The CPU is a core component of any PC. It’s not as critical for smooth gameplay as a sound graphics card, but its impact on your experience is still significant. GPUs are good at rendering dozens of images per second, but processors handle what’s behind the scenes. The best CPU for gaming will effortlessly handle AI, simulation elements, and keep 4X strategy games like Stellaris from becoming sluggish hundreds of turns in. Which one will you choose? Let us help you find out!
Our Best CPU for Gaming Picks at a Glance
- Intel Core i9-12900K – Still the best gaming CPU in existence today
- AMD Ryzen 7 5850X3D – Breathing down the 12900K’s neck
- Intel Core i7-12700K – Slightly slower yet more cost-effective than the 12900K
- Intel Core i5-12600K – The optimum solution for most gamers
- AMD Ryzen 7 5800X – Mid-tier price, stellar performance
- Intel Core i5-12400 – The price-to-performance champ
- AMD Ryzen 5 5600X – A compelling if pricier alternative to the 12400
- Intel Core i3-12100F – Entry-level done right
It’s intriguing how a single processor generation can have such a large impact. Our list wouldn’t have been nearly as Intel-centric before the end of 2021, and it’s bound to shift again once AMD musters a response to Alder Lake’s resounding success. Our best gaming CPU picks cover everything from absolute overkill to bargain bin behemoths despite the brand one-sidedness. Find out why Alder Lake is a game-changer in our 12900K deep dive, and then use that knowledge to pick out the CPU that aligns best with your budget and expectations.
Intel Core i9-12900K
Socket: LGA 1700 | Cores & threads: 8+8 / 24 | L3 Cache size: 30MB | Base Clock Speed: 3.2 / 2.4GHz | Boost Clock Speed: 5.2 / 3.9GHz | TDP: 125W | iGPU: Yes
It’s a testament to Ryzen’s continuing relevance that Intel had to resort to releasing two generations of CPUs in several months. Rocket Lake might have been a dud, but it paved the way for Team Blue’s best gaming CPU generation yet. Its erstwhile flagship, the i9-12900K, is still the top dog in terms of gaming prowess and overall balance.
Recently Intel also released the Core i9-12900KS. It’s a hand-picked binned version of the ordinary 12900K with slightly higher max clocks and nominally better performance. We did not include it on the list since the chip is far too expensive and hot to justify gains so small as to have no real-world relevance.
The 12900K is the culmination of Intel’s new 7mm (10 nm Enhanced SuperFin) manufacturing process. It boasts an innovative architecture that unifies two core types on one enlarged die. That, and newly integrated support for DDR5 & PCIe 5.0, warrant an upgrade to a new generation of motherboards.
The 12900K has 16 cores and 24 threads. The disparity in thread count is due to it being split into eight Performance or P-cores and as many single-threaded Efficiency or E-cores. The latter retain IPC on the level of Skylake cores that served Intel well for five CPU generations. They’re much smaller as four take up the same space as a single Performance core.
P-cores received the most enhancements, including a bump to cache size on all levels and numerous tweaks to parts like the branch predictor, out-of-order engine, and fast adder. We won’t bore you with technobabble – suffice to say that these enhancements improve P-core IPC by a staggering 28%.
Spearheading Intel’s Comeback
Each set of cores has its own regular and turbo boost frequency. The P-cores reach a base clock of 3.2GHz and can soar as high as 5.2GHz if you activate all of the 12900K’s overclocking features. The E-cores start at a meager 2.4GHz but climb to a respectable 3.9GHz.
What was once TDP is now the baseline for an Alder Lake processor’s potential idle draw, which is an already massive 125W for the 12900K. System power consumption becomes double if you activate the core clock boost and can surpass 400W during moments of stressful testing if you overclock. Have a beefy PSU and CPU cooler at the ready.
