If a graphics card is the beating heart of your PC, the CPU is undeniably the brain, but finding the best CPU for gaming can be a challenge. GPUs tend to steal the limelight where gaming rigs are concerned, since they're so integral to rendering, and graphics are such a sexy, easy to demonstrate strength of our hobby. But as anyone who's put an expensive new graphics card into a machine powered by a dusty old CPU can tell you, having the right processor anchoring your build is extremely important. An old CPU can be a brutal bottleneck, particularly for any games that require heavy computation for things like enemy AI or pattern/system simulation.
So what should you look for when you're CPU shopping? It depends in part on your needs, but for most gaming applications you don't need to go overboard on price and power - a modern mid-range CPU is more than capable of handling most of the stress games will apply. On the other hand, if you also need a workhorse for stuff like rendering or editing video, or you run a lot of hungry applications simultaneously, a high end CPU is a must. Unfortunately, proper CPU sales are fairly rare, but that doesn't mean you need to pay MSRP. We'll keep a widget in place under each of our recommendations to find you the cheapest price on every processor, and don't be afraid of a 'white box' or refurbished CPU if you can find one at a deep discount. If you're buying from a trusted retailer (which you should be anyway), they'll almost certainly come with a solid warranty and plenty of quality assurance.
Bought a new CPU and need something to test it with? Check out our round-up of the best PC games you can hop into right now. And make sure you do get the best graphics card for gaming to accompany it or you're essentially wasting your money.
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AMD Ryzen 7 2700
The best overall CPU
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 a beast for gaming, and our top pick for an impressive CPU that’s remarkably affordable.
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.
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
Then there’s the total opposite end of the spectrum, powerful CPUs that are roaring computational beasts and will happily devour every speck of data your software throws its way, a category that starts with processor's like Intel’s 8700K. Intel’s core is specifically tailored for gamers that aren’t as interested in performance in peripheral applications, who just want the rawest potential to run games at the highest end of performance. High clock speed contributes to some of the best framerates of any mid-range contemporary CPU, and while it’s more expensive than AMD’s alternatives, if you’re a gamer with a swollen bank account and value performance, it's a strong option.
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Intel Core i9-7980XE
For wealthy future-proofers and early adopters
Cores: 18 | Threads: 36 | Base Clock: 2.6GHz | Overclocking: Yes, 4.1GHz typical | L3 Cache: 24.75MB | TDP: 165W | PCIe 3.0 lanes: 44
If the 8700X is a superhero bristling with raw power, the 7980XE 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 7980XE 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 7980’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.
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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