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.
January 2017 Updates
The big news, if you want to call it that, for January was Intel’s Kaby Lake launch on the desktop. Our review (Intel Kaby Lake Core i7-7700K, i7-7700, i5-7600K, i5-7600 Review) showed the Optimize stage of Intel’s manufacturing cadence adding nothing to the architecture’s IPC throughput. However, it did add frequency headroom, allowing Kaby Lake-based CPUs to operate a few hundred megahertz faster than equivalent Skylake models.
Consequently, we don’t expect many enthusiasts with modern platforms to splurge on an upgrade. But the Kaby Lake line-up does have a significant impact on our recommendations for anyone building a new PC. You see, Intel by and large maintains the same price points, so for little to no extra investment, you do get a faster CPU. Even as we snub our enthusiast noses at the deceleration of host processing progress, we know better than to complain about “free” performance.
At the bottom-end, we like that Intel adds Hyper-Threading to several Pentium models, creating sub-£100 SKUs able to schedule four threads in parallel. Those are worth considering if you want an upgradeable platform for future expansion. For now, we’re leaving AMD’s Athlon X4 860K as a recommendation at £65. Though its Socket FM2+ interface will be imminently replaced by AM4, you still get a solid four-core chip with overclocking headroom at a budget price. Rest assured that we’re in the process of testing Kaby Lake-based Pentiums to determine if their higher price tags are worth paying.
AMD’s FX-8300 is an endangered species as well - its Socket AM3+ interface will also be replaced by AM4 once Ryzen surfaces (that day is fast approaching, as we revealed in our latest update). On sale for £100, though, the quad-module CPU remains a respectable value we aren’t ready to write off yet.
With that said, Intel’s new Core i3-7100 replaces the -6100 at £120 with a 200 MHz-higher clock rate. While it only wields two physical cores, Hyper-Threading allows the i3 to work on four threads at a time. Further, Intel’s Z170 and Z270 chipsets are far more modern than anything AMD has right now. We liked the Skylake-based Core i3-6100, and we’ll gladly take a similar configuration at a higher frequency for the same price.
What about the overclockable Core i3-7350K? We’re testing that too. But here’s the deal: Intel wants £210 for an unlocked dual-core CPU already operating at 4.2 GHz. Until we fully characterize the -7350K’s performance, we think the quad-core Core i5-7500 is a safer bet for £15 less. The i5 replaces Intel’s Core i5-6500 in our recommendations. Again, at the same price point, you get an extra 200 MHz (3.4 GHz versus the old model’s 3.2 GHz). Turbo Boost, which the i3 lacks, pushes the -7500 up to 3.8 GHz.
From there, a Core i5-7600K at £230 is a great enthusiast processor, displacing the Core i5-6600K. Its base clock rate is 3.8 GHz, Turbo Boost accelerates lightly-threaded workloads at up to 4.2 GHz, and an unlocked multiplier gives you freedom to tune more aggressively.
Same story for the Core i7-7700K. At £340, it’s a logical replacement for the -6700K, even if you can find the previous-gen chip for a few dollars less. A 4.2 GHz base and 4.5 GHz maximum Turbo Boost frequency are well worth the small price difference.
Intel sells several higher-end Broadwell-E processors with as many as 10 cores. But for as long as the Core i7-5820K is available at £350, we see little reason to spend £415 on a Core i7-6800K (or higher) unless the workloads you run justify the added expense. Our top-end recommendation goes unchanged.
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Entry Level (Sub-£100) Processors
Mid-Range (£100-£150) Processors
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High-End (Over £150) 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: