Here are the best gaming CPUs for the money. These processors offer the best performance at their price and are suitable for overclocking.
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 2015 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.
November 2015 Updates
Earlier this month, we revisited Best Graphics Cards For The Money, giving it a much-needed facelift after four months of neglect. The time away gave us an opportunity to mull over our approach, and ultimately we decided to classify our picks not just on price, but also resolution and target detail settings.
The same reimagining isn’t as necessary on the CPU side, which mostly serves to support your graphics subsystem. When it comes to gaming, you need just enough host processing to prevent a bottleneck. Though that certainly calls for the right combination of architecture, clock rate and core count, rarely is a flagship necessary. Our list is further simplified by market imbalance—AMD generally shines in the mid-range and down, while Intel’s strength is mid-range and up. That overlap in the middle is where they trade blows.
Now, all of that’s not to say the CPU space stood still during our time away from these columns. Most notably, Intel introduced its Skylake architecture. We covered the two unlocked desktop SKUs in Skylake: Intel's Core i7-6700K And i5-6600K. Not surprisingly, the -6600K makes an appearance in our updated recommendations. But Intel doesn’t give us something for nothing. It’s charging $30 more than the previous generation, hitting a $270 price point.
We begrudgingly abide this for a few reasons. First, Skylake is genuinely faster than Broadwell, which lacked true enthusiast-oriented options. The Haswell-based Devil’s Canyon chips many power users continue tapping for their gaming machines occupy a dying platform. Now that Z170 is front and center, the LGA 1150 interface isn’t long for this world. Of course, that’s fine because there’s a lot to like about Z170, from a faster DMI between the PCH and CPU to a lot of configurable PCIe 3.0 connectivity and Rapid Storage Technology support for PCIe-based SSDs. Both K-series CPUs are also more flexible overclockers. We still haven’t pushed a sample above 4.9GHz, but you’re free to try. We know many power users will be emboldened by unlocked multipliers and a reference clock adjustable in 1MHz increments.
Intel pushes the Core i7-6700K’s price up as well; it currently appears around $370, or $20 shy of the Core i7-5820K. As a result, it doesn’t make our list. Although Skylake offers better performance than Haswell per clock cycle, the -5820K arms you with six cores, 28 lanes of PCIe and a quad-channel DDR4 memory controller. The X99 platform as a whole is more expensive, but we think it outshines Skylake at close to the same price.
For a brief moment there, Skylake’s granular clock control had us more excited about the mainstream space. Would we be able to buy entry-level Skylake-based chips and, despite their fixed ratios, still tune them up through the BLCK? Although we don’t have any of those processors in-house, we reached out to a couple of motherboard vendors and asked for their experience with Skylake thus far. Unfortunately, the consensus is that Intel limits non-K SKUs to reference clock settings of 102MHz. So much for finding hidden value in the company’s sixth-gen Core family.
Naturally, this revelation affects the next step down in our hierarchy. Rather than guiding you towards the Core i5-6400 for $190, we’re inclined to save up a little more money and grab the Core i5-6500. You’ll spend an extra $15, but instead of a 2.7GHz base and 3.3GHz maximum Turbo Boost clock rate, you get a 3.2GHz base and 3.6GHz ceiling. The extra 500MHz under heavy load is well worth the modest premium, particularly since you can’t coax a higher clock rate manually.
Above and below our Skylake-based picks, the landscape looks a lot like it did several months back. AMD’s quad-module FX-8320 remains a solid mainstream option at $145 (and of course, it is overclockable through an adjustable multiplier). Intel’s Haswell-based Core i3-4170 is also a reasonable choice at $125, given that neither Broadwell nor Skylake are present in the entry-level space. The Core i3 is a dual-core chip. However, Hyper-Threading technology is a boon in applications optimized for more than its two physical cores. We’re a little bothered by the fact that LGA 1150 is a dead-end. But you’ll always have the option to drop in a compatible Core i5 or i7 processor down the road.
Our recommendations under the Core i3 are all-AMD. The Pentium G3258 that caused so much consternation is out at the $70 price point. Too many of our readers had concerns about the CPU’s two cores causing problems in modern games. While it’s a fun little chip to overclock, power users are calling for a minimum of four threads. As a result, AMD’s Athlon X4 860K becomes the new baseline at $75.
AMD increased the price of its FX-6300 to $110 in the four months since our last update, creating room for an FX-4350 as an honorable mention at $90. Of course, the Athlon and FX employ dissimilar architectures. One populates Socket FM2+ while the other drops into Socket AM3+. Really, picking a favorite is difficult. The Athlon offers better single-threaded performance, uses less power, features integrated PCIe control, is cheaper and is complemented by a more modern platform. But the FX comes armed with a lot more cache and provides you with an upgrade path that includes quad-module models like the FX-8320 we recommend at $145.
Why call the -4350 an honorable mention? Well, it’s just not that much cheaper than the FX-6300 (or the FX-8320, even). We don’t like seeing prices increase on value-oriented options like the -6300, but most of us would probably bite the bullet to get an extra module and two integer cores. Only tap the -4350 if those $20 make a significant difference elsewhere in your gaming build.