide the remaining upgrade path for your processor and the features it has access to.

One such feature is support for the newer DDR5 memory standard. Intel and AMD offer DDR5 support on their latest processors and motherboard chipsets. Another feature is overclocking, which is far more complicated when comparing the two brands. If you’re comfortable overclocking your CPU and want to extract more performance, you’ll find AMD’s processors far more flexible.

While you can overclock AMD Ryzen CPUs with Ryzen Master on various chipsets, Intel reserves overclocking for its premium and costlier “K” series CPUs. But Intel CPUs generally offer more overclocking headroom, allowing you to eke out more from their chips.

More info: not sure what overclocking is? Read on to learn more about overclocking.

Best CPUs for Different Use Cases

Now that you know a bit more about what to look for when buying a CPU, it’s time to shed light on specific CPU recommendations for different types of users.

Tip: having a solid CPU + GPU combo is critical to maximizing the performance of any build. Check out our Graphics Card Buyer’s Guide for more information on choosing a GPU in 2023.

Use Case 1: The Casual User

If you’re a casual user and want a computer primarily for surfing the Web, working from home, and the occasional gaming session, something like an Intel Core i5-13400F or AMD Ryzen 5 7600x would be more than enough. They’re each equipped with six cores, capable of providing decent performance for four to five years. Plus, cheap aftermarket coolers will easily keep these chips cool.

Cpu Buying Guide 2023 Intel I5 13400f
Image source: Newegg

Note that the previous-gen Core i5-12400 and AMD Ryzen 5 5600x cost significantly less than our current-gen recommendations while being equally capable chips. The only downside with the 5600x would be buying a dead platform (AM4) with no upgrade path. This also applies to the 13400F based on the LGA 1700 socket, which is slated to be replaced when Intel’s next-gen desktop CPUs are released.

Intel gives you the option of buying either the Core i5-13400F or the Core i5-12400F, which doesn’t come with integrated graphics if you want to save more. The Ryzen 5 chips don’t have integrated chips on the 7600X or the 5600X.

Use Case 2: The Gamer

Gaming is a pretty nebulous term, as it can mean anything from CS: GO, which can run on pretty much anything, to Cyberpunk 2077, which barely runs well on even the most powerful hardware. For high-end gaming, our recommendation would be the Core i5-13600K or the Ryzen 7 7700X – or even the Ryzen 5 7600X. The six-core 13600K is clearly the better choice, edging out the eight-core 7700X and the six-core 7600X in gaming as well as productivity workload, while costing much less. The 7700X would appeal to users who want to buy into a costlier but upgradeable platform.

Cpu Buying Guide 2023 Intel I5 13600k
Image source: Newegg

Gamers should ideally target modern six-core CPUs, as they’re all you really need for running the most demanding games when paired with a competent GPU. With more and more gamers switching from 1080p to 1440p – or even 4K resolution gaming – games become more and more GPU-dependent. You could pay more for eight-core CPUs if you want your PC to double as a decent productivity system.

Lastly, for those who want the absolute fastest gaming CPUs for their builds, the high-end Core i9-13900K, Ryzen 9 7950X, or the newer Ryzen 9 7950X3D would be the chips to look for.

Tip: if you’re interested in upgrading your monitor as well, check out our recommendations for the best gaming monitors.

Use Case 3: The Designer or Content Creator

For users building a PC dedicated to productivity applications like Blender, Adobe Premiere Pro, and Da Vinci Resolve, solid CPU horsepower is non-negotiable. As stated before, Intel is leading this category as well. The Core i9-13900K is our top pick for professional applications. Even though the Ryzen 9 7950X manages to take the win in multi-threaded workloads, it costs significantly more than the 13900K.

Amd Vs Intel Cpus 2023 Intel I7 13900k 1
Image source: Newegg

Again, if you value upgradability, the 7950X would make more sense. But if you want a better-value high-end CPU that you won’t need to upgrade for the next three years, the i9-13900K is a slam dunk. With eight performance and 16 efficiency cores based on Intel’s hybrid microarchitecture, the 13900K is one of the easiest recommendations.

Use Case 4: The Engineer or Researcher

The HEDT (high-end desktop) category is for users whose work demands even more performance than what modern 16-core processors can deliver. AMD is currently the only option for PCs requiring server-level performance in the form of the Threadripper PRO line of CPUs. These chips are some of the most potent multi-core and multi-threaded processors available and feature core counts ranging from 16 cores (5955WX) to 64 cores (5995WX) and an L3 cache of up to 256MB.

Cpu Buying Guide 2023 Threadripper Pro
Image source: Newegg

They carry a premium cost but are the only choice for workstation systems that demand as many cores as possible. Intel currently doesn’t have anything to offer in this category, as its 10th Gen eXtreme series CPUs are outdated. When the studio that made Terminator: Dark Fate and the creator of Linux use Threadripper, you know you’re in good company.

Good to know: if you do any type of drafting, there are some great alternatives to AutoCAD.

Frequently Asked Questions

Should my CPU support PCIe 5.0?

More PCIe bandwidth allows your PC components like CPUs, graphics cards, and SSDs to use additional PCIe lanes to communicate with each other and offer better performance. PCIe 5.0 doubles the total bandwidth of PCIe 4.0, which doubles the performance of PCIe 3.0. While PCIe 5.0 is the fastest and most powerful PCIe standard available, PC components have not begun to saturate the bandwidth of PCIe 3.0 yet. Tests have shown that real-world performance is virtually identical between PCIe 3.0 and PCIe 4.0, so if your CPU of choice doesn’t support the latest PCIe standard yet, you do not need to worry about it for a few years at least. Besides, there are barely any PCIe 5.0 devices available.

Are Intel i3 CPUs good for gaming?

Intel’s Core i3 processors offer class-leading performance in the budget segment, especially in current CPUs. For instance, the Core i3-13100 offers excellent performance per dollar in its segment. But Intel’s i3 processors, while being a great value, are still four-core CPUs and aren’t really recommended for mid-range or high-end systems. If you’re building an ultra-budget build exclusively for low-medium gaming, then the Intel Core i3 series is a great option. While the Ryzen 5 5500 offers similar performance at a much lower price point, it doesn’t feature onboard graphics, which slightly lowers its value proposition against the 13100.

Should I buy a used CPU?

When it comes to PC components, the CPU is one of the safest parts to buy used. In contrast to GPUs, where it’s downright impossible to judge the remaining lifespan due to their possible use in crypto mining, CPUs are relatively long-lasting chips. Even when overclocked, modern CPUs have sufficient safeguards that rarely allow lasting damage to the CPU die. Buying a used CPU should be safe and even a great deal, provided that you have some warranty or are at least buying from a trusted source.

Image credit: Unsplash

Tanveer Singh
Tanveer Singh

Tanveer hunts far and wide for PC Hardware, Windows, and Gaming ideas to write about. An MBA in Marketing and the owner of a PC building business, he has written extensively on Technology, Gaming, and Marketing. When not scouring the web, he can be found binging on The Office, running for his life in GTFO, or wrecking karts in Smash Karts.

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