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The Best CPU GPU Combos for Gaming (2021)

Recommended CPU & Graphics Card Pairings to Avoid CPU Bottlenecks in Most Games

Last Updated: September 14, 2021

Choosing the best CPU GPU combo for your gaming PC can be very simple - when it comes to most modern games, it's typically easy to avoid your CPU bottlenecking your GPU if you follow the conventional wisdom of balancing your CPU and GPU selection with a decent skew towards the GPU (in terms budget).

This is because most 3D titles are more graphically demanding than they are CPU demanding, but also largely because graphics in games continue to get better and better over time, with more complex and impressive rendering algorithms and effects coming into play every few years, while the actual game logic/code (the CPU's job) stays around the same or increases only a little. 

Therefore, in general when building or upgrading a gaming PC, it makes sense to put more weight towards your GPU. However, there are always exceptions, and depending on your exact usage you may want to think through your choice of CPU and GPU a little more based on the following 3 things:

Types of Games You Play (CPU Intensive?)

Some games place more strain on the CPU than others, therefore a certain CPU GPU pairing may cause a CPU bottleneck in one particular game, and not in another. CPU intensive games, also sometimes referred to as CPU bound games, are games that have a lot of "behind the scenes" processing of non-rendering related game mechanics and gameplay, whether that's due to large game worlds, lots of in-game objects/characters/units needing processing (think strategy games), a lot of complex physics or AI, and so on.

If you're building a PC for a particular game (or genre), and after doing your research you find that game to be a CPU intensive game like GTA V as one random example, you may want to more evenly distribute your budget towards both the GPU and CPU (instead of the norm which is to spend a fair bit more on your GPU vs the CPU). How much more weight you put towards the CPU also depends on the resolution - and more importantly the refresh rate - of your monitor (both of which I'll explain next).

Other examples of CPU intensive games are No Man's Sky, Warzone (when playing online and using a 144Hz monitor), Boneworks VR (tons of physics), Civilization V (lots of background processing), Escape from Tarkov, WoW (especially raids, dungeons, major cities), Watch Dogs Legion, most Assassin's Creed games, and Cyberpunk 2077 just to name a few. Check out this full list of the most CPU intensive games if interested.

Just keep in mind that CPU intensive games can also be GPU intensive, so just because a certain game is CPU intensive does NOT mean that game doesn't also require a very good GPU to run well. If gaming at higher resolutions, you might still want to spend more heavily on your GPU vs the CPU, even if your game/s are very CPU intensive. It all depends.

Some CPU intensive games do have lower GPU requirements though, such as Minecraft, League of Legends, StarCraft 2, and Counter Strike Global Offensive. These are examples where you can confidently say the CPU is actually more important than the GPU overall (besides certain use cases such as running Minecraft with beefy graphical mods like shaders), and where you can get away with an average GPU if your CPU is good (and which may indeed be the optimal setup to go for, especially at 1080p where the GPU becomes even less important).

Your Screen Resolution (1080p, 1440p, 4K/VR?)

Choosing the best CPU GPU combo to avoid or minimize CPU bottlenecks isn't just about which games you play - the resolution you're gaming at is another big factor to consider. Or more specifically, how high your frame rate will be. Higher resolutions increase load on the GPU because there are more pixels needing to be rendered. Higher resolutions also typically reduce the load on the CPU - but NOT directly because of the higher resolution. Let me explain.

When the CPU processes and prepares a frame to be rendered by the GPU, the resolution typically does not change how long that takes for the CPU - whether you're at 1080p or 4K resolution, the CPU still has to process the same amount of calculations (physics, AI, collisions, character positioning, hits, etc).

However, because your frame rate will be lower at higher resolutions (sometimes significantly lower, as 1440p is 77% more pixels than 1080p and 4K is 4 times more pixels than 1080p) your CPU usage can actually decrease because it is processing and preparing less frames compared to lower resolutions where you get higher frame rates (and therefore the CPU has to process more frames). So, you could say that screen resolution indirectly affects CPU usage (though how much so depends on the game).

