Intel’s recent launch of the Core i9-9900K has a lot of people asking what it means to have the best gaming CPU around. The answer to that question is complicated, and we wanted to take a break from our usual System Guide format to dive deep into this specific topic.
Intel’s Core i9-9900K
Let’s start from square one. For one’s CPU choice to influence gaming performance at all, a game has to be bottlenecked by the CPU to begin with. That may sound obvious, but not every game is CPU-bound. In fact, we’d guess that most aren’t. We have to dig deep into our Steam libraries for titles that care much about the CPU they run on when we’re getting set up for CPU reviews.
Older games like Grand Theft Auto V form the foundation of any CPU gaming benchmarking suite. GTA V is typical of many older titles in that it cares a lot about a CPU’s single-threaded performance. You can easily find modern games that strongly care about the performance of a single thread, however, as Far Cry 5 seems to.
Developers’ use of next-generation APIs in newer titles isn’t a reliable predictor of CPU usage patterns, though. Gears of War 4‘s implementation of the DirectX 12 API is as dependent on a single core as ever when frame rates start to climb. Sections of Rise of the Tomb Raider can hammer every core at high enough frame rates, but that only holds true with the game’s DirectX 12 renderer. RoTTR sequel Shadow of the Tomb Raider, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to stress CPUs much at all in DirectX 12 mode.
Crysis 3, a favorite of ours for exploring the performance potential of CPUs for gaming, can stress every single thread one can throw at it despite the fact that it predated DirectX 12. The same is true of Assassin’s Creed Origins and Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, both of which use DirectX 11 and still occupy every thread we can throw at them (although the gap between the lowest- and highest-performance CPUs in those titles often isn’t nearly as wide as it is with Crysis 3).
Even within the same game, API options can entirely change how a given title might stress a system. The Vulkan renderer in Doom‘s 2016 reboot doesn’t max out any single core, for example, but its OpenGL renderer proves a great test of per-core performance, if nothing else. (Run Doom with Vulkan if you can, please.)
Point is, there’s no easy way to make a general statement about how games will load a CPU short of hands-on testing and liberal use of Windows’ Resource Monitor. Even if we can’t predict how every game will behave, we know from experience that as frame rates climb and resolution, image quality, or both decrease, the CPU becomes more and more likely to be the bottleneck for a system’s gaming performance.
Going by experience, we also know games that tend to end up CPU-bound usually end up stuck on a single thread. It follows that a game’s performance ceiling can only be lifted by using a high-performance CPU with the highest possible single-core clock speed (or equivalent all-core overclock) one can throw at it. Titles that occupy the entire CPU stand to benefit from an all-core overclock, too. More speedy cores and threads lift all boats in those unusual cases.
To crown a gaming CPU as “the best,” then, we want high single-threaded performance out of the box. We also want the highest all-core clock speeds we can get to handle the odd game that’s embarrassingly parallel, and we want plenty of overclocking potential if we can get it.
How to choose a gaming PC’s CPU
With all that in mind, picking the “best gaming CPU” for a given build is going to depend on how you want to play games. Do you have a 4K monitor and a hunger for today’s latest titles with their settings cranked? In our experience, your CPU won’t have a noticeable impact on frame rates. 4K gaming puts an insane load on your graphics card, and frame rates will probably stay in relatively pedestrian ranges unless you’re doing something crazy like pairing GeForce RTX 2080 Tis in SLI.
For a 4K gaming PC, then, your CPU choice should depend on what else you do with your system. If you don’t need lots of cores and threads for your day-to-day work, you can save some money on the CPU and put that cash into a more capable graphics card. We wouldn’t take that approach to extremes, though: pairing a $100 CPU with a $1200 graphics card would be a bit silly.
