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When it comes to the creation of a gaming PC, there are several essential things to think of. There’s your graphics processing unit or GPU to be able to display your games at excellent quality and fast frame rates. And then, of course, random access memory or RAM so your games’ essential data can load faster and therefore run smoother. Storage is critical, of course, because what good is a powerhouse gaming PC if you can barely install the games you wish to play? The higher the capacity and the more modern technology, the better. All of that tech inside your rig will cause a lot of heat, so you need a cooling system: powerful fans, or if you want to keep things chill, a liquid cooling system.
Once that’s done, it’s time for the peripherals. A reliable gaming keyboard for all the countless keystrokes you’ll inevitably do for your gaming, coupled with a cutting-edge mouse with multiple buttons and DPI settings. If a gamepad is more your thing or you want to mix things up depending on the game, you need one too. But what good is being able to play a game if you can’t have an excellent immersive experience via a sound system? Surround sound speakers, or the latest gaming headset should do the trick.
You’re all set. What’s that, the motherboard? Well, a motherboard is pretty standard, right? Modern motherboards and any processor should be able to handle your games. Surely it’s not as important as the parts we just listed, right?
Well, nothing could be further from the truth. Most people don’t think of the processors that much because you usually updated a gaming rig is by replacing the more common parts; we listed above. A PC can last for many years by upgrading the GPU, storage, and RAM, but this doesn’t mean you can take the processor for granted. Especially when building a gaming PC from scratch.
Having the best processor for gaming inside your machine can spell the difference between a speedy, problem-free gaming experience, or one bogged with issues that will be irritating to try and fix.
But what exactly is a processor, and why is it a crucial element in gaming?
What Is A CPU?
If you have even a bit of technical experience (and by bit, we mean you have seen a PC rig and turned it on), then you’ve probably come across something like this before: Intel i7 3.5 GHz Quad-Core 64-bit, or something to that effect. That jumbled mix of numbers and tech jargon is referring to the CPU or the central processing unit of the computer. But all that stuff has to mean something, right?
The CPU is the virtual brain of the computer. Without it, nothing works. It doesn’t matter how robust your graphics card is, how much RAM you have, or how cool your peripherals are. Without the CPU, everything is at a standstill. From a tech point of view, the CPU performs all the mathematical, logical, and I/O or input-output computations necessary for you to play your games. Everything goes through the CPU to be processed and for you to observe. For example, if you use the mouse to move the cursor even the slightest bit, the CPU is responsible for that. All of that intense and fast-paced mouse clicks combined with keystroke combinations during an exciting gaming session? Thank the CPU for that.
Pretty much, if the GPU is responsible for all the graphics needs of your computer, the RAM is responsible for all the high-speed data access, and the storage is responsible for keeping your games, the CPU is responsible for running everything combined.
But how does the CPU do this?
How A CPU Works
At first glance, it seems like a CPU is just one piece of technology and that magically, all of its tasks are done within its flat, square shell. In reality, though, a CPU is still subdivided into different components that we don’t see. Each element has a specific task that all combine to deliver what the CPU is there for. Just like how the human brain isn’t just “a brain” but a brain with different areas responsible for various functions, so too is a CPU.
The ALU, or arithmetic logic unit, is the component that is responsible for simple arithmetic and logic tasks. The arithmetic operations are the four fundamental math calculations: addition, subtraction, division, and multiplication. In contrast, logical operations are conditional comparisons, like comparing numbers, letters, and so on. There are three main types: equal-to, lesser-than, or greater-than. Each logical operation then has specific tasks should the conditions be met, or not met. The comparisons are essential because it ensures no processes have dead ends, and the processing can continuously go on.
You might think “big deal, arithmetic, and logic tasks are simple, so it means any processor is fine.” However, we must remember that a CPU has to make thousands of calculations per second to execute the computer functions we often take for granted, so the ALU is essential.
The CU or the control unit is responsible for the different parts of the PC. It is the component of the CPU that is responsible for sending out the various signals and commands that gives orders to the different parts of the gaming PC. It works in tandem with the ALU because the CU cannot make arithmetic calculations. It gets all the instructions, passes them on to the ALU for calculating, and then passes the commands on to the different areas of the PC.
