Picking out a killer GPU for your build without first considering the best CPU for gaming is a fool's errand. The piles of VRAM and compute cores in your GPU are going nowhere fast without the help of a CPU with enough power to get that information where it needs to go. The CPU is very much the beating heart of your machine, and responsible for virtually every process you're running. Twitch, Discord, and even that third party application that manages your ridiculous RGB lighting demand the attention of your CPU to keep things running smoothly.
Your CPU could end up being the most expensive part of your build, but simply throwing more threads and cores on top of an underpowered rig isn't going to give you the performance you want. Thinking about the right CPU entails matching the ability of the processor to the demand of your components. While you can hamstring your GPU by not having enough processing power, it can be just as easy to overcompensate with a CPU that has more cores but ends up performing worse in games. You can also mitigate some of this cost by paying close attention to release windows when thinking about upgrading your CPU. Biding your time for a new generation of processors can potentially save you some serious bucks.
Getting the most out of your CPU is also important. Unlocked CPUs like the Intel Core i9-9900K can deliver some serious power, but without the best CPU cooler you'll potentially bottleneck the performance of this beast of a processor. So unless you're planning to do some serious overclocking, it may be worth considering a processor like the AMD Ryzen 5 3600X that includes a reasonable cooler. Whatever the needs of your machine are, our buying guide will help you find the best price.
We've overhauled the guide and are including many of AMD's new Ryzen 3000 parts. We've also dropped the HEDT solutions from this guide because, frankly, they're not worth the money from a gaming perspective. In fact, they're hard to justify even from a professional standpoint unless you really need more cores. You can get 8-core and even 12-core 'mainstream' processors for $500, leaving very little room for extreme solutions like Intel's X299 or AMD's Threadripper CPUs.
The best CPU for gaming in 2019
The fastest Intel 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 Intel 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 play games, however, the Core i9-9900K is Intel's fastest mainstream CPU, period.
The Core i9-9900K doesn't have the core counts found on HEDT chips like the i9-7980XE or Threadripper 2990WX, but it's faster in games and costs a lot less. It boasts the highest clockspeed of any current processor, with excellent per-core performance.
It's nominally a 95W part, but it will often exceed that under load. That's fine, because you'll need to bring your own cooling—we recommend a potent liquid cooling solution like the NZXT Kraken X62—but that's Intel's approach to all its K-series and X-series processors. The 9900K isn't the most efficient or economical CPU choice for gaming, but it should last through several GPU upgrades over the coming years.
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 has similar clockspeeds, but for the first time, Intel has shipped a Core i7 without Hyper-Threading. In games, it's effectively tied with (technically slightly ahead of) the more expensive Core i9 but costs $100-$150 less.
It's a balancing act between price, performance, and features. It's also faster than the outgoing Core i7-8700K, thanks to the extra cores even if it has fewer threads. 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 Intel CPU clocking close to 5GHz is as good as it gets.
3. AMD Ryzen 9 3900X
AMD's best CPU for gaming and everything else
Cores: 12 | Threads: 24 | Base Clock: 3.8GHz | Boost Clock: 4.6GHz | Overclocking: Yes, but not usually worthwhile | L3 Cache: 64MB | TDP: 105W | PCIe 4.0 lanes: 16
AMD's latest and greatest third generation Ryzen processors provide the company with its best showing ever in our gaming CPU tests. The 3900X may not be the absolute fastest gaming CPU, but it's close enough at the settings and resolutions gamers actually use, and it's unequivocally the faster CPU outside of games.
AMD's Ryzen 9 3900X costs roughly the same as Intel's Core i9-9900K, but it includes a decent Wraith Prism cooler and packs 50 percent more cores and threads. That translates into 8 percent slower gaming performance, but 25 percent faster performance in multithreaded workloads like video editing and 3D rendering.
If you're mostly worried about gaming, that 8 percent deficit is only really apparent at lower quality settings and a lower resolution with the fastest GPU available (RTX 2080 Ti). It might matter if you're a professional gamer aiming for 240fps at minimum quality, but anyone else would be ecstatic with the performance the 3900X delivers.
4. AMD Ryzen 7 3700X
A superb mid-price choice for gaming setups
Cores: 8 | Threads: 16 | Base Clock: 3.6GHz | Turbo Clock: 4.4GHz | Overclocking: Yes, 4.2-4.3GHz typical | L3 Cache: 32MB | TDP: 65W | PCIe 4.0 lanes: 16
Stepping down on price and core counts from the 3900X, the Ryzen 7 3700X is nearly as fast in games and has all the other benefits of AMD's Zen 2 architecture. That includes PCIe Gen4 support, which isn't really necessary today but might become useful during the coming years. It's the sensible AMD choice, and for a bit over $300 you still get an 8-core/16-thread CPU with a Wraith Prism cooler.
