Best CPUs for Gaming 2015 – Black Friday Guide to Sales

By Published November 27, 2015 at 6:02 am
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If our recent Star Wars Battlefront CPU benchmark is anything to go by, the days of dual-threaded CPUs appear to be numbered when it comes to gaming. The G3258 – a $60 powerhouse in its own right – is now encountering limitations to the extent of inability to play some games without hacks. We've found the Core i3 to be consistently performant and, although it's not on our current bench, the Athlon X4 860K seems to be the only reasonable option in the sub-$100 price-point at this time. This was preceded by the 760K, another popular chip, both of which took the same approach: Take an APU and disable the IGP, then just sell it as a CPU.

This guide rounds-up the best gaming CPUs on sale for Black Friday, ranging from $70 to $300 at the high-end. The CPUs here are built for different tasks, but will play LOL, DOTA2, Assassin's Creed Syndicate, Battlefront, Fallout 4, Black Ops III, and other games to varying degrees. See what we have to say below before buying.

We've opted to exclude the X99 CPUs from this list, under the premise that these are primarily meant for production and enthusiast rigs. If you are interested in such a CPU, the i7-5930K is currently selling for $460.

Other Recent Buyer's Guides

These previous buyer's guides highlight holiday sale opportunities, with the most focus on upcoming Black Friday and Cyber Monday PC hardware deals. Check these out for more parts:

CPU Notes Price
AMD Athlon X4 860K 3.7GHz 3.7GHz 4C/4T
2x2MB L2 Cache
Kaveri - FM2+
$70
Intel i3-4170 3.7GHz 3.7GHz 2C/4T
3MB L3 Cache
Haswell - LGA1150
$120
Intel i3-6100 3.7GHz 3.7GHz 2C/4T
3MB L3 Cache
Skylake - LGA1151
$126
AMD A10-7870K 3.9GHz APU 3.9GHz 4C/4T
2x2MB L2 Cache
Godavari - FM2+
$128
Intel i5-4590 3.3GHz 3.3GHz 4C/4T
6MB L3 Cache
Haswell - LGA1150
$180
Intel i5-6500 3.2GHz 3.2GHz 4C/4T
6MB L3 Cache
Skylake - LGA1151
$205
Intel i5-4690K 3.5GHz 3.5GHz 4C/4T
6MB L3 Cache
Haswell (Devil's Canyon) – LGA1150
$210
Intel i7-4790K 4.0GHz 4.0GHz 4C/8T
8MB L3 Cache
Haswell (Devil's Canyon) - LGA1150
$300

Recent Gaming Benchmarks for CPUs

We've only run a few recent benchmarks for CPUs, but they're worth a look:

Best Cheap Gaming CPU – Athlon X4 860K

cpu-guide-amd-x4-860k

AMD Athlon X4 860K 3.7GHz ($70): The X4 860K is easily the best CPU at its price-range right now, short of jumping to an i3 SKU. The 860K deploys four cores and four threads, meeting the quad-core requirements imposed by some games (Battlefront, for one). You'll definitely bottleneck mid-range and high-end GPUs on an 860K, but for anyone pairing cards akin to the GTX 750 Ti or R7 370 with the 860K, the coupling will make for a (relative) powerhouse at the price.

The 860K is best-suited to ultra-budget rigs and must be coupled with a discrete GPU, as it hosts no on-board graphics. The 860K performs similarly to the 7870K (benchmark below) and would be most at home with less thread-intensive games. Games like CSGO, League, DOTA2, Heroes of the Storm, Battlefront, and Overwatch will play reasonably well on the 860K.

Honorable Mention: Intel Pentium G3258 ($60). The G3258 is nearing its end-of-life as a mainstream gaming CPU. The little chip can still push solid framerates in games primarily stuck on two threads, but it shows its limitations quickly in Battlefront, GTA V, and The Witcher 3. GTA V in particular is an interesting one: The G3258 will outperform the 760K in average FPS, but the G3258 gets stomped in its 0.1% and 1% lows (the drops are significantly more severe), posting single digits for 0.1% lows in our testing. For this reason, we're retiring the G3258 from our list of recommended CPUs for mainstream gaming. If you're doing MOBAs and not much else, or older games, it's still a good chip with upgrade pathways – but that's about the extent of it.