CPU choice can matter some when gaming at 2560×1440, although the performance differences between chips aren’t going to be nearly as keenly felt as they would be at the extremes of 1920×1080 gaming unless you have a GeForce RTX 2080 Ti. As always, the more powerful your graphics card is and the higher you want to push frame rates, the more likely it is that you’ll notice a differences between CPUs when gaming at this resolution. Still, we’d allocate as much money to a powerful graphics card as possible for the best 2560×1440 gaming experience. Your CPU choice should still mostly depend on what else you want to do with your PC.
At the opposite extreme, do you play esports titles at the lowest possible resolution and highest possible frame rates? You’ll want to pick a CPU with fewer cores and threads and higher per-core clock speeds—possibly one that’s unlocked for easy overclocking. As you lower your game’s resolution or image quality settings to the minimum to increase frame rates, you may find that you ultimately hit a point where frame rates will go no higher, and higher CPU clock speeds via overclocking may be the only thing that will push that FPS counter up any more.
The above advice holds true for budget gamers running titles at 1920×1080 with a graphics card like a GTX 1050 Ti, GTX 1060 3 GB, or RX 570, even if those gamers aren’t pushing their systems quite to the same extremes. All of those graphics cards can be had for reasonable prices again these days, and they’re quite powerful compared to what modest budgets used to buy. Upgrading to the midrange GTX 1060 6 GB or RX 580 will only increase the likelihood of CPU bottlenecks at 1920×1080. To get the most out of those graphics cards, you can’t pick the slowest, cheapest processor available—you need a balanced system, and that might mean spending more than $100 on a CPU.
If you have a lower-resolution monitor, if you simply can’t afford more than a certain amount of money for a CPU, or if you only have the budget to upgrade your graphics card in an older system, not all is lost. You can shift some of a game’s load back onto the GPU by increasing image quality settings (anti-aliasing, especially), by using AMD’s Virtual Super Resolution or Nvidia’s Dynamic Super Resolution, or by enabling a combination of those things. The point is to exploit the untapped power of your graphics card to improve the gaming experience in ways unrelated to higher frame rates.
If higher frame rates are ultimately what you want in CPU-bound games—or your CPU is just so ancient that modern graphics cards are bottlenecking it, period—you’re ultimately going to have to shell out for more processing power. We can help.
The best gaming CPUs of late 2018
The best budget gaming CPU: Ryzen 3 2200G
Yes, that’s a Ryzen 5 2400G, sorry. Subtract two in your head
The Ryzen 3 2200G has four cores with a decent 3.7-GHz peak clock speed, and if you can find the extra money in your budget for a Hyper 212 Evo-class cooler, it can be overclocked on any B350 or B450 motherboard. Even this $100 Ryzen chip offers features that Intel has segmented out of its Pentium CPUs, like support for the AVX instruction set. That’s a nice performance bonus for apps that can make use of it. The included Wraith Stealth cooler isn’t half bad, either.
We think the 2200G offers a compelling feature set for a basic gaming system, even if you don’t intend to use the on-die Vega 8 IGP. TechSpot tested the entry-level Ryzen part with a GeForce GTX 1070 pushing pixels, and the site found the Ryzen chip a superior companion to that high-end graphics card than Intel’s Coffee Lake Pentium G5400 for CPU-bound games.
If you’re really, really tight on cash and just want to dip a toe into PC gaming for the first time, the 2200G has a relatively powerful integrated graphics processor that one can credibly game on, although you’ll need fast and potentially spendy DDR4 memory to really make the most of that capability. DDR4 prices have declined of late, though.
The best midrange gaming CPU: Core i5-8400
If you just want a solid gaming experience, aren’t cash-constrained, and don’t intend to do much heavy lifting with your PC, Intel’s Core i5-8400 should be your default pick for powering systems with a midrange discrete graphics card.
Despite its modest sticker price, the i5-8400 consistently turns in the best average frame rates and lowest 99th-percentile frame times of any CPU in its price class. It often embarrasses much more expensive chips in those measures, too. The only downside of this chip is its locked main multiplier. The i5-8400’s 4-GHz boost clock and 3.8-GHz all-core Turbo speeds are as good as they’ll ever get out of the box.
