Best CPUs

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.

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September 2016 Updates

The last few weeks were loaded with CPU news, and it looks like we’ll have some interesting hardware to test by the end of 2016, accelerating into next year.

Back in August, AMD punctuated Intel’s Developer Forum with an introduction to the Zen microarchitecture and a controversial comparison to Intel’s Broadwell-E at an underclocked 3 GHz.  Days later, at the Hot Chips conference, we received even more low-level detail on Zen, including changes to the execution pipeline, caching improvements, and a break-down of AMD’s simultaneous multi-threading implementation.

Then, in early September, more information about AMD’s Bristol Ridge APUs, their complementary AM4 interface, and associated chipsets surfaced. Right now, those seventh-gen processors based on an updated version of the Excavator core are limited to HP and Lenovo systems. Boxed APUs will come later, though it’s not clear when, exactly.

At the time of AMD’s Bristol Ridge disclosure, Intel had already unveiled its next-generation Kaby Lake architecture based on an optimized 14 nm manufacturing process. Again, enthusiasts were given little to get excited about—the first Kaby Lake processors address the mobile segment with 4.5 and 15 W power ratings. We won’t see desktop-oriented CPUs until next year.

As we wait for Intel to refresh its Skylake-based line-up and AMD to put Zen or Bristol Ridge into our hands, the boxed processor market remains fairly predictable. The recommendations we made last quarter still make a lot of sense. So, let’s talk a little bit about why.

Our entry-level pick is AMD’s Athlon X4 860K, which sells for $72. It hosts two Steamroller modules that expose four integer clusters and a pair of shared floating-point units. A base clock rate of 3.7 GHz jumps as high as 4 GHz through Turbo Core technology.

One school of thought suggests that our list should start with a Pentium. But we’ve put a substantial amount of time testing games with different core configurations, and a dual-core CPU is asking for trouble. Even if you think you only care about single-threaded performance, a quad-core/threaded host processor is the smarter baseline.

Then there are folks who believe the Athlon X4 880K is worth an extra $25 for its higher clock rate and beefier cooler. For some, it might be. But the 95 W thermal solution you get with the 860K is already an improvement over the old OEM heat sink, and the savings is better spent on graphics processing in a great many cases.

A step up lands us at the FX-8300 and Core i3-6100 - two very different animals at a similar $120 price.

The FX is brute force, a quad-module, eight-thread chip rated for 95 W, but able to accelerate to 4.2 GHz under light workloads. Its AM3+ platform is decidedly outdated, and we’ll see it supplanted by Zen/AM4 soon. Apply a little overclocking to the 3.3 GHz base frequency, though, and the Piledriver-based CPU still muscles through heavily threaded tasks.

Core i3 is small and lean. Despite its two cores, Hyper-Threading saves performance in situations where a dual-core processor would choke. Intel’s Skylake architecture is tops for IPC throughput right now, and the Z170 platform gets you the most modern I/O possible (not to mention room to upgrade if an i5 or i7 becomes necessary).

Higher-end options abound above the $120 price point, but it’s not until we hit the $205 Core i5-6500 that an upgrade starts sounding worthwhile. The i5 serves up four Skylake cores at a base clock rate of 3.2 GHz and a Turbo Boost ceiling of 3.6 GHz. Although Intel’s Core i5-6400 costs $15 less, it gives up a lot of frequency. And since both CPUs are multiplier-locked, you don’t want to do that. In fact, some readers advocate spending $25 more on the -6600, which raises your Turbo Boost maximum to 3.9 GHz.

But why stop short of the Core i5-6600K selling for $240? A $10 premium gets you an unlocked multiplier.

From there, the familiar Core i7-6700K is again our top recommendation. Intel’s Haswell-E-based Core i7-5820K serves as an honorable mention for power users able to put its six cores to use outside of games. Why go with four Skylake cores rather than six Haswell or Broadwell ones? As part of an upcoming feature on multi-core CPUs and gaming, we asked Ged Keaveney of Slightly Mad Studios whether he’d prefer one configuration over the other, and he responded:

“All tests we've run (and seen) show Skylake to be better than Broadwell-E for gaming, including our games. We don't see that changing any time soon—most games have relatively limited CPU requirements compared to GPU. We're probably one of the more intensive on CPU (physics mainly, of course, but also AI), but still not enough to seriously stress a well-clocked quad-core Skylake i5/i7.”

Look for more from Ged and other developers in the days to come!

