Every part matters for optimal performance when you’re building a gaming computer. However, the CPU and GPU are two of the most essential components. They both help determine what quality your computer can deliver, and neither will do as well alone as it will with the other.
However, that doesn’t mean they’re equally important. When it comes to the CPU versus the GPU for gaming, there is one that matters more.
What Matters the Most in Gaming?
Ultimately, the CPU is the most crucial part of your computer. You can’t do anything without it, and if you choose to go with a lower-grade CPU, the entire performance of your computer will be worse. A gaming computer works for more than just gaming; a more powerful CPU will let you get more use out of your computer.
The intent here isn’t to undercut the importance of the GPU for gaming. Many high-quality modern titles won’t run without a GPU of sufficient power any more than they would without a CPU.
You can’t rely on the CPU to display complex resolutions any more than you can depend on the GPU to support complex physics. They work together and have to be considered as a bundle.
While the CPU may be slightly more important, the GPU also dramatically impacts your gaming experience. If you have to prioritize one, you should choose the CPU.
However, it’s also an excellent strategy to split your budget between the two and choose which to elevate depending on the specific requirements of the games you play.
How Are the GPU and CPU Different in Games?
The CPU and GPU handle different aspects of the games you’re playing, so it’s difficult to say which is more important. They work together in part by dividing the work between them.
The strength of one component can help take the stress off another, which means that a strong CPU might help compensate for a slightly weaker GPU and vice versa.
The GPU handles what you might think of as the graphical end of things. Games with high-resolution texture packs, realistic lighting, and other image-quality related settings probably rely more on the GPU.
You might see higher GPU utilization when the game is open for these games. Games like Cyberpunk, Horizon Zero Dawn, and Control are very GPU-heavy.
The CPU handles things like physics and shadows. Increasing the draw distance on a game will likely tax the CPU more than the GPU. These games require a more robust CPU to perform well. Games like ARMA, Stellaris, and EVE Online rely heavily on the CPU.
One important takeaway is that although a game may favor the CPU or GPU, it still needs both to run, and having a weak CPU can limit the effectiveness of your GPU and vice versa.
What Does a CPU Do for Gamers?
To understand how your CPU affects your gaming, it’s helpful to have a basic understanding of the role of a CPU in a computer.
Your central processing unit is the major component of your computer and is basically its brain. Everything your computer does is filtered through and processed by the CPU.
Each one is made from billions of transistors that can perform tasks and comprises a few different parts. Here are some of the important ones to understand.
- The cores are each like their own little CPUs. The more cores a chip has, the more functions it can perform. Of course, things like the speed of the cores and other aspects of the card affect its performance. One four-core CPU isn’t necessarily as strong as another.
- The L3 cache is the memory that helps store short-term information for the CPU. There are other types of cache on the CPU too.
- Whether or not the CPU has onboard graphics is also worth noting. While onboard graphics aren’t usually good enough for high-quality AAA games, they give you another option if your graphics card fails. They can also handle some games that put less stress on the GPU.
Your CPU will handle not only processing commands for the game but also running your operating system and other active programs. If you stream your gameplay or play in VR, then a strong CPU is even more critical than for basic gaming because it will have to support more functions simultaneously.
How Do I Choose a Good CPU for Gaming?
Before you get ready to buy, ask yourself a few questions so that you’re equipped to make the right choice.
- How long do you want the CPU to last? If you’re designing this build for a specific purpose right now, it might not be as essential to consider future-proofing. However, if you want the CPU to work on games that haven’t been released yet, think about choosing something more robust that will be able to run future games.
- What kind of motherboard do you want? Your motherboard and CPU have to be compatible. If you already have a motherboard or want specific features, you may have to narrow your CPU choices to one it supports.
- Will you be using the computer for anything else? If you work on the computer – especially CPU-intensive work – it could be helpful to choose a CPU with a higher core count. If you are only using it for gaming and pairing it with a strong GPU, you may want to focus on clock speed rather than core count.
As long as the CPU is compatible with your setup, it should be reasonably easy to find several that are sufficient for your purposes. Many CPUs can run high-quality games, so it’s a matter of finding a compatible one that works with the rest of your system.
Don’t buy something on a whim when it serves as the foundation of your computer for potentially years.
What Does a GPU Do for Gamers?
Your graphics processing unit is designed to render images and video on your device rather than dealing with the many other tasks that keep the computer running. While it may be a powerful processing device, the GPU isn’t designed to micromanage everything a CPU must. It’s a vital niche device.
