We’re at the forefront of a new generation of gaming processors – Intel’s 13th Gen Raptor Lake and AMD’s Ryzen 7000. If you’re reading this on the day it’s published, in fact, AMD is set to launch its next-gen processors tomorrow. But should we care?
AMD and Intel will no doubt claim ownership of the best gaming CPU, but testing consistently shows that gaming CPU upgrades don’t have the biggest impact on your frame rate. There’s a lot going on in the next generation of CPUs, so I’ll help you understand how to understand your CPU’s role in gaming and how you can determine when it’s time to upgrade.
A layman’s guide to CPU bottlenecks
Gaming CPU upgrades all come down to bottlenecks in your PC. A bottleneck occurs when one component of your PC limits the performance of another, and processors have a dirty secret when it comes to gaming: they don’t do much. Sure, your CPU is active and essential for playing games, but its main role is not to hamper your GPU.
A CPU bottleneck occurs when your processor limits your graphics card, and it’s easy to check if this is happening with your PC. Load up a demanding game that you like to play with Task Manager open in Windows, click More details, and check where your CPU and GPU usage are. You have a bottleneck if your CPU usage is higher than your GPU usage.
Most systems have bottlenecks in various places, so you’re mostly looking for large deviations (like your CPU at 100% while your GPU is at 60%). The goal of most games is to run your GPU at 100% utilization, regardless of where your CPU is. Your graphics card is the most important component when playing games, so it should be used more than your CPU.
There is some complexity here, however. For starters, 100% GPU utilization doesn’t necessarily mean you don’t need to upgrade your PC. It just means you need to upgrade your GPU instead of your CPU, which is especially true if you’re pairing a weaker graphics card with a powerful CPU.
The resolution at which you play is also a determining factor. The Core i5-12600K is about 15% faster than the Core i5-10600K at 1080p, for example, but there’s only about a 3% difference at 4K. The money you’d spend upgrading your CPU is better spent on a new graphics card (or maybe even a 4K gaming monitor if you were already planning on upgrading).
Even with that, most of the complexity comes down to the games you play. There’s no hard and fast rule for which games use more CPU, but you can break down the titles you play to understand what role your CPU plays.
Dispelling Gaming CPU Myths
There are a lot of misconceptions about gaming CPUs because, frankly, they’re complex. Some say you only need a quad-core processor for gaming, others say gaming performance is all about clock, and gaming processors like the Ryzen 7 5800X3D would have you believe that performance game depends on the size of the CPU cache.
The reality is that the number of cores, frequency, cache, and all other specs of your processor matter; it just depends on which of these things is more important. As AMD’s Robert Hallock explained to me, games largely break down into three buckets. A game can be frequency, latency, or graphics sensitive, and identifying the sensitivities of your favorite games can tell you a lot about what you need from a new gaming processor.
In general, competitive multiplayer titles like Rainbow Six Siege and Fortnite are sensitive to latency. The instructions for these games are simple for your processor to execute, but they are random and based on player choice. Your processor gets instructions quickly, but it needs those instructions as quickly as possible. This bucket of games is latency sensitive, which is why the increased cache on the Ryzen 7 5800X3D provides such a boost in games like Fortnite.
Frequency-sensitive games don’t have a lot of random instructions. The games are quite predictable, but they have a lot of instructions that need to be executed very quickly. You can see an example of this in Red Dead Redemption 2, where the increased core count and clock speed of the Core i9-12900K outperforms the boosted cache of the Ryzen 7 5800X3D.
Finally, graphics-sensitive games just aren’t too concerned with your CPU. These games rely more on your GPU, so different CPUs won’t bring much benefit. Some examples include Cyberpunk 2077 and Assassin’s Creed Walhalla, but it’s important to keep bottlenecks in mind with graphics-sensitive games. These games might not see a big boost with clock speed or increased cache, but they will see a massive jump if your GPU is bottlenecked.
You won’t find a game that focuses solely on frequency or solely on latency, but it’s good to identify where the games you play are leaning. If you play a lot of Rainbow Six Siege, for example, you will see an advantage of a newer CPU with a larger cache pool, but in a relatively simple shooter like Borderlands 3, you only need six cores at most on a fairly recent generation.
Platform features make the difference
AMD Ryzen 7000 and 13th Gen Intel Raptor Lake present a unique hurdle for CPU upgrades. Under normal circumstances, I wouldn’t recommend upgrading to a new gen if your focus is on gaming (assuming you have a balanced PC otherwise). These two generations, however, feature the introduction of DDR5 and PCIe 5.0.
DDR5 memory is not as important as it seems. I’ll dive deeper into DDR5’s role in gaming in my next column, but that’s no reason to upgrade your CPU alone. The most interesting platform feature is PCIe 5.0.
PCIe 5.0 still has a lot of maturity to do, but only a few generations ago we were locked into PCIe 3.0. 10th Gen Intel and AMD Ryzen 2000, and older processors, are locked to PCIe 3.0. That means you won’t get the best performance with features like DirectStorage, and it could be downright disastrous depending on what GPU you have (read my RX 6500 XT review for more).
Should You Upgrade Your Gaming CPU?
Whether you need to upgrade your gaming processor depends on what you have now, what games you plan to play, and what graphics card you pair the processor with. There’s a lot of advice in this entry for understanding your gaming processor, but I didn’t want to leave it without offering buying advice as well.
I’ve gone through every major game release in 2022, and none of them require more than six cores. Six cores with one of the last three generations of processors is where you want to be. Some games can take advantage of eight cores, like Cyberpunk 2077, but the differences are much smaller once you hit six cores.
Your CPU and GPU pairing also plays an important role. My rule of thumb is to have my GPU and CPU two generations apart and balance their position in the product stack. If you’ve upgraded to a card like the RTX 3060 Ti but are still sitting on a Ryzen 7 1700X, for example, swapping out your CPU will dramatically increase performance. If you already have the new Ryzen 5 5600X, however, you probably won’t see much improvement.
There are no hard and fast rules for upgrading your gaming CPU. Ultimately, the best way to avoid unnecessary upgrades is to develop a deeper understanding of the role your CPU plays in games. and pay close attention to how your own PC handles them.
This article is part of ReSpec – an ongoing bi-weekly column that features in-depth discussions, tips and reports on the technology behind PC gaming.