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For PC gamers who want to play the latest games to their full potential, hardware upgrades are a continual necessity. Fortunately, CPU installation is pretty easy with today's motherboards.

It's not hard to get lost in all the CPU specs available. Many of them are irrelevant for most gamers' purposes. The challenge is to find the best processor for gaming without paying for stuff you don't need.

Features To Look For In A Gaming Processor

​Look for Value

Consumers can pay ridiculous amounts of money for CPUs, but all they might get for the extra money are bragging rights. Today, it is possible to buy an Intel Core i7 for $500. Will a gamer get any extra benefit from such a processor within the first two years of ownership? Probably not, and the price of that CPU could drop by 50 percent after a year.

CPU prices fluctuate like oil prices, and buying a CPU can be a gamble on the future. The trick is to predict which cool, new PC capabilities will come out in the next couple of years and choose a CPU that will support them.

Gamers with a low-budget ceiling face the challenge of investing in enough CPU and graphics card speed to play new games at lower resolutions and frame rates.

When building a new PC, the CPU is a good place to start. Chances are by the time you want to upgrade your current CPU, you'll need a new motherboard because the required socket will have changed for the new generation of processors.

One way to think about maximum value for a gaming CPU is it should to be able to last through at least three graphics card upgrades. With that strategy, you won't have to miss out on new games or settle for low-quality settings.

Personal computer hardware is notorious for being ahead of software in terms of capabilities. Software makers have to know what the capabilities are before they can take advantage of them.

​Overclocking

The best thing about overclocking is it can save you money. If you buy an overclockable processor, you can increase it's performance by adjusting settings in the motherboard's BIOS. Depending on how well a particular processor overclocks, you could improve the performance to match that of a much more expensive CPU.

When purchasing an Intel CPU for overclocking, make sure to get a processor that is labeled with a “K” at the end as in Core i7-6700K. The “K” means the clock multiplier is unlocked. These models usually cost a little more than the non-K versions. Intel knows what you are doing and markets the overclockable “extreme” versions to gaming enthusiasts.

​The next thing to consider when choosing an overclockable CPU is which motherboard will work with it. Not all motherboards allow users to overclock the CPU. Motherboard brands known for CPU overclocking ability are Gigabyte, ASRock, MSI and Asus.

Linus Sebastian of LinusTechTips has a detailed tutorial for overclocking on an ASUS motherboard.

Remember, BIOS menus differ from manufacturer to manufacturer.

You can pay way too much for a just-released motherboard. If you can only potentially save $100 by overclocking a particular CPU, it does not make sense to pay more than $200 for a motherboard. Also it's easier to work with a motherboard model that has tested by a couple of tech websites. Hopefully, you can avoid the mistakes early adopters have made.

A few obligatory words of caution for new overclockers: No CPU is exactly the same. One Core i7-6700K might overclock to 4.5GHz, while another might only go to 4.3GHz. Overclocking can lead to the premature death of a CPU. But as a gamer, you'll probably replace it before that, anyway. Overclocking CPUs produces extra heat, and additional air or water cooling may be necessary.

Also, Consider the Motherboard and PSU

Before purchasing a motherboard, consider what ports and slots you will need. You'll probably want built-in Bluetooth and Wi-Fi. High-end graphics cards require PCI Express 3.0 slots. Thinking ahead, you might want to get a motherboard with at least two of the slots next to each other. Many games require two video cards running in a parallel configuration to use the highest settings or reach 4K resolution.

Although new CPUs generally come out about 18 months, new graphics cards can appear every six months. Game makers continually introduce new games that take advantage of the latest graphics cards. Most gamers can get a couple of years of high-end use out of a CPU, but chances are you'll be buying a new graphics card sooner.

Out of all the components required for a gaming PC, the graphics card probably will be the most costly initially and annually. You might need a bank loan, but running four graphics cards is feasible. Linus Sebastian says PCI Express lanes are a big deal:

Regardless of which CPU you buy, if you're planning on overclocking it and using a good graphics card, a 850W power supply might be a good investment. Graphics cards use a huge amount of power during a game.​

AMD vs. Intel

In recent years, Intel has been beating AMD on gaming capabilities, as Matt Smith of Digital Trends explained. AMD seems aimed more at value than performance customers.

​Future Generations

Later this year, Intel may introduce Kaby Lake processors and Broadwell-E. AMD is set to release Zen architecture (http://www.digitaltrends.com/computing/intels-lead-in-processor-tech-is-dwindling-according-to-investor-report/.) Not a lot of details are available, but the point is the grass usually will be greener on the horizon soon after you finish your latest PC build.

