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The best PC gaming processor

A good gaming rig doesn't need the most expensive CPU.

It used to be that the most important component in your PC was the CPU—the Central Processing Unit if you want to go old school, or just 'processor' these days. The CPU was once responsible for nearly everything going on inside the big black box sitting under your desk. These days, the CPU is still a critical component—nothing can happen if you don't have some form of processor running the OS—but the performance gap between the fastest and most expensive processors and those that are 'good enough' keeps shrinking, all while the pricing gap is increasing. Other components like graphics cards have taken a more prominent role, at least when it comes to gaming PCs.

For PC gaming, this is actually great news. Most of us can get by just fine with a moderate processor. Core counts, cache sizes, and clock speeds continue to improve as the years roll by, but chances are if you have a desktop built any time in the past five years, it can play most games.

With Intel's Kaby Lake launch complete, we've updated most of our picks. It's not that Kaby Lake is vastly superior to Skylake, but in most cases it replaces the previous generation at the same price point, with slightly higher clockspeeds. Since the two families work in the same motherboards, there's no reason to buy Skylake at this point (short of some clearance sales). Meanwhile, AMD's Ryzen parts are on the horizon, and we're eager to see if they can live up to the hype. If nothing else, Ryzen should dramatically narrow the gap between AMD and Intel CPU performance.

When building a new rig, you don't have to buy the most expensive processor around to have a great gaming experience. Today's desktop processors can handle just about any game you throw at them, and many can be overclocked to improve performance (at the cost of increased power, heat, and potentially noise). We've researched and tested all the latest CPUs, along with looking at previous generations, and these are the ones worth putting in your next gaming rig.

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The best gaming processor

  • Handles even the most demanding PC games
  • Good overclocking potential to 4.9GHz and beyond
  • Z270 platform brings more PCIe lanes and new technologies
  • Lower stock clocks than Core i7-7700K
  • Lacks Hyper-Threading and 'only' has four cores

It's easy to get caught lusting after the highest performing processors—ten cores, 25MB of L3 cache, quad-channel memory … drool. Intel's dirty little not-so-secret is that most of those high-end features don't really do jack squat for the majority of games. Unless you're building a PC to also do things like video editing, image manipulation, software development, or creating an AI to take over the world—there's a very real chance that you'll be just fine with a far less costly CPU. That's where Intel's Core i5 line excels, nowhere more so than in their unlocked 'mainstream' enthusiast part, the Core i5-7600K.

There was a time when each new generation of processors brought with it some major performance improvements. All you had to do was look at the clock speeds to know that a 3.2GHz Pentium 4 was going to leave the 1.6GHz Pentium 4 sucking wind. But then clock speeds hit a wall and even architectural improvements slowed down, and now we're mostly seeing small increases in clock speed and potentially higher core counts. The problem is there are many common tasks, including the majority of games, where having more than four CPU cores (logical or physical) doesn't really matter much. That makes the 4-core i5-7600K the best current CPU for most PC gamers.

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The best budget gaming processor

  • Not noticeably slower than i5-7600K in most games
  • Runs on Intel's latest LGA1151 platform
  • No overclocking support or Turbo modes
  • Only dual-core, but Hyper-Threading helps

Suppose you're not planning on building the fastest gaming rig on the planet—you just want something decent that won't break the bank. Among other things, that means you're not likely to stuff in an expensive graphics card, which means games are even more likely to be limited by your GPU of choice. The good news is that not only can you save money, you don't even have to sacrifice modern features in the process—and power requirements can be quite a bit lower.

The question is which CPU is best: Core i3-7100, Athlon X4 860K, or FX-6300? Those three are the most promising budget CPUs, ranging from around $70 / £63 to $120 / £110 in price, which is a pretty wide gamut, but differences in performance can be equally large.

For gaming purposes, choosing between these three chips actually ends up being pretty easy. AMD's Athlon X4 860K is basically the same as their A10-7870K, only without the integrated GPU. It's the slowest of the three chips, with the i3-7100 beating it by around 25 percent in gaming performance—and that's using a GTX 980 graphics card (RX 480 and GTX 1060 would perform similarly). The i3-7100 likewise beats the FX-6300 by around 10 percent, at significantly lower power use, and thus claims the budget CPU crown. In short, if you want an AMD CPU, wait for Ryzen; otherwise the i3-7100 is a great budget choice.

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The best high-end gaming processor

  • Six full cores plus Hyper-Threading
  • Very overclockable
  • Good for streaming and multitasking
  • Power hungry, especially when overclocked
  • Not many games use more than four cores

Determining where to spend money on any new PC build is a balancing act between price, performance, power requirements, and features—and you can only choose two or three of those four areas. For high-end builds, cost is rarely in their favor. In the case of the i7-6800K, we're sacrificing price as well as power use in order to gain performance and features.

