Best CPU for gaming
The best processor for gaming is not necessarily the most expensive one, nor is it automatically the one boasting the most cores or threads. The $1,560 Core i7 6950X might still be the number-crunching übermensch, but all the threads in the world won't amount to much in-game if you can't nail high-speed, single core throughput. I'm looking at you too, Mr. Ryzen...
That’s because gaming is still rather reliant on single-threaded CPU power in terms of performance. Despite the dominance of quad core CPUs, or above, in today’s gaming rigs the difficulty of coding for multi-core processors has meant we’re not seeing many modern game engines taking full advantage of the powerful CPUs many of us have in our machines.
But that could be set to change with an increased number of DirectX 12 (and to a similar extent, Vulkan) games offering a more streamlined method for delivering all that processing power into the hands of gamers. It’s been a long, slow march, but CPU power may soon become a vital component of gaming performance once more.
We’re already seeing the green shoots of this revolution now that the Ryzen 5 range has arrived from AMD. The six-core, 12-thread Ryzen 5 1600X manages to keep up with the Intel K-series i5, but with three times the thread-count has got it beat in any CPU intensive game or app. Even when a game’s not CPU-bound though that higher core- and thread-count brings up the minimum frame rates, smoothing out performance on the AMD processor.
AMD Ryzen 5 1600X
Cores: 6 | Threads: 12 | Base clock: 3.6GHz | Turbo: 4GHz | Socket: AM4
They’ve only gone and done it. AMD have created a mid-range Ryzen that’s knocked the Intel K-series i5 off its throne as the go-to gaming processor. I genuinely didn’t think I’d see the day, but the Ryzen 5 1600X manages to deliver gaming performance which is generally at least on-par with the Core i5 chips and in modern, multi-threaded titles it’s actually capable of putting some distance between them.
The R5 1600X also makes the Ryzen 7 1800X look a little pointless for our gaming needs. The extra two cores of the much more expensive CPU don’t really offer anything else when it comes to gaming and with the multi-core chops it’s got the 1600X is a very capable productivity chip too.
For the most part though the i5 K-series chips will offer slightly higher average frame rates in standard game engines, but the massive difference in the thread count does give the AMD chip the edge when it comes to minimum and 99th percentile frame rates. The Intel chips are also slightly cheaper right now, which might give you pause for thought, but when you consider the extra multi-threading performance sitting underneath that unassuming heatspreader the level of future-proofing the Ryzen 5 1600X can offer makes it very difficult to recommend the resolutely quad-core i5.
With the R5 1600X you’re getting three times the thread-count of Intel’s equivalently priced Core i5 7600K, and despite the fact you can stretch the Intel’s clockspeed well beyond that of the Ryzen chip the core limitations of the Intel means it can’t pull that far ahead in gaming terms.
With the six-core, 12-thread Ryzen 5 1600X on the shelves at almost the same price the non-HyperThreaded quad-core really struggles to make a case for itself. Arguably the real contest for the 1600X though is the non-X variant which retails for $219 (£220) and likely still retains similar overclocking potential. If you’re happy to tamper with the BIOS and run the cheaper chip with a light overclock, to the same levels as this ‘X’ CPU, and you could save yourself some cash.
Read the full AMD Ryzen 5 1600X review.
Best CPU for gaming runner-up
Intel Core i5 7600K
Cores: 4 | Threads: 4 | Base clock: 3.8GHz | Turbo: 4.2GHz | Socket: LGA 1151
It was almost inevitable that when the new Kaby Lake range of processors released the K-series Core i5 would become our go-to gaming CPU. Though when we first saw the ultimately uninspiring Core i7 7700K I’ll admit my convictions wavered. But the i5 7600K proved to be a more interesting slice of silicon and replaced the old Skylake i5 as our pick of the processors. And then AMD dropped the hexcore Ryzen 5...
The 7600K is still able to post higher gaming frame rates in general, but only really by a few frames per second on average. With three times the thread-count of the i5 though the minimum gaming fps levels are generally higher with the AMD chip.
You can still overclock the i5 like a champ, and it games on current and legacy titles impressively, but with the prices being so close and with much greater future-proofing on offer with a six-core, 12-thread CPU, the Ryzen 5 chip has taken the win.
Read the full Intel Core i5 7600K review.
Best CPU for gaming runner-up
Intel Core i7 6700K
Cores: 4 | Threads: 8 | Base clock: 4GHz | Turbo: 4.2GHz | Socket: LGA 1151
While I’ve recommended the Kaby Lake i5 update to replace our previous Skylake pick for the overall best CPU for gaming I’m going to stick with the 6700K as one of the runners-up.