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Our Best Picks

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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.

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Entry Level (Sub-$100) Processors

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Mid-Range ($100-$200) Processors

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High-End (Over $200) Processors

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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, consider the Core i7-5820K an honorable mention. 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/Broadwell-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/Broadwell-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 CPU may be for you:

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  • alextheblue
    Then there are folks who believe the Athlon X4 880K is worth an extra $25 for its higher clock rate and beefier cooler. For some, it might be. But the 95 W thermal solution you get with the 860K is already an improvement over the old OEM heat sink

    If you don't plan on doing ANY overclocking (or you're building the machine for someone else who is a neophyte and you don't even WANT them overclocking), get the Carrizo-based 845 instead. It uses less power, performs at least as well, and costs a few bucks less. Unless you're using an older board with questionable BIOS support. If you're doing very light overclocking, with AMD now including the new Silent 95W cooler, I would agree the Kaveri-based 860K is the better buy than either the 845 or the 880K.

    But if you plan on touching voltage even a tiny bit, you're MUCH better off just buying an 880K. For starters to get an equivalent aftermarket cooler you're going to spend at least as much money. Stock clocks are higher and it's Godavari-based (or Kaveri refresh, if you prefer). I have been told that original Kaveri (and possibly it's predecessors?) used thermal compound/epoxy for the heatspreaders, while Godavari-based chips have soldered lids. This seems to be supported by numerous reports of them hitting better clocks without having to throw as much voltage at it.

    So the heatsink and possible better binning aspect makes it worth it if you are going to boost the voltage. But I really want more confirmation about the soldered lids. For the longest time I thought the Kaveri chips all had soldered lids too... now I'm not so sure.
  • alextheblue
    OK, I just found a reliable article that verifies the claims of FM-based chips using thermal paste for the heatspreader TIM. I guess I never paid attention.

    Here's one of the posts talking about Godavari being soldered.

    If all Godavari chips use soldered heatspreaders, there's no point in using 860K over 870K/880K (both are Godavari) for voltage-tweaked overclocking purposes. Otherwise yeah the price differential favors the 845/860K options. Just depends on what you're doing.
  • spentshells
    I see now we've dropped the " gaming cpu's for the money" part. I find that quite unfortunate as the 8300 stands nowhere near the 6100 as far as gaming goes, frankly suggesting anyone purchase a AM3+ for any reason comes off as absurd and merely a way to calm the fanboys.

    Keep the price low and the ZEN benchmarks honest Ill join the party. Until then the 8300 stinks out loud.
  • rush21hit
    Until Zen came out, the FX8300 is like the best value options for AM3+ with much more tolerable TDP as icing on the cake.
    And Tom is right. Considering FX8300 potentials at such price, no Intel CPU can get near it.
  • Johan Kryger Haglert
    Broadwell-E processors excluding Xeon have up to six more cores not four.
  • 1991ATServerTower
    Wow those US prices. Must be nice. Have a look at some say - the difference in the dollar doesn't equate to the crazy prices in Intel and Nvidia stuff... AMD seems really reasonable though, hence the disappointment with the others...
  • synphul
    @ 1991ATSERVERTOWER, from what I found using a currency conversion calculater for current exchange rates, intel cpu's are actually cheaper in Canada than the US. Not by much, for instance the i5 6500. Lowest price with shipping included in the US is $205 usd. That works out to $270.37 cad. However when looking at Canadian prices, the lowest price shipped from ncix is $269.99 cad. Meaning the 'high' price in Canada is due to currency exchange rates, you're not really paying more than the US.

    You could take your $270 cad and exchange it for US dollars across the border and still have the amount needed to buy that cpu with nothing left over. If you had money left over it would indicate overall prices being higher in Canada.

    Same thing when I checked prices for the 6600k, they're even across the exchange rate. When considering the i3 6100, if Canada's pricing were equal across the exchange rate then the i3 6100 should cost $151.67 cad and yet it can be had for $145 cad shipped from so it's a few dollars cheaper in Canada. By contrast, the fx 8350 going by the exchange rate should only be $197.84 cad and yet the lowest shipped price I could find for it was from and it costs $211.50 cad shipped.

