The best CPUs for gaming
Buying a processor for a gaming rig isn’t as hard as it used to be. Now that AMD’s Ryzen and Intel’s 9th-gen Core CPUs come with more performance and cores than ever before, it’s hard to buy a stinker these days—especially because most games favor graphics firepower over CPU oomph. All that said, there are specific chips that stand out from the horde as the best gaming CPUs due to their price, performance, or nifty extras.
Whether you’re on a budget or willing to pay for sheer face-melting speed, these are the best CPUs for gaming PCs that you can buy.
Latest gaming CPU news
It’s not a processor you’ll want if your focus is purely on gaming, but if you’re interested in a side of gaming alongside some heavy-duty productivity, AMD’s utterly monstrous 64-core Threadripper 3990X hangs in games just as well as its lower-priced siblings. At $3,990, however, you’ll definitely know exactly how you’re going to put all those cores and threads to good use to justify the investment.
We don’t cover laptop CPUs in this article, but if you’re interested in gaming on the go, at CES Intel revealed that its forthcoming Comet Lake H-series processors will push laptops to 5GHz when they launch later this quarter. Yes please!
The best gaming CPU for most people
AMD Ryzen 5 3600X ($235 on Amazon)
Intel’s ruled the gaming roost for seemingly time eternal, but in 2019, AMD seized the mainstream crown. Pound for pound, the Ryzen 5 3600X is the best gaming CPU for most people, and the best mid-range CPU period.
While Intel removed Hyper-Threading from most of its mainstream Core lineup, leaving most of its Core i5 lineup with six cores and six threads, AMD bestows its Ryzen parts with simultaneous multi-threading, giving the six-core Ryzen 5 3600X a full twelve threads. That gives it a serious advantage in productivity workloads. But for the first time in recent memory, AMD’s mainstream chip outpunches its direct Intel rivals too. AMD infused its third-gen Ryzen chips with massive instructions-per-clock (IPC) improvements and faster clock speeds, with the 3.8GHz Ryzen 5 3600X capable of boosting up to 4.4GHz.
Together, those gains help propel the 3600X past Intel’s Core i5-9600K in Tom’s Hardware’s testing, and the beloved Core i7-8086K in Tech Radar’s testing. Most AMD motherboards support overclocking for the adventurous if you want to try your hands at even better performance.
You can find the Ryzen 5 3600X for $235 at Amazon, down from a $250 launch price. Better yet, AMD tosses in three free months of Microsoft’s superb Xbox Game Pass for PC with every Ryzen purchase. That’s a lot of free gaming goodness to go with a great gaming processor.
If you want to spend a little less cash, or don’t mind overclocking, consider the AMD Ryzen 5 3600 instead. The non-X version costs $195 at Amazon. It packs the same six cores and twelve threads but runs a little slower with a 3.6GHz base clock and 4.2GHz boost clock. The reduction in clock speeds drops the Ryzen 5 3600’s gaming performance a bit, with the chip trading blows with Intel’s Core i5-9600K in gaming benchmarks at TechSpot and GamersNexus, but it’s close. With AMD’s chip offering twice as many threads as Intel’s, and gaming performance so close, both sites give the Ryzen 5 3600 a hearty recommendation.
By contrast, the Core i5-9600K costs $235 at Amazon. Most gamers should stick to the Ryzen duo.
The best budget gaming CPU
AMD Ryzen 3 3200G ($100 on Amazon)
If you want a gaming CPU that won’t break the bank, look no further than the $100 Ryzen 3 3200G. The continuation of AMD’s “APU” strategy, this third-gen Ryzen chip blends four Ryzen CPU cores with eight of AMD’s powerful Radeon Vega compute units. The end result? A solid-performing chip that can play PC games without the need for a graphics card.
It’s built using 12nm Zen+ cores rather than the 7nm Zen2 cores in other third-gen Ryzen processors, but the Ryzen 3 3200G should still deliver enough punch for basic gaming. Its predecessor, the Ryzen 3 2200G, handled e-sports titles like Fortnite, Dota 2, League of Legends, and Rocket League with ease and turned in surprisingly good frame rates even in AAA games like Destiny 2 and Rise of the Tomb Raider. You might need to alter some graphics settings and maybe dial the game resolution back to 720p for the best results, but you can get the vast majority of games running between 30 and 60 frames per second with some tinkering.
The Ryzen 3 3200G should perform slightly better thanks to faster clock speeds. Its CPU cores are about 300MHz faster than the 2200G’s, while the integrated Radeon Vega GPU cores are about 150MHz faster.
You can improve your gaming experience by pairing the chip with other hardware. For instance, an affordable FreeSync monitor such as the 21.5-inch, 1080p Acer SB220Q ($90 on Amazon) would smooth out tearing and stuttering, And because the chip uses your system RAM to feed the Radeon graphics, faster memory would help. Aim for 8GB of 2,933MHz or 3,200MHz RAM for best results, but lower speeds still work. Just make sure you get a dual-channel kit with two memory sticks, because single-channel nukes the gaming performance of Ryzen APUs.
