Best CPU for gaming

Best CPU for gaming

The best CPU for gaming is not automatically the most expensive one or the chip with the most threads. Many cores do not automatically make one great. The $1,700 Core i7 6950X might be the number-crunching übermensch, but all the threads in the world won't amount to much in-game if it can't nail high-speed, single core throughput.

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That’s because gaming is still very much reliant on single-threaded CPU power in terms of performance. Despite the dominance of quad core CPUs, or above, in today’s gaming rigs the difficulty of coding for multi-core processors has meant we’re not seeing many modern game engines taking full advantage of the powerful CPUs many of us have in our machines.

But that could be set to change with the new DirectX 12 API (and to a similar extent, Vulkan) offering a more streamlined method for delivering all that processing power into the hands of game developers. It’s been a long, slow march, but CPU power may soon become a vital component of gaming performance once more.

Intel have now launched their Kaby Lake desktop processors - admittedly with more a whimper than a bang - but their existence has still changed our pick of the best CPU for gaming. We've also got AMD's Ryzen processors arriving in our desktop gaming PCs very soon too. But the octo-core Ryzen chips are still a little way off and so these represent your best options for gaming processors right now.

We’ll not only tell you what the outright best gaming CPU is, we’ll also help you figure out exactly what sort of processor is best for you - click on the quick links below to jump to each specific section.

Best CPU for gaming

Best CPU for gaming - Intel Core i5 7600K

Intel Core i5 7600K

Cores: 4 | Threads: 4 | Base clock: 3.8GHz | Turbo: 4.2GHz | Socket: LGA 1151

Approx. $243 / £231

It was almost inevitable that when the new Kaby Lake range of processors released the K-series Core i5 would become our go-to gaming CPU. Though when we first saw the ultimately uninspiring Core i7 7700K I’ll admit my convictions wavered. But the i5 7600K has proved to be a more interesting slice of silicon and replaces the old Skylake i5 as our pick of the processors.

When it comes to the outright best processor for gaming it’s long been the i5 family which has bred the go-to CPUs for our rigs. Through many generations of Intel processor architecture the resolutely quad-core nature of the K-series i5 gives it the perfect mix of multi-threaded nous for simple productivity tasks, the raw speed to keep a high-end graphics cards busy in modern games and a decent price.

And with the higher out-of-the-box clockspeed of the Core i5 7600K, compared with its Skylake-powered older sibling, the new Kaby Lake chip is the easily the quickest i5 around. It’s also a mighty powerful overclocker too - I was able to hit a rock-solid 5.1GHz just using a standard closed-loop water cooler and some easy overclocking. That’s way beyond what I was able to get out of the Kaby Lake i7 chip. Sure, it gets hot running that fast, but means you can easily hit the same frequency as the 7700K without the i5 breaking a sweat. If you want to know how to overclock your own CPU check out our guide to the basics.

That means in the grand gaming scheme of things there is essentially no difference between the frame rates of the Core i7 and Core i5 despite there being a full $100+ between their respective price tags.

You might though look at the clockspeeds and core/thread count of AMD’s competing FX series of CPUs and conclude they would be a better bet for your gaming rig, but Intel CPUs allow you to get higher frame rates from your graphics card. And when it comes to gaming you’re always going to want your GPU to stretch its pixel pushing performance as far as it will go and right now that means going with an Intel processor.

That may change if AMD is able to get their Zen processors to properly compete at the top-end when the Ryzen CPUs launch this year. But right now the best gaming rigs are still sporting Intel chips and the best CPU for gaming is the Core i5 7600K.

Read the full Intel Core i5 7600K review.

Best CPU for gaming runner-up

Best CPU for gaming runner-up - Core i7 6700K

Intel Core i7 6700K

Cores: 4 | Threads: 8 | Base clock: 4GHz | Turbo: 4.2GHz | Socket: LGA 1151

Approx. $339 / £322 

While I’ve recommended the Kaby Lake i5 update to replace our previous Skylake pick for the overall best CPU for gaming I’m going to stick with the 6700K as the runner-up. There is practically nothing the Kaby Lake i7 7700K can offer that the 6700K can’t do. Sure, it has a higher clockspeed out-of-the-box, but it takes no time at all with some light CPU overclocking to get this Skylake chip running at the same speed, and it’s possible the 6700K might end up cheaper too. In gaming terms the extra four threads of processing power don’t add much to the mix compared with the i5, but if you’re into your game streaming and video editing it might well be worth going for the i7 step up if you can afford it.

