The best CPU for gaming

When it comes time to build a gaming PC, it's important to pick the best CPU for the job. Most gamers will spend the most money on the graphics card, but what if you're doing more than just playing games? 

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Your CPU effects everything from gaming performance to OS and application performance, and it also dictates your platform and motherboard options. Streaming and video editing can readily benefit from more cores, and both AMD and Intel continue to push significantly higher core counts. 

The majority of games continue to target 4-core/4-thread PCs (they're ubiquitous), but future games are more likely to start moving toward utilizing 6-core and 8-core designs. Thankfully, a good gaming PC can usually handle other tasks, particularly with 6-core CPUs being the new standard for mainstream PCs.

Keep in mind that your CPU and motherboard might stick with you through several graphics card upgrades, so buying at the higher end of the spectrum can pay dividends in the long run. Check out our benchmarks at the end to see how the various processors stack up in games as well as other tasks. The good news is that whether your budget is $100 or $1,000 there's a CPU that will be right for your needs. Here are the best CPUs for gaming, professional work, and everything else.

Intel Core i5-8400

The best mainstream CPU: great performance and a great price

Cores: 6 | Threads: 6 | Base Clock: 3.8GHz | Turbo Clock: 4.0GHz | Overclocking: No | L3 Cache: 9MB | TDP: 65W | PCIe 3.0 lanes: 16

Fast enough for any single GPU
No aftermarket cooler required
Might bottleneck future GPUs
No overclocking

Intel's 8th gen Coffee Lake processors have pushed the desktop Core i5 from 4-core to 6-core territory, and the result is that the Core i5-8400 is an awesome CPU for gaming and other tasks. It has higher clockspeeds than the previous generation, and generally matches the previous generation i7-7700K in performance. As an added bonus, you get an appropriate cooler in the box, something I'd like to see as an option with every CPU.

In testing, even with a GTX 1080 Ti, the i7-8700K is only about three percent faster in games at 1080p (or six percent when overclocked). The i5-8400 is also still faster than every Ryzen processors for pure gaming purposes. Granted, at 1440p and above the CPU isn't a major consideration, but the i5-8400 is fast and affordable, and you don't need to worry about overclocking to get the most out of the chip. Buy any compatible motherboard and you're basically set.

Intel Core i7-8700K

The fastest processor for games, streaming, and more

Cores: 6 | Threads: 12 | Base Clock: 3.7GHz | Turbo Clock: 4.7GHz | Overclocking: Yes, 4.9-5.0GHz typical | L3 Cache: 12MB | TDP: 95W | PCIe 3.0 lanes: 16

Fastest CPU for gaming
Plenty of cores for other tasks
Marginal overclocking headroom
Requires aftermarket cooler

The Core i7-8700K has the highest stock clockspeeds Intel has ever offered, with the only potential upgrade right now being the higher clocked and limited supply Core i7-8086K. Either way, you get six cores and a huge boost to overall processing power, making this the fastest mainstream Intel processor. Most games don't currently use more than four cores, but that's starting to change, and the additional computational power can be very useful for streaming and other background tasks.

The i7-8700K is basically a response to AMD becoming competitive in the CPU scene again, with Ryzen offering 8-core/16-thread CPUs for under $300. If you're not totally focused on games, AMD's Ryzen 7 parts are a compelling alternative that can often beat the 8700K, but for games and multi-GPU, Intel still reigns supreme.

There are two main complaints against the i7-8700K. First, you'll need to buy your own cooler. Enthusiasts might do that regardless, but I'd love the option to get an appropriate cooler with a boxed CPU. The other complaint is that Intel's TIM (Thermal Interface Material) can limit overclocking potential. I consider delidding and using liquid metal a great investment for long-term overclocking, as it provides a potential 15-20C drop in thermals.

AMD Ryzen 5 2600X

Best AMD CPU: six cores and great performance at a bargain price

Cores: 6 | Threads: 12 | Base Clock: 3.6GHz | Turbo Clock: 4.2GHz | Overclocking: Yes, 4.1GHz typical | L3 Cache: 16MB | TDP: 65W | PCIe 3.0 lanes: 20

Awesome price for 6-core/12-thread
Nearly as fast in games as 2700X
Still slower than Intel in games
Modest overclocking potential

If you're after good gaming performance with an eye toward streaming and other multi-threaded uses, but you're working within a budget, AMD's Ryzen 5 2600X is an excellent choice. It delivers nearly the same gaming performance as the more expensive 2700X, thanks to similar stock clocks. For non-gaming tasks, it's also consistently faster than the similarly price i5-8400, and you can overclock it slightly as a bonus.

As with the Ryzen 7 2700 below, consider this a recommendation for either the Ryzen 5 2600X or the Ryzen 5 2600. Both are very similar, especially when overclocked—I measured only a small 50MHz difference in maximum stable OC during testing between the two. If you want to run stock, I recommend the 2600X and its higher clocks, but for overclocking the 2600 is the better value. Pick between the two as appropriate to your intended use.

