These are the best Intel CPUs you can buy in 2021
The CPU, or central processing unit, is one of the most important components of a PC. Choosing the right processor is a complex decision to make, but let it be known that buying the best CPUs is crucial as it plays an intricate role in deciding how well your PC performs in different workloads, how well it runs games and more. We already have an elaborate list of the best CPUs you can buy, but it’s mostly populated with AMD CPUs with very few Intel options. Well, we haven’t had a ton of Intel processors worthy of taking the top spots in our recommendation list due to AMD’s stomping power, but that changed with the arrival of the 12th-generation Alder Lake platform. In this article, we’ll be taking a look at the best Intel CPUs you can buy in 2021.
You can also check out our list of the best CPUs for gaming if you’re looking to build a gaming rig. We have a good mix of both Intel and AMD options in there. However, if you’re hellbent on building an Intel-based PC, then you’ve landed on the right page. We’ve added a handful of Intel CPUs to this list to make sure we’re covering multiple categories across different price points. Let’s get started with the list:
Navigate this article:
- Best Intel CPU for gaming: Intel Core i5-12600K
- Best high-performance Intel CPU: Intel Core i9-12900K
- Best mid-range Intel CPU: Intel Core i5-11400
- Best HEDT Intel CPU: Core i9-10980XE
Best Intel CPU for gaming: Intel Core i5-12600K
The Intel Core i5-12600K is the best value gaming CPU available right now. It offers a huge leap in performance compared to its last-gen counterpart. Notably, it also boasts future-proof features as support for DDR5 and PCIe 5.0. These features are yet to be supported by AMD chips, so the new Intel chip is an outright winner in that regard. The Core i5-12600K also packs a respectable multi-core performance, something which Intel’s been known to fall behind compared to AMD chips. Clearly, a lot has changed this time around and Intel appears to have put its best step forward with the new Alder Lake chips.
The best thing about the Core i5-12600K is that it benefits from many of the same upgrades as the more powerful Core i9-12900K chip. Most notably, we’re looking at a hybrid architecture that allows Intel to incorporate two different types of the core into this chip. We’ve seen such behaviour with ARM-based processors, but Intel is using it for the Alder Lake desktop chips. The Core i5-12600K, in particular, features 6 P-cores that focus specifically on single-core workloads such as gaming. Additionally, you also get 4 E-cores that are better equipped at handling sustained tasks to boost multi-threading performance.
The Intel Core i5-12600K has a total of 10 cores and 16 threads. You’re looking at a base clock of 3.70GHz and a boost clock of 4.90GHz. These frequency speeds aren’t significantly better compared to the previous-gen Core i5, but we do have more cores and they’re well-equipped to handle different workloads. It also improves the overall efficiency of the processor, in which the Intel Thread Director plays a huge role. It’s capable of assigning workloads to the relevant core.
The support for DDR5 and PCIe 5.0 further raises the performance ceiling. DDR5 memory offers a huge benefit in terms of memory speeds, whereas PCIe 5.0 doubles the bandwidth for supported components such as SSDs. DDR5 is still very much in its infancy, so they’re very difficult to come by. Not to mention, the existing DDR5 kits are quite expensive. Things are expected to settle by the time AMD brings the new AM5 platform.
As we’ve mentioned in our full review of the Intel Core i5-12600K processor, you’ll need a new motherboard with a Z690 chipset in order to get this new chip up and running. This, obviously, adds to the overall cost of setting up a new Alder Lake PC. And the addition of a DDR5 lens will further increase the entry cost for the Alder Lake chip. If you have enough money burning a hole in your pockets, though, then you can’t possibly go wrong with the Intel Core i5-12600K. In fact, we think this is the best chip in the Alder Lake series so far, it’s the one we think most people should be buying as opposed to going all the way to up to an i9-12900K.
Intel Core i5-12600K will serve you well regardless of the workloads and it’ll continue to do so for many years to come. That’s due to the support for future-proof features as mentioned earlier. Not to mention, you can also overclock this CPU to get even more performance out of it.
