Building a PC is now more accessible than ever. There are many ways to find compatible parts, and a quality rig can typically last you longer than any console. As someone who, primarily, has been a console-based gamer for most of my run, I understand the perception that building a PC is intimidating or complex—so much so that I've gamed on consoles because I think they're as close to "plug-and-play" as is possible. Luckily, building a PC is not as difficult as you might think; the hard part is doing the research and figuring out what you want from your machine. With a little bit of know-how, you'll come to see the connections between different parts are straightforward. In this guide, we'll take a closer look at a central processing unit, or CPU, specifically.
If you've ever wondered what a CPU is, here's a hint: it's in the name. Put even simpler, let's just say that the CPU functions as your PC's brain. It's one of the central pillars that will determine how the rest of your rig performs, so choosing the right one for your intended purposes is crucial.
When we're talking about gaming, specifically, there are a few factors that can help inform us during the research part of the buying process. For example, something you might want to consider would be: What resolution or frame rate will be best for my game play? Just having a better sense of those two things alone will help you narrow your search quite a bit and determine the other components you'll buy to go along with your CPU, such as a GPU or monitor, for example.
Speaking of GPUs: It’s easy to assume your GPU is doing all of the heavy lifting, but that's not the entire story. When it comes to gaming, your GPU also shares the spotlight with the CPU. On a fundamental level, most games are a consolidation of different systems that come together to deliver a "complete" experience. Different elements of those systems are handled by your CPU and GPU, depending on the demands of the game. Titles like Cities: Skyline or Microsoft Flight Simulator are good examples of games in which the CPU plays a mission-critical role managing several on-screen elements in real time. Titles like these emphasize why it’s so important to think about the type of games you want to play when considering which CPU to buy.
While looking at CPU specs, one of the most important factors to consider is the number of cores a processor has. Maybe you've heard the terms "3-core" or "5-core" thrown around when describing a processor. So, what exactly is a "core," you ask? It's an individual processor, which means a CPU comprises cores, working together on a single chip. Different cores can work on different tasks simultaneously, but it’s also possible to complete the same task faster utilizing multiple cores, depending on the software. As a general rule, it's safe to assume that as the number of cores increases, so does the speed and computing power of the CPU.
Another term you'll see thrown around a lot in relation to CPUs is "threads." Cores and threads are similar in practice, but while a core refers to the physical processors that make up a CPU, a thread, on the other hand, is a series of instructions created by the CPU to allow a single core to "split itself" and multitask effectively. The virtual "partitions" that result from this process, known as simultaneous multithreading (SMT), are what we call threads. Threading allows the CPU to increase the efficiency of a single core by potentially letting it handle multiple tasks simultaneously. Both Intel® and AMD, the two major CPU manufacturers, use this process—although Intel® CPUs refer to it as "hyper threading."
A CPU's cache is a small amount of memory located right next to the processor. Your PC creates a copy of information the system prioritizes, and stores it on that cache so the processor can access it as quickly as possible. There are different kinds of cache memory, too, with labels like L1, L2, L3. This cache is significantly faster than the DRAM available to your PC. L1 cache is the fastest for the processor to access but it’s also quite small (we're talking in terms of KB). L2 cache is slower than L1 but there's more of it. L3 is larger and slower but still especially relevant for a gaming build because it acts as a memory pool for the entire processor and feeds the caches above it.
Intel® vs. AMD and Naming Conventions
The CPU market parallels the GPU market in the sense that, just like the latter, there are only two major manufacturers, Intel® and AMD, between whom you can choose. They both have a long history of producing CPUs that differ widely in application, performance, and price, so potentially, it can be confusing for those looking to purchase one. Thankfully, since we're getting that gaming rig up and running, we'll be able to narrow down our options. The naming conventions that Intel® and AMD use might also be difficult to understand initially, so we’ll break that down, too.
AMD's processor names can get quite convoluted at first glance. Its Ryzen brand CPUs are extremely popular in the gaming community for the tremendous value they provide, so we'll use that as a starting point. You'll usually see a stand-alone number after the Ryzen moniker—so for example, Ryzen 3, Ryzen 5, Ryzen 7 or Ryzen 9. This number correlates to a CPU’s performance. 3-series CPUs are entry tier, 5 and 7 are your mid-tier options for the average consumer to the enthusiast, and 9-series and beyond are your top-performing chips. The core counts increase with each progressive series.
Following this number is usually a set of four numbers that tells us more about the CPU. Let's use one of the best CPUs on the market geared toward gaming, the AMD Ryzen 7 5800X3D, as an example. The next number, which is "5," refers to the processor’s generation. Confusing absolutely no one, 5-series cards are really the fourth generation of AMD's CPUs, while 7-series CPUs, like the AMD Ryzen 7 7800X3D, are fifth generation. A newer-generation CPU might introduce completely new architecture that's more efficient and powerful or features more cores or higher clock speeds. Compatibility with motherboards can also differ depending on the generation.
