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What's the best number of CPU cores for gaming today, how many processor cores do we need?
By Chad Norton on May 23rd, 2020 at 03:00pm - original article from game-debate

Since the dawn of computerkind, when our ancestors first discovered the processing power of multiple CPU cores, data has been processed in the name of everything: from AI, to image processing, and up to the wonderful thing we know as video gaming. And while we are all fed the "larger numbers are better", by CPU PR departments, we wanted to explore the idea around the question, does processor core count really matter in todays games and if we are looking to buy a new CPU, should we be very careful to get the right number of processor cores to help with gaming in the future?

So how many cores are required for gaming these days? And what’s the optimal amount of cores we might need? Lets take a look at some CPUs, their performance, and most importantly, their core counts in relation to modern pc gaming, in order to get a better understanding of our processors.

First of all, it’s important to have a basic understanding of what a CPU actually is and what we are referring to by way of cores. I will keep it very simple but feel free to jump into the comments section below and flex your techie knowledge by sharing more deep level CPU core knowledge and how they make our games flow more smoothly.

Here’s a simple explanation. We often hear that the CPU is like the brain of a computer, but the GPU is also a significant part of your rig. The CPU handles the complex math going on behind the scenes. For instance, physics or AI in a game will be handled by the CPU, or perhaps the end of a game turn is processed by the CPU and the more powerful it is the quicker it gets the job done. What does the GPU do then? The GPU is like a self contained computer that focuses on and sorts out all the onscreen visual processing, so the CPU doesnt have that to do as well. Both the processor and graphics card work in tandem to produce the image you see on your screen. If you are not gaming then the desktop visuals can be handled mostly by the CPU. 

Obviously there’s a lot more to it than that, but making sure you have the right CPU for your GPU and vice versa is essential for any gaming rig. When you get this significantly wrong one of these two items (or ram) is normally the bottleneck. It’s all well and good to get a fancy and expensive graphics card, but if your processor isn’t able to keep up then the game cant run as smoothly and that is because of the bottleneck.

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What are processor cores?

A core on a CPU, put in the most simplest of terms, handles a tasks assigned to it. The more cores, the more tasks it can carry out at the same time. In an ideal world, a 4-core CPU will run 4 tasks at a time whilst an 8-core CPU will be able to run 8 tasks at the same time. This is the basic concept. There are loads and loads of things that influence this a great deal. Again, please share your techie knowledge (no matter how nerdy you want to go) with everyone in the comments below.

So more cores mean more tasks can be completed at the same time. If you set a computer a job to do, which has lots of different tasks, then a processor with more cores should be able to take on more tasks simultaneously and therefore complete the job faster. As I mentioned there are other things to then think about like, speed of a CPU or more modern architecture of the processor which can all influence job time completion.

How many CPU cores do most gamers have in their PCs today?

CPU Core Count by  popularity among PC players on Steam

As you can see in the graph above, according to Steam the most popular processors by core count are 4 cores at 48.24%, with 6 and 2 cores coming close in 2nd and 3rd place at 21.86% and 21.22% respectively, and 8 cores trailing behind in 4th place at 6.65%. You can see that most CPUs above 8 cores are pretty much non-existent in comparison.

Most CPUs these days are actually kind of overkill, unless you’re aiming for those seriously high frame rates at 1080p, there’s not much reason to go with an extremely powerful processor that costs a lot of money. Because no one wants to buy an expensive processor that they can’t take advantage of.

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What’s the minimum required CPU core count for gaming?

If we’re talking about the bottom of the barrel here, a single core CPU can run games, but with modern game design you will quickly start to experience low frame rates on more recent games with more detailed graphics like modern shooters for instance. So to that end you will ideally want a minimum of a 2-core CPU for gaming, so that the processor can manage more than one thing at a time, otherwise everything else has to wait every time a processor is asked to do something. Once you have 2 cores at least it can attempt to swap its tasks backwards and forwards between the cores, to minimise the bottleneck.

