Shopping for a gaming PC can be a trial. There are so many components and features to consider, and it can be hard to know what to prioritize and how to smartly balance the hardware so you can get the most out of each. But the most important of these components is potentially the central processing unit. Operating essentially as the brain of your machine, the CPU performs all the important logical and mathematical operations of your system. Looking for More Components Check out our gaming hard drives and Ram Reviews.
Without a good CPU, your computer will run slower and potentially be unable to play the newest games around. We understand that shopping for a gaming CPU can be difficult, and that’s why we’ve compiled the best ten options and paired them with a buying guide to help you through the process.
Quick Look: 10 Best CPUs For Gaming
- Intel Core i9-9900K Desktop Processor
- AMD Ryzen Threadripper 2990WX Processor
- AMD Ryzen 3 2200G Processor
- Intel Core i7-9700K Desktop Processor
- AMD Ryzen 7 2700X Processor
- Intel Core i5-8400 Desktop Processor
- AMD Ryzen 5 2600 Processor
- Intel Core i7-8700K Desktop Processor
- Intel Core i3-8100 Desktop Processor
- Intel Core i5-9400F Desktop Processor
1. Intel Core i9-9900K Desktop Processor
Intel's i9 series is designed for the demands of the most serious gaming enthusiasts, and the 9900K represents the latest and best iteration of the series, and perhaps the most powerful CPU that Intel has yet produced. Intel has stepped up their game against AMD's powerful new Ryzen models by matching them in the number of cores offered while also making use of Intel's impressive Coffee Lake design.
With a maximum processor frequency of 5.0 GHz squared, this is an incredibly impressive CPU, and it's been outfitted with a more powerful cooler to handle the sheer power packed into this processor. If you absolutely demand the best and aren't opposed to spending a lot for it, this is the CPU for you. It's undoubtedly the fastest processor for gaming.
2. AMD Ryzen Threadripper 2990WX Processor
If there's one complaint that could be lobbied against the 2990WX, it's that it's too powerful. That's a good problem to have. This is a processor built for high end desktops, and you should only consider it if you're opting for the best of the best as far as the rest of your hardware is concerned. This Ryzen gaming CPU comes with a practically ludicrous 32 cores and 64 threads, and it makes use of AMD's Zen+ architecture to squeeze as much out of that tech as possible.
Zen doesn't just boost clock speeds by 200MHz, it also reduces the power load of this AMD gaming CPU. It additionally splits up the cores into four quadrants, allowing them to access all of the core's PCIe lanes and quad-channel memory.
3. AMD Ryzen 3 2200G Processor
The Ryzen 3 2200G is undoubtedly a budget CPU for gaming. But despite the fact that you can pick it up for under a hundred bucks, this is a solid CPU that can serve the needs of most casual and even some hardcore gamers. The inclusion of a GPU - and a powerful one at that - is a nice touch, and it can be overclocked to squeeze a bit more juice out of its performance.
If you're happy running games in 720p, you can expect the 2200G to work as smooth as butter. If you're looking for 1080p, you may be a bit disappointed. But there are few CPUs on the market that offer the amount of value to price like the 2200G, and that makes it an easy candidate for the best gaming CPU in its price range.
4. Intel Core i7-9700K Desktop Processor
Intel offers a truly staggering range of CPU models, and that means that users can find just about anything they need. The i7-9700K is proof of that - providing performance that's almost identical to the top shelf i9-9900K design and sacrifices only in terms of threads. If you don't have the motherboard, cooler, and blinding fast memory to handle an i9 processor, the i7-9700K will offer everything you could get out of the superior model.
It's significantly faster than its Ryzen counterpart in gaming performance, and it offers a greater dollar to power ratio than the i9. Overclocking on the i7-9700K is also extraordinarily easy, and a built in UHD 630 graphics engine ensures that it can keep pace comfortably with most graphics cards you'd be slotting into your machine.
5. AMD Ryzen 7 2700X Processor
The Ryzen 7 2700X doesn't exactly qualify as a budget gaming processor, but it offers some incredibly strong value for its mid-range price tag. As AMD's flagship processor, it offers strong if not exceptional base and boost clock speeds, and its compatibility with older AMD motherboards makes it a prime choice if you're looking to retrofit your existing computer.