The cache is kind of like a RAM for the CPU. This is the component of the CPU where the instructions are stored and taken during processing. All three elements blend in perfect synchronicity to perform all the CPU’s essential tasks.
But the CPU isn’t just randomly placed in some part of the machine. You will find the CPU on the motherboard, or what people call the nervous system of the device. The motherboard is a printed circuit board where connections between the components come together to form what we know and love as the PC.
There are different kinds of motherboards, however, and all of them are designed to work with certain types of CPUs, RAMs, and GPUs.
The motherboard has dozens of components, connectors, ports, slots, and so on, which deserves a specific focus on its own. But the reason why it is essential to mention here is that again, without the CPU, aka the brain, then the motherboard, aka the nervous system, ceases to function. That is why the CPU is a significant factor in the creation of a gaming PC.
You might think that’s a tremendous responsibility to have for one unit, and you’ll be correct. But if that’s the case, surely the CPU should be the primary component to be upgraded. Especially if a new processor comes around, that makes your current one obsolete?
Well, it’s not that simple. Upgrading the motherboard and the CPU is pretty much the most challenging thing to do when upgrading a PC. Not because it cannot be done, because it certainly can. It is because it’s not as simple as upgrading a GPU or a hard drive wherein you get the latest, fastest parts and plug them in.
CPUs will only be compatible with particular motherboards, and vice-versa. Usually, if you are looking to upgrade your CPU, it is best to pick a combo of CPU and motherboard already. Picking the CPU requires knowing the different kinds of CPUs available out there and what “socket” can support it. The socket is the section of the motherboard where the CPU will be locked in and is where the primary connections of the different parts of the PC converge with the CPU.
Different Kinds of CPU
To add to the confusion when thinking of getting or upgrading the CPU is the fact that there are quite several choices when it comes to CPU types. Fortunately, there are only two leading manufacturers of CPU, so that narrows the choices down a bit. Unfortunately, each manufacturer has numerous options to choose from, with different points of focus and specialties.
But before we dive right in, let’s analyze in general the different CPU types. Specifically, when it comes to their “cores.”
What is a core? In essence, a core can be considered “the brain of the brain.” The CPU is the brain of the computer, but it also has its own “brains,” aka the cores. Remember that example earlier? Intel i7 3.5 GHz Quad-Core 64-bit? Quad-core means this CPU type has four cores, and each one of those cores can perform their functions independently from the others. Just the same, if an operation needs it, the four cores can work together in unison.
These days, most CPUs will have the following:
- Dual-core – contains two cores
- Quad-core – includes four cores and is currently the minimum for average gaming PCs
- Hexa-core – contains six cores
- Octa-core – contains eight cores
More intensive work-oriented machines can possess as many as forty-eight cores, composed of multiple CPUs. Fortunately for the average gamer, that is overkill and grossly unnecessary.
And then there’s the matter of the bit-type of the CPU. There are two main kinds: 32-bit and 64-bit. A “bit” is the smallest unit of data in a computer, and the bit part of the name represents the “width” of the data units that the CPU can work with. In the case of a 32-bit CPU, it works with operating systems and software that processes data units in 32-bit chunks. 64-bit CPUs work with OS’s and software that run in data units 64 bits wide.
It all sounds quite technical, but to put it, before the mid-90s, 32-bit processors were the kings. The earliest high-quality consumer brand of processors from the two leading manufacturers, Intel and AMD (we’ll get to them later), were 32-bit. The operating systems of the time then had support for 32-bit processing, such as Windows 95, 98, and XP. When the year 2000 rolled along, however, the consumer version of the 64-bit CPU appeared. This even though the 64-bit computer had already been made way back in 1961. When the consumer 64-bit processors came around, operating systems followed suit, and now have 64-bit versions starting from Windows XP and up.
But what is the main difference between 32-bit and 64-bit processors? Does this mean that 32-bit processors are now obsolete and unnecessary?