Best Entry-Level Gaming CPU – Intel i3-4170

cpu-guide-intel-core-i3

Intel i3-4170 3.7GHz ($120): The i3-4170 is currently cheaper than the 100MHz slower i3-4160, thanks to the oddities emerging from Black Friday. At 3.7GHz, Intel's Haswell Core i3-4170 is capable of keeping pace with the GTX 980 Ti in some games – again, Battlefront at 1080/ultra – but does show limitations in CryEngine games.

For Battlefront, we see the gap between the i3, i5, and i7 CPUs at 1080/ultra effectively disappears, thanks to bottlenecks elsewhere in the system. As load is removed from the GPU, the gaps grow to show a ~22.5% delta against the i5-4690K (218.8FPS vs. 174.3FPS at 1080/low, GTX 980 Ti).

In Fallout 4, a comparable i3 CPU falls below 60FPS at 1080/ultra (i5-4690K pushes 77FPS), but keeps pace at 1080/medium to output a 61 AVG FPS (i5-4690K pushes 82FPS).

The i3-4170 is the top performer in its price class, limited only in the most thread-intensive (or least optimized) games. That said, jumping to an i5- CPU will enable more consistently high framerates when coupled with higher-end graphics hardware.

battlefront-cpu-bench-1080-low battlefront-cpu-bench-1080-medium battlefront-cpu-bench-1080-high

battlefront-cpu-bench-1080-ultra

Prefer Skylake? Intel i3-6100 Now Selling, but at Full Price

Intel i3-6100 3.7GHz ($126): Skylake's too new to be on sale; in fact, the existing K-SKUs are drastically over the recommended sale price given current supply/demand. Still, the i3-6100 is one of the only reasonably-priced Skylake CPUs right now, alongside the non-K i5 (below), and is worth a mention. For those hoping to shift to the 100-series chipsets and get off the Haswell platform, or for the transition to DDR4, the i3-6100 is the only budget option at present. An i3-6300 series CPU has also begun shipping, but stands a full $30 more than the i3-6100. Similar performance to the previous i3 CPUs can be expected. The biggest change here is a requirement for DDR4 (or DDR3L).

Best CPU with Integrated GPU – AMD A10-7870K

7870k-cpu-2

AMD A10-7870K 3.9GHz ($128): Just to mix things up, we're throwing an APU into the mix. In the event gaming-grade graphics are demanded for simplistic games (DOTA2, CSGO), but a dGPU isn't desirable, the A10-7870K can hold its own in some games. CSGO at 1080/ultra, for instance, allows for an FPS of about 67 AVG on the A10-7870K – though 1% and 0.1% low suffer enough to require a settings decrease. DOTA2 runs about 60FPS with medium/low on the 7870K (again, no dGPU), with an Athlon X4 + R7 250X coming in at 91FPS.

Generally, our findings were that buyers would be best off coupling an X4 with a low-end GPU, but that runs just slightly more expensive than the 7870K standalone. If, for some reason, you absolutely cannot have an expansion card or cannot afford the extra few bucks, a 7870K is about the best integrated compromise currently available. We'd still push buyers hard toward an X4 + dGPU, though.

Best Mid-Range CPU without Overclocking – i5-4590

cpu-guide-intel-core-i5

Intel i5-4590 3.3GHz ($180): An i5-4590 is the first of Intel's more mid-range-y appearances. This CPU's lifeblood is performant native output for users shy of or uninterested in overclocking. Not everyone needs a K-SKU CPU – this is especially true when overclocking isn't on the menu – and that's where the non-K i5 CPUs enter the fray. The i5-4590 operates at 3.3GHz and hosts four cores with four threads (no hyper-threading). It'll help mitigate or eliminate most bottlenecks on the GPU until approaching higher-end GPU options, and the 4C/4T count makes this CPU suited for the vast majority of modern games.