So what does this mean for your computing experience? We used computing instead of gaming intentionally as the 12900K introduces tremendous gains for any task you place before it. It’s still cheaper than the 5950X despite AMD’s price calculations. However, the 12900K matches or slightly outpaces AMD’s flagship, whether you’re running artificial computation tests, rendering, encoding video, working with gaming engines like Unreal, or even browsing the web.
While it’s still the overall winner in gaming, the 5800X3D’s arrival closed the gap. Depending on the game, the differences between them swing a few frames in one direction or another. Ironically, they’re strongest at 1080p since that’s the most CPU-dependent mainstream resolution. Not that you’ll be using it much with a system running something like a 12900K and RTX 3090 combo. Even so, expect games on Ultra settings to fly for the next several years.
AMD Ryzen 7 5800X3D
Socket: AM4 | Cores & threads: 8 / 16 | L3 Cache size: 96MB | Base Clock Speed: 3.4GHz | Boost Clock Speed: 4.5GHz | TDP: 105W | iGPU: No
AM4 is arguably AMD’s most successful platform ever. It’s been around for five years now, evolving with each new generation and finally introducing choice & competition to a stale market. While we might have resigned ourselves to it quietly being phased out by AM5 later in the year, AMD had other plans. It’s sending the platform off with a bang in the form of the Ryzen 5 5800X3D, a hyper-focused gaming CPU designed to go toe to toe with Intel’s finest.
The 5800X3D builds on the foundation established by the regular 5800X. That means it’s a true AM4 chip and will run on the same motherboards – even 300-series ones – as per their new updates. It also retains the original’s core count and TDP, albeit at lower frequencies. Its base clock speed is a whole 400MHz lower, while boost clocks see a decrease of 200MHz.
This is irrelevant for gaming performance due mainly to a single significant breakthrough – 3D V-cache. The 5800X’s die left no room for upgrades, so AMD had to go vertical. They integrated a second layer of 64MB L3 cache with the existing 32MB in a way that makes them register and operate as a whole. The resulting streamlining of communication between CPU and RAM translates into the equivalent of a generational leap in IPC gains.
Users already invested in AM4 who want the best possible gaming experience will love the 5800X3D. As stated above, it’s consistently within a few frames of the 12900K. They trade blows and exchange pole positions depending on how well developers optimized their game for either platform. The $150 difference is another strong argument in the 5800X3D’s favor.
Whether this is a suitable chip for you depends on several more factors, though. The new cache yields improvements only for gaming. Other computing tasks remain on the 5800X level, and some even suffer slightly due to the decrease in the core clock. Luckily, the new chip remains thermally efficient and doesn’t require cooling as substantial as the 12900K.
Lesser futureproofing potential is why the 5800X3D is in second place. Programs and games are bound to take advantage of even more cores. Hence, its eight are at a sizeable disadvantage compared to the 12900K’s sixteen. There’s also the matter of PCIe 5.0 and DDR5 RAM.
Intel Core i7-12700K
Socket: LGA 1700 | Cores & threads: 8+4 / 20 | L3 Cache size: 25MB | Base Clock Speed: 3.6 / 2.7GHz | Boost Clock Speed: 5.0 / 3.8GHz | TDP: 125W | iGPU: Yes
The 12900K is currently Intel’s best CPU for gaming, but that doesn’t necessarily make it a good fit for everyone. Many savvy users interested primarily in high-end gaming will set their sights on the 12700K instead. You should, too, if you’re interested in a much better deal, lower power requirements, and barely any difference in gaming performance.
After the 11700K was famously referred to as a waste of sand, it’s heartening to see its successor take the crown of sensible high-end gaming processors again. It’s architecturally very similar to the flagship, the absence of four E-cores being the most significant difference. All eight multi-threaded cores are accounted for, giving the chip an impressive total of 12 physical cores and 20 threads for varying workloads.
Fewer cores mean that existing ones get a clock boost at standard speeds – 400 and 300MHz, respectively. Their boosted clocks are 200 and 100MHz lower, contributing to a decrease in MTP or Maximum Turbo power to 190W. While more manageable than the raging fire that is the 12900K, you’ll still want a beefy cooler to rein the 12700K in during high-intensity gaming sessions.