Compared to Intel's i7-9700K, it's about 9 percent slower in gaming performance—again, at 1080p with an RTX 2080 Ti. If you buy a sensible GPU like AMD's RX 5700 XT, any difference in gaming performance is going to be largely meaningless. Elsewhere, in multithreaded applications, it's about 18 percent faster, and overall it wins the matchup in both performance and price.
As a pure gaming CPU, the 3700X is good. Taking in the entire package, it's one of the best buys right now.
5. Intel Core i5-9400F
A great budget-friendly option for Intel builds
Cores: 6 | Threads: 6 | Base Clock: 2.9GHz | Turbo Clock: 4.1GHz | Overclocking: No | L3 Cache: 9MB | TDP: 65W | PCIe 3.0 lanes: 40
The Core i5-9400F is an interesting option. It's slightly faster than the previous gen Core i5-8400, but it ditches the Intel integrated graphics completely. That's not a problem for games, though if you want to use QuickSync you're out of luck. Overall, it's an excellent budget-friendly choice that doesn't cost much more than a Core i3 part.
There are other compromises, like the locked multiplier—no overclocking here. But you can save money and grab an H370 motherboard. At least you get a cooler in the box, something we'd like to see as an option with every CPU.
While the i5-9400F may not be as fast as other CPUs in multithreaded tests, in our gaming suite it's basically tied with AMD's 3900X. Future games may start to push beyond its 6-core capabilities, but probably not before you're ready for an upgrade. Right now, the i5-9400F is plenty fast and extremely affordable.
6. AMD Ryzen 5 3600X
A reliable mid-range CPU
Cores: 6 | Threads: 12 | Base Clock: 3.8GHz | Turbo Clock: 4.4GHz | Overclocking: Yes, 4.3GHz typical | L3 Cache: 32MB | TDP: 95W | PCIe 4.0 lanes: 16
AMD makes a strong case for its third generation Ryzen CPUs, with improved performance and efficiency. The Ryzen 5 3600X is only slightly behind the 3900X when it comes to gaming, and for a midrange CPU we seriously doubt anyone is planning on pairing it with an RTX 2080 Ti. A better choice would be a midrange GPU like the RX 5700, or even the previous generation RX 590. Either way, the 3600X won't hold you back.
You still get a 6-core/12-thread processor, and outside of games the 3600X is almost 50 percent faster than Intel's 9400F. But then, the 3600X also costs more. (You can also look at the Ryzen 5 3600 as a small step down in performance for $40 less.) It has the other benefits of AMD's Zen 2 architecture, however, like PCIe Gen4. AMD's CPUs have also had far fewer issues with side-channel attacks like Meltdown, Spectre, Foreshadow, and MDS, giving you some peace of mind as far as security goes.
7. AMD Ryzen 5 2600
A decent budget option for gaming builds
Cores: 8 | Threads: 12 | Base Clock: 3.4GHz | Turbo Clock: 3.9GHz | Overclocking: Yes, 4.0GHz typical | L3 Cache: 16MB | TDP: 65W | PCIe 3.0 lanes: 16
AMD's previous generation Zen+ parts—or if you prefer, the Ryzen 2000 series CPUs—are now basically on clearance pricing. The Ryzen 5 2600 has just as many cores and threads as the 3600X, but it costs over $100 less. And it can work in all the same socket AM4 motherboards as any other Ryzen CPU.
The earlier Ryzen CPUs aren't quite as adept at gaming, but again that only matters if you're using a top-tier graphics card. Even with a 2080 Ti, at 1080p ultra the fastest CPU in gaming only beats the 2600 by 12 percent on average. With a sensible midrange graphics card, you'll never know the difference.
There's also some overclocking potential with the 2600. All Ryzen CPUs are multiplier unlocked, but the X-series parts often perform nearly as fast without overclocking. Because the 2600 has lower starting clocks, you can still typically hit 4.0GHz on all cores, making up for any deficit.
8. AMD Ryzen 5 3400G
A cheap CPU with integrated graphics, for ultra-budget builds
Cores: 4 | Threads: 8 | Base Clock: 3.7GHz | Turbo Clock: 4.2GHz | Overclocking: Yes, 4.1-4.2GHz typical | L3 Cache: 4MB | TDP: 65W | PCIe 3.0 lanes: 8
At the budget end of the CPU spectrum, there are many options. The Ryzen 5 3400G is the true budget gaming solution, however, in that it includes relatively potent integrated graphics. For $10 more than the 2600, you get the equivalent of a $80 graphics card. Yeah, you lose a couple of CPU cores in the process, but it's a reasonable compromise.
