The new AMD Ryzen 2 processors are here and once more the red team is shaking up our list of the best CPUs for gaming. The Intel Coffee Lake chips have got some serious competition, and it's not looking good for them.
Gaming is still heavily reliant on single-threaded CPU power in terms of raw performance, but you can't just get a couple of speedy cores and hope they'll keep your graphics card fully fed.
Still, 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 still 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 an increased number of dedicated DirectX 12 (and to a similar extent, Vulkan) games offering a more streamlined method for delivering all that processing power into the hands of gamers. It’s been a long, slow march, but processor power may soon become a vital component of gaming performance once more. Though I have been saying that for the last ten years...
We’ve already seen the green shoots of this revolution, however, with AMD's Ryzen 5 range and the Intel Coffee Lake CPUs delivering their first mainstream six-core processors.
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AMD Ryzen 5 2600X
Cores: 6 | Threads: 12 | Base clock: 3.6GHz | Turbo: 4.2GHz | Socket: AM4
It’s almost a straight toss-up between the new Ryzen 6 2600X and the older Core i5 8400 for the crown of the best CPU for gaming at the moment. With the AMD chip coming hot of the silicon press it’s retailing for around its MSRP, which makes it a good deal more expensive than its Intel rival.
And that Intel rival has a slight edge in gaming performance, so if we’re talking in the strictest ‘best CPU for gaming’ terms then we’d have to give it to the 8400. But the overall package, and the fact the AM4 platform is here to last, means that price is really the only relevant factor in choosing the Intel chip. And that’s a big switcharound from previous AMD vs. Intel debates.
The 2600X has double the thread-count, which makes it a genuinely impressive computational chip, as fast as the far more expensive i7 8700K. And though we are talking about the 8400 being quicker in gaming frame rates it’s only ever by a few frames per second on average. And that’s at 1080p; push the resolution up to a more GPU-intensive 1440p or 4K and the difference becomes essentially zero.
So it does just comes down to price. If you want the CPU that gives you a heady mix of future-proofing, processing power, and genuinely competitive gaming performance then the 2600X is the new go-to chip. If you can accept that you will need to change your motherboard platform for your next CPU upgrade, and that $50 price difference makes a real difference to your build, then the 8400 will suit your needs.
Just don’t expect the same sort of all-round processing chops as you’ll get with the mighty 2600X.
Read the full AMD Ryzen 5 2600X review.
Best CPU for gaming runner-up
Intel Core i5 8400
Cores: 6 | Threads: 6 | Base clock: 2.8GHz | Turbo: 4GHz | Socket: LGA 1151 v2
I’ve been struggling with which chip to pick from the i5 8400 and the new Ryzen 5 2600X as to the best CPU for gaming. While the cheaper 8400 does have marginally better gaming performance I’d struggle to really recommend it as an overall package. The new mainstream chipsets, the H370 and B360, mean that the non K-series Coffee Lake SKUs have a more affordable platform, but how long they’re going to last is anyone’s guess.
Intel have a habit of nixxing backwards compatibility for their new Core CPUs, while AMD have confirmed that your AM4 motherboard of today will be compatible with all their Zen based mainstream processors up to 2020.
But the 8400 is a lot cheaper right now, given the fact the 2600X has just launched. And that makes it a very tempting prospect if you’re seriously limited on price. But price is really the only reason you’d pick the 8400 over the 2600X - the future-proofing, multi-threaded performance, and near-as-dammit gaming performance, means the Ryzen 2 CPU is the better overall CPU.
Read the full Intel Core i5 8400 review.
Best CPU for gaming runner-up
AMD Ryzen 5 1600X
Cores: 6 | Threads: 12 | Base clock: 3.6GHz | Turbo: 4GHz | Socket: AM4
The 1600X was a fantastic processor when it first launched. It was a symbol that AMD could actually make genuinely competitive gaming CPUs and not just from a straight cost perspective.
But the 2600X is here now and is making it tough to recommend picking this first-gen Ryzen over the new Ryzen 2 CPU. Well, it would be if the 1600X wasn’t available for a great price right now. In the US it’s still some $200, but in the UK it’s a snip at under £150. That makes it cheaper than the 8400 with almost the same level of gaming prowess.
