Best CPU for gaming

Best CPU for gaming

The best gaming CPU isn't necessarily the most expensive one, nor is it automatically the one that's packing the most cores or threads. The $1,049 Core i9 7900X might be the number-crunching übermensch (at least for now), but all the threads in the world won't amount to much in terms of gaming performance if you can't nail high-speed, single core throughput.

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That’s because gaming is still heavily 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 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.

We’ve already seen the green shoots of this revolution with AMD's Ryzen 5 range. The six-core, 12-thread Ryzen 5 1600X manages to keep up with the Intel K-series i5, but with three times the thread-count has got it beat in any procossor intensive game or app. Even when a game’s not CPU-bound, however, that higher core- and thread-count boosts the minimum frame rates, helping  to smooth out performance on the AMD CPUs.

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 - AMD Ryzen 5 1600X

AMD Ryzen 5 1600X

Cores: 6 | Threads: 12 | Base clock: 3.6GHz | Turbo: 4GHz | Socket: AM4

Approx. $230 / £218

They’ve only gone and done it. AMD have created a mid-range Ryzen that’s knocked the Intel K-series i5 off its throne as the go-to gaming processor. I genuinely didn’t think I’d see the day. But the Ryzen 5 1600X manages to deliver gaming performance which is at least on-par with the Core i5 chips and in modern, multi-threaded titles it’s actually capable of putting some distance between them.

The R5 1600X also makes the Ryzen 7 1800X look a little pointless for our gaming needs. The extra two cores of the much more expensive CPU don’t really offer anything else when it comes to gaming and with the multi-core chops it’s got the 1600X is a very capable productivity chip too.

For the most part, the competing i5 K-series chips will offer slightly higher average frame rates in standard game engines, but the massive difference in thread-count does give the AMD chip the edge when it comes to minimum and 99th percentile frame rates. With fluctuating prices, the Intel chips will sometimes be a slightly cheaper option, but when you consider the extra multi-threading performance sitting underneath that unassuming heatspreader the level of future-proofing the Ryzen 5 1600X can offer makes it very difficult to recommend the resolutely quad-core i5.

With the R5 1600X you’re getting three times the thread-count of Intel’s equivalently priced Core i5 7600K and, despite the fact you can stretch the Intel’s clockspeed well beyond that of the Ryzen chip, the core limitations of the Intel means it can’t pull that far ahead in gaming terms.

With the six-core, 12-thread Ryzen 5 1600X on the shelves at almost the same price the non-HyperThreaded quad-core really struggles to make a case for itself. Arguably, the real contest for the 1600X, though, is the non-X variant which retails for $210 (£202) and likely still retains similar overclocking potential. If you’re happy to tamper with the BIOS and run the cheaper chip with a light overclock, to the same levels as this ‘X’ CPU, and you could save yourself some cash.

Read the full AMD Ryzen 5 1600X review.

The best AMD Ryzen 5 1600X prices we've found today:

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Best CPU for gaming runner-up

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. $239 / £214

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 proved to be a more interesting slice of silicon and replaced the old Skylake i5 as our pick of the processors. And then AMD dropped the hexcore Ryzen 5...

The 7600K is still able to post higher gaming frame rates in general, but only really by a few frames per second on average. With three times the thread-count of the i5, though, the minimum gaming fps levels are generally higher with the AMD chip.

You can still overclock the i5 like a champ, and it games on current and legacy titles impressively, but with the prices being so close, and with much greater future-proofing on offer with a six-core, 12-thread CPU, the Ryzen 5 chip has taken the win.

Read the full Intel Core i5 7600K review.

The best Intel Core i5 7600K prices we've found today:

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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. $320 / £298 

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 one of the runners-up.

In terms of generational differences there's 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 also 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 - Intel Core i7 7820X

Intel Core i7 7820X

Cores: 8 | Threads: 16 | Base clock: 3.6GHz | Turbo: 4.3GHz | Socket: LGA 2066

Approx. $600 / £542

The current top-end X-series processor, the Intel Core i9 7900X, is the most powerful CPU on the market, but that doesn’t make it the best high-end processor for gaming. The octacore i7 7820X delivers the same high level frame rates because of its speedy Intel cores running at 4.3GHz, and comes in at almost half the cost of the Core i9.

If you just wanted eight cores, then there are cheaper Ryzen chips that will deliver the productivity chops, but, for gaming, Intel still has the higher performance. The only issue with going for this i7 instead of the i9 is that you are taking a massive hit on the number of PCIe lanes. The 7820X has 28 compared with the 7900X’s 44 lanes of PCIe 3.0 connections.

So, the new Skylake-X series of CPUs from Intel are the most advanced processors available today. But it’s the ‘today’ part that’s arguably the most important part of that sentence, because the CPU market is in such a state of flux right now that there are high-powered processors just over the horizon. There are two AMD Threadripper chips set to ride in with 12 and 16-cores a pair which will put serious pressure on Intel’s finest.

Right now, the Core i7 7820X would be our pick if you absolutely had to buy a new high-end CPU for gaming today, but honestly, this is not the time to be doing it.

The best Intel Core i7 7820X prices we’ve found today.

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Best high-end CPU for gaming runner-up

Best high-end CPU runner-up - AMD Ryzen 7 1700X

AMD Ryzen 7 1700X

Cores: 8 | Threads: 16 | Base clock: 3.4GHz | Turbo: 3.8GHz | Socket: AM4

Approx.  $330 / £322

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.

