The best CPU for gaming is the processor which offers the heady combination of powerful single-threaded performance, some tasty multi-threaded processing chops, and a price tag that doesn’t instantly nuke your bank balance.
Despite the dominance of multi-core CPUs in today’s gaming rigs, the difficulty in coding for chips with multiple processor cores has meant we’re still not seeing many modern game engines taking full advantage of the powerful CPUs many of us now have in our machines. In fact, since AMD has decided to take the fight to Intel in terms of core-count, even six cores is becoming more and more common.
But games are slow to catch up with our tech-harvesting ways. We had hoped with the rise in DirectX 12 games, and AMD’s promise of burgeoning Vulkan API support from developers, that the CPU would become more and more important for good gaming performance. That hasn’t come to pass, and the GPU is still the most important component of your gaming rig. But that doesn’t mean any old processor will do – you still need a quality chip to get the most out of your graphics card.
AMD has usurped the top spot for the best CPU for gaming with its Ryzen 2 processors, but it still has fierce competition from Intel’s Coffee Lake chips. At least until AMD’s Ryzen 3000 processors turn up on the scene…
The best CPUs for gaming are:
Winner: Best CPU for gaming
Ryzen 5 2600
A fantastic combination of gaming power, genuine processing chops, and serious value.
- Clock speed3.4GHz | 3.9GHz
Decent single core performance…
…with genuine multi-threading pace
You need to overclock to match 2600X
The AMD Ryzen 5 2600 isn’t just a great gaming CPU with serious multi-threading chops, it’s also an incredibly good-value chip, too. We had originally pegged the 2600X as the go-to gaming chip due to its high-end performance, but struggled a little with how much more expensive it was compared with the Core i5 8400.
The 8400 still retains a slight gaming performance lead, but the fact the Ryzen 5 2600 costs considerably less than the rival Intel chip means that there’s only going to be one winner in this battle for the title of best CPU for gaming. With a little judicious overclocking, at a level which isn’t going to put any undue strain on your silicon, you can get the same level of performance as the 2600X. That puts it only a few fps lower than the Core i5, but with a huge amount more multi-threading capacity for way less cash.
Read our full AMD Ryzen 5 2600 review.
RYZEN 5 2600X
For a little more than the price of the straight 2600 the 'X' chip delivers a slightly higher Turbo clock.
- Clock speeds3.6GHz | 4.2GHz
Great computational performance
Decent high-end gaming prowess
Cheaper than Intel options
Not much quicker than the 2600
The 2600X has double the thread count of its closest Intel rival, the Core i5 8400, 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.
But it’s the straight 2600 CPU from AMD that gets the best CPU for gaming crown, pushing the X-series variant down into second place. It’s a cheaper chip that just needs a very small amount of overclocking effort to get running at the same speed. If you know you’ll never bother, and have the spare cash, go for the 2600X, but everyone else would be better off with the non-X Ryzen 5 2600.
Read our full AMD Ryzen 5 2600X review.
Our favourite Coffee Lake CPU offers six Intel cores and an impressively low price tag.
- Clock speed2.8GHz | 4GHz
- SocketLGA 1151 v2
Six Intel cores
Great gaming frame rates
Much more expensive than AMD’s 2600
No HyperThreading weakens compute power
I’ve been struggling with which chip to pick from the i5 8400 and the new Ryzen 5 processors as to the best CPU for gaming. While the 8400 does have marginally better gaming performance I’d struggle to really recommend it as an overall package. The mainstream H370 and B360 chipsets mean the non K-series Coffee Lake SKUs have an affordable platform, but the 14nm production issues mean the CPUs are still more expensive than AMD’s competing Ryzen.
When the 8400 was cheaper it was a tempting option, thanks to its traditional Intel gaming performance lead, but as it is you’re paying more for less CPU power. And that could hobble your rig going forward.The future-proofing, multi-threaded chops, and near-as-dammit gaming performance, means the Ryzen 2 CPU is the better overall CPU.
