We're looking at CPU offerings once again but this time we're focusing solely on gaming, so we’ll be picking each CPU based on almost nothing other than it’s gaming performance. For the close fought battles we’ll take the platform into account but for the most part it’s all about those glorious frames per second.
Whereas our Best CPUs feature looks at the overall picture, based on use case and budget, now our different picks essentially take into account the profile of different gaming builds and how much you should be spending. The price range extends from $100 all the way up to $360 with a few good options in between. Without wasting any more time, let’s get into it...
- Best CPU for a Budget Gaming PC
- Best Affordable Gaming CPU
- Best Value CPU for Gaming
- Best No-Compromise Gaming CPU
- Best Second-Hand Deal
Best Budget Gaming CPU
The best budget CPU not only is relatively inexpensive but offers great lasting value. For less than $100, the Ryzen 3 2200G is a true quad-core CPU with an integrated Vega 8 GPU that is way more powerful than the usual Intel integrated graphics for those who are holding off on buying a discrete graphics card.
A close runner up, the Ryzen 5 2400G is now down to just $135 and at that price it’s a steal. If we may tempt you, for $40 more than the 2200G you do get a more capable product. SMT support means the 2400G has twice as many threads and if you plan to use the integrated graphics, the Vega 11 GPU does offer a bit more oomph.
Then on the other side of the fence we have Intel’s Core i3-8100 which is currently $130 and for that price it simply can’t hold a candle to the Ryzen 5 2400G. Against the 2200G, the Core i3-8100 is evenly matched for productivity workloads and general usage, though once overclocked the 2200G generally comes out on top. Without a discrete graphics card, the Intel chip gets smoked.
We've kept the Ryzen 3 2200G as our top budget recommendation at $95. It's an unlocked part that can be overclocked on affordable motherboards, can take advantage of higher clocked memory, and packs a powerful integrated GPU.
With the release of the Ryzen 3 2200G at just $100, this quad-core processor offers a ton of power for not a whole lot of money. As a bonus you also get entry-level like discrete GPU performance with the integrated Vega 8 GPU. Previously the Pentium G4560 claimed the best budget gaming CPU category for less than $100, but the Ryzen is widely superior.
Other alternatives in this price range include the Ryzen 3 1200 (which is basically inferior to the 2200G in every way) and the Core i3-8100. The Intel i3 processor is very similar when it comes to gaming performance and depending on conditions can hit the lead. That said, it also costs $20 more and with years of life still ahead for the AM4 platform, we feel for budget gamers the 2200G is a considerably better investment.
Best Affordable Gaming CPU
Since last year we’ve moved on from quad-cores as they're now considered entry-level products. The Ryzen 3 1200 was our best affordable quad-core gaming CPU for 2017, at the time selling for $110. This time we’re upping the budget to $180 to include the significantly more capable Core i5-8400.
Before AMD fans smash their keyboards across their FreeSync monitors, take a deep breath, it’s going to be okay. I recently named the Ryzen 5 2600 and 2600X as the best value all rounder desktop CPUs, if you’re running core-heavy applications as well as gaming then the Ryzen 5 series is a better choice. You can even overclock these Ryzen processors to deliver superior performance in most games.
However in order to really beat the Core i5-8400 you need expensive Samsung B-die memory, you then need to manually tune that memory, and you also need to invest at least $20 in a better cooler to support the overclock. This is particularly true for the non-X model.
The Core i5-8400, on the other hand, smashes it out of the park with the absolute cheapest Intel 300-series motherboard you can find and standard DDR4-2666 memory. So it’s a seriously cost-effective, hassle-free option that’s well suited to gaming.
Best Value CPU for Gaming
For those of you who find themselves primarily GPU bound when gaming (e.g. not using a high-end GPU), then something like the Core i5-8400 or Ryzen 5 2600 will do the job nicely.
But if you’re raising the GPU firepower or playing titles such as CS:GO, Overwatch or Fortnite on super high refresh rate monitors with competitive settings and want every last frame possible without breaking the bank, the Core i5-8600K is our CPU of choice.
Often found for around $240, at that price it has no direct competition, particularly for those looking at doing nothing other than gaming. Overclocked to 5GHz the 8600K can easily extract every last frame from the GTX 1080 Ti, or even two, for those few titles that still support SLI.
Best No-Compromise Gaming CPU
A clear-cut victory for Intel comes in the gaming category, but which Intel CPU should we pick? Technically speaking, the Core i9-9900K offers the highest level of performance for gaming, but honestly at $530 it makes no sense. The Core i7-8700K on the other hand will set you back $380, has incredible out of the box performance, remarkable overclockability, and power consumption that is impressive for a CPU running at over 4GHz by default.
For gamers the 9900K doesn’t offer anything new or extra, at best it’s a few percent faster than the 8700K in today’s titles and yet it costs at least 40% more, requires a high quality motherboard and if you want to achieve maximum performance out of the box without technically overclocking it, you’ll require an expensive cooler.
Now, if money is not an issue and $500 is a drop in the bucket, then you can simply buy the 9900K and you will get a blazing fast gaming rig. Also remember this is strictly for best performance gaming. If you’re after a high-end all rounder then something like the Ryzen 7 2700X would be a better choice, but if you want to ensure maximum FPS under all conditions then the 8700K, or if you must 9900K, will be the best options.
If you’ve got a GeForce GTX 1080 Ti or better and you’re after the very best gaming CPU the market has to offer, then it’s the Core i7-8700K that you seek. At ~$350, the 8700K is not even that expensive, however do note that an update to Intel's top mainstream line is set to arrive soon.
Intel’s low latency Ring Bus architecture has proven to be the best solution for gaming. Couple that with a CPU that can comfortably run all cores at 4.7 GHz and at least 5 GHz once manually overclocked, well you’ve got yourself a winner.
There’s simply nothing that can touch the 8700K right now, the nearest competitor when it comes to pure gaming performance is Intel’s own Core i5-8600K. This pick should come as no surprise as we’ve had this same opinion since the 8700K was released and the 2nd-gen Ryzen series didn’t change anything. Perhaps AMD can take the gaming crown away from Intel next year, many believe they will, but for now Intel holds on to top spot.
Best Second-Hand Deal
Last last year we recommended second-hand shoppers be on the lookout for a cheap Core i5-2500K processor. This time I’m recommending something far more recent, AMD's Ryzen 5 1600.
Currently retailing for ~$190, there are good deals to be hand on this chip in new condition, but they don’t apply to all regions. Looking at places like eBay you can find used versions for as little as $120, and at that price the Ryzen 5 1600 is a serious bargain.
Slap that on an affordable B350 motherboard -- I’ve seen decent boards selling second-hand for as little as $40 -- but you can also buy quality versions for about $70 and doing so will mean you’ll have a cracking gaming system that you'll able to upgrade in a few years' time with a Zen 2 CPU if need be.