Alder Lake Gaming Excellence
Intel priced the 12700K to compete with AMD’s 5800X directly. You might even end up spending a couple of bucks less on the Alder Lake chip if you go for its KF version. It performs identically to the 12700K but lacks the integrated GPU. Still, you’ll quickly make up and exceed the difference once it’s time to get a fitting motherboard.
While it’s priced the same as AMD’s formerly best gaming CPU, the 12700K has its sights on the costlier 5900X. You’ll feel the lack of E-cores for a few heavily multi-threaded tasks. Still, the 12700K is generally on the 5900X’s level whether you’re performing physics simulations or encoding sound files. More importantly, it outpaces the 5800X in basically any gaming benchmark while coming within a few frames of the 12900K’s numbers. That’s a huge incentive to get Intel’s second-best CPU for gaming over the champion since a difference of five frames or less when you’re already pushing well past 100 is negligible.
Intel Core i5-12600K
Socket: LGA 1700 | Cores & threads: 6+4 / 16 | L3 Cache size: 20MB | Base Clock Speed: 3.7 / 2.8GHz | Boost Clock Speed: 4.9 / 3.6GHz | TDP: 125W | iGPU: Yes
Intel’s third-best CPU for gaming fell just short of the same spot on our list! What makes the 12600K so special? You can get it and a competent Alder Lake motherboard for the price of the 12900K and not notice much of a difference in framerates. And we’re talking about 1080p here, where raw gains are the most apparent. The 12600K is highly optimized, noticeably less hot than its siblings, and not nearly as likely to make a dent in your power bill.
While Intel developed it, you can thank AMD that a chip like the 12600K exists in its current form. Lack of competition meant Team Blue could produce processors with four cores and as many threads and have it be the gold standard for half a decade. Ryzen’s arrival upset this, and the trend has been shifting ever since. That’s why the 12600K has six performance and four efficiency cores with sixteen threads between them.
Shoring Up the Mid-Range
The Thread Director is an integral part of Alder Lake’s architecture we didn’t mention in the 12900K’s overview. Operating systems aren’t yet adept at telling which type of task to assign to which cores since they view the P- and E-cores equally. The Thread Director steps in at the chip level and determines whether a job needs more computing power or if it can run in the background. Windows 11 already has a better synergy with Alder Lake chips in this respect, so you have a compelling reason to switch to it when building a 12600K-based system.
We were impressed with the 12600K’s decrease in power requirements and thermal output. While 125W remains the base TDP, overclocking will raise it by a mere 25W. That’s good news if you already own a decent air cooler since you’ll only need a new bracket to make it work. There’s little difference between the 12700K and 12600K frequency-wise. The latter is clocked 100MHz less at base, while boost clocks see a decrease of 100 and 200MHz, respectively.
The Ryzen 5 5600X doesn’t stand a chance against Intel’s least powerful K processor. If anything, the 12600K is duking it out with the 5800X and matching it blow for blow. You’ll get more out of Team Red’s chip if you render, encode, and compress as much as you game. Still, the 12600K is a more compelling buy for pure gaming and cheaper than the 5800X. If you don’t take DDR5 and most Z690 boards into account, that is.
AMD Ryzen 7 5800X
Socket: AM4 | Cores & threads: 8 / 16 | L3 Cache size: 32MB | Base Clock Speed: 3.8GHz | Boost Clock Speed: 4.7GHz | TDP: 105W | iGPU: No
The 5800X3D has caught many by surprise and disrupted what was a decisively Intel-dominated chart. However, let’s not dismiss the chip that served as its springboard. The 5800X is an excellent all-rounder, capable of high-end gaming and serious number crunching in equal measure. It’s a bit more expensive than the aggressively-priced 12600K. Still, it makes up for that with lower AM4 entry costs and less energy consumption.
