Best Cheap CPUs: Q1 2020

Introduction

Due to the ongoing competition between AMD and Intel, it is a great time to build a new desktop system. You can get a lot of computing power for a relatively small amount of money, especially compared to just 2-3 years ago. To help you do that, I’ve put together a guide to the best cheap CPUs in Q1 2020. This post was inspired by an interesting but flawed post on Tom’s Hardware.

So what are the main flaws in the article at Tom’s Hardware?

  • It is artificially even-handed comparing Intel and AMD
    • This does not reflect the current reality at the low-end of the desktop CPU market
  • It only considers CPUs with integrated graphics
    • That choice eliminates many good options that are better long term choices
  • It does not look at Micro Center prices for CPUs
    • This is more understandable, since not everyone lives near a Micro Center
Best Cheap CPUs
Best Cheap CPUs

What Processors did Tom’s Hardware Choose?

Tom’s Hardware had four different CPU price ranges. These are broken down this way:

  • $100.00-$130.00
  • $85.00-$100.00
  • $60.00-85.00
  • Under $60.00

In my opinion, that is just too many narrow price ranges for a key component of a new desktop computer. Giving up a huge amount of performance to save $20.00-$30.00 doesn’t really make sense in most cases. This is especially true when you will probably be spending at least $400.00 to $500.00 for a complete system using new parts.

When you are on a tight budget for a CPU, you do need to consider whether the CPU includes integrated graphics and a bundled cooler. You also need to consider where you are buying your parts and whether you must have all new parts or not. If you are willing to consider used parts, you may be able to get a lot more CPU for the money.

Tom’s Actual CPU Choice ($100-$130)

For the $100.00-$130.00 range, it was the Intel Core i3-8100. This 14nm Coffee Lake processor has 4C/4T, with a base clock of 3.6 GHz and 6 MB of L3 cache. There is no HT or Turbo Boost, but it does have integrated graphics and an included box cooler. It is a locked processor, so you cannot overclock it. The Core i3-8100 was introduced in Q4 of 2017, so it is a little old. This processor is currently selling for $120.00-$130.00 online.

If you simply must have an Intel processor in this price range, I would recommend the newer Intel Core i3-9100. This is a 14nm Coffee Lake processor with 4C/4T, with a base clock of 3.6 GHz, a Turbo clock of 4.2 GHz and 6 MB of L3 cache. There is no HT, but it does have integrated graphics and an included box cooler. It is a locked processor, so you cannot overclock it. The Core i3-9100 was introduced in Q2 of 2019, so it is relatively new. This processor is currently selling for $114.99 at Micro Center. Unfortunately, it does not qualify for a bundle discount when you also buy a motherboard.

Steve from Hardware Unboxed recently posted a video comparing the performance and value of the Intel Core i3-9100F to the AMD Ryzen 3 1600 “AF”. Long story short, the AMD part compared very well to the Intel part in his testing.

Tom’s Actual CPU Choice ($85-$100)

For this range, it was the AMD Ryzen 3 2200G. This 14nm Zen processor has 4C/4T, with a base clock of 3.5 GHz, a Turbo clock of 3.7 GHz and 4 MB of L3 cache. There is no SMT, but it does have integrated graphics and an included box cooler. It is an unlocked processor, so you can potentially overclock it. The Ryzen 3 2200G was introduced in Q1 of 2018, so it is also a little old. This processor is currently selling for about $85.00 online. This processor is currently selling for $69.99 at Micro Center. Unfortunately, it does not qualify for a bundle discount when you also buy a motherboard.

If you want an AMD processor with integrated graphics in this price range, I would choose the newer AMD Ryzen 3 3200G. This 12nm Zen+ processor has 4C/4T, with a base clock of 3.6 GHz, a Turbo clock of 4.0 GHz and 4 MB of L3 cache. There is no SMT, but it does have integrated graphics and an included box cooler. It is an unlocked processor, so you can potentially overclock it. The Ryzen 3 3200G was introduced in Q3 of 2019, so it is fairly new. This processor is currently selling for $79.99 at Micro Center. Unfortunately, it does not qualify for a bundle discount when you also buy a motherboard. Given the newer architecture and slightly higher clock speeds, I think it is worth the extra $10.00 compared to the older Ryzen 3 2200G.

