Processors run the show on any computer, and if you’re going to get serious with graphic design, you need a seriously beefy processor. The only problem is the market for CPUs/processors is somewhat overcrowded – there’s so much out there with so little to differentiate them it can be hard for a new shopper to make an ideal pick. Both Intel and AMD don’t make it better with their weird penchant for complex and confusing naming schemes.
Good thing you’re here! In this guide, I give an overview of what matters in the ideal Processor and round it all up with my list of the best processors for graphic design.
What matters in a processor for graphic design
There are three things to consider in a processor if you plan on using your PC for graphic design:
Processor speed or clock speed is a relative measure of how fast a particular processor can do the job of processing. This is one of the most advertised specs in processor marketing, and the general rule is higher numbers are better, with a few caveats:
Newer gen processors with marginally slower clock speeds may outperform older-gen processors with faster clock speeds. There’s a lot of nuance here, and I go into more detail on processor speeds and how it’s not an absolute indicator of performance in my how to choose a processor guide. I also cover how to identify newer gen and older gen processors in the naming section of that guide.
Clock speed should only be used as a differentiating factor across CPUs based on the same architecture. It’s not a good idea to use clock speed as a tie-breaker between an Intel Pentium processor and an Intel Core i9 processor, for instance.
Number of cores
Modern-day processors come as a bloc of processing units rather than a single processing block. Each so-called block is a core, and this architecture allows CPUs to process more computational tasks simultaneously. The more the cores, the more the computational tasks a CPU can handle at any one instance, and invariably, the better its performance.
That’s roundabout way of saying more cores are better. At the very least, you want a hexacore CPU in your graphic design rig. You can go as far as buying a CPU with sixteen cores. That’s better, but that type of CPU will cost an arm and a leg, not to mention it’s probably overkill for graphic design.
Read more about number of cores and how they improve CPU performance here.
Much like Cores, Threads allow CPUs to take on more computational tasks, although the mechanism this time is more virtual than it is actual separation of processing lines. If that sounds confusing, check out the CPU Thread section in the guide I talked about earlier.
For the short of it, a CPU with multithreading support should perform better than one without it, all things equal. But I would advise against paying more for multithreading functionality if your PC already has a decent enough clock speed and number of cores. Spend that extra money on a setup with better RAM or an SSD.
With all that said, let’s consider top CPUs that tick all the checkboxes we just talked about.
Top CPUs for graphic design
Best overall – Intel Core i7 12700
Intel’s 12th generation core i7 12700 tops this list of the best CPUs for graphic design for the incredible blend of performance and affordability it delivers. 12th gen means this is one of Intel’s more recent CPU iterations, and on this particular chip you get 12 cores and 24 threads. Pretty impressive for a sub $300 CPU. But what’s even more impressive is the fact that this has a max clock speed of 4.90 GHz and a CPU cache size of 25MB.
That setup is, in simple terms, more than enough to handle any graphic design task or app you throw at it. From Adobe Photoshop to Adobe Illustrator, Indesign or if you’re up for it, Adobe After Effects, provided you match it up with the right RAM and GPU, you should be blazing right through. Twelve cores ensure speedy and uninterrupted multitasking. A clock speed of 4.90 GHz and a beefy cache size of 25MB guarantees extremely smooth performance even with the most resource-intensive graphic design application.
Now I should add that there are many other top-tier better-performing CPUs than the i7 12700, there’s, in fact, the core i9 and Intel Xeon workstation series, but as far performance needs for graphics designer goes, those are basically overkill. The i7 12700 is just what the doctor ordered – exceptionally capable and ridiculously affordable, especially given its performance characteristics.
Best alternative – AMD Ryzen 7 5800 X
AMD’s Ryzen 7 5800 measures up closely to Intel’s Core i7 12700 but falters slightly behind. Rather than 12 cores, you get 8 cores on this Processor. Max clock speed is a healthy 4.60 GHz, just .3 shy of the 4.90 GHz figure of the 12700. For these slight drop offs in performance, you get a massive drop in price. At the time of writing this, the Ryzen 7 5800X is exactly $100 cheaper than the Core i7 12700.