Stepping up to the $145 Ryzen 5 3400G adds simultaneous multi-threading for 8 total CPU threads, faster speeds, and three additional Radeon Vega compute units for better gaming performance. Given the much higher cost, however, the Ryzen 3 3200G is a better pick for most people on a tight budget. If you’re buying a Ryzen APU, though, make sure your chosen motherboard includes an HDMI port.
The best high-end gaming CPU
Intel Core i9-9900KS ($599 on Amazon)
If you absolutely, positively need the fastest frame rates possible, price be damned, you’ll want Intel’s $513 Core i9-9900KS Special Edition. Well, theoretically $513. This limited supply chip shot up to $570 at Newegg on launch day and still sold out. It’s currently going for $599 on Amazon, a significant premium.
This 8-core, 16-thread processor comes clocked at 4GHz base and 5GHz boost, but even more impressively, that blazing-fast boost clock is for all cores. Those insane speeds matched with Intel’s instructions-per-clock advantage pushes the Core i9-9900KS beyond what any other CPU can muster. It’s the world’s fastest CPU for gaming, full stop.
It might not be the most practical option for most people, though—even gaming enthusiasts with deep pockets. The blazing-fast clock speeds start to matter less when you pair the 9900KS with a high-end graphics card at 1440p or 4K resolutions, which shifts the performance bottleneck over to the GPU in most games. You’ll get the most out of Intel’s ludicrously fast flagship at 1080p resolution. Because of that, and some other considerations, AMD and Intel both offer some very intriguing alternatives.
Let’s start by staying with Intel’s offerings. The Core i9-9900K—without an S—was the fastest gaming CPU in the world until its beefy successor’s launch, and it’s still a strong option at $485 on Amazon. It packs the same core and thread count as the newer, faster version, and with a high-end Z390 motherboard with aggressive MCE enabled, the 9900K should usually hit 5GHz on all cores itself. If you don’t need the bragging rights that come with the absolute fastest gaming CPU in the world, it’s a compelling option. It also helps that the standard 9900K comes with Intel’s standard three-year warranty, while the pricier 9900KS gets only a single year of coverage.
But if all you’re worried about is straightforward gaming performance, with no need for the chip’s 16 threads, go even further down the chain and give some serious thought to picking up the eight-core $359 Core i7-9700K. It’s effectively tied with the original Core i9-9900K’s gaming performance in PC Gamer’s tests, and Tom’s Hardware considers it the best gaming CPU around. “Pure” gamers won’t be disappointed despite the lack of Hyper-Threading capabilities.
Gaming isn’t all most people do on their computers, of course. If you do a lot of work on your PC, especially resource-intensive tasks like streaming or media editing, one of AMD’s third-gen Ryzen chips is probably a better option.
The $750 Ryzen 9 3950X launching on November 25 is by far the most powerful consumer desktop processor ever, sporting a whopping 16 cores, 32 threads, and the highest clockspeeds of any Ryzen chip. Even the $500 Ryzen 9 3900X comes loaded with 12 cores and 24 threads, far outstripping Intel’s options. Better yet, AMD infused its third-gen Ryzen chips with significant IPC and clock speed improvements, putting the 3950X and 3900X just barely behind Intel’s fearsome 9900K duo in 1080p gaming benchmarks, with the divide shrinking even further if you play at 1440p or 4K resolution as those shift more of the bottleneck onto your system’s graphics card. Third-gen Ryzen chips burn rubber in gaming, especially at higher resolutions that systems with high-end parts like these usually run, and the Ryzen 9 pairing absolutely pound Intel’s 9900K family in multi-threaded tasks.
If you can get by with fewer cores, but still want more threads than modern Core i7 chips offer, the $330 Ryzen 7 3700X is to the Ryzen 9 3900X what Intel’s Core i7-9700K is to the 9900K: a much more affordable chip that offers essentially the same gaming performance as its bigger sibling, as proven in reviews by PC Gamer, Tom’s Hardware, and PCGamesN. The Ryzen 7 3700X has 8 cores and 16 threads, doubling up the thread count of its more expensive Intel rival, the 9700K.
Moving way up the line, AMD’s 32-core Ryzen Threadripper 3970X, 64-core Threadripper 3990X, and Intel’s 18-core Core i9-10980XE rule the high-end desktop roost for prosumers—particularly AMD’s chips, which manage to blow away the best Intel has to offer. None of these chips should be on your wishlist unless you’ve got specific production workload plans that can put all those cores to work, but if you do, both play games more than fast enough to moonlight as a gaming PC by night. Some games react poorly to Threadripper’s unique multi-die architecture (like Far Cry 5) but those tend to be the exception rather than the norm.