If you do anything else with your PC as well as gaming - the sort of productivity shizzle which demands multi-threaded CPU performance - then the old-school Ryzen, with twice as many active threads as even the K-series Intel competition, is the better bet and more affordable than the Coffee Lake options.
Read the full AMD Ryzen 5 1600X review.
Best CPU for gaming runner-up
Intel Core i5 8600K
Cores: 6 | Threads: 6 | Base clock: 3.6GHz | Turbo: 4.3GHz | Socket: LGA 1151 v2
This is a bit of a surprise if I’m honest. I genuinely thought that, after what happened with previous Intel generations, the K-series Core i5 would be the new go-to gaming CPU. But because the Core i5 8400 is just so damned good when it comes to pure gaming performance, there’s almost no need to spend the extra on the Core i5 8600K.
Where the 8600K does have relevance is because of its overclocking chops. Running at a comfortable, stable 5.1GHz the Coffee Lake chip is capable of delivering the same level of multi-threaded CPU performance as the competing 12-thread Ryzen 5. To be honest, that seems to have been this processor’s raison d'être - beat Ryzen at all costs.
But it’s more expensive than the 1600X, and you’re stuck with having to go for the pricey Z370 platform to get that overclocking speed. Well, and because you can’t buy the budget 300-series motherboards yet.
Read the full Intel Core i5 8600K review.
AMD Ryzen 7 2700X
Cores: 8 | Threads: 16 | Base clock: 3.7GHz | Turbo: 4.3GHz | Socket: AM4
If you’re after a mix of great multi-threaded computational chops and gaming performance then look no further than the new 2700X. It’s a great-value Ryzen 2 CPU that’s the top-chip in the new range, and yet costs way less than the 1800X did when it first launched. It’s even cheaper than the 1700X it’s nominally replacing.
But it can outperform them both thanks to higher clock speeds and a processing management engine that’s better at giving you that power when you need it. No longer are you limited to the base frequency as soon as you start using more than a single core, now it will top 4GHz even when all eight cores are at 100% load.
That makes it a great chip in productivity terms and a CPU with gaming performance that is practically indistinguishable from the Intel competition.
These second-gen Ryzen chips prove that AMD have been listening, and the fact that they’ve managed to whisk out the lumps in the Ryzen batter (mmm, pancakes…) and get it to market in a little over a year is mighty impressive. It’s not just the 12nm chips which are lithe, the whole CPU side of the business seems to be too. They’ve been smart too holding back the inevitable Ryzen 7 2800X to combat whatever Intel can muster in response.
Read the full AMD Ryzen 7 2700X review.
Best high-end CPU for gaming runner-up
Intel Core i7 8700K
Cores: 6 | Threads: 12 | Base clock: 3.7GHz | Turbo: 4.7GHz | Socket: LGA 1151 v2
The Coffee Lake K-series i7 is a cannibal. Not only has it eaten the Kaby Lake i7 whole, it’s also gone to town on both the hexcore i7 7800X and both the unashamedly irrelevant Kaby Lake-X parts. And those last three were only around for a matter of months before they were swallowed whole. Brutal. But that’s what had to happen for Intel to get Coffee Lake out early and in the sort of shape that would give it a chance against AMD’s Ryzen.
But with the second generation of the Ryzen CPUs having now launched the 12-threaded 8700K doesn’t have the same gloss it once did. The 2700X has arrived with essentially the same level of gaming performance and way more computational power. And it’s turned up for a good chunk cheaper too. Factor in the need to purchase a separate cooler with the 8700K and you’re looking at the 2700X being around $70 less expensive.
It does have the slightest of leads in gaming frame rates, but only by a couple of frames per second on average. In short, an invisible lead.
Read the full Intel Core i7 8700K review.
Best high-end CPU for gaming runner-up
AMD Ryzen 7 1700X
Cores: 8 | Threads: 16 | Base clock: 3.4GHz | Turbo: 3.8GHz | Socket: AM4
If you're not comfortable with running your brand new processor overclocked out of the box then the Ryzen 7 1700X is possibly a better option for you rather than the cheaper Ryzen 7 1700. And chances are you're looking at the Ryzen processors because you're after their high core and thread counts for productivity tasks over and above gaming performance.
