The best PC gaming processors

Orestis Bastounis Nov 18, 2015

There's no component of your PC working harder than the CPU. It's running your operating system and programs as complex as Battlefield 4 and as simple as Notepad. Today's desktop processors can handle just about any game you throw at them, and can even be overclocked to better multitasking performance. You don't have to buy the most expensive processor around to have a great gaming experience. We've researched and tested the best gaming CPUs around, and these are the ones worth putting in your next gaming rig.

The best gaming processor

Intel Core i5-4690k


  • Handles even the most demanding PC games
  • Great performance for the price
  • Powerful overclocking potential to 4.4 GHz and beyond
  • Lower base clock speed than Core i7
  • Lacks the Core i7's Hyperthreading, useful in very demanding multithreaded applications

Intel was due to launch a brand new desktop processor line in 2014 called Broadwell, which has unfortunately been pushed back to mid 2015. In its place, we got a refresh of the existing Haswell chips, codenamed Devils Canyon. The biggest difference with these processors is much faster clock speeds across the board, which will make a noticeable difference to gaming performance.

The fastest of the new Core i5 processors, the  Core i5-4690K, is our absolute favorite. It’s a quad-core model that runs at 3.5 GHz, with a Turbo Mode frequency of 3.9 GHz. This is exactly the same speed the previous generation’s Core i7-4770K runs at, and is enough to really drive gaming performance.

Update 11/6/2015: With Intel's Skylake CPUs out, we're working on a full refresh of this guide with performance and price analysis compared to the previous Devil's Canyon and Haswell-E CPUs. Coming soon!

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Number Of Cores: 4
Hyper-threading: No
Base Clock Frequency: 3.5 GHz
Turbo Clock Frequency: 3.9 GHz
L3 Cache: 6MB
Thermal Design Power (TDP): 88W
PCI-Express lanes: 16

It does this while being far better value for money. Although it isn’t the fastest CPU available, the Core i5-4690k is $100 cheaper than the Core i7-4790K, and offers nearly the same gaming performance. You miss out on hyper-threading, which is restricted to Core i7 chips, but that feature is mainly useful in heavily multi-threaded software, and doesn’t particularly benefit gaming performance.

The Core i5-4690k is also a better buy than anything else you might consider around this price point. For a start, the “k” at the end of the product name means it carries an unlocked multiplier, and so is easy to overclock. The i5-4690k happens to be a great overclocking CPU.

Overclocking the 4690k

Hop into the PC’s BIOS and raise the multiplier slightly to add another couple hundred MHz of performance. For even more speed, you’ll need to modestly increase voltage. When you reboot, hopefully your PC will be stable at this new speed. If it’s not, that’s okay: you can lower the multiplier or feed the CPU a bit more voltage. Anandtech was able to overclock the i5-4690k up to an insane 4.7 GHz. We don’t recommend going that far, and you don’t have even to overclock the i5-4690k at all to get good performance out of the CPU; it’s just an added value for CPU that starts at a speedy 3.5 GHz.

The trick in overclocking is not being too aggressive and having an efficient cooler, since the increase in voltage means more heat will be generated. Different motherboards offer additional settings to tweak and push speeds further, depending on the manufacturer, and some further research is definitely recommended, especially if you don't know what the settings do.

In the case of Asus and the Z87 Pro we used, the company produces an awesome series of  overlocking videos that explain the entire process, superbly presented by their resident PC expert.

We had a quick go with our Core i5-4690k and had the PC stable at 4.4 GHz, with a voltage of 1.28, and an Arctic Cooling Alpine 11 GT cooler. That’s a big, free increase for little effort. Pricier coolers, such as the Corsair Hydro H105, will allow you to go even faster, but it really depends on a lot of things, including the specific batch your CPU comes from.

If you’re sure you’re never going to overclock, you could save around 10 percent by opting for a  Core i5-4690, which has a locked multiplier. It’s such a slim difference, we’d prefer the unlocked chip though—you never know when you want to change your mind, and you could overclock three years down the road to breathe new life into an aging CPU.

