The Best Gaming CPU 2020: An Honest Top List & Guide

The processor is, by all analogies, the brain of your computer. This is where most of those millions upon millions of calculations are rendered every second to make your game run as smoothly as possible. But, picking the best CPU is more than just opting for the most expensive.

Gaming is far from the most demanding task when it comes to your processor. In many cases, the most powerful models are not even made for such a task, but rather for visual and 3D processing on an industrial scale.

For gaming, you will want something that is made to work well with how games tend to run. A gaming CPU needs to be agile and adaptable, changing quickly depending on the type of task in front of it.

If you consider the requirements of the game and don’t have any other bottlenecks on your set up, your gaming CPU will give you the best results in terms of fps and responsiveness.

The best gaming CPU is not necessarily the strongest CPU in the world.

At the time of writing, the fastest CPU in the world is AMD’s Threadripper 2990WX.

Whilst amazing in its own right, this processor, and the architecture around it, is not something you would want to game on. This is not because it is too serious a tech to game on, but simply because it would be only equivalent to much weaker processors.

Modern games usually only use four cores, and only a few newest tiles are optimized for an octa-core architecture. Having more cores than this will leave the rest unused, leaving everything to the single-core frequency.

Here, you might have better results with a mid-range gaming model than you would by paying thousands for something objectively more powerful, but made for industrial design and visual editing.

Intel vs AMD

Intel is one of the two dominant consumer processor manufacturers, the other being AMD. And even though there are only two main contenders on the market, that doesn’t mean that there isn’t any other competition.

These two families of processors are quite different in how they operate and how they are marketed, and it will come down to personal preference as to which one you will choose.

Generally speaking, Intel has faster single-core computing and is easier to cool down. This makes them great for business and high-end gaming, but also increases the price of both the CPU and the surrounding components.

For some, this will be a sacrifice they are willing to take, while for others it will be an unnecessary expense.

The issue with having only two major CPU manufacturers, especially when their products are not mutually compatible, is that it is easy to become loyal to a single camp. In truth, both Intel and AMD processors have their advantages and downsides.

Class for class, AMD processors have more cores, a higher average frequency, and cost significantly less in their respective brackets. But, this comes at the expense of single-core performance, which is very important in games.

Those who do more than just gaming with their PC will like the additional cores and distribution on AMD, especially when streaming and having background processes. But, for the newest and less optimized games, the results won’t be the same.

Best Gaming CPU 2020

ProductCoresNative FrequencyOur Rating
Intel Core i9-10900K103.7 GHz4.8
Intel Core i7-970083 GHz4.7
Intel Core i5 9400F62.9 GHz4.5
AMD Ryzen 9 3900X123.8 GHz4.9
AMD Ryzen 7 3700X83.6 GHz4.7
AMD Ryzen 5 360063.4 GHz4.7

Intel Core i9-10900K

  • No. of Cores: 10 (Deca-Core)
  • No. of Threads: 20
  • Native Frequency: 3.7 GHz
  • Max Stock Overclock: 5.3 GHz
  • Cache Memory: 20 MB
  • TDP: 125 W
  • Slot/Socket: LGA 1200 
  • System Power Needed: 1 kW
  • Cooling Provided: Yes

Not only is the new i9 the leading CPU when it comes to single-core speed in 2020, but it also has ten of them. The new deca-core design brings gamers unsurpassed processing speeds and as many fps as possible.

The new generation of Intel’s processors needs a new set of chipsets and motherboards. With the new Intel 400 series, the board will accept two channels of DDR4 memory with speeds of up to 2933 MHz.

Additionally, the new CPU is completely unlocked when it comes to overclocking and additional voltage settings. Provided that you have a good enough cooling system, you can pull a lot from this chip, especially when it comes to gaming.

Regretfully, this comes at a significant price tag, especially if you need to buy a new motherboard and RAM. For those that need the sharpest of edges when it comes to competitive gaming, it will be something to consider, while for an average hardcore gamer it might be sub-optimal.

