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The best PC gaming processor

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

Ahhh, smell the Coffee Lake. 2017 has delivered a bumper crop of new CPUs, and the last and final entrant is in many ways the best. If you're looking to build a new system for gaming purposes, these are the best processors right now. And if you want to do things besides gaming, we've got some recommendations for those users as well.

The CPU was once the most important component in your PC. It was responsible for nearly everything going on inside the big box sitting on your desk. These days, the CPU is still a critical component, but for gaming purposes nothing beats the graphics card. Meanwhile, the performance gap between the fastest and most expensive processors and those that are 'good enough' keeps shrinking, all while the pricing gap is increasing.

For PC gaming, this is actually great news. 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.

Today, the range of CPUs 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. If anything, Intel has been even busier. After releasing Kaby Lake at the start of the year, Intel upgraded its enthusiast platform with X299 and LGA2066, for the 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 Of course not, and many gamers are still happily running CPUs that are several generations out of date.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 new Core i5-8400 wunderkind.

Competition from AMD has 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 7th Gen Intel i5/i7
  • No overclocking support or Turbo modes
  • Only dual-core, but Hyper-Threading helps
  • Can't upgrade to Coffee Lake without a new mobo

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.

The Pentium G4560 remains our pick for the best budget gaming, mostly because nothing else comes close to its asking price. Sure, the new Core i3-8100 has four full cores, but it's $40 more, which could get a faster GPU instead. The same goes for the Ryzen 3 parts from AMD. If you're trying to pinch every penny, until the Coffee Lake Pentiums show up, the G4560 (or G4600, depending on current prices) is hard to pass up. Pair it with an inexpensive motherboard using a H110 or H270 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. But more importantly, 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

While we've selected our favorite CPUs from Intel's latest Coffee Lake, Kaby Lake and Skylake-X lines, along with mentioning AMD's Ryzen and Threadripper options, these aren't the only CPUs we tested. We've previously tested 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 MSI Z270X Gaming M7 for LGA1151, 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 Intel's Core i5-8400. 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 of 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. 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 ran general system and processor performance. Our test 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

2017 has been the busiest year in history for CPU launches, and with Coffee Lake out the door it should finally be quieting down ... until AMD starts talking about Zen 2 early next year. 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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