Having consistent and high enough FPS is important for an immersive game experience, so it’s important that you pick the right components for your PC. We already know that the graphics card has the largest impact on gaming performance, but we’re going to find out how the CPU influences the FPS.
Understanding how the CPU works and how it influences gaming can be quite difficult to grasp, especially when you’re new to PC building. So we’re going to go over the most important metrics you need to consider when purchasing a CPU for gaming such as core count, Hyperthreading, clock speed, and IPC.
Answer: To answer your question, the CPU definitely affects the FPS in games, the CPU is just as important as the GPU. When building a gaming PC, there needs to be a balance between the CPU and the GPU, so you can’t have a cheap CPU and an expensive GPU, this will cause a bottleneck.
So Does CPU Affect FPS?
The CPU and the GPU both work together to create the frames you see on screen, but it’s mainly the graphics card generating the FPS. The CPU processes the frames sent by the graphics card, so depending on how efficient your CPU is, it can have a huge impact on the frame rate. The more frames sent by the GPU, the harder the CPU will have to work, this is why you will see your CPU usage spike when there are more frames.
Hopefully, you’re able to see the relationship between the CPU and the GPU. If your CPU is particularly weak, and you have a really powerful graphics card, you can actually impose a limit on how many frames can be generated. This is what we call a bottleneck, and you can see this when your CPU hits 100% usage whilst your graphics card remains under 100%. The goal is to have your graphics card run at 100% so you’re getting the maximum performance possible.
So, the idea is to purchase a CPU that is fast enough to handle your specific graphics card, but how fast must your CPU be? Saying a processor is fast can be quite vague as there are many metrics that you can use to say whether a processor is fast or not. Also, different applications will utilize the CPU in different ways, so it can be quite confusing initially when you’re purchasing a CPU for gaming.
Cores Vs Single-Core Performance For FPS
So, the first metric of gauging the “speed” of your processor is by looking at how many cores it has. Each core will process the information on your computer, so having more cores technically makes your processor faster. So, if cores = speed, surely having as many cores possible will make for a great gaming processor?
Not so fast, the core count is definitely an important metric for performance, and it’s measurable with benchmarking software, but the core count won’t necessarily impact the gaming performance. Remember when we said different applications will utilize the processor differently? Well, games are one application that utilizes “single-core performance” for gaming performance.
You’re probably wondering what exactly single-core performance is, well the easiest way to understand single-core performance is to look at the clock speed of the processor, but notice how we said the easiest way. Yes, the clock speed is a metric for measuring single-core performance, but there is another hidden metric that isn’t spoken about a lot, and that is IPC.
Beware Of IPC (Don’t Buy Older Processors!)
Here is another yet confusing metric of a processor, and it’s called IPC or in other words “Instructions Per Clock/Cycle” this metric refers to how much work a processor can do per clock cycle. What this exactly means is that clock speed can be often misleading and can lead many people into purchasing older processors with really high clock speeds.
IPC is essentially a result of a processor’s architecture becoming more effective but how would a normal person know whether a CPU has a superior architecture? Well, typically the latest processors released will have higher IPCs compared to their predecessors. So if we take an Intel 12th generation processor clocked at 5GHz, and compare it to an 11th gen processor at the same clock, the 12 gen CPU will outperform it.
The best rule of thumb when purchasing a CPU for gaming is to purchase a relatively new processor, it doesn’t have to be the latest CPU, but something that is able to hold up in current times. Purchasing a CPU from back in 2013 will surely leave a bottleneck on your GPU which will negatively influence the FPS. If you’re looking to learn more about IPC, we’ve written a comprehensive post about it.
The most obvious example of huge IPC gains is with the Ryzen 5000 generation processors and their main competitor the Intel 10th generation CPUs. The Ryzen 5000 generation CPUs actually have a 16% IPC difference between the Intel 10th generation processors, and in this case, it actually made Ryzen CPUs the better choice for gaming. Take a look at the table below, it shows that the Ryzen processors are clocked lower but score higher.
|Processor||MAX Clock Speed||Cinebench Single-Core Score|
|Ryzen 9 5900X||4.8 GHz||1590|
|Intel I9 10900K||5.3 GHz||1431|
|Ryzen 7 5800X||4.7 GHz||1626|
|Intel I7 10700K||5.1 GHz||1324|
|Ryzen 5 5600X||4.6 GHz||1557|
|Intel I5 10600K||4.8 GHz||1404|
Temperature/Thermals Can Impact FPS
Something many won’t consider is how hot your processor can actually get, the heat your processor is at will have a huge impact on the gaming performance and across the board. If your CPU gets too hot, your CPU will do something called thermal throttle, this is a method to cool down the CPU.