Pros

  • Extreme single-core performance
  • Excellent turbo-boost
  • Has hyper-threading
  • Unlocked for overclocking

Cons

  • Far from the best value
  • Needs aftermarket coolers for best results

Our Rating: 4.8/5

Intel Core i7-9700

  • No. of Cores: 8 (Octa-Core)
  • No. of Threads: 8
  • Native Frequency: 3 GHz
  • Max Stock Overclock: 4.7 GHz
  • Cache Memory: 12 MB
  • TDP: 65W
  • Slot/Socket: LGA 1151 
  • System Power Needed: 600 W
  • Cooling Provided: Yes

Although launched in the 2nd quarter of 2019, this is still one of the best gaming processors on the market. Additionally, time has improved its value while removing nothing from its power.

As is the case with most high-end Intel CPUs, the single-core processing speed of this model is extraordinary. Combined with eight cores and a good balance between them, it will provide amazing performance in all games, excelling in FPS and FPRPG titles.

On top of that, there is the turbo boost, which doesn’t add that much to the temperature as would be expected. It wouldn’t be able to run at the highest capacity indefinitely, but it will last much longer than any high-intensity gaming situation.

Overclocking is not natively supported by this model, but isn’t really hard if you know your way around the BIOS. Generally, if you have a stronger cooler than the one coming in the box, you will be able to tweak the voltage quite significantly without any issues.

Pros

  • Excellent single-core performance
  • Very good turbo-boost
  • Has hyper-threading
  • Relatively low TDP value

Cons

  • Low cache memory
  • Only one thread per core will penalize streaming

Our Rating: 4.7/5

Intel Core i5 9400F

  • No. of Cores: 6 (Hexa-Core)
  • No. of Threads: 6
  • Native Frequency: 2.9 GHz
  • Max Stock Overclock: 4.1 GHz
  • Cache Memory: 9 MB
  • TDP: 65 W
  • Slot/Socket: LGA 1151 
  • System Power Needed: 600 W
  • Cooling Provided: Yes

This processor won’t be able to hold up if you plan on playing 4K games with 240fps with dual screens, however, if you are a regular user you will be able to pull out 1080p gaming at Ultra settings on all current titles.

That is, provided that you have a good enough GPU.

The i5 can be called a sensible choice for the overwhelming majority of gamers. It is generally cool and uses standard architecture on a very stable and very common Intel motherboard.

Although it has a slightly lower base frequency, the turbo-boost can last for a very long time. This basically increases the power of the processor over 25%.

Pros

  • Very good single-core performance
  • Good turbo-boost
  • Excellent thermal monitoring

Cons

  • No hyper-threading
  • Low cache memory

Our Rating: 4.5/5

AMD Ryzen 9 3900X

  • No. of Cores: 12 (Dodeca-core)
  • No. of Threads: 24
  • Native Frequency: 3.8 GHz
  • Max Stock Overclock: 4.6 GHz
  • Cache Memory: 70 MB
  • TDP: 105 W
  • Slot/Socket: AM4+ 
  • System Power Needed: 1 kW
  • Cooling Provided: Yes (Wraith Prism)

The 3rd generation Ryzen processors are, for the lack of better words, magnificent. And between them, the 3900X is the strongest, with most cores and exceptional architecture. Not only is this an excellent gaming CPU, but it is a beast when it comes to productivity and multi-tasking.

It has 12 cores, with each core packed with two threads counting up to 24. This processor might be the reason why the established nomenclature will be broken because it is hard to say ‘dodeca-core’.

But, the number of cores is not the only great feature of this processor. The stock cooler is following the Wraith tradition of being better than many smaller air coolers available as aftermarket models.

Alone, this cooler can allow a constant frequency of each core at 4.6 GHz without any risk of overheating.

Additionally, there is a whopping 70 MB of cache memory, allowing every game to run smoothly and with high framerates. This will especially be the case if you have the 3200 MHz RAM that is supported by this CPU.

You will need a strong motherboard to use all of the features of this processor, and you might want to jump straight to a model that has PCIe 4.0 ports. But, that will be a good investment.

Finally, even though the single-core speed is lesser than the competition right out of the box, you can install better cooling to improve it. The CPU is completely unlocked for overclocking, not that you will need it for the time being.