The best AMD Ryzen 7 1700X prices we've found today:

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Best high-end CPU for gaming runner-up

Best gaming CPU runner-up - AMD Ryzen 7 1700

AMD Ryzen 7 1700

Cores: 8 | Threads: 16 | Base clock: 3GHz | Turbo: 3.7GHz | Socket: AM4

Approx. $270 / £276

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.

The best AMD Ryzen 7 1700 prices we've found today:

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Best budget CPU for gaming

Best budget CPU for gaming - AMD Ryzen 3 1300X

AMD Ryzen 3 1300X

Cores: 4 | Threads: 4 | Base clock: 3.5GHz | Turbo: 3.7GHz | Socket: AM4

Approx: $129 / £125 

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 2017 work, AMD. The new Ryzen 3 1300X is easily the best budget gaming chip around today, packing four overclockable Zen cores into a dual-core price tag.

It knocks the Pentium down into second place by virtue of the fact that we can no longer, in all good conscience, recommend anyone buy a new dual-core CPU when you a genuine quad-core core is within reach. Admittedly, the G4560 is a bargain price, but the Ryzen 3 1200 is only a little over $100 and still sports four cores, albeit with a slower clockspeed. Though you can get freaky with the overclocking fun with the Ryzen chip, not something you can say for the Kaby Lake Pentium.

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

Best budget CPU - Intel Pentium G4560

Intel Pentium G4560

Cores: 2 | Threads: 4 | Base clock: 3.5GHz | Turbo: N/A | Socket: LGA 1151

Approx. $87 / £73 

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 irrelevantly 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.

The best Intel Pentium G4560 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 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. 

AMD processors

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 potentially being much cheaper) will raise the game if you need serious CPU power. The jury's out on which ones you should buy until we get them into our test rig, though. Most of Intel's Skylake-X chips have launched now and are in the process of being benchmarked to within an inch of their lives in our test rig right now. The Ryzen Threadripper release, however, is still being listed as a rather vague 'summer', but hopefully it won't be long before it joins the i9 processors on the high-end battlefield.

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.

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 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.

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. 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.

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0V3RKILL avatarStreetguru avatarEwok avatarDave James avatarelites2012 avatarsintheticreality avatar+7
0V3RKILL Avatar
293
10 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.

5
Ewok Avatar
7
9 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.

5
sintheticreality Avatar
109
6 Months ago

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

2
U take teethwash then take job Avatar
2

im in the same boat, I kinda pulled a weird move though. I bought a razer blade (late 2016, 1060gtx/6700hq.) and the core, slapped a 1080gtx FTW in it, and thought that I was going to slam my desktops performance to pieces. Well... I'm starting to wonder if I really did. UNFORTUNATELY, I can't think of a good way to test this.... any ideas?

2
Dave James Avatar
338
9 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...

1
Streetguru Avatar
10
9 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

1
Dave James Avatar
338
9 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.

1
Streetguru Avatar
10
9 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

1
elites2012 Avatar
2
8 Months 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?

1
Danteska Avatar
6
6 Months ago

Why FX 6300 over 6350 and over 8350?

1
Dave James Avatar
338
6 Months 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.

1
Tenshinai Avatar
2
5 Months ago

Written about the 6800K:

"and is arguably the best-value six-core CPU ever made"

Hardly, the AMD Thuban CPUs were awesome for its day, far beyond current Intel hexacores, and my friend is still running his 1090T, he has talked about upgrading for 2 years now, but because it keeps on being still "good enough", he´s now waiting for Ryzen before he decides. And that is despite his system being cheapskate to the point where he can no longer run with the turbo activated(both PSU and cooler was saved on heavily, against my strong advise not to, hehe).

1
Dave James Avatar
338
5 Months ago

I did say it was arguable ;)

But yeah, I loved the old 1090T! If AMD had kept on shrinking the Hammer architecture instead of shifting to the abortive Bulldozer designs they'd have a better shot at single-threaded performance. Still, roll on Ryzen, eh?

Anyways, back to the point, with the HyperThreading on the 6800K, and the quad-channel memory support, it delivers 12 threads of workstation performance for a great price. The 1090T was around $400 at launch too, so there's not a huge difference in that regard.

1
Tenshinai Avatar
2
5 Months ago

Oh, and BTW, you only talk about cores and threads in the article?

Some games totally adore having more or better cache, it´s the primary reason i went for a 4790K instead of 4690K, as Starcraft 2 get´s a noticeable improvement even when turning off hyperthreading and running those two at same clockrate.

1
Min64 Avatar
9
2 Months ago

I'm using a i3 6100 with a MSI GTX 1060 3gb for a budget system it basically plays anything i want at high or max settings at 1080p. Couldnt be happier.

1
team_pentium Avatar
5
2 Months ago

My specs:

• i5-6400 @ 3.2 GHz

• GTX 750

• Intel H110 Chipset

• 400W PSU

• and a lot of old crap hooked up with USB ports

1
Ransbear (Ranscat) Avatar
1
2 Months ago

I need to say that this list is mistaken in a few places. First, the 6800k is worse at gaming performance than ryzen 1600x, however intel 6700k is substantially better at gaming than the 1600x and i5 so the best high end gaming cpu should be the I7 6700k. Also the pentium G4560 achieves identical performance than the i3 for a much lower price.

In conclusion:

Best high end gaming cpu: I7 6700k

Best budget processor: Pentium G4560

Take into account this is considering gaming only, if you do video rendering, the 1600x is much better than the i7770k and 6800k.

1
Warlord Avatar
2
1 Month ago

At first, I wanted to disagree. Having done a little research, the G4560 is definitely within a few percentage points of the i3 at a lower price tag. Good call.

2