In terms of generational differences there's practically nothing the Kaby Lake i7 7700K can offer that the 6700K can’t do. Sure, it has a higher clockspeed out-of-the-box, but it takes no time at all, with some light CPU overclocking, to get this Skylake chip running at the same speed, and it’s also possible the 6700K might end up cheaper too. In gaming terms the extra four threads of processing power don’t add much to the mix compared with the i5, but if you’re into your game streaming and video editing it might well be worth going for the i7 step up if you can afford it.
Intel Core i7 6800K
Cores: 6 | Threads: 12 | Base clock: 3.4GHz | Turbo: 3.8GHz | Socket: LGA 2011 v3
Intel processors unquestionably have the top CPU silicon in them, but the full range is a bit of a convoluted mess at the moment. The 6th Generation Core architecture - the artist formerly known as Skylake - is their most advanced CPU design, but it's not the architecture used in their most powerful processors. Those are still running on the last-gen Broadwell-E silicon, with the updated Skylake-X successor and its X299 platform not pencilled in to arrive until later this summer.
But the high-end desktop (HEDT) market is the only place you’ll find Intel CPUs going beyond the mainstream’s quad-core stagnation. At the top is the ludicrously-priced, $1,560 Intel Core i7 6950X, their first ten-core, 20-thread consumer chip, but there are more relevant parts lower down that range.
The Core i7 6800K is actually only around $59 (£82) more expensive than the Core i7 6700K but comes with another two full Intel cores and four extra processing threads and is arguably the best-value six-core CPU ever made. It’s also got another 12 PCIe lanes available to the CPU itself - that means you can have both a high-speed PCIe SSD connected directly to the processor as well as a graphics card using the full bandwidth of a 16 lane PCIe 3.0 slot. It's also cheaper than the flagship R7 1800X from AMD's Ryzen range, and while it can't match the octa-core chip's computational prowess has got it beat in gaming performance.
The 6800K comes with a weaker core clockspeed than either of the Skylake K-series chips, but because it too has an unlocked multiplier you can easily push it above 4GHz without too much effort at all. You also get the added memory bandwidth that quad-channel memory delivers too - so if you want your gaming rig to be a serious workstation machine as well as a gaming beast the 6800K is a great shout.
Read the full Intel Core i7 6800K review.
Best high-end CPU for gaming runner-up
AMD Ryzen 7 1700X
Cores: 8 | Threads: 16 | Base clock: 3.4GHz | Turbo: 3.8GHz | Socket: AM4
If you're not comfortable with running your brand new processor overclocked out of the box then the Ryzen 7 1700X is possibly a better option for you rather than the cheaper Ryzen 7 1700. And chances are you're looking at the Ryzen processors because you're after their high core and thread counts for productivity tasks over and above gaming performance.
For general rendering and encoding you're going to want your chip to be as stable as possible and still run at a high clockspeed. The R7 1700 is a great choice if you're willing to overclock, but the safer option is this 'X' suffixed version of AMD's octa-core range.
In terms of gaming performance you are leaving some of your GPU's potential frame rate in the box when pairing it with an AMD processor, at least you are for the time being. But with the multi-threaded performance on offer, at this price, if you're interested in using your PC for anything outside gaming this Ryzen is a great option.
Read the full AMD Ryzen 7 1700X review.
Best high-end CPU for gaming runner-up
AMD Ryzen 7 1700
Cores: 8 | Threads: 16 | Base clock: 3GHz | Turbo: 3.7GHz | Socket: AM4
Though if you are happy with carrying out a little light overclocking on your new processor then the Ryzen 7 1700 is a great choice with a heady mix of fantastic 8-core pricing and still impressive number-crunching chops. At roughly the same price as Intel's quad-core i7 7700K the 1700 will be a rather tantalising prospect for anyone that isn't primarily going to be gaming on their PC.
By pushing the somewhat miserly stock clocks up to the same levels as the other Ryzen 7 chips you can get pretty much the same overall performance out of the 1700 for a lot less cash. It's still not a dedicated gaming chip, but it's got the multi-threaded performance that might make those lower frame rates more palatable .
Read the full AMD Ryzen 7 1700 review.
Best high-end CPU for gaming runner-up
Intel Core i7 6850K
Cores: 6 | Threads: 12 | Base clock: 3.6GHz | Turbo: 4GHz | Socket: LGA 2011 v3
There are four processors in the Broadwell-E line-up with the 6800K sitting at the bottom of the stack offering the best mix of value and multi-threaded performance. If you want to look a little further upwards the similarly six-core i7 6850K comes with a slightly higher base clockspeed and a 3.8GHz Turbo speed, but it’s the extra PCIe lanes that make it relevant in gaming terms.