Today's Best CPUs Based on Price Point

Below are five CPUs that will provide gaming value without ripping you off. Everyone has a different​ budget, so the models start at the high end and move down.

Intel Core i7-6700K

Overall Rating:

Intel introduced processors with a new micro-architecture codenamed Skylake in the second half of 2015. This is the successor to Broadwell. Along with lots of new features and capabilities the Skylake processors require a motherboard with an LGA 1151 socket.

The Core i7-6700K performs well against the Core i7-5820K in benchmarks and costs significantly less. For those gamers running three or four graphics cards, you'll want the pricey Core i7-5960X to avoid sacrificing performance.

The Core i7-6700 offers excellent features to run today's games at high settings and games that come out in the next couple of years. With the Core i7-6700K and some overclocking, you can save cash for more expensive graphics cards. To get 4K screen resolution with any processor, you'll probably need two high-end graphics cards in SLI configuration.

For those wishing to future proof their system, the Core i7-6700K looks like a winner. Richard Leadbetter of Digital Foundry has a video detailing how the i5-2500K from 2011, still performs well with games as compared with the newer Skylakes:

The i7-6700K competing well against Kaby Lake processors in years to come.

PROS:

  • It runs at 4.0 GHz standard, but it potentially can overclock to a stable 4.5 GHz.
  • 4 cores, 8 threads. No bottlenecks when gaming.
  • 2 channels for system memory, DDR4-2133 or DDR3L-1600.
  • 8 MB of L3 cache.
  • Z170 chipset
  • Intel HD Graphics 530.
  • Resolution up to 4096 x 2304.
  • Official 91W of TDP (thermal design power). Hotter usually means better performance.
  • Top current IPC (instructions per cycle) available.
  • Supports latest multimedia APIs such as DirectX 12, OpenGL 4.4 and OpenCL 2.0.

CONS:

  • Not compatible with Broadwell-based motherboards.
  • Requires a high-end motherboard to use base clock manipulation for overclocking.
  • Price point not likely to drop much this year.
  • USB 3.1 and Thunderbolt support is not native.
  • Not the best choice for systems running three or four graphics cards.
  • No cooler included, but most overclockers don't use stock cooling, anyway.

Intel Core i5-6600K

Overall Rating:

This CPU is the least expensive Skylake available with an unlocked multiplier. The Core i5-6600K runs stock at 3.5 GHz and has many of the same features as the Core i7-6700K. You can add a PCI Express SSD, which can help make up for loss in processing power. RAM performance maxes out for gaming at 16 GBs regardless of whether it's DDR3 or DDR4, so load times from your hard drive a good place to focus on to increase performance without overpaying.

The Core i5-6600K is a significant improvement over the Core i5-4690K Devil's Canyon for about the same price. The i5-6600K even has a better built-in graphics processor. For a brand new computer build, the Core i5-6600K definitely looks like the better value. Gamers upgrading a current system will have to weigh whether they want to pay for a new motherboard. The Z170 chipset that comes with the Core i5-600K has a bunch of newer capabilities.

PROS:

  • 4 cores, 4 threads
  • Official 91W TDP
  • 6 MB of L3 cache
  • 2 memory channels supporting DDR4-1866-2133 or DRR3L-1333-1600.
  • Overclockable to a potential 4.5 GHz with effective cooling.
  • Resolution up to 4096 x 2304.
  • Z170 chipset
  • Intel HD Graphics 530.

CONS:

  • Requires a motherboard with an LGA 1151 socket.
  • Half as many threads as the Core i7-6700K.
  • Intel Turbo Boost Technology only works for single thread applications.
  • A little less cache than the Core i7-6700K.
  • No cooler included, but most overclockers don't use stock cooling, anyway.

AMD FX-8300

Overall Rating:

First off, AMD processors work just as well with Windows 10 as Intel chips. In the 1990s, Cyrix processors had problems with Windows comparability. AMD processors do require motherboards with different sockets than Intel CPUs. This also is not an Apple vs. PC type rivalry. AMD is not anti-establishment or vegan. AMD and Intel are just competitors. Intel chips rule most of the CPU market and lead the way in creating new processor generations.

The AMD FX-8300 is a huge price decrease on the list compared with the Intel Core i5-6600, but the AMD FX-8300 still in considered a mid-range processor for gaming. It debuted in October 2012, so it's definitely been thoroughly tested. When the 3.3 GHz process came out, it was considered awesome because of its multi-threading capabilities and high frequency.