Pros

  • Excellent single-core performance
  • Has twelve cores
  • Amazing cache memory
  • Constant boost speed
  • Has hyper-threading (SMT)
  • Unlocked for overclocking
  • Excellent stock cooler

Cons

  • Best results require new AM4+ motherboards
  • The fan can get noisy

Our Rating: 4.9/5

AMD Ryzen 7 3700X

  • No. of Cores: 8 (Octa-core)
  • No. of Threads: 16
  • Native Frequency: 3.6 GHz
  • Max Stock Overclock: 4.4 GHz
  • Cache Memory: 36 MB
  • TDP: 65 W
  • Slot/Socket: AM4+ 
  • System Power Needed: 600 W
  • Cooling Provided: Yes (Wraith Prism)

It might not be good for any processor to be known as ‘just as good as the bigger one’. But, in all honesty, the gaming experience on the 3700X will be the same as with the Ryzen 9 for all but the most competitive of players.

Currently, there are no titles capable of using more than 8 cores properly, and the maximum boost on this ‘smaller’ model is only 200 MHz less. And, similar to all Ryzen CPUs, it can hold that maximum boost indefinitely if needed.

The cache memory on this model is may be half than that of the 3900X but is still well above the average for gaming. The difference may cause a marginal drop in frames per second, but that is about it.

The advantage of this gaming CPU is that it has a much lower temperature and uses less power. With only 65 thermal watts, you won’t need any additional cooling inside your chassis.

Finally, this processor can be overclocked if you have the power and cooling. Even with the stock Wraith cooler, it can be boosted somewhat, reaching real heights only with much stronger custom cooling systems.

Pros

  • Good single-core performance
  • Excellent cache memory
  • Constant boost speed
  • Has hyper-threading (SMT)
  • Unlocked for overclocking
  • Excellent stock cooler

Cons

  • BIOS is tricky
  • Best performance on newer AM4+ motherboards

Our Rating: 4.7/5

AMD Ryzen 5 3600

  • No. of Cores: 6 (Hexa-core)
  • No. of Threads: 12
  • Native Frequency: 3.4 GHz
  • Max Stock Overclock: 4.2 GHz
  • Cache Memory: 35 MB
  • TDP: 65 W
  • Slot/Socket: AM4+ 
  • System Power Needed: 600 W
  • Cooling Provided: Yes (Wraith Stealth)

What is amazing about this processor is the value you get for a very competitive price. By all accounts, it is one of the best gaming CPU models in the world and can be considered an entry-level to the high-end models.

With its six cores and twelve threads, it will run all current game titles perfectly, especially if played at 1080p. Some games that require a lot of processing might experience a dip in the number of frames, but never enough for it to be an issue even in competitive gaming.

This CPU has a lot of cache memory, compensating for the relatively weaker single-core performance.

Still, that performance is not negligible and should run the most demanding game titles at comfortable speeds. Combined with the stock Wraith Stealth cooler, it can keep a constant 4.2 GHz frequency without overheating.

That being said, there is a question of silicone lottery on all Ryzen chips, and that becomes noticeable in some cases when you are gaming competitively in mid-range models. It will never break the flow of the game but might cost you your edge. 

Finally, if you are looking for a gaming CPU that will also be productive, and you don’t want to overspend on the top models, this is a good solution. It is fast and will play all games, and it will help you with your work and productivity when needed.

Pros

  • Excellent cache memory
  • Constant boost speed
  • Has hyper-threading (SMT)
  • Unlocked for overclocking
  • Excellent stock cooler

Cons

  • BIOS is tricky
  • Best performance on newer AM4+ motherboards

Our Rating: 4.7/5

Buyer’s Guide for Gaming CPU Choices

For more than a decade, thanks to the fierce competition between Intel and AMD, consumer processors have dropped significantly in price and skyrocketed when it comes to computational power.

Processors that were the cream of the crop a decade ago can now be considered entry-level components.

This issue goes so far that most appliances we use today have a CPU in them. Some, like the robotic vacuum cleaner Roomba, have more computing power than the first mission to the Moon.

But when buying a gaming CPU, there are more things to consider than just having enough processing power. Even though any mid-range CPU will run virtually any game, there is a question if the quality would be at a level you prefer.

The speed of the CPU is divided into multiple aspects, and not every game will use your CPUs best feature. Because of this, it is important to consider everything before making your choice, ensuring that you will enjoy the games you play.

