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.
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!
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.
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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