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Best CPUs

Best CPUs
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If you don’t have the time to research benchmarks, or if you don’t feel confident enough in your ability to pick the right processor for your next gaming machine, fear not. We at Tom’s Hardware have come to your aid with a simple list of the best gaming CPUs offered for the money.

Our CPU Charts have been recently updated to include new benchmarks, workloads and more than 50 CPU test subjects. We’ll continue adding to the list just as we have in the past. The CPU Hierarchy table has also been updated and is now located in its own separate article.

November 2015 Updates

Earlier this month, we revisited Best Graphics Cards For The Money, giving it a much-needed facelift after four months of neglect. The time away gave us an opportunity to mull over our approach, and ultimately we decided to classify our picks not just on price, but also resolution and target detail settings.

The same reimagining isn’t as necessary on the CPU side, which mostly serves to support your graphics subsystem. When it comes to gaming, you need just enough host processing to prevent a bottleneck. Though that certainly calls for the right combination of architecture, clock rate and core count, rarely is a flagship necessary. Our list is further simplified by market imbalance—AMD generally shines in the mid-range and down, while Intel’s strength is mid-range and up. That overlap in the middle is where they trade blows.

Now, all of that’s not to say the CPU space stood still during our time away from these columns. Most notably, Intel introduced its Skylake architecture. We covered the two unlocked desktop SKUs in Skylake: Intel's Core i7-6700K And i5-6600K. Not surprisingly, the -6600K makes an appearance in our updated recommendations. But Intel doesn’t give us something for nothing. It’s charging $30 more than the previous generation, hitting a $270 price point.

We begrudgingly abide this for a few reasons. First, Skylake is genuinely faster than Broadwell, which lacked true enthusiast-oriented options. The Haswell-based Devil’s Canyon chips many power users continue tapping for their gaming machines occupy a dying platform. Now that Z170 is front and center, the LGA 1150 interface isn’t long for this world. Of course, that’s fine because there’s a lot to like about Z170, from a faster DMI between the PCH and CPU to a lot of configurable PCIe 3.0 connectivity and Rapid Storage Technology support for PCIe-based SSDs. Both K-series CPUs are also more flexible overclockers. We still haven’t pushed a sample above 4.9GHz, but you’re free to try. We know many power users will be emboldened by unlocked multipliers and a reference clock adjustable in 1MHz increments.

Intel pushes the Core i7-6700K’s price up as well; it currently appears around $370, or $20 shy of the Core i7-5820K. As a result, it doesn’t make our list. Although Skylake offers better performance than Haswell per clock cycle, the -5820K arms you with six cores, 28 lanes of PCIe and a quad-channel DDR4 memory controller. The X99 platform as a whole is more expensive, but we think it outshines Skylake at close to the same price.

For a brief moment there, Skylake’s granular clock control had us more excited about the mainstream space. Would we be able to buy entry-level Skylake-based chips and, despite their fixed ratios, still tune them up through the BLCK? Although we don’t have any of those processors in-house, we reached out to a couple of motherboard vendors and asked for their experience with Skylake thus far. Unfortunately, the consensus is that Intel limits non-K SKUs to reference clock settings of 102MHz. So much for finding hidden value in the company’s sixth-gen Core family.

Naturally, this revelation affects the next step down in our hierarchy. Rather than guiding you towards the Core i5-6400 for $190, we’re inclined to save up a little more money and grab the Core i5-6500. You’ll spend an extra $15, but instead of a 2.7GHz base and 3.3GHz maximum Turbo Boost clock rate, you get a 3.2GHz base and 3.6GHz ceiling. The extra 500MHz under heavy load is well worth the modest premium, particularly since you can’t coax a higher clock rate manually.

Above and below our Skylake-based picks, the landscape looks a lot like it did several months back. AMD’s quad-module FX-8320 remains a solid mainstream option at $145 (and of course, it is overclockable through an adjustable multiplier). Intel’s Haswell-based Core i3-4170 is also a reasonable choice at $125, given that neither Broadwell nor Skylake are present in the entry-level space. The Core i3 is a dual-core chip. However, Hyper-Threading technology is a boon in applications optimized for more than its two physical cores. We’re a little bothered by the fact that LGA 1150 is a dead-end. But you’ll always have the option to drop in a compatible Core i5 or i7 processor down the road.

