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 graphics cards have taken a more prominent role, at least when it comes to gaming PCs. Meanwhile, 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.
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.
Today, the range of CPUs available from AMD and Intel is incredibly diverse. Just looking at the current generation, Intel has 2-core/2-thread (2C/2T) Kaby Lake budget parts starting at around $50/£50, through entry-level 2C/4T offerings (Pentium G4560 and similar), then mainstream 4C/4T (eg, i5-7600K) and 4C/8T (i7-7700K) parts. Meanwhile, the top Intel CPU is the 10C/20T Core i9-7900X—with 12-core through 18-core Skylake-X parts slated to arrive for the X299 platform over the next couple of months.
AMD's portfolio is no less diverse, with 4C/4T Ryzen 3, 4C/8T and 6C/12T Ryzen 5, 8C/16T Ryzen 7 processors and now the X399 platform with the monstrous 16C/32T Threadripper 1950X and the only slightly less insane 12C/24T 1920X. Zen-based APUs with Vega graphics are expected sometime this fall, likely with 4-core CPU configurations and 1024 or fewer GPU cores.
Do you absolutely have to have one of the latest processors from either company? Of course not, and many gamers are still happily running CPUs that are several generations out of date. But for any new gaming PC build, there's little reason to buy older hardware, and we've updated our picks accordingly.
Remember that 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 (and a few additional thoughts for non-gaming purposes, naturally).
While we've selected our favorite CPUs from Intel's latest Kaby Lake and Skylake-X lines, along with AMD's Ryzen and Threadripper options, these aren't the only CPUs we tested. We've previously tested AMD's FM2+ APUs and AM3+ CPUs, and multiple generations of Intel's mainstream and enthusiast platform parts.
That means multiple test platforms, with the key components being the motherboard, memory, and graphics card. We standardized on Nvidia's GTX 1080 Ti FE as our graphics card, as it shows the largest difference in gaming performance you're likely to see with current generation GPUs. For memory, we've used high-end G.Skill TridentZ DDR4-3200 CL14 memory on all modern platforms, in either 2x8GB or 4x8GB configurations.
The motherboards used in testing include the MSI Z270X Gaming M7 for LGA1151, Asus X299-A Prime for LGA2066, and MSI X99A Gaming Pro Carbon for LGA2011-3 on the Intel side of things. For AMD platforms, we used the Gigabyte AX370-Gaming 5 for Ryzen, and the Asus Zenith Extreme for Threadripper. Liquid cooling was used on all CPUs.
You can read the details of the individual tests in our latest CPU reviews, the most recent of which is AMD's Threadripper 1950X and 1920X. To keep things manageable for our buying guides, we've focused on the two summary charts, showing aggregate gaming performance and aggregate CPU performance. All of the results are for CPUs running at stock speeds, though we've also taken overclocked performance into account where applicable.
We measured performance in a variety of games using the GTX 1080 Ti. The current gaming suite consists of 16 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, x264 HD 5.0.1 (both passes), HwBot's x265 test, y-cruncher, PCMark 10, 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.
These charts show performance running 'clean' Windows 10 builds, with no other non-essential tasks gobbling up CPU time. What happens to gaming performance if you do other stuff? I actually tested the Core i5-7600K in a moderately loaded configuration, with numerous browser tabs open, doing a GPU-assisted Twitch livestream, while viewing a different livestream on a secondary monitor, and with bunches of other utilities and applications running in the background. The result was that the i5-7600K gaming performance dropped by around 10 percent on average, or in other words, it was still faster than a clean Ryzen 5 1600X for gaming (though minimum fps was a bit worse).
Peering into our crystal ball
Looking forward, we're entering a bit of a quiet period for CPUs now. AMD and Intel have launched both mainstream and enthusiast platforms, but Intel is apparently feeling pressure to close the gap between Ryzen 7 and the mainstream LGA1151 offerings. The answer is codenamed Coffee Lake, and it will also run in LGA1151 motherboards, but there's a catch: it will reportedly need a new 300-series chipset. Ugh. There's a chance that some manufacturers will update 200-series motherboards to work with Coffee Lake, similar to how Core 2 was running on old 945G motherboards a decade ago, but I wouldn't count on it.
Don't get confused by the new mobile 8th Gen Core processors, which are just using a revised Kaby Lake architecture. Coffee Lake is also Kaby Lake derived, but Intel will have at least one 6C/12T Core i7 model, and one 6C/6T Core i5 model. Both will be enthusiasts parts, which means unlocked multipliers. There will probably also be non-K SKUs that feature locked multipliers, but Intel hasn't spilled the beans yet. What we know for certain is that Coffee Lake will be classified as 8th Gen Core, and it will launch sometime this fall. Prices will most likely be similar to the current i5-7600K and i7-7700K.
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