We all know the heirarchy: GPUs are the rock stars of the PC gaming world, and even the best CPU for gaming struggles to claim its share of the limelight. But you ignore your processor at your own peril. Not only can a slow processor bottleneck a system the other parts of which are blindingly fast, but CPUs actually handle more in-game load than a lot of people give them credit for. Any time a game is simulating math-intensive systems or patterns, stuff like complicated weather or enemy artificial intelligence, it's likely to be leaning pretty hard on your CPU. This is especially true in strategy games and sims, of course, but almost all single player games incorporate AI of some kind when they're generating their opponents.
It's a pretty great time to be shopping for the best CPU for gaming, too, with the recent launch of AMD's Zen 2 chips, the Ryzen 3000-series. With these chips largely outperforming their Intel counterparts, or getting very close for less money, picking up a new CPU looks very tempting. We'll also inevitably see a price depression in older chips as they make way for the new models, so check back frequently for updating pricing on all our top picks.
1. Intel Core i9-9900K
The fastest processor for games, streaming, and more
Cores: 8 | Threads: 16 | Base Clock: 3.6GHz | Turbo Clock: 5.0GHz | Overclocking: Yes, 4.9-5.0GHz typical | L3 Cache: 16MB | TDP: 95W | PCIe 3.0 lanes: 16
The best processor can mean a lot of things. For pure gaming, the Core i9-9900K is overkill, unless you're planning on an extreme build with a top-tier graphics card. For those that do more than just playing games, however, the Core i9-9900K reigns as the overall king of performance. It's the fastest mainstream CPU for the LGA1151 platform, period.
The Core i9-9900K doesn't have the core counts found of chips like the i9-7980XE or Threadripper 2990WX, but it boasts the highest clockspeed of any current processor, with excellent per-core performance. Put it in a good enthusiast motherboard and you're likely to see all-core 'stock' clocks of 4.7GHz, with lighter workloads hitting 5.0GHz out of the box.
You'll need to bring your own cooling, which is Intel's approach to all its K-series and X-series processors, and definitely don't skimp. The i9-9900K can draw a lot of power and tends to run hotter than the previous gen, thanks to the extra cores. Even if you don't plan to overclock, I'd be hesitant to run the i9-9900K on air-cooling. A potent liquid cooling solution, like the NZXT Kraken X62, is what I recommend.
2. Intel Core i7-9700K
Excellent gaming performance at a lower price
Cores: 8 | Threads: 8 | Base Clock: 3.6GHz | Turbo Clock: 4.9GHz | Overclocking: Yes, 4.9-5.1GHz typical | L3 Cache: 12MB | TDP: 95W | PCIe 3.0 lanes: 16
Intel's Core i7-9700K is an interesting step down from the i9-9900K. It sports the same number of CPU cores, and clockspeeds are similar as well, with most Z390 boards running the chip with all-core turbo speeds of 4.6-4.7GHz. In games, it's effectively tied with the more expensive Core i9 but costs $100-$150 less. That's because for the first time, Intel has shipped a Core i7 without Hyper-Threading.
It's a balancing act between price, performance, and features. Compared to the Core i7-8700K, it has 33 percent more cores, which generally translates directly into multithreaded performance. Hyper-Threading typically only improves performance by 10-15 percent, so it's a net win. The lack of Hyper-Threading also means the i7-9700K doesn't get nearly as hot as the Core i9, so you can get by with a good air cooler.
If you're livestreaming, doing video editing, or any other serious content creation work, stepping up to the 9900K makes sense. But if you're primarily concerned with gaming, an 8-core Coffee Lake clocking close to 5GHz is as good as it gets.
3. Intel Core i7-8700K
The previous gen king is still a great choice
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
Last year's king of the hill, the Core i7-8700K still boasts excellent performance and can clock at 5GHz with a good cooler. It's also less expensive than the above CPUs, at least for the time being, and works in the same motherboards. It's a bit of a tossup between this and the 9700K right now (the limited supply Core i7-8086K is basically done now), with the 8700K currently saving you around $50.
There are a few caveats as well, like the fact that the i7-8700K depends on software and firmware mitigations for side-channel attacks like Meltdown, Spectre, and Foreshadow. You also still need to bring your own cooler, and unlike the 9th gen Intel CPUs, you don't get solder as a TIM (Thermal Interface Material). Delidding and using liquid metal can be a good investment for long-term overclocking, as it provides a potential 10-20C drop in thermals.
In overall gaming performance, the Core i7-8700K ranks third, just barely behind the above choices. And you'll only really see that difference if you're running a top-of-the-line graphics card, at least a GTX 1080 Ti, at 1080p ultra. If you're playing at 1440p or 4k, your GPU will be the bottleneck with nearly any modern CPU (Ryzen 5 2600 / Core i5-8400 or better).
4. Intel Core i5-8400
The best mainstream CPU: great performance and a great price
Cores: 6 | Threads: 6 | Base Clock: 2.8GHz | Turbo Clock: 4.0GHz | Overclocking: No | L3 Cache: 9MB | TDP: 65W | PCIe 3.0 lanes: 16
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.
The only 9th Gen Core i5 for the time being is the i5-9600K, which is in most respects the same as the i5-8600K. It clocks higher and has an unlocked multiplier, but doesn't include a cooler. Given the price of the i5-8400, it's a fair compromise to skip overclocking and get everything you need in one inexpensive box. Note that as with other 8th Gen CPUs, side-channel attack mitigations come via firmware and software rather than being backed into the CPU.
In testing, even with a GTX 1080 Ti, the i9-9900K is only about six percent faster in games at 1080p. 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.