Our recommendations under the Core i3 are all-AMD. The Pentium G3258 that caused so much consternation is out at the $70 price point. Too many of our readers had concerns about the CPU’s two cores causing problems in modern games. While it’s a fun little chip to overclock, power users are calling for a minimum of four threads. As a result, AMD’s Athlon X4 860K becomes the new baseline at $75.

AMD increased the price of its FX-6300 to $110 in the four months since our last update, creating room for an FX-4350 as an honorable mention at $90. Of course, the Athlon and FX employ dissimilar architectures. One populates Socket FM2+ while the other drops into Socket AM3+. Really, picking a favorite is difficult. The Athlon offers better single-threaded performance, uses less power, features integrated PCIe control, is cheaper and is complemented by a more modern platform. But the FX comes armed with a lot more cache and provides you with an upgrade path that includes quad-module models like the FX-8320 we recommend at $145.

Why call the -4350 an honorable mention? Well, it’s just not that much cheaper than the FX-6300 (or the FX-8320, even). We don’t like seeing prices increase on value-oriented options like the -6300, but most of us would probably bite the bullet to get an extra module and two integer cores. Only tap the -4350 if those $20 make a significant difference elsewhere in your gaming build.

MORE: Intel & AMD Processor Hierarchy
MORE: Best CPU Cooling

MORE: Best Motherboards

MORE:
How To Choose A Motherboard
MORE: How To Build A PC

MORE: All CPU Content

Our Best Picks

About Our Recommendations

  • This list is for gamers who want to get the most for their money. If you don’t play games, then the CPUs on this list may not be suitable for your particular needs.
  • The criteria to get on this list are strictly price/performance. We acknowledge that there are other factors that come into play, such as platform price or CPU overclockability, but we're not going to complicate things by factoring in motherboard costs.
  • Cost and availability change on a daily basis. We can’t offer up-to-the-minute accurate pricing information in the text, but the prices in green are current.
  • The list is based on the best US prices from Amazon, Newegg and others. In other countries or at retail, your mileage will most certainly vary. Of course, these are new, retail CPU prices — we do not list used or OEM CPUs.

Entry Level (Sub-$100) Processors


Mid-Range ($100-$200) Processors



High-End (Over $200) Processors



Diminishing Returns Kick In

Top-end CPUs offer rapidly diminishing returns when it comes to gaming performance. As such, we have a hard time recommending anything more expensive than the Core i5-6600K, especially since this multiplier-unlocked processor is easy to tune up to 4.5GHz or so with the right cooler.

We have seen a small handful of titles benefit from Hyper-Threaded Core i7 processors, though. Because we believe this is a trend that will continue as developers optimize their software, we're including the Xeon E3-1231v3 as an honorable mention at $255 and the Core i7-5820K at $390. In a vast majority of games, they won't demonstrate much advantage over the Core i5. But if you're a serious enthusiast who wants some future-proofing and values threaded application performance, these processors may be worth the extra money.

In addition, there's certainly an argument to be made for using LGA 2011-v3 as the ultimate gaming platform. Haswell-E-based CPUs have more available cache and as many as four more execution cores than the flagship LGA 1150/1151 models. Additionally, more bandwidth is delivered through a quad-channel DDR4 memory controller. And with up to 40 lanes of third-gen PCIe connectivity available from Haswell-E-based processors, the platform natively supports two x16 and one x8 slot, or one x16 and three x8 slots, alleviating potential bottlenecks in three- and four-way CrossFire or SLI configurations.

Although they sound impressive, those advantages don't necessarily translate into significant performance gains in modern titles, since memory bandwidth and PCIe throughput don't hold back the game performance of existing Sandy Bridge-, Ivy Bridge-, Haswell-, and Skylake-based machines.

Where we do see the potential for Haswell-E to drive additional performance is in processor-bound games like the multiplayer component of Battlefield 4. If you're running a three- or four-way array of graphics cards already, there's a good chance that you already own more than enough rendering muscle. An overclocked Core i7-5960X or -5930K could help the rest of your platform catch up to an insanely powerful arrangement of GPUs.

To summarize, while we generally recommend against purchasing any gaming CPU that retails for more than the Core i5-6600K (sink that money into graphics and the motherboard instead), there are those of you who have no trouble throwing down serious money on the best of the best, and who require the fastest possible performance available. If this describes your goals, the following CPUs may be for you:

MORE: Intel & AMD Processor Hierarchy
MORE: Best CPU Cooling

MORE: Best Motherboards

MORE:
How To Choose A Motherboard
MORE: How To Build A PC

MORE: All CPU Content

Chris Angelini is Editor Emeritus at Tom's Hardware. Follow him on Twitter & Google+.