With the full 40 lanes of CPU-attached PCIe 3.0 connections the 6850K will allow you to run a dual-GPU system with the full bandwidth of a pair of x16 PCIe 3.0 slots and still have capacity left over for a couple of PCIe-based SSDs too.
The Ryzen R7 1700X though is still a tantalising option if you don't necessarily want to get the most out of your GPU and would rather put the emphasis on better multi-core performance for productivity tasks. But the Intel single-threaded performance still makes them the money-no-object gaming chips.
Intel Core i3 6100
Cores: 2 | Threads: 4 | Base clock: 3.7GHz | Turbo: N/A | Socket: LGA 1151
It’s probably not much of a surprise to see that Intel are able to take an almost clean sweep of the processor prizes with their Skylake CPU architecture. It’s powerful, efficient and modern - AMD’s competing FX chips are getting incredibly long in the tooth and I struggle to recommend anyone start a fresh build using outdated AMD kit. The mainstream Ryzen R5 chips - their hex-core and quad-core CPUs - are still a little bit outside of the realms of budget processors, but we'll see what the Ryzen 3 chips offer when we get our hands on them.
The Core i3 6100 though is a dual-core processor, but it comes with HyperThreading enabled to give it four threads of processing power. That’s not going to suddenly put it on par with the superior i5 6600K, but it’s not far off especially considering it’s around half the price. The i3 range of CPUs, however, don’t come with Turbo mode turned on, nor do they come with unlocked multipliers either. Does that mean the 3.7GHz baseclock is your lot?
Well, no. If you pair the i3 with Intel’s top chipset, currently the Z270, you will still have access to some baseclock tweaks with select motherboard vendors. That means you can bump up the initial clockspeed above 4GHz with relative ease. Coupled with access to higher memory speeds with the top chipset (something which can help in CPU-limited scenarios) it means you’d ideally want to pair the i3 6100 with a low-end Z270 if possible.
Unfortunately that does mean you’re adding considerably to the build costs, but does give you a great little platform from which to iterate upon. Dropping an i5 or i7 into the mix later on down the line will keep your rig relevant for a good length of time.
I was hoping the release of the Intel Core i3 7350K would mean my budget CPU choice would change, but the $150 (£168) K-series i3 is a bit of a disappointment and not just because of that high price. The much-vaunted overclocking potential still isn't enough to give it a meaningful gaming performance delta over the similarly priced (and occasionally slightly cheaper) Core i5 7400. The R5 chips start at quad-core, eight-thread and should be very competitively priced compared with the Core i3 range. We're still hopeful Ryzen can make a big splash in the mainstream market.
But, for now, the Skylake i3 6100 remains our budget pick. It's cheaper than its Kaby Lake replacement yet still delivers similar levels of gaming performance. But I'd probably recommend holding off on a low-end CPU purchase right now, at least until AMD have dropped their R5 silicon load - the lower-spec R3 chips aren't happening until the second half of this year and that's a long time to wait.
Best budget CPU for gaming runner-up
AMD FX 6300 Black Edition
Cores: 6 | Threads: 6 | Base clock: 3.5GHz | Turbo: 4.1GHz | Socket: AMD AM3+
The six-core AMD FX 6300 was my favourite budget CPU for the longest time. It’s got a great line in multi-threaded performance for such a cheap chip and you can seriously crank its clocks to produce breakneck frequency speeds. I’ve hit a solid 5GHz on my sample with some basic voltage tweaking and decent cooling.
That makes it impressively competitive with the Intel i3, but it’s the dead-end platform which is now holding it back, making it only worth a look if you're desperate for a budget build right now. The AM3+ base is still running on DDR3 and the you’re rather limited in upgrade terms too - spending big on an eight-core FX processor makes little sense with the AM4 platform already in use and more budget-oriented Ryzen CPUs not far away now.
While picking the right graphics card is probably the most important choice for any gaming rig, selecting the right CPU for gaming can arguably have a greater impact on your system as a whole. By choosing a particular processor you are locking yourself into a specific company’s ecosystem and upgrade path, and you’re inevitably limited as to what motherboard chipsets are available to you too.
The price you’re willing to pay is still going to be the single biggest factor in picking your processor - pricing can jump quickly from one chip to the next. This isn’t like the GPU world where there's probably a graphics card available for whatever spare change you’ve got in your wallet at any given time; because there are only two companies making x86 processors to go into our gaming rigs there are few real options available at each price point.
