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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 2560x1440 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.

What's next

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.

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