To answer the first question, the main difference between 32-bit and 64-bit is the amount and speed at which they can perform tasks and calculations. Because 64-bit processors can be in dual, quad, hex, or octa-core configurations, they can be so much more high capacity and faster than their 32-bit counterparts. Another advantage the 64-bit processor has over the 32-bit processor is the RAM capacity it can handle. 32-bit CPUs can handle only up to 4GB of RAM while 64-bit CPUs can quickly go beyond that, up to a practical limit of 8TB of RAM. And as we already know by now, more RAM means better and smoother processing of different programs, such as video games.
To answer the second question, however, it doesn’t mean that 32-bit processors are now obsolete. While it is true that they are slowly being phased out, if you have a computer with a 32-bit processor, you can still run video games if they are designed for 32-bit processing. And of course, if the games’ minimum system requirements in RAM fall within the parameters of your PC. When it comes to upgrading for video games unless the game you’re looking at is specially designed for 64-bit, you can opt to upgrade the GPU instead. You’ll get a much better performance boost and save yourself a lot of money and effort in the process.
It has to be said, however, that sooner or later, 32-bit processors will obsolete, and when it comes to creating a gaming PC from scratch, it is highly recommended to skip that option entirely.
Finally, there’s the number of “threads” a CPU can handle. The process of threading is creating a “virtual core” of a CPU. What this means is that each core present in a CPU can be “broken down” into multiple virtual cores to increase speed and performance. On paper, the more threads a CPU can be broken down to, the better it can function, especially when it comes to process-intensive software.
The Two Main Brands: Intel and AMD
Unlike other gaming essentials like peripherals, monitors, and sound systems, there are only two leading brands you need to worry about: Intel and AMD. Unfortunately, these two brands are neck-to-neck with one another that very little difference separates them. If you ask enthusiasts, you’ll probably get equal amounts of answers for and against both brands. It is a debate just as, if not more, furious than Star Trek vs. Star Wars.
Fortunately, we can help shed light on this matter and help you out.
First thing’s first: to get the most out of either brand, it is best to pair them with the appropriate motherboard that is the most compatible with not just the brand, but the CPU type. Assuming this will be done, however, these are some of the differences between Intel and AMD you should know about.
If you’ve lurked in some forums for games or even on techie social media pages, you’ve probably heard that while Intel features more powerful CPUs, AMD offers them a bit more affordable and has more graphics support. To some extent, this is true, but as of this point, there is no clear distinction like that anymore, especially after 2017, when the AMD Ryzen series of CPUs debuted. The basic AMD 6-core 12-thread Ryzen 5 is as low as $120. But the brand also has the Ryzen 9 3900X, for example, a $500 CPU with 12 cores capable of 24 threads. Intel, which many people often associate with pricey CPUs, actually now has very affordable ones capable of rivaling AMD’s most budget-friendly products. This is also partly because of Ryzen’s arrival.
What Intel has a leg up on AMD, however, is its overclocking capabilities and overall performance advantage. If you’re the type to tinker with what your CPU is truly capable of, then Intel is an excellent choice for you. Performance-wise, we can say that Intel has slightly better CPUs for games.
And yet, AMD levels the playing field with its multithreading capabilities and performance. AMD’s simultaneous multithreading or SMT is superior to Intel’s hyper-threading, even though both are mostly the same thing. Because of its superiority in threading, you can say that AMD performs better with creative programs like video and photo editing.
So while Intel has overclocking and performance as an advantage (albeit a slight edge), AMD’s superior threading tech puts it toe-to-toe with Intel. Going back to what we said earlier, it’s neck-to-neck with these two brands, and it can be quite a difficult task to pick one over another.
How then can you make a decision when it comes to buying a CPU?
Essential Tips In Choosing a CPU For Gaming
- Either brand works – Despite giving a bit of a leg-up to Intel when it comes to gaming, both processors are suited for the task. The most critical case one can make about the brand is whether or not the motherboard that will contain it is more compatible with it. Otherwise, both Intel and AMD are suited for gaming.
- Get The Most Modern Option – For those with a limited budget, a typical automatic move is to pick an older variant of a CPU in an attempt to save money. And while this is certainly a possibility, the price difference isn’t that big between an older model and the latest ones. The disadvantage, however, is enormous. If you are looking to get a CPU for an upgrade or a from-scratch build, the best option is to get the latest generation of CPUs. This way, the lifespan and compatibility to hardware are much longer, and not to mention the performance levels are much more superior.
