The common misconception is for the perfect gaming PC build one need only buy the most expensive CPU and GPU and slap in some absurd amount of memory. That may have been true years ago but today, you don’t have to buy the most expensive processor around to have a great gaming experience. Today’s desktop processors can handle just about any game you throw at them, and many can be overclocked to improve performance (at the cost of increased power, heat, and potentially noise).
While the CPU is still a critical component, graphics cards have taken a more prominent role, at least when it comes to gaming PCs. Meanwhile, the performance gap between the fastest and most expensive processors and those that are ‘good enough’ keeps shrinking, all while the pricing gap is increasing.
Today, the range of CPUs available from AMD and Intel is incredibly diverse. Just looking at the current generation, Intel has 2-core/2-thread (2C/2T) Kaby Lake budget parts starting at around $50/£50, through entry-level 2C/4T offerings (Pentium G4560 and similar), then mainstream 4C/4T (eg, i5-7600K) and 4C/8T (i7-7700K) parts. Meanwhile, the top Intel CPU is the 10C/20T Core i9-7900X—with 12-core through 18-core Skylake-X parts slated to arrive for the X299 platform over the next couple of months.
AMD’s portfolio is no less diverse, with 4C/4T Ryzen 3, 4C/8T and 6C/12T Ryzen 5, 8C/16T Ryzen 7 processors and now the X399 platform with the monstrous 16C/32T Threadripper 1950X and the only slightly less insane 12C/24T 1920X. Zen-based APUs with Vega graphics are expected sometime this fall, likely with 4-core CPU configurations and 1024 or fewer GPU cores.
It should be noted that there are better CPUs. However games don’t take advantage of the other components so spending so much would sometimes yield poorer results. You don’t absolutely have to have one of the latest processors from either company. But for any new gaming PC build, there’s little reason to buy older hardware. My pick for the best CPU based on amount spent and amount of gaming performance earned is Intel’s Core i5-7600K.
The Core i5-7600K handles even the most demanding PC games
Good overclocking potential to 4.9GHz and beyond
Z270 platform brings more PCIe lanes and new technologies
Lower stock clocks than Core i7-7700K
Lacks Hyper-Threading/SMT and only has four cores
It’s easy to get caught lusting after the highest performing processors—who doesn’t want a 16-core beast with quad-channel memory? The dirty little not-so-secret is that most high-end features don’t really do jack squat for the majority of games. Unless you’re building a PC to also do things like video editing, software development, or creating an AI to take over the world—there’s a very real chance that you’ll be just fine with a far less costly CPU. That’s where Intel’s mainstream offerings excel, nowhere more so than in its unlocked Core i5-7600K.