For general rendering and encoding you're going to want your chip to be as stable as possible and still run at a high clockspeed. The R7 1700 is a great choice if you're willing to overclock, but the safer option is this 'X' suffixed version of AMD's octa-core range.
In terms of gaming performance, you are leaving some of your GPU's potential frame rate in the box when pairing it with an AMD processor, at least you are for the time being. But with the multi-threaded performance on offer, at this price, if you're interested in using your PC for anything outside gaming this Ryzen is a great option.
Read the full AMD Ryzen 7 1700X review.
Best high-end CPU for gaming runner-up
AMD Ryzen 7 1700
Cores: 8 | Threads: 16 | Base clock: 3GHz | Turbo: 3.7GHz | Socket: AM4
If you are happy with carrying out a little light overclocking on your new processor then the Ryzen 7 1700 is a great choice with a heady mix of fantastic eight-core pricing and still impressive number-crunching chops. At roughly the same price as Intel's quad-core i7 7700K the 1700 will be a rather tantalising prospect for anyone that isn't primarily going to be gaming on their PC.
By pushing the somewhat miserly stock clocks up to the same levels as the other Ryzen 7 chips you can get pretty much the same overall performance out of the 1700 for a lot less cash. It's still not a dedicated gaming chip, but it's got the multi-threaded performance that might make those lower frame rates more palatable .
Read the full AMD Ryzen 7 1700 review.
AMD Ryzen 3 2200G
Cores: 4 | Threads: 4 | Base clock: 3.5GHz | Max boost: 3.7GHz | Socket: AM4
AMD have begun retiring the Ryzen 1000-series processors even before the April release of the Ryzen 2 CPUs. The new AMD Raven Ridge APUs are replacing both the Ryzen 5 1400 and the Ryzen 3 1200 in the red team's processor stack, but this bargain 2200G APU actually also pretty much puts the Ryzen 3 1300X out of a job.
That ol' Ryzen 3 used to be our favourite budget gaming chip, but the mix of serious quad-core CPU performance with the addition of surprisingly effective Vega GPU silicon make the this APU a winner whether you're plumbing a graphics card into your rig or not.
As the basis for a little budget gaming rig the 2200G can deliver decent 720p gaming performance, if you're not too ambitious about the game settings, that is. The Ryzen 5 2400G does have more about it on that front, but it is a good chunk more expensive and the performance difference can largely be made up by overclocking the internal GPU.
Because AMD have also managed to jam in a full quad-core Ryzen CPU into the package too it performs admirably when you plumb in a discrete GPU too. It loses a little against the 1300X on straight CPU performance, potentially because it's got half the L3 cache, but in gaming terms it's as close as makes no difference. And the low-end Raven Ridge is also a little cheaper too. Bargain.
Check out our full AMD Ryzen 3 2200G review.
Best budget CPU for gaming runner-up
AMD Ryzen 3 1300X
Cores: 4 | Threads: 4 | Base clock: 3.5GHz | Turbo: 3.7GHz | Socket: AM4
I love budget kit. No, scratch that, I love budget kit that turns up offering the same sort of performance you would normally have to pay through the nose for. Loving your work, AMD. The new Ryzen 3 1300X was the best budget gaming chip around when it, packing four overclockable Zen cores into a dual-core price tag. And has only just been overtaken by the cheaper Ryzen 3 2200G.
The Ryzen 3 platform is excellent too. When you can pick up the overclockable 1300X and a powerful B350 motherboard, for the same price as a multiplier-locked Core i5 on its own, it becomes mighty hard to make a case for Intel. That pricing means you can build yourself a GTX 1060-powered Ryzen 3 gaming rig for the same price as you’d pay for a locked down Core i5 rig with just a GTX 1050 Ti. And you know which one’s going to be winning the benchmarking battle there, right?
The freakiest thing about all this is that if AMD manage to nail the Ryzen Threadripper release they could end up with a clean sweep of our best CPU picks. With the Ryzen 5 1600X taking the overall top spot, and the Ryzen 3 1300X nailing the budget market, a well-placed, 12-core 1920X could take over the high-end gaming CPU slot too. That would be a marked change from the start of the year where it was Intel or nothing.