- Clock Over Cores – While it can be tempting to get a CPU with lots of cores present, this isn’t the case. Just because a CPU has 8 or 12 cores doesn’t automatically mean it is superior to a CPU with only 4 or 6, specifically when it comes to gaming. What matters more is higher clock speeds, which translates to quicker response and performance for video games. Of course, it could be different if the PC you are building will be more than just a gaming PC, and will also be used for video-editing and whatnot. This is because more cores will process time-consuming tasks much easier, like video rendering. But when it comes specifically to games, check the clock speeds over the cores. You can end up saving some big bucks in the process.
- Match everything Properly – It doesn’t matter if your CPU is the most top-of-the-line product out there if you have low RAM, an outdated GPU, and old-fashioned storage. To make the most out of the CPU you will get, the other parts have to be as good, and in fact, can be better than the CPU itself. The CPU is not the primary upgrade path for computers. Most of the time, especially when it comes to gaming, getting more RAM and the latest GPU your motherboard and CPU can support will do a far better job making games run smoother and better than merely swapping out the CPU. If you have to upgrade the CPU or are looking to build a PC from scratch, don’t pour all your budget on the CPU and skimp out on the other parts. Balance everything out, and you should get a great PC at the end.
Oh, one last thing before we get to our list of best processors for gaming.
Beware Of Overclocking
We mentioned earlier that Intel CPUs could handle overclocking better than AMD ones. However, both are capable of doing so. But what exactly is overclocking? Simply put, it’s the ability to increase the CPU’s clock rate to function at a much higher speed than it was intended to by the manufacturer. A GPU can also be overclocked, but that’s a different topic.
When you overclock a CPU, it can process more operations per second. But all that work doesn’t come without a cost. Think of it like putting a NOS boost in the engine of a car. The car will go faster, but the engine will run hotter. And if kept unchecked, it can damage the car beyond repair. The same happens with an overclocked CPU. More processes per second mean more heat, and usually, this heat cannot be dealt with by the CPU’s stock cooling system, which is typically just a fan.
This means that when you overclock a CPU, you will need a better cooling system. But one of the main reasons why you would overclock a CPU is to save money in getting a better CPU in the first place. However, since you will have to upgrade your cooling system to compensate, it means that the money saved will go elsewhere. So, unless you know what you are doing, or are strapped for cash, it is highly recommended to avoid overclocking altogether and spend a few extra bucks to get a higher performance CPU instead.
This is because these days, CPUs are so fast and powerful that overclocking does very little when it comes to videogames in the first place. Some say that the small performance boost is not worth the potential damage to your hardware.
Now that that’s out of the way, it is time to check out the best processors for gaming available today. We base this list on several factors, such as price, performance, compatibility, and overall reception in the gaming community. So without further ado, let’s get right to it.
Best Processors For Gaming
Best Overall Processor For Gaming – Intel Core i9-9900K
Core/Thread count: 8/16
Clock Speed: 3.6Ghz base, 5.0Ghz turbo
The creme de la creme of gaming CPUs, the Intel Core i9-9900K, is our top pick for the best gaming processor in the market today. Sure it can be said that the processing power of the i9-9900K might be a tad bit over the top if it’s just solely for games. However, If you’re building a machine from scratch and are looking to have it play all the fantastic games you want plus more, then this is the CPU for you.
It might not have the same amount of cores as some of the higher-end CPUs for top-tier builds, but the i9-9900K is more than capable for fast gaming. The only disadvantage the i9-9900K has is unless you’re living in a really cold place, it needs much better cooling. Liquid cooling is the best solution for this, although a PC with a mid-tower case specially designed for optimal air cooling can do the trick.
But is it worth the price tag, especially if it is overkill for games? The answer is yes. This is because you have to remember that upgrading a CPU to keep up with cutting-edge tech is quite tedious. For a from-scratch build, if you are looking to use your new PC for many, many years to come through multiple GPU and RAM upgrades, then this is the choice for you.
