The best processors for gaming

Between Intel and AMD, these are the best gaming CPUs at every price

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If you want to completely revamp your computer to play the latest PC games, it’s smart to start with the processor and work outward. The graphics component is the most important part of the PC gaming equation along with the motherboard, system memory, and storage. But the processor is the heart of your machine, computing all the instructions required to create and maintain a believable virtual environment.

When it comes to gaming on a PC on anything but an extremely low budget, there are only two companies worth discussing: Intel and AMD. We broke down our processor choices into price groups, starting with the one that applies to the majority of gamers and then tackling some of the more niche groups further down. Updates on our list consider the latest announcements from both Intel and AMD at CES 2019.

Mid-level gaming ($200-$400)

8th gen intel core news

Thanks to AMD’s Ryzen CPUs lighting a fire under Intel, the current crop of mainstream CPUs are some of the best gaming chips we’ve seen in years. Better yet, they’re affordable. You can have some of the best chips from both companies for just a few hundred dollars, so if you’re looking for top-gaming performance without breaking the bank, these are your best bets.

Both Intel’s Core i7-8700K and AMD’s Ryzen 7 2700X are amazing gaming chips but they each have their strengths. Thanks to higher clock speeds and a differing architecture, Intel’s chip is slightly better at lower-thread count software — which games typically are. On the other hand, the Ryzen chip pulls ahead in more multi-threaded scenarios thanks to its extra cores and threads but is a little weaker in most games.

Intel
Core i7-8700K
AMD
Ryzen 7 2700X
Architecture: Coffee Lake Zen+
Cores: 6 8
Threads: 12 16
Base speed: 3.6GHz 3.7GHz
Maximum speed: 4.7GHz 4.3GHz
Cache: 12MB 16MB
Integrated graphics: UHD Graphics 630 No
Power use: 95 watts 105 watts
Required socket: LGA 1151 AM4
Suggested chipset: Z370 X470 / B450
Price: $350 $310

You may wonder why we didn’t opt for Intel’s newer and more powerful 9900K. It’s because it’s so much more expensive. At upwards of $600 it strays into the power-gaming territory and isn’t so much better than either of these options that it’s a must-buy. Its companion, 9700K, is also more expensive than the 8700K and isn’t going to offer much in the way of performance improvements. It also lacks hyperthreading.

At $370, the 8700K is still a better processor than the 2700X when it comes to gaming. The higher clock speeds and better single-threaded performance on Intel hardware give it an edge in most titles, while the Ryzen CPU pulls ahead in some productivity tests and especially in multi-threaded software.

The pricing difference between them isn’t great enough that it’s not worth spending that bit extra to get the 8700K and all the gaming performance that comes with it. However, if you work and play on the same machine, it would be well worth considering the AMD alternative as its extra cores and threads can provide tangible performance improvement in the right setting.

Best bang for the buck: Intel Core i7-8700K

Gaming on a budget (under $200)

AMD Rizen CPU 7 in hand pins
Bill Roberson/Digital Trends

Budget gaming today doesn’t mean poor performance as there are some powerful options even at the low end of Intel and AMD’s lineups. Intel’s Core i5-9400F is one of the most affordable gaming processors it’s released in years. It ups the ante of traditional Core i5 chips with six cores and though it doesn’t have hyperthreading, six threads are plenty to work with, especially when it can hit 4.1 GHz with Intel Max Turbo.

AMD’s Zen+ Ryzen 5 2600 chip is no slouch either, with the same core count as the Intel counterpart, but with double the threads. It also supports overclocking so can easily be pushed to reach clock speeds in excess of the 9400F.

The rivalry between these two chips is similar to other comparisons in our list: Intel’s chip out-performs in single-core benchmarks, but in this case only barely. AMD’s chip does much better in multi-core tests. Both chips do not include integrated graphics and will require dedicated cards.

Intel
Core i5-9400F
AMD
Ryzen 5 2600
Architecture: Coffee Lake Zen
Cores: 6 6
Threads: 6 12
Base speed: 2.9GHz 3.2GHz
Maximum speed: 4.1GHz 3.9GHz
Cache: 9MB 16MB
Integrated graphics: No No
Power use: 65 watts 65 watts
Required socket: LGA 1151 AM4
Suggested chipset: Z370 X370 / B450
Price: $176 $165

While Intel’s CPU may have had an advantage over the Ryzen 1600, the 2600 bumps up clock speeds and efficiency enough to make it much more competitive. It has more cores and more threads than the 9400F, and can be overclocked out of the box on the stock cooler. Better yet, AMD has committed to using the same socket until at least 2020, so you won’t need to upgrade your motherboard and RAM if you upgrade the CPU in a year or two. The same can’t be said for the Intel chip.

Best bang for the buck: AMD Ryzen 5 2600

Streaming and power gaming ($500+)

Intel-9th-Gen-Core-package

If you’re a gamer who wants ultimate power or someone who works and plays hard on the same machine, these are the chips for you. For everyone else, buying a cheaper chip and investing more in a better graphics card would likely be a smarter move.

Both Intel and AMD have some amazing offerings in this category, from the $2,000 Intel 9980XE, to AMD’s flagship second-generation Threadripper 2990WX with its ludicrous 32-cores and 64 threads. Those would be complete overkill for even this category though, as no consumer applications can really benefit from such multi-threaded performance.

With that in mind, we’d recommend these chips if you’re looking to stream and game.

Intel Core i9 9900K AMD Ryzen Threadripper 1920X
Architecture: Coffee Lake-S Zen+
Cores: 8 12
Threads: 16 24
Base speed: 3.6GHz 3.5GHz
Maximum speed: 5GHz 4.0GHz
Cache: 16MB 32MB
Integrated graphics: UHD Graphics 630 No
Power use: 95w 180 watts
Required socket: LGA 1151 TR4
Required chipset: Z390 X399
Price: $527 $440

The new Intel Core i9-9900K is the real standout in this category as it beat out AMD Threadripper chips in our testing and offers amazing performance for both gaming and multi-threaded tests. AMD’s 1920X is the more affordable of the two, and if you shop around you might even find a 1950X for similar money, but in many instances — especially gaming — the 9900K is by far the more capable chip.

Where the Threadripper alternatives offer more cores and threads for enhanced multithreading performance in certain applications, the 9900K’s eight cores and 16 threads give it more than enough to get on with and its super-high clock speeds mean it dominates just about anything out there in limited-thread scenarios.

The 9900K isn’t cheap, but it’s arguably the best CPU in the world for gamers and even some more intensive computing tasks too.

Best bang for the buck: Intel Core i9-9900K

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