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The CPU is one of the most important components in a gaming PC. It’s not as important as your graphics card, but a CPU for gaming needs to have a high clock speed, multiple cores, and be powerful enough not to hold your GPU back.
Best CPUs for Gaming Reviewed
It’s an odd time to build a gaming PC because of the exorbitant pricing of graphics cards and DDR4 RAM. Thankfully, the CPU department isn’t as bad. Yes, there are some pricey processors out there, but there are tons of great options for individuals who have limited their budgets to invest more on the crazily priced graphics cards.
We’ve reviewed our four favorite CPUs currently available, considering both the 2018 and 2017 generation of processors from Intel and AMD in our picks. Our focus is not necessarily on the objectively fastest CPU for gaming, but one that offers the best value for its price point and can also perform other tasks very well.
The Core i7 9700K is a worthy successor to the 8700K in video gaming performance and offers similar fantastic overclocking and reliability.
Specs and Performance Overview: Intel Core i7-9700K
- Cores: 8
- Threads: 8
- Base Clock Speed: 6GHz
- Turbo Clock: 9GHz
- L3 Cache: 12MB
- TDP: 95W
- PCI Express Lanes: 16
The Intel Core i7 9700K is our top pick for the best CPU for gaming you can currently buy. It might come as a surprise to some since it’s not even the most powerful overall CPU for tasks like gaming and video editing. That accolade goes to the Core i9 9900K.
What makes us choose the Core i7 9700K over the Core i9 9900K though is the nearly $120 difference in the price point that doesn’t translate into any tangible difference in gaming performance. The 9900K has more threads (16 compared to the 9700K’s 8) and a slightly higher base clock speed of 3.7GHz, but this doesn’t necessarily translate into better gaming performance. While the 100MHz difference will show a marginal improvement in gaming performance, the hyper-threads are better used for multi-processing functions like video editing and rendering.
As gamers, we’re not interested in complex multi-processor functions, and even if we are, the 9700K is perfectly capable of handling most tasks with ease. Perhaps more crucially, the Core i7 9700K runs at better temperatures than the 9900K. For the latter, you’ll be bound to using an expensive AIO cooler to keep things cool, even if you’re not overclocking. The 9700K, on the other hand, can run at manageable temperatures even with air cooling.
The Core i9 9900K, however, is a superior overclocker to the Core i7 9700K. That’s not to say you can’t reach some great speeds with the latter, but the bigger brother is simply better at it and can push some scary limits. Overclocking such powerful CPUs won’t make a supreme difference in videogames though since they’re more GPU-oriented software anyway. That’s another reason to ignore the Core i9’s superior potential.
As with all of Intel’s unlocked processors, you’ll need to purchase a separate CPU cooler for this product. We’re not fans of this practice, especially since Team Red gives users a great cooler even with their high-end processors, but it is what it is. It’s an extra expenditure, but if you’re going to spend north of $400 for a processor as powerful as the Core i7 9700K, some $50-70 extra for a reliable CPU cooler shouldn’t hurt your large budget too much.
Overall, it’s hard to rate any other CPU above the Core i7 9700K for pure video gaming performance. The Core i9 9900K is an overall superior processor, but the actual difference in videogames is minimal and not worth the extra $120 you’d have to spend on it.
The Core i9 9900K is actually more powerful than the Core i7 9700K. In fact, it is overall the best CPU for single-threaded tasks like video gaming. We still prefer the 9700K because it costs nearly $120 less, and the difference in videogame performance between the two is negligible. The Core i9 9900K is better for multithreaded performances and content creation, but for gaming, the Core i7 9700K offers better value with a negligible decrease in performance.
Best Mid-range Gaming CPU
The Core i5 8400 is the mainstream gamer’s CPU of choice for its excellent performance in videogames and great price.
Specs and Performance Overview: Intel Core i5-8400
- Cores: 6
- Threads: 6
- Base Clock Speed: 8GHz
- Turbo Clock: 0GHz
- L3 Cache: 9MB
- TDP: 65W
- PCI Express Lanes: 16
Even though the Core i5 8400 belongs to the “older” generation of Intel processors, it’s still arguably the best midrange CPU option for most individuals. There’s a simple reason for it: Intel boosted the number of cores from 4 to 6 for the 8th Generation Core i5 processors. Although the 8400 isn’t the most powerful Core i5 currently available, it’s the best one when it comes to balance between price and performance.
The reasons are simple: it runs at a high base clock speed, has six cores, and low power consumption. What’s more, Intel offers this CPU with a cooling fan, so there’s no need to purchase an additional one. The Core i5 8400 is thus an absolute bargain for how well it performs, beating almost all AMD Ryzen processors in videogames and even beating some of the older Core i7s.