Best Versatile Processor – AMD Ryzen 9 3900X
Core/Thread count: 12/24
Clock Speed: 3.8Ghz base, 4.6Ghz turbo
If you have the budget for it and want a machine that can do it all, then the AMD Ryzen 9 3900X is the best gaming processor available. It doesn’t have the same speed capabilities as the Intel i9-9900K, but for most current triple-A games, one can barely notice anyway. It is, however, faster than most CPUs for processes other than games, like video-editing. And unlike the i9-9900K, the 3900X includes its cooling system, the Wraith Prism, which is one reason why it is slightly more expensive than the i9.
Another reason why it costs higher is the core count. At 12 cores with 24 threads, the 3900X can handle any high-level workloads so much better than equally priced CPUs. So if you are a professional who needs their PC for both work and games, you cannot go wrong with the AMD Ryzen 9 3900X. It is our second top pick for the best gaming processor of choice.
Best Mid-Tier Gaming Processor – AMD Ryzen 7 3700X
Core/Thread count: 8/16
Clock Speed: 3.6Ghz base, 4.4Ghz turbo
When it comes to happy medium builds, the AMD Ryzen 7 3700X is the best choice out there. Not only is it fast enough for triple-A games, but it can also function well in process-intensive tasks due to its thread count. Despite featuring a lower clock speed than higher tier CPUs, when it comes to games at sensible settings, the difference is almost unnoticeable, mainly if you use a proper GPU in tandem with the CPU for the gaming PC build.
If you’re not happy with the speed for whatever reason, you can overclock it if needed. Its Wraith Prism cooler can help in that regard, but a fair warning is still given anytime you push the CPU beyond its intended speed limits.
Not like you’ll need to do that anytime soon because most studies have shown that when it comes to games, the 3700X is an excellent sensible choice when it comes to speed and processing power. Not only that, the 3700X comes with PCIe Gen4 capability, which makes it very adaptable for technology that is coming within the next few years. So you won’t have to worry about upgrading this CPU anytime soon, if at all.
Best Gaming Processor for AMD Budget Builds – AMD Ryzen 5 2600
Core/Thread count: 8/12
Clock Speed: 3.4Ghz base, 3.9Ghz turbo
Remember what we said earlier about not getting an older generation of CPU when choosing for your build? This one is an exception, because despite the slightly slower clock speed compared to other Ryzens, it functions well enough for gaming. And at $117.68, it is a steal for those looking to have a mid-tier gaming PC due to budget constraints.
To make up for the slower clock time, you can overclock the Ryzen 5 2600, and you can do it safely, too (as long as you know what you are doing) because it comes with its cooler capable of handling some overclocking. However, it doesn’t need any tweaking anymore as the CPU can easily handle ultra settings in games. The only downside is that the Ryzen 5 2600 isn’t compatible with today’s top-tier GPUs. But then again, if you’re able to buy those GPUs, then you have the money to get better CPUs because the budget isn’t an issue.
For mid-tier GPUs, however, it’s tough to beat the Ryzen 5 2600.
Best Gaming Processor For Intel Budget Builds – Intel Core i5-9400F
Core/Thread count: 6/6
Clock Speed: 2.9Ghz base, 4.1Ghz turbo
Don’t let the low core and thread count fool you. The Intel Core i5-9400F is a hidden powerhouse that is arguably the best choice for budget builds for Intel. First, even if it is not capable of overclocking, the i5-9400F already comes with its cooler. This ensures optimal temperatures when running at maximum capacity. Second, while it cannot perform multi-thread processes as fast as other CPUs due to the low core and thread count, games-wise, it is a strong contender. Numerous tests from different sources have revealed that the Intel Core i5-9400F can be very close to CPUs at the $450 up mark when it comes to gaming performance tests with similar GPUs and other settings. So if you’re looking to build an Intel PC just for games specifically, this is a good buy.
And lastly, even if it is a six-core CPU, you don’t need to worry about it being phased out anytime soon. This is because a lot of games still function very well for four cores, let alone 6, so by the time you do need an upgrade in the CPU department, you’ll be doing a new PC build already anyway.
There you have it; our top picks for the best gaming processors available today. While there are other choices from both Intel and AMD, we picked the best top-tier, mid-tier, and budget-tier options for you to choose from. Just remember that any CPU from either brand will work, and to pick one that suits your budget, your machine’s purpose, and of course, your games.