The GPU is probably the second most crucial part of your computer as a gamer. It creates the images you see on the screen and does it fast enough that you can see and interact in what feels like the exact moment. If you’re playing on an integrated graphics card, you probably won’t have enough power to run complex games with great visuals.
If you’re gaming in higher resolutions, you may also need to put more emphasis on what GPU you choose. High-resolution gaming is very GPU heavy. If you are selecting a midgrade GPU, you may not be able to play in detailed settings on higher resolution displays.
How to Choose a Gaming GPU?
When you shop for a gaming GPU, you look at many different models with slight and significant differences. Here are some of the things to prioritize.
- Look for a card with 8 GB of memory, if possible. While 6 GB will be enough to play most games with good quality at 1080p, going higher will help you if you play at higher resolutions. If one card has faster memory than another with the same amount, go with the card with speedier memory.
- Check out the power requirements before you purchase the card. Some of the newer ones require a great deal of power, and you need a PSU that can provide it.
- T/GFLOPS, CUDA cores, and clock speed are important measurements of what a card can do. However, the TFLOP or GFLOP measurement is probably the most telling. Comparing two cards together, choose the one with the higher floating point operations per second to get a faster card.
Understanding these aspects of a GPU should help you get one that can easily play your favorite games. However, understanding them and knowing their real-world performance are two different things. It’s important to research tests, build quality, and other information before making your final choice.
Choosing a CPU and GPU as a Gamer
When it’s time to make your choice, consider your budget and determine what you can get for what you have. You can also look up some required game specifications to assess precisely what combination might suit your needs.
Anticipate Which Parts You Need
Before putting together a build, check out what results other people have had in their games with your ideal parts. Doing so will give you an idea of what to expect and help guide you when choosing.
- Navigate to the System Requirement’s Labs tool that helps you see how your computer can run various games.
- Type in a game that interests you in the Search For a Game box. You can select the game you want from the dropdown when it appears.
- Click Can You Run It.
- Read through the minimum and recommended requirements.
- Repeat this process for other games you might want to play.
When looking at the minimum and recommended specifications, you don’t see the top-of-the-line builds. The minimum requirements will run it on low settings. The recommended specifications should run it well on decent settings.
While you can run the test on a fully-built system, you can’t check it against a system you’re still designing. So you’ll have to read through a few games and make a list of the recommended parts.
Once you’re done, you’ll better understand what’s necessary to run your favorite games. The parts that would work to run those are a good starting point you can use to create a budget and determine how much money you have left for upgrades.
Check Out What Other Gamers Have to Say
There are many sites offering reviews of different CPUs and GPUs, many of which go into extensive detail and include tests to show how the game performed at other qualities and what the frames-per-second were in various games.
This gives you an excellent baseline for how the parts will function, especially when tested in builds with other elements.
Reviews of a CPU and GPU working together in a system are best because your entire computer works together and not separately. However, a high-quality GPU or CPU with adequate specifications should work with any compatible parts quite well, so that isn’t something to worry about as much.
Consider What Your Money Can Get
Adding an extra $100 to your budget might significantly impact your CPU more than your GPU. Since GPUs are more expensive than CPUs, each dollar you put in offers a more negligible difference in performance than adding a dollar to your CPU budget.
However, many budget CPUs are perfectly adequate for gaming, and it’s relatively easy to upgrade a CPU later as long as you’re comfortable taking it out of your motherboard and swapping it for another. Different GPUs likely have a more considerable impact.
For example, the 3060 and 3090 offer very different performance benchmarks, including many more frames resulting from the 3090.
You might not see as large a gaming increase by upgrading your CPU. It really is all about what kind of performance you can get for each part working together. I am inclined to focus more on my GPU, even though I consider the CPU more important.
I just know that a high-end CPU will perform my gaming and work tasks, but a high-end GPU will let me do all those in high resolution.
Frequently Asked Questions
Is the CPU or GPU More Important for VR Gaming?
You need a solid GPU to play VR games. If you plan to make a build to go with a VR headset, prioritize your GPU – but don’t skimp on the CPU. It takes a lot of resources to run games in VR.
Is the CPU or GPU More Important for FPS?
Your CPU and GPU both work together. They’re both important and play a role in what kind of frames you can expect in different games. In some games, the GPU may create a bottleneck. In others, the CPU could be the issue. It just depends on which the game relies on more.