The GPU will be where you want to spend the largest part of your rig budget, but it doesn’t pay to completely unbalance your machine. A cheap, quad-core AMD CPU isn’t going to let you get the most out of your GTX 1080; your two key components need to be better matched than that. Of course if you’re Billy Big Budget then you can happily drop over three grand on an i7 6950X with a new Titan X to keep it company, but if money’s a little tighter than that you need to play it a little smarter.
Intel processor or AMD processor?
AMD and Intel took different paths with the processor designs. Intel carried on resolutely working to get the most single-threaded performance it could out of one core while AMD bet the house on multi-threaded performance being the key to the future.
AMD lost. Particularly in gaming, where it’s still mostly a question of how much raw performance you can get out of your primary CPU core and on that count AMD’s processor design had been lacking compared with Intel’s Core architecture, meaning it was an Intel Core chip for gaming or nothing.
AMD had been the go-to guys for budget CPUs, though since they’ve left their FX range of processors twisting in the wind for years without any meaningful update they’re looking increasingly irrelevant. You can still build a well-priced machine with an AMD processor, but the dead-end AM3+ platform gives your PC no room to grow and you’re going to be hobbling the performance of your GPU by hitching it to the last-gen AMD carthorse.
The new Ryzen CPUs have launched at the high-end, offering eight-core, 16-thread chips with insane multi-threaded performance for the money, but still pretty limited single-core - and therefore gaming - performance. That's thanks to their still off-the-pace IPC levels compared with Intel. We're hoping that further optimisations, of what is still a brand spanking new CPU platform, might be able to close the gap and give AMD's Ryzen chips a bit of a gaming boost.
More cores = more performance
How many cores do you need for a gaming machine? Realistically you can make do with a dual-core CPU so long as it’s HyperThreaded to offer four threads of processing power. But beyond four threads the returns quickly diminish, and in fact the difference between the Core i7 and Core i5 Skylake is utterly negligible.
If you make the step beyond four physical cores though you will start to see a performance increase - the deca-core 6950X is able to offer incredible levels of gaming performance so long as you’ve got a powerful GPU strapped to it. That’s a crazily-priced CPU, however, but the six-core 6800K is only another $59 (£82) on top of the 6700K and can deliver genuinely tangible performance improvements.
That should only increase too as the promise of DirectX 12 and its core optimisations start to bear fruit. We’re still a little way away from celebrating proper multi-threading support in games, but thread count could become an important factor for gaming of the future.
Overclocking and upgrading
To get the most out of your graphics card you need a good CPU, but to get the most out of that you need a decent motherboard. And your choice of motherboard holds the key to both what you’ll be able to do to push your processor to its limits and to your PC’s future upgrade path. And maybe you might even appreciate a little advice from your favourite hardware prodders on how to overclock...
Intel offer multiple chipsets which offer compatibility for different processors. For Skylake there’s the top-end Z170 chipset, followed by the more-mainstream H170 and H110 chipsets. If you’ve no interest in overclocking, or high-speed memory, then the H-series motherboards will be fine, but if you want to squeeze a little extra out of your CPU then the Z170 is the go-to platform for your Intel processor. It's the exact same situation with Kaby Lake's 200-series boards too.
Not only will the Z170 or Z270 boards get you the highest overclock from a K-series processor, but they will also give you a better chance of accessing baseclock overclocking for the locked down CPUs like the Core i3 6100.
There is a new line of 200-series Intel chipsets to accompany the Kaby Lake refresh which happened at the start of this year, but they're only really bringing support for the new Intel CPU line rather than anything particularly different in motherboard terms, a few extra PCIe lanes aside.
On the AMD side the new AM4 motherboards offer overclocking support in their X370, small form factor X300 and mainstream B350 chipsets. Ryzen also has a new dedicated AMD application to help smooth out the rough edges of overclocking from the comfort of Windows. No more getting elbow deep into the BIOS then? Well, I think you'll still get better results getting familiar with the blocky text of your motherboard's BIOS, but so far the overclocking performance of Ryzen has been rather limited.
Going forward though AMD are making a lot of noise about the future-proofing of their AM4 boards. AMD have said that Ryzen is a four year architecture so that socket will cater for all their CPU refreshes for at least that long. And we're not just talking about straight processors either - AMD have unified their motherboard platforms so that both their CPUs and upcoming Zen-based APUs will operate using the same socket and chipsets. So it probably makes sense to spend a healthy chunk of cash on your AM4 motherboard as it's likely to be around for a while - according to AMD, at least. They are, however, introducing a new high-end socket for their upcoming Threadripper CPUs, and we'll have more details from Computex next week.