Compared to Intel's HD Graphics 630 found in the 8th and 9th Gen CPUs, the 3400G's Vega 11 Graphics is typically over twice as fast. Where Intel's HD 630 often struggles to break 30fps even at 720p and minimum quality, AMD's Vega 11 can legitimately handle 1080p and low to medium quality at playable framerates. Or you can drop to 720p and usually break 60fps.
Just make sure the motherboard you buy includes the requisite HDMI and DisplayPort outputs. Many X470/X570 boards skip those ports, as the other Ryzen CPUs lack integrated graphics.
How we tested
AMD has been gaining ground on Intel in the world of CPUs since Ryzen appeared in 2017, and today it's easy to justify buying CPUs from both companies. 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 an AMD FX-series CPU or earlier, it's time to start thinking about upgrading.
For our testing, we use Nvidia's latest RTX 2080 Ti as our graphics card. That's overkill compared to many of the CPUs, but at 1080p it shows the largest difference in gaming performance you're likely to see. Just remember that next year's RTX 3070, or the following RTX 4070, could end up beating today's 2080 Ti at a relatively affordable price. Upgrading your graphics card is a piece of cake compared to swapping out your CPU and potentially motherboard and RAM.
We've also used high-end G.Skill Trident Z and Flare X DDR4-3200 CL14 memory on all modern platforms, in either 2x8GB or 4x8GB configurations. Again, this is to eliminate any potential bottlenecks and let the CPUs reach their maximum performance. Liquid cooling was used on all CPUs, though for stock performance we saw zero difference between that and the box coolers on those parts that included cooling.
The motherboards used in testing include the MSI MEG Z390 Godlike for Intel LGA1151, MSI MEG X570 Godlike for third gen Ryzen, and MSI X470 Gaming M7 for first and second gen Ryzen CPUs. AMD's APUs were tested on an MSI B350I Pro AC motherboard, as we needed something with video ports. For the HEDT platforms (not that we recommend those any longer for gaming purposes—or most other tasks as well), we used an Asus X299-A Prime for Intel LGA2066, and an Asus ROG Zenith Extreme for TR4 (Threadripper).
We'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, we had to retest every single processor. We completed comprehensive retesting of all CPUs after the May 2019 update for Windows 10, including all the latest BIOS updates and drivers. (Older motherboards like the one we used with the i7-4770K did not include updated firmware, however.)
Gaming performance is tested in ten games, representing a variety of genres and game engines, all using the RTX 2080 Ti. The games are running at 1080p Ultra settings, with TAA/FXAA/SMAA where applicable. 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 with a 2080 Ti 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, POV-Ray, Blender, Corona, Handbrake H.264 and H.265 encoding, y-cruncher, PCMark 10, GeekBench 4, 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.
It's important to think about how you're actually using your PC when looking at the above charts. Cinebench, POV-Ray, Blender, and Corona are all 3D rendering applications. They do a great job at pushing a CPU to its limit, utilizing all the available cores and threads … but very few non-professional users will ever do any form of 3D rendering. PCMark and GeekBench are a bit more of a realistic look at performance, and of course we put a lot more weight on gaming performance.
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? We 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 necessarily help the GPU, unless you can move work from the GPU to the CPU.
Jargon buster - CPUs
A small segment of high speed memory dedicated to storing and executing frequently used commands/instructions to speed up software execution. CPUs contain caches designated as Level 1, 2, and 3, with L1 being the fastest and smallest 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, with AMD's latest CPUs sporting up to 12 cores.
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 billion 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 terminology for a tech that allows a processor two handle two sets of instructions 'threads' simultaneously. AMD and other CPU vendors call this SMT, Simultaneous Multi-Threading.
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 used on Intel sockets with the pins as part of the socket. AMD's AM4 solution, PGA, has the pins are on the processor, and these fit into holes on the socket. AMD's Threadripper CPUs also use LGA sockets. A BGA socket is one in which the processor is permanently soldered to the motherboard, typically in a laptop.
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.
A thread refers to a series of CPU instructions for a specific program. Older CPUs and those with SMT disabled run one thread per core, but most modern AMD and Intel CPUs can run two threads per core simultaneously, sharing some resources (eg, cache). CPUs from other companies are able of running even more threads per core.
Intel technology that allows processors to run at higher clock speeds under demanding loads. AMD also supports turbo or boost clocks, and we use the terms interchangeably regardless of CPU vendor.
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