You might wonder why we haven’t recommended a 9th Generation Core i5 processor instead. It’s simple: they’re more expensive with almost no major improvement in performance. The Core i5 9400 runs at lower base clock speeds than the 8400, so there’s absolutely no reason to bat an eye over it. The 9600K is at least $80 more expensive, and aside from overclocking, it doesn’t offer a huge boost in videogame frame-rates over the Core i5 8400.
This has made the Core i5 8400 the ideal gaming CPU for mainstream gamers. It’s fast enough not to bottleneck the majority of the cards out there. If any card would potentially suffer from bottlenecking with this GPU, it’s likely the RTX 2080Ti, and that’s only on 4K resolution. For midrange and even some high-end cards like the RTX 2070 and the older GTX 1070/1070Ti, this is simply a phenomenal processor.
At 1080p resolution, the Core i9 9900K is only 6 percent faster than the Core i5 8400 when paired with a card like the GTX 1080, while costing more than twice as much. That itself is a massive indication of this Intel CPU’s prowess as a gaming central processor. In our opinion, sacrificing the overclocking ability is well worth it for such fantastic performance at a great price.
Okay, so the Core i5 9600K is better in every way than then Core i5 8400 when it comes to performance. It doesn’t make sense for us to recommend the older generation Intel processor, right? Well, it does for economic reasons. The Core i5 9600K is roughly $80-90 more expensive than the Core i5 8400, and the performance is only marginally better. Yes, you can greatly overclock the 9600K, which isn’t something possible with the locked 8400, but for that, you’ll need a killer cooling solution for that, and it’s worth noting the 9600K doesn’t come with a cooler. For value alone, we’re giving the 8400 the edge.
Great Mid-range Alternative
Ryzen 5 2600 isn’t as fast as the Core i5 8400 but costs around the same. However, it’s a wonderful option for streamers and people who do complex content creation alongside gaming.
Specs and Performance Overview: AMD Ryzen 5 2600
- Cores: 6
- Threads: 12
- Base Clock Speed: 6GHz
- Turbo Clock: 2GHz
- L3 Cache: 16MB
- TDP: 65W
- PCI Express Lanes: 20
Six cores and eight threads yet coming at the same price as the Core i5 8400 – that’s what the Ryzen 2600 is, and it’s simply hard to ignore when you’re hunting for great CPUs for videogaming. Make no mistake: for pure gaming, the Core i5 8400 is still overall superior. In fact, the 8400 is arguably superior to any second generation Ryzen CPU when it comes to videogames, including the 2700X.
What makes the Ryzen 5 2600 far superior though is its multithreading performance. Two more cores and a whopping six more threads for around the same price makes the Ryzen 5 2600 a superior overall processor to the Core i5 8400. It’s in pure video gaming performance that the latter is unmatched.
Now we’re reviewing CPUs for gaming, so the 8400 gets a nod before the Ryzen 2600, but if you’re looking for a very well-rounded processor that can play games smoothly and also do other more complex, multithreading tasks, then the Ryzen 5 2600 is the best mid-range offering on the market right now.
AMD’s focus is more on smart multithreading computing, and that’s where the Ryzen 5 2600 shines. Video editing, rendering, and other CPU intensive tasks become a breeze with the Ryzen 2600. When it comes to gaming, it’s inferior to the similarly priced Core i5 8400, but it does have a few advantages that Intel’s processor lacks.
The first and foremost is overclocking. While the Core i5 8400 is locked, you can overclock the Ryzen 2600 to reach speeds comparable to it. The overclocking potential here isn’t mind-blowing; you shouldn’t expect to reach speeds beyond 4.2GHz without some crazy thermal solutions. However, it’s still there, and it translates into a tangible difference in videogames.
The Ryzen 2600 is around $50-$60 cheaper than the 2600X, but both have the same architecture, the same number of cores, and even a very similar upper limit for overclocking. The 2600X though comes at higher clock speeds, ideal for those who aren’t interested in overclocking. For the gamers willing to invest in some decent coolers (even though the Wraith Stealth cooler is really good) for overclocking, the 2600 provides great value and performance.
Another area where the Ryzen 2600 (and most other Ryzen CPUs) are superior to Intel’s is PCI express lanes. Ryzen offers 16 PCI Express lanes for graphics plus an additional 4 for an m.2 NVMe slot. That provides a much faster performance of m.2 NVMe slots, so if you’re looking to run one of those, Ryzen CPUs are a great consideration.