Adapt the Rig to the Game

Although you can simply buy from the top end of the market and hope that it will be enough to show your game in the best possible light, it is better to work smart than to try to compensate by paying through the nose.

Most gamers have their preferred genre and spend most of their time playing one, or maybe two types of games. This preference should be important when selecting your components, as it will ensure that you get optimal results.

Generally, you will want to make a balance between the number of cores you use and the speed of every individual core. Strategies and slow-paced games will benefit the most from frequency, while FPS and RPG games will better use additional cores.

But, even this has a limit, as every additional core will bring diminishing returns. Once you surpass octa-core processors, you won’t see a visible improvement to your gaming experience.

That will change in the future, and more is always more in this regard, but you might see a lot of your rig being obsolete by the time you can use your CPU to its fullest potential.

Remove Other Bottlenecks

Although your gaming CPU is important, and indeed one of three major components that you need to focus on primarily, they are not the only thing needed to run the game correctly.

Each gaming PC will have one component that is weaker than the others and is holding everything else back. Ideally, you want that difference to be as small as possible and to balance out your components, even if that means balancing down.

Buying a top-range processor if you have a mid-range CPU will be a waste of your money and won’t give you strength in terms of playability.

You might plan for the future if you go after a good deal and start searching for the next component quickly. But, if you already have good components it might be better to gradually improve everything while selling off your old components.

Plan for the Future

If there is a new generation on the horizon, especially when it comes to slots and sockets, you might be better off jumping to the new architecture than simply buying something from the same league.

This is essential when it comes to motherboards, but is also a major issue for gaming CPU models, especially if you are an avid gamer who is looking for the best results.

It might be a good idea to spend a bit more and jump from the LGA 1151 architecture to the LGA 1200 because it will allow you to vastly improve your gaming PC over time. Otherwise, you might want to scale down your fps count and bide your time.

The issue is that you will only see the results of this choice in several years. On one side, you won’t be able to sell your existing components at a current price, but on the other, you will be spending more than it is optimal at this moment without visible results.

What to Look for in a Gaming CPU

Every gaming processor will give you a whole list of information if you search for its specifications online. While every piece of that information is important at some point, not all of them are crucial when it comes to gaming.

There are eight important points for every CPU when it comes to gaming. Other aspects will mostly follow these levels and won’t influence your experience as much.

But, the ones that do can, prove minor or critical depending on your system and the types of games you like to play. Although there are families of CPUs compatible with a single socket, motherboards are not universal and you will need to know the type of slot you need.

Also, most gaming CPU models will come with a relatively small stock cooling fan in the box. In most reviews, you will hear how they work using that fan. But, if you are willing to go with an aftermarket model, you will be able to push your components beyond their regular limits.

Architecture

Even though most current gaming CPU models will have a similar result when it comes to the size of their computing blocks, there are constant differences between processors. 

Manufacturers are constantly trying to find the optimal way to connect the cores with the operations die. This produces different results when it comes to thermal regulation and multi-tasking, making some CPUs work better than others.

All of the processors you will see today will be marked with an x64, and this is generally what you want to see on a gaming CPU. The internal build of a processor can be interesting, but you wouldn’t be able to determine the results by simply having that information.

Core Count

The number of cores is one of the features that marketing departments love to flaunt around. And, while they are important, the difference is not as big as portrayed in the commercial material.

When it comes to gaming, it is a question of how many cores will be used by the game itself. If the game is optimized perfectly, it will use as many cores as possible in a perfect balance. Regretfully, such a game hasn’t been made yet.

Currently, the overwhelming majority of games are made to work on a quad-core system. But, newer titles predict that you will have eight cores and can use all of them to with good results. After the eighth core, the return on the core count diminishes significantly.

But, having more cores than your game can use isn’t useless when it comes to gaming. These cores will usually be pushed to work on the background processes of the PC. By doing this, you will leave the rest of the cores for gaming, thus using your CPU to its limits.

For a modern gaming computer, you will want to have at least six cores to run games at high framerates. But, if you want to play in 2K or 4K, going over this line might be a good idea.

Thread Count

Threads refer to the number of simultaneous processes any CPU can run. They are not the same as having more physical cores but work towards a better balance between different cores.