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Display all 90 comments.
Top Comments
  • 22 Hide
    AioniosJay , November 3, 2015 3:11 PM
    ... what happened to the hierarchy charts i loved to look those up
  • 11 Hide
    Eggz , November 3, 2015 12:08 PM
    Hey look, it's finally another "Best CPUs" article! Welcome back :) 
  • 10 Hide
    jazz84 , November 3, 2015 12:43 PM
    I was very interested to see a Xeon on here, but not at all surprised considering the reason given (same die btween consumer and enterprise). One little-known gem in this regard, though, is the Xeon E5-1650 v3, which is from the same die as the i7-5930k but supports up to 768GB DDR4 ECC. I happened to have a bunch of registered ECC DDR4 and an X99 board, so wound up choosing this processor. What I did not expect, though, was to find that the E5-1650 v3, just like its sister 5930k, actually has an unlocked multiplier and gets roughly the same OC results (mine is at 4.5Ghz). It's a niche application that happened to fit my circumstances, but if we're looking at Xeons now, the 1650 v3 is definitely worth a little attention.
Other Comments
  • 11 Hide
    Eggz , November 3, 2015 12:08 PM
    Hey look, it's finally another "Best CPUs" article! Welcome back :) 
  • 10 Hide
    jazz84 , November 3, 2015 12:43 PM
    I was very interested to see a Xeon on here, but not at all surprised considering the reason given (same die btween consumer and enterprise). One little-known gem in this regard, though, is the Xeon E5-1650 v3, which is from the same die as the i7-5930k but supports up to 768GB DDR4 ECC. I happened to have a bunch of registered ECC DDR4 and an X99 board, so wound up choosing this processor. What I did not expect, though, was to find that the E5-1650 v3, just like its sister 5930k, actually has an unlocked multiplier and gets roughly the same OC results (mine is at 4.5Ghz). It's a niche application that happened to fit my circumstances, but if we're looking at Xeons now, the 1650 v3 is definitely worth a little attention.
  • 0 Hide
    gilbadon , November 3, 2015 12:53 PM
    Typo, Core i5-6500k is really Core i5-6600k
  • 4 Hide
    Math Geek , November 3, 2015 2:06 PM
    nice to see the list back and updated :) 

    also nice to see the pentium finally leave the honeymoon stage and folks to realize that 2 cores just ain't gonna do it for a gaming rig, no matter how cheap it is. too bad amd has nothing new right now to add in except for old chips at a budget price. sure hope they can get their act together and bring something new to the market sometime soon....
  • 1 Hide
    Seoulja615 , November 3, 2015 2:19 PM
    I bought a i7 5960x back in February 2015 for $500 and had to build around it. lol
  • 22 Hide
    AioniosJay , November 3, 2015 3:11 PM
    ... what happened to the hierarchy charts i loved to look those up
  • 3 Hide
    littleleo , November 3, 2015 3:57 PM
    It would be nice if the new AMD ZEN CPUs coming out next year make some noisy at the top of this list. It is was interesting seeing Tom's calling the FX-6300 a Tri-Core and the FX-8xxx quad cores. Once again no APUs make the list so I guess they are not a good choice for gaming. I don't consider the X4 860K an APU since it has no Graphic core.
  • 5 Hide
    tridon , November 3, 2015 4:19 PM
    Quote:
    ... what happened to the hierarchy charts i loved to look those up

    Where did they go indeed? That was for me the most important part of these articles O.o
  • 3 Hide
    littleleo , November 3, 2015 4:29 PM
    Quote:
    Quote:
    ... what happened to the hierarchy charts i loved to look those up

    Where did they go indeed? That was for me the most important part of these articles O.o


    I think TH was tired of all the complaints on what tier each CPU would be listed, and why certain CPUs weren't listed, lol.
  • 1 Hide
    ahdonehaddabowddanuffayew , November 3, 2015 4:35 PM
    Quote:
    One little-known gem in this regard, though, is the Xeon E5-1650 v3, which is from the same die as the i7-5930k but supports up to 768GB DDR4 ECC. I happened to have a bunch of registered ECC DDR4 and an X99 board, so wound up choosing this processor.

