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Intel’s Latest ‘Alder Lake’ 12th Gen Processors Topple Ryzen 5000 for Top Spot
Last Updated: February 3, 2022
Second only to your graphics card in importance, the CPU you choose has a direct say on gaming performance as well, so it pays to do a little research before buying in order to select the best CPU for gaming for your particular price range. In this guide my aim is to simplify the current CPU market, hand pick the current best gaming CPUs for the money in terms of maximum bang for buck as a gamer, and finish up with an FAQ on what the specs mean. Choosing a CPU for a new PC build doesn’t have to be difficult: if you simply buy within the latest 1 or 2 generations of AMD or Intel, making sure to balance your combination of CPU and GPU based on your resolution and refresh rate (and on which types of games you play), and it’s hard to go too wrong as you generally get what you pay for when it comes to CPUs.
But only a Sith deals in absolutes, and certain CPUs can actually perform the same or better for less money when it comes to gaming performance. So there is strategy involved when it comes to choosing the best CPU for gaming PC builds. It’s also very possible and actually quite easy to overspend on the CPU, as you get diminishing returns from buying more expensive processors when it comes to gaming.
Unless you’re aiming for consistently high frame rates of 144FPS and above, and/or you’re playing more CPU demanding games, a modern mid-range CPU is all you may need to take full advantage of the graphics card you choose. So unless you have above average CPU requirements, forking out hundreds on a high-end CPU may be a total waste. But enough generalizations and let’s get into specific CPU recommendations based on 3 price categories, starting with a quick overview of how the Intel vs AMD battle currently stands.
Related: Best GPUs for Gaming in 2022
AMD vs Intel in 2022 (Overview)
For most of recent history, choosing the best CPU for gaming could be easily summed up by the following: if you wanted the highest frame rates possible, you bought Intel. If you wanted to save money and sacrifice a little on performance, you considered AMD instead. But over the past few years, with each new iteration of their impressive Ryzen series, AMD stepped up their game to the point where they overtook Intel for the gaming performance crown with their Ryzen 5000 series (Ryzen 3000 was also quite good for gaming).
But as expected, Intel fired back with a very strong showing: Intel 12th gen CPUs, codenamed Alter Lake, have turned the tide back towards team blue. The latest Core i3, i5, i7, and i9 processors are now the fastest CPUs in the land, beating Ryzen 5000 fair and square in most games but also in certain non-gaming applications (AMD still holds the edge in certain use cases).
But surprisingly given past history (where AMD was typically the value option), these latest Intel CPUs are not only the fastest, but also the best bang for buck, giving you better gaming performance per dollar. At least for the time being; with their next launch AMD could swing the tide back once more, and the endless pendulum of Intel vs AMD continues (at least until Skynet takes over).
Just keep in mind that when someone say that X CPU beats Y CPU, we’re usually talking slim margins, meaning that choosing a modern Intel or modern AMD processor for your system isn’t likely to make a discernible difference to the average user/gamer. A few extra frames here or there is hardly noticeable unless you’re a hardcore gamer who can notice these things (or if you’re benchmarking), so getting a recent CPU from either company will typically get you roughly the same ballpark performance.
So when I suggest certain CPU models below, it’s not the end of the world if you don’t get those exact models, as competing options will mostly give you similar performance. But if you are the perfectionist type or you care to tailor your CPU choice to maximize frame rates for your budget, enough generalizations and let’s get into the best CPUs for gaming (or VR gaming) as of the time of writing. If you want examples of how to include these CPUs in a full PC build, also see the latest best gaming PC builds guide as well for a truck-load more detail.