Ideally, you will want to have a processor where all of the physical cores have two threads, virtually doubling the capacity of the CPU to run the game properly.

Additionally, having more threads removes the strain from every individual core, provided that the game and system are well optimized. 

This is a major factor when it comes to cooling, and will extend the time of the turbo boost on the Intel processor while lowering the temperature on AMD models.

Frequency

CPU frequency refers to the speed of every individual core. Currently, there is a theoretical soft cap for the single-core frequency at about 6Ghz because of the materials used. Ideally, you want something as close to this number as possible.

For silicone-based chips, which are all consumer CPUs, the current record is 8.723 GHz made on a highly modulated AMD FX-8370 by using liquid nitrogen cooling.

The issue is that once you reach a certain frequency, the heat created by the CPU becomes progressively higher, slowly damaging the connections inside the processor, as well as all of the components around it.

Because of this, both manufacturers have opted to have a lower regular speed, usually around 4 GHz. On top of this, there is a ‘turbo-boost’ designed to give extra power to the CPU when needed, without damaging the core at all.

Those familiar with tech, hardware, and physics, can overclock their processors to give them a higher frequency if they have acquired aftermarket cooling. But, with a stock fan, this is not advisable unless you want to cook your computer.

Cache Memory

The only reason why cache memory is rarely spoken about by manufacturers is that the numbers seem small. It is hard to argue about the importance of dozens of megabytes if you have a component next to it with thousands of gigabytes.

But, for many games cache memory is crucial and keeps everything in check. This is the information stored that might be needed quickly. For games, it usually computes multiple possible outcomes that would depend on your action.

In FPS games, the difference between having a little more cache memory can mean dozens more fps and much higher responsiveness. For competitive gaming, having at least 24MB would be mandatory, and more is always better.

Thermal Watts

Thermal watts, or thermal design power (TDP), is the amount of electricity turned into heat by the CPU. And, while more TDP usually indicates a stronger processor, it also indicates that you will need a better cooling system.

Additionally, turbo boosts and overclocking can often bring this heat up, slowly bringing temperatures up for the entire system and slowing down the processor in the process.

Higher temperatures are not only a bad thing because of the materials used, but for the computing power itself. 

The Landauer’s principle works against itself in this case, as by increasing the temperature beyond the capabilities of the cooling system we increase the ambient temperature, lowering the effectiveness of the processor due to the cascading loss of electrons.

In layman’s terms, if you can’t cool the CPU at the same rate as you heat it, you’re going to have a bad time.

Cooling System

While you will hear a lot of people praising aftermarket coolers, and with good reason, the stock coolers coming with current gaming CPU models are extraordinary in many aspects. The AMD Wraith cooler pushes many of the custom designs off the market entirely.

But, we should understand that stock coolers are only made to support the regular power of the CPU and in relatively cool rooms. They are usually gauged for 100% use in an ambient temperature of 20° Celsius (68°F) and may garner heat if used in a warmer room.

For high-end gaming, where you will be using the turbo boost almost all the time, you will want to have something larger that will allow for overclocking if needed.

Thankfully, these systems are now generally affordable and can usually be used on multiple CPU types, adding to their lifetime value.

Motherboard Compatibility

Although there are different sockets and motherboard types used for computers in general, adding to the older types that are often still viable for gaming, only three models are present when it comes to modern gaming CPUs.

AMD users are at a slight advantage in this regard. Not only are all their modern processors using the AM4+ socket with solid backward compatibility, but they aren’t planning to change this soon.

For Intel users, the powerful LGA 1151 architecture is being phased out. There will probably be processors using this motherboard socket in the future, but the most advanced models will turn to LGA 1200.

Regretfully, both the dies and the firmware architecture are incompatible.

Conclusion

Finding the best gaming CPU in 2020 is a slightly harder task than it was a few years back.  Intel’s supremacy is no longer prominent, or even fairly visible for most types of games.

For some gamers, the additional productivity capability and more cores from AMD will be the deciding factor. For others, the still unsurpassed single-core processing from Intel giving that extra edge will be worth the additional cost.

But, if you consider your options calmly, you will be able to quickly determine what is the best choice for you, and which CPU will run your games in the perceivable future.

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