Great performance, great price

We think the 4960k is also a better choice than any of the other Core i5 chips. You don’t save a lot of cash by going for a Core i5-4460, for example, which costs  $190 on Amazon. That chip can't be overclocked and is 300 MHz slower out of the box, which could affect gaming performance.

Dragon Age Inquisition's 3.0 GHz quad core recommended spec is just that: a recommendation. Certain games, like 4X strategy series Total War or physics heavy sim Arma III, are as demanding on the processor as the graphics cards, and their recommended specs are humble compared to their maxed out demands.

The other Core i5 processors aren’t bad products. Most Core i5 CPUs are going to handle modern games perfectly fine at all but the most extreme settings without issue. But for the highest performance for the relative amount you’re spending, the 4690k really stands out.

In our benchmarks against our high-end Core i7 choice on the next page, the 4690k put up nearly identical framerates in Tomb Raider (84 fps average vs. 85 fps average) and saw only a 2 fps difference in Civ: Beyond Earth.  Anandtech's pure CPU benchmarks show that the 4690k can't quite keep up with an i7 in heavy duty non-gaming tasks, but in gaming performance, their performance is indistinguishable. There's currently no better performing gaming CPU for the price than the i5-4690k.

The best budget gaming processor

Intel Pentium K Anniversary Edition G3258


  • Only $70
  • Extremely overclockable
  • Dual-core (rather than quad-core) hurts performance in a few high-end games
  • Needs to be overclocked to reach potential

One of the oft-cited downsides of gaming on a PC, compared with gaming on a console, is the cost of the hardware. There’s certainly some truth to that, since a single high-end component can cost as much as entire console, and in some cases, more. But by carefully choosing components, you can shave hundreds off the price of your gaming PC and still enjoy most up-to-date games in high resolution without having to keep the detail settings on the lowest possible level.

Enter the  Pentium K G3258 processor, a truly affordable chip that can slug it out with the big guns of the processor world. Every so often, Intel brings out an affordable CPU that’s trivial to overlock to higher speeds. You might even think they’ve done it on purpose, since the G3258 carries Intel’s Pentium 20th Anniversary branding.

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Number Of Cores: 2
Hyper-threading: No
Base Clock Frequency: 3.2 GHz
L3 Cache: 3MB
Thermal Design Power (TDP): 53W
PCI-Express lanes: 16

Both Intel and AMD sells a wide range of other affordable processors, including the Core i3 line and other Pentium chips. But none of these even approach the value for money of the Pentium K G3258, given how well it does in tests.

This dual-core chip runs at 3.2 GHz stock, but can easily overclock towards 4.5 Ghz without needing an exotic cooling system, or even increasing the voltage. It costs  just $70 on Amazon, a bargain by any standard. While it’s a no-frills processor, as it’s only a dual-core model, and lacks Turbo Mode or hyper-threading, this is still enough to drive the majority of games at playable resolution and detail settings.

The Core i3 processors may be marginally faster, equal, or even slower in some cases, but nearly all of them cost more. Since the G3258 is all about saving cash, it makes little sense to pair it with an expensive modular 1000-watt power supply, water-cooling setup or a deluxe motherboard that costs three times as much as the CPU. This is a perfect budget chip for a budget rig.

The same goes for the GPU. While you could pair an all-singing $349 GeForce GTX 970 with a $68 Pentium K processor, if you’re going down that line, it makes more sense to spend just another $150 and get a Core i5 for much better overall performance in a wider range of gaming and non-gaming tasks. If you’re trying to save cash and build the best gaming PC you can on a limited budget, a more modest graphics card will save hundreds, and also means you can use a less expensive power supply.

What would we recommend? A Micro-ATX Z97 motherboard such as the Gigabyte Z97M-DSH3 and a nice-looking case such as Corsair’s Carbide Air 240. 8GB of memory will be fine, and there are a new breed of affordable SSDs to consider, such as Corsair’s MX100, or Samsung’s 850 Evo. Buy a 512GB model and you can squeeze in loads of games from a bulging Steam library, leaving a hard disk off the shopping list. As for a graphics card, the Pentium K G3258 is a great partner for  AMD’s Radeon R270X, our favorite budget GPU, which can be found online for as little as $170.

