The low-cost CPU landscape had been barren for more than a year, but Intel’s new Alder Lake processors have made a splash on our CPU Benchmarks Hierarchy, as we finally see the return of cheaper CPU models to the market.
AMD has been glaringly absent from the low end of the market, but its recent release of seven new chips includes two models for the low end of the market. AMD’s new Renoir chips take a new approach of using Zen 2-powered APU silicon with disabled integrated graphics units to tackle the low-end. We recently reviewed the Ryzen 5 4500 and Ryzen 3 4100 and found that the Zen 2 architecture simply doesn’t hold up against today’s more modern chips, like the Core i3-12100. We can’t recommend either of the new AMD chips due to the severe performance and connectivity tradeoffs.
AMD’s Zen 2 refresh isn’t that promising, but we do have good news — despite just launching its new Zen 4 Ryzen 7000 chips, AMD has released a new Ryzen 5 3600 AF model. This chip comes with six cores, 12 threads, and the Zen 3 architecture, all for a comparably-palatable $126. That puts it right in the sweet spot of competition with Intel’s Core i3-12100, which leads our list. Keep your eyes out for a review.
Intel’s Alder Lake processors lead the market, taking the top of our Best CPU for gaming list. Intel also has a full lineup, so many of those chips are destined for the low-end of that market. That includes the new Core i3, Pentium, and Celeron models.
The Intel Core i3-12100 proves it has an exceptional blend of price and performance, thus earning it the top spot on our list of Best Cheap CPUs. It also appears to have decent availability, a rarity for cheap chips among the ongoing shortages. The 12100 will be the go-to cheap chip from Intel for at least several months, as the initial salvo of the 13th-Gen Raptor Lake processors only includes the pricey K-series models. We expect the lower-end Raptor Lake Core i3s to arrive in January of next year.
- You can’t lose with AMD or Intel: Both companies offer good budget chips, and overall CPU performance between comparative parts is closer than it’s been in years. You can see how the chips stack up in our CPU Benchmarks hierarchy. That said, if you’re primarily interested in gaming, Intel’s chips will generally deliver slightly better performance (and consume more power) when paired with a graphics card, while AMD’s APUs do a better job of delivering gaming-capable performance at modest settings and resolutions without the need for a graphics card.
- Clock speed is more important than core count: Higher clock speeds typically translate to snappier performance in simple, common tasks such as gaming, while extra cores will help you get through time-consuming workloads faster.
- Overclocking a CPU can squeeze more performance out of a budget offering. Intel doesn’t have overclocking-capable processors for the sub-$125 market, but AMD’s processors allow for tuning, and in most cases, the bundled AMD cooler is sufficient for the task. Automated overclocking features in most motherboards make the process easy, so even the least tech-savvy users can enjoy the benefits.
For even more information, check out our CPU Buyer’s Guide, where we discuss how much you should spend for what you’re looking to do, and when cores matter more than high clock speeds. If you can expand your budget and buy a mainstream or high-end processor, check out our lists of Best CPUs for Gaming and Best CPUs for Workstations. Below, you’ll see our favorite budget picks.
Best Cheap CPUs in 2022 at a glance:
Best $100-$130 Cheap CPU Pick:
1. Intel Core i3-12100 (opens in new tab)
Best $85-$100 Budget Cheap CPU Pick:
2. Intel Core i3-12100F (opens in new tab)
Best $60-$85 Entry-Level Cheap CPU Pick:
3. Intel Core i3-10100F (opens in new tab)
Best Under $60 Entry-Level Cheap CPU Pick:
4. AMD Athlon 200GE (opens in new tab)
Best Cheap CPUs 2022
Like the rest of the Alder Lake family, the $130 Core i3-12100 comes to market with disruptive pricing. The chip also comes as a $104 F-series Core i3-12100F that Intel ships with deactivated integrated graphics for $25 less than the full-featured model, knocking it into the slightly lower price tier below. In fact, with no clear current-gen competitor from AMD and stellar performance for its price point, the Core i3-12100 easily leads our CPU benchmark hierarchy in the $105 to $130 bracket. Overall, the quad-core i3-12100’s potent combination of price, performance, and improved stock cooler dominates the $100 to $130 price range while punching up against more expensive competitors.
The Core i3-12100 now reigns as the fastest budget gaming CPU on the market and it’s plenty impressive in lightly-threaded apps, too: None of AMD’s chips match the 12100 in single-threaded work, so you’ll have to look to other Alder Lake chips to find faster performance. The Core i3-12100 is also impressive in threaded productivity workloads for its price point.
