Even the best CPU for PC gaming tends to sit pretty far down the totem pole when people chat about building the ultimate rig. For better or worse, graphics cards tend to steal the show for gaming builds, given how critical they are for graphics rendering. But ignore your processor at your own peril. While they may not be the most critical part in a gaming PC, they are still absolutely essential, particularly if you're also going to lean on your machine for any sort of workload purposes. Even in purely gaming terms, a great processor is really important, as it handles important tasks like computing enemy AI. It's even more vital for genres like strategy and simulation, where your CPU will shoulder some of the heaviest burdens, complicated systems like weather or economics.
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Of course, if you are creating or upgrading a machine to handle stuff like CAD or serious video and audio editing, a CPU moves to the front of the line in terms of importance. But even gamers will want a capable processor, and real enthusiasts will likely want to further future proof their investment by getting a K or X chip (on the Intel side), meaning that they'll be able to overclock it for greater performance if necessary. If you're serious about getting the very best performance from your CPU, you're likely looking for a 9th Gen Intel chip, or perhaps AMD's Threadripper; otherwise, an 8th gen or something from the Ryzen 5 or Ryzen 7 family will likely suit your needs admirably. For the truly budget conscious, however, you can probably skate by at least for a bit with a Ryzen 3 or Core i5.
To find a killer GPU to accompany your new processor, head over to our best graphics card guide, and to deck out your machine with the very best peripherals, take a look at our best gaming keyboard and best gaming mouse roundups. And to crack the code on what all the technical jargon means, head over to our massive hardware glossary.
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 7 2700
A great mid-range CPU and one of AMD's best
Cores: 8 | Threads: 16 | Base Clock: 3.2GHz | Overclocking: Yes, 4.3GHz typical | L3 Cache: 16 MB | TDP: 65W | PCIe 3.0 lanes: 20
The Ryzen 7 is an impressive line, eclipsing the dark days around the beginning of this decade when AMD was stuck as a second place CPU manufacturer with its misguided line of industrial-vehicle-named processors (Bulldozer, Steamroller, etc.). Starting with the first Ryzens and their all new x86 Zen core architecture, AMD has been providing power and performance to rival Intel’s best efforts at a fraction of the price.
The 2700X is the highlight of the latest iteration of Ryzen processors, providing a significant increase in power despite launching at a lower price point than its well regarded predecessor, the 1800X. Mighty cache and memory performance are supported by an improved ability to reach 4.0GHZ even when all eight cores are engaged, and a streamlined, better designed processing management engine. The 2700X is a tremendous centerpiece of both a top-notch machine built for demanding work applications as well as an excellent choice for gaming.
3. AMD Ryzen 3 2200G
Best budget CPU
Cores: 4 | Threads: 4 | Base Clock: 3.5GHz | Overclocking: Yes, 4.0GHz typical | L3 Cache: 4MB | TDP: 65W | PCIe 3.0 lanes: 12
The problem with high end CPUs is that all that additional processing power comes with a correspondingly high price tag, and for a lot of gamers, that additional horsepower is largely wasted, particularly if you aren’t taxing your machine with a heavy workload outside of gaming. While a CPU is important for gaming, if you’re satisfied playing on slightly lower settings, the Ryzen 3 2200G is an incredible value that still provides a solid amount of power.
Another big advantage of the 2200G for gamers on a shoestring budget is that it includes modest integrated graphics capability that can tide you over until you can afford a proper GPU. If you’re trying to build a budget PC that will get you in the gaming door but leave you plenty of cash to actually purchase some of those games you’re craving, the 2200G is an excellent starting point.
- And, if you need it, here are the best PC headsets for gaming
- Here are the best gaming monitors you can buy
- Don't fancy a PC? Here are the best gaming laptops
4. 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.
5. AMD Ryzen Threadripper 1950X
For the professional that games as a hobby
Cores: 16 | Threads: 32 | Base Clock: 3.4GHz | Overclocking: Yes, 3.9GHz typical | L3 Cache: 32MB | TDP: 180W | PCIe 3.0 lanes: 64
On the other hand, if you’re in the market for some truly explosive power but aren’t obsessed with having the absolute zenith of CPU tech, AMD’s blistering Threadripper 1950X is a great solution at almost half the price of the 7980XE. While it’s built for desktop applications first, being an adaptation of AMD’s Epyc server CPU, it’s no slouch for gaming and remains amongst the highest performing CPUs on the market. The Threadripper is perfect for the sort of gamer who loves to multitask, pushing a processor by demanding top performance in games while balancing a heavy workload of other programs, be they streaming or browsing or rendering or all of the above. If you’re a gamer who also leans heavily on your PC for work functions, and don’t want to push all the way up to the 7980XE, the Threadripper will fit your needs like a perfectly tailored suit.
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