So with these affordable prices, you can get a processor, motherboard, memory and graphics card for about $400. Although this doesn’t factor in a display, PSU or case, this is the guts of a gaming PC for around the same price as a PS4 or Xbox One.

Budget limitations

As great as the Pentium chip is, it does have some limitations. As we pointed out earlier, it's much slower than the i5-4690k and i7-4790k when it comes to demanding multi-core applications, like video encoding. That's because it's a dual-core CPU. Because many games don't take advantage of every CPU core, it can hold its own even in demanding modern games.

Benchmark Pentium G3258 Core i5 4690k Core i7 4790k
Tomb Raider (avg fps) 83.7 84.2 85
Metro: Last Light (1080p V. High) 36.3 45 45
Civ: Beyond Earth (avg fps) 134 170 172
Unigine Heaven 4.0 (fps) 51.8 53.6 53.5
Handbrake encode 4h 12m 1h 42m 1h 19m

Overclocked, the Pentium G3258 puts up some truly impressive numbers compared to the beefier chips.  As we pointed out in our review, punishing multi-core games are the only ones that give it problems. It's not a great CPU for Battlefield 4.

So how does the Pentium G3258 compare to AMD's budget price chips? Intel's been outperforming AMD in the high performance arena for several years, but still sells some chips at attractive budget prices. The strength of AMD's current APUs is their onboard graphics processing. They still beat Intel there, but that graphics performance is irrelevant if you're going to buy a graphics card. Our budget recommendation has this in mind. You could buy the  $110 AMD FX 6300, or buy the cheaper Pentium and put that $40 you save towards a much more powerful dedicated GPU.

AMD does have some cheaper desktop CPUs under the $100 mark. But they're just not as good for gaming, or don't come close to offering the same bang for your buck. The Tech Report found that the G3258  outperformed AMD's A6 and A10 APUs in Thief. Anandtech found the G3258 outperformed a new AMD APU that cost $80 more in some non-gaming tasks, and Guru3D found that it beat the same AMD A10-7800 in dedicated gaming benchmarks, too. At $70, the G3258 is the best budget CPU.

The best high-end gaming processor

Intel Core i7-4790k


  • Better multitasking than a Core i5
  • Hyperthreading speeds up a few games and tasks like video encoding
  • Very fast base clock speed
  • $100 more than a Core i5
  • Negligible framerate difference in most games

The  Core i7-4790k, which costs $330 on Amazon, is the best high-end gaming CPU money can buy for one reason: out of the box, its base clock frequency is 4 GHz, which is the highest of any desktop Intel processor to date. In Turbo Mode, it goes up to 4.4 GHz, a mighty speed that usually wouldn’t be a bad achievement when overclocking.

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CPU clock speed contributes greatly to a graphics card’s overall polygon-pushing performance, so for the absolute best frame rates at the highest possible detail settings, you want to pair the best GPU you can afford with the fastest CPU around, rather than the CPU with the most cores. It’s why people spend hours overclocking, tinkering with BIOS settings and installing large and expensive cooling systems to raise their CPU’s frequency as high as it can go. And it explains why the Core i7-4790k outperforms or equals Intel’s eight-core Core i7 5960x Extreme Edition processor in games, despite the 5960X costing $1050. Triple the price!

With the 4790k, you don’t have to bother with overclocking or even understand it. You’re getting a chip that runs exceptionally fast without having to lift a finger.

Then, there’s hyper-threading. This feature makes a quad-core processor appear to software as having eight cores, or a dual-core chip as having four. Heavily multi-threaded software can then make full use of every spare ounce of CPU power, running two threads on a single CPU core. Although in reality, the chip hasn’t gained any additional hardware, the improvement can mean tangible benefits in some software.