To sum it up: Ryzen 2600 is ideal for gamers who also use their PCs extensively for video editing, rendering, and other multithreading tasks.
With 8 cores and 16 threads, the Ryzen 7 1700X is an overall superior processor to the Ryzen 5 2600. However, the improvement in the performance of just 1-2% in gaming is almost negligible, and the price is higher of the 1700X. It’s a fantastic multicore processor that you should absolutely buy if you’re building a workstation that doubles as a gaming PC, but if you’re not interested in its multithreading performance you should definitely opt for the cheaper and newer 2600 instead.
AMD Ryzen 5 1600
The Ryzen 5 1600 offers powerful multithreading performance thanks to its six cores and 12 threads. It isn’t as fast as some of Intel’s processors, but it comes at an excellent price point that makes it a worthwhile purchase for anyone looking for a great CPU for around the $150 mark.
The Ryzen 5 1600 maybe two years old now, but it’s still a fantastic offering for videogames and content creators thanks to a large number of cores and threads and overclocking potential.
Specs and Performance Overview: AMD Ryzen 5 1600
- Cores: 6
- Threads: 12
- Base Clock Speed: 2GHz
- Turbo Clock: 6GHz
- L3 Cache: 16MB
- TDP: 65W
- PCI Express Lanes: 16
The first generation of Ryzen processors is what broke unequivocal dominance of Intel in the CPU world. Intel’s Core family of processors finally had competition, and it was fierce competition because AMD’s Ryzen processors were superior in multithreading performance, offered better value, and were overall fantastic all-round CPUs.
The most popular out of the first generation of Ryzen processors was the 1600, and it’s still around waiting to be bought. Yes, it’s nearly two years old now, but the prices have dropped significantly while the performance of the Ryzen 5 1600 still remains relevant for gaming and multicore processing in today’s market.
Ryzen 5 1600 costs less than $150 at the time of writing, yet its performance is far superior to most of the Core i3 and other processors at this price point. It comfortably beats all 7th generation Core i5 processors in overall performance thanks to a higher core count and more threads.
The gaming performance of the Ryzen 5 1600 is obviously inferior to the newer 2600, but it’s still excellent if you want to save up on the extra $40-50 you will have to spend on. We recommend getting the Ryzen 5 2600, but it’s perfectly fine if you wish to save up as much as possible for a better GPU.
The Ryzen 5 1600 won’t bottleneck most GPUs, especially at 1080p gaming, so there’s no need to fret about it. It’s faster than the Core i5 8400 (which was released a year after the Ryzen 5 1600) in all multithreading performances, though it can’t quite match Intel’s processor in generating sheer frame-rates.
One place where it stands superior to the Core i5 8400 though is overclocking. Yes, the AMD Ryzen 5 1600 can be overclocked, and it does so very well. Overclocking can go up to 4.2GHz, and that’s where the performance difference in videogames between the Ryzen 5 1600 and Core i5 8400 becomes smaller. The Core i5 8400 will still perform better by around 5-14 frame-rates, depending on the videogame and how much you’ve overclocked the Ryzen 5 1600.
Overclocking from the get-go also becomes a breeze thanks to the inclusion of the Wraith Spire air cooler in the box. It’s not going to let you go beyond the 4GHz mark, but you can certainly bump the clock speeds up a couple of 100 Mega-Hertz with it. For going beyond the 4GHz, barrier, you’ll need an aftermarket CPU cooler.
The Ryzen 5 1600 CPU is ideal for people looking to keep their CPU budget less than $150 without sacrificing multithreaded performance for other computing tasks like video editing and rendering. It doubles as a great CPU for gaming when paired with a powerful enough graphics card, and the easy overclocking can extract far more performance for its value than you’d expect when you purchase it.
On paper, the Core i3 8350K is surprisingly stunning in videogame performance, even when compared to the much more powerful Ryzen 5 1600. It beats the Ryzen 5 1600 by 5-6% in gaming performance, which is a noticeable difference. But the Core i3 8350K is very oddly priced, sandwiched between the Ryzen 5 1600 and the much better Core i5 8400 and Ryzen 5 2600. If you can spend extra for the Core i3 8350K, you could probably invest an additional $15 and get the Core i5 8400. The odd pricing is why the Core i3 8350K is lost among the shadows of the other CPUs for gaming.
Most of our runner-up choices are actually more powerful in gaming performance than our top picks, but it’s important to remember that although the CPU does influence how well your games run, your GPU is far more important in the overall performance. We’ve focused on picking CPUs that are great for both gaming and daily tasks as well since we believe any gamer who builds a PC will love it enough to use it for daily computing tasks and other work as well.