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.

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.

June 2016 Updates

This month’s big news is Intel’s refreshed ultra-high-end processor family, which we covered in Broadwell-E: Intel Core i7-6950X, 6900K, 6850K & 6800K Review. Despite an architectural step forward, a shift to 14nm manufacturing, slightly higher clock rates, Turbo Boost Max Technology 3.0 and a new 10-core flagship, we walked away from our Broadwell-E coverage unexcited.

Some of this has to do with the (predictable) lack of progress stepping from Haswell to Broadwell. After all, back when Broadwell was first introduced (Broadwell: Intel Core i7-5775C And i5-5675C Review), integrated graphics took center stage. That subsystem is cut out of Broadwell-E entirely. Intel doesn’t make the situation any easier with its pricing, though. Broadwell-E drops into existing X99-based motherboards after a BIOS update, so we’d normally tell enthusiasts building high-end desktops to simply start buying Broadwell-E in place of Haswell. Now, however, the company is commanding a premium for its newest CPUs. You can pay $1015 for a Core i7-5960X or $1100 for a Core i7-6900K. The old Core i7-5930K is $580, or you can snag a -6850K for $650. Even an entry-level Core i7-5820K sells for $390 to the -6800K’s $450. What’s more, the Broadwell-E-based chips are stubborn little overclockers. Even with his beefy open-loop water cooler, Igor had a hard time sustaining more than 4.3GHz for our launch coverage. That's a step back from the generation before.

For as long as they’re available, then, we’re sticking with our Core i7-5820K honorable mention. We’d just as soon snag a Skylake-based Core i7-6700K at higher clock rates for $350. But gamers who can truly put the -5820K’s six cores to use elsewhere get a lot of value in threaded apps for an extra $40. Of course, if your workloads truly call for an eight- or 10-core processor, these recommendations won’t apply. Generally, though, the Core i7-6900K and -6950X aren’t gaming CPUs so much as they’re professional workhorses.

If even the -6700K is out of reach, Intel’s Core i5-6600K is still a solid entry point for a high-end gaming PC at $255. Don’t let the 3.5GHz base clock rate dissuade you. Turbo Boost stretches up to 3.9GHz in lightly threaded workloads and an unlocked multiplier allows you to explore the limits of your cooling solution. The quad-core chip should competently balance out most modern GPUs.

You can save $50 by stepping down to the Core i5-6500. It’s another quad-core Skylake-based CPU with a 300MHz-lower base frequency and locked ratio. We like this one more than the Core i5-6600, which costs $25 more but only gives you an extra 100MHz of base clock rate, and the Core i5-6400, which sells for $15 less, but gives up a significant 500MHz.

The -6500 isn’t new to our list of recommendations, and neither is the Core i3-6100 at $125. There’s just not a lot between those two CPUs to get us excited. And since we like Intel’s Z170 chipset so much, we wouldn’t recommend stepping back to a legacy LGA 1150-based platform just to save a few bucks.

That concept of old technology also makes it difficult to recommend much from AMD’s portfolio right now. However, the FX-8300 might still turn a few heads at $120. It’s an unlocked quad-module CPU with 8MB of shared L3 cache and a 95W TDP. Don’t expect an upgrade path from its AM3+ interface though, as the AM4 socket will soon replace and unify AMD’s older platforms.

Our Best Picks

MORE: Intel & AMD Processor Hierarchy

MORE: All CPU Content

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

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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, 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/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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