The best PC gaming processors

PC Gamer Feb 11, 2016
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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

Intel Core i5-6600K

AT A GLANCE

  • 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.

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Specs

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): 91W
PCI-Express 3.0 lanes: 16

Since the launch of Nehalem way back in 2009, the i5 processor lineup has been the absolute cornerstone of dependable gaming processors. And today, not a lot has changed. If you’re after one of the best all-rounders, Intel’s i5-6600K is definitely up there with the best of them. Much more reasonably priced than the audacious i7-6700K, this quad-core chip runs at a base frequency of 3.5 GHz, ramping up all the way to 3.9 GHz under turbo. Although this i5 has an almost identical spec to our previous favorite CPU, the Core i5-4690K, overall performance for this processor trumps its predecessor by up to 10% in rendering, archiving and other workstation simulated tasks.

That doesn’t sound like a lot, but if you’ve been coasting on an Intel i5-2500K for a few years, now might be the time to make a jump to a new CPU. You’ll be looking at around 30-40% improved performance at the very least. And that’s not including the real reason to upgrade: all the new features of the Z170 chipset.

So why not an i7? Well there’s two main factors, the first being the cost. If you’re lucky you might be able to net yourself one of the nifty i7-6700Ks for just under £300 or $410, but honestly that’s a hell of a jump from the i7-4790K more reasonable price. And secondly? The i7's hyper-threading adds very little to overall gaming performance. For the money you’d be far better off spending more on your graphics card instead.

If you are interested in the idea of streaming your gameplay footage over Twitch, or rendering YouTube videos for the masses to see, hyper-threading will be more useful, but even then we still wouldn’t suggest you grab the i7-6700K (see below). Ultimately it’s just not the best value for money. And for the vast majority of us the thoroughbred specs of Intel’s i5 lineup will be more than enough to satisfy all of our gaming desires.

Empire Total War

Overclocking the 6600K

The next question we’re sure you’re asking is: “why the K series?” Overclocking isn’t for everyone, but it’s all about that longevity. Three of four years from now you might find yourself beginning to struggle with game performance. Whether that’s with post-processing effects, CPU-based rendering, or computational tasks, it’s eventually going to happen, and when that time comes it certainly won’t hurt to have some extra oomph from overclocking.

Throughout the entirety of Intel’s processor range the “K/X” in the model designation indicates that the multiplier has been left unlocked. What this means is that by adding a little extra voltage you can successfully adjust the multiplier to achieve a far higher overall clock frequency than before. Take this i5-6600K. It comes clocked at standard at 3.9 GHz, or 3900 MHz—a multiplier of 39, alongside a base clock frequency of 100. A simple overclock would be to increase the multiplier to 43, this would provide you with an overall frequency of 4.3 GHz and improve your performance in game, as well as in other computational benchmarks.

There’s more to it than that, and there’s inevitably always going to be some danger when it comes to increasing the amount of voltage going into your CPU. We’ll let Asus show you how it’s done here (don’t worry, though: the basic principles of overclocking haven’t changed much since Sandy Bridge).

In our testing we managed to get a maximum 4.8 GHz out of our Intel Core i5-6600K, with 1.4v amping into the VCore. For an everyday overclock we would advise you stick to something more comfortable like 4.4-4.6 GHz. It shouldn’t push your CPU too hard, and in some cases you might not even need to adjust the voltage, depending on how lucky you get in the silicon lottery.

Performance versus price

If you have no intention of overclocking, you won’t be much worse off immediately by opting for the i5-6600 instead. What matters here is the number of cores, and although there are definitely games out there that can make use of that additional processing power, they’re very few and far between. In fact if you’re looking to overclock anything, boosting your GPU by 5-10 percent will actually gain you far more frames per second in game than anything you ever do to your CPU.

Conclusion

As far as gaming performance goes, Intel’s i5-6600K is a strong contender. In our benchmarks we found this mighty quad-core provided little to no bottleneck in typically simple AAA titles. More CPU intensive games such as Creative Assembly’s Total War franchise benefited the most from additional clock frequency, more threads/cores, but it wasn’t enough to cause us any major worry, as most of this was down to post-processing, and the colossal number of assets being rendered and thrown around on screen.

Ultimately the i5-6600K’s biggest advantage came down to that Z170 chipset. Better support for M.2/U.2 PCIe storage, better USB support, overall lower power consumption, and that 10 percent improvement in computational tasks. In the vast majority of games can match up to either of the two big boys in our testing no sweat. For those reasons alone it’s our gaming CPU of choice.

The best budget gaming processor

Intel Pentium K Anniversary Edition G3258

AT A GLANCE

  • 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.

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Specs

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 i7-5820k

AT A GLANCE

  • 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.

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Specs

Number Of Cores: 6
Hyper-threading: Yes 
Base Clock Frequency: 3.3 GHz
Turbo Clock Frequency: 3.6 GHz
L3 Cache: 15MB
Thermal Design Power (TDP): 140W
PCI-Express 3.0 lanes: 28

Why? Well, Intel’s Sklake i7-6700K costs £300 or $410 to invest in, and considering the i7-5820K comes in just £20 more in the UK and $25 less in the US, it’s just too good an opportunity to miss at this price point. If you do decide to invest in the X99 platform, the i7-5820K will provide you with six cores, clocked at 3.3 GHz and turboing up to 3.6 GHz, 28 PCIe 3.0 lanes supported directly by the CPU, 15 MB of L3 Cache, along with all of the support the X99 chipset can muster.