And while it's not as powerful as equivalent ninth generation processors from Intel, it's in the same ballpark for a significantly lower price. The big selling point here is Precision Boost 2, which pumps up your performance when needed and reverts back to low power use settings when you don't need to make use of the extra horsepower.
6. Intel Core i5-8400 Desktop Processor
The top CPU for gaming is likely going to be significantly too much power for most gamers. If you're in search of a cheap CPU that can still comfortably fill out a mid-range computer, you'll want to check out the i5-8400. Intel makes up for the price tag by stripping out hyper threading, but that's a problem that won't be an issue to most gamers.
And the power that Intel manages to offer in lieu of that means that this is a sustainable choice for a range of gaming needs. What you're left with is one of the easiest, and one of the best, six core processors available anywhere.
7. AMD Ryzen 5 2600 Processor
AMD excels in the budget and mid-range processor space, and the Ryzen 5 2600 is a great CPU for gaming even by those standards. While AMD likes to push their X variants of the Ryzen 5, experienced computer builders know that you can squeeze practically as much performance out of their vanilla alternatives with just a bit of manual overclocking.
As is often the case with AMD processors, the 2600 sports more cores than you could expect for its price range, and it can chug along admirably well even when running games at 1080p. In terms of sheer gaming performance, it can't quite match Intel's Core i5 8400, but it's future proofed and a great bargain that's hard to beat.
8. Intel Core i7-8700K Desktop Processor
The recent release of Intel's ninth generation means that eighth generation hardware is going to be available for exceptional prices, and these original Coffee Lake processors still offer pretty impressive performance. The i7 is the flagship of the series, occupying the high end of gaming processors without reaching the sometimes excessive peaks of i9 models.
A brand new socket has been designed from the ground up to maximize Intel's transition to a six core structure, and it really shows. And if you need more juice, it comes out of the box unlocked and ready for manual overclocking. The support for Intel Optane memory allows you to access the data you need faster to reduce loading times significantly.
9. Intel Core i3-8100 Desktop Processor
The numbering conventions of Intel processors can be tricky. While the i3 series is generally dedicated towards lower end computers, the jump to eighth generation means it's a significantly more powerful processor than the i5s that came before. While it's not going to be able to reasonably run the most cutting edge games at max resolution, it's a more than serviceable option for an entry level gaming rig.
And the inclusion of UHD Graphics 630 built in means that you can really cut back on your spending by allowing you to skip out on a discrete GPU altogether. It's a real showcase for Coffee Lake tech and a great way to boost your gaming performance without having to spend a fortune.
10. Intel Core i5-9400F Desktop Processor
At its most basic, the i5-9400F is a take on the i5-8400 with a nice spit shine. It's the same solid around the board option appropriate for mid-range machines, but it brings in the added advantage of a 100MHz boost to clocking speed. It may be a modest increase in terms of performance, but it's extra tantalizing when you take into account the fact that the 9400F comes in cheaper than the 8400. Intel has managed this by stripping out the integrated graphics. That's going to make the choice between the two one that's situational. Do you intend to invest in a discrete graphics card anyway, or would you prefer to make use of the graphics built in to the 8400?
Best CPUs For Gaming Buyer’s Guide
So what’s the best CPU for gaming? There’s no easy answer. The best CPU for you will be the one that fits your budget and gets you the most out of your other hardware without packing in power you can’t reasonably use. Below we’ll get into the specs in more detail and provide you with a little extra advice for navigating the gaming CPU market.
The core specs for a CPU can be intimidating at first, but once you get over the initial difficulty curve, you’ll be reading them like a pro. Here’s how to translate those spec sheets and find a good CPU for gaming.
If the CPU is the computer’s brain, the motherboard is its central nervous system. Obviously, that means the two need to be connected, and that’s accomplished through what’s known as a socket. Unfortunately, there’s no universal port for connecting a CPU to a motherboard. Each motherboard can be split up into one of many families, and that determines the type of socket you should look for.
