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The best CPU for gaming

A good gaming rig doesn't need the most expensive CPU.

2017 was a great year for CPUs—some might even say there were too many to choose from. 2018 has started off at a slightly more stately pace, with AMD's new Ryzen 5 2400G and Ryzen 3 2200G APUs as the first new desktop parts. But April marks the arrival of AMD's second generation of Ryzen processors, promising improved clockspeeds. Intel also has a collection of new Coffee Lake parts, including the attractively priced Pentium Gold models, with new chipsets that will make the platform more affordable.

The best gaming PC

Need a full suite of components for a new gaming PC? Check out our complete build guide.

The CPU is no longer the most important component in your PC, particularly for gaming purposes—that would be the graphics card. For PC gaming, this is great news, as 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. But if you're looking to build a high-end rig, don't neglect the CPU.

Today, the range of processors available from AMD and Intel is incredibly diverse. In 2017, AMD launched two new platforms, socket AM4 for Ryzen 7, Ryzen 5, and Ryzen 3, and socket TR4 for the mammoth Threadripper line. Intel launched Kaby Lake at the start of the year, then upgraded its enthusiast platform with X299 and Skylake-X CPUs including the 10-core i9-7900X and the 18-core i9-7980XE. But most gamers will be best served by the new Coffee Lake mainstream CPUs, the i7-8700K and the i5-8400.

Do you absolutely have to have one of the latest processors from either company? Of course not, and many gamers are still happily running CPUs that are several generations out of date.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.

Remember that 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 (and a few additional thoughts for non-gaming purposes, naturally).

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The best gaming processor

  • Six cores for even the most demanding PC games
  • Efficient and includes a heatsink
  • No overclocking potential
  • Lacks Hyper-Threading/SMT

It's easy to get caught lusting after the highest performing processors—who doesn't want an 18-core beast with quad-channel memory? The dirty little not-so-secret is that most high-end CPU features don't really do jack squat for the majority of games. Unless you're building a PC to also do things like video editing, image manipulation, software development, or creating an AI to take over the world, there's a very real chance that you'll be just fine with a far less costly CPU. That's where Intel's mainstream offerings excel, nowhere more so than in its Core i5-8400 wunderkind.

Competition from AMD forced Intel to step up its game, and with Ryzen delivering 6-core/12-thread parts for around $200, the old 4-core/4-thread Core i5 line needed a sharp kick in the ass. Enter Coffee Lake and the new Core i5, which still lacks Hyper-Threading but finally moves Intel's mainstream offerings beyond quad-core. The i5-8400 foregoes the unlocked multiplier but provides clockspeeds of 3.8-4.0GHz, and it includes everything you'll need (meaning, the CPU heatsink that the K-series processors typically omit). With 50 percent more cores than the previous generation i5 parts, more demanding games get a nice boost to performance. In fact, looking at our gaming test suite the i5-8400 manages to equal the earlier i7-7700K.

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The best budget gaming processor

  • Still games fine with moderate GPUs
  • Same platform as 8th Gen Intel i5/i7
  • No overclocking support or Turbo modes
  • Only dual-core, but Hyper-Threading helps

Suppose you're not planning on building the fastest gaming rig on the planet—you just want something that won't break the bank. Among other things, that means you're not likely to stuff in an expensive graphics card, which means gaming performance is limited by your GPU of choice. The good news is that not only can you save money, you don't even have to sacrifice all the modern features in the process—and power requirements can be quite a bit lower.

With the launch of Intel's Coffee Lake Pentium Gold G5400, we've consolidated our budget CPU pick on the latest LGA1151 platform. We're in process of reviewing the G5400, and it looks to be slightly faster than the previous generation Pentium G4560. Sure, the new Core i3-8100 has four full cores, but it's $40 more, which could get you a faster GPU instead. The same goes for the Ryzen 3 parts from AMD. If you're trying to pinch every penny, the Pentium Gold G5400 is hard to pass up. Pair it with an inexpensive motherboard using a H310 or B360 chipset and you're set.

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The best high-end processor, for gaming and other tasks

  • Ten full cores plus Hyper-Threading
  • Overclockable
  • Good for streaming and multitasking
  • 44 PCIe Gen3 lanes for SLI/CF
  • Power hungry, especially when overclocked
  • Not many games use more than four cores
  • Do we even need to mention the cost?

Determining where to spend money on any new PC build is a balancing act between price, performance, power requirements, and features—and you can only choose two or three of those four areas. For high-end builds, cost is rarely in their favor. In the case of the i9-7900X, we're sacrificing price as well as power use in order to gain performance and features. But we're not going crazy here, so the i9-7980XE didn't make the cut.

The X299 platform is Intel's latest and greatest enthusiast offering, with current CPUs delivering up to 18-cores/36-threads, but those are definitely not intended for gamers (though if you have one, they'll work just fine). What X299 gives you that you won't get from Coffee Lake or Kaby Lake mostly comes down to more cores and PCIe lanes. The additional cores and PCIe lanes won't usually result in better gaming performance, though they can helps in a few select cases with SLI/CrossFire. However, there are plenty of non-gaming scenarios where the additional cores can really pay dividends.

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How we tested and other processors

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.

Performance Results

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.

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 should be here soon, and we're working to test a few 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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