You can see the relation between resolution and CPU usage yourself by simply changing resolutions and monitoring your CPU usage go up or down (using a tool like MSI Afterburner).

Higher resolutions = more load on the GPU, and lower CPU usage due to lower frame rates.

Lower resolutions = less load on the GPU, and higher CPU usage due to higher frame rates.

Your Screen Refresh Rate (60Hz, 144Hz, 240Hz?)

Your monitor's refresh rate also matters when choosing the best CPU GPU combo for gaming. In fact, it's probably the most important factor of all in terms of picking the optimal CPU for the job. Higher refresh rates like 144Hz or 240Hz allow for much higher frames per second (FPS) compared to the historical standard of 60Hz (which only allows up to 60FPS).

But to reach a higher FPS of 144 or 240 - and to do so consistently so that you don't drop too far below during hectic action moments - you will need a better CPU. Especially for CPU intensive games, and especially at 1080p resolution (where your GPU usage goes down, and CPU usage goes up since your frame rates will be higher than 1440p or 4K).

The same is true for screens that have both a high refresh-rate AND high resolution - you'll also require a better CPU than you otherwise would. For example, 1440p 144Hz monitors are more demanding on the CPU than 1440p 60Hz, because while the GPU is more important at 1440p than 1080p, reaching 144FPS still requires a good CPU, even at higher resolutions.

Best CPU GPU Combos in 2021 (Avoid Bottlenecks in Most Games)

Now let's talk more specifically about choosing the right CPU and GPU combination for the most common resolutions and refresh rates. Below I've listed some general recommendations for common sense pairings of CPUs and GPUs that will avoid CPU bottlenecks in most games AND that are good value combinations (in my opinion).

These are intended to give you an idea of what sort of CPU and GPU makes a good pairing, but keep in mind these CPU GPU combos are just general guidelines. Just please keep in mind the following:

  • If you play more CPU intensive games than the average game, you may need to tweak your selection of CPU, and the same goes for any games that are above-average in terms of GPU requirements (where you may want a better GPU than listed below).
  • These recommendations are for performance perfectionist gamers wanting the best experience. Getting slightly less powerful or cheaper parts for any given resolution and refresh rate below can still give you a very smooth experience if you don't need to reach the "flawless" targets of 60FPS, 144FPS, etc
  • If you're building a PC for a specific game then you may want to look more closely at that particular title's requirements and benchmarks (see our archives for specific game requirement guides).
  • Your choice of CPU also depends what else you're doing when gaming - if you're building a PC for gaming and streaming to Twitch at the same time, using your PC for CPU-heavy work, or like to have a ton of apps running in the background while gaming, your CPU (and RAM) needs may be higher.
  • You'll notice that the CPU recommendations are the same for each resolution, because if a CPU can handle 60FPS or 144FPS at 1080p, it can do so at 1440p or 4K. For VR PC builds, the CPU recommendations below are slightly beefier because VR has higher refresh rates (often 80Hz, 90Hz, or 120Hz) and also because choppy frame rates are much more noticeable and unpleasant in virtual reality so you want to stay above your target frame rate at all times. Plus, many popular VR games are slightly more CPU intensive than regular games.

1080p (1920 x 1080)

Best CPU GPU Combo for 1080p 60Hz Gaming

Value: Core i3 10100 / Ryzen 3 3100 + NVIDIA GeForce GTX 1650 Super / GTX 1660 Super / AMD Radeon RX 5600 XT

Best: Core i5 10400 / i5 11400 / Ryzen 5 3600 + NVIDIA GeForce RTX 3060 / AMD Radeon RX 6600 XT

Best CPU GPU Combo for 1080p 144Hz Gaming

Value: Ryzen 3 3300X / Ryzen 5 3600 / Core i5 11400 + NVIDIA GeForce RTX 3060 / AMD Radeon RX 6600 XT / 5700 XT