What is today's most effective CPU core count for gaming, with the biggest benefits?

However the jump from 2 cores to 4 cores on most modern games can yield even more benefits, as a lot of games can make use of 4 cores and allocate tasks to them to help minimise any potential CPU lockup.

The jump from 4 cores to 6 cores has a lesser impact to gaming benefit than that jump from 2 to 4 cores. That isnt to say that the 6 cores wouldn't be useful in gaming, just that the bottleneck is eased up a lot more when you move from 2 cores to 4. 

So because of all that, today it feels like the quad-core CPU, with its 4 cores is our suggested minimum required core count for gaming these days, you’ll get the most significant improvements in performance compared to the jump to and from either end of the core count like 2 cores or 6 cores. It will also be the optimal amount of cores for the price as well.

Some examples of popular 4 core CPUs are the ¬¬p_id:931[Intel Core i5-3470]¬¬ and ¬¬p_id:2650[AMD Ryzen 3 3200G]¬¬, both of which have pretty high clock speeds as well and are regarded as some of the most popular 4 core CPUs on the market right now, and you can regularly find AMD’s processor at half the price of Intel’s, if you’re on a budget.

What’s the optimal amount of cores in a CPU for gaming?

At this point in time, it looks like modern games will benefit the most from 4 cores. Game engines are built to make the most out of the quad core processors, minimising bottlenecks encountered by load spreading across the 4 cores.

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Whats the best number of CPU cores to future proof my gaming PC's processor?

Most games these days will require at least a quad-core CPU in their recommended system requirements. But as developers and game engines push their imaginations further, they will start to lean on more cores as we go into the future. Allocating multiple simultaneous tasks out the gamers processors. We are seeing games like Microsofts newest Flight Simulator looking to have a recommended 6 core processor listed as its required CPU. 

So today for a good future proof processor we would look to the 8 core processor in your new PC game machine. Or a 6 core CPU would certainly see you fine for the next couple of years.

Here is a couple of the more popular 8 core CPUs in the market right now are the AMD Ryzen 7 3700X and Intel Core i9-9900K.

Popular CPUs List with 4, 6, and 8 core counts

Modern popular 4 core CPUs:

  • ¬¬p_id:931[Intel Core i5-3470]¬¬
  • ¬¬p_id:2650[AMD Ryzen 3 3200G]¬¬
  • ¬¬p_id:925[Intel Core i7-3770]¬¬
  • ¬¬p_id:2103[Intel Core i7-4790K]¬¬
  • ¬¬p_id:2038[Intel Core i7-4790]¬¬

Modern popular 6 core CPUs:

  • ¬¬p_id:2573[AMD Ryzen 5 3600]¬¬
  • ¬¬p_id:2628[Intel Core i7-9750H]¬¬
  • ¬¬p_id:2533[AMD Ryzen 5 2600]¬¬
  • ¬¬p_id:2586[Intel Core i5-9400F]¬¬
  • ¬¬p_id:2546[Intel Core i7-8750H]¬¬

Modern popular 8 core processors on the market

  • ¬¬p_id:2576[AMD Ryzen 7 3700X]¬¬
  • ¬¬p_id:2569[Intel Core i9-9900K]¬¬
  • ¬¬p_id:2570[Intel Core i7-9700K]¬¬
  • ¬¬p_id:2542[AMD Ryzen 7 2700X]¬¬
  • ¬¬p_id:2623[AMD Ryzen 7 3800X]¬¬

You can see here that there is very much indeed almost an equal split between Intel and AMD CPUs in terms of popularity, which just goes to show how good AMD’s processors are for the price compared to Intel’s lineup.

Of the top 500 most demanding games right now, most of the 4 core CPUs on the market will be able to meet 95% of the minimum requirements. However, most of them will only be able to meet around 33% of the recommended requirements. So if you're looking to play games at the minimum required settings, a 4 core CPU will be perfect for you. But if you want to play games at the maximum settings you might want to consider the more optimal amount of cores and more powerful CPUs...

