Intel's Core i5-8400 is the best gaming CPU in years. It delivers performance on-par or better than last generation's i7 parts at a much more affordable price point. From a pure gaming perspective, it's also faster in nearly every game we've tested than any of AMD's processors. But it's not the only CPU you should consider, especially if you use your PC for tasks other than gaming.
2018 has started off with some nice additions to the AMD Ryzen family, first with the Ryzen 5 2400G and Ryzen 3 2200G APUs, and then with the second generation Ryzen 7 2700X and Ryzen 5 2600X. Along with the new AMD CPUs comes the improved X470 chipset, with B460 planned for a summer release. Intel has updated its CPUs and chipsets as well, making it easier to build affordable systems.
The best gaming PC
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When it comes time to build a new gaming PC, the CPU is no longer the most important component—that would be the graphics card. 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.
That's great news if you're upgrading an existing PC, but if you're building from scratch, don't just grab the cheapest CPU. Chances are that you'll be keeping that processor for many years, potentially through two or three graphics card upgrades. Plus, for non-gaming duties, the difference between a budget CPU and a midrange CPU can be very palpable.
CPU review reference sheet
Do you absolutely have to have one of the latest processors from either company? No, and many gamers are still happily running CPUs that are several generations out of date.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.
Newer isn't always better either, as there are multiple tiers of performance within either platform. Yesterday's Core i7 tends to look a lot like today's Core i5, and to a lesser extent the new Ryzen 5 often outpaces the first-gen Ryzen 7. You don't have to buy the most expensive processor to have a great gaming experience, as today's desktop processors can handle just about any game you throw at them.
We've researched and tested all the latest CPUs, along with looking at previous generations, and these are the best CPUs that are worth putting in your next gaming rig.
We've selected our favorite CPUs from Intel's latest Coffee Lake and Skylake-X lines, with AMD's Ryzen and Threadripper as alternatives, but these aren't the only CPUs we've tested. Over the past several years, we've used 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 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 AX370-Gaming 5 for Ryzen, and the Asus Zenith Extreme for Threadripper. Liquid cooling was used on all CPUs.
You can see the details of the individual tests in our latest CPU reviews, the most recent of which is AMD's Ryzen 5 2400G. 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 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 FE. 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 test general system and processor performance. Our 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.
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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 actually tested this with 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
AMD's second generation Ryzen CPUs have arrived, and I'm testing a few more of those along with some of Intel's updated Coffee Lake parts. Further out, there are rumors of 8-core/16-thread Intel parts for mainstream platforms, possibly even compatible with existing Z370 boards (though I'll believe that when I see it). 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. It's why the i5-8400 is the best current pick.
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