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Do You Need a Good CPU for Gaming? (Explained for Beginners)

When building a gaming PC you need to be very careful not to overspend on components or you may end up not having enough money for a high-end graphics card because they are becoming more and more expensive as time passes. But still, the CPU is one of the main components of a PC and is one of the most expensive ones to upgrade so it is important to know if you can save some money or maybe you really need a high-end CPU for gaming.

As a general rule, you need a good CPU for a smooth gaming experience but you don’t need a high-end one. An Intel i5 or AMD Ryzen 5 will be more than enough to not bottleneck any graphics card on the market. You don’t need a CPU with a high core count for gaming, single-core performance is what matters.

In this article, I will tell you the importance of CPUs for gaming, and I will help you decide what CPUs will give you the most value for the money so that you won’t overspend and diminish your budget for the graphics card. So keep reading!

Can a CPU Bottleneck a Graphics Card?

CPU water cooled

A CPU can definitely bottleneck a graphics card if the CPU can process fewer frames than the graphics card can render. This is usually the case when you play games at high frame rates, more than 100 FPS. So if you want to take advantage of your new high refresh rate monitor you need to pair your GPU with a good CPU.

If you decide to play games at 4k or 2k then your graphics card will output less FPS and the probability of it being bottlenecked from your CPU is diminished, so if you prefer a higher resolution in favor of a higher refresh rate then you can get away with a cheaper CPU but still, it is nor recommended to go below an i5 or Ryzen 5.

Keep in mind that if your CPU has more cores this doesn’t mean that it will not bottleneck your graphics card, this will give you the option to perform more tasks when gaming, like installing another game and listening to music on Youtube while you play your favorite game.

For gaming, the single-core performance is still king, yes there are many games that claim that they have multi-core support but still they do a poor job of utilizing more cores so don’t get fooled.

Is the CPU Important for Gaming?

The CPU is very important when it comes to gaming because it processes all the logic, animations, and physics in a game. Practically all behaviors of the NPCs in a game are determined by the CPU, so the CPU becomes more important in huge open-world games that have a lot of NPCs.

All the physics in a game is processed by the CPU, like the destruction of your car when you hit a wall in a racing game. One more important aspect processed by the CPU is the collision from objects, so you see for a game to offer a good amount of realism it needs a good CPU.

Practically all the interaction between your character and the world is handled by the CPU, the more complex this interaction is the more processing power you need. The CPU is responsible for the hitboxes in games like shooters, action, or RPGs, so it will determine if you hit an enemy in PUBG and other online games.

The GPU is responsible for rendering polygons and all the video effects, practically for the visual aspect of the game. So if you want a higher resolution you need a better GPU, or if you want more effects like light reflection, shadows, etc.

So for a game to have a low CPU requirement it needs to limit the collisions, face animations, number of NPCs, and have less complex physics. As you can see even if a modern triple-A game will give you the option to play it on a low-end CPU most surely you won’t have the same experience as if you play it on a good CPU.

If a game is ambitious and desires to deliver a realistic experience to its players most surely it will require a good CPU to handle all the physics and collisions, let’s not mention am more complex animation and behavior of NPCs.

Does The CPU Affect FPS?

If a game has realistic physics, is open-world with a dense population of NPCs, or has a procedure-generated environment your CPU can really negatively affect the FPS, these types of games are the so-called CPU-intensive games.

The most common situation where the CPU is holding back your GPU is if you play games on a high refresh rate and your GPU can output high FPS but you pair it with a lower-end CPU like an i3 and the CPU can’t keep pace with your high-performing graphics card.

If you compare the most expensive CPUs with the middle-budget ones you will not see a very big difference in the average FPSs but you will see a difference in the minimum FPS and if the difference between the minimum and average FPS is high you can encounter very short stutters in your game from time to time.

What CPU Features Are Important for Gaming?

Now that you know how important a CPU is for gaming and its main role let us examine what features make a CPU good for gaming:

  • Clock speed (gigahertz – GHz): this is the speed of the processor (per core) and is the most important feature to look for, the higher it is the better it performs in games.
  • IPC (instructions per clock cycle): this is highly dependent on the technology on which the CPU is built, Intel and AMD use different technology (and it varies also between generations of processors), the newer the CPU is the more advanced the technology on which it is built is.
  • 4 cores: the number of cores is getting higher and higher our days but this doesn’t have a big impact on your gaming experience, still it is good to have 4 cores because game developers are trying to take advantage of more cores but they aren’t very successful right now.