The initial Ryzen chips released in 2017 marked AMD’s return to glory. Each iteration after them got progressively better in several ways. For example, the 5800X’s performance is far less dependent on RAM frequency. Intel had been achieving incremental improvements for several generations by focusing on overclocking its existing Skylake cores. Meanwhile, AMD was paving the way with consistent IPC improvements with each new release. Zen3 is a marvel in that respect as the 5800X has an IPC boost of 19% compared to the 3800X.
A monolithic die is the foundation of the 5800X’s architecture. It has eight physical cores running at the same 3.8GHz base speed. There are few external changes compared to Zen2. AMD focused on polishing and optimizing the execution engine and load/store unit this time. Without getting too technical, let’s just say that the 5800X suffers from fewer bottlenecks and slowdowns, and that it can handle more instructions more efficiently.
The 5800X wouldn’t be as appealing without the backing of AM4. The platform has been around since the original Ryzen days, which gave motherboard manufacturers ample time to address its teething problems. New AM4 motherboards are affordable and easier to come by than the recently-released LGA 1700 models. Better yet, you can update the BIOS of all but the oldest AM4 boards and gain the benefit of PCIe 4.0 support from the chip.
Eight cores with twice as many threads share the same 32MB of L3 cache and achieve a respectable boost clock of 4.7GHz. That’s not quite as high as our best CPU for gaming, but there are benefits to keeping the frequencies under 5GHz. Better thermals and significant power savings are sure to trump a few frames after a certain threshold.
The 5800X and 12600K are closely matched regardless of metric. AMD’s chip is the overall winner when it comes to complex multi-threaded computing tasks. Still, the gap is noticeably closer than it was with Rocket Lake. Gaming is where the 5800X takes a backseat, or rather, the passenger’s seat since the 12600K’s stats are better by only a few percentage points across the board.
Intel Core i5-12400
Socket: LGA 1700 | Cores & threads: 6 / 12 | L3 Cache size: 18MB | Base Clock Speed: 2.5GHz | Boost Clock Speed: 4.4GHz | TDP: 65W | iGPU: Yes
The dust Intel’s disruptive new Alder Lake heavyweights stirred up hasn’t even settled yet, and already we’re getting chips with mass-market appeal. The 12400 and 12400F are sure to become fan favorites due to their low price and everything you get for it. Expect performance just short of the 5600X with sizeable savings you can put towards pairing the chip with a great GPU.
The 12400 has a more conventional die layout than the K-chips released at the end of 2021. In fact, the die isn’t the same and has a smaller footprint due to the absence of E-cores. All six cores seen on the 12600K are accounted for, albeit with noticeably lower clock speeds. The base speed has suffered a 1.2GHz drop, while the boost speed is 500MHz lower.
You’d think that imposing such limits and removing the multiplier eliminate the 12400 from our best CPU for gaming running. However, Alder Lake’s improvements are simply too good for it to matter. The chip is on par with the acclaimed i7-10700K. It breathes down the 5600X’s neck in most titles and can even surpass it by a frame or two in Cyberpunk 2077. Not bad for costing $50-$60 less in the $200-$300 price range!
Affordable Alder Lake at Its Finest
It’s also worth considering that Alder Lake i5 chips have access to the same advanced technologies as their K cousins. So, you get to enjoy blazing-fast PCIe 4.0 NVMe drive transfer speeds today and PCIe 5.0 graphics cards eventually.
There’s more good news for users concerned with heat and power consumption. The 12400 is so energy-efficient that Intel bundles it with a stock cooler. You could exchange that for a low-cost air cooler like the Arctic Freezer 34 Esports Duo. The fact that you don’t have to is reassuring, though.
