Balancing the CPU and GPU for your needs is a tricky process – Whilst the GPU is the component that most heavily impacts gaming performance, if you under-specify a CPU the hit to consistency of performance can be jarring, and hard to fix. In this article I’ll suggest a range of combinations to suit any need and budget to ensure that you get great performance without breaking the bank (unless you opt to build a 4k capable rig, of course…)
CPU: Core of the system but rarely a limiting factor
We are fortunate that since the launch of Ryzen and it’s refresh in 2019, almost every gaming requirement can be met with AMD CPUs costing from $100-$160. Providing 6 cores, 12 threads and a high 4.2Ghz clock speed the Ryzen 3600 is a very solid option for anyone looking to spec a gaming PC right now. But it’s not the only option and it doesn’t necessarily fit all needs. If you’re looking for very high refresh rates you may want to consider the enhanced single core speed of the Intel ‘K series’ CPUs along with a good motherboard and an overclock. An announcement is due at the end of April confirming the next round of Intel processors, dubbed ‘comet lake’ which are expected to include multithreading throughout the range and enhanced core counts and clock speeds. However they are still tied to intels 14nm process and a ‘coffee-lake’ era architecture so it seems unlikely that huge strides in performance will be realised. It’s a confident assertion that AMD will remain highly competitive throughout 2020.
GPU: The key to your PC’s gaming performance
In any gaming PC the GPU is, and should be, the component that limits the ultimate performance of the system. Whilst a CPU maxing out can lead to jarring frame rate inconsistency and drops or lags in the flow of the game, a GPU will happily run at 99% load and provide consistent frame rates doing it. We also have the luxury of choice, in that it is possible to adjust settings to improve performance or visual fidelity to meet our own needs and priorities.
So with the parameters clarified let’s dive in and make some recommendations for common gaming configurations:
Best CPU GPU Combos for Gaming PC Builds- My Recommendations
Best Budget CPU-GPU Combo for 1080p 60hz Gaming
Ryzen 1600AF + XFX RX 580 GTS XXX Edition
We are fortunate that AMD’s Ryzen line up has brought powerful and versatile CPUs to a sub $100 price point. Late 2019 saw the quiet release of the Ryzen 1600’AF’ CPU, which is effectively a Ryzen 1600 manufactured on a 12nm fabrication process. This CPU gives a performance almost identical to the Ryzen 5 2600, but at a list price of just $85. Sadly demand has seen this price creep towards $100, but it still represents phenomenal value and is capable of great gaming performance across virtually all current titles.
If you’re struggling to find the 1600AF, the Rysen 5 2600 is a fine alternative.
Pair this CPU with the still available Radeon RX 580 for a rock-solid 1080p gaming experience that won’t break the bank. The RX580 is bordering on ancient technology now, with its roots I the 5-year-old Polaris architecture. It’s still a strong performer though and well capable of exceeding 1080p 60FPS in most current games on medium or high settings.
Best 1080p All Rounder CPU-GPU Combo
Ryzen 5 3600 + MSI GTX 1660 Super Ventus XS OC
If you have slightly more to spend and are looking for a versatile all round gaming machine on AMD’s latest Zen 2 platform, the Ryzen 5 3600 is a great choice. Again boasting 6 cores and 12 threads thanks to multithreading, the ‘ZEN2’ process at 7nm allowed a big step forwards in clock speeds and efficiency. This CPU is capable of high frame rates in fast paced titles as well as light productivity work and makes a great all-rounder CPU without diverting too much budget away from the graphics card.
The Nvidia GTX 1660 Super is the rock-solid mid-range GPU from Nvidia, aimed at high quality 1080p performance. It does without the expense of ray tracing cores but includes Nvidias impressive NVENC streaming encoder which allows you to broadcast a stream of your gameplay with minimal system overhead. The ‘Super’ refresh in mid 2019 moved the GPU to GDDR6 VRAM giving a performance bump that rendered the more expensive GTX 1660 Ti obsolete.
This GPU is capable of excellent frame rates even in demanding titles and high settings at 1080p, without breaking the bank. The MSI Ventus XS OC is a strong AIB GTX 1660 Super offering from MSI, with two fans and an attractive price point. All versions of the GPU will perform very similarly though, so don’t overpay!