The best Intel Core i7 6700K prices we've found today:

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Best high-end CPU for gaming

Best high-end CPU for gaming - Core i7 6800K

Intel Core i7 6800K

Cores: 6 | Threads: 12 | Base clock: 3.4GHz | Turbo: 3.8GHz | Socket: LGA 2011 v3

Approx. $415 / £414

Intel processors unquestionably have the top CPU silicon in them, but the full range is a bit of a convoluted mess at the moment. The 6th Generation Core architecture - the artist formerly known as Skylake - is their most advanced CPU design, but it's not the architecture used in their most powerful processors. Those are still running on the last-gen Broadwell-E silicon, with the updated Skylake-X successor and its X299 platform not pencilled in to arrive until late 2017.

But the high-end desktop (HEDT) market is the only place you’ll find Intel CPUs going beyond the mainstream’s quad-core stagnation. At the top is the ludicrously-priced, $1,700 Intel Core i7 6950X, their first ten-core, 20-thread consumer chip, but there are more relevant parts lower down that range. 

The Core i7 6800K is actuially only around $85 (£70) more expensive than the Core i7 6700K but comes with another two full Intel cores and four extra processing threads and is arguably the best-value six-core CPU ever made. It’s also got another 12 PCIe lanes available to the CPU itself - that means you can have both a high-speed PCIe SSD connected directly to the processor as well as a graphics card using the full bandwidth of a 16 lane PCIe 3.0 slot.

The 6800K comes with a weaker core clockspeed than either of the Skylake K-series chips, but because it too has an unlocked multiplier you can easily push it above 4GHz without too much effort at all. You also get the added memory bandwidth that quad-channel memory delivers too - so if you want your gaming rig to be a serious workstation machine as well as a gaming beast the 6800K is a great shout.

Read the full Intel Core i7 6800K review.

The best Intel Core i7 6800K prices we've found today:

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Best high-end CPU for gaming runner-up

Best high-end CPU for gaming runner-up - Core i7 6850K

Intel Core i7 6850K

Cores: 6 | Threads: 12 | Base clock: 3.6GHz | Turbo: 4GHz | Socket: LGA 2011 v3

Approx. $580 / £578

There are four processors in the Broadwell-E line-up with the 6800K sitting at the bottom of the stack offering the best mix of value and multi-threaded performance. If you want to look a little further upwards the similarly six-core i7 6850K comes with a slightly higher base clockspeed and a 3.8GHz Turbo speed, but it’s the extra PCIe lanes that make it relevant in gaming terms. With the full 40 lanes of CPU-attached PCIe 3.0 connections the 6850K will allow you to run a dual-GPU system with the full bandwidth of a pair of x16 PCIe 3.0 slots and still have capacity left over for a couple of PCIe-based SSDs too.

The best Intel Core i7 6850K prices we've found today:

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Best budget CPU for gaming

Best budget CPU for gaming - Core i3 6100

Intel Core i3 6100

Cores: 2 | Threads: 4 | Base clock: 3.7GHz | Turbo: N/A | Socket: LGA 1151

Approx. $117 / £107

It’s probably not much of a surprise to see that Intel are able to take a clean sweep of the processor prizes with their latest Skylake CPU architecture. It’s powerful, efficient and modern - AMD’s competing FX chips are getting incredibly long in the tooth and I struggle to recommend anyone start a fresh build using outdated AMD kit. 

The Core i3 6100 is a dual-core processor, but it comes with HyperThreading enabled to give it four threads of processing power. That’s not going to suddenly put it on par with the superior i5 6600K, but it’s not far off especially considering it’s around half the price. The i3 range of CPUs, however, don’t come with Turbo mode turned on, nor do they come with unlocked multipliers either. Does that mean the 3.7GHz baseclock is your lot?

Well, no. If you pair the i3 with Intel’s top chipset, currently the Z170, you will still have access to some baseclock tweaks with select motherboard vendors. That means you can bump up the initial clockspeed above 4GHz with relative ease. Coupled with access to higher memory speeds with the top chipset (something which can help in CPU-limited scenarios) it means you’d ideally want to pair the i3 6100 with a low-end Z170 if possible.

Unfortunately that does mean you’re adding considerably to the build costs, but does give you a great little platform from which to iterate upon. Dropping an i5 or i7 into the mix later on down the line will keep your rig relevant for a good length of time.