    It appears that intel cpu's are costing the same in Canada when taking into account the exchange rate. Amd aren't reasonable, they're costing more in Canada even with the exchange rate applied. Maybe something to consider but that's going by the current exchange and current pricing via pcpartpicker. Maybe it used to be the other way around but not anymore from the looks of it.
  • gdmaclew
    Ordinarily Synphul I would agree with you but you forgot to include sales tax, which all Canadian provinces have - to varying degrees - and most US States don't. So add another 10% at least and in some cases 15%. The only saving grace is the occasional sale.
  • gdmaclew
    Correction. Most US States have sales tax but usually to a lesser degree than Canada.
  • synphul
    True, it depends on the location for taxes. Some pay higher tax rates than others, whether it's a state sales tax, not sure how Canada's taxes work. US taxes are a bit odd, if buying locally then local and state sales tax apply. If buying online like off Amazon, there isn't a sales tax. If buying from an online vendor/company who has a brick and mortar location within your state, you pay state sales tax.

    Taxes have been an issue for online purchases in the US because it's a new concept and they're not sure how to iron it out. Some think the state where it was purchased from should get the tax, others think the state in which someone lives should get the tax money which doesn't make a whole lot of sense. Either way it's confusing.

    Vat taxes can be pretty high depending where someone is at, but the tax isn't the fault of the company whether amd, intel or nvidia. Taxes are beyond their control and if taxes make one item high priced it will likely make all items that are taxed higher in price. That's a local/national issue. It wouldn't be fair to expect intel or nvidia or anyone else to sell their products heavily discounted to a particular country because that country has high tax rates.
  • 1991ATServerTower
    I said to look at, not to scour the internet to find specific items that match your contrary agenda. The exchange rate cor the Canadian dollar has fluctuated from 0.59 all the way to 0.84 in the last few months, from my casual observation. Using a single retailer, Newegg in this case, and comparing many of their products (as I tend to do out of boredom and curiosity), you absolutely will find that Canadians pay a $5 to $100+ premium even after factoring in the exchange rate.

    Canada closed the tax loophole on internet purchases a while ago. You pay the provincial tax and recycling fees of the province associated with the billing address. However, I wasn't even considering that.

    Anyway, we Canadians need to wait for "deals" much of the time in order to get prices that are not gouging us. It's not like we're sitting here earning considerably more money per hour than Americans, the average wages are about the same. Yet, we're expected to pay more for the same things. In the case of the book industry, they admitted Canadian prices are higher, because "the market will bear it", not because they need to be higher (in some cases double...). That's the kind of thing that is disappointing to say the least. Nvidia products appear to be the worst for this in the computer industry, as it's almost impossible to find current and ast gen at anywhere near MSRP, even refurb in a lot of cases.

    The R9 270 I bought a few years ago was $50 cheaper than the Nvidia 750 non Ti, for example. That's insane, but that's what I was faced with at the time and not much has changed since.
  • joex444
    At least the start of the article says "gaming machine." There are plenty of uses for a CPU more powerful than an i5-6600K, but by sneaking "gaming machine" at the start it's easy for the author to reject those as not fitting for their intended audience.
  • logainofhades
    Anonymous said:
    At least the start of the article says "gaming machine." There are plenty of uses for a CPU more powerful than an i5-6600K, but by sneaking "gaming machine" at the start it's easy for the author to reject those as not fitting for their intended audience.

    This particular monthly article has always been for gaming machines. Why gaming was not kept in the article title, I am unsure.
  • callum0perkins
    I'm going to have to go with a i7 4790K for this one, it's a great processor, good for overclocking too!
  • FritzEiv
    The Best CPUs is still gaming focused. We just wanted to simplify the title for presentation purposes, and to make it easier for people to find via search (more people search with that term -- and yeah, we care about that, as you can imagine). It also gives us some future flexibility in case we might want to add non-gaming focus at some point.
  • tsnor
    ".. The recommendations we made last quarter still make a lot of sense. So, let’s talk a little bit about why...." what followed was the best part of the article. Hope you continue to include (and update) this section each month.
  • James Mason
    I kinda wish you could include like say the i3-6320 as a "if you have more than $120, but less than $200" as an addendum. And maybe also add the FX-9XXX series as a "not recommended even though it's in this price range because of reasons 1, 2 and 3."
  • triangle2234
    "Even if you think you only care about single-threaded performance, a quad-core/threaded host processor is the smarter baseline."
    Quoted from the Author.
    Can anyone advise how single-threaded performance is not the top indicator of processing speed in games like World of Warcraft that are known to be CPU and single thread intensive? Any comments welcome.
  • damric
    Not sure why anyone would bother wasting money on the K series Skylakes when you can overclock all of them.