Second best Intel CPU for gaming: Intel Core i5-11600K
The Intel Core i5-11600K is the only processor that should interest PC gamers from the company’s 11th Gen desktop CPU lineup. In fact, it’s one of the Intel chips on the market right now, and it’s our pick for the second-best Intel CPU one can buy right now. Intel’s 11th gen lineup was rather bleak in comparison to what AMD put up on the table, but the Core i5-11600K was a surprisingly good entry and it’s even capable of replacing the Ryzen 5 5600X in many aspects. It’s not a complete winner, but it comes close.
The Core i5-11660K is Intel’s top-end hexa-core CPU from the Rocket Lake range, boasting solid clock speeds, hyperthreading performance, unlocked multipliers, and more. It has a base clock of 3.9GHz and a boost clock of 4.6GHz. This 125W TDP CPU supports DDR4-2933 memory modules and is priced at just $270. You tend to save a lot of money opting for the Core i5-11600K over the Ryzen 5 5600X.
The single-core performance of the chip remains an Intel strength. It topples the Ryzen 5 5600X in many of these single-core runs, while also making a case for itself against the last-gen Core i5-10600K. The six-core, twelve-thread Intel Core i5-11600K strands as a piller of Intel’s midrange options. It’s the one that made it feel like Intel is finally eating into AMD’s business, rather than just being an alternative. Also, the timing couldn’t have been better for the arrival of this chip, as AMD’s XT chips came out around the same time bearing a significantly higher price tag.
The Core i5-11600K comes with Intel’s UHD graphics 750 integrated GPU. This isn’t capable of going head-to-head with AMD’s APUs on the market, but it shouldn’t really be an issue considering how most people buying this CPU will also have a discrete GPU to go along. The only closest model we can point to in the Ryzen series is the Ryzen 5 3400G. However, it has a lower core count and is not as capable as the 11600K on other fronts.
One thing we don’t necessarily like about the Intel Core i5-11600K is the lack of a bundled CPU cooler. This is definitely a miss in our book since it would’ve been just fine with a stock cooler for most users, unlike the more powerful Core i9 chips. Intel says the ‘K’ model chips are unlocked for overclocking and it’s expecting overclockers to bring their own coolers along. The company is pointing other users towards the non-K models such as the Core i5-11500 and the 11400. They come with stock CPU coolers, but they also offer slightly lower clock speeds.
The Intel Core i5-11600K, overall, is a fantastic CPU for those who don’t want to go the Alder Lake route just yet due to the high platform entry cost. The Core i5-11600K still stands behind the Ryzen 5 5600X in terms of performance, but it’s your next best option after the Core i5-12600K unless you want to switch teams. It’s a capable processor and we think gamers will find plenty of what they need in the Core i5-11600K processor. Check it out!
Best high-performance Intel CPU: Intel Core i9-12900K
The Intel Core i9-12900K is the best CPU on the market right now. Not only does it represents the best of Intel’s desktop 12th gen processors, but it has enough muscles to flex while going against the competition. It houses Intel’s new Alder Lake architecture in the most performant form. It’s the best of what Intel currently makes and it has more cores, more speed and more bandwidth than ever before. The Core i9-12900K features Intel 7 process node, which was previously referred to as Intel 10nm SuperFin.
Much like the Core i5-12600K, the Core i9-12900K also features Intel’s hybrid architecture. As such it has eight P-Cores that are capable of hitting clock speeds as high as 5.2GHz. In addition to having 1.25MB of L2 cache, the P-Cores also share 30MB of Intel Smart Cache with E-cores and the iGPU. The eight E-cores that are traditionally built for low-power, low-performance processes, also come together for a reliable overall performance that extends to tasks other than just gaming. This is an all-around CPU that’s built for even the most demanding tasks.
Together, with 16 cores and 24 threads on the Intel Core i9-12900K, Intel has finally managed to achieve a comparable core count that comes close to AMD’s halo mainstream PC chips. The Core i9-12900K is capable of beating the ultra-impressive Ryzen 9 5950X in multi-threaded applications too. That’s particularly impressive since AMD’s been hiding the multi-thread fort for quite some time now. AMD still earns brownie points for keeping the overall platform cost low, but Intel’s new chips are clearly better and more powerful than what AMD has to offer on the mainstream side of things.