One reason the Intel Core i5-6600K is higher on the list is because it's four cores use newer technology, so the AMD FX-8300's eight cores deliver weaker performance in comparison. It's going to be difficult to achieve the highest frame rates on newer games with the FX-8300 unless you run two graphics cards in parallel. AMD's PCI Express lanes are on the motherboard unlike Intel's configuration​

PROS:

  • Unlocked multiplier.
  • Potentially can overclock to a stable 4.5 GHz without extreme cooling.
  • 8 cores, 8 threads.
  • 95W TDP.
  • 8MB of L3 cache.
  • 2 memory channels for DDR3-1866.
  • Works with SLI and Crossfire graphics card configurations.
  • The motherboard will be relatively inexpensive.

CONS:

  • No integrated graphics.
  • It's old, so it will become obsolete sooner than more expensive models.
  • Won't be able to take advantage of PCI Express 4.0.
  • Single threaded performance kind weak.

Intel Core i3-6100

Overall Rating:

​This entry is in the budget CPU category. With the Intel Core i3-6100, owners could very easily buy a single graphics card that will outclass the CPU. Buying two graphics cards for this system might be a waste of money. The i3-6100 is a step up from the i3-4360 thanks to Skylake. Both CPUs have a locked clock speed of 3.7 GHz.

The lack of overclocking capability could have a silver lining in that i3-6100 owners can use the stock heatsink and fan that come with the CPU. You probably will not want to put this system in a case with a window. This CPU is not any older than the Core i7-6700, but its original intent was for value customers. So unlike the AMD FX-8300, the i3-6100 will have a relatively short relevance life for gamers.

One important thing to consider when building a budget gaming system is how long it will be able to play new games at acceptable frame rates. Remember, RAM above 16 GB is unlikely to help in a gaming situation. At this CPU level, even an upgrade to the next generation of Windows in a year, might show noticeable performance slow-down.

PROS:

  • 2 cores, 4 threads.
  • 51W TDP.
  • Z170 chipset.
  • Skylake microarchitecture.
  • 2 memory channels of DDR4-1866-2133 or DDR3L-1333-1600.
  • Intel HD Graphics 530.
  • Resolution up to 4096 x 2304.

CONS:

  • No chance of overclocking.
  • Hyper-threading technology instead of four cores.
  • The graphics card will be doing most of the work.
  • A SSD PCI Express purchase likely is necessary.
  • Haswell owners will need a new motherboard.

AMD Athlon X4 860K

Overall Rating:

​There are some snazzy-looking motherboards for the AMD Athlon X4 860K. The board will cost more than the CPU, but you'll have plenty of money leftover after buying both to pimp your rig with water cooling. Some users have reported reaching 4.5 GHz with a prefabricated water cooling solution. The Corsair Hydro H80i costs less than $100.

Experimentation may be where the value comes from owning this type of system. If you take the definition of entry-level as: “I'm learning a lot about PC building and overclocking without spending a fortune,” then the X4 860K might be a good place to enter.A standard SSD connected to the motherboard with a SATA cable is about as fancy as necessary for fast boot times on the system. A good graphics card probably will show a significant improvement in game performance.

Paying for anything better than a Radeon R9 390 is probably too much for this system. Because the X4 860K has been out for a couple of years, there are plenty of motherboard and graphics card options you could match up for interior case color coordination. This is a situation in which a window panel on your case could be appropriate.

PROS:

  • 95W TDP.
  • 4 MB of L2 cache.
  • 4 cores, 4 threads.
  • Potentially overclocks to a stable 4.3 GHz with aftermarket air cooling.

CONS:

  • 2014 technology.
  • No integrated GPU, so your separate graphics card will be doing most of the work.
  • Lower frame rates for games.
  • Limited future practicality.

Measuring Value

Value means different things to different people. In the case of gaming CPUs, it usually comes down to how much you are willing to spend for performance. A current, high-end CPU is going to be way ahead of current software. In that case, the CPU will remain very useful for the longest time possible. For a gaming enthusiast, that long time could equal five years.

The upfront cost of high-end CPU such as the Intel Core i7-6700K can be more than $350. But the cost of buying a budget CPU then replacing it with another low-end model a couple of years would be more, if a new motherboard is included. Also a budget CPU system owner probably will need to upgrade his graphics card sooner than a high-end CPU system owner.

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About The Author

Matt Becker

Tech enthusiast. Providing the best, reviews, news, and rumors on the latest technology and PC gaming.

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