The processor is one of the most important basic components of any PC, and it is also one of the pieces that can have the most impact on the performance of many applications, games included. This is something that we all know, but I have been able to verify that, despite all the content that we have been publishing, there are still many doubts, and some myths, around the processor and its use in games.
For this reason, I have encouraged myself to give shape to this guide, where I am going to explain in three points everything you should know about the processor and its use in games . If you have more basic questions and want to know what a processor is and what elements make it up , just click on the link that we have left in this paragraph to find all the information you need. In case, after reading it, you have any questions, you can leave them in the comments and I will be happy to help you solve them.
By way of introduction, and so that we have a starting point, I remind you that the processor is the heart of any PC, and that it acts as a general-purpose component that is responsible, in short, for shredding workloads into processes and threads that contain information assimilable, and usable, by specialized components , such as the graphics card for example. This general nature makes it the central pillar of any computer, and helps us understand why it can end up limiting the performance of the entire system.
The processor is, therefore, the one in charge of supplying data with which the graphics card and other components can work. When we run a game, if it is not able to maintain a good rhythm, and to satisfy the requests for data made by the graphics card , there will be a bottleneck derived from the low performance of the processor. This can also happen in reverse , that is, when it is the graphics card that has to digest a very heavy workload and therefore does not need the processor to continuously supply data to it.
1.-Use of the processor in games: Cores and threads
In order to run a specific game, we must make sure that our processor has at least the number of cores and threads that are listed in the minimum requirements . In some cases, the game may work with a smaller number of cores, but the performance is very poor and therefore we do not enjoy a good experience.
When developers create a game, they do so starting, in most cases, from the base that PS4 and Xbox One laid. Both consoles have eight-core CPUs, of which seven are free and can be used in games. However, those cores are underperforming and run at very low speeds (between 1.6 GHz in the case of PS4 and 2.3 GHz in the case of Xbox One X). That has meant that, to play on PC, we do not really need eight-core processors, and that today we can still play without problems with four-core and eight-thread CPUs .
Let’s stop for a moment to talk about cores and threads. A kernel is a physical unit that is capable of working in a process, and a thread is a thread that adds to the workload of a kernel , taking advantage of the “free gaps” that it has when working with the main process. Thus, processors with HyperThreading technology from Intel or SMT from AMD can work with a process and a thread, or what is the same, with two threads, for each active core.
A quad-core processor with these technologies will move eight threads, the same as an eight-core processor without these technologies. However, the former will be more loaded and perform worse working with eight threads than a processor that has eight physical cores. However, this has another possible approach, and that is that, in some cases, a processor with six cores and twelve threads may perform better than one with eight cores and eight threads.
Having a processor that has more cores, and more threads, is better, that is clear, but we must bear in mind that this does not mean that we will always have higher performance in games, since in the end everything will depend on optimization the developers have introduced and the number of cores and threads that each game is actually capable of using.
Currently no game is able to truly take advantage of processors with more than six cores and twelve threads, which means that having an eight-core processor and sixteen threads will not provide you with any kind of performance increase. However, it could do so in the future, when games start to take advantage of that greater number of cores and threads. It already happened, at the time, with the definitive jump to the four cores, and later with the standardization of the eight threads.
If you see that one or more games do not use 100% your CPU, do not worry . As we have explained, most games only take advantage of processors with up to six cores and twelve threads. It is an optimization problem, no more.
2.-Use of the processor in games: IPC and frequency
We are already clear on the issue of cores and threads when we talk about the use of a processor in games. Each set is designed to parallelize the workload it represents on a specified number of threads . The ideal would be to design games with a high degree of paralysis that can take advantage of processors with many cores and threads, but this represents an important complexity that does not end up being profitable, and that can even end up being unfeasible if the base that serves as a starting point it is very limited.
When we have reached that limit of cores and threads that a game can use, the performance of the processor will only improve on two fronts: the IPC and the speed of work , and depending on the dependence of the game on the processor, and the resolution and graphic quality used, its impact can end up being quite limited. We are going to see a couple of examples to better understand everything we have said so far.
Imagine a computer configured with a Ryzen 7 2700X processor (8 cores and 16 threads) , an RTX 3080 and 32 GB of RAM. This computer runs Cyberpunk 2077 at 1440p with maximum quality, ray tracing, and DLSS 2.0 in performance mode. The gaming experience would be good, but the processor would be wasted and would be around, on average, a usage rate of between 30% and 55%.