Is the price savings worth it? I’ll say yes. Compared to the 12700, the Ryzen 7 5800 is still a very competent processor. It will still handle all the resource-intensive graphic design apps you know and not just handle it, but handle it at a performance level that’s comparable to the Core i7 12700. Multitasking will be smooth as hell, Adobe After effects will run without a hiccup and even when you dive into more resource-intensive applications like MAYA 3D, this Processor will still keep its head above water.
In all practical sense, and as long as you’re doing just graphic designing, the difference between the performance and operation of the Ryzen 7 5800 and the Core i7 12700 is minimal. What the i7 has over the Ryzen 5 is future-proofing.
So assuming you plan to extend into 3D animation somewhere along your career path, it will still be a capable processor; at that point, the Ryzen 5 will begin to struggle.
If you’re short on cash or would rather spend the additional hundred bucks on a better storage memory setup (which is what I’d advise), I say go with the Ryzen 7. If you’re not cash strapped and have the extra money to buy all the other needed components for a solid graphic designing rig, then it makes sense to buy the Core i7 12700.
Best cheapest option – AMD Ryzen 5 5600
If you’re extremely cash strapped and need a dirt-cheap processor to get on with graphics designing, few other processors provide better value for money spent than the Ryzen 5 5600. This is an obvious step down from the other two processors on this list, but then again, that step down in performance and specifications comes with a hefty step down in price. The Ryzen 5 5600 is a sub $200 CPU. For the price you pay, you get 6 cores (12 threads) and a max clock speed of 4.4 GHz; that’s just .2 under the Ryzen 7 5800.
For purely graphics designing with little to no 3D work or animation, this setup is enough, provided it’s paired to the right set of PC components – a good RAM and an excellent GPU. And while you’ll definitely feel the lags and freezes if you decide to push forward with performance-intensive apps like After Effects and MAYA, it is still very much doable. Expect smooth multitasking if you keep things simple and surprisingly exceptional performance with run-of-the-mill graphic design apps like Illustrator, Photoshop or InDesign.
If you’re just getting started with graphic design, this is an excellent CPU for your first rig. If you’re tight on cash and still want a relatively smooth graphic design experience, then this is also a good CPU to grab. It doesn’t match the Ryzen 7 5800 or the Core i7 12700, but it is still a recent gen processor with fairly capable performance that’s more than enough to get you going until you’re ready for an upgrade.
A quick note on the AMD vs Intel debate
As you’ve probably noticed, my list of recommended CPUs for graphic design includes both Intel and AMD CPUs. While it was common to place Intel CPUs above their AMD competition in the past, today, AMD processors match the intel competition fair and square. In fact, in some CPU segments, cue the extreme performance group of CPUs – threadripper (AMD) vs Xeon (Intel) – some independent reviewers report better performance from AMD chips.
When buying a CPU, it’s better to approach it from a ‘what’s the best CPU for me’ perspective than from a ‘what’s the best CPU around’ perspective. The best CPU around might be the worst CPU for your needs and use case.
Shopping for a graphic-design processor doesn’t need to be a hectic or expensive endeavor. Contrary to what most people think, you don’t need the crème de la crème of processor technology for graphic design. A well-specced Core i7 or Ryzen 7 chip is usually more than enough. Rather than go all-in with your Processor, you’re better off spending that money on a better RAM module or graphics card.
Frequently asked questions
Simple answer, no. Don’t go paying extra money for a CPU that supports overclocking if all you need is a PC that can run your graphic design apps. Leave that for the geeks.
If you’re new to this, overclocking is a process where you bring the best performance out of your PC by altering its operating voltage. Usually, this involves pushing it past its standard limits – overclocking it. CPUs normally come with an inbuilt throttler, much like how some cars come with a rev or speed limiter. This is done to protect the CPU, as going to the extremes can cause damage.
With overclocking, PC geeks tweak these limits while still keeping it within operational levels to pull out as much processing juice as possible. Not all CPUs support overclocking, and usually, those that can be overclocked cost more, which is why I said not to bother with it. If you get any of the CPUs I’ve recommended in this guide, you’ll have more than enough processing power to handle all your graphic design needs.