Not all games take advantage of hyper-threading, but it offers enough of a boost to non-gaming tasks to make it a desirable additional feature, especially if the chip is already blisteringly fast in gaming. And this is the reason the i7 is our high-end pick, rather than our general recommendation. When it comes to gaming, there's usually little distinguishable difference between the 4690k and the 4790k.  The i7 costs $100 more and barely makes a framerate difference in most cases. Outside of gaming, though, it has a bit more muscle to flex.

Gigabyte Gaming 5 - Hero

This is especially evident in our video encoding test. Both the Core i5-4690k and Core i7-4790k are quad-core chips, but the Core i7 has hyper-threading, which contributes to reducing the total encode time by roughly 25%. Very useful if you’re interested in converting videos to smaller files for use on a tablet or phone. And it’s here where the dual-core chips really come under pressure, taking hours longer than either the 4690k or 4790k.

If you’re building a heavy-duty system for processor-intensive tasks, which includes 3D design using tools such as Maya and 3Ds Max, audio editing, photo processing and video effects, the i7 is a nice step up from the i5.

For gaming, as we mentioned before, more GPU power usually makes a bigger difference than an extra few hundred megahertz. If you take a look at our results, the extra performance of the Core i7-4790k means a very slim improvement to average gaming benchmark results. It seems that in some of the tests, the GPU, not the CPU, was the main performance bottleneck.

Benchmark Pentium G3258 Core i5 4690k Core i7 4790k
Tomb Raider (avg fps) 83.7 84.2 85
Metro: Last Light (1080p V. High) 36.3 45 45
Civ: Beyond Earth (avg fps) 134 170 172
Unigine Heaven 4.0 (fps) 51.8 53.6 53.5
Handbrake encode 4h 12m 1h 42m 1h 19m

But the minimum and maximum frame rates are notably improved with the Core i7-4790k, in particular in the Metro Last Light test, which has a variety of action-packed sequences.

Benchmark Pentium G3258 Core i5 4690k Core i7 4790k
Tomb Raider (min) 62 65 66
Tomb Raider (max) 102 103 106
Metro: Last Light (min) 13.3 18 29.4
Metro: Last Light (max) 62 74.8 84.2
Civ: Beyond Earth (min) 75 104 119
Civ: Beyond Earth (max) 152 194 207.6

So while we’re looking at the best CPU for gaming, nearly everyone will use their PC for other tasks as well. Improved performance in multi-threaded games and media software is a nice, if not essential, addition to having the highest out-of-the-box clock speed then, that only strengthens the Core i7-4790k’s position as the best chip to go for in a premium gaming PC.

However, these extra features aren’t essential to gaming, and given the additional cost of the  i7-4790k, it isn’t a clear leap ahead in gaming performance over the Core i5-4690k to make it the best overall CPU.


The X99 platform and Extreme Edition Core i7 processors, like the $1050 Core i7-5960x, come with six or eight cores, great for hardcore non-gaming tasks. A Core i7-5960x can chew through the same video encode test in just 45 minutes, about half the time of the 4790k.

But its clock frequency is lower at just 3GHz, which means worse performance in most games. Even overclocked, it's ideally suited to video editing, not gaming. Factor in the cost of DDR4 memory and an expensive motherboard, and the Extreme Edition chips just aren't cost effective for gaming.

They do offer one advantage: multi-GPU support. The Core i7-4790k only has 16 PCI-Express lanes, so a single GPU can utilize the full bandwidth of the 16x PCI-Express bus. Two GPUs will each run at 8x.

The Extreme Edition chips have more lanes. The Core i7-5820k has 24, which means either one 16x card and one 8x, or three GPUs running at 8x. The pricier 5930k and 5960x both have 40 PCI-Express lanes. But does that matter? Only if you're running triple GPU. This Linus Tech Tips video shows that there's no performance loss with two cards running at 8x. Don't waste money on a Haswell-E processor for a dual-GPU gaming rig.

How we tested processors and others we tested

For the vast majority of games, features like additional CPU cores and hyper-threading make little difference to performance. They certainly affect non-gaming tasks like video encoding or applying filters in Photoshop, but they have a bigger impact on price than frames per second.

