CPU for any PC build.
The best CPU for gaming is the cornerstone for just about any suped-up gaming PC. Unlike actual economics, the power of your CPU tends to have a tangible, trickle-down effect on the performance of the rest of your components.
You can dump truckloads of cash into the best graphics card for gaming, but without an appropriately beefy processor to push it to its limit, you’re just going to end up bottlenecking your PC’s performance. We get that a CPU isn’t exactly the sexiest component to pick out for your high-end gaming PC build. But without the right CPU, your rig is going nowhere fast.
Before buying a shiny new CPU, you’ll need to check the compatibility of your motherboard, specifically you’ll want to be looking at the socket and chipset. For the CPUs we’ve included on our list, you’ll want to make sure you either have an Intel LGA1151 socket paired with a 300-series chipset.
Alternatively, if you’re looking at an AMD CPU, your motherboard will need an AM4 socket and a chipset of the 300, 400, or 500 series. While this isn’t an issue with any of AMD’s Ryzen processors, as they natively support overclocking, if you’re planning to squeeze a little extra juice out of any of Intel’s K-series processors. To do that you’ll need a motherboard that supports that feature as well. Namely, any board with a “Z” in front of the chipset number will suffice.
Just like with many other PC components, buying a new CPU isn’t about dumping money into a single part in an effort to make your PC perform better, you might as well throw your money in a wood chipper for all the good that’s going to do you.
Buying a new CPU is about achieving a level of parity with the rest of your components. For instance, if you’re using a 1660 Ti, pairing that with a Core i9-9900K isn’t going to yield much in the way of improvements, at least for gaming purposes. In this case, you’d be better served by investing in a higher-end GPU and going with something like a Core i5-9400F or Ryzen 3600.
Another note on overclocking is to make sure you invest in one of the best CPU coolers to avoid any potential damage to this relatively sensitive component. Most CPU’s include a stock cooler and a cheap solution will hardly suffice for the kind of thermal strain you’re going to place on the CPU.
AMD’s stock coolers are okay for modest overclocking, generally speaking, but investing in a larger heatsink is always a solid practice to make sure you’re not harming your CPU or inadvertently bottlenecking your rig.
If you’re ever unsure as to what component is more deserving of your hard-earned cash, run some benchmarks. Tools like Cinebench and 3DMark are totally free and will help you spot the culprit and upgrade the necessary parts.
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1. Intel Core i9-9900K
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: 16Fastest CPU for gamingPlenty of cores for other tasksMarginal overclocking headroomRequires aftermarket cooler
The best CPU for gaming 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 i9-9980XE or Threadripper 2990WX, but it’s faster in games and costs a lot less. It also 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 —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. Another, slightly more economical option is Intel’s Core i9-9900KF.
While the 9900KS is technically a bit faster than the 9900K, considering that it hits 5.0GHz on all of its cores out of the box, it’s a difficult recommendation given that it currently runs about $100 more than the 9900K. That’s partly because it’s new and in demand, which leads to price gouging. If you can find the 9900KS for the recommended price of around $513, it’s a different story, but it’s a “limited edition” part regardless. Most 9900K chips will also overclock to 5.0GHz on all cores with a good cooler.
2. Intel Core i7-9700K
Excellent CPU for gaming 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 and clockspeeds even if it has fewer threads. The lack of Hyper-Threading also means the i7-9700K doesn’t get as hot as the Core i9, so you can get by with a good air cooler.
If you’re livestreaming (with CPU encoding), 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.
- Excellent gaming performance
- Eight high-speed cores
- No Hyper-Threading
- Limited overclocking
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, though PBO is better | 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.
While overclocking is possible, AMD locks you into a single clockspeed and that usually means lower clocks in lighter workloads. Precision Boost Overdrive (PBO) can give up to 200MHz higher performance while maintaining turbo ratios and is the better solution for the 3900X. Memory overclocking can also help quite a bit, and we’ll be investigating this more in an upcoming article.
- Superb gaming performance
- Great for non-game use too
- Decent cooler included
- Slightly slower than i9-9900K in games
- Limited overclocking potential
4. Intel Core i5-9400F
A great CPU for gaming that is budget-friendly
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 (barely) 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 (and Nvidia’s NVENC on Turing is arguably better anyway). 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. Most boards will happily run the 9400KF at 3.9GHz as well, so don’t worry about the low base clock.
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.
- Affordable mid-range performance
- Cooler included in box
- No overclocking
- Only 6 cores
5. 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 (PBO is better) | 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. As with the 3900X, overclocking clockspeeds are relatively limited and PBO is the better solution, but memory tuning can potentially make a bigger difference.
6. 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 an $80 graphics card. Yeah, you lose a couple of CPU cores in the process, but it’s a reasonable compromise. (If you’re planning on using a dedicated GPU, though, stick with the 2600.)
Compared to Intel’s UHD Graphics 630 found in the 8th and 9th Gen CPUs, the 3400G’s Vega 11 Graphics is typically 2-3 times as fast. Where Intel’s UHD 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/or DisplayPort outputs. Many X470/X570 boards skip those ports, as the other Ryzen CPUs lack integrated graphics. Your best bet is an inexpensive B450 board, which should have everything you need.
If you’re willing to sacrifice performance to save even more money, the Ryzen 5 2400G is the same basic design with slightly slower clocks, or the Ryzen 3 3200G and Ryzen 3 2200G drop SMT support and downgrade the GPU with a starting price of just $80 on the latter. We’d generally stick to the Ryzen 5 or above, however.
- Has integrated graphics
- Very well priced
- Can handle 1080p
- Needs a mobo with video ports
- Not the fastest CPU
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 few if any non-professional users will ever do any form of 3D rendering.
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.
Also keep in mind that Nvidia’s latest NVENC hardware on Turing GPUs is often superior to CPU encoding in both quality and performance, and the upcoming Nvidia Broadcast Engine will likely shift even more streamers over to using GPU encoding. More CPU threads won’t necessarily help the GPU, unless you can move work from the GPU to the CPU.
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.
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 capable 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.