Now think of a computer with the same configuration as the previous one, with the only exception of the processor, which happens to be a Ryzen 5 5600X (6 cores and 12 threads). Using the same configuration, the use of the processor would be higher (we could be around 80% of maximum), and we would also have a much higher FPS rate. I know what you’re thinking, how can a processor with fewer cores and threads perform better than one with more cores and threads? Well, very simple, because:
- The game does not take advantage of more than six cores and twelve threads, with which the Ryzen 7 2700X its only advantage over the Ryzen 5 5600X.
- The Ryzen 5 5600X has a higher IPC, and also operates at higher operating frequencies, which in the end allows it to offer superior performance.
The performance of a processor in games is not only defined by the number of cores and threads, the IPC and the working frequencies also come into play, the first being more bearing than the second. Obviously, a processor with more cores can better than another with fewer cores, even if the latter has a higher IPC and higher working frequencies, but only when used in games that are able to optimally take advantage of its greater parallelization capacity. .
3.-The importance of resolution and how it influences the use of the processor
When we render a game at a low resolution, such as 720p, 900p or 1080p, and we use a powerful graphics card, such as an RTX 3070 or an RX 6700 XT, both will have to face a lower workload than we would have if that same game was rendered in 1440p or 2160p.
That means something very simple, and it is that by moving a smaller number of pixels they will go much looser , they will work at a higher rate, and they will need the processor to be able to supply them with data with greater speed. In this scenario, the graphics card is the one that sets the pace, and the final performance ends up depending on the ability of the processor to keep up.
What has been said explains why when moving a specific game with an RTX 3070, a Core i7 2600K and 1080p resolution, we obtain a lower result compared to what we would have when moving that same game with that configuration, but using a Core i7 7700K. Both processors have four cores and eight threads, but the second has a higher IPC and runs at a higher frequency , which means that it is better able to meet the high data demand of the graphics card at low resolutions.
On the other hand, the graphics quality settings also matter , as they can add significant workload to the graphics card and significantly reduce the impact of the processor on performance. The ray tracing or ray tracing, is one of the most decisive adjustments in this regard, since it can reduce yields by half (or even more), and make a game that seemed perfectly playable, with rates more than 60 FPS, it ends up sinking down to 20 FPS.
In summary, the importance, and the weight, of the processor in games decreases in proportion to the increase in resolution and graphic quality, and vice versa. However, this does not mean that we should not forget the minimum that each game needs to function optimally . So, for example, if a game needs a quad-core, eight-thread processor, but we run it with a quad-core, four-thread processor and set it to 4K, it will be the graphics card that will take on the highest workload, but we will have performance problems for not having reached that minimum.
Normally, when a game starts on a lower processor than it needs, it usually presents very clear problems, among which are very low minimum FPS peaks (a game can run at 30 FPS and have minimum peaks of 5 FPS ), load times high and jerks or short healing stops that end up affecting the gaming experience. Spontaneous hangs and closures can also occur.
Well, how can I choose the best processor for games? This topic requires a separate explanation, but you’re in luck, at the time we published this guide that is still very current, despite the arrival of the Ryzen 5000 and the Rocket Lake-S. All in all, I want to take the opportunity to give you a simple overview of the processors that are, right now, the best option to mount, or upgrade, a gaming PC based on four specific budgets:
If your budget is around 100 euros: the best option is the Core i3 10100F, which has a high IPC and has four cores and eight threads. It costs 107.95 euros .
In case you can spend up to 200 euros: it is better that you opt for a Core i5 10600KF, which also has a very high IPC, has six cores and twelve threads and costs 189.90 euros . Also interesting is the Core i5 11400F, which costs 169.90 euros .
If you can spend up to 300 euros: it is one of the most balanced bands, and thanks to the strong competition that exists between Intel and AMD we can find very interesting solutions. The most recommended models are, without a doubt, the Core i7 10700KF, for 299.90 euros , and the Ryzen 7 3700X, for 289.90 euros . Both have a high IPC and add 8 cores and 16 threads, although the Intel performs a little better.
Between 400 and 500 euros: I do not recommend investing so much money in a processor except for very specific cases, since an average user will not get to take advantage of such expensive processors, and the performance per euro invested ratio decreases very quickly when we get into this level . If your goal is to move games to the highest level and enjoy the highest possible IPC, the Ryzen 5 5600X is the best option for 359.90 euros . If you want to also ensure a long service life, and have a good performance even when streaming, the Ryzen 7 5800X is a very good option for 433 euros . Finally, if what you need is good performance and great multithreading, the Ryzen 9 3900X still offers an excellent value for 439.90 euros .