We’ve considered this when choosing the best CPUs for PC gaming. We’re not recommending the most expensive, high-end Extreme Edition CPU. Sure, it’s the most powerful—but it’s also way more money than you need to spend. And those extra cores and that extra power don’t make a CPU like the $1050 Intel i7 5960X particularly better at gaming than a more mainstream model. Budgetary requirements are a major factor, as you’ll usually get better gaming performance from your PC by choosing a middle-of-the-road CPU and putting the saving into purchasing a better graphics card.

For this reason, our absolute favorite gaming CPU is  Intel’s Core i5-4690K, since it’s the perfect balance of value and performance. It usually retails for less than $250 on Amazon and it carries some excellent specifications—it’s a quad-core processor that runs at 3.5 GHz, which means it’s more than capable of driving any graphics card it’s paired with, and never drags down gaming performance. You can even overclock it to well over 4 GHz to get even more performance.

The i5-4690K is the best CPU for most rigs, but we know some PC gamers are building on a budget, or want more performance out of the gate without overclocking. Here’s how we tested.

How we tested

Generally speaking, gaming performance is affected by multiple aspects of your computer’s CPU. Its technical efficiency is probably the biggest, as in how good it is at number crunching. A highly efficient processor running at just 2 GHz can easily outperform a less efficient processor running at a higher clock speed.

A great example is the Pentium 4 from ten years ago, which was easily beaten by AMD’s Athlon chips in gaming benchmarks, due its less efficient Netburst architecture. But given two CPUs based on the same architecture, the one that runs at a faster clock speed will nearly always win. Some games, but not all, will make use of multiple CPU cores and it’s also important to have a good amount of cache (per core) to ensure memory performance remains strong.

It does depend on the individual game though, how it’s designed and coded. Some games will really benefit from a faster CPU, while others will see little difference, as they’re almost entirely reliant on the power of your GPU. For reference, here are a few late 2014 recommended game specs:

  • Far Cry 4: 2.5GHz i5-2400S processor
  • Civilization: Beyond Earth: 1.8GHz quad core processor
  • Dragon Age: Inquisition: 3.0 GHz quad core processor

All the processors were tested in a PC with an Asus Z87 Pro motherboard, with 16GB of 1600 MHz Crucial DDR3 memory, running Windows 8.1 on a SanDisk Extreme Pro SSD. This specification represents a fairly high-end modern gaming PC. It had an Nvidia GeForce GTX 970, a highly capable graphics card that can really drive 3D performance.

We first used some quick-and-easy synthetic tests, including Geekbench and Unigine Heaven 4.0. Geekbench is a suite of CPU tests that measures processor speed when performing a variety of calculations that are likely to be used in day-to-day use of an operating system. It provides a score for performance when running a single process, which is akin to its raw speed, and another for multi-threaded software, which benefits greatly from additional CPU cores.

The real beauty of Geekbench is that its cross platform, so can be used to compare the relative performance of a tablet, phone and PC, across Windows, Android, OS X and iOS.

Unigine Heaven

Unigine Heaven is more gaming focused, as it draws a number of 3D scenes that look very much like a fantasy game. It calculates framerate and provides a score at the end.

We also ran a video encode of a three-hour long 1080p video, using Handbrake at its default settings, with the iPad preset. Video encoding is a tough job for any computer, as it has to process every frame in sequence, and will tax the CPU for hours at a time.

For gaming benchmarks, we used Tomb Raider, Metro Last Light and Sid Meier’s Civilization: Beyond Earth. All the tests were done at 1080p at the highest detail setting possible.

From each game we got a figure for the average, minimum and maximum frame rates. The most important of these is the minimum, for a game may feature some quiet scenes with relatively few models, so it runs at a high frame rate, followed by action-packed sequences with all kinds of debris, particle effects and good old destruction. It’s here where a game may slow down, and the minimum frame rate represents the worst-case scenario in that sequence.