Read our full Intel Core i5 8400 review.
The 9600K is still a good chip, but the quality of the 8400 and second-gen Ryzens make it a tough sell.
- Clock speed3.7GHz | 4.6GHz
- SocketLGA 1151 v2
Classic Intel gaming performance
Comparatively high price
Lacks compute power against 12-thread Ryzen
I genuinely thought that, after what happened with previous Intel generations, the K-series Core i5 would be the go-to chip for the best CPU crown. But because the Ryzen 5 2600 has the multithreaded chops, and 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 9600K.
Where the 9600K does have relevance is its overclocking skills. The Coffee Lake chip is capable of delivering the same level of multi-threaded CPU performance as the competing 12-thread Ryzen 5 with a stable and modest overclock. To be honest, that seems to have been this processor’s raison d’être – beating Ryzen at all costs, but you need a high-end Z370 or Z390 board to get there.
Winner: Best high-end CPU for gaming
A superfast, but super-expensive CPU. But if it's a money-no-object gaming chip you're after, this is it.
- Clock speed3.6GHz | 5GHz
- SocketLGA 1151 v2
The fastest gaming processor around
Perfect CPU for RTX 2080 Ti
Hard to find at its already high MSRP
In most games an AMD 2700X is as capable
The Intel Core i9 9900K is the world’s fastest gaming CPU, but its painfully high price tag means it doesn’t get our nod as the outright best CPU for gaming. But if money really isn’t a thing for you then the octa-core from Intel is the best processor to pair with your high-end graphics card. But it’s inevitably in short supply right now, meaning prices are utterly prohibitive.
When it comes to GPU-bound games, which are the majority of titles, even with a proper high-end graphics card there isn’t a huge amount of difference between the in-game performance of Intel’s top chip and AMD’s best octa-core CPU, the 2700X, especially at 4K. It is a great chip from a technical and performance point of view, but as a value proposition – especially in the face of fierce competition from AMD – it’s a bit of a tough one to recommend.
Read our full Intel Core i9 9900K review.
Ryzen 7 2700K
16 threads of processing power, a gaming performance boost, and a stellar price point. A top chip, indeed.
- Clock speed3.7GHz | 4.3GHz
Serious multi-threaded performance
Great value for a 16-thread CPU
Comparable gaming frame rates
Limited overclocking potential
If you’re after a mix of great multi-threaded computational chops, decent gaming performance, and great value then look no further than the new 2700X. It’s a well-priced Ryzen CPU that’s the top-chip in the latest range, and yet costs way less than the 1800X did when it first launched. Importantly it’s also considerably cheaper than either Intel’s 8700K or eight-core i9 9900K.
But it’s still got gaming performance that’s comparable with Intel’s top chips when you’re gaming at 1440p or 4K. That makes it a great chip in productivity terms and a CPU with gaming performance that is practically indistinguishable from the Intel competition in any GPU-bound game.
Read our full AMD Ryzen 7 2700X review.
The Coffee Lake CPU is a bit of a beast, but lacking the thread count of the top Ryzen it falls just behind.
- Clock speed3.7GHz | 4.7GHz
- SocketLGA 1151 v2
Higher gaming frame rates than Ryzen
Extra overclocking potential
Much more expensive than AMD’s octa-core
Gaming lead evaporates at 1440p or 4K
Intel’s top first-gen Coffee Lake K-series is still a quality gaming processor, offering high-end frame rate performance and decent multi-threaded power for computational tasks. It has now been superseded by Intel’s new 9th Gen CPUs, but whichever is cheapest will do just fine.
The issue for the 8700K, however, is that the second-gen AMD Ryzen 7 processors offer another two cores and four threads of computational power, and gaming frame rates that are right up there when you game at the higher resolutions. Combine that with its own relatively high price and it’s tough to see beyond the AMD CPUs.
Read our full Intel Core i7 8700K review.
RYZEN 7 1700X
It doesn't have the improved gaming support of the 2nd Gen Ryzen chips, but it's a great price for 16 threads.