- Related: Best motherboards for Ryzen 5 3600 builds
- Related: Best all-rounder ITX Ryzen 5 3600 build under $1500
Best CPU-GPU Combo for 1080p 144hz Competitive Gaming
Intel Core i5-9600K + EVGA RTX 2060 KO Edition
There are few areas left unchallenged by AMD in the CPU performance battle particularly with the Zen 2 CPUs of 2019. However, one area does remain in intel’s favour: Very high refresh rate gaming. This is down to the clock speed of intel CPU’s – K Series CPUs allow a stiff overclock from stated speeds and an i5-9600K should be able to approach 5Ghz given adequate cooling and a Z390 motherboard. Which this speed, a 10-15% performance increase is on offer, and that translates to performance in esports titles like CS:GO that AMD still can’t match. It isn’t perfect however, with 6 cores and no multithreading and a high price tag it represents worse value than AMD’s offerings. The motherboard and cooler required to achieve a stable overclock will add at least $200 to the platform price tag as well. Despite those shortcomings, Intel CPU’s still feature in high-performance Esports rigs because competitiveness trumps value when it comes to getting as many frames as possible on screen.
To ensure peak performance even at 1080p a high-performance GPU is required. In esports titles, it is expected that players will be lowering graphical settings to extract the highest possible frame rate from the system as a whole. This ensures their competitive edge. The RTX 2060 has recently had a price drop to just over $300. It includes the Turing NVENC encoder to stream gameplay, and is capable of very high frame rates in titles like Overwatch and Fortnite. It represents the best route to high FPS gaming at 1080p – although the slightly more expensive Radeon RX 5700XT will out perform it provided you’re willing to spend the extra! The EVGA RTX 2060 ‘KO’ led the way with the price drop announcement and this attractively priced twin fan card takes our recommendation. Stock is sporadic though, so be sure to jump on them when you see one at list price.
Best CPU-GPU Combo for 1440p 60hz Gaming
At 1440p we return to the realm of truly GPU limited frame rates. In this instance the Ryzen 5 3600 is again a very sensible choice providing ample performance across a wide range of tasks. Of course, there’s no harm in opting for a more powerful CPU like the Ryzen 7 3700X, if the System will also be used for productivity or number-crunching but to maintain a stable 60fps in current games it’s simply not necessary. The additional $100 would be better put towards a more powerful GPU, to really take command of the high-resolution screen.
On the GPU side, 1440p represents double the pixels of 1080p, and so you can expect roughly half the frame rate like for like. Again, the RTX 2060 does an admirable job in most titles at this resolution. It will achieve 60 FPS in AAA titles such as Shadow of the Tomb Raider on very high settings (but not with RTX enabled!) and exceed 100FPS in Battlefield 1 and Battlefield V. Even the highly demanding Metro:Exodus yields 60-80FPS on high settings, making the RTX 2060 a fine choice for those with a 1440p/QHD screen but not a huge budget for a GPU. Again, the EVGA RTX 2060 KO takes our recommendation here provided you can find it at list price.
Best CPU-GPU Combo for 1440p 144hz Gaming
3700X + RX 5700XT or RTX 2070 Super (Gigabyte RTX 2070 Windforce OC 3X)
In order to drive higher FPS at 1440p the GPU has to take precedence in the overall budget allocation: Make no mistake, this is where things start to get expensive. In order to ensure frame rates are stable and consistent across a range of game styles, and given that a GPU capable of delivering at this level will cost $400 or more, it makes sense to opt for the 8-core Ryzen 7 3700X CPU. This 3.6ghz CPU is capable of using Precision Boost Overdrive and eXtended Frequency Range 2 Algorithms to effectively self-overclock to as close to 4.4Ghz as possible, getting the very best single-core performance from your particular chip. 8 Cores is ample for all current games and multithreading can have benefits in ensuring smooth frame rates. If you opt for this chip you can rest assured you’ve got a capable CPU for the foreseeable future.
To render 1440p scenes at high FPS and take full advantage of a 144hz monitor, you need a huge amount of GPU power. Performance is dictated largely by how high you want to crank visual settings and how much you are prepared to spend. That said both AMD and NVIDIA have attractive and very capable offerings at the $450-$500 price point. On the NVIDIA side there is the RTX 2070 Super – with our recommended aftermarket model being the Gigabyte RTX 2070 Super Windforce OC. This GPU boasts 8gb GDDR6 VRAM, tensor and ray-tracing cores, and enough rendering cores to comfortably support high FPS at 1440p.