The Core i3-12100 comes with a 60W PBP (base) and 89W MTP (peak) power rating. The chip clocks in with a 3.3 GHz base and boosts up to 4.3 GHz. It also comes with 12 MB of L3 cache. Intel’s Alder Lake drops into Socket 1700 motherboards from the 600-series, including Z690, H670, B660, and H610. The Core i3-12100 is a locked chip, meaning it isn’t overclockable. However, Intel supports memory overclocking on Z690, B660 and H670 motherboards (Z690 doesn’t make sense for this class of chip, though).
The Core i3-12100 doesn’t have a similarly-priced competitor from AMD. However, despite a total lack of competition, it still brings impressive generational performance gains to the table. In fact, in 1080p gaming, the $129 Core i3-12100 delivers 88% of the $299 Core i5-12400’s performance, but for 56% less cash. That’s a winning blend of price and performance.
Read: Intel Core i3-12100 Review
The Core i3-12100F comes with all of the hallmarks of the incredibly competitive Core i3-12100 that reigns as the top pick, but Intel has disabled the integrated graphics engine (iGPU). Intel cuts the pricing to compensate, making for a great deal right at the $100 price point, but you do lose the ability to use the chip’s iGPU for troubleshooting tasks or for a basic display output if you don’t plan to use the chip for gaming.
That said, you won’t get much meaningful gaming performance from the full-featured 12100 with the iGPU, so you aren’t missing much. However, AMD doesn’t have a comparable value in this price bracket, handling the win to the Core i3-12100F. This chip offers the same performance as the Core i3-12100 that easily leads our CPU benchmark hierarchy in the $105 to $130 bracket, so it has the same potent combination of price and performance. It also comes with Intel’s new improved cooler, saving you some cash.
Like the non-F model, the Core i3-12100F comes with a 60W PBP (base) and 89W MTP (peak) power rating. The chip clocks in with a 3.3 GHz base and boosts up to 4.3 GHz. It also comes with 12 MB of L3 cache. Intel’s Alder Lake drops into Socket 1700 motherboards from the 600-series, including Z690, H670, B660, and H610. The Core i3-12100 is a locked chip, meaning it isn’t overclockable. However, Intel supports memory overclocking on Z690, B660 and H670 motherboards (Z690 doesn’t make sense for this class of chip, though).
Read: Intel Core i3-12100 Review
We don’t often recommend previous-gen parts in our best cheap CPUs list, but most of AMD’s competing chips in the lower price ranges, like the Ryzen 3 3300X, have been completely absent for more than a year. Additionally, AMD’s new low-end models are based on the previous-gen Zen 2 architecture that isn’t as competitive in either pricing or performance as the previous-gen Intel chips.
That leaves the amazingly well-priced Core i3-10100F as the uncontested leader in the $60 to $85 price range. The Core i3-10100F features four cores and eight threads paired with a 3.6 GHz base and a 4.3 GHz boost clock rate. The 65W chip has 6MB of L3 cache, supports DDR4-2666 memory and PCIe 3.0, and is fabbed on the 14nm process. The non-F model comes with the UHD 630 graphics engine that runs up to 1.1 GHz, but you can’t really game with it. Instead, you can save some cash if you have a discrete GPU and opt for the F-series model to score a pretty impressive quad-core for $68. You’ll just need to make sure that you select the right series of motherboards for these chips, as the 10100 is a previous-gen offering.
Let’s keep things in perspective — if you head over to our CPU benchmark hierarchy, you can see the 10100F getting over an average of 105 fps in gaming, an amazing value for $65. And that’s when the chip is paired with the mighty RTX 3090, which is actually pretty ridiculous for a chip at this price point — we only test with such an expensive card to keep our results fair across all tested chips. That means these Core i3 chips can fully power the less expensive and frankly more rational GPUs befit of this price class.
AMD’s sub-$60 Zen-based Athlon is a good all-around value, thanks to its four computing threads and Vega 3 graphics that are capable of light gaming at lower resolutions and settings. Lightly threaded performance isn’t great, but when you’re spending this little on a CPU, you should expect compromises somewhere. And while it isn’t officially supported by AMD, if you have a compatible motherboard, this chip can be overclocked to eke out some extra CPU performance.
If your build budget can swing it, the $100 Ryzen 3 2200G is a much better chip with more cores and beefier graphics. But if you can only spend $60 or less on your CPU and you aren’t adding a dedicated graphics card, the Athlon 200GE is tough to beat. Intel’s competing Pentiums, the Gold G5400 and G4560, deliver better CPU performance. But they have higher MSRPs, and production shortages have made them hard to find unless you’re willing to spend close to $100 or more, making them incomparable in terms of budget CPUs.
Read: AMD Athlon 200GE Review