In the case of Beyond Earth, its predecessor was heavily dependent on CPU performance, especially during the late-game stages, with dozens of units on screen at once, so the results should be interesting with this follow-up, although this time there’s a multi-threaded rendering option, which we enabled.

Finally, a hearty thanks to UK retailer  Scan Computers and Intel UK for loaning us the processors for testing.


Although Intel has dominated our CPU recommendations, this is due to their current strong position in the CPU market. AMD’s competing processors are a fine platform, and won’t exactly perform badly in games, but the company remains a step behind Intel, unable to offer the same level of performance at the same price.

If you take a look at the in-depth review of  AMD’s FX-8370E processor on Anandtech, the benchmark graphs show the Core i5-4690K storming ahead of AMD in every test, while consuming less power.

We’ve already mentioned the Extreme Edition processors from Intel, and prior to writing this article, thought long and hard about including the Core i7-5960X in our recommendations. But we ultimately decided against it. Not only does that chip retail for a whopping  $1049 on Amazon, it only runs at 3 GHz out of the box, which will mean slower graphics performance than you get from the 4790K or 4690K, despite offering eight cores. There are few affordable X99 motherboards that support it, and it also requires DDR4 memory, which does run considerably faster than DDR3, but also costs a lot more, and so increases the price of this platform. Even opting for the more affordable six-core Core i7-5820K processor is a costly proposition. The only reason to choose the 5820K over the 4790K is for a triple-GPU setup.

In its defense, the Haswell-E processors are fairly easy to overclock. With an all-in-one closed-loop water cooler, such as Corsair’s H105 Hydro, the Core i7-5960X should hit 4.2 GHz, but even at this speed it’s still not a clear leap ahead of the Core i7-4790K in gaming.

Future processors

Intel’s forthcoming Broadwell platform ushers forth a process shrink to 14nm transistors, meaning much better power efficiency than with the current 22nm Haswell chips. But the platform is launching in stages, with the first chips being ultra low voltage models intended for mobile devices. The desktop updates will come last, for a projected summer 2015 launch.

And in addition, there’s a brand new architecture officially scheduled for 2015 as well, called Skylake. Little is known about these new processors, aside from a few planned updates to the chipset, including Thunderbolt 3.0 support, and PCI-Express 4.0.

Both of these new technologies will double the bandwidth of their respective predecessors. In the case of Thunderbolt 3.0, that means external devices connecting at 40Gbit/sec, while PCI-Express 4.0 will mean even better graphics performance.

But given the 2015 launch of Broadwell, it’s not currently clear whether Intel plans to push back the desktop Skylake launch or whether Broadwell will be a stop-gap technology.

As the second-place runner for what seems like an eternity now in the race for top-end CPU performance, it’s AMD’s APU designs which are more in the spotlight for 2015.  According to an article on WCCFTech, the forthcoming Project Skybridge will shrink AMD’s APU to 20nm and feature full ARM support as well as x86, allowing Android to run natively on PC hardware. These chips could make a good alternative to an Intel processor for more affordable gaming PCs.AMD has already had a lot of success with its APU designs, with custom chips used in both the Xbox One and PS4, with strong rumours that it will also power the Wii U’s successor.

But its worth pointing out that Intel isn’t resting on its laurels when it comes to integrated graphics. Using Intel’s graphics once meant utterly dire gaming performance, if a game ran at all. But starting a few generations ago, more of the CPU die was dedicated to an integrated GPU. With Haswell, Intel’s graphics have become reasonably competent at running modern games, albeit in modest detail settings and resolutions. Broadwell and Skylake will no doubt continue this trend and see even better integrated GPU performance. Still, we'll always recommend buying a dedicated GPU, even for a budget gaming rig.

And with the move to ARM compatibility, it’s impossible not to see the blurring of the lines between mobile and PCs. As once pointed out by Anandtech, today’s battle is not for performance or clock frequency, but for performance per watt of energy consumed. In desktop gaming PCs, this means new CPUs have to offer better performance without consuming more power than before, while in mobile it means getting better performance without affecting battery life.

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