Games which like their threads – again, CryEngine does this, as do the Total War and Civ series – will see advantages from an i7's 2x threads, but the efficacy of this in the real-world depends on the user. When trying to achieve 144Hz framerates (or similar), yes, moving toward an i7 would be ideal to eliminate bottlenecks where they exist. Otherwise, we can confidently recommend the i5-4590 as a mid-range CPU for the non-overclocker. Pair with an H97 board (or similar) for best bang for the buck.

Skylake Honorable Mention: Intel i5-6500 3.2GHz ($205). We're listing this as the Skylake alternative to a K-SKU, though its price isn't exactly a fire sale. As with the above i3 Skylake/Haswell split listing, this is the go-to alternative to the non-OC Haswell i5, primarily useful to those hoping to move to a brand new platform.

Best Mid-Range Overclocker for Most Gamers – i5-4690K

cpu-guide-intel-i5-box

Intel i5-4690K 3.5GHz ($210): The i5-4690K has been the mainstay for rigs nearing the high-end category and, honestly, the “mid-range vs. high-end” line gets a little blurry at this point. Thanks to Skylake's launch, the 4690K CPUs are being shoveled out the doors of retailers for $20-$30 less than pre-Skylake prices. Even with the new platform out there, the 4690K and 4790K retain near identical (and, in some games, superior) performance to the succeeding 660K and 6700K CPUs. If DDR4 isn't particularly important for you – and for most gamers, it isn't – a Z97 + Devil's Canyon build still yields a true-blood gaming PC.

There is some bottlenecking between the i7 and i5 on higher-end GPUs. This is most noticeable with heavily multithreaded games when attempting to push 120Hz and 144Hz framerates, with our recommendation shifting toward the i7 CPU for high refresh rate monitors. In Fallout 4 (1080/medium), we saw a somewhat large 20% FPS disparity favoring the i7, but Fallout 4 is a unique case: Because framerate should be locked to 60 (for game physics reasons), an i5 and i7 will both exceed the 60FPS recommendation with an appropriate GPU in the system. This somewhat invalidates the gap presented, though that changes as resolutions increase and mods find their way into the game.

Best High-End Overclocking CPU For Gamers – i7-4790K

cpu-guide-intel-i7

Intel i7-4790K 4.0GHz ($300): Short of going to X99 CPUs, this is where the buck stops for Haswell and its Devil's Canyon refresh. The i7-6700K Skylake CPU is more than $400 at some retailers right now – again, thank the supply/demand pricing for that – making it an exceptionally poor value compared to the 4790K or $460 5930K. We'd recommend the i7-4790K for users aiming to build multi-GPU configurations, attempt to match high display refresh rates, or venture into video production and editing. The 4790K doubles as a “poor man's” production CPU with its eight threads, something we've used in a number of our staff machines for editing and work tasks. This is a fully unlocked CPU for overclocking.

Note: We decided to exclude the i5-6600K and i7-6700K due to availability and pricing at the time of this article. We feel that both, particularly the i7-6700K, are poor value right now. Besides, this is a post primarily focusing on sale opportunities, not more-than-MSRP pricing.

Need some help with your PC build? Post below or find some in-depth support on our forums. If you like this type of content, please consider supporting us via Patreon.

- Steve "Lelldorianx" Burke.

Last modified on November 27, 2015 at 6:02 am
Steve Burke

Steve started GamersNexus back when it was just a cool name, and now it's grown into an expansive website with an overwhelming amount of features. He recalls his first difficult decision with GN's direction: "I didn't know whether or not I wanted 'Gamers' to have a possessive apostrophe -- I mean, grammatically it should, but I didn't like it in the name. It was ugly. I also had people who were typing apostrophes into the address bar - sigh. It made sense to just leave it as 'Gamers.'"

First world problems, Steve. First world problems.

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