The Intel Core i9-12900K works well with both Windows 10 and the new Windows 11, but the latter is said to unlock the best potential due to the support for Intel Thread Director technology. It tells the OS to assign tasks to the correct cores that the processor can churn out the performance possible for a particular task at hand.
The Core i9-12900K is competitively priced, future proof features like DDR5 memory and PCIe 5.0 support are major cost adders for motherboards. Plenty of DDR5 memory modules are available on the market right now, but a majority of them carry an expensive price tag. You’ll also need a new motherboard for an Alder Lake chip and the Z690 chipset-based boards are your only options, at least for now. You can also stick to DDR4 memory, but you’ll need a new motherboard regardless due to the new LGA 1700 socket requirement for Alder Lake CPUs.
At $589, the Core i9-12900K comes at a $40 premium over its last-gen counterpart, but it offers a significant performance boost. The Core i9-12900K is definitely an overkill for most users, which is why we think the Core i5-12600K offers the best value for money right now in the new Alder Lake family so far. The 12600K offers up to 38% more performance than the Ryzen 5 5600X and close to 10% more performance than the Ryzen 7 5800X.
Second best high-performance Intel CPU: Intel Core i9-11900K
Intel’s new Rocket Lake Core i9-11900K desktop CPU is a little bit of a mixed bag. There’s a lot to like about this new CPU, but it’s also notorious for consuming a lot of power and running extremely hot at any given point. That being said, it did manage to rival AMD’s high-end 5000-series CPUs with its single-core benchmark tests. Even with the arrival of the new Alder Lake CPUs, the Core i9-11900K stands as a solid offering in Intel’s product stack, making it a very good alternative to the Core i9-12900K.
The Intel Core i9-11900K is an 8-core, 16-thread CPU with 16MB cache memory. We’re looking at a base clock of 3.5Ghz and a boost frequency of up to 5.3GHz. That’s pretty impressive, but Intel was put in a tough spot for removing two cores from its top-end chip in the consumer Core i9 line, versus the Core i9-10900K. Intel says 8-cores is plenty for enthusiasts dealing with high-performance CPUs. The Core i9-11900K comes with Intel’s Iris Xe UHD Graphics 750 graphics, which is also expected to improve the gaming performance by a huge margin. That being said, the iGPU itself doesn’t really add too much value to the CPU since most people will pair this kind of a powerful CPU with a potent discrete GPU anyway. The Iris Xe UDH graphics 750, in case you’re wondering, can support one 4K display up to 60Hz, or up to three displays in total at lower resolutions.
The Core i9-11900K is compatible with both Z590 and Z490 motherboards with the LGA 1200 socket. This partly makes the 11900K better than the new 12900K. Having a lower platform cost makes the chip more accessible. Sure, buyers spending money on a high-performance chip like this won’t mind dishing out more money for a compatible platform, but it’s not the case for everyone. Besides, the Z690 platform is still not readily available and it adds a significant cost instead of just a few extra hundred dollars.
Performance-wise, the 11900K, as we mentioned earlier, is on par with a lot of other high-performance chips on the market including the Ryzen 9 5950X. It trails behind the AMD chip in multi-threaded applications, but the single-core performance is rock solid. This means it’s perfect for gaming. The K in the model number also means this is a fully unlocked CPU for overclocking. This 11900K is proven to deliver an impressive performance when overclocked under favorable conditions. You to being your own CPU cooler though, since Intel has stopped bundling stock cooler with its high-performance chips. We think a high-quality Z590 motherboard with a powerful big-sized air cooler or an AIO liquid cooler should be enough to set you up for a solid overclocking experience.
Overall, we think the Intel Core i9-11900K is a fantastic processor to buy in 2021 provided you have a high-end rig to tame this beast. You’ll need a powerful CPU cooler to keep the temperatures in check, so don’t skimp on that. The new 12th gen Alder Lake processors are undoubtedly better than the 11900K CPU, but they also have a high platform entry cost, so keep that in mind.