What will the X99 platform get you that Kaby Lake can't? Besides more processor cores, the only other major benefit will be the additional PCIe lanes—28 for the 5820K/6800K, or 40 for all other LGA2011-3 CPUs. (You could even run one of the Xeon processors, though pricing isn't usually in their favor.) The additional PCIe lanes won't usually result in better gaming performance, with one notable exception: SLI and CrossFire builds, which we'll come back to in a moment. Perhaps more importantly, there are plenty of non-gaming scenarios where the additional cores can really pay dividends.

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How we tested and other processors

If our focus seems to have been predominantly on Intel's latest Kaby Lake CPUs, along with their Broadwell-E offerings, there's a reason for that. They're the fastest processors right now, and until AMD's Ryzen comes out, that's unlikely to change. Thankfully, Ryzen is right around the corner (ETA March). Intel's chips aren't the only CPUs we tested, however. We've run a suite of benchmarks on several of AMD's FM2+ APUs and AM3+ CPUs, along with conducting research on older CPUs.

We have multiple test platforms, along with results from a few other older platforms that we no longer actively test. The motherboards used in testing are the Asus Z170-A for Skylake, MSI Z270X Gaming M7 for Kaby Lake, MSI X99A Gaming Pro Carbon for Broadwell-E and Haswell-E, Gigabyte 990FXA-UD3 for the AMD FX chips, and Gigabyte F2A88X-UP4 for FM2+ APUs. All systems used SSD storage, 16GB of memory (DDR3-2133 or DDR4-3200), and liquid cooling on the CPU.

We measured performance in a variety of games using both GTX 1080 and GTX 980 graphics cards. The current gaming suite consists of 14 games running at 1080p Ultra settings, with 4xMSAA where applicable and FXAA/SMAA otherwise. While 1080p isn't the most demanding resolution, we wanted to give the CPUs a bit of room to show their stuff—running at 1440p and 4K typically ends up testing GPU performance more than anything, and 1080p Ultra is a good compromise.

Besides gaming tests—because really, no PC is going to be purely for gaming—we also ran general system and processor performance. Our test suite includes Cinebench R15 (in both single-threaded and multi-threaded modes), x264 HD 5.0.1 (both passes), HwBot's x265 test, y-cruncher, PCMark 8, VeraCrypt, and 7-zip. Along with these benchmarks, we also use each processor as a 'normal' user, surfing the web, installing some applications, writing, etc. to see if there's anything else we notice that doesn't specifically show up in the benchmarks.

The Competition

Without getting too bogged down in the details, the following are other processors that we've tested and researched in selecting the best gaming processors. We've included a short summary of each chip.

AMD's Athlon X4 860K, Athlon X4 870K, and Athlon X4 880K are budget offerings that take AMD's APUs and disable the graphics portion of the chip. The Core i3-7100 ends up being up to 50 percent faster using a graphics card like the RX 480 or GTX 980. The A10-7890K and A10-7870K are the APU versions with graphics, but the integrated graphics just isn't fast enough to handle most modern games.

AMD's FX series of processors are power hungry and can't usually match the performance of Intel's Core i5 line. The FX-6350 and FX-8370 were tested and represent the most common options. The lower power FX-8320E and FX-8370E cost more while performing a bit worse, while the FX-9370 and FX-9590 cost even more and consume an insane 220W under load.

Intel's previous generation i7-4790K and i5-4690K are nearly as fast as Skylake in gaming performance, but they're also the same price as the i5-7600K and i7-7700K. If you have one of these, great, but we wouldn't recommend buying a new LGA1150 part at this time (unless you already have an LGA1150 motherboard and DDR3 memory, or the price is exceptionally attractive).

The Intel Core i5-7600K is our overall pick for the best gaming processor, see above. If you need a step up, the Core i7-7700K handles multi-threaded tasks better, but most games won't benefit much if at all. For a step down, the Core i5-6400 and i5-7500 deliver very close to the same level of gaming performance at a lower price point. All of the Skylake equivalents (i5-6600K, i7-6700K, etc.) are typically 6-8 percent slower in CPU performance compared to Kaby Lake, and 1-3 percent slower in games.

The Core i3-7100 delivers very nearly the same performance as the i5-7600K at roughly half the price when paired with a moderate GPU. It earns our pick as the best budget gaming processor. There are chips that cost less, but they end up being too big of a compromise on performance.

Intel's Haswell-E i7-5820K, i7-5930K, and i7-5960X have been superseded by the new Broadwell-E i7-6800K, i7-6850K, and i7-6900K—along with the current king-of-the-hill 10-core i7-6950X. Details on each processor can be found in our Broadwell-E Review, along with individual reviews of the i7-6800K, i7-6850K, i7-6900K, and i7-6950X. All of these are very much high-end processors, and they serve a purpose, but for gaming we recommend sticking with the Core i7-6800K—or move up to the i7-6850K if you need the extra PCIe lanes for SLI or CrossFire.

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