AMD Ryzen 5 5600X
Socket: AM4 | Cores & threads: 6 / 12 | L3 Cache size: 30MB | Base Clock Speed: 3.7GHz | Boost Clock Speed: 4.6GHz | TDP: 65W | iGPU: No
The 5600X is AMD’s best CPU for gaming if you’re a mainstream user looking to build a mid-range rig. It might have lost some of its luster as the 12400(F) burst into the limelight. However, that doesn’t take away from the chip’s gaming chops. AMD has fine-tuned energy efficiency almost to perfection with this chip, and it’s customarily strong for productivity and gaming alike. Will that be enough to justify its cost, though?
Before passing judgment, let’s not forget that the 5600X is aging and an excellent example of the generational improvements we can look forward to from AMD in the future. It has the same 6-core / 12-thread layout as the 3600X with a modest 100MHz more for base and boost clock values. However, the newer chip can do all of this with a TDP of just 65W compared to 95W needed to run the 3600X.
The IPC gains are identical to the 5800X’s, and picking apart its die reveals the same improvements to different areas of the chip. Latency is an issue the 3000-series got flak for that AMD finally managed to address, for example. The physical layout is the same as AMD’s best gaming processor, but two of the eight cores are disabled.
An Excellent Upgrade for Long-Term AM4 Fans
Most modern AM4 mobo and DDR4 RAM combos will be enough to make the 5600X shine. We’ve already shed light on how it does in the i5-12400 segment. Suffice it to repeat that the 5600X manages to eke out a victory in all but a few metrics, so the two chips are identical for all intents and purposes.
Cost is the 5600X’s biggest drawback. AMD priced it at $300, to begin with. That was more expensive than the 3600X but still acceptable due to performance gains and lack of true competition in 2021. At the time of writing, the 5600X costs around $270 but can be yours for as little as $220 if you catch it on sale. That isn’t going to be enough to persuade someone keen on building a new system from going with the cheaper and practically identical 12400 instead.
Intel Core i3-12100F
Socket: LGA 1700 | Cores & threads: 4 / 8 | L3 Cache size: 12MB | Base Clock Speed: 3.3GHz | Boost Clock Speed: 4.3GHz | TDP: 58W | iGPU: No
An i3 processor on a list of best CPUs for gaming? Only if it’s the newly-released i3-12100F! Bargain doesn’t begin to describe it since Intel claims a MSRP of less than $100, which is disruptive even if you tack on vendors’ profits. Alder Lake’s runt trades blows with 11th-gen i5 chips, barely gets hot, and occupies a segment AMD currently doesn’t have an answer to.
The 12100F is another conventional processor most in line with the 12400. The F in its name means an iGPU isn’t present. That makes for a cheaper purchase but eliminates contingencies, so make sure to secure a graphics card before getting it. The i3 and i5 CPUs share the same foundation, with the cheaper one only having four P-cores capable of multithreading. As compensation, their base clock speed is 800MHz higher than on the 12400, while boost clocks remain the same. The four cores share a 12MB L3 cache, which is what the size on the 11400F used to be.
While it’s Alder Lake’s coolest processor in the thermal sense, the 12100F is still a degree or two hotter than the 5600X. It arrives with the same cooler as the 12400, which keeps temps well under concerning levels.
Kudos to Intel for making an i3 processor that will competently handle single and multi-threaded tasks both now and in the future. It brings PCIe 5.0 support and can reach up into the 200+ FPS range at 1080p when running optimized games like Doom Eternal backed by any recent GPU.
A Shining Star in a Generation of Greats
Finding ways of increasing multi-threaded workload results wasn’t on Intel’s list of priorities until Rocket Lake. One generation later, the practice successfully extends into i3 territory. In fact, the 12100F beats last generation’s most innovative processor – the 11400F – regardless of task type.
Our only complaint with the 12100F is minor. Bringing out its full potential requires you to buy DDR5 and an according motherboard. Preferably one that allows you to use an external clock generator to boost base clock speed. Such memory and motherboards are comparatively expensive, which defeats the purpose of getting such a cheap CPU in the first place. Don’t worry too much about it since investing in said advanced hardware yields less than 10% gains overall.