Something interesting is happening with the Kaby Lake range of CPUs though - Intel are going to offer their first K-series i3 processor. The Intel Core i3 7350K is set to offer high clockspeeds, with the potential for hitting a 5GHz overclock with its two core / four thread design. The issue is that it butts up against low-end Core i5 chips in terms of pricing, so it's going to be interesting to see how it fares in-game. Still the Kaby Lake K-series i3 may be the budget hero of the next generation... if AMD's quad-core Zen chips don't have something to say about it anyways.

The best Intel Core i3 6100 prices we've found today:

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Best budget CPU for gaming runner-up

Best budget CPU for gaming runner-up - AMD FX 6300 Black Edition

AMD FX 6300 Black Edition

Cores: 6 | Threads: 6 | Base clock: 3.5GHz | Turbo: 4.1GHz | Socket: AMD AM3+

Approx. $81 / £87

The six-core AMD FX 6300 was my favourite budget CPU for the longest time. It’s got a great line in multi-threaded performance for such a cheap chip and you can seriously crank its clocks to produce breakneck frequency speeds. I’ve hit a solid 5GHz on my sample with some basic voltage tweaking and decent cooling. That makes it impressively competitive with the Intel i3, but it’s the dead-end platform which is now holding it back. The AM3+ base is still running on DDR3 and the you’re rather limited in upgrade terms too - spending big on an eight-core FX processor makes little sense with the AM4 platform and Zen CPUs not far away now.

The best AMD FX 6300 prices we've found today:

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How to buy a processor

How to buy a processor

While picking the right graphics card is probably the most important choice for any gaming rig, selecting the right CPU for gaming can arguably have a greater impact on your system as a whole. By choosing a particular processor you are locking yourself into a specific company’s ecosystem and upgrade path, and you’re inevitably limited as to what motherboard chipsets are available to you too.

The price you’re willing to pay is still going to be the single biggest factor in picking your processor - pricing can jump quickly from one chip to the next. This isn’t like the GPU world where there's probably a graphics card available for whatever spare change you’ve got in your wallet at any given time; because there are only two companies making x86 processors to go into our gaming rigs there are few real options available at each price point.

The GPU will be where you want to spend the largest part of your rig budget, but it doesn’t pay to completely unbalance your machine. A cheap, quad-core AMD CPU isn’t going to let you get the most out of your GTX 1080; your two key components need to be better matched than that. Of course if you’re Billy Big Budget then you can happily drop over three grand on an i7 6950X with a new Titan X to keep it company, but if money’s a little tighter than that you need to play it a little smarter. 

AMD processors

Intel processor or AMD processor?

AMD and Intel took different paths with the processor designs. Intel carried on resolutely working to get the most single-threaded performance it could out of one core while AMD bet the house on multi-threaded performance being the key to the future.

AMD lost. Particularly in gaming, where it’s still mostly a question of how much raw performance you can get out of your primary CPU core and on that count AMD’s processor design is lacking compared with Intel’s Core architecture. So for a serious gaming PC right now it’s Intel or nothing.

AMD did use to be the go-to guys for budget CPUs, though since they’ve left their FX range of processors twisting in the wind for years without any meaningful update they’re looking increasingly irrelevant. You can still build a well-priced machine with an AMD processor, but the dead-end AM3+ platform gives your PC no room to grow and you’re hobbling the performance of your GPU by hitching it to the AMD carthorse.

With the touted performance of AMD’s new Zen architecture, plugging the first Ryzen chips into the new, advanced AM4 platform, we could be on the cusp of a new era of competition in the CPU arena, however. Details about AMD's new AM4 chipsets have been doing the rounds recently, with the promise of a specific line of AM4 chipsets designed for small form factor motherboards too.

10 core Intel processor

More cores = more performance

How many cores do you need for a gaming machine? Realistically you can make do with a dual-core CPU so long as it’s HyperThreaded to offer four threads of processing power. But beyond four threads the returns quickly diminish, and in fact the difference between the Core i7 and Core i5 Skylake is utterly negligible. 

If you make the step beyond four physical cores though you will start to see a performance increase - the deca-core 6950X is able to offer incredible levels of gaming performance so long as you’ve got a powerful GPU strapped to it. That’s a crazily-priced CPU, however, but the six-core 6800K is only another $100 (£100) on top of the 6700K and can deliver genuinely tangible performance improvements.

That should only increase too as the promise of DirectX 12 and its core optimisations start to bear fruit. We’re still a little way away from celebrating proper multi-threading support in games, but thread count could become an important factor for gaming of the future.