What exactly is thermal throttling, well when your CPU reaches a certain temperature, your CPU will actually clock down, and the clock speed has a huge impact on gaming performance. So if your CPU is underclocking itself, you will definitely feel this in CPU-intensive gaming situations. The best way to know whether you will have a hot-running CPU is to look at the TDP rating, also you can download temperature monitors as your CPU will actually have an inbuilt temperature sensor.
How to avoid thermal throttling? Well, the best way to avoid this is to not let your CPU get so hot, most CPUs will thermal throttle around 80C, so you will need sufficient cooling in place. If you have a particularly hot processor, we recommend a beefy air cooler (Noctua NH-D1H) or at least a 240MM AIO cooler.
The Resolution Can Increase CPU/GPU Bottlenecks
You’re probably wondering what the relationship between the resolution and the CPU/GPU bottleneck is, well you’d be surprised to find out you’ll need a more powerful CPU the lower the resolution Is. Remember when we said that the CPU is responsible for processing frames sent by the graphics card?
So, when your resolution is lower, your graphics card will be generating more frames, hence your CPU working harder to process them. Increasing the resolution will have inverse effects, this is because the game will become harder to run on the graphics card specifically, resulting in less stress on the processor.
So, if you’re going to be gaming at a really high resolution, perhaps 4K, then you actually won’t need a really powerful processor, but it’s still best to have a well-balanced system. Bottlenecks are still possible at high resolutions, it will just depend on how graphically intensive the video game is. If you’re playing a game that is easy to run, you can even experience bottlenecks at 4K.
Surely Overclocking Improves FPS?
Overclocking is a way of pushing your processor’s clock speed past its natural limits, so if you’ve purchased a processor with a 5GHz clock out of the box, you should be able to push this limit higher. We already know that clock speed is important for single-core performance, and single-core performance mainly influences gaming, so overclocking should improve the FPS right?
Well yes, overclocking will actually result in higher frame rates in most games, this is the reason why many gamers will purchase unlocked processors from Intel and AMD. When we say unlocked, we mean the processor is ready for overclocking, you can modify the clock speed modifier, the voltages for extra performance.
When overclocking, the goal is to overclock through the BIOS, as OS(Operating System) overclocking can usually impose harmful voltages. Besides that, the general rule of thumb is to slowly increase the clock speed modifier to find the true limits of your processor, once you’ve found it, you can either stop there or increase the voltage. Increasing the voltage usually harms the CPU, so it’s recommended to leave it.
What Type Of CPUs Are Best For Gaming?
There are many types of processors on the market which can only make it more confusing, and you have to choose between two manufacturers, Intel and AMD. In the mind of a gamer, the first thing they’re going to think about is which one is fast enough for gaming at a reasonable price. Intel and AMD both produce amazing CPUs for gaming.
Since the core count isn’t important for gaming, the wisest thing to do is to go for a cheaper CPU with fewer cores but has high clock speeds, Ryzen 5 and Intel I5 processors usually fit this specification. Ryzen 5 and I5 processors are often made to target gamers that don’t need a huge number of cores, these processors can usually be overclocked to reach speeds of Ryzen 9s and I9s.
Between Intel and AMD, Intel undoubtedly makes some of the best gaming processors, this is because Intel processors usually feature really high clock speeds typically reaching 5GHz+. But AMD processors make great processors for multicore performance, not everyone is a gamer, so AMD processors can make for a great CPU.
Is Hyperthreading(SMT) Good For Gaming
Hyperthreading is a method that a CPU core will use to simultaneously execute two different sets of instructions at the same time. It takes advantage of CPU stalls which happen occasionally, Hyperthreading is said to improve performance by up to 30%. This 30% number isn’t actually accurate, it is heavily application dependent, some applications won’t even experience a benefit.
Hyperthreading technically increases the efficiency of each core, so surely this extra efficiency should translate into more gaming performance. Well, unfortunately, hyperthreading won’t really make a difference with gaming, all hyperthreading does is split a physical core into two logical cores. This is the reason why when you go into task manager, you will see double the number of cores.
And as we know, games will have multithreaded aspects such as the GUI, but in terms of FPS, the extra threads or logical cores won’t really influence the FPS in a meaningful way. You may experience 1-2 higher FPS in some games, but you can also lose 1-2 FPS in other games, but mostly you won’t experience anything.
The verdict is that the CPU will actually influence your gaming performance in many ways, so many ways that you won’t even notice. The CPU basically acts as a funnel for the graphics card, and if the funnel is too small for the GPU, it will actually bottleneck the graphics card.
The truth is all computers will have a bottleneck, it’s practically impossible to get rid of them, but you can minimize their effects by building a balanced PC. Never pair a really powerful GPU with a weak CPU as the CPU will hold your GPU back.