- Clock speed3.4GHz | 3.8GHz
Great price for an octa-core CPU
High-end multi-threading power
Affordable AM4 platform
First-gen Ryzen gaming weakness
At this price the first-gen Ryzen 1700X is a great shout as a CPU if you weight the computational power of your rig slightly above its gaming performance. That’s not to say it’s not a decent CPU for a gaming rig – when you’re playing GPU-bound titles it is still a mighty capable processor – but it is definitely behind the second-gen Ryzens.
You are leaving some of your GPU’s potential frame rate in the box when pairing it with a first-gen Ryzen processor. But with the multi-threaded performance on offer, at this price, if you’re interested in using your PC for anything outside gaming this OG Ryzen is a great option.
Read our full AMD Ryzen 7 1700X review.
Winner: Best cheap CPU for gaming
Ryzen 3 2200G
With the Vega graphics power inside it, you could create a tiny 720p gaming rig around this CPU alone.
- Clock speed3.5GHz | 3.7GHz
Integrated Vega graphics
Impressive overclocking chops
Lower cache levels than straight Ryzen
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 budget gaming rig the 2200G can deliver decent 720p gaming performance so long as you’re not too ambitious about the game settings that is. It’s the best CPU for gaming on a budget.
The Ryzen 5 2400G does have more about it on that front, but it’s a good chunk more expensive and the performance difference can largely be made up by overclocking the internal GPU. And, because AMD has also managed to jam a full quad-core Ryzen CPU into the package it performs admirably when you plumb in a discrete GPU. 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 close enough that it doesn’t really make a difference.
Read our full AMD Ryzen 3 2200G review.
Ryzen 3 1300X
Four overclockable CPU cores for the price of an Intel dual-core. It's a bit of a bargain.
- Clock speed3.5GHz | 3.7GHz
Quad-core CPU for dual-core money
Solid gaming performance…
…but still suffers from first-gen Ryzen weakness
More expensive than 2200G
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 1300X was the best budget gaming chip around when it first launched, packing four overclockable Zen cores into a dual-core price tag. And it’s only been overtaken by the slightly cheaper Ryzen 3 2200G.
The overall 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 Ryzen 3 gaming rig powered by the GTX 1060 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?
Read our full AMD Ryzen 3 1300X review.
So these are interesting times, then. Where for most of our PC gaming lives we’ve been recommending whichever Intel processor suited your budget it’s no longer that simple. And that’s down to the engineering efforts AMD has put into creating its latest Ryzen lineup of CPUs.
Perfect pair: The best graphics cards to pair with your new CPU
AMD has made it very difficult to recommend an Intel processor as the overall best CPU for gaming, given the fact that you get so much more for your money with an AMD chip right now. That and the gaming performance delta between them is now so small as to be completely inconsequential.
The 2600X is almost irrelevant if you're happy to overclock
At the mainstream end it’s the six-core, 12-thread Ryzen 5 2600 for the win. It’s a great-value, processing monster that still has a fair amount of overclocking potential inside it – enough that the 2600X is almost irrelevant if you’re happy to overclock.
The Intel i5 8400 comes close, but thanks to Intel’s 14nm production woes, it’s pricing continues to fluctuate. And, if you’re doing serious PC work alongside your gaming hobby, it’s six-core, six-thread design sits behind the AMD chips in pure multithreaded computational terms.
At the high-end the brand new eight-core, 16-thread Intel Core i9 9900K has taken the win over the Ryzen 7 2700X. But it is hard to track down, and even if you can find one, they’re considerably more expensive and only really offers a tangible performance difference in CPU-bound games. Of which there are few. But over time, as GPU power increases, that will change and the performance differential displayed by the two chips will increase.
And for budget chips, the Ryzen 3 2200G will deliver a decent level of CPU performance and has a Vega GPU baked into it which will allow for 720p gaming without the need for a graphics card. A bona fide bargain.