Think your processor’s holding back your powerful new graphics card? Worried you might be missing out all the gaming performance? Then maybe it’s time you thought about getting a new CPU. Don’t worry, dropping a new chip into your rig is super-simple, and quick to do.
But what processor to go for? To make things easier, here’s our pick of the best CPUs for gaming.
This year has seen an unprecedented number of processor releases, meaning there’s likely to be a whole lot of folk out there looking to upgrade their chips. We’re set to have two brand new CPU generations (Kaby Lake and Coffee Lake) from Intel within 12 months of each other, and that’s because AMD have finally got their processing shit together, releasing some of the most powerful chips this side of server-dom.
Now, most of the new processor releases this year require some rather in-depth PC surgery, needing whole new motherboard platforms. But the chances are that there will be a simple CPU upgrade available for your current board that will give you a healthy speed bump, but won’t require you rip your entire rig apart. And replacing your processor is super simple.
- Step 1 - Prep your patient
Thermal paste and BIOS updating
- Step 2 - Install the CPU
Shutdown, remove chip and cooler, and be careful of those pins.
- Step 3 - Booting and bug fixing
Make sure fans are spinning, don't panic, and get it running.
- Step 4 - Testing... loving
Is your CPU running at its best? Test functionality and enjoy.
But how do you know if you really do need to upgrade your processor? In gaming terms, your CPU isn’t as vital to gaming performance as your graphics card, but there are instances where it can bottleneck your system. In order to check, you can download a simple bit of diagnostic software called MSI Afterburner. Ostensibly, this is a GPU overclocking tool, but it has quite far-reaching diagnostic abilities too, particularly useful is its in-game overlay.
From within Afterburner you can set it to display both CPU and GPU loads while you’re playing your favourite games. If you’re seeing your CPU load batting around the 90-100% mark while your GPU isn’t, then you will be experiencing some processor bottlenecking.
Now it’s just a case of checking out your specific motherboard’s specs page online to see what chips it’s compatible with and finding one which will give you a decent uplift from what you’re currently rocking.
Then you need to actually carry out the upgrade…
The most important thing to remember is thermal paste (or, alternatively, thermal grease, compound, goop, gunk, or chip jizz... take your pick). If you don’t have any of this to hand your upgrade is going to grind to a halt before you even get your CPU out of its packaging.
Thermal paste is vital for ensuring consistent contact between your processor and the cooler attached to it. There are always inconsistencies in the machining of the surface of your chosen heatsink, and the heatspreader atop your CPU, which can lead to tiny pockets of air when they're connected. Air is a notoriously bad conductor of heat. The chip jizz fills up these gaps and makes sure your cooler can quickly, and efficiently, pull the heat away from your delicate processor.
The next vital step is to install the latest motherboard BIOS software onto your system. You can check whether you've got the latest by booting into your BIOS, noting down the version number, and checking it against the support/download section of your board’s online specs page. Alternatively, if you can’t be bothered to reboot your rig, you can download CPU-Z for Windows, where the mainboard tab will indicate your current BIOS version.
It’s worth being careful here, as you can irrevocably brick your motherboard if it craps out during a BIOS firmware update, especially if it’s only got a single BIOS ROM chip. Just be careful, and make sure you’ve definitely downloaded the version for your exact board, and you should be fine.
Just don’t try doing a BIOS update during a thunderstorm.
Completely shut down your machine - I don’t want to see any sleeping or hibernating going on - and pull the plug from the PSU. To make sure any residual power has been discharged from the system you should press the PC’s power button one time and that should clear it out.
Now, carefully - no, seriously, carefully - remove your CPU cooler and clean the contacts on both the chip and your chiller. It’s always worth starting afresh with new thermal goop, and cleaning your old processor off before putting it away - you never know when you might need a spare…
You can then remove the chip from its socket - with both AMD and Intel there will be a lever to release the socket and you should then be able to simply slide the CPU from its housing. Be careful here, especially with an Intel system, as the contact pins are in the socket itself and are so delicate that an errant thumb, or dropped CPU, can bend them badly out of shape.
This is the point where you can take your new processor and gently place it into your motherboard’s waiting socket. It will only go in one way, whether it’s an Intel or AMD chip, and there will be corresponding indicators on the CPU and the socket to indicate the correct orientation.
Once it’s seated properly you can lower the level to lock the socket - it shouldn’t need too much force, so if you find it does there may be something in the way, or the chip might not be oriented the right way, so just lift it out and try again.
Apply a small amount of thermal paste to the top of the CPU itself - about the size of two grains of rice, side-by-side, in the centre of the surface. The action of attaching the processor cooler will naturally spread the paste out evenly across the CPU itself. Don’t put too much gunk on your gear, though, as that can have the opposite effect, and inhibit the thermal conductivity between chip and cooler.