Shortages of Intel’s 14-nm processors have recently driven up the i5-8400’s price at retail, but we still think it’s the best midrange gaming processor around. If you can’t find stock of the i5-8400 at a reasonable price, though, read on.
The affordable, do-it-all alternative: Ryzen 5 2600X
If you want to do more with your PC than just game, or you can’t find Intel’s Core i5-8400 in stock, AMD’s Ryzen 5 2600X is our pick. This $230 chip boasts some of the highest single-core boost speeds available from a Ryzen part, plus multi-threaded prowess that Intel simply can’t match for the price. That means the 2600X can do things like gaming and software-encoded streaming all at once without dropping frames for your Twitch viewers. The Core i5-8400 just folds under similarly heavy workloads.
AMD includes a great stock cooler in the box with this chip, and the 2600X is compatible with a wide range of affordably-priced B350, B450, and X470 motherboards. The tradeoff at this price point is a slightly lower ceiling for frame rates and slightly higher 99th-percentile frame times than the Core i5-8400 delivers in CPU-bound titles at 1920×1080, so unless you’re certain you’ll make use of all 12 of those threads, we’d stick with the Coffee Lake CPU.
The high-refresh-rate addict’s attainable pick: Core i5-9600K
If you need high single-core clock speeds and unlocked multipliers to get the most out of lightly-threaded games, we’d take a look at Intel’s $280 Core i5-9600K. This chip offers a 4.6-GHz single-core clock speed, ranging down to a 4.3-GHz all-core Turbo Boost speed under load. For reference, 4.3 GHz was where the i5-8600K’s single-core Turbo speed peaked.
Intel’s ninth-generation Core CPUs re-introduced solder thermal interface material under the CPU heat spreader, and our experience with that change so far suggests that it makes those chips easier to cool than their predecessors when they’re overclocked. That should make it fairly easy to push the i5-9600K even further for titles that need it.
We haven’t personally tested an i5-9600K yet, but we know from other sites’ results that it edges out even its i5-8600K predecessor in most titles. We’re not entirely sold on six cores and six threads for a PC that’s going to be asked to do any heavy-duty work outside of gaming, but there’s a large gap between about $200 and $300 that only the i5-9600K fills for high-refresh-rate gaming fiends.
The best value for a high-end, do-it-all gaming CPU: Ryzen 7 2700X
If you’re trying to build a powerful but affordable system that can game and then some, AMD’s Ryzen 7 2700X is a superb pick. Its included Wraith Prism CPU cooler allows the chip to extract the vast majority of its considerable performance potential by way of its XFR 2 and Precision Boost 2 logic. On top of their higher suggested prices versus comparable Ryzen parts, you’ll spend quite a bit of cash on a cooler for any unlocked Intel CPU, especially if you intend to overclock. At its discounted $310 price of late, the 2700X just screams value, especially when paired with a B450 motherboard.
While you won’t get high-refresh-rate 1920×1080 gaming performance any better than that of the Core i5-8400 from the 2700X, this chip is a great foundation for 2560×1440 or 4K gaming, heavy-duty productivity workloads, or high-fidelity same-system streaming. Neither the Core i7-8700K nor the Core i7-9700K could handle streaming with OBS’ x264 “fast” preset in our most recent test, for example, while the Ryzen 7 2700X had no trouble delivering a smooth streaming and gaming experience with those high-fidelity visuals.
The gaming champion: Intel Core i7-9700K
If you want the highest possible frame rates from CPU-bound titles of all stripes without going overboard, Intel’s $385 Core i7-9700K is the final word (even though it sells for a slight premium at retail right now). The i7-9700K delivered average frame rates and 99th-percentile frame times on par with those of its more expensive Core i9 sibling in our recent tests, all for over $100 less than the i9-9900K’s list price. Need we say more?