Pretty much any 8 core CPU will be able to absolutely blitz it's way through the top 500 most demanding games as of today, meeting 100% of all minimum requirements and, at worst, 99% of all recommended requirements. So it's safe to say getting one of these processors will future proof your rig for years to come.

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What kind of games require certain amount of cores?

This is a bit trickier, as games don't always advertise how many cores they prefer to use. Some games are optimized for 4 cores, some can use 6, and some can even use up to 12 cores. So what games are optimized best for which cores? And didn't we already establish that 8 cores are the optimal amount?

Well, yes, 8 cores will surely future proof your PC for most of the next decade, but most games will not actually utilize all the extra cores you have. This is where it comes down to your personal preference and your budget. If you just want to play the latest games without any issues, then there's not much point forking out the extra money for 8 cores. With that said, here are some of the most popular games right now and their optimal CPU core usage:

Game Optimal CPU core count
¬¬g_id:2323[Counter-Strike: Global Offensive]¬¬ 2
¬¬g_id:20387[Rainbow Six: Siege]¬¬ 4
¬¬g_id:35624[Assassins Creed: Odyssey]¬¬ 4
¬¬g_id:35520[Battlefield 5]¬¬ 4
¬¬g_id:37021[Call of Duty Warzone]¬¬ 4
¬¬g_id:24054[The Witcher 3]¬¬ 4
¬¬g_id:35637[DOOM Eternal]¬¬ 4
¬¬g_id:35975[Microsoft Flight Simulator]¬¬ 6

So as you can see, most games these days only require 4 cores, whilst most of them can use up to 12 cores, you won't see a huge difference in performance past 8 cores. Most competitive multiplayer games like CS:GO will require less demanding specs in order to make it more accessible for a larger audience. Only the top of the most demanding games will even require players to have more than 4 cores, like MS Flight Sim 2020 that requires at least 6.

What about ray tracing?

It’s also worth noting that the latest trend in video games is without a doubt ray tracing, and whilst you may think that the extremely demanding and complex process of simulating light rays may be based on the CPU because of all the heavy math, ray tracing is actually more bound to the GPU. Looking at some of the RTX-enabled games that utilize the technology will show you just how much it’s dependent on the graphics card rather than the processor.

Game Recommended CPU
¬¬g_id:36618[Minecraft RTX]¬¬ Intel Core i5-4670K
¬¬g_id:36620[Quake II RTX]¬¬ Intel i3-3220
¬¬g_id:35645[Control]¬¬ Intel Core i5-7600K

I picked these games because they’re a nice control group for what we’re talking about here, as the original games themselves don’t require very demanding specs, but as soon as ray tracing is added they jump up a lot. Obviously they require the use of an RTX enabled graphics card like the RTX 2060, but looking at the core counts of each recommended processor you can see that Minecraft with RTX requires 4 cores and Quake 2 RTX requires only 2 cores. Even the pretty demanding and mind-bending game, Control, only requires a 4 core CPU. So yeah, it’s not about the cores when it comes to ray tracing.

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Does Core count really matter?

So in the end, it’s all about a balance and overall performance. Check the reported benchmarks before buying a CPU, don’t look at 1 number only, and make sure that you actually need a new CPU before buying one, because more often than not you won’t see a noticeable difference if your graphics card is the one that’s actually holding you back.

If you want to have a look at what kind of processors Intel and AMD have in store for us in the coming years, and what possible processors you could wait and upgrade to, you can check out our CPU roadmap article we did just a few days ago.

What do you think? Do you agree? Does core count matter that much? What’s the minimum required cores for gaming these days? And what’s the optimal amount? And which is more important? Core count? Or CPU speed? Let us know!

What's the best number of CPU cores for gaming today, how many processor cores do we need?