The CPU is arguably the most important part of a computer, maybe second only to the GPU if you’re a gamer. However, performing a CPU upgrade is not always easy; it can be difficult to pick the right time to upgrade and the right CPU to upgrade to, as that can often lead to replacing the motherboard and even memory. Not every application will improve with a CPU upgrade, and you should also check if your existing cooler is compatible.
However, there are some general rules when it comes to CPUs that can help you determine if an upgrade is really worth your time and money.
CPUs and how they affect game performance is a surprisingly complicated topic. With GPUs we expect more frames and/or nicer graphics when there are more cores, higher clock speeds and better memory, but CPUs are a different beast. In fact, under the right circumstances (depending on the game and settings), a major CPU upgrade might not improve performance at all, and that’s not exactly rare.
In general, most CPUs made in the last five years with at least six cores can handle at least 60 to 120 frames per second in most games when paired with a decent graphics card, but otherwise some CPUs do better than others. The best way to check whether or not your CPU is being throttled in games is to check GPU usage through a resource monitor like Task Manager or MSI Afterburner. If your GPU does most of the heavy lifting in a game, you should see its usage close to 100%. The lower that GPU usage is, the less the game is dependent on the GPU and the more likely it is that performance will be throttled by your CPU.
This is often known as a CPU bottleneck and is exactly where a CPU upgrade can help.
That said, it’s not always worth upgrading if your GPU usage isn’t perfect. If your GPU usage is around 90%, you’ll barely get more frames from a better gaming CPU. However, if your usage is closer to 70% or even lower, there’s quite a bit of performance left if you feel like the frame rate you’re getting is too slow. Upgrading your CPU can help it speed up any bottlenecks at the end so you can get the most out of your GPU’s power.
But before you pull the trigger and upgrade, make sure you upgrade to a better gaming CPU. We highly recommend checking out reviews and our list of the best gaming CPUs you can buy in 2022† Here are a few additional rules worth considering:
- You don’t need more than six cores for good gaming performance. It’s true that the fastest gaming CPUs have more than six cores, but it’s not just the number of cores that makes modern processors great for gaming.
- RAM speed can affect game performancebut usually its impact isn’t very big, so only consider upgrading your RAM if you’re running low or it’s particularly slow.
- CPUs with newer architectures are usually better at gaming. Make sure any CPU you upgrade to is of the last two generations of the oldest, so Intel 11th and 12th Gen or AMD Ryzen 3000 or 5000.
- Within the same architectural family (like when you compare two different Ryzen 5000 CPUs), CPUs with higher clock speeds tend to have better gaming performance.
- CPUs with more cache are faster, and this is another important indicator of game performance. For example, the Ryzen 7 5800X3D is one of the fastest gaming CPUs thanks to its huge L3 cache, the largest of all mainstream CPUs.
There are quite a few types of applications under the “content creation” umbrella, but most of these applications fall into two categories: applications that take advantage of more cores and applications that take advantage of a single fast core. Unlike with games, it’s pretty easy to tell if a CPU upgrade will be worth it.
Most content creation applications, especially video editing and rendering programs, benefit from having many cores. It’s pretty easy to check if a particular application would benefit from more cores. Check your CPU usage when running a task by opening a resource monitor such as Task Manager or MSI Afterburner. If the CPU usage is close to 100%, you would probably benefit from a CPU with more cores. Most applications have a limit on how many cores they can use, which you should research before buying a 32-core CPU for a program that can only use 16.
Then there’s software that only uses one or two cores, meaning CPUs with high single-threaded performance are the best. However, most applications that only use a single core or thread are very simple and will perform well on almost any modern CPU. You might consider upgrading for better single-threaded performance if, for example, you often work on a very large spreadsheet in Excel, which can be a challenging workload for some CPUs.
Another thing to consider when it comes to content creation is whether a faster CPU is really what you need. Sometimes other components are more important. For example, while you can use a CPU to stream on OBS, it’s arguably better to use a modern GPU with an up-to-date encoder as CPU encoding is extremely intensive and can be even worse quality depending of the CPU.
You may also be hindered by other components. To see what your bottlenecks are, open a Resource Monitor again while your PC is running and check what’s at 100%. High RAM usage is sometimes an indicator that: you don’t have enough RAM† High disk usage is also usually not a good sign and can indicate that you could benefit from a faster disk.
If you’ve decided that you need to upgrade, the next thing to do is figure out what you want to upgrade to. You can’t just pick CPUs because you need a compatible motherboard and the right kind of RAM. If your motherboard is compatible with many different CPUs worth upgrading to, all you need to worry about is the CPU. If not, you will need to get a new motherboard and possibly new RAM as well. There are so many other factors to consider that there is simply not enough space in this article to talk about them.
For more information, check out our CPU buying guide.