Note: Any prices mentioned are in USD (US Dollars)
Best Cheap Gaming CPUs (February 2022)
Like last time around late last year where the 10100 and 10100F got my top value recommendation (due to the Ryzen 3 competition being both unavailable and inflated in price), once again as it stands right now Intel has the best budget gaming CPUs thanks to their latest Intel Core i3 12100 release. The i3 10100F and 10100 are still worth considering if a fair bit cheaper, but the i3 12100 is now the clear budget gaming CPU king (at least until AMD releases new budget CPUs, potentially winning back the budget market). To explain the 12100 very simply, it beats the Ryzen 5 3600 in gaming, for a lower cost. It’s not as good as the Ryzen 5 3600 at heavy multitasking and demanding applications that can utilize more than 4 cores and 8 threads, but for pure gaming the i3 12100 is better bang for buck.
The fact the 12100 only has 4 cores, and also because of the name (some people see “i3” and think it’s not good enough for gaming, which isn’t true) means some gamers will be put off by it. But the data doesn’t lie, and it’s an excellent gaming chip for the money, so if gaming is all you care about and/or you’re not doing some heavy workloads that rely on core and thread count, it’s hard to ignore.
As for AMD’s current entry-level gaming CPUs, the Ryzen 3 3100 and Ryzen 3 3300X, both have been difficult to find at regular pricing lately. But if you can find them at MSRP or lower, they are still worth a look if you want to go for AMD for whatever reason. The advantage of doing so is a wider range of cheaper motherboards (B550, but also B450 if you don’t mind buying older tech and keep an eye out for bargains), as Intel motherboards are generally a little more expensive (though you can find some cheap H670 and B660 options – I would avoid the super cheap H610 range for its lack of features and flexibility). That said, the 3100 and 3300X, as well as the 3600 as already mentioned, are comfortably beaten by Intel’s latest i3 12100. So for most gamers, I would just get that if you want the best value period.
As for choosing between the i3 12100F vs 12100, they’re the exact same except the 12100F does not have integrated graphics (any Intel CPU with a “F” at the end of the model name does not have integrated graphics). Since the 12100F is slightly cheaper, if you’re building a PC with a dedicated graphics card as almost every gamer does, the 12100F is the best overall value. But if you’re building a PC without a graphics card for now, and want to be able to display graphics onto your monitor in the meantime, consider the 12100 instead otherwise you’ll be stuck without any display until you install a graphics card in your rig. Just note that the built-in graphics of the 12100 is not good, and not suitable even for light gaming. If you want decent built-in graphics from a CPU, look at AMD’s 5300G, 5600G, or 5700G instead, which have far superior integrated graphics that are actually capable of some light modern gaming (at 1080p low settings).
Best Mid-Range Gaming CPUs (February 2022)
Moving up to the mid-range tier if you will, and it’s a similar story as the budget market, with Intel’s latest i5 range being hard to ignore as they beat AMD’s mid-range CPUs fair and square (and for less money). Besides the latest i3 range mentioned above, the latest i5 12400 and 12400F are very competitive gaming CPUs, providing similar gaming performance to the more expensive Ryzen 5 5600X (which was the previous mid-range gaming CPU king).
If you want to get specific, Techspot found the 12400 6% slower on average than the 5600X across a range of different games, which is impressive for the Intel chip given its significantly cheaper price (the 12400’s MSRP is $199 US, while the 5600X launched at $299 US).
So given regular pricing, and if gaming is all you care about, the 12400 (or even more affordable 12400F) is an obvious choice. Remember the “F” means no integrated graphics which isn’t a big deal for most, since chances are you’ll be buying a GPU from the get-go.
See Also: How to Install a CPU
The Fastest Gaming CPUs (February 2022)
Before getting into the absolute best gaming CPUs available right now, just a heads-up. For most gamers, there’s honestly no strong need to get anything faster than an i5 or Ryzen 5, as modern mid-range processors like these will easily reach 60FPS and higher in modern titles (of course, assuming your GPU is good enough for the particular title and your resolution/settings).
They will also fair decently well for 144Hz monitors in many games, allowing you to reach 100FPS+ unless it’s a very CPU intensive game, and they’re also enough for reaching 90FPS in most VR games (90Hz is the standard for VR). I want to make this point because some people understandably assume that an Intel i5 or Ryzen 5 range is not good enough for a high-end gaming PC.