Best: Ryzen 5 5600X / Core i5 11600K / Core i7 10700K + AMD Radeon RX 6700 XT / NVIDIA GeForce RTX 3060 Ti

Pro: Ryzen 7 5800X / Ryzen 9 5900X / Core i9 10900K / Core i9 11900K + GeForce RTX 3070 / Radeon RX 6800

Best CPU GPU Combo for 1080p 240Hz/360Hz

Best: Ryzen 7 5800X / Ryzen 9 5900X / Core i9 10900K / Core i9 11900K + GeForce RTX 3080 / Radeon RX 6800 XT

Pro: Same CPU + GeForce RTX 3090 / Radeon RX 6900 XT

1440p (2560 x 1440)

Best CPU GPU Combo for 1440p 60Hz Gaming

Value: Core i3 10100 / Ryzen 3 3100 + AMD Radeon RX 6600 XT / 5700 XT / NVIDIA GeForce RTX 3060 / 3060 Ti

Best: Core i5 10400 / i5 11400 / Ryzen 5 3600 + NVIDIA GeForce RTX 3070 / RX 6700 XT / RX 6800

Best CPU GPU Combo for 1440p 144Hz Gaming

Value: Ryzen 3 3300X / Ryzen 5 3600 / Core i5 11400 + AMD Radeon RX 6800 / NVIDIA GeForce RTX 3070 / 3070 Ti

Best: Ryzen 5 5600X / Core i5 11600K / i7 10700K + AMD Radeon RX 6800 XT / NVIDIA GeForce RTX 3080 / 3080 Ti

4K (3840 x 2160)

Best CPU GPU Combo for 4K 60Hz Gaming

Value: Core i3 10100 / Ryzen 3 3100 + NVIDIA GeForce RTX 3070 / 3070 Ti / AMD Radeon RX 6800

Best: Core i5 10400 / Core i5 11400 / Ryzen 5 3600 + NVIDIA GeForce RTX 3080 / AMD Radeon RX 6800 XT

Best CPU GPU Combo for 4K 144Hz Gaming

Value: Ryzen 3 3300X / Ryzen 5 3600 / Core i5 11400 + NVIDIA GeForce RTX 3080 / Radeon RX 6800 XT

Best: Ryzen 5 5600X / Core i5 11600K / Core i7 10700K + NVIDIA GeForce RTX 3090 / AMD Radeon RX 6900 XT

See Also: Top 4K 144Hz Gaming Monitors

VR (Virtual Reality)

Best CPU GPU Combo for VR Gaming

Value: Core i5 10400 / i5 11400 / Ryzen 5 3600 + GeForce RTX 3060 / 3060 Ti / Radeon RX 6600 XT / 6700 XT

Best: Ryzen 5 5600X / Core i5 11600K / i7 10700K + GeForce RTX 3070 / 3080 / 3080 Ti / Radeon RX 6800 / RX 6800 XT

Ultimate: Ryzen 7 5800X / Ryzen 9 5900X / Core i9 10900K / i9 11900K +  GeForce RTX 3090 / Radeon RX 6900 XT

See Also: The Best PC VR Headsets

Your Feedback

Feel free to share your 2 cents below. Constructive criticism is also always welcome and encouraged as well. Anyway, hope the article helped. If you're confused about bottlenecks, don't miss the comprehensive guide to GPU and CPU bottlenecks.

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About Me

Indie game dev currently working on an atmospheric VR FPS adventure with Unreal Engine (to be announced soon here for anyone interested in VR FPS's). Also likes writing about gaming and hardware.

Favs of all time are OOT, Perfect Dark, MGS1, MGS2, GE007, DKC2, THPS3, WC3, HL1, HL2, and KOTOR, with the most recent addition to my list of immortals being the VR masterpiece Half Life Alyx. - Julz