- The Intel Core i9-11900K may not be as good as the new Alder Lake Core i9 variant, but there's still a lot to like about this CPU and it offers solid performance. It's also suitable for overclocking provided you have a solid CPU cooler and a good motherboard.
An alternate option to consider: Intel Core i7-12700K
In addition to the new Core i5-12600K and the Core i9-12900K, Intel also launched the Core i7-12700K as a part of its new Alder Lake family. The Coe i7-12700K is lurking in the shadows of 12600K and the 12900K, but we think the Core i7-12700K is also worth considering if you’re planning an Intel-based build in 2021. The Coe i7-12700K sits between Core i5-12600K and the Core i9-12900K as a fantastic option. It’s perfect for those who want something that is slightly more powerful than the 12600K. It also comes close to the performance of 12900K, which we think is currently the most powerful mainstream CPU one buy in the market.
The Intel Core i7-12700K uses the same hybrid architecture as the other Alder Lake chips and comes with a mixture of P and E cores for better all-round performance. The Intel Core i7-12700K comes with 8 performance cores i.e. P-cores and 4 efficiency cores i.e. E-cores. This puts it right in the middle of both 12600K and the more powerful 12900K, as it should be. The 12700K has two more performance cores compared to the 12600K, whereas it lacks two efficiency cores when compared with the 12900K. The total L3 cache has also been reduced to 25MB.
This leads to an 8P+4E design for the Core i7-12700K with a total of 20 threads. Over the Core i9-12900K, the Core i7-12700K has a higher base frequency at 2.7GHz. It, however, has a lower turbo frequency of 3.8GHz. The P-cores in the case of Core i7-12700K are also higher at 3.6GHz, but the turbo is once again relatively lower at 4.9Ghz. The Intel Core i7-12700K is listed with a base power of 125W, but the turbo power is only 190W, which is significantly lower. This explains why the Turbo frequency of this CPU is relatively lower than the 12900K that’s more powerful. That’s not necessarily a bad thing considering how it still finds a middle-ground between the two other Alder Lake offering on the market.
The Core i7-12700K locks its horns with the Ryzen 7 5800X, another solid chip that’s already a part of many of our recommendation lists. The Corer i7-12700K at $409 is a great offering and we think it deserves more attention in the Alder Lake family. It’s about $40 cheaper than the Intel Core i9-12900K, yet it carries the same amount of P-cores that are necessary for most single-threaded applications including gaming. It also has 4 E-cores which means it’s still capable of handling sustained workloads. It’ll also depend on how Intel’s new Thread Director tech works to allocate the task properly across different cores.
Sure, AMD still has an advantage when it comes to the TDP levels on paper, but it remains to be seen just how powerful the AMD CPUs are compared to the Core i7-12700K. As a part of the new Alder Lake family, you still have to put up with high platform entry costs due to the LGA 1700 socket, so keep your credit cards ready for the Z690-based motherboards and DDR5 memory modules if you want to make the most out of your new Intel CPU.
Best mid-range Intel CPU: Intel Core i5-11400
The Intel Core i5-11400 may not be the most powerful Intel chip on the market right now, but there’s a lot to like about this particular CPU. It sits in the Rocket Lake family as a surprisingly well-built CPU for the asking price. The best thing about the Intel Core i5-11400 is that there’s no AMD alternative to this chip. At $182, the 11400 is a fantastic chip for entry-level to mid-range builds. In fact, you can pick up the ‘F’ model of the chip to save more money. The only AMD offering that rivals the 11400 is the Ryzen 5 3600, which is a couple of years old now and is not as powerful as the 11400 in gaming.
The Core i5-11400 is a 6-core, 12-thread CPU that offers an incredible value for money. It features Intel’s Cypress Cove architecture that grants 19% IPC gains over its last-gen counterpart. That, and the 14nm process, allows the 11400 to hit high clock speeds without consuming too much power or thermal output. This is without a doubt, one of the mid-range Intel CPUs for gaming right now. In fact, it’s a solid option for entry-level gamers looking to build a new PC too. Gamers who’re not necessarily interested in overclocking can also choose the 11400 over the Core i5-11600K.