This way of thinking is fairly common, and makes sense given there are two higher CPU tiers above them (the i7 and i9 for Intel, and the Ryzen 7 and 9 for AMD). Some people see a gaming rig with a Ryzen 5 or i5 in the spec sheet and may rule it out as not fast enough. But if you buy a recent model, an i5 or Ryzen 5 can be absolutely plenty in terms of processing power for a high-end gaming experience (if you choose a good gaming GPU of course). Even an i3 or Ryzen 3 is plenty for many gaming situations (such as 60FPS, which typically does not require too much from the processor unless it’s one of the more CPU demanding games).
But if you do want the highest frame rates you can, to take full advantage of a 144Hz monitor and reach that magical 144FPS mark (and do so consistently), or to simply better handle CPU intensive titles and eliminate the potential for any stuttering whatsoever, the best value high-end CPU on the market right now is the Intel Core i5 12600K (or its cheaper, iGPU-less 12600KF brother). Which, funnily enough, is “only” an i5. Compared to the i5 12400, you’ll see roughly 5-10% higher frame rates with a 12600K at stock speeds (depending on the situation). Plus, it’s a good CPU for overclocking, and if you’re willing and have a good cooler, you can easily squeeze out a bunch of extra performance. But even without overclocking, the 12600K is a great choice for a high-end gaming PC build.
See Also: The Best PC VR Headsets (SteamVR)
Benchmark after benchmark from trusted tech reviewers all show the new 12600K/KF outclassing the Ryzen 5 5600X, which was the previous value king in the upper mid-range / lower high-end market. But, the 12600K even often beats the Ryzen 7 5800X as well, a chip that sells for much more money. Furthermore, it comes close to the Ryzen 9 5900X in some games. As mentioned earlier, this latest 12th gen launch from Intel is a smashing success, following Intel’s disappointing 11th gen launch, and Intel have clinched back the gaming performance crown from AMD who held it for the past year or so.
Going higher than the 12600K, such as the even more blazing fast 12700K or chart-topping yet very costly 12900K, will give you even higher frame rates, but you’ll get diminishing returns over the 12600K when it comes to gaming. In other words, I can’t recommend them unless you’re splurging and don’t care to get the most value for money. For everyone else seeking value, the 12600K will not disappoint and you’ll be set with top gaming performance for years to come, even if you don’t overclock it (which isn’t recommended for most people anyway). For more on the 12600K and choosing optimal components for it, see the main gaming PC build guide, but now let’s get into a bit of QnA on choosing CPUs.
How to Choose a CPU (Beginner FAQ)
If you’re new to hardware, let’s cover some common beginner questions on choosing your first CPU.
What is a CPU? How Much Does it Matter for Gaming?
Let’s start at ground zero. The CPU (Central Processing Unit), also called the processor, is one of the most important components in any computer, and what you could consider the brains of your system. It’s responsible for making all the quick mathematical calculations that your games and other programs rely on, and the power of your gaming computer’s CPU will have a direct correlation with overall gaming performance. It’s the second most important component in a gaming PC, only trailing the graphics card in its influence on your frame-rate.
So with that said, when upgrading or building a computer for gaming you want to get the best CPU that you can afford, assuming that you’ve saved aside a similar or larger chunk of your overall PC budget to a good (or great) graphics card. However, while you do want the best CPU possible for gaming, there is a point of diminishing returns where you may be better off skipping on a high-end CPU (for a mid-range CPU) and allocating that extra money you would have spent elsewhere in your parts-list. Building a PC is a balancing act.
Do You Need a High-End CPU for 144Hz Gaming?