So is this truly still better than Skylake’s crème de la crème of processors,the i7-6700K? Yep, absolutely. In computational benchmarks those six cores run rings around it’s Skylake cousin. If you do overclock the i7-6700K up to 4.8 GHz you can keep pace with a stock 5820K, but as soon as you touch the multiplier on that monster of a value CPU it rockets well beyond reach once more.

Gigabyte Gaming 5 - Hero

As far as gaming goes there’s very negligible difference between the two CPUs. This is mostly down to the fact that the vast majority of graphical rendering is now done on the GPUs of today. Any post-processing effects are so limited in contrast to the power CPUs have available to them, that they really do not become a bottleneck to any great degree. Indeed we’ve noticed even with our i7-5820K de-clocked down to 2.7 GHz we still saw absolutely no degradation in overall frame rate for games such as Shadow of Mordor. The biggest advantages we saw were in unoptimised titles such as Batman Arkham Knight and Ark: Survival Evolved, where those six cores battered the i7-6700K into submission by up to 20fps in some cases.

Price of the X99 platform

You can spend a lot of money in the enthusiast section of Intel’s arsenal. Admittedly there are motherboards out there topping £400 if you look hard enough, but to be frank, the same can be said for Skylake. Couple that with how the price of DDR4 continues to plummet and you’re actually starting to find affordable X99 systems popping up all over the place. DDR4 was another price barrier a year ago; now it's cheaper than DDR3.

If you’re from the UK, check out Overclocker’s Titan Riptide as a good example.

Performance

As we’ve already established, the performance in-game at this point is well beyond any bottlenecks. You’re just not going to see much (if any) change in overall frame rates between high-end CPUs. Even if you’re running multiple GPUs, with Skylake now supporting those additional PCIe 3.0 lanes through the DMI chipset, and X99 supporting them through the physical CPU, you’re just not going to find any problems here.

The big one then is the computational tasks. If you’re looking at venturing into the world of Twitch streaming, perhaps starting to create some YouTube videos with your buddies, or even need a system that can compete as both a fully professional workstation and a gaming station, X99 is an incredibly good decision to take, especially with the 5820K.

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.

PlatformZ170 - SkylakeX99 - Haswell-E
MotherboardAsus Z170 Maximus VIII FormulaAsus X99 TUF Sabertooth
RAM32GB (4x8GB) Corsair Dominator Platinum 2400 MT/s C1432GB (4x8GB) Corsair Dominator Platinum 2400 MT/s C14
GPUNvidia GeForce GTX 980Nvidia GeForce GTX 980
SSD 1Samsung 950 Pro 512GB M.2 NVMe SSDSamsung 950 Pro 512GB M.2 NVMe SSD
SSD 2Samsung 850 Pro 2TB SSDSamsung 850 Pro 2TB SSD
PSUBe Quiet! Dark Power Pro Platinum 1200WBe Quiet! Dark Power Pro Platinum 1200W
CPU CoolerNZXT Kraken X61NZXT 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.

Benchmarks

Socket2011 - 311511151
ChipsetX99Z170Z170
CodenameHaswell-ESkylakeSkylake
Modeli7-5820Ki7-6700Ki5-6600K
Computational Benchmarks
CineBench (R15)1,008873591
HWBOT x265 Benchmark21.64 fps20.90 fps15.50 fps
AS SSD - Sequential SSD2497 MB/s - 480 MB/s500 MB/s - 479 MB/s492 MB/s - 466 MB/s
AS SSD - 4K SSD232 MB/s - 83MB/s24 MB/s - 48 MB/s26 MB/s - 45 MB/s
Firestrike - Integrated--1,0901,053
Firestrike - Dedicated11,32811,29310,469
Heaven 4.0 - Dedicated72.9 fps75.3 fps74.4 fps
Extract Time - 5GB Folder00:5800:4500:51
Archive Time - 5GB Folder02:1102:4904:08
Overclock Benchmarks
Maximum Overclock Achieved4.5 GHz4.9 GHz4.8 GHz
Maximum Overclock Voltage1.415V / 1.9V1.41V1.4V
CineBench (R15)12941,060772
Heaven 4.0 - Dedicated74.8 fps75.5 fps74.9 fps
HWBOT x265 Benchmark28.76 fps25.35 fps20.17 fps
Power & Temperature
Draw & Temp - Idle70W / 25*63W / 21*61W / 21*
Draw & Temp - Load375W / 50*353W / 61*299W / 42*
Draw & Temp OC - Idle95W / 26*81W / 27*71W / 22*
Draw & Temp OC - Load527W / 78*420W / 86*340W / 63*
Gaming Benchmarks
Total War: ATTILA47.846.5 fps38.1 fps
Batman: Arkham Knight106 fps87 fps87 fps
CoD: Black Ops 396.0 fps74.1 fps85.1 fps
Project Cars70.0 fps69.1 fps64.9 fps
Gaming Benchmarks @ OC
Total War: ATTILA52.6 fps51.2 fps48.6 fps
Batman: Arkham Knight109 fps90 fps95 fps
CoD: Black Ops 398.7 fps83.3 fps88.4 fps
Project Cars69.0 fps69.4 fps69.8 fps

Competitors

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.

A note on affiliates: some of our stories, like this one, include affiliate links to stores like Amazon. These online stores share a small amount of revenue with us if you buy something through one of these links, which helps support our work evaluating PC components.

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