The Intel Coe i5-11400 isn’t as powerful as the 11600K, but it comes close and you end up saving $80 that can be used for other core components like graphics cards. You’ll definitely need the extra money GPUs considering how hard it is to buy one right now. The 11400 hs a base frequency of 2.6GHz and it peaks at 4.4GHz. It’s a 65W TDP CPU that also packs Intel’s UDH Graphics 750 Xe. Despite its seemingly low base frequency, the Core i5-11400 still beats all comparably-priced CPUs on the market. It’s also capable of pushing GPUs, which means it’s not going to be a bottleneck if you decide to pair it with a potent GPU.
The Core i5-11400’s 65W PL1 (base frequency-TDP) and 154W PL2 (turbo frequency power) ratings are better than 11600K’s 125W PL1 and 251W PL2 ratings. This means the 11400 generates far less heat and won’t throttle as much or cap your frequencies. It’s also worth pointing out that the 11400 comes with a stock cooler, which Intel says should be enough for most users who’re not looking to push this CPU to its extreme limits. This makes it much better than a lot of other Intel CPUs that demand a 3rd-party aftermarket cooler. While there are a lot of affordable CPU coolers on the market, it doesn’t hurt to save that money for fetching better components for the PC. We think the stock should be enough to keep this CPU running as long as you don’t remove its power limits.
The fact that AMD doesn’t have a competing CPU for the Core i5-11400 makes it a no-brainer for those looking to build a new PC in this price range. You can check the link below to get the best price online for the Intel Coe i5-11400.
Second best mid-range Intel CPU: Intel Core i5-10400F
The Intel Core i5-10400F may not be the most recent or even the most powerful CPU from Blue Team, but it’s here to stay on our recommendation list for a few important reasons. We think the 10400F stands as a fantastic alternative to the Intel Core i5-11400 or even its ‘F’ model that comes without an integrated GPU. You should definitely consider the 10400F in our list while shopping for CPU under $200. It’s one of the cheapest Intel CPUs on the market that’s actually worth buying. At around $150, it offers an incredible value thanks to its 6-cores and 12-threads configuration.
The Core i5-10400F has a base clock of 2.9Ghz and a turbo boost frequency of 4.3GHz. These specs are similar to the Intel Core i5-1600K, yet it costs $80 cheaper. The 10400F is similar to the 11400 in more ways than one. They both are similar in performance to their next-best processor in the product stock which is the 10600K in 10th gen’s case and the 11600K in 11th gen’s case. The F suffix means the 10th gen processor we’re looking at here doesn’t come with an integrated GPU. Is that really an issue? Not really. The integrated GPU isn’t going to do much for you if you’re planning to buy a discrete graphics card. Also, we recommend buying an AMD APU for those who’re leaning towards a budget build without a discrete GPU. Intel is yet to take that lead from AMD.
As far as the performance of the Intel Core i5-10400F is concerned, it’s proven to work well even in 2021, going against the newer offerings on the market. It matches the performance of Intel’s 9700K and beats Ryzen’s 3000 series chips. The 10400F is plenty for an entry-level build that’s not necessarily being taxed with resource-intensive workloads. The 10400F is also a great choice for gamers. With plenty of cores and a solid boost frequency, this CPU shouldn’t have any issues pushing even some of the newer titles on the market. This CPU can smoothly run even the most demanding titles like Forza Horizon 5, provided you also have a capable GPU for it.
Overall, we think the Intel Core i5-10400F marks a sweet spot for a lot of users in Intel’s lineup. Anything below the 10400F is not recommended in 2021. The lower specced processors below the 10400F lack performance and they won’t save you a ton of money either. AMD’s Ryzen 3000 series chips, specifically the Ryzen 5 3600 is a good alternative for this CPU. But we won’t get into that since this collection is dedicated to Intel CPUs on the market. You can step up to the Core i5-11400 or the 11400F variant if your budget allows for it. That being said, it’s hard to ignore the 10400F that runs about $80 cheaper.