Read the full AMD Ryzen 3 1300X review.
Best budget CPU for gaming runner-up
Intel Pentium G4560
Cores: 2 | Threads: 4 | Base clock: 3.5GHz | Turbo: N/A | Socket: LGA 1151
The Pentium G4560 is a decent budget CPU, offering Intel's 14nm Kaby Lake architecture for a sub-$100 price point, without too much of a performance difference between it and the still too-expensive Core i3 7350K.
It doesn't have any overclocking potential and no Turbo clockspeed to boost that miserly 3.5GHz stock frequency, but it has Intel's Core architecture which will help get the most out of your GPU. The issue is that it's a dual-core CPU. It does have HyperThreading enabled, which is a definite bonus in this budget arena, but it's still at the bottom end of acceptable. In fact, with the two new Ryzen 3 CPUs arriving, buying a new dual-core CPU is arguably not acceptable if you hope to be able to keep using that chip a year or two down the line.
What it does have is an upgrade path for your platform, however. It uses the LGA 1151 socket, so with a suitable motherboard, such as an H270, you'll be able to drop a speedier i5, or even i7, processor into your board later on down the line.
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 just shy of three grand on an i7 6950X with a new Titan Xp to keep it company, but if money’s a little tighter than that you need to play it a little smarter.
Intel processor or AMD processor?
AMD and Intel took different paths with 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 had been lacking compared with Intel’s Core architecture, meaning it was an Intel Core chip for gaming or nothing.
AMD had been 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 going to be hobbling the performance of your GPU by hitching it to the last-gen AMD carthorse.
The new Ryzen CPUs have launched at the high-end, offering eight-core, 16-thread chips with insane multi-threaded performance for the money, but still pretty limited single-core – and therefore gaming – performance. That's thanks to their still off-the-pace IPC levels compared with Intel. We're hoping that further optimisations might be able to close the gap and give AMD's Ryzen chips a bit of a gaming boost.
Of course, if you've got the money for it, Intel's Core i9 CPU range (topping out at a frankly ridiculous 18 cores) and AMD's Ryzen Threadripper chips (coming in at 16 cores at the high end, but much cheaper) will raise the game if you need serious CPU power. Ryzen Threadripper offers outstanding performance for the price, but Intel tend to have AMD beat on single-threaded performance.
The prices for both red and blue team high-end silicon are (as expected) looking pretty nerve-wracking, so the normies among us will be looking to the cheaper CPUs for some time longer.
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 a little more expensive than either the 7700K or 6700K and can deliver genuinely tangible performance improvements.
But that's where AMD's Ryzen 5 1600X shows its true promise, however. It's priced in the same ballpark as Intel's resolutely quad-core Core i5 chips, but the Ryzen CPU is able to offer three times the thread-count thanks to its simultaneous multi-threading (SMT), and that can make a big difference most especially to the minimum frame rates.
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.
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. You might 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 Z270 chipset, followed by the more-mainstream H270 chipset. 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 Z270 is the go-to platform for your Intel processor.
Not only will the Z170 or Z270 boards get you the highest overclock from a K-series processor, they will also give you a better chance of accessing baseclock overclocking for the locked down CPUs like the Core i3 6100.
There is the current 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, the latest AM4 motherboards offer overclocking support in their X370, small form factor X300, and mainstream B350 chipsets. Ryzen also has a dedicated AMD application to help smooth out the rough edges of overclocking from the comfort of Windows. No more getting elbow deep into the BIOS then? Well, I think you'll still get better results getting familiar with the blocky text of your motherboard's BIOS, but so far the overclocking performance of Ryzen has been rather limited.
AMD made a lot of noise about the future-proofing of their AM4 boards. AMD have said that Ryzen is a four year architecture so that socket will cater for all their CPU refreshes for at least that long. And we're not just talking about straight processors either – AMD have unified their motherboard platforms so that both their CPUs and upcoming Zen-based APUs will operate using the same socket and chipsets. So it probably makes sense to spend a healthy chunk of cash on your AM4 motherboard as it's likely to be around for a while – according to AMD, at least. They are, however, introducing a new high-end socket for their upcoming Threadripper CPUs.