The next set of numbers, starting with the second number, indicates what line a CPU belongs to within a series of chips. This number hints at the level of performance you can expect from the chip within a particular series, so going back to our original example, you could safely assume a 5800 chip outperforms a 5600 one. Finally, you'll notice chips usually end in either "00" or "50." For the purposes of this guide, just know that the latter outperforms the former if you're comparing two cards where everything else is exactly the same. You may notice, however, that there may be a suffix after the numbers, and these can reveal key information about the processor, too. Below are some of the more common ones that are relevant:
G: These processors have integrated graphics support on the processor itself. Not exactly great for gaming but still worth considering if you want to get your machine up and running while holding out for a specific GPU.
X: Processors with this label usually have better specs than their non-X counterparts.
X3D: Remember L3 cache? These have a larger L3 cache thanks to a stacked design on the chip that can boost performance for games.
Thankfully, Intel®'s CPU names largely follow a similar pattern to AMD. Intel® also has tiers to differentiate its CPUs based on performance and the intended end user. To start, let's use Intel®'s Core™ i7-14700K Processor as an example to break it down further. The first thing you'll notice is that Intel® CPU names usually have some kind of label like Intel® Core™ i3, i5, i7, or i9. In terms of gaming, we're more interested in the i5, i7, and i9 processors, which cover the spectrum from casual enthusiast to top-tier chips.
The next set of numbers also sheds more light on the processor. Just like with AMD, the first thing it tells us is the CPU’s generation, so in this case "14" means it’s from the 14th generation. The remaining numbers are there to help further differentiate CPUs in the same generation. You can expect the differences to be things like base clock speed, cache size, or core and thread counts. Intel® has its own set of identifiers suffixed after the numbers to indicate other key features (or lack thereof). The following are worth noting:
K: Unlocked, which refers to the ability to overclock this CPU
G: Comes with integrated graphics
F: Requires a separate graphics card
KF: Unlocked/No integrated graphics
X/XE: Highest performance, unlocked
Intel® has quite a few more, so here's a more comprehensive list if you're unsure about any particular one you come across.
This feels like a good time to mention that different processors also require different socket types. If you're not sure what a socket is, it connects your CPU to your motherboard. The socket type can vary between different generations of CPUs for Intel® and AMD. It's important to be aware of the specific socket type that a particular CPU lists. If we look at the specs of the Ryzen 7 5800X3D I mentioned earlier, we can see that it lists the socket type as "AM4." That means when we're shopping for a motherboard to house that CPU, we need to double-check that it has the same socket type listed under its specs. Certain motherboards can also support multiple generations of CPUs.
While there's enough information about coolers to have their own guide, it's impossible not to mention them here, if only briefly. If you don't know what I'm talking about, CPUs use a fair bit of power and can get quite hot on their own. Keeping CPU temps at a reasonable level can prevent overheating, which left unchecked, can lead to a number of problems, primarily a massive slowdown in performance, or even worse, damaged components. That brings us to the next logical step, which is to invest in a cooling system for our CPU. There are generally three types of coolers widely available: air coolers, all-in-one (AIO) coolers, and liquid coolers. Air coolers utilize fans and heat sinks to cool your CPU and are easy and straightforward to install. AIO coolers take up a bit more room since you've got to fit a radiator with fans into your PC. Liquid or custom loop coolers are a bit more complicated and involved, so I really don't recommend them if it’s your first build. Again, air coolers and AIOs are generally the easiest to install and most widely available with a ton of great options like this dual-tower CPU fan from Noctua or this AIO cooler from Lian Li.
As we reach the end of this guide, I just want to remind you absolutely to do your own research and don’t be afraid to get deep into the weeds. I also highly recommend checking out some benchmark videos once you have some picks in mind to get a better sense of how a specific game runs with a particular hardware and go up or down from there. Also, if you want to find out if your parts are compatible with one another and you're new to building, PC Part Picker is a great resource to help plan your build.
With a better understanding of some of the above factors, you should have no problem eventually finding the right CPU for your build. Even more so, I hope I've been able to impart the wisdom that no component in a build exists within its own bubble. Choosing one part will affect your choice of others, and while that can seem confusing at first, for those willing to put in a bit of time, piecing together your PC part by part can be worthwhile in the end. Not only will you save money in the long run, but you'll also have a more granular understanding of how it all works together.
Let us know how your building journey is going in the Comments section, below!