Meanwhile, AMD has the lower-priced and slightly less feature-rich RX 5700XT. This GPU trades blows in raw rendering performance with the RTX 2070 Super but saves you $50-$100. It makes an excellent choice for 1440p high refresh rate gaming. Either the RX 5700 XT Sapphire Pulse or the Gigabyte Gaming OC models hit the sweet spot of price, performance and cooling solution making them our recommendations for this GPU.
A note of caution and expectation management here: The demands of 1440p and high refresh rates mean that many games in particular AAA titles and other demanding games simply won’t approach a full 144FPS. Anything over 100fps should be considered more than enough in detailed games, providing a smooth and enjoyable experience without compromising graphical fidelity.
Best CPU-GPU Combo for 1440p Ultrawide Gaming
Ryzen 7 3700X + PNY RTX 2080 SUPER 8 GB XLR8 Gaming OC
1440p ultrawide monitors take the demands of regular 1440p and crank them up a notch. Sitting roughly halfway between QHD and 4K in rendering demands we’re now firmly into the realms of ‘how deep are your pockets’ when It comes to GPU choice.
Again, CPU choice is less critical because Frame rates will be suppressed by the heavy demand on the GPU. However, once again the Ryzen 7 3700X is a fine choice with ample power and performance in a good value package.
North of the RX 5700XT, AMD has no rival to Nvidia’s top-end offerings: If you want maximum performance at this resolution your options are limited to the RTX 2080 Super or the range-topping RTX 2080 Ti. The RTX 2080 Super offers much better value with GPUs available from $700 and capable of reasonable FPS at 1440p ultrawide and high settings. PNY are a well respected but no-frills GPU manufacturer and their impressively titled RTX 2080 Super XLR8 Gaming Overclocked edition is, with 3 fans, nearly as long as its name. With a high boost clock and great cooling, this GPU will self boost to ensure the very best performance.
Best CPU-GPU Combo for 4K 60hz Gaming
Processor of your choice + RTX 2080 Ti
4K gaming is heavily demanding of GPU resources. Conversely, the lower frame rates resultant from such a heavy load on the GPU mean that almost any current 6 core CPU is capable of maintaining acceptable performance of 60 fps in almost all titles.
Of course, with a 4K capable GPU costing at least $700 (RTX 2080 Super) we tend to find high-end CPUs in 4K gaming rigs – these builds tend to be about showcasing the heights of enthusiast performance and no one looking for the best value for money should set 4K gaming as an aspiration. If you do want to build a killer 4K rig, the Ryzen 3900X or intel i9-9900K is, of course, an excellent choice, but they’re not actually necessary for acceptable performance. A Ryzen 5 3600 will fill the role with ease.
The GPU is another matter. Those seeking ultimate graphical fidelity at 4K resolution have few places to turn. A Radeon RX 5700XT or RTX 2070 Super will perform acceptably well with settings reduced to high or medium in some cases and if for example, you want to run a 4K living room TV at native resolution that would be a good starting point.
If you want 4K to really shine on high or ultra settings whilst playing the latest AAA titles you’ll need to break out the big guns. There is currently no equal to the RTX 2080 Ti in sheer GPU grunt. This $1000 GPU Will meet or exceed 60fps in current AAA titles such as Metro:Exodus and Red Dead Redemption 2 with settings turned up high giving you the very best visual experience. Prices for this flagship card start at $1100 for entry-level models. When performance between versions is much the same it’s hard to recommend higher-end version,s particularly as many wish to customise GPU’s with a water loop cooling system at this price point. The EVGA RTX 2080 Ti Black edition has a reference PCB for maximum compatibility with aftermarket 2080 Ti water blocks, whilst EVGA still warranties the card even if you’ve fitted your own cooler. That unparalleled support plus the attractive $1099 price point see the EVGA Black edition get our recommendation from RTX 2080 Ti’s available now.
I hope in this article I’ve been able to give you a good starting point in your quest to build your version of the perfect gaming PC. Please remember to check out our GPU database as well as the article on ‘balancing CPU and GPU’ to learn more.