AMD Ryzen 3 3200G
AMD Ryzen 3 3200G

Tom’s Actual CPU Choice ($60-$85)

At this price point, Tom’s recommends the AMD Athlon 240GE. This 14nm Zen processor has 2C/4T, with a base clock of 3.5 GHz, and 4 MB of L3 cache. There is no Turbo, but it does have integrated graphics and an included box cooler. It is a locked processor, so you can’t overclock it. The Athlon 240GE was introduced in Q1 of 2019, so it is fairly new. This processor is currently selling for about $78.00 online. Micro Center doesn’t carry this processor.

Honestly, I would not go this cheap for a processor for a new build. You are just giving up too much CPU and graphics performance compared to a Ryzen 3 2200G or 3200G. Saving $10.00 or less is just not worth giving up that much performance!

Tom’s Actual CPU Choice (Under $60)

At this lowest price point, Tom’s recommends the AMD Athlon 200GE. This 14nm Zen processor has 2C/4T, with a base clock of 3.2 GHz, and 4 MB of L3 cache. There is no Turbo, but it does have integrated graphics and an included box cooler. It is a locked processor, so you can’t overclock it. The Athlon 200GE was introduced in Q1 of 2019, so it is fairly new. This processor is currently selling for about $55.00 online. Micro Center doesn’t carry this processor.

Once again, I would not go this cheap for a processor for a new build. You are giving up even more CPU and graphics performance compared to a Ryzen 3 2200G or 3200G. Saving $30.00 or less is really not worth giving up that much performance.

What Would Glenn Recommend?

Well, I would advise you to come up with an overall system budget first, and then start thinking about how to allocate that budget for the different components in the system. If you live near a Micro Center, I would shop there for your parts.

As you might expect, I would recommend an AMD-based system rather than an Intel-based system for an affordable CPU choice. I would also suggest a minimum CPU specification of 6C/12T. In 2020, there is no reason to be building a new system with 2C/4T, or 4C/4T, or even 6C/6T.

I would be looking at the more affordable Ryzen 5 and Ryzen 7 processors, from the three available Zen generations. The top choices are the refreshed Ryzen 5 1600 “AF”, Ryzen 5 2600X, Ryzen 7 2700X, and the Ryzen 5 3600. These four CPUs often fluctuate in price, but the typical range recently has been between $85.00 and $150.00. Of course, none of these CPUs come with integrated graphics, but we’ll talk about that in a bit.

All of the current and previous generation AMD Ryzen processors use the same AM4 socket platform with different chipsets. This gives you a lot of flexibility and future upgrade options when it comes to CPU and motherboard choices. As long as you get a certain minimum level AM4 motherboard, you can run anything from an Athlon 200GE to a Ryzen 9 3950X in that same motherboard.

As a minimum level, I would suggest a B450 chipset AM4 motherboard so that you have this CPU flexibility. You also might find some bargain X470 AM4 motherboards. Both of these choices are typically available for $100-$130.00.

Glenn’s Recommendation Under $100

If you want to spend the lowest amount of money possible on your CPU, but still have a viable system with a good upgrade path, I like the AMD Ryzen 3 3200G. This processor is $79.99 at Micro Center, with the specifications that I listed above. It has integrated graphics, but does not qualify for a bundle discount with a motherboard. You could pair this with a decent, but affordable B450 motherboard and have the start of a flexible system. Personally, I would try to stretch my budget just a little to make the jump to a much better class of processor.

Glenn’s Recommendations ($85-$150)

If at all possible, you should get one of the Ryzen 5 or Ryzen 7 processors that I listed above, along with a discrete graphics card. All of those processors qualify for a $20.00 bundle discount with a qualifying motherboard. You can get a decent, entry-level discrete graphics card for $60.00-$100.00.