Now you can re-attach your CPU cooler. With a standard reference Intel cooler it simply clips onto the motherboard, but with other third-party coolers - y’know, better ones - you may have to screw them into place. If so, be careful not to over-screw. If you apply too much force to the cooler mount you run the risk of warping or crushing your motherboard, and temporarily breaking some connections.
As long as the cooler’s tight enough so as not to move around on top of the CPU then it will be tight enough to provide decent cooling. Now just make sure the power cables for the cooling fans are attached, and oriented correctly with any chassis exhaust fans, and you’re ready to reboot.
Don’t close up your PC just yet, however, we still need to keep our eyes on your machine’s chip-chiller as we boot it up again for the first time. We want to make sure all your fans are plugged in and aren’t being obstructed by an errant cable, or a forgotten screwdriver, or frightened hamster.
But we also want to keep the side panel off just in case we need to do any further PC maintenance to get our rig back up and running. That’s because there is always the slightest possibility that, however careful you’ve been in your build, some little thing is stopping your machine from booting.
If your PC doesn’t boot first time, don’t give in to that yawning, black pit of despair, there are things you can do. Don’t panic.
If your CPU cooler uses a screw-down mounting bracket this is where any potential over-tightening will manifest itself. Just unscrew each of the mounting points by half a turn and try to reboot, and if it still isn’t playing along then try loosening a little more each time. If the board has been slightly warped untightening the mounting bracket should allow you to boot up again.
It’s possible that isn’t what’s holding your PC back, however, and you might have knocked something while you were working inside your case. First, unplug each of the memory sticks from your motherboard by pressing down the release catches on either side of the DIMM, pull them clear and reseat them back in their sockets. Memory can be a right pain and sometimes just reinserting the memory can help get you back to booting. It’s also worth going around all of the power cables and making sure they’re all securely attached to the motherboard and corresponding components.
Finally, there will either be a BIOS reset or CLR CMOS jumper on the board (or, if you’re lucky, a handy button on the rear I/O panel) and shorting this connection with a screwdriver or jumper switch will completely reset the BIOS, just in case there was a setting inside that holding things up.
The last resort is removing the cooler and CPU again and reseating that. If you try all those steps and you still get nothing, then there’s a good chance your new processor was DOA and it’s time to think about contacting the retailer for a replacement.
This is why it’s always worth looking after your old CPU when you remove it…
But, hopefully, you won’t have to do any of that, and your machine will just boot straight up. As there’s a new chunk of silicon in place the initial POST screen will prompt you to go straight into the BIOS to set it up, if not just hit the DEL key to boot into the BIOS. From here you want to find the ‘optimised default’ setting - probably located in the same section of the BIOS to ‘save and exit’ - and reboot your rig.
That’s pretty much job done, your new processor’s in place and you’re back up and running in Windows. But, if you want to make doubly sure that your new CPU is working properly it’s worth channeling your inner uber-nerd and doing some stress testing.
This is super simple and only requires you to download a couple of free bits of software. The first one to grab is HWMonitor and the next is Cinebench R15. These will allow you to monitor and stress your chip. Install and start them both up, side-by-side, and run the Cinebench CPU test. While the test is running each of your cores and threads at 100%, keep an eye on the HWMonitor window to monitor the frequency the processor is operating at and the temperature it’s hitting.
Hopefully you should be running at the expected CPU frequency and with temperatures that won’t have your motherboard melting into so much slag. Anything below 80°C and you’re essentially fine, anything above that and it might be worth revisiting your CPU cooler to make sure it’s on tight enough and with the right amount of thermal paste on it. Or it might just be that the ol’ air-cooler isn’t quite up to the task of keeping your new silicon in check, so maybe it’s time to consider an alternative chip-chiller.
So, your new processor is happily installed, and maybe you want to get a little bit more adventurous… You can always go and have some overclocking fun with your new chip if it supports such endeavours. For Intel, you need a K-series model, but AMD have unlocked overclocking on all their Ryzen chips. You also need a compatible, overclocking-friendly motherboard too.
If you’re so inclined, check out our easy guide to CPU overclocking for beginners.
Even if you’re not, it’s still worth rebooting back up into your motherboard BIOS and making sure your memory is running at its rated speeds. In the BIOS you want to use the XMP (or with AMD the A-XMP, and the like) settings to automatically set your machine’s RAM to its proper settings.
Then it’s simply a case of booting back into Windows and enjoying the fruits of your CPU upgrading labours. Job done, people.