Processor Reviews

 Processor Reviews

The State of Gaming CPUs in 2021
These days, you're not suffering for choice if you're shopping for a new desktop CPU. Far from it! And that's true whether you're buying a new processor to build a gaming rig, one packed with cores for speedy content creation or media crunching, or a slice of silicon that aces all of those tasks. In mid-2019, AMD gave the desktop CPU market a hard reboot with the launch of the company's 7-nanometer-process Ryzen desktop CPUs (more about them in a minute), and today you'll get more cores and threads for your processing dollar than ever before. Archrival Intel, the traditional leader in the space, did its part by launching an 11th generation of its desktop processor line in 2021.

But how does that extra power—whether Intel or AMD—translate to frame-rate results in PC gaming? It's complicated, and it varies from game to game, as well as by combination of CPU and graphics card. Still, once you know the players in the chip market, their product families, and some general characteristics, you can weigh your budget against what you actually need. (For most shoppers who aren't esports pros, it's actually easy to overbuy.) Let's take a wide look at the processor landscape as of mid-2021, and then get down and dirty with each of the major chip families.

The State of Gaming CPUs in 2021
It's been a wild last few years in the CPU space, and nowhere has the ride been bumpier than in Intel's car. The company has been public about its struggles to move its desktop CPU line from a 14nm lithography process down to 10nm, during which time AMD has leapfrogged Intel and moved its latest stack of mainstream Ryzen processors (the ones without integrated graphics) to 7nm technology. This brought a major leap forward in power and efficiency.

In mid-2020, Intel introduced new top-end mainstream processors in the form of the 10th Generation Core i9-10900K, Core i7-10700K, and Core i5-10600K (along with lesser versions in each family, and some lower-end Core i3 and Pentium/Celeron chips, too). These premium CPUs delivered some performance upticks, mostly by adding more processing threads in the middle of the stack. But as far as gaming goes, benchmarks prove that in most titles, you’ll get better but not drastically better frame rates out of these 10th Gen chips compared to their 9th Generation equivalents.

Things got even more muddled with the company's early 2021 launch of its 11th Generation "Rocket Lake-S" chips. While the midrange Core i5 through top-end Core i9 processors saw a refreshed approach combining 14nm lithography with the architecture of 10nm "Ice Lake," the new Core i3, Pentium, and Celeron lines were dubbed "Comet Lake Refresh." The latter are boosted by 100MHz from their "Comet Lake-S" predecessors, and for the most part the real-world performance difference will be negligible.

Rocket Lake, meanwhile, is a bit of a grab bag. The Intel Core i5-11600K impressed us with frame rates that nearly kept pace with AMD's stellar midrange offerings (more on them in a minute), but the flagship Core i9-11900K was disappointing. The chip debuted at a higher street price than the Core i9-10900K ($619 versus $599), despite having two fewer cores onboard (eight versus 10). Not only that, but in our testing we found a host of thermal and power limitations that meant ho-hum gaming results, though to be fair that was more an issue of our test motherboard's prerelease BIOS stability than the fault of the processor. Nevertheless, it's hard to think of the Core i9-11900K as anything but a price/performance fizzle. The eight-core Core i7 Rocket Lake chip we tested proved to be a much better gamer value.

Intel Core i9-9900KS box shot
(Photo: Zlata Ivleva)
Now on to AMD. From a gaming perspective, the most interesting parts of the Ryzen story are at the economical end of the Ryzen 3000 stack and with the latest fourth-generation Ryzen 5000 series.

Let's start with the low-end 3000 series chips. AMD's Ryzen 3 3100 and Ryzen 3 3300X are 2020 releases that make use of a new type of CCD design (in short, how the transistors are organized on the die), which reduces the latency—the time it takes for different parts of the processor to talk to one another—compared to the 2019 Ryzens. This can result in lower frame rates, though it's very much dependent on the game and how well optimized it is. AMD says this is all down to improved "Zen 2" manufacturing yields and a better understanding of the 7nm process technology.

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