After your GPU, your CPU has the biggest impact on your computer's gaming capabilities. When you're shopping for a CPU, you need to balance performance and features with your build budget. If you can spend over $400 (£380, $650 AU), our favorite gaming CPU overall right now is the Intel Core i7-9700K, which dominates thanks to its eight cores and excellent single-threaded performance.
Intel also wins in the mid-range price bracket, with its impressive Core i5-8400. Down in the mainstream/budget territory, things are split depending on your graphics choices. AMD’s Ryzen 5 2400G and Ryzen 5 2200G are excellent options if you don’t plan on splurging on a dedicated graphics card. But if you're planning to plug in a graphics card, Intel’s Core i3-3100 delivers better performance at a good price. And if you're truly on a tight budget, you should take a look at our comparison of AMD's Athlon 200GE vs. Intel's Pentium Gold G5400. Both chips have their merits and shortcomings, depending on the kind of budget build you're putting together.
If you're searching for a new chip for an upgrade or your next rig, be sure to check out our best CPU deals. And if you want to get more performance out of the CPU you already own (and it's unlocked for overclocking), you might be able to learn something from record-setting overclocker "Splave" in our feature Liquid Nitrogen, CPU Solder and High Voltage: How I Set Overclocking Records.
Why Trust Us
Tom's Hardware has been reviewing PC components for more than two decades. We put each CPU through a bevy of benchmarks, which measure everything from its single- and multi-core performance in applications and games, to its power consumption. We've tested hundreds of models, at both stock and overclock settings where applicable, so we can separate the best from the multi-core disappointments.
Quick Shopping Tips
When choosing a CPU, consider the following:
- You can't lose with AMD or Intel: So long as you’re considering current-generation parts ( see our AMD Ryzen 2000 vs Intel Coffee Lake feature for more details), this debate is basically a wash. Intel does a bit better on gaming and browsing and AMD handles tasks like video editing quicker.
- Clock speed is more important than core number: Higher CPU clock speeds translate to snappier performance in simple, common tasks such as gaming, while more cores will help you get through time-consuming workloads faster.
- Get the latest gen: You won't save much money in the long run by going with an older chip.
- Budget for a full system: Don't pair a strong CPU with weak storage, RAM and graphics.
- Overclocking isn’t for everyone: For most people, it makes more sense to spend $20-$60 more and buy a higher-end chip.
For even more information, check out our CPU Buyer’s Guide, where we discuss how much you should spend for what you’re looking to do and when cores matter more than high clock speeds.
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$400/£300/$600 AU+ Best Pick
Flagship mainstream desktop processors come with the highest price tag of our recommendations. But those searching for the best performance to push the beefiest cards on the top of the GPU hierarchy will be rewarded with chart-topping performance. Both Intel and AMD offer high-end desktop (HEDT) models that scale beyond 16 cores. But those premium processors often don't deliver the same amount of gaming performance as the mainstream chips. Also, HEDT chips only work with expensive platforms and typically support quad-channel memory, which adds yet more cost to the your final full build budget. The picture changes if you need more performance for other types of applications, like rendering or encoding, but mainstream processors offer the best value strictly for gaming.
For most high-end gamers, the flagship mainstream models in Intel's Core i7 and AMD's Ryzen 7 product families offer the best value. Intel's Coffee and Kaby Lake models offer the best absolute gaming performance. But AMD's Ryzen 7 series CPUs come with more cores, which you might find attractive if you have more demanding requirements, such as streaming or intense multitasking. You can also often find the Ryzen processors well below MSRP.
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$200-$300/£150-230/$300-400 AU Best Pick
Mid-range processors typically land in the $200 to $300 USD price range, and they offer satisfying performance for the majority of gamers. Stepping beyond that price class typically grants less than a 10 performance overall performance improvement that isn't always worth the higher price tag.
AMD's Ryzen processors have truly reinvigorated this segment and often come with a discount, too. For the competitive overclockers among us, AMD's processors all offer unlocked ratio multipliers that you can exploit on budget-friendly motherboards, while Intel's offerings are split into both locked and unlocked processors. With Intel, overclocking requires a step up to a Z-Series motherboard and a more expensive "K"-series processor.
This price range splits into two distinct price tiers. But provided the processor has an unlocked multiplier, you can often find the best value around the $200 (£150, $300 AU) mark. It's best to step up to the more expensive CPUs in this class if overclocking isn't in your plans.
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$100-$200/£75-£150/$150-$300 AU Best Pick
The lower end of the gaming processor spectrum is incredibly competitive, particularly with the copious core counts, bundled coolers and unlocked multipliers you can find in the AMD lineup. Intel processors tend to offer the best performance at stock settings, and the locked multipliers in this price range make them suitable for less-expensive B- and H-Series motherboards.
These processors will often find a home in sub-$800 USD gaming rigs, so bundled coolers, particularly if they can handle overclocking, become more important.
If you have or will soon buy a graphics card, the AMD Ryzen 5 2400G is not the best option, as the processor and graphics cores have to share power. In this price range, if a graphics card is destined for your rig, get the Intel Core i3-8100 instead--especially if Intel's more affordable 8th-gen B- and H-series motherboards are available by the time you read this.
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Sub-$100/£75/$150 AU Best Pick
You won't find several of the more advanced features on this class of processors, such as AVX or Optane support, but they make a great pairing for sub-$200 USD graphics cards.
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