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.
Update 2/11/2016: We've revamped our testing and recommendations for the best gaming CPU and best high-end CPU, respectively. Our next update will tackle the best budget CPU for gaming.
The best gaming processor
- Handles even the most demanding PC games
- Moderate improvement over the previous i5
- Good overclocking potential to 4.5 GHz and beyond
- Z170 platform brings more PCIe lanes and support for cutting edge memory and SSDs
- Lower base clock speed than Core i7
- Lacks the Core i7's Hyperthreading, useful in very demanding multithreaded applications
It takes a lot to improve on a processor. Hundreds of millions of dollars of R&D, in fact. Take the short-lived Broadwell CPU, released just a few months before Skylake: in essence it’s a die shrink of the Haswell architecture, but boy did it take Intel some time to get that one nailed. But then shrinking below 22nm is no laughing matter. It was Intel’s (and the world’s) first-ever consumer 14nm processor. That paved the way for Skylake and the i5-6600K, the new best gaming CPU in town.
Sklyake's new architecture at 14nm provided a much needed 10% improvement on the last generation of processors while also supporting modern advancements with the Z170 chipset. It brought DDR4 support to the masses, improved USB and Thunderbolt support and swapped over from 8 PCIe 2.0 lanes on the chipset to 20 PCIe 3.0 lanes instead, for all of your M.2 storage needs.
The best budget gaming processor
- 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
Note: There are now better low-end CPUs than the G3258, as more games begin to take advantage of quad core CPUs. We'll have an update for this recommendation soon.
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.
The best high-end gaming processor
- Far better multitasking than an i5
- More cores than a Skylake i7 for an equivalent price
- Overclockable to give all six cores even more multitasking power
- $130 more than a Core i5
- Negligible performance difference in most games, which won't use the extra cores
In the last iteration of this buyer’s guide we opted for a standard i7 CPU over the more premium Haswell-E, deciding the "extreme" platform was too expensive to recommend for gaming. Since then, as usual, the dynamic PC gaming landscape has changed quite dramatically.
To understand our choice here, you have to understand exactly how the industry and our demographic is changing. Today’s 1.2 billion PC gamers stream, they render video, they work on their machines and run all sorts of additional programs in the background. And for that reason we decided to opt for the Intel Core i7-5820K as our best high-end gaming processor.
How we tested processors and others we tested
In our latest round of testing, we focused on Intel's new Skylake CPUs and how those compared to last generation's Devil's Canyon and the still competitive X99 Haswell-E platform. For our next update, we plan to focus on the budget tier and incorporate benchmarks with AMD's latest processors.
How we tested
To bring our CPU testing and buyer’s guides in line with the rest of our future reviews, we decided to completely rework our testing protocols for the lot of them. First we have to start with the test beds.
|Platform||Z170 - Skylake||X99 - Haswell-E|
|Motherboard||Asus Z170 Maximus VIII Formula||Asus X99 TUF Sabertooth|
|RAM||32GB (4x8GB) Corsair Dominator Platinum 2400 MT/s C14||32GB (4x8GB) Corsair Dominator Platinum 2400 MT/s C14|
|GPU||Nvidia GeForce GTX 980||Nvidia GeForce GTX 980|
|SSD 1||Samsung 950 Pro 512GB M.2 NVMe SSD||Samsung 950 Pro 512GB M.2 NVMe SSD|
|SSD 2||Samsung 850 Pro 2TB SSD||Samsung 850 Pro 2TB SSD|
|PSU||Be Quiet! Dark Power Pro Platinum 1200W||Be Quiet! Dark Power Pro Platinum 1200W|
|CPU Cooler||NZXT Kraken X61||NZXT Kraken X61|
As you can see it’s a pretty extensive array of hardware, most of it not cheap. The reason being is that when testing CPUs we want to ensure that there are minimal to zero bottlenecks in other parts of our systems. Samsung’s 950 Pro PCIe M.2 drives are phenomenally fast, and provide us with ample storage room to play with. Couple that with the 2TB SSD to house our Steam library and we’re set. Sticking with Asus for motherboards meant we shouldn’t have any conflicting driver issues. And Nvidia’s GeForce GTX 980 is still a powerful GPU, capable of driving games both at 1440p and 1080p with little to no problem. Cool all this with a full 280mm NZXT Kraken X61 and we’re good to push the overclocks as hard as we can.
Then it comes down to our testing software suite. We use a fresh install of Windows 10 Technical Preview, alongside the latest chipset, driver and BIOS updates for both boards. For computational rendering benchmarks we decided to use both CineBench (R15) and HWBOT’s x265 Benchmark. For synthetic graphics testing we used both 3D Mark Firestrike’s standard test, and Heaven 4.0. Then for good measure we threw in AS SSD’s Sequential and 4K benchmarks for our second SSD, and also prepared a 5GB archive folder package, just to see what each CPU could do.
Then it’s all about them load tests, so for power draw and temperature we powered the system on, closed down any additional programs, waited 5 minutes and took readings from our watt measuring device and the average from the four cores from real temp GT. Then to test load temperatures we coupled Prime 95’s burn test with a standard FurMark 1920x1080 GPU stress test, waited five more minutes and did the same. We did this at both stock and overclocked frequencies, that way we could ensure that we had stable overclocks at the same time.
Then the most important factor came down to the game tests. We used Total War: Attila’s in engine benchmark tool, Batman: Arkham Knight’s in engine benchmark tool (for an example of an unoptimised game), Call of Duty: Black Ops 3 for your traditional AAA shooter, and of course Project Cars, to try and push the GPUs as hard as we could.
All benchmarks are performed three times, and then an average is taken from the three. All gaming benchmarks, bar the integrated ones are recorded in MSI’s Afterburner software, pulled into an excel document and then the average is found from there.
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. AMD's new Zen CPU, releasing in 2016, could majorly shake things up, with a huge expected jump in instructions per clock. We're eagerly waiting to see how the next round of competition plays out.
Original reporting by Orestis Bastounis. Updated reporting by Zak Storey.
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