    I keep seeing this processor come up in conversations, and am genuinely curious. Let's say you were building a machine from scratch, to be used for prosumer content creation and gaming. Right now on pcpartpicker, the total platform price difference between a 5930K / non-ECC DDR4 system and a comparable 1650 v3 / ECC system can be as low as $50 USD, depending on the specific memory kits and capacities being compared. For fifty bucks, would the bump up to Xeon and ECC memory be worth it?
  • 3 Hide
    jazz84 , November 3, 2015 5:28 PM
    Quote:
    Quote:
    One little-known gem in this regard, though, is the Xeon E5-1650 v3, which is from the same die as the i7-5930k but supports up to 768GB DDR4 ECC. I happened to have a bunch of registered ECC DDR4 and an X99 board, so wound up choosing this processor.

    I keep seeing this processor come up in conversations, and am genuinely curious. Let's say you were building a machine from scratch, to be used for prosumer content creation and gaming. Right now on pcpartpicker, the total platform price difference between a 5930K / non-ECC DDR4 system and a comparable 1650 v3 / ECC system can be as low as $50 USD, depending on the specific memory kits and capacities being compared. For fifty bucks, would the bump up to Xeon and ECC memory be worth it?


    If all you're trying to do is build a gaming rig and you're deciding between those two CPUs, go with the i7. The 1650 v3's ability to handle 768 GB of registered ECC is overkill since you're not even going to need the 128GB you could load an x99 setup with. Now, if you plan on hosting VMs or using your system as a workstation too (or anything where stability is paramount), the Xeon makes a lot more sense. In my case, I got lucky: we scrapped some beta systems at work, but the components were all still new and functional. I was literally handed a box of 16GB DDR4 ECC DIMMs, so I had to go with a Xeon in order to use it. The unlocked multiplier was just icing on the cake.
  • 2 Hide
    chaosmassive , November 3, 2015 5:55 PM
    In best pick section, both AMD 860K and 4350 have 4 cores (4 threads) instead 2 cores (4 threads)
  • 3 Hide
    Bartendalot , November 3, 2015 7:00 PM
    Quote:
    Quote:
    ... what happened to the hierarchy charts i loved to look those up

    Where did they go indeed? That was for me the most important part of these articles O.o


    There stopped being definable tiers aside from self explanatory i3 - i5 - i7.

    The SB i5-2500 is in the same tier as the SKL i5-6600.

    Not much has changed since the x58 platform aside from PCIe gen (which doesn't matter) and DDR4 (which also doesn't matter)

    Native NVMe support is intriguing though... Looking forward to SKL-E...
  • 1 Hide
    SoundFX09 , November 3, 2015 9:19 PM
    Great to see this finally get updated.

    And Yes, It's good to see some FX CPU's get the spotlight again, along with the Athlon X4 860K. Both the 860K and FX-4350 can make very good budget CPU's in Gaming builds.

    Great work on the changes!
  • 3 Hide
    csm101 , November 3, 2015 11:51 PM
    damn where is that chart? it was the single most important thing when it comes to CPU stuff for me cos based on that i made decisions as to go for the next new thing or not. cos i need to know where my CPU I7 4770 stand with the new set of CPU's.
  • 0 Hide
    Cryio , November 4, 2015 12:16 AM
    860K is the best option for low budget builds, up to Nvidia 950/AMD 270X/370 levels of performance.

    I would swap the FX 6300 with the FX 8300. Cheaper than the 8320 and barely 10-20 dollars more expensive than the 6300.
  • 1 Hide
    hayroe , November 4, 2015 12:22 AM
    Although it's good to see an update after months of looking at June's column over and over, this is so little changed from that column that it's almost funny.
    Not even a mention of the Core i7-6700k on the higher end....
    I don't mean to be critical, but I almost feel like TH is just 'going through the motions' with these 'Best of' columns....
  • 5 Hide
    arielmansur , November 4, 2015 1:37 AM
    Toms! the hierarchy chart! its the most important part of this posts! it REALLY saves me a LOT of time, please bring it back! or update the june one. Thanks.
  • 0 Hide
    kennishor , November 4, 2015 2:30 AM
    Quote:
    Quote:
    ... Once again no APUs make the list so I guess they are not a good choice for gaming. I don't consider the X4 860K an APU since it has no Graphic core.
    Quote:

    I think there are no AMD APUs listed because the list is about best CPU/price not best CPU+iGPU/price....most of the Intel processors listed are APUs.
  • 9 Hide
    AndrewJacksonZA , November 4, 2015 2:46 AM
    Please add the hierarchy chart back! I find it valuable.
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