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 2015 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 it's 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.
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: