More Powerful Than Ever
These days, you're not suffering for choice if you're shopping for a new desktop CPU. And that's true whether you're after a new chip you'll use for PC gaming, one packed with cores for speedy content creation or media crunching, or a slice of silicon that aces all of those tasks. In the past year, the desktop CPU market has gotten a hard reboot and now, you'll get more cores (and more threads) for your CPU dollar than ever.
AMD kicked off the trend early last year with its eight-core Ryzen 7 chips; that platform's current flagship is the Ryzen 7 2700X. The AMD lineup also includes six-core Ryzen 5 chips (like the Ryzen 5 2600X), and quad-core, four-thread Ryzen 3 options like the AMD Ryzen 3 1300X. Intel countered with impressive, expensive enthusiast-class offerings in a new family called the Core X-Series, topped by the 18-core Core i9-7980XE Extreme Edtion. That $1,999 mega-chip made AMD's competing counterpart, the 16-core Ryzen Threadripper 1950X, seem downright reasonable at half the price ($999).
Intel is also now selling its eighth-generation Core, or "Coffee Lake-S," desktop processors, such as the Core i7-8700K and Core i5-8400 we tested. These chips are built around essentially the same architecture as the seventh-generation Core "Kaby Lake" processors (which were, in turn, very similar to the sixth-generation Core "Skylake" chips). But with the Coffee Lake CPUs, you get higher top clock speeds and a shift from Intel's familiar four-core design to six cores (and 12 computing threads with the Core i7 chip, thanks to Intel's Hyper-Threading tech).
Modern CPU Size Comparison
But while more cores, higher clock speeds, and the latest chip architectures are all nice to have, picking the best processor specifically for gaming is about more than basic specs and speeds. Let's jump into some of the considerations to keep in mind when shopping for a gaming chip, before diving in to our favorite recent picks.
We're going to go ahead and assume that most people searching for a CPU for PC gaming are going to be using a dedicated graphics card. You certainly can play games with the integrated graphics processor (IGP) that comes baked into Intel's mainstream processors and AMD's APUs (the company's term for chips that combine a CPU and graphics on the chip). But you'll often be relegated to low settings and resolutions, and modern demanding titles will often not be playable at acceptable frame rates at all (generally 30 frames per second or above).
Monitors with full HD (1080p, or 1,920-by-1,080) resolution are cheap now, with some less than $100. If you're even moderately serious about PC gaming, you will have one of these panels, and you'll want to play games at reasonable detail settings at 1080p. For current titles, that will most often mean you need a dedicated video card.
Shoppers who are happy to stick with older game titles and/or casual games can get by with IGP. But it's important to point out that all of AMD's Ryzen processors, from the lowly AMD Ryzen 3 chips to the hyper-powerful, enthusiast-class AMD Ryzen Threadrippers, lack integrated graphics entirely. So with those options, you'll need a dedicated graphics card. The same is true of Intel's enthusiast Core X-Series platform: The chips need a video card paired with them. So be sure to pick either an APU from AMD, or a mainstream Core i3, i5, or i7 chip from Intel if you don't want to buy a graphics card. Late-model CPUs on the Intel side will use a form of what Intel calls "HD Graphics" or "UHD Graphics" as the IGP, for example the Intel UHD Graphics 630 in the new, top-end eighth-generation Core CPUs.
If gaming on a very tight budget, you'll want to consider AMD's "Raven Ridge" APUs, which combine the company's Ryzen CPU cores with its current-generation "Vega" graphics silicon. They're so new that we haven't tested them yet, but if they pan out as expected, these chips should provide better gaming performance than any integrated on-chip graphics available today.
Spend More on Your Graphics Card
A given graphics card's average frame rates will vary when paired with different CPUs, and from platform to platform. Generally, this is resolution-dependent. If you're gaming at 1080p or below, the variance can be substantial.
But that doesn't mean you should spend hundreds of bucks extra for the CPU that can squeeze the very highest frame rates possible from your card. Often, a chip one or two steps down the stack can save you hundreds of dollars, while requiring only a slight sacrifice in average frame rates. If gaming is your priority, that difference in dollars is much better spent on a higher-end graphics card, which will boost your frame rates considerably, or perhaps on a roomier solid-state drive (SSD), so you don't have to wait so long for game levels to load.
Consider Monitor Resolution, Refresh Rate
Unless you have a fancy, late-model LCD monitor that is gaming-specific (it'll advertise extra-high refresh rates on its bezel or box), it's safe to assume that your LCD screen tops out at 60Hz. That's fine for most gaming purposes: In short, it means you'll be able to see frame rates up to 60 frames per second (fps). Keep in mind, though, that if your graphics card and processor pushes above that frame rate, your monitor won't actually display those extra frames. So it's futile to over-spend on your CPU and GPU to achieve performance that your monitor can't even display. With an ordinary LCD panel, a frame rate consistently above, but not too much above, 60fps average in your favorite games is the sweet spot.