144Hz monitors have become increasingly popular in recent years to the point where they are now considered the standard for any competitive gamer playing fast-paced eSports or FPS shooters like CSGO, Valorant, Fortnite, Apex Legends, PUBG, Overwatch, Warzone, and even MOBA’s like League of Legends and DOTA 2. For these highly competitive, every-millisecond-counts games, seeing the fastest image on screen is important to allow for the most Jedi-like reflexes and reaction times. But to take full advantage of a 144Hz monitor, your PC needs to perform at 144FPS or thereabouts, and ideally even higher so that your frame rate doesn’t drop below that 144FPS mark. To get 144FPS requires a stronger CPU compared to getting say 60FPS on a standard monitor, so you need to pay more close attention to your CPU selection if using a 144Hz screen.
Related: Best CPU GPU Combos for 144Hz
That said, you don’t necessarily need a high-end CPU to achieve 144FPS, because when you run competitive graphics settings (ie lower settings, a common thing to do in order to get the highest frame rate possible which is more important than graphics quality during competitive gaming) it’s not as hard for your PC to reach such high frame rates. But how good your CPU needs to be all depends on the specific game, as requirements can vary wildly. Getting 144FPS in CSGO is quite easy, and even a cheap gaming CPU will do the trick, whereas getting that type of performance in a more CPU intensive modern competitive shooter like Warzone will require a much better CPU. It’s all about doing your research and analyzing benchmarks online for your specific CPU and the game in question.
Are i3 or Ryzen 3 CPUs Good Enough for Gaming?
Intel’s Core i3 and AMD’s Ryzen 3 range of CPUs are their entry-level offerings aimed at gamers on a budget, though they can still pack a surprisingly decent punch despite being the entry-level chip of any Intel series, and depending on the situation may actually be plenty of processing grunt for the games you play. Especially this very latest 12th-gen Intel i3 range, the 12100 and 12100F, which actually outclass the Ryzen 5 3600. For the most demanding, CPU intensive games on the market though, or if wanting to get super high frame rates of 144FPS and beyond in moderately demanding games, you really do want an i5 or Ryzen 5 instead if at all possible. But on a budget, a R3 or i3 can be well worth it, so I wouldn’t discount them just because they’re on the lower end of the CPU stack and comparably cheaper than other CPU families.
What Are CPU Cores and Are They Important for Gaming?
CPUs have varying amounts of cores, which are basically like microprocessors within a processor allowing for a CPU to run more efficiently and multi-task better. A CPU with 2 cores is called a dual-core processor, 4 cores is quad-core, 6 cores is hexa-core, and 8 cores is octa-core. But we’ll stop there, because for gaming, cores aren’t that important, so long as you have a certain amount. Modern games don’t utilize that many, and a good quad-core or 6-core CPU goes a long way when paired with a good graphics card.
You’d only need higher than 6 cores if you’re buying one of the absolute best gaming graphics cards and you want to avoid bottlenecking it (ie prevent it from performing at its absolute best). Put another way, anything more than 6 cores (ie 8 cores) is just a nice-to-have luxury when it comes to building a gaming PC. For more CPU-heavy non-gaming applications, that’s when having really high core counts like 10, 12, or even 16 cores can be more beneficial and/or important (but it depends on your specific workflow).
What Are CPU Threads?
Whilst a core is the physical hardware that does the processing, a thread is a single line of commands that a core works on, with each program/application having at least the 1 thread. Normal CPUs can have one core only work on the one thread at a time, whereas hyperthreaded CPUs can work on up to two threads per core which generally means faster multitasking performance.
What Are Locked vs Unlocked CPUs
A locked CPU means that the clock speed is set and can’t be changed by overclocking, whereas an unlocked CPU is, you guessed it, an overclockable CPU. Unlocked Intel processors have a “K” in their model number, such as the Intel Core i5 8600K. AMD don’t have this naming system, but most of their CPUs are unlocked. If you want to overclock your processor, or plan on potentially doing later on, then you’ll need an unlocked model. However, if you’re not overclocking, which is what we’d recommend to first-time PC builders and hardware beginners in general, you can get either a locked or unlocked model as locked CPUs can still be a good buy even if you never plan to overclock.
What is the CPU Socket Type?