One thing worth pointing out on AMD's Ryzen processors is that the CPUs (but not APUs) all have 16 PCIe lanes for graphics, plus an additional 4 PCIe lanes for an M.2 NVMe slot—and four more lanes connecting to the chipset. I've found in recent testing that the Spectre and Meltdown patches have reduced random IO SSD performance quite a bit on Intel platforms, and AMD is largely unaffected. If you're looking at a fast M.2 drive keep that in mind.

AMD Ryzen 7 2700

All the cores, overclocking, and excellent performance

Cores: 8 | Threads: 16 | Base Clock: 3.2GHz | Turbo Clock: 4.1GHz | Overclocking: Yes, 4.1GHz typical | L3 Cache: 16MB | TDP: 65W | PCIe 3.0 lanes: 20

Excellent performance
Great price for 8-core
Slower than Intel in most games
Wraith Spire limits OC potential

The best AMD CPU for overclockers is the Ryzen 7 2700. At stock, it's a bit slower than the 2700X and even the previous generation 1800X, and it's also slower than the i7-8700K. Add in a better cooler and overclock and you can erase most of those deficits. If you don't care to overclock, the Ryzen 7 2700X gets you better stock performance for a minor increase in price, and includes a better cooler. Consider this a recommendation for either CPU, depending on which way you lean.

The reason the 2700 is such a great CPU for overclocking is that it's still fully unlocked, just like AMD's other Ryzen processors. At stock, there's a 65W power limit in effect, which means in heavier workloads the clockspeed can drop to around 3.5GHz. Overclocking can get you back up to around 4.05-4.1GHz with 1.425V in my testing, which is only 100MHz behind the more expensive 2700X.

The Ryzen 7 2700 has also seen some great sales, like $225 during Prime Day. Even at the normal $280 asking price, it's still an awesome CPU. For non-gaming use, it's basically as fast as any of Intel's mainstream CPUs, and it's only noticeably slower in gaming if you're running a top-shelf GPU at 1080p.

AMD Ryzen 3 2200G

Vega 8 Graphics make this the best budget CPU you can buy

Cores: 4 | Threads: 4 | Base Clock: 3.5GHz | Turbo Clock: 3.7GHz | Overclocking: Yes, 4.0GHz typical | L3 Cache: 4MB | TDP: 65W | PCIe 3.0 lanes: 12

Fast integrated graphics
Awesome price for CPU + GPU
Slower than dedicated GPUs
Slowest 'modern' CPU

For those on a budget who just want something that can play games and won't break the bank, look no further than AMD's Ryzen 3 2200G. It's the lowest priced processor we can still recommend, easily besting Intel's Pentium Gold G5400 in gaming and non-gaming tasks.

Sure, AMD's 2200G costs $30 more, but you get a faster CPU in most workloads, the option to try a bit of overclocking, and integrated graphics performance that's more than three times as fast. It does the job of a $100 CPU paired with an $80 graphics card, and you can always upgrade to a more potent GPU in the future.

Intel Core i9-7900X

Extreme multi-threaded performance and plenty of PCIe lanes

Cores: 10 | Threads: 20 | Base Clock: 3.3GHz | Turbo Clock: 4.5GHz | Overclocking: Yes, 4.7GHz typical | L3 Cache: 13.75MB | TDP: 140W | PCIe 3.0 lanes: 44

Excellent multi-threaded performance
Nearly as fast as i7-8700K in games
Triple the price of the 8700K
Needs some serious cooling

The X299 platform is Intel's enthusiast offering, with current CPUs delivering up to 18-cores/36-threads. Such CPUs aren't needed for gaming (though if you have one, they'll work just fine). Instead, you get more cores and PCIe lanes. Even for SLI and CrossFire, the PCIe lanes are of marginal use, and you'll need to overclock to get the most out of such a setup. The good news is the Core i9-7900X is nearly as fast as the 8700K in games once both are overclocked, and it's often more than 50 percent faster in CPU limited workloads.

What sort of workloads need such a processor? If you're doing video editing, the 7900X can be more than 50 percent faster than the 8700K. It's also about 40 percent faster than the Ryzen 7 2700X (depending on what you're doing). Xeon processors are designed for professionals, and the Core i9 models improve clockspeeds and lower prices while targeting enthusiasts.

Intel Core i9-7980XE

For professional work in the day, gaming on the side

Cores: 18 | Threads: 36 | Base Clock: 2.6GHz | Turbo Clock: 4.4GHz | Overclocking: Yes, 4.1GHz typical | L3 Cache: 24.75MB | TDP: 165W | PCIe 3.0 lanes: 44

Fastest 'consumer' processor
Bragging rights
Costs as much as a high-end PC
Needs extreme cooling

Did you win the lottery and are looking for ways to blow your newfound wealth? Or did your work write you a blank check for a new workstation? Same difference, and if your livelihood depends on getting complex tasks done as quickly as possible, you might even be able to justify Intel's Core i9-7980XE. If you bill by the hour and can save hundreds of hours over the course of a year, look no further. Just don't pretend it's necessary for gaming.

