The best gaming CPUs of late 2018
The best budget gaming CPU: Ryzen 3 2200G
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 1920x1080, 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 1920x1080 gaming performance any better than that of the Core i5-8400 from the 2700X, this chip is a great foundation for 2560x1440 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.