This is the type of CPU, and will need to be matched against the socket type of the motherboard you choose for your build. In other words, if you decide to go with an AMD Ryzen CPU, they have a socket type of AM4. Therefore, you’ll need to get an AM4 motherboard. For the latest Intel i3s, i5s, and i7s, they all have a socket of “1151”, so you’ll need to get a motherboard that mentions socket “1151” in the model number/specs sheet somewhere.
What is CPU Clock Speed?
The stock speed that the processor runs at, measured in GHz. Not the only factor, but a good baseline of how fast a CPU is. However, when choosing the best CPU for gaming, you should not confuse yourself with having to compare clock speeds of different processors, as you’re better off (to stay sane and for practicality) just comparing CPU benchmarks in various gaming situations if you want to compare different CPUs.
What is CPU Cache?
CPUs have varying amounts of what is called cache memory, which is memory that stores information your CPU will likely need next that it can quickly and conveniently access for better performance. If that doesn’t make sense, no worries at all, as it simply does not matter when choosing the best CPU as you should just be comparing models (and not minutia) as mentioned before.
Is the Stock CPU Cooler Good Enough for Gaming?
The best CPUs produce quite a bit of heat when put under load and require high-performance cooling in the form of a heatsink and fan. Most processors come with their own stock CPU cooler (which consists of a heatsink and fan) so in that case you’re not required to buy your own CPU cooler, which is technically known as an aftermarket CPU cooler (as in, it’s not an Intel or AMD cooler).
Though keep in mind some CPUs do NOT come with a cooler, such as Intel’s unlocked processors like the 10600K, 10700K, 9700K, etc (any CPU with a “K” on the end) as these processors are generally intended to be overclocked at least a little and require an aftermarket cooler.
Related: How to Install a Stock CPU Cooler
Speaking of overclocking, if you’re gonna be delving into that (for those who don’t know it’s basically when you manually increase the speed of your CPU past its stock speed to squeeze out more performance) then you’ll need an aftermarket CPU cooler as your chip is going to produce a lot more heat when pushed beyond its normal stock-standard speeds.
Even if you don’t plan on overclocking your CPU, which isn’t recommended for newbies to be honest, getting an aftermarket cooler (ie replacing the stock fan) may still be a good idea (depends on your specific build) to maximize cooling, increase the lifespan of your CPU, reduce noise as much as possible, oh and for looks as well – stock coolers can be plain/ugly and when you buy your own you can get one that fits your build’s look and feel.
Getting your own cooler is also a little more important in general with Intel CPUs, as their stock coolers are typically not as good as AMDs (this is fact, not opinion, though that’s not to say that AMD stock coolers are significantly better; only slightly). However, if your CPU comes with a stock fan then you don’t NEED to buy your own, and you could get away with using it to save money on your build (again, especially if it’s one of the latest Ryzen stock coolers which are generally great), and you could just test out the stock cooler to see if your CPU runs cool and quiet enough for your liking, and then decide later on to get an aftermarket cooler (although it’s annoying having to uninstall the stock cooler and install a new one).
See Also: Installing the NH-D15 Black
To summarize this sometimes confusing conundrum of a choice (if I had a galactic credit for every time someone asked me this I’d name my wallet Jabba) – if you’re overclocking, you really should buy your own CPU cooler, unless your CPU doesn’t come with a cooler in the first place in which case you have no choice but to buy a cooler. Otherwise, if not overclocking now or in future, you can choose either to stick with the stock cooler (if your CPU comes with one) or still buy your own better cooler anyway for improved cooling performance, lower noise, and better longevity for your system overall.
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Indie programmer currently working on my first game release (after years of hobby projects), an atmospheric story-driven VR FPS/adventure built with Unreal Engine to be announced once I’m ready here and here (for anyone into VR FPS’s). Also likes writing about tech, which helps to fund development of the game.
My favs of all time are OOT, Perfect Dark, MGS1, MGS2, GE007, DKC2, THPS3, HL1, WC3, Vice City, and KOTOR, with the most recent addition to my list of immortals being the VR masterpiece Alyx.
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