Last updated: February 25, 2020
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 became 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. While the Xbox One and PS4 are now the baselines for most game development, their successors are now on the horizon. The PS5 and Xbox One Series X are expected to be much more powerful relative to current PC hardware than the last generation and will most likely be using 8-core CPUs with 16 available threads. To ensure that your build stays relevant for the foreseeable future, we no longer recommended any 4-core CPUs.
While Intel dominated the PC gaming CPU market after the release of the legendary Sandy Bridge platform, rival AMD shook up the market in the first half of 2017 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, but we will be recommending AMD Ryzen CPUs for most folks unless you know you have a specific use case that would benefit from an Intel-based build.
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, the AMD Ryzen 7 2700X will take you far without destroying your wallet. The 2700X is not a new part, but it was considered to be the flagship product for the second generation of Ryzen CPUs when the lineup was refreshed in April of 2018. At the time, it sold for nearly $350. With a current street price of $160 (and available for less during sales), this 8-core/16-thread chip is tough to argue against, especially if you aim to play games at 1440p or 4K, where the GPU becomes the bottleneck in the system.
The Zen 2-based Ryzen 7 3700X arrived last year and offers even better performance, but at nearly twice the cost, we feel that money would be better spent on a stronger GPU. Alternatives to the Ryzen 7 2700X include the Ryzen 5 3600 and Ryzen 5 3600X. These Ryzen 5 parts are 6-core/12-thread designs that are closer in price to the Ryzen 7 2700X and can sometimes meet or exceed the older CPU in certain game benchmarks. They will trail behind our recommendation when it comes to heavily-threaded tasks like stream encoding but still offer outstanding value for the price. As with all the Ryzen CPUs in this guide, we recommend pairing the Ryzen 7 2700X with the MSI B450 Tomahawk MAX ATX motherboard. This motherboard is affordable while still offering excellent power delivery for future CPU upgrades and it offers out of the box support for Ryzen 3000 series CPUs.
The Budget Champion
In our previous version of this guide, we recommended the Intel Pentium G4650 CPU. At the time, its value was tough to beat, as the dual-core CPU had the same hyper-threading feature as its more expensive siblings. It could pull to within striking distance of more expensive 4-core CPUs, which was admirable in early 2018, but not so much today. We now recommend the AMD Ryzen 5 1600 AF as the best budget-oriented choice for a gaming CPU. It has 6 cores and 12 threads, making it capable of running today’s toughest games while having enough headroom to stay afloat once the PS5 and Xbox Series X ports start arriving in numbers.
The Ryzen 5 1600 AF is a refresh of the original Ryzen 5 1600 produced on the new 12nm fabrication process. For $85 or less, it compares favorably to the Ryzen 5 2600. Like our Bang for the Buck pick, we recommend pairing the Ryzen 5 1600 AF with the MSI B450 Tomahawk MAX ATX motherboard. The combo can be had for around $200 and offers the opportunity for a major CPU upgrade down the road (including the upcoming Zen 3 CPUs later this year). Pairing the Ryzen 5 1600 AF with a used Radeon RX 580 GPU would get you excellent 1080p gaming performance that destroys current-generation consoles for very little cash.
The King of the Hill
At the top of the consumer CPU mountain stands a pair of monsters. When it comes to absolute gaming performance, Intel’s Core i9-9900K remains the best CPU that money can buy. We do hesitate to recommend it outright, though, as making it the centerpiece of your build comes with some caveats. Due to supply issues that Intel has still not worked out over a year after its launch, the Core i9-9900K will be more costly to acquire than the competing AMD Ryzen 9 3900X. The price difference varies between retailers and sometimes even the week you decide to buy. Additionally, buying an aftermarket cooler is required for the Intel option, as the Core i9-9900K does not include even a basic cooler in the box. Lastly, the Intel CPU is tied to what is effectively a dead motherboard chipset as it relates to upgradeability. The power-hungry Core i9 needs a sturdy Z390 motherboard and there will be no future CPUs compatible with the socket.
The AMD Ryzen 9 3900X lags behind its Intel counterpart by 5-7% on average in gaming benchmarks, but this result doesn’t tell the whole story. This margin is only demonstrable by using the best GPU money can buy (NVIDIA’s GeForce RTX 2080 Ti) at 1080p resolution. The performance delta erodes quickly at 1440p and is virtually nonexistent at 4K. We’d wager that most folks who are seriously entertaining the idea of buying a $500 CPU for a gaming PC will be playing their games at 1080p. The Ryzen 9 3900X also brings the benefit of having a 12-core/24-thread design as compared to the 8-core/16-thread design of the Core i9-9900K. The AMD CPU is simply better at almost all other tasks outside gaming, particularly with video encoding, which makes it a superior choice for those looking to stream their games while playing.
Like the Core i9-9900K, the Ryzen 9 3900X will use up a good bit of power and generate heat, thus requiring a motherboard with strong power delivery for the most consistent performance. Unlike the Intel Z390 motherboards, a great B450 or X570 motherboard for the AMD Ryzen CPU offers an upgrade path that includes the monstrous 16-core/32-thread Ryzen 9 3950X and the upcoming Zen 3-based AMD CPUs.
The mainstream CPU market is always evolving. In the coming months, new parts are expected from both AMD and Intel. AMD’s Zen 3-based CPU series is expected to be on retailers' shelves by the end of the year. 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 new desktop parts in the coming months, but these products are still based on an architecture similar to what is already on the market. Intel is expected to offer more cores and higher clock speeds in order to mitigate the lack of 7nm products.
For information on selecting other parts for your gaming PC or any other related topics, check in on our gaming PC build hub.