When you decide to build your own gaming PC, the first part that you should consider is the CPU. The CPU you choose will determine which motherboards, memory and cooling solutions you can use in your gaming PC build. CPUs are generally responsible for loading your games and directing all the complicated traffic required to make a game work. You will need a CPU fast enough to handle game functions and keep your GPU constantly fed with new scenes to render.
In the early days of PC gaming, the CPU was the make or break component in most gaming PCs. How well a game ran on your PC was directly tied to your CPU speed. As 3D graphics accelerators become common in the late ‘90s (and eventually became the all-purpose monsters we know as GPUs today), some of the computing workload was lifted off of the CPU. Once the Xbox 360 and PS3 became the baseline hardware target for most multiplatform titles, PC gaming CPU speed became less important, as long as it was strong enough to outclass its console counterparts.
In recent years, CPU requirements have begun creeping up steadily. As the Xbox One and PS4 are now the baseline for most game development, their 8-core CPUs represent the minimum amount of performance required for the latest AAA titles. With the most common PC CPUs are offered in 4-core configurations, the cores must be quick enough to deal with the additional overhead required for ported games that were designed for the slower 8-core console hardware. While you can still play most games with a modern dual-core CPU, it is strongly advised to make quad-core CPUs the bare minimum you select for your gaming PC. This ensures that the PC will be able to play all current and upcoming titles for the foreseeable future.
While Intel dominated the PC gaming CPU market after the release of the legendary Sandy Bridge platform, rival AMD shook up the market last spring with the release of the Ryzen line of CPUs. As of today, both companies offer a full range of CPUs that will make excellent choices for your gaming PC.
Selecting The Best CPU For Your Gaming PC Build
Bang For Your Buck
You can spend anywhere from $50 to $2000 on a CPU for your gaming PC, but if you want to wring out the most value for your dollar, Intel’s newest Coffee Lake-based Core i5 CPU is where you want to train your focus. The Core i5-8400 can be found in the $180 range and represents the biggest jump in gaming performance that consumer gaming CPUs have seen in a single generation since early 2011. Since its inception, Intel’s Core i5 lineup has been quad core chips. The Core i5-8400 arrived in the fall of 2017 with 6 cores and the ability to boost itself up to 4.0GHz. In terms of PC gaming performance, it delivers an equivalent gaming experience to the $360 Core i7-7700K that was released in January 2017. For the first ¾ of 2017, the 7700K was simply the fastest gaming CPU that you could buy at any price. Getting that kind of performance at half the costs is pretty amazing.
The money saved by going with the Core i5-8400 will be important, as it can only be used on the somewhat pricey Intel Z370 motherboards. Until the B360 and H370-based motherboards arrive on the market in the coming months, you will need to set aside at least $90 for the most affordable Z370 motherboards. The Core i5-8400 will run with DDR4-2666MHz or faster memory. You should not spend extra money on DDR4 memory kits that exceed 3200Mhz, as the added costs gives you no appreciable return in gaming performance.
The Budget Champion
For years, most budget gaming PC builds started with the Intel Core i3 series or with a budget oriented AMD Quad Core APU. Builders were expected to spend at least $100+ on a CPU because any of the cheaper options would cause performance problems or bottleneck other components. In January 2017, Intel released the Kaby Lake line of CPUs. The line was nothing more than a refresh of Intel’s successful Skylake architecture and had chips that were mostly identical to the Skylake predecessors with the exception of bumps to clock speed.
The Kaby Lake line introduced the very first K-series Core i3 CPU, the 7350K. Departing from years of locked processors, the 7350K is the first i3 released that has an unlocked multiplier and allows end users to simply overclock the CPU. However, it cost more than previous i3 chips and still fell short of i5 performance despite it’s near i5 price tag.
Sneaking into the bottom of the product stack was a dual core Pentium CPU known as the G4560. It is a 3.5Ghz dual core chip with a surprise that had yet to be seen from prior Intel budget offerings. The G4560 has hyper-threading enabled, allowing programs and games to run with 4 threads instead of two. This allows the G4560 to punch above its weight class and the performance it delivers has left the i3 series processors in a bad position when it comes to price versus performance. End users can expect the G4560 to reliably pair with GPUs all the way up to the GTX 1060 6GB or Radeon RX 580 performance tier.
While AMD’s recently released Ryzen R3 CPUs are excellent options when compared to the Core i3 line, the G4560 still manages to provide a better bang for the buck. Because the G4560 shares the same Socket 1151 plug as the higher-end i5 7600K and i7 7700K, gamers can start with the Pentium and have a solid upgrade path down the road, without the need to buy another motherboard or ram. The money saved by opting for the Pentium lets us allocate more of the budget towards other components in the PC.
The King of the Hill
Much like the Core i5-8400, Intel’s newest Coffee Lake-based Core i7 CPU ushers in a big change to the traditional CPU lineup configurations. While all previous Core i7 parts featured quad core CPUs with extra logical cores available via hyper-threading, the Core i7-8700K packs in 6 physical cores. When hyper-threading is enabled, this gives the CPU 12 logical cores. The 8700K also happens to have the fastest single-core performance capability of any CPU on the market, so the 6 cores run blisteringly fast with any load you throw at them.
Just like the Core i5-8400, the 8700K must be paired with a Z370 motherboard. At a minimum, you want to pair it with DDR4-2666MHz memory, but any speeds up to DDR4-3200Mhz will offer a decent value for your dollar. As the 8770K features Intel’s “K” designation, it can be easily overclocked by the end-user and is capable of running at very high speeds, provided you pair the CPU with sufficient cooling. It is not recommended to run the 8700K overclocked without pairing it with a high-performance air or water cooler.
Also For Your Consideration
Released last spring, AMD’s Ryzen CPU lineup returned the company back to the forefront of PC gaming CPU performance. The Ryzen lineup offers lots of cores for a great price. The R5 1600 will set you back around $200, but you get 6 physical cores/12 logical cores, putting it in the same category as Intel’s Coffee Lake Core i7 parts. If gaming is important to you, but you’d also like to record or stream your games from the same PC, the extra logical cores provided by the R5 1600 are a godsend.
The R5 1600 can be paired with AMD’s high-end X370 motherboards, but PC gamers on a budget can get equivalent performance by opting for one of the AMD B350-series motherboards. Like Intel’s current offerings, you will need to look for DDR4 memory. If you have plans to overclock Ryzen, make sure to pay special attention to the memory kit you buy. End users reports the best results and most stability when using kits produced with Samsung b-die chips. As an added bonus, the AMD Wraith cooler that comes with the R5 1600 is a really great value and trounces all over the Intel stock coolers. Going with a Ryzen-based setup offers an excellent value proposition, especially if your performance target is at 60Hz or high resolutions like 4K.
The mainstream CPU market is always evolving. In the coming months, new parts are expected from both AMD and Intel. AMD’s Ryzen 2 series is expected to be on retailers shelves by the end of spring. There is no early word on what performance looks like, but it is possible that AMD could claim the overall gaming performance crown. Intel is also planning on releasing the more budget-oriented parts of the Coffee Lake lineup in the next 4-6 weeks. With the release, expect availability of low cost Coffee Lake-compatible motherboards along with a revamped Celeron and Pentium line of CPUs.
For information on selecting other parts for your gaming PC or any other related topics, check in on our gaming PC build hub.