If you’re looking to build a new computer, it’s advised to pick your CPU first. The quality and nature of a CPU has a bigger effect on the performance of your machine than the motherboard does, and it can serve essentially as the blueprint you use to pick out the components to follow. Once you know what CPU is going into your machine, you can narrow down your selection of motherboards and make the build process easier. If you don’t know your motherboard model, finding it is rather simple. That information is available under the “About My Mac” on a Mac’s main GUI or in the command line interface on a Windows computer.
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Users looking to upgrade their existing computer obviously won’t have that luxury, but it’s important to find a CPU with a socket that matches their motherboard. While some sockets clearly aren’t compatible, others may seem like they work on the surface, but they could fry your machine if they’re incorrectly matched. Most modern Intel CPUs are compatible with LGA 1151 sockets, while most modern AMD alternatives use the AM4. Their Threadripper models employ the TR4, an upgraded version of the AM4.
When advertising a CPU, the metric most often trucked out by a manufacturer is the number of cores. It’s an easy way to promote the power of your machine, but there’s not a linear progression between the number of available cores and performance. It should be a factor in your shopping experience, but you shouldn’t treat it as the be-all and end-all. First you need to understand what a core is.
While we refer to a CPU as a singular thing, each core is a processor in its own right. That’s great for multitasking, because it means that your computer can assign each core to a different job. But there’s a point where adding more cores starts to show declining advantage. First there’s the fact that many games aren’t built to make the most of cores beyond a certain threshold, and then there tends to be a bottleneck in terms of graphics that comes well below the threshold of what more cores can offer. Add in the fact that the quality of cores aren’t equal, and you’re left with a metric that’s important but often overstated.
That doesn’t mean that you’ll get by just fine with a dual-core processor. Most modern games are designed to work at maximum efficiency with at least four cores, and that should be the standard that you aspire to with any gaming CPU. And as more modern games begin to accommodate themselves to the current trends in the processor arms race, you’ll likely begin to get more use out of CPUs with six, eight, or ten cores. Just don’t get starry eyed about CPUs that boast 16 discrete cores right away.
A processor core is capable of having two threads a piece, and that means that any given processor will sport either the same amount or double the amount of threads as it has cores. Cores with two threads are able to accomplish a task known as “multithreading” or “hyper-threading”. In its most simple terms, that means that the core is split into two virtual cores, allowing it to multitask in its own right. That means that a CPU with less cores but multiple threads may be able to more effectively multitask than a CPU with more cores and single threads. In essence, you can treat the cores with multiple threads as double their value.
When you’re trying to evaluate the strength of a CPU for your gaming rig, the same principle behind core totals applies to threading as well. A CPU with four threads is going to be a bare minimum for gaming, but you can see some substantive effects the more threads are available, and that’s only going to become more prominent as games become more sophisticated. If you don’t intend to use your computer solely as a gaming rig, multiple threads can also greatly improve your efficiency using powerful professional software like that designed for video or sound editing.
The number of cores and threads in a processor are thrown around a lot, and the simplicity of their numbers makes them great and sellable benchmarks for manufacturers, but they’re significantly less important than the clock speed of a CPU. Because while the number of cores can tell you how well a CPU is going to be at multitasking, the clock speed can give you a metric for raw performance. This is especially true in gaming, where the ability to dish out raw power is significantly more important than being able to juggle raw tasks at once. (The situation is reversed when you’re dealing in creative media work)
When you’re shopping for a gaming CPU, you can treat the base clock speed as the bare minimum standard you can expect. Base clock speeds are carefully factory tested, and they demonstrate the lowest value to be expected even when your machine is working overtime to accomplish highly complicated tasks.
Many in the gaming community see overclocking as a dangerous word. It’s a method for supercharging your CPU to squeeze out as much power as possible, but there was a time when overclocking meant putting your system in danger of overheating. Get too bold with your overclocking, and you could easily fry all of your expensive components. Boost frequency draws on the principle of overclocking but accomplishes it in a way that’s safe and automated.
Boost frequency can push a CPU significantly past its standard base clock rate, but it does so with the considerations of cooling in mind. Smart technology built into the CPU evaluates the temperature of the processor and makes sure that it never puts your system at risk. In general terms, you can treat the boost frequency as the max threshold for your processor’s performance. It’s a peak that your processor can hit in peak conditions, but you shouldn’t expect it consistently or for sustained periods of time.