The best chipset for your CPU

Overclocking and upgrading

To get the most out of your graphics card you need a good CPU, but to get the most out of that you need a decent motherboard. And your choice of motherboard holds the key to both what you’ll be able to do to push your processor to its limits and to your PC’s future upgrade path. And maybe you might even appreciate a little advice from your favourite hardware prodders on how to overclock...

Intel offer multiple chipsets which offer compatibility for different processors. For Skylake there’s the top-end Z170 chipset, followed by the more-mainstream H170 and H110 chipsets. If you’ve no interest in overclocking, or high-speed memory, then the H-series motherboards will be fine, but if you want to squeeze a little extra out of your CPU then the Z170 is the go-to platform for you Intel processor. It's the exact same situation with Kaby Lake's 200-series boards too.

Not only will the Z170 or Z270 boards get you the highest overclock from a K-series processor, but they will also give you a better chance of accessing baseclock overclocking for the locked down CPUs like the Core i3 6100.

There is a new line of 200-series Intel chipsets to accompany the Kaby Lake refresh which happened at the start of this year, but they're only really bringing support for the new Intel CPU line rather than anything particularly different in motherboard terms, a few extra PCIe lanes aside.

On the AMD side you’ve either got the AM3+ socket and 990FX or 970 chipsets, or the FM2+ socket. All three are essentially dead-ends with AMD moving onto unleash the unified AM4 socket this year. The new socket, with either X370, B350 or A320 chipsets, will be compatible with either AMD’s CPUs or APUs going forward, offering a potentially lengthy upgrade path when they finally launch. And AMD have also stated that all AM4 CPUs will sport unlocked multipliers for extended overclocking, even on the lower-end Zen processors.


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0V3RKILL avatarStreetguru avatarEwok avatarDave James avatarelites2012 avatarsintheticreality avatar+1
0V3RKILL Avatar
4 Months ago

all AMD system here with an 8350 clocked at 4.5GHz, 16GB at 1600Hz on a MSI 970 Mobo with a 290x MSI twinfrozer clocked at 1040Hz. I happily play everything I've purchased at maxed in 1080p, exept GTA5. There I only have grass in high & reflection sharpening on 0X. I play Deus Ex at max with 40fps. Never goes lower than 35fps. Waiting for Zen at the moment. Got my money's worth out of this system I got to be honest.

Ewok Avatar
2 Months ago

5 years on and I'm still not feeling the need to upgrade from my 2500k. Still playing new releases 1080p on Ultra without a hiccup at stock settings - with plenty of overclocking potential if I ever need to.

Dave James Avatar
2 Months ago

It's interesting how long-lived Intel's CPUs have been using the Core architecture. If AMD had been more competitive over the last five years, or if game engines took advantage of faster CPUs, would their processor performance have stagnated so much?

My office machine has an old Ivy Bridge chip and have no need to upgrade it. Though there is a Skylake in the test rig for up to date benchmarking purposes...

sintheticreality Avatar
2 Weeks ago

I've had a 2500K for 4 years and unless Ryzen benchmarks are amazing and cost-effective, I'm not bothering to upgrade.

Streetguru Avatar
2 Months ago

Don't go AM3+ if you aren't getting an 8 core CPU, in addition you forgot about how the i7 6700 lets you get a more budget motherboard compared to an overclocking i5 + Z170 board

Dave James Avatar
2 Months ago

Personally I'd say just don't go AM3+ if you're buying fresh at all. It's a dead-end with new AMD chips coming in a few months.

And you're right about the budget boards; it's why I recommended the H170 as a decent option for those not looking to overclock their processors or needing high-performance memory.

Streetguru Avatar
2 Months ago

AM4 is taking far too long, but I think as far as new parts go an FX 8300 + ASrock 970A board that has USB 3.1 is pretty cheap for pure multi-threaded performance, or it's alright for certain kinds of servers

elites2012 Avatar
1 Month ago

intel R & D along with their convincing payouts, have lot more than AMD has. whats the point of a multi core cpu, when all you do is boost a single core to do all the work. why not go back to a single core and clock it to 5ghz or higher?

Danteska Avatar
2 Weeks ago

Why FX 6300 over 6350 and over 8350?

Dave James Avatar
2 Weeks ago

In terms of a budget CPU option the FX 6300 is a fair chunk cheaper than either the 6350 or 8350, and still offers a similar level of performance. The FX 6300 can also overclock like a hero if you want to squeeze some more performance out of it.