Processors come with an array of specifications and features that can impact gaming performance. We’ll help you narrow down the list of candidates so you can find the gaming CPU perfect for you.1
To get the most out of your desktop PC or laptop, it’s important to ensure your CPU is up to the challenge.
Although CPUs are durable and can last for years when properly cared for, PC technology is constantly evolving. Newer gaming CPUs make use of faster clock speeds, larger cache sizes, and higher thread counts, allowing for improved performance when paired with compatible modern hardware.
Gaming is one area that benefits from this evolution. The CPU substantially impacts many aspects of the latest games, including:
- Frame rates
- Scalable gameplay elements, including:
- Draw distance
- Crowd animations
- Destruction physics
Ultimately, finding the best gaming processor for your PC depends on what you hope to get out of your gaming experience, and how you use your system.
The first step is choosing that system.
Step 1: Figuring Out What You Need in a CPU
Before you can decide on a CPU, consider where you want to use your PC. Are you looking for portability, or do you prefer a desktop experience? (For help with deciding, learn more about Gaming Laptops vs Gaming Desktops).
Next, consider how you plan to use your new system. For the purposes of this article, we’ll be assuming you’re using your PC for gaming, but tasks like streaming, video editing, and professional applications can also impact your hardware choices.
Keep these considerations in mind as we cover terms like core count and clock speed that are important to know when comparing CPUs.
Step 2: Learn How the CPU Works
Once you know the type of system you’ll be gaming on, the next step is to arm yourself with some baseline knowledge about how the processor affects your system’s performance. Knowing how clock speed and core count factor into the gaming experience will help ensure that you purchase a CPU that allows you to do everything you want to.
CPU Core Count
Modern gaming CPUs have multiple cores. Each one of these cores acts like an additional processor, which allows the CPU to process multiple instructions simultaneously.
Many PC games make use of multiple cores, but higher core count becomes increasingly important when undertaking CPU-intensive tasks outside of gaming, like encoding video or using complex programs for high-level content creation.
If you’re using your CPU for more than just gaming — for example, streaming gameplay while playing — additional cores can make a difference. A CPU with a higher core count can handle workloads that a single-core CPU, even one with a very high clock speed, might struggle with.
CPU Clock Speed
A CPU’s clock speed (also called clock rate or frequency) is the number of cycles a CPU can execute in a second. It’s a basic but fundamentally important consideration when choosing a CPU. Modern CPUs execute billions of cycles per second, so clock speed is measured in gigahertz (GHz). You can read more about clock speed and CPU cycles here to learn how these metrics can potentially impact your gameplay experience.
Generally speaking, the higher the clock speed per core, the better. When choosing a new CPU, look for the highest clock speeds possible within your budget while also ensuring you have the cores/threads you need for your workloads.
Step 3: Consider Additional CPU Features
Beyond simple measurements like clock speed and core count, there are other features to consider when choosing a new CPU.
Most Intel® CPUs use integrated graphics, meaning they can display graphics on screen without a discrete GPU. Integrated graphics can be useful, especially when troubleshooting potential issues involving a dedicated GPU.
Integrated graphics can also be helpful if you work with editing or streaming video. For example, Intel® Quick Sync Video is a feature built into modern Intel® CPUs that quickly encodes and decodes video files, freeing up potential system resources to be used elsewhere.
The only Intel® CPUs that don’t have integrated graphics are those with an F designation, such as the Intel® Core™ i7-12700KF processor. These are designed for users who know they will be using a discrete GPU in their system.
You may be surprised to learn that many laptops are capable of desktop-like performance when gaming. Even if you’re prioritizing performance over all else, modern laptops are built to keep up with demanding gaming workloads.
When selecting a gaming laptop, look for Intel® CPUs with the H designation such as the Intel® Core™ i7-10750H. These processors are specifically designed to prioritize power consumption and battery life for portable PCs.
Another factor to consider when choosing a CPU is whether or not you want to overclock.
Overclocking2 can also be a useful way to increase clock speed, and tools like Intel® Performance Maximizer make it easier than ever to achieve a stable overclock.
If you like tweaking the performance of your hardware, look for the “K” designation at the end of the processor name, such as the Intel® Core™ i7-12700K processor. This indicates that the CPU is designed to be overclocked. Assuming you have the right hardware, such as a proper cooling solution and a motherboard that supports overclocking, you can enjoy the benefits of faster clock speeds with an unlocked CPU.
Step 4: Find the Right Intel® Core™ Processor for You
Now that we’ve covered the basics, let’s figure out what level of CPU performance is right for you.
The processor and chipset’s capabilities are often defined by the CPU’s generation (i.e. 11th Gen, or 12th Gen). As a general rule, the higher the number, the more feature-rich the CPU, with higher core and thread counts, clock speeds, and cache sizes. These performance tiers offer a useful way of finding the balance of features you’re looking for.
Though there are many options within each category, the basics are as follows:
- Intel® Core™ i3, for entry-level performance
- Intel® Core™ i5, for mid-level performance
- Intel® Core™ i7, for high-level performance
- Intel® Core™ i9, for highest-level performance
For example, here are the core and thread counts for a few specific 12th Gen Intel® Core™ processors:
- An 12th Gen Intel® Core™ i5-12600K desktop processor has:
- Up to 4.90 GHz frequency
- 10 cores and 16 threads
- An 12th Gen Intel® Core™ i7-12700K desktop processor has:
- Up to 5.00 GHz max frequency
- 12 cores and 20 threads
- An 12th Gen Intel® Core™ i9-12900K desktop processor has:
- Up to 5.20 GHz max frequency
- 16 cores and 24 threads
Start by selecting the Intel® Core™ processor segment that corresponds with your needs, then look for additional features — like the ability to overclock2 — that are important to you. Check out this guide to Intel® CPU names that highlights the many options that are available.
One of the strengths of the current PC hardware market is the large selection of options that allow you to find exactly the product you’re looking for within your requirements and budget. The variety of available CPUs mean there’s an ideal processor for any system, no matter how you intend to use it.
Step 5: Check the Benchmarks
While these fundamentals will hopefully give you the tools to choose a CPU, there will likely be a few specific CPU models that offer the performance you need within your budget.
One of the best ways to help narrow things down further is to look for benchmarks that mirror how you plan to use your PC. For example, search for a specific game you’ll be playing, along with the model of processor you’re considering, and evaluate performance metrics like FPS to find the gaming CPU that matches your needs and expectations. Other hardware will need to be considered as well, such as the system’s GPU and RAM, but this can be a good place to start your search for the right CPU.
For further reading, check out our guides to understanding CPU benchmarks and, if you’re planning to install your new CPU yourself, how to properly apply thermal paste.