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 other components like 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.
Intel's Kaby Lake launch is complete, and AMD has launched its 8-core Ryzen 7 processors and 4-core/6-core Ryzen 5 parts. We've updated our picks, not because Kaby Lake and Ryzen are vastly superior to what we had before, but if you're putting together a new system, these chips replace the previous generation at roughly the same price points.
For Intel, Kaby Lake and Skylake will even work in the same motherboard, so there's no reason to buy Skylake (short of some clearance sales). AMD's Ryzen is a different story, with gaming performance that often trails Intel's Core i7 parts, and even Core i5, but not by a huge margin. If you do other tasks on your PC, like multimedia work or professional applications, the added cores prove to be incredibly potent. In short, AMD's Ryzen brings many-core solutions into the realm of the possible.
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.
Intel's latest Kaby Lake CPUs are the highest clocked parts, which means they're often the fastest gaming chips. Broadwell-E/Haswell-E strike for more of a middle ground, using more power but still hitting 4.5GHz with overclocking. AMD's Ryzen meanwhile delivers eight cores at Intel's 4-core i7 price. These aren't the only CPUs we tested, as we've run a suite of benchmarks on several of AMD's older 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 AX370-Gaming 5 for Ryzen, 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.
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 Ryzen 1700, 1700X, and 1800X are the new darlings of the many-core world. They might not always beat Intel's CPUs, particularly when it comes to gaming performance, but for multi-threaded workloads they deliver incredible value. Or if you want to save a bit of money, Ryzen 5 1400/1500X/1600/1600X are also available at extremely attractive prices.
Looking at older CPUs, 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. There's no need to buy an FX chip these days, though if you have one that doesn't mean you absolutely must upgrade.
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. But at twice the price of the Pentium G4560 for maybe 5 percent more performance, it gets a pass. Either go for Core i5 or get the Pentium is our advice.
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.
Looking forward, AMD's Threadripper parts will boast core counts of up to 16, running on the massive socket TR4 platform. Parts are expected to ship this summer. Similarly, Intel's X299 platform with Core i5/i7 and the new Core i9 will be available soon, with up to 18-core/36-thread. With Core i9 prices starting at $999 and going up to $1,999, however, they're more for professionals and content creators than just gaming. But for extreme performance, wait a month or two before shelling out for a soon to be outdated X99 system.
Some online stores give us a small cut if you buy something through one of our links. Read our affiliate policy for more info.