If you’re looking for a capable CPU to power light productivity tasks and even gaming, then it’s really hard to beat the 10400F right now as a solid entry-level chip. You may want to check multiple retailers for the best price though since this processor tends to run a little more than the MSRP. You can click the link below to see exact how much it costs right now on the market.
Best HEDT Intel CPU: Core i9-10980XE
Intel’s Cascade Lake-X processor, as you probably already know, serves as a refresh to its Skylake Lake-X processors. Out of the bunch, we think the Core i9-10980XE is the best HEDT CPU one can buy right now. It comes in as a flagship CPU with a price tag of $979. Yes, it’s one of the most expensive CPUs on this list, but that’s because this isn’t your average mainstream CPU and it competes with the likes of Theadripper for creative centric high-performance builds.
The Intel Core i9-10980XE is essentially here to go against the 3rd gen Ryzen processors. It brings HEDT-class performance to mainstream 400- and 500-series motherboards. It’s not as powerful as the Threadripper CPUs but it is a very capable CPU for those who want to stay within the realm of Intel. The Core i9-10980XE is based on Intel’s 14nm process technology. Unsurprisingly, it trails in performance compared to the Ryzen HEDT CPUs that are based on 7nm tech. That being said, you do get 18-cores and 36 threads with the 10980XE CPU, making it much more powerful than a lot of other mainstream Intel chips.
The Cascade Lake-X makes up for the dated manufacturing process with a bump in frequency and also exposes four additional PCIe 3.0 lanes. The Core i9-10980XE enters the arena with 18-cores at 3.0Ghz and a 165W TDP. It uses Intel’s Turbo Boost 2.0 tech to hit a boost of 4.6GHz. The Core i9-10980XE brings 48 PCIe lanes, and you’ll need one of the X-series boards that debuted along with this CPU. AMD still holds the crown PCIe lane counts in HEDT space though.
This particular Cascade-Lake X processor offers a lot of overclocking headroom than many other rival AMD chips. Overclocking still largely remains a key for Intel and these chips are also relatively easy to tune manually to deliver huge performance improvement. That being said, you’ll need a powerful cooler to take advantage of high speeds. While a lot of big-sized air coolers and AIOs should be enough to run this CPU at stock settings, it’s recommended that you switch to high-performance custom cooling for the best results. The 10980XE, as we mentioned, has plenty of overclocking headroom and you’ll need a sophistical cooling solution to push its limits.
A lot of Ryzen chips looms the 10980XE as a competitor and you’ll have to lean towards the chip’s overclocking capability to fully unlock its potential when it comes to the overall performance. It goes without saying gamers definitely don’t need a HEDT chip to play even the most demanding titles on the market right now. That being said, you’ll appreciate the chip’s performance as a content creators dealing with workloads around video editing, VFX, 3D modelling, and more. Streamers will also benefit from the extra cores and threads, but the new Alder Lake chips are just better for these kinds of tasks too. Intel has spent the last few years, slowly picking up its slack to play catch up AMD options. But it looks like the company is ready to hit the competition hard with its offerings. Keep an eye on this article as we’ll update it with newer, more powerful options on the market.
- The Intel Core i9-10980XE doesn't represent the best of what HEDT space has to offer, but we think it still offers plenty of value until the newer chips arrive on the market to stop AMD from stomping this space with its high-performance chips.
Best Intel CPUs to buy: Final Thoughts
Intel’s new Alder Lake CPUs sit on top of our recommendation list when it comes to the best Intel CPUs on the market. That’s not really a surprise considering how Intel’s been lurking in the shadows of AMD’s 5000 series chips. We think the Intel Core i5-12600K and the Core i9-12900K are two of the best Intel CPUs you can buy right now. The Intel Core i7-12700K is also worth considering since it essentially sits between the other chips in the product stack. That being said, we think the Intel Core i5-11400 is also plenty for those leaning towards a mid-range budget build.
We think this is a good time to remind you that building a computer isn’t just about buying a powerful CPU and a graphics card. There are other core components to consider too like the motherboard, for instance. You can check out our collection of the best motherboards to see all the good options that are available right now. You can also join our XDA Computing Forum to have some discussions around PC hardware to get better recommendations.