A Note on Budgeting
It can be tempting to pick up the most powerful CPU on the market, but that’s one of the most common mistakes first time builders make. The demands of modern gaming ensures that graphics cards exceed the central processing unit when you’re looking for power. That means that you may want to consider evaluating what GPU you can afford first and then finding a CPU that can complement it.
The decision to buy a new CPU shouldn’t be made in a vacuum. Start with an overall budget for your machine, then consider what motherboard, CPU, and GPU you’ll need. After all, a supercharged high end CPU won’t mean a whole lot if it doesn’t have a graphics card to do it justice. If you’re looking to build a gaming rig, be sure to check out our guides to the best GPUs for gaming and the best motherboards for gaming.
Intel or AMD?
There used to be a general rule of thumb when buying a CPU. Intel exceeded on the highest end processors, offering the most exceptional performance in the business but charging a bit more for the privilege of buying into the Intel brand name. AMD excelled in budget gaming processors and mid-range CPUs, packing in a tremendous amount of value for what was charged.
But in the past couple of years, both companies have released their newest generation of processors, and it’s thrown those accepted standards out the window. For Intel, the eighth generation signified a major jump in terms of quality. Known as “Coffee Lake”, and constituting the eighth and ninth generation of processors, they make the generations before practically inconsequential. AMD has similarly been making great strides with their Zen+ architecture
As a result, the CPU market is more competitive than it’s ever been. AMD’s new Ryzen 7 and Threadripper processors can compete admirably with the higher end options from Intel, and Intel’s managed to bring the price down on their budget and mid-range processors to make them competitive. That means you should carefully consider both brands regardless of the budget you’re working with.
Understanding Processor Models
There are a lot of CPUs on the market, and the combination of nonsensical names and inscrutable numbers can make them read like Greek. But they aren’t as complicated as they seem. Let’s unpack what these names really mean.
Intel Core Processors
Core processors aren’t the only CPUs that Intel makes, but they’re the only line you should consider if you’re looking for a reliable CPU for gaming. As the replacement for Intel’s older Pentium models, the Core is built with the needs of gamers and workstation users. And despite their reputation as Intel’s better processors, they actually span a pretty wide range in terms of power.
Core processors are available in four brands: i3, i5, i7, and i9. i3 processors are common in casual laptops and low-end desktops and are generally recommended for casual gaming. i9 models, in contrast, represent the most powerful Intel processors (and some of the most powerful processors anywhere) around.
The model number for an Intel processor is followed by a four digit code. The first digit indicates the generation of the model (and all of the ones on our list are 8th or 9th generation), while the next three digits signify the SKU. Higher numbers for the SKU signify more powerful processors, but the generation number should generally take precedence here.
Some models follow these numbers with one or two letters. A “K” indicates that the processor is unlocked and can be overclocked. An “F” shows that the CPU needs a discrete graphics card be connected to work properly.
AMD Ryzen Processors
AMD’s Ryzen line is the equivalent to Intel’s Core in that it’s designed with hobbyists and professionals in mind. Fortunately, they employ a pretty similar numbering convention that helps avoid confusion when shopping.
In place of the “i” conventions that Intel employs, Ryzen processors are follow by a 3, 5, or 7. They represent mainstream, high performance, and pro use respectively. They correspond roughly to their numbered equivalents in the Intel Core line.
The four numbers that follow use similar conventions to the Core. The first number indicates the generation (with the newest Ryzen models only in their second), a number from four to seven that generally indicates the power of the processor, and an SKU. You can gauge the performance of a Ryzen generally by reading the numbers left to right.
Ryzen processors are sometimes also followed by letters. X and WX processors are special high performance models, while a G means the processor employs AMD’s impressive Vega graphics. Finally there’s the “Threadripper”. This imposingly named variant of the Ryzen offers the highest performance of any AMD model, and it’s designed to compete with Intel’s i9 line.
There’s a lot to consider when you’re looking to buy a new CPU for gaming, but once you get past the initial learning process of untangling the specs, it should be a lot easier to shop. We hope you’ve find our guide helpful, and if you’re still feeling intimidated about building or customizing your own gaming rig, check out our guides to the best gaming PCs desk and the best gaming laptops.