Finding the best CPU for PC gaming means not only avoiding any crippling bottlenecks, but it is essential for in-game performance for a number of reasons. While the best graphics card will always be the rock star of any gaming PC build, CPUs are critical for a number of things that modern games lean on. Everything from enemy AI, be it for the gun-toting foes in modern shooters or your wily competitors in the latest 4X game, to modeling complex systems like weather and the passage of time, rely much more heavily on your central processor than your graphics card.
Naturally, it's not just games that benefit from more CPU horsepower - finding the best CPU for PC gaming also means a huge bump for any everyday tasks and design or workstation capabilities you might require your machine to undertake. If you're the sort of person that works with something like a hundred tabs open in your favorite browser, or particularly if you do any kind of video and audio editing or encoding, a CPU is absolutely essential. If your priority is gaming, something in the Core i5 or Ryzen 5 range will probably be sufficient, but if you're working with a high end system or you do a significant amount of the kind of work we mentioned, you're probably going to need a high end chip like one of Intel's 9th gen Core i9s. It's also worth bearing in min that if you want to future proof yourself to any degree, then you'll want to try and stretch the budget and aim for something further up the scale if you can.
We have recently given this guide a big overhaul and thorough look given all the new processors to land on the market and their impact on it. We have included a couple of AMD's Ryzen 3000 CPUs and taken out the Threadrippers, for example, as they don't really offer the same value for money and performance that they used to. We appreciate your patience in waiting for these changes to be made.
Since some of the tech jargon that pops up when discussing PC performance parts can be pretty confusing, we wrote up a comprehensive hardware glossary to simplify some of the most complex terms.
1. Intel Core i7-8700K
For the power gamer
Cores: 6 | Threads: 12 | Base Clock: 3.7GHz | Overclocking: Yes, 4.9-5.0GHz typical | L3 Cache: 12MB | TDP: 95W | PCIe 3.0 lanes: 16
Teetering perfectly on the balance line between price and performance sits Intel's 8th generation Coffee Lake Core i7-8700. It's a very powerful, modern processor that will happily manhandle any gaming-related tasks your software throws at it, but it won't require you to take out a second mortgage to afford. Currently hovering right around the $300 price point, the 8700 is a great value proposition, and will keep your rig ahead of any CPU bottleneck for some time to come. Packing six hyper-threaded cores and Intel's performance enhancing, leakage reducing 14nm++ process, the 8th gen Coffee Lake flagship still offers plenty of power to navigate gaming's most challenging tasks and handle any of your workload/'mega-tasking' needs.
2. AMD Ryzen 9 3900X
The best AMD option for your gaming rig
Cores: 12 | Threads: 24 | Base Clock: 3.8GHz | Boost Clock: 4.6GHz | Overclocking: Yes, though PBO is better | L3 Cache: 64MB | TDP: 105W | PCIe 4.0 lanes: 16
Bursting out of the latest crop of AMD's biggest and best processors, this third generation CPU has quickly become one of our favourites. While it may not be the blisteringly fastest of all gaming-focused CPUs, its right up there when optimised properly and with the right settings and resolutions ticked. Outside of gaming its pretty much the fastest, however, which is an excellent bonus.
The Ryzen 9 3900X demands a robust pricetag but the cost still bags you a good cooler (Wraith Prism) and you get 50 percent more cores and threads. This means that there's an excellent extra boost in performance on busy workloads away from gaming like 3D rendering and video editing. However, if you're only worried asbout gaming - and that's likely given you're on this page - the trade off you have to endure (around an 8 percent slower gaming performance according to our friends at PC Gamer) only demonstrates itself and makes itself known on lower settings and a lower resolution with the fastest GPU available (RTX 2080 Ti). This kind of differnce may well only be of concern if you're a pro gamer aiming for the stratospheric realms of c.240fps at lower quality, however for everyone else, this is a fine CPU that will deliver excellent performance.
3. Intel Core i5-9400F
A great budget CPU for Intel-centred 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 a little faster than the previous model - the Core i5-8400 - but it completely sheds itself of the the Intel integrated graphics. That's not a problem for games, and all in it's a great choice that won't break the bank.
You won't be able to overclock this processor - but you can redirect the money you save to a beefier motherboard like an H370 board - though a lot of mobos will happily run the 9400KF at 3.9GHz, which gives you no reason to be concerned with the low base clock. At least you get a cooler thrown in the box which is not oft seen with processors.
While the i5-9400F may not be as fast as other CPUs it is still a strong model if you're putting together a machine on a shoestring. Bigger, larger and more detailed future games may be too much for its 6-cores, but probably not before you're ready for an upgrade. Therefore, if you're after something that's affordable, reliable and powerful enough, look no further than the i5-9400F.
4. AMD Ryzen 7 3700X
An excellent mid-range gaming CPU
Cores: 8 | Threads: 16 | Base Clock: 3.6GHz | Turbo Clock: 4.4GHz | Overclocking: Yes, 4.2-4.3GHz | L3 Cache: 32MB | TDP: 65W | PCIe 4.0 lanes: 16
Slightly in the shadow of its bigger brother the 3900X, the Ryzen 7 3700X is still brilliant. It is basically as fast in games and still offers all the other other benefits of AMD's Zen 2 architecture - some of which might become useful during the coming years. The 3700X is a sensible choice, considering for its price tag, you bag an extra Wraith Prism cooler with an 8-core/16-thread CPU. Compared to a close Intel rival - Intel's i7-9700K - our friends at PC Gamer tell us that it's about 9 percent slower in gaming performance, though this is only visible again at those lower settings with a mega GPU like an RTX 2080 Ti. If you go for an appropriate graphics card companion like AMD's RX 5700 XT, the difference will be basically negligible and meaningless. For other demanding tasks and applications like 3D rendering and video editing you'll receive a nice boost of 18 percent, so all of that combines to make a seriously good package. Purely for gaming, you might pass on the 3700X, but taking everything onto account and its value for money, it is definitely one of the best CPUs you can buy right now.
5. Intel Core i9-9980XE
For wealthy future-proofers and early adopters
Cores: 18 | Threads: 36 | Base Clock: 3GHz | Overclocking: Yes, up to 4.5Ghz | L3 Cache: 24.75MB | TDP: 165W | PCIe 3.0 lanes: 44
If Intel's 8700X is a superhero bristling with raw power, the 9980XE is Thanos. Its insane 18 cores and 36 threads provide a ludicrous level of performance that is, frankly, massive overkill except for the truly obsessed (and very rich). It's a CPU custom made for early adopters who demand the most cutting edge performance on the market.
For those with the budget to afford it, however, the 9980XE is an incredible work of technological art, the fastest desktop processor on the market, and getting in now ensures that you won’t need an upgrade for many years to come. It’s tough to imagine even the next generation of games beginning to challenge the 9980’s capabilities until very late in the cycle, if ever, meaning for gamers it’s the last CPU you’ll need to buy for a very, very long time.