CPU features that will not have a great impact on gaming:

  • More than 4 Cores: if you get a CPU with more than 4 cores for gaming most surely you are wasting money but if you want to have more multitasking power (streaming, production work, etc.) this will be a good investment
  • Hyperthreading: your physical cores are split into 2 virtual cores, this is very useful for multitasking but has no beneficial effect on gaming
  • TDP ( Thermal Design Profile/Power): maximum amount of heat that a chip generates, it has no impact on gaming (assuming you have the right cooling system), this is used to know what aftermarket cooler you need to buy (if you want to overclock), fore locked CPUs use the stock fan.
  • Cache: used to speed up access to data and instructions between your CPU and RAM, You shouldn’t pay too much attention to cache size, because it’s hard to determine what effect it has over real-world performance.

Modern CPUs will have a variable clock speed if you run less demanding applications they will run at a lower clock speed to reduce power consumption, the most important is the turbo clock speed (or the maximum clock speed) because this will determine if your CPU will hold back your GPU or not, the higher it is the better gaming experience you will have.

Now you can see for yourself how easy it is to overspend for a CPU if your main goal is gaming, you can get an expensive CPU with a lot of cores that will make little to no difference in games but it will break your budget.

Do You Need a High-End CPU for Gaming?

High-end CPUs will offer very good performance in gaming, multitasking, video editing, and other production environments but if the main use of your PC is for gaming a mid-range i5 or Ryizen 5 processor will be the best choice. Getting a 6-8 core CPU will be a waste of money.

So, in reality, you don’t need a high-end CPU to have a smooth gaming experience but if you get a budget CPU like an i3 or Ryzen 3 then you are making a compromise and your gaming experience will suffer.

The main reason why a high-end CPU is not required to have a good gaming experience is that single-core performance is king when it comes to delivering the best performance in gaming.

What CPU Do I Need for a Smooth Gaming Experience?

Getting the right CPU is not an easy task but a very important one!

Getting a cheap CPU may have a negative impact on your gaming experience and will be an expensive upgrade in the future but if you overspend on the CPU you may end up buying a less performing graphics card and to make things, even more, worst you may not need the extra features that your very expensive CPU has to offer.

Don’t worry I will give you the best options for a smooth gaming experience in the table below:

Best value CPU for gamingGaming experience
Intel® Core™ i5-12600K Very smooth
Budget-friendly CPU for gaming
AMD CPU RYZEN 5 1600 AM4Smooth
AMD alternative
AMD Ryzen 5 3600Very smooth

Keep in mind that these recommendations are for a smooth gaming experience and there are CPUs on the market that will give you more performance but this will be reflected in the price, so if you have the budget and you don’t mind spending a little bit extra then definitely go for it, just don’t buy cheaper options.

The main reason why I chose for the best value the Intel® Core™ i5-12600K is that is so performant in games that it outranks even the i9 CPUs in some games.

Keep in mind that Intel and AMD CPUs are built with different technologies and some games will run better on Intel and some on AMD there isn’t a CPU that will be the best for all games. The difference in performance between the Core™ i5-11600K and Ryzen 5 3600 is small and most off you will be just fine with either of them.

If you can find in stocks and you can afford it definitely go for the newer generations (for example i5-12600 or without k if you won’t overclock it).

Believe me, you won’t go wrong with either of these CPUs or with the more performing ones on the market, but these are the best choices so you will have your budget optimized to spend more on the graphics card and not have it bottlenecked by the CPU.

Conclusion

In the end, we can definitely say that you need a good CPU if you want to have a good gaming experience and play modern triple-A games but the good news is thee you don’t have to buy a top-of-the-line CPU.

The high-end CPUs have lots of features that will not benefit the average gamer so if your main goal is gaming it will be better to go with a mid-range i5 or Ryzen 5 CPU.

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I started building and fixing PCs in high school. After a couple of years of offering consultancy to a PC repair shop, I became the goto guy for all my acquaintances for PC/Laptop related buying advice or troubleshooting.