5. AMD Ryzen 5 2600X
Our favorite AMD CPU, with 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
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.
Gaming CPU retailers
If you can't find exactly what you're looking for here, a good tip is to check out some of the big retailers' landing pages. They constantly update prices and deals and refresh their stock of PC components. Some common options are below, leading straight to their latest selection of CPUs.
6. AMD Ryzen 7 2700
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.
7. 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
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.
8. 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
The X299 platform is Intel's HEDT (High-End Desktop) 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. The bad news is that the Core i9-9900K is awfully close in performance and costs quite a bit less, especially factoring in platform costs. If you're seriously thinking about Intel's LGA2066, you might want to step up to the i9-7980XE, because clearly price isn't much of a factor.
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 i7-8700K. 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.
9. 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
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 should 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 9900K, 9700K, and 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 for Intel processors, because AMD's 32-core Threadripper 2990WX is currently the unchallenged king of cores.
10. AMD Ryzen Threadripper 2990WX
An absolute monster of a CPU, with 32 cores and 64 threads, built for professionals
Cores: 32 | Threads: 64 | Base Clock: 3.0GHz | Turbo Clock: 4.2GHz | Overclocking: Yes, 4.0GHz at 500W | L3 Cache: 64MB | TDP: 250W | PCIe 3.0 lanes: 64
If you're a professional looking for the absolute fastest multithreaded performance possible in a single socket, look no further than AMD's Threadripper 2990WX. Our colleagues at AnandTech provide an in-depth review, and the numbers add up to some interesting results.
32 cores at 3.0-4.2GHz is unstoppable in the right workloads, like scientific calculations and 3D rendering. But there are also weaknesses in the many tasks that simply don't scale to that many cores and threads. Gaming is one of the weaknesses, not because you can't game but because you end up with a platform that generally loses to the Ryzen 7 desktop processors.
As an alternative to Intel's Core i9 products, AMD's Threadripper 2990WX wins out in many professional applications, especially in terms of value. Currently selling for $1,729.99, 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. Bottom line: For content creators and professionals, Threadripper CPUs are an excellent value.
How we tested and other processors
CPU review reference sheet
We haven't tested and reviewed every CPU made, but here's the list of processors we've reviewed during the past two years, from each manufacturer:
AMD Ryzen Threadripper 1950X and 1920X
AMD Ryzen 7 2700X
AMD Ryzen 7 1800X, 1700X, and 1700
AMD Ryzen 5 2600X
AMD Ryzen 5 2400G
AMD Ryzen 5 1600X, 1600, 1500X, and 1500
AMD Ryzen 3 2200G
AMD Ryzen 3 1300X and 1200
2017 was the Year of the CPU, 2018 kept the ball rolling, and 2019 is set to continue the trend. 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 MSI Z390 MEG Godlike and 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.
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. I've included all the other CPUs I've tested (plus some previous generation parts) in the following charts.
Gaming performance is tested in 10 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.
Swipe for additional charts
Swipe for additional charts
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
Early 2019 has been quiet on the processor front. 2018 gave us Intel's 9th Gen mainstream and enthusiast processors and AMD's second generation Ryzen CPUs, delivering up to 8-core/16-thread processors for regular joe users. AMD and Intel are also engaged in a core counts war, with AMD's 32-core Threadripper claiming top honors, though Intel sort of has a 28-core part for... nah, who am I kidding? It's a Xeon, and it's for professionals.
Looking to the near future, AMD announced third generation Ryzen CPUs at Computex on May 27, with a launch date of July 7. Those will be 7nm parts, and early indications are that they could close the gap with Intel's 9th gen CPUs. In fact, AMD showed the Ryzen 7 3800X beating the Core i9-9900K in Cinebench R20, in both singlethreaded and multithreaded modes. It also showed gaming performance increases of 11 to 31 percent over previous generation Ryzen parts, which means AMD has a legitimate shot at claiming the CPU crown.
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 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.
Jargon buster - a breakdown of some common CPU terminology
A small segment of high speed memory dedicated to storing and executing frequently used commands/instructions to speed up software execution. CPUs contain caches designed Level 1, 2, and 3, with L1 being the fastest and slowest and L3 being the slowest and largest.
A processing unit that handles threads of commands. Modern CPUs can contain anywhere from two to 70+ cores (in supercomputers), though CPUs housed in most consumer machines will generally carry between four and eight.
The speed at which a CPU can execute instructions, measured in hertz. A processor with a 3.7 GHz clock speed can process 3.7 thousand million instructions a second. Clock speed is one of the most important factors for determining performance in games and workload functions.
A cooling solution for PCs that either utilize fans or liquid cooling (active) or aluminum radiators (passive) that rely on convection to regulate the temperature of a component.
Intel developed solution that allows a processor two handle two sets of instructions simultaneously.
MT/s or GT/s
Megatransfers and gigatransfers per second, the number of data transfer operations a CPU can complete in one second.
LGA (Land Grid Array), PGA (Pin Grid Array), or BGA (Ball Grid Array), the way a CPU interfaces with the socket on a motherboard. LGA is Intel's socket in which the pins are native to the socket, whereas in AMD's solution, PGA, the pins are on the processor itself and fit into slots on the socket. A BGA socket is one in which the processor is permanently soldered to the motherboard.
Thermal design power, the maximum amount of heat a system or chip can produce that the attendant cooling system is designed to deal with under workload. This term can apply to PCs as a whole, GPUs, CPUs, or nearly any other performance component that generates heat, and is in large part an indicator of how much power a part draws.
Intel technology that allows processors to run at higher clock speeds under demanding loads.
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