The Best CPUs for 2019March 13, 2019
Trying to figure out the best CPU for your next PC upgrade or DIY build? With apologies to Robert Frost, it’s the classic two roads that parted in the wood—if the wood were a shopping-results page at Newegg or Amazon, and the road kept dividing endlessly. Two roads, splitting to four roads. Then eight. (Better leave breadcrumbs.)
Indeed, buying a CPU is akin to a whole forest of decision trees. Which of the two big chip makers should you go with: AMD, or Intel? Are you trying to maximize speed, or value? Does the maximum number of cores matter more, or does clock speed? Are you upgrading, or building a whole new PC? Are you gaming? Not gaming? Still awake?
All of these questions are crucial in landing the right chip, and what that means: No single CPU is the absolute best across the board for all users, assuming money matters. It’s possible to objectively measure CPU performance across a range of applications and usage cases, and if you’re not bound by mere-mortal concerns such as a budget, it’s easy enough to get a pretty good idea of what “best” means. (Spoiler: AMD Ryzen Threadripper 2990WX, or Intel Core i9-9980XE Extreme Edition, each close to two grand.)
But just because these, the CPU equivalents of maximum-horsepower V12 or V16 engines, exist doesn’t make them the right pick for every shopper, or even most shoppers. Other concerns—cost, energy consumption, the kinds of roads (read: tasks) you drive every day—matter just as much as out-and-out muscle.
The best way to look at a CPU buy is to take the considerations in a logical order, which will narrow the field as you make your choices. So, the first big one: Are you upgrading a PC, or building a new one from scratch?
Consideration No. 1: Upgrade, or New Build?
Answering this question will set you on a narrow path or a broad one. If you’re upgrading an existing desktop PC, your CPU upgrade options, by definition, will be limited: by the architecture, socket, and compatibility of the motherboard installed in the PC. If you are willing to swap out the motherboard to step up to a newer or more powerful class of CPU, that project becomes, in effect, building your own PC. That’s because a motherboard upgrade requires at least partial system disassembly, and sometimes replacing further parts to make the upgrade work.
Often, “In-Place” Upgrades Are a Waste of Time
In most cases, upgrading to another chip that works in the same socket as the one in your PC will have limited upside. In recent years, chip sockets or chipsets are only compatible for a generation or two of CPU, and once the year or two passes, the next platform is no longer compatible with the ones that came before. (Late-model mainstream AMD CPUs, on AMD’s “AM4” socket, have broken that cycle for the moment. More on that later.) What that means: Unless you’re upgrading from a low-end chip early in a platform’s lifecycle to a high-end CPU at the very end, you’re not likely to gain too much from an in-place CPU upgrade on…