How to Choose a Gaming CPU

There are a lot of options out there when it comes to gaming CPUs. Knowing what features to look for can help you find the right one.1 2 3

Though 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 better performance when paired with modern hardware.

If you want the best system performance and the best gameplay experience, ensuring you have a CPU that’s up to the task is important. We’re here to help you learn which CPU is right for you, whether you're looking to buy a new PC, build a new PC, or upgrade the CPU in your current system.

How Will You Use It?

Before you can decide on a CPU, you should consider how and where you want to use your PC. Are you looking for portability, or do you prefer a desktop experience? (For help deciding, check out our article on the merits of laptop vs desktop PCs here.)

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, or professional applications can also impact your hardware choices.

Keep the answers to those questions in mind as we cover terms like core count and clock speed that are important to know when comparing CPUs.

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.

Clock Speed

CPU 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 and 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.

Other CPU Features to Consider

Beyond simple measurements like clock speed and core count, there are other features to consider when choosing a new CPU.

Integrated Graphics

Most Intel® CPUs utilize 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 CPUs that don’t have integrated graphics are those with an F designation, such as the Intel® Core™ i7-10700KF processor. These are designed for users who know they will be using a discrete GPU in their system.

Laptops

If you haven’t recently explored the differences between desktop and laptop processors, 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, gaming 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™ i7-10875H processor, as these are designed specifically for portable PCs.

Overclocking

Another factor to consider when choosing a CPU is whether or not you want to overclock. Overclocking can also be a useful way to increase clock speed, and tools like Intel® Performance Maximizer (Intel® PM) 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™ i7-10700K 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.

Intel® Core™ Processor Series

Now that we’ve covered the basics, let’s figure out what level of CPU performance is right for you.

The Intel® Core™ brand contains various CPUs with a range of features and capabilities. 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 processors, for entry-level gaming performance
  • Intel® Core™ i5 processors, for mid-level gaming performance
  • Intel® Core™ i7 processors, for high-level gaming performance4
  • Intel® Core™ i9 processors, for highest-level gaming performance

For example, here are the core and thread counts for a few specific 10th Gen Intel® Core™ processors:

  • A 10th Gen Intel® Core™ i5-10600 desktop processor has:
    • Up to 4.80 GHz frequency
    • 6 cores and 12 threads
    • Intel® Hyper-Threading Technology (Intel® HT Technology)
  • A 10th Gen Intel® Core™ i7-10700 desktop processor has:
    • Up to 4.80 GHz frequency
    • 8 cores and 16 threads
    • Intel® Hyper-Threading Technology (Intel® HT Technology)
  • A 10th Gen Intel® Core™ i9-10900K desktop processor has:
    • Up to 5.30 GHz frequency
    • 10 cores and 20 threads
    • Intel® Hyper-Threading Technology (Intel® HT Technology)

Start by selecting the Intel® Core™ processor segment that corresponds with your needs, then look for additional features — like the ability to overclock— that are important to you. Check out this guide to Intel® CPU names that highlights the many options that are available.

The X-series is the upper echelon of the Intel® Core™ processor family. These CPUs are designed primarily for advanced creator workflows5, and may not be practical for the average gaming build.

The Intel® Core™ i9-10920X X-Series processor has 12 cores and 24 threads, for example.

Demanding AAA PC titles will benefit from an Intel® Core™ i7 processor or Intel® Core™ i9 processor on either a laptop or desktop. But 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.

When choosing a new CPU, be aware that the processor and chipset’s capabilities are often defined by the CPU’s generation (i.e. 9th Gen, or 10th Gen). The generation of the CPU can impact supported features such as I/O options, network connectivity, and compatibility with the latest hardware.

Prioritizing the newest generation of processors ensures that you can take advantage of all the latest features and hardware support in your system. Click here to learn more about the latest generation of gaming laptops and gaming desktops, as well as the new technologies they support.

Next Steps: Benchmarking & Beyond

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 benchmarking and properly applying thermal paste.

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Product and Performance Information

1

Intel® technologies' features and benefits depend on system configuration and may require enabled hardware, software or service activation. Performance varies depending on system configuration. No product or component can be absolutely secure. Check with your system manufacturer or retailer or learn more at https://www.intel.co.uk.

2

Altering clock frequency or voltage may damage or reduce the useful life of the processor and other system components, and may reduce system stability and performance. Product warranties may not apply if the processor is operated beyond its specifications. Check with the manufacturers of system and components for additional details.

3Intel, the Intel logo, and Core are trademarks of Intel Corporation or its subsidiaries in the U.S. and/or other countries. Other names and brands may be claimed as the property of others. © Intel Corporation
4“...simplified into entry-level (Intel® Core™ i3), mid-level (Intel® Core™ i5), and high-level (Intel® Core™ i7).” https://blogs.intel.com/technology/2009/06/over_the_last_year_or/#gs.hpql3d