Generally-speaking, six cores is usually the optimal number of cores for gaming in 2020. Four cores can still cut it but would hardly be a future-proof solution, and eight or more cores might provide a performance improvement, though all this depends largely on how a particular game coded and what GPU the CPU would be paired with.
Picking a GPU for gaming is fairly easy. All you need to do is go check some benchmarks, decide what kind of performance you can get for the kind of money that you’re willing to spend, and you’re good to go.
However, CPUs are a somewhat different story. True, a CPU’s performance will vary based on its specifications, but it’s more difficult to gauge a CPU’s gaming performance since it can vary greatly from game to game and based on what GPU it is paired up with.
Still, there’s one CPU spec that stands out most of the time, and it’s the core count.
So, how many CPU cores do you need for gaming in 2020, and is a core count even that important? Read on and find out!
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What Is A CPU Core?
In layman’s terms, the core count indicates how many tasks a CPU can handle simultaneously. Back in the day, single-core CPUs weren’t actually capable of multi-tasking. Rather, they would quickly cycle and switch between priority tasks, and needless to say, it didn’t make for very smooth performance.
This changed in 2005 with the release of the first-ever commercial dual-core CPUs which paved the way for other multi-core processors. It didn’t take long for CPUs with 4, 6, 8, and more cores to hit the market over the coming decade.
But while multi-core CPUs can deliver palpable improvements in regards to multitasking and various professional software, just how much of a difference does a higher core count make when gaming concerned?
Single-Core vs Multi-Core Gaming Performance
In the past, having a high core count didn’t mean much since most games simply weren’t programmed to take full advantage of multiple CPU cores. However, the situation has changed drastically in recent years, mostly because the wide availability of multi-core CPUs had encouraged developers to optimize their games for multi-core performance.
In truth, single-core performance is still more important than multi-core performance for gaming, but since most games today will ultimately be taking advantage of multiple CPU cores, the core count shouldn’t be neglected either.
That said, if we were to make some generalizations, we’d say that going with 6 cores is the best middle-ground for gaming in 2020, with CPUs such as the Intel Core i5-9600K or the AMD Ryzen 5 3600X being prime picks for most mid-range builds.
That doesn’t mean that quad-core CPUs are suddenly inadequate for gaming, though – as a matter of fact, they still remain highly viable for budget builds. Sadly, today’s quad-core models can hardly be called future-proof, and they will inevitably bottleneck mid-range cards to a certain degree.
As for CPUs with 8 or more cores, whether they are worth it for gaming will depend entirely on what GPU you’d be getting along with them. For example, there’s no point pairing up an i7-9700K with a GTX 1660 Ti, but if you’ve got your sights set on, say, an RTX 2080, then a more powerful i7 or Ryzen 7 CPU would be a good idea.
Physical Cores vs Logical Cores
While we are on the subject of CPU cores, we must also mention logical cores i.e. threads, as they are more commonly referred to. Intel’s hyperthreading and AMD’s multithreading technologies allow for a single physical core to handle two tasks simultaneously, thus functioning as two separate logical cores.
So, is multithreading/hyperthreading any good? The answer is most certainly yes.
Most of AMD’s Ryzen lineup features multithreading, including both mid-range and high-end models, while hyperthreading is reserved for Intel’s high-end i7 and i9 CPUs at the moment.
But benchmarks and professional software are one thing, and in-game performance is another. Truth be told, just because the Ryzen 5 3600X has 12 threads while the i5-9600K has only 6 doesn’t necessarily mean that the former will offer better in-game performance. As we’ve mentioned before, it mostly comes down to how the game is coded and what GPU we’re talking about.
As you can see from the video above, it’s not all about on-paper specs. As such, it’s always a good idea to take a look at some benchmarks before deciding on which CPU to get!
We have already touched upon the subject of bottlenecking, so what does this mean, in short?
In essence, if a GPU cannot be utilized to its full potential because the CPU isn’t issuing instructions fast enough, then you’re looking at a bottleneck.
The same applies to when you pair an overpowered CPU such as the i7-9700K with a GPU such as the GTX 1650. Only, it’s not that the GPU is limiting the CPU’s performance, but you’d simply have overspent on a CPU which isn’t even working to its maximum capacity.
Ultimately, there is no reliable way to pinpoint exactly to what extent a particular CPU will bottleneck a particular GPU, but bottleneck calculators can give you a decent enough impression as to what a good CPU/GPU combo would look like.
If we were to make some generalizations:
- Ryzen 3 and i3 CPUs are good for weaker budget GPUs e.g. Radeon RX 570 or GTX 1650
- Ryzen 5 and i5 CPUs are good for mid-range GPUs e.g. Radeon RX 5700 or RTX 2060
- Ryzen 7 and i7 CPUs are good for high-end GPUs e.g. RTX 2080
Ryzen 9 and i9 CPUs are generally overkill for gaming unless you’d also be using the PC for CPU-intensive professional software or are planning to blow a lot of money on a multi-GPU setup
As you can see, there is no simple and straightforward answer to the titular question.
Up until a few years ago, dual-core CPUs were still viable in some builds, and today, quad-cores are already on the verge of being obsolete.
Now, in 2020, quad-cores will only really cut it for budget builds, while hexa-core CPUs are often your best bet for mid-range configurations. Meanwhile, CPUs that have eight or more cores are rarely worth it just for gaming, unless we’re talking high-end GPUs, multi-GPU setups, or you also intend on using the PC as a workstation.