We don’t often think about our CPU as being a vital gaming component like our trusty old graphics card, but finding the right processor for your PC can make a surprisingly big difference to your overall gaming performance – particularly if you like playing games at 1920×1080. To find out which ones are the best CPUs for gaming, I’ve tested as many of the latest Intel Coffee Lake and AMD Ryzen processors I’ve been able to get my hands on, ranging from entry-level Core i3 and Ryzen 5 CPUs all the way up to the top brass Core i9s and Ryzen 9s.
What’s more, now that I’ve had a chance to look at almost all of the new AMD Ryzen 3000 CPUs, I thought it was high time to update our best gaming CPU rankings list. As I’ve said on previous occasions, this is by no means a complete list of every CPU out there today, but I’ll be updating this article on a regular basis as and when I get more in for testing. Whatever your budget, we’ve got a best gaming CPU recommendation for you.
Best gaming CPU 2019 guide
This time, I’ve updated the rules slightly. For each price range, you’ll find two best gaming CPU recommendations: the best gaming CPU that offers the fastest possible speeds for that particular price category, plus the CPU you should actually buy if you’d rather save yourself a bit of cash. This way, our best gaming CPU list caters for both the budget conscious among you, and those who’d rather spend a little extra to max out their current setup.
Before we begin, though, it’s worth pointing out that trying to test a CPU’s gaming performance is still quite a tricky thing to do well. A lot of PC benchmarks either don’t test your CPU properly, or simply aren’t very accurate in the first place. After all, most are designed to test your GPU, not your CPU.
Fortunately, we’re starting to see more benchmarks that do run full game logic, thus making them better tools for assessing a CPU’s gaming chops. These include Forza Horizon 4, Assassin’s Creed Odyssey and Shadow of the Tomb Raider, all of which I’ve used in my testing, plus many more. I’ve also included Total War: Warhammer II in my benchmark results, as this has traditionally always been a very CPU-heavy game. There are other factors that can affect gaming performance as well, such as your graphics card, the type of RAM you’ve got, and even what kind of storage you’ve installed your games on.
For the purposes of this article (and all future CPU reviews), I’ve tried to keep as many of my PC components the same throughout all of my testing, such as my graphics card (an Nvidia GeForce RTX 2080 Ti), RAM and storage. I’ve also used the same cooler for each platform where possible, as well as the same motherboard to keep things as fair as possible.
I’ve also focused a lot more on gaming performance in my best CPU recommendations than I have on, say, their application performance or media creation prowess because, well, I’m not really interested in that. I take into account some cursory Cinebench R20 results to give me a rough idea of how each CPU stacks up for single and multicore desktop tasks, but really, my main goal here is to work out what CPU is the best for gaming and gaming alone. With all that in mind, let’s get to it.
Best gaming CPU under £150 / $150: AMD Ryzen 5 2600
What you should actually buy: AMD Ryzen 5 2600
AMD’s Ryzen 5 2600 CPU may be a bit long in the tooth now, what with it being one of their 2nd Gen Ryzen chips rather than one of their new 3rd Gen 3000 series, but at this price, it really doesn’t get any better than this – hence why it occupies both spots in this particular budget category.
Not only is it much faster than the similarly-priced Intel Core i3-8100, but its gaming performance is also pretty much on par with the more upmarket Intel Core i3-8350K, the latter of which is both more expensive than the Ryzen 5 2600 and doesn’t come with a cooler in the box.
The Core i3-8350K still has the edge in some games, truth be told, but when you factor in its extra cost and the additional expense of a cooler, it simply isn’t as good value for money as its Ryzen rival. In my eyes, the Ryzen 5 2600 is also a much better buy than its Ryzen 5 2600X sibling, too. The 2600X might have better multicore performance for creative applications and the like, but its gaming prowess is surprisingly similar to the regular 2600, so you’re not really going to feel the benefit of its X-rated sibling unless you’re also going to be using your PC for lots of photo and video editing. As a result, if you’re looking for the best gaming CPU for under £150 / $150, the Ryzen 5 2600 should definitely be at the top of your list.
Read more in our AMD Ryzen 5 2600 review.
Best gaming CPU under £250 / $250: Intel Core i5-9600K
What you should actually buy: AMD Ryzen 5 3600
With prices for Intel’s Core i5-8600K now having gone through the roof, it’s Intel’s Core i5-9600K that takes its place as our new go-to best gaming CPU. Sure, you’ll need to buy your own cooler to go with it, but as you’ll see from our benchmark results below, the Core i5-9600K comfortably sees off competition from both of AMD’s Ryzen 5 3600 / 3600X CPUs, as well as their older Ryzen 7 2700 / 2700X chips which have now fallen in price.
There’s still an argument for going with the cheaper Intel Core i5-8400, mind, as its gaming performance isn’t a million miles behind the Core i5-9600K, but personally, I think it’s worth stretching to the i5-9600K if your budget allows for it. Not only is it faster and better for general desktop duties, but the i5-9600K is unlocked for overclocking, too – and you can get pretty great speeds from it with just a standard tower cooler, too. For example, my BeQuiet BK009 Pure Rock cooler managed to push it all the way up to a massive 4.9GHz before my PC conked out, which is pretty darn handy.
Admittedly, overclocking your CPU won’t make a massive difference to your overall gaming performance – my results only showed an average improvement of one or two frames in most cases – but it will give it a nice boost for your everyday desktop applications.
If your budget can’t stretch to the Core i5-9600K, though, then there’s arguably an even better choice than dropping down to the Core i5-8400. Enter AMD’s Ryzen 5 3600, which can currently be found for just a bit less at £192 / $199. Offering nigh-on identical gaming speeds to the Core i5-8400 and vastly superior general desktop performance, this is a fantastic all-rounder for mid-range PC builds, and much better value for money than its 3600X sibling. Plus, it comes with a free three-month subscription to Xbox Game Pass for PC, and is unlocked for overclocking.
Best gaming CPU under £400 / $400: Intel Core i7-9700K
What you should actually buy: AMD Ryzen 7 3700X
For the best gaming CPU money can buy, Intel’s Core i7-9700K is the way to go. Sure, Intel’s Core i9-9900K might technically be the fastest and bestest best gaming CPU you can throw a bucket of cash at, but when you look at the figures, I’m just not sure it’s worth spending another hundred-odd quid on it compared with the excellent Core i7-9700K.
At least not when you’ve only got a standard tower cooler at your disposal, because man alive do these CPUs get hot. As such, I’d really recommend getting a liquid cooler for this particular chip, especially if you’re hoping to overclock it. I was only able to get as far as 4.7GHz before I started to see signs of thermal throttling with my BeQuiet BK009 Pure Rock tower cooler, so a liquid cooler is an absolute must for overclockers here.
That’s not to say the Core i7-9700K isn’t worth buying if you don’t have a liquid cooler, though. As you’ll see from the graphs below, this is still one very nippy CPU indeed, offering substantial gains across the board over its Core i7-8700 and Core i7-8700K predecessors as well as its Ryzen 7 competition. Its single core and multicore performance are also exceptional (even if all of AMD’s Ryzen 7 CPUs still have the edge on multicore), and it offers a tangible step up from Intel’s Core i5-9600K.
That said, those looking to keep costs down even further would do well to consider the AMD Ryzen 7 3700X instead. While not quite as fast as the Core i7-9700K, it still offers exceptionally good gaming speeds and absolutely stonking desktop performance, too – all for a considerably smaller sum of £320 / $330 at time of writing, plus it comes with a free three month subscription to Xbox Game Pass on PC, just like its Ryzen 5 siblings, giving you even more for your money.