Competitive, fast-paced gamers, though, swear by their high-refresh-rate screens. And hardware makers have increasingly been upping their game with gaming-focused monitors, to the point where the Alienware 25 Gaming Monitor (specifically, model AW2518H) sports a kind-of-unfathomable 240Hz refresh rate. Now, we're skeptical that the human eye can even perceive frame rates as high as 240fps. But if you have (or are considering buying) a gaming monitor with a 120Hz-or-higher refresh rate, to truly leverage it you'll need to spend more on a graphics card to push those extra frames. And in some instances, you'll also need a beefier processor to keep up. That's because most high-refresh screens top out at 1080p, a resolution at which gaming performance is more limited by the CPU than the graphics card, if you've bought a good enough card.
Now, if you're one of those competitive gamers with a high-refresh-rate 1080p screen, at this point you'll probably want to look to Intel's processors. The reason: AMD's Ryzen chips delivered lower frame rates at 1080p than similarly priced recent Intel offerings. To be clear, this was the case when using a high-end card like the Nvidia GeForce GTX 1080 (Founders Edition), which we used for our gaming-related CPU testing. Indeed, the performance difference between Intel and AMD chips can vary greatly from game to game, from just a few frames per second to dozens.
Let's take an example that we posed when Intel's Coffee Lake CPUs rolled out. On the recent game Far Cry Primal, for example, the Intel Core i7-8700K with a GeForce GTX 1080 card delivered 137fps, while AMD's Ryzen 7 1800X turned in just 84fps. Again, that's at 1080p resolution with the same graphics card in both systems and with the RAM clocked similarly.
Below, you can see some of our gaming test results with a couple of recent demanding games…
Mind you, this is a sampling of just two titles. And while the above results may scare some buyers away from AMD and Ryzen if they're really serious about gaming at 1080p, keep two things in mind: That 84fps that the AMD Ryzen 7 1800X delivered is still very smooth, well above the 60fps limit of most mainstream monitors, and the gaming performance differences between chips narrow greatly once you start cranking up the resolution.
To address the second point above: If you have or are considering buying a 4K (3,840-by-2,160) monitor, our testing shows that the CPU isn't a bottleneck when running at that native resolution. Every recent processor we've tested delivered between 47fps and 49fps on that same test at 4K resolution with the GeForce GTX 1080 card installed.
In short, which CPU you choose matters more as you step down the resolution ladder. All else being equal, at higher resolutions the graphics card sets the limits. At lower ones, the CPU comes more and more into the picture.
So, What to Buy?
Bottom line: If you intend to add a dedicated graphics card, gaming performance is what matters most to you, and you have around $200 to spend, we recommend the eighth-generation Coffee Lake Intel Core i5-8400, assuming you're looking to build a new PC. If you have an existing "Skylake" or "Kaby Lake" machine, any compatible Intel Core i5 or i7 CPU should suit you just fine, too, for at least a few years. Rather than upgrading to a new platform (which means the added cost of a new motherboard and maybe a new kind of RAM), you should invest in a more powerful graphics card.
If cost isn't much of an object, and you want to be sure you're squeezing the most performance possible out of your card at 1080p, the Intel Core i7-8700K delivered the best performance with a GTX 1080 graphics card that we've seen.
And if you're a gamer who regularly does processor-intensive content creation on the side, the AMD Ryzen 5 2600X and Ryzen 7 2700X are appealing options, as well. These are six- and eight-core CPUs, respectively, great for tasks that use all the cores and threads they can get. Just know that if you plan on gaming at 1080p, some games won't run at frame rates as high as you're likely to get with a similarly priced, late-model Intel CPU. But if you're spending a few hundred dollars each on your CPU and graphics card, now might be a good time to upgrade your monitor, too—say, from a 1080p panel to a 1440p or a 4K one. With a higher native resolution on your panel, the frame-rate difference between an AMD Ryzen chip and a late-model Intel Core is almost certain to narrow.
Below you'll find more details on the top AMD and Intel processors for gaming PCs, along with links to the full reviews. (Note that we haven't yet reviewed the latest Ryzen chips, so the list below includes their predecessors, the Ryzen 5 1600X and the Ryzen 7 1800X). If you're building a new system from scratch, you'll also want to take a look at our recommendations for the best M.2 SSDs and PC tower cases. Or, if you'd rather buy an off-the-shelf model, you can check out our favorite gaming desktops.
Bottom Line: As long as unmatched 1080p gaming isn't the main objective for your build, it's hard to beat the high clock speeds, thread and core count, and overall performance of AMD's Ryzen 5 1600X CPU …
Bottom Line: AMD's new flagship desktop processor, the Ryzen 7 1800X, brings highly multithreaded performance into the mainstream for the first time-at a price of just $499.
Bottom Line: Intel's six-core "Coffee Lake" Core i5 trades blows away much pricier previous-generation Core i7 chips. But it's most impressive when paired with a dedicated graphics card.
Bottom Line: With high clocks and hexa-core design, Intel's top eighth-generation/"Coffee Lake" desktop CPU impresses as a mainstream "do-it-all" processor. It's an excellent gamer, too, when paired with…
Bottom Line: Intel's "Kaby Lake" Core i7 flagship is speedy, with hardware support for 4K streaming and HDR for services like Netflix, but performance gains over its previous-generation counterpart are f…