We didn’t have much trouble overclocking our i7-9700K to 5 GHz on all of its cores, either, and that overclock heightened its already scorching gaming performance in tandem with our GeForce RTX 2080 Ti. Intel’s return to solder thermal interface material means the i7-9700K isn’t a bear to cool when it’s overclocked, either, unlike some older Coffee Lake parts.
Why not spring for the Core i9-9900K here? To be sure, the i9-9900K delivers unmatched all-around prowess in both gaming and productivity applications, but it’s also impossible to find for anywhere near its already-high $500 list price. Unless you absolutely need that unparalleled all-around capability, we think it’s best to put the extra $100 or more into other system components for a gaming PC.
For gamers’ specific needs, about the only thing the i7-9700K can’t do as well as that much more expensive chip is same-system streaming with higher x264 quality settings. You’ll need to upgrade to the Core i9-9900K if you’re a stream fiend who doesn’t want to sacrifice any performance. Since Intel’s highest-end ninth-gen CPU is so scarce and so overpriced at the moment, we find it hard to recommend to all but the most performance-crazed.
Should gamers shell out for high-end desktop CPUs?
Some gamers may have more money than sense, and they might look towards Intel and AMD’s high-end desktop platforms as a place to blow some of it. We’d advise against that move for a gaming system—it’s just wasted money these days outside of some specific circumstances. As we’ve already established, it’s the rare game whose performance scales linearly with core count, and if that were the only knock against high-end desktop processors for gamers, we’d still recommend against spending huge amounts on them.
As core counts have exploded of late, however, high-end desktop CPUs have employed novel on-die interconnects and on-package connections between dies that increase both inter-core and main memory latency, and they sometimes don’t clock anywhere near as high on a single core as their lower-end desktop counterparts do. That makes high-refresh-rate gaming on those platforms a dicey prospect, since you’ll often see lower frame rates and higher 99th-percentile frame times than you would with even the much less expensive Core i5-8400.
If you’re gaming at 2560×1440 or 4K, the limitations of high-end desktop CPUs will be less evident, but that’s true of any CPU at any price, not a reason to go and spend $1000 on a high-end desktop part. You really need to be doing something outside of gaming (or alongside gaming) that requires a combination of high core counts, gobs of memory bandwidth, and bountiful PCIe lanes from the CPU to justify stepping up to a high-end desktop platform. Gaming alone is not going to stress those resources.
For an extreme example of why some high-end desktop CPUs aren’t the best choice for gaming alone, Far Cry 5 doesn’t run right at all, at any resolution, on AMD’s uber-expensive Threadripper 2990WX. Sure, you can disable cores to get around this problem, but what’s the point of spending a ton of money on a ton of cores if you have to shut any of them off, especially if you were looking for multi-threaded oomph for heavy multitasking while gaming?
If you game, stream to multiple services, archive your footage with CPU encoding at 4K and high bitrates, you might have cause to look towards high-end desktop CPUs as foundations for your gaming system. Otherwise, we’d stick with AMD and Intel’s mainstream platforms.
Intel recently announced plans to refresh its Skylake-X CPUs alongside its introduction of ninth-gen Core processors. Those refreshed chips will all have an allocation of 44 PCIe lanes from the CPU and soldered heat spreaders, plus potentially higher clocks than their predecessors. Those improvements will likely make those chips more appealing next to AMD’s Ryzen Threadripper CPUs, but we don’t expect them to mean much for gaming PCs.
Asus’ ROG Dominus Extreme motherboard for the Xeon W-3175X
At the extreme high end, Intel also plans to bring a version of its extreme-core-count Xeon Platinum CPUs to high-end desktops as the Xeon W-3175X. This chip’s server-class C612-based platform will require exotic power, cooling, and enclosures to house its massive motherboards and associated infrastructure. Unless you’re at the very limits of what’s possible from today’s high-end desktops and find yourself wanting more, we doubt the 3175X will have much relevance for folks interested in mere gaming.
Past that, we expect the CPU landscape to remain stable through the end of the year. Go forth and buy the chip that best fits your needs and budget, and above all, have fun with your new system.