Even with 80 percent more cores, the lower clockspeeds of each core make the 7980XE generally slower in games than the 7900X, which is in turn slower than an 8700K. Even in non-gaming heavily threaded applications it's still only about 30 percent faster than the 7900X—the law of diminishing returns is in full effect.

The good news is you get bragging rights. At least until AMD and Intel bring out their 32-core Threadripper and 28-core monstrosities later this year.

AMD Ryzen Threadripper 1950X

Excellent multi-core performance at a bargain price

Cores: 16 | Threads: 32 | Base Clock: 3.4GHz | Turbo Clock: 4.0GHz | Overclocking: Yes, 3.9GHz typical | L3 Cache: 32MB | TDP: 180W | PCIe 3.0 lanes: 64

16 cores for less than Intel's 10-core
More PCIe lanes
Gaming performance is mediocre
Expensive platform and memory

An alternative to Intel's Core i9 products, AMD's Threadripper 1950X wins out in most professional applications, especially in terms of value. Currently selling for $699.99, for multi-threaded workloads it's up to 33 percent faster than the i9-7900X. The problem is that in gaming workloads, it's often slower than even 6-core Ryzen 5 parts (unless you enable Game Mode to disable half the cores, which requires a reboot).

In other words, despite the massive core counts and oodles of PCIe lanes, this isn't a CPU for multi-GPU gaming. It's designed as the basis of a compute workstation, a task at which it excels. You could have four GPUs, two with 16 lanes and two with 8 lanes, and two M.2 NVMe drives, plus a few other peripherals, and not run into PCIe lane limitations. And despite the higher TDP, in practice I've found the 1950X actually uses less power than the Core i9 parts (thanks to X299 motherboards often being overly aggressive with clock speeds).

AMD has a 32-core Threadripper coming later this year, which will work in the same socket TR4 and X399 motherboards. For content creators and professionals on a more modest budget, Threadripper CPUs are an excellent value.

How we tested and other processors

2017 was the Year of the CPU, and 2018 has kept the ball rolling. We've tested dozens of new processors in the past year alone, plus multiple previous generations of processors. If you're using a 4th generation Intel CPU or earlier, or and AMD FX-series CPU or earlier, it's time to start thinking about upgrading.

For our testing, we standardized on Nvidia's GTX 1080 Ti FE as our graphics card. At 1080p, this 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 Trident Z and Flare X DDR4-3200 CL14 memory on all modern platforms, in either 2x8GB or 4x8GB configurations.

The motherboards used in testing include the Gigabyte Z370 Gaming 7 for Coffee Lake, MSI Z270X Gaming M7 for Kaby Lake/Skylake, 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 X470 Aorus Gaming 7 Wifi for Ryzen, and the Asus Zenith Extreme for Threadripper. Liquid cooling was used on all CPUs.

Performance Results

I've linked individual CPU reviews in the boxout above, but thanks to the Meltdown and Spectre exploits, and the patches to Windows intended to remedy those exploits, I had to retest every single processor. That's not quite complete, as I still need to retest Threadripper, but I've included all the other CPUs I've tested (plus some previous generation parts) in the following charts.

Gaming performance is tested in 20 games, representing a variety of genres and game engines, all using the GTX 1080 Ti FE. The games are 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 test general system and processor performance. Our suite includes Cinebench R15, Handbrake doing both H.264 and H.265 encoding, 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.

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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 tested this with a 4-core/4-thread 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 (and minimum fps dropped by 15 percent). Doing similar testing on a 6-core/12-thread resulted in a slightly smaller drop of 8 percent average, 14 percent minimum. In other words, the biggest factor is the additional GPU workload of the video encoding and Twitch decoding. More CPU threads won't help the GPU, unless you can move work from the GPU to the CPU.

Looking toward the future

AMD's second generation Ryzen CPUs have arrived, and there are credible rumors that Intel will be launching its Z390 chipset and up to 8-core/16-thread Coffee Lake processors in the coming months. AMD and Intel are also engaged in a core counts war, with 28-core and 32-core parts slated for later this year. We'll test all of these if/when they arrive.

It's worth reiterating that for gaming purposes, the CPU isn't going to need upgrading nearly as often as the graphics card, especially if you buy a higher spec processor to start with. When I looked at Nvidia's new GTX 1070 Ti, I tested it on both an overclocked i7-5930K and a stock i7-8700K. The results were basically a tie. So if you're not running an insane graphics card, keep that in mind.

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