The CPU is arguably the most important component in a computer, perhaps only second to the GPU if you’re a gamer. However, doing a CPU upgrade isn’t always straightforward; it can be difficult to choose the right time to upgrade and the right CPU to upgrade to, because that can often entail swapping out the motherboard and even the memory, too. Not every application is going to improve from a CPU upgrade, and you need to check your existing cooler is compatible as well.
There are, however, some general rules when it comes to CPUs that can help you determine whether or not an upgrade is really worth your time and money.
When to upgrade your CPU for gaming
CPUs and how they impact gaming performance is a surprisingly complicated topic. With GPUs, we expect more frames and/or better-looking graphics when there are more cores, higher clock speeds, and better memory, but CPUs are a different beast. In fact, under the right conditions (depending on the game and the settings), a big CPU upgrade might not improve performance at all, and that’s not exactly rare.
Generally speaking, most CPUs made within the past five years with at least six cores can do at least 60 to 120 frames per second in most games when paired with a decent graphics card, but beyond that point, some CPUs do better than others. The best way to check whether or not you’re limited by your CPU in games is to check GPU usage through a resource monitor like Task Manager or MSI Afterburner. If your GPU is doing most of the heavy lifting in a game, then you should see its usage close to 100%. The lower that GPU usage is, the less dependent the game is on the GPU, and the more likely performance is limited by your CPU instead.
This is often known as a CPU bottleneck, and it’s exactly where a CPU upgrade can help.
That being said, it’s not always worth upgrading if your GPU usage isn’t perfect. If your GPU usage is around 90%, you’d barely get any 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 being left on the table if you feel like the frame rate you’re getting is too low. Upgrading your CPU might help it speed through any bottlenecks on its end, letting you make the most of your GPU’s power.
But before you pull the trigger and upgrade, you should make sure what you’re upgrading to is 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 extra rules that are worth taking into consideration:
- You don’t need more than six cores for good gaming performance. It is true that the fastest gaming CPUs have more than six cores, but it’s not just the number of cores that make modern processors great for gaming.
- RAM speed can impact gaming performance, but usually, its impact isn’t very significant, so only consider upgrading your RAM as well if you have too little or it’s particularly slow.
- CPUs with newer architectures are usually better at gaming. Ensure that any CPU you upgrade to is from the last two generations at the oldest, so Intel 11th and 12th generation or AMD Ryzen 3000 or 5000.
- Within the same architectural family (like if you’re comparing two different Ryzen 5000 CPUs), CPUs with higher clock speeds usually have better gaming performance.
- CPUs with more cache are faster, and this is another major indicator of gaming performance. For example, the Ryzen 7 5800X3D is one of the fastest gaming CPUs thanks to its massive L3 cache, the largest of any mainstream CPU.
When to upgrade your CPU for content creation
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There are quite a few kinds of applications under the umbrella of “content creation,” but most of these applications fall into two categories: those that benefit from more cores and those that benefit from a single fast core. Unlike with games, it’s pretty easy to tell whether or not a CPU upgrade is going to be worthwhile.
Most content-creation applications, especially video editing and rendering programs, benefit from having lots of cores. It’s pretty simple to check whether or not a given application would benefit from more cores. Check your CPU usage when performing a task by opening up a resource monitor like Task Manager or MSI Afterburner. If CPU usage is close to 100%, then you would likely benefit from having a CPU with more cores. Most applications have a limit to 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, which means CPUs with high single-threaded performance are the best. However, most applications that only use a single core or thread are very simple and perform well on basically any modern CPU. You might consider upgrading for better single-threaded performance if, for instance, you often work on a really big spreadsheet in Excel, which can be a challenging workload for some CPUs.
Another thing to consider when it comes to content creation is whether or not 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 could actually have worse quality depending on the CPU.
You might also be bottlenecked by other components. To see what your bottlenecks are, again, open up a resource monitor while your PC is working and check to see what’s at 100%. High RAM usage is sometimes an indicator that you don’t have enough RAM. High disk usage is usually not a great sign either and may signal that you could benefit from a faster drive.
How to choose a new CPU
If you’ve decided you should upgrade, then the next thing to do is to figure out what to upgrade to. You can’t just pick and choose CPUs because you need to have a compatible motherboard and the right kind of RAM. If your motherboard is compatible with many different CPUs that are worth upgrading to, then you only need to worry about the CPU. If not, then you’d have to get a new motherboard and potentially new RAM too. There are so many other factors to consider that there’s just not enough room in this article to talk about it.
For more information, check out our CPU buying guide.