AMD Ryzen 5 1600 “AF”

This 12nm Zen+ processor has 6C/12T, with a base clock of 3.2 GHz, a Turbo clock of up to 3.6 GHz and 16 MB of L3 cache. It has an included box cooler. It is an unlocked processor, so you can overclock it. The Ryzen 5 1600 “AF” was introduced in Q3 of 2019, so it is fairly new.

This is the special 12nm “refreshed” Ryzen 5 1600 that is essentially the same as a Ryzen 5 2600 in most benchmarks. It was selling for $85.00 on Amazon, but the price has gone up to at least $108.00. If you are shopping for one of these, make sure you see an “AF” rather than an “AE” in the part number. So far, Micro Center does not carry this particular processor, which is a shame.

AMD Ryzen 5 2600X

This 12nm Zen+ processor has 6C/12T, with a base clock of 3.6 GHz, a Turbo clock of up to 4.2 GHz and 16 MB of L3 cache. It has an included box cooler. It is an unlocked processor, so you can overclock it. The Ryzen 5 2600X was introduced in Q2 of 2018, so it is a little older.

Normally, you don’t really want to spend the extra money to get the “X” SKU (meaning 2600X vs 2600), but this is a special case. Micro Center has recently listed this processor for between $79.99 and $109.99, which makes it a real bargain! It also qualifies for the $20.00 bundle discount.

AMD Ryzen 7 2700X

This 12nm Zen+ processor has 8C/16T, with a base clock of 3.7 GHz, a Turbo clock of up to 4.3 GHz and 16 MB of L3 cache. It has an included Wraith Prism cooler. It is an unlocked processor, so you can overclock it. The Ryzen 7 2700X was introduced in Q2 of 2018, so it is a little older.

Micro Center has recently listed this processor for between $129.99 and $139.99, which makes it an incredible bargain! It also qualifies for the $20.00 bundle discount.

AMD Ryzen 5 3600

This 7nm Zen 2 processor has 6C/12T, with a base clock of 3.6 GHz, a Turbo clock of up to 4.2 GHz and 32 MB of L3 cache. It has an included box cooler. It is an unlocked processor, so you can overclock it. The Ryzen 5 3600 was introduced in Q2 of 2019, so it is current generation.

Micro Center has recently listed this processor for between $129.99 and $159.99, which still makes it a bargain. It also qualifies for the $20.00 bundle discount. This would be my first choice if you are willing to spend that amount of money.

Affordable Discrete Graphics

If you take my advice and get one of the AMD Ryzen processors that doesn’t have integrated graphics, then you will need a discrete graphics card. Two decent entry-level choices are the NVIDIA GeForce GT 1030 or the AMD Radeon RX550. You should be able to find these for $70.00-$100.00. By buying your CPU and motherboard together at Micro Center, you should have more room in the budget for a graphics card.

Final Words!

My essential advice here is to think about what parts you are buying and where you are buying them from. If you can afford it, I would try to find one of these recent vintage Ryzen 5 or 7 CPUs when they are on sale if possible. This will give you a lot more compute capacity than any of the “cheap” CPUs with integrated graphics. Having 6C/12T or 8C/16T is much better than 4C/4T.

If you are near a Micro Center, buy your CPU and motherboard from them to get the best prices. Otherwise, watch your favorite online retailer for sales. By being diligent, you can probably save enough money to pay for a good portion of the cost of a low-end discrete graphics card. Remember, a balanced system has more than just one of the best cheap CPUs in it.

BTW, if you REALLY want to save money building a system, I suggest that you start watching Kristofer Yee on YouTube. He is deservedly famous for finding a combination of cheap new and used parts to build very respectable systems for incredibly low prices. He also seems like a really nice guy.

I have written several recent posts that are related to this one:

If you find this sort of content interesting, please let me know in the comments. Thanks for reading!

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