What’s the Best Processor for PC Gaming?

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Choosing the best processor for PC gaming is a rather more complex proposition than it seems at first glance. After all, “best” is not a single metric. The simplest way for us to help you decide would be to link our Core i7-8700K (See on Amazon) review and leave a two-word caption: “This one.” But simply picking the most expensive and/or fastest processor a company offers for consumer desktop PCs, without any coherent rationale behind the choice, ultimately wouldn’t answer the question.

The truth is Intel and AMD offer a fairly wide range of CPUs at different price points, clock speeds, and capabilities. “Best,” for our purposes, is not defined solely as “fastest,” but contains some performance-per-dollar weighting as well. This is especially true in games, which often don’t scale well above four cores and almost never take advantage of Hyper-Threading. And as for AMD, the company’s Ryzen architecture, which debuted in March of this year, is worth serious consideration. Let’s break down our favorite choices for each company.

Intel: The Core i5-8400

Intel’s Core i5-8400 (See on Amazon) is a six-core chip with a base frequency of 2.8GHz, a maximum turbo boost of 4GHz, and a svelte $ 180 price tag. While we haven’t reviewed the Core i5-8400 ourselves, both TechSpot and Anandtech have investigated its gaming performance and found it keeps up very well with its higher-end siblings, particularly as resolutions hit 1440p and above. It even outperforms the Core i7-8700K in AT’s Rise of the Tomb Raider tests, possibly because the 8700K has Hyper-Threading enabled. A game running slower on an HT-enabled system is unusual, but not unheard of.

Core i5-8400

The Core i5-8400 has several specific features to recommend it. Very few games today scale up beyond four cores and four threads, because that’s where the mainstream PC market has topped out these last six years. Now that Intel is pushing six-core chips at much lower prices, that will start to change, but the six-core Core i5-8400 is ready for that shift. Those same six cores will adroitly address any non-gaming requirements you might put on it, and provide enough horsepower for some game streaming or recording if you want to do so.

AMD: The Ryzen 5 1600 or 1600X

I’m taking a slightly different tack with AMD. The two chips I’d recommend are the Ryzen 5 1600 (See on Amazon) for $ 219, or the Ryzen 5 1600X (See on Amazon) for $ 249. The only difference between the two are their base clocks and boost clocks — the Ryzen 5 1600 runs at 3.2GHz/3.6GHz, while the 1600X runs at 3.6GHz/4GHz.

I’d recommend the Ryzen 5 1600 over the 1600X based on the benchmark results available online. Just as there’s very little difference between the Core i5-8400 and the i7-8700K, there’s not much of a gap between the two AMD chips, either. The difference, however, is that if you’re still gaming at 1080p, Ryzen CPUs tend to fall behind their Intel counterparts (this gap vanishes as you scale up game resolutions). It is possible in some titles, the 1600X’s higher turbo clock will yield genuine benefits. We don’t have data for the Ryzen 5 1600, but the 1600X is shown below. Its relatively high clocks make it an excellent performer, and it hangs well against the more-expensive Ryzen 7 1800X:

Both of these chips are six-core, 12-thread CPUs, and both hit AMD’s sweet spot as far as price/performance.

As for whether you should buy Intel or AMD, if we’re strictly talking gaming, I have to give the nod to the Core i5-8400, which is less expensive than either AMD chip. But if you’re an AMD fan, there’s genuinely good news: Unlike the company’s old Piledriver processors, Ryzen competes well with Intel, especially if you widen the comparison to include other types of applications. They may not take the top nod for best bang for your buck in gaming, specifically, but they’re far more competitive than any product AMD has had in-market for at least a half-decade. And if you’re gaming at 1440p or 4K, you won’t notice the difference.

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