If you’re in the market for a new gaming PC, you probably have a good idea of which games you want to play, but you might not know what you need to buy to play them at their best. You could just buy the best PC you can afford, but dropping thousands of dollars on a PC when you would’ve been happy with a much cheaper option is a waste.
When it comes to gaming, your central processing unit (CPU) and graphics card, or graphics processing unit (GPU) will do the heavy lifting in your PC. Your memory (RAM) and storage drives also matter, but as long as you have 16GB of RAM and 1TB or more of solid-state drive (SSD) storage, you don’t have to worry about it. Below, we’ll help you suss out exactly what to look for in a CPU and GPU to create the ultimate gaming machine for your needs.
What is a CPU and what is a GPU?
A CPU is kind of like a PC’s brain, where every task is analyzed and sorted into the right bins for further action. Many tasks will need complex calculations, such as determining where to install a game on your storage drive, and your CPU’s fast processing speeds can figure that out in a snap.
A GPU is optimized for simple tasks with a lot of separate calculations—like calculating what color to display on each pixel of your screen. While a CPU will determine which calculations should be made, the GPU will receive the order and perform the calculations. You could think of a CPU as a small room of professors (each professor being 1 CPU core of about a dozen), and a GPU as a gymnasium full of fifth graders who do basic math (each student being 1 GPU core of thousands).
So where do all the latest CPUs and GPUs fall on the ladder of light to heavy gaming? Games on Steam, Epic Games Store, Origin, and other storefronts list system requirements so you at least have the minimum required to run the game. For our recommendations, we’re assuming you want to play games at 60 frames per second (fps) with the highest graphics settings possible. If you like to mod your games, go to the next-highest category.
The top CPU and GPU for casual gaming
Sample games: Hollow Knight, Deepest Dungeon, Portal, Bioshock
CPU: 8th gen Intel Core i5
GPU: Integrated with CPU
- Price: No minimum
This category includes browser-based games, 2D games, PS3-era or older games that demand very little processing power. If you mostly play games in this category, you can get by with just about any PC built in the last 5 years. Most 2D games fall here, since two dimensions of calculations is easier than three dimensions of calculations, and the most popular 2D game engines are very light to run.
Any of our best laptops under $1,000 should meet your needs. Gaming laptops at this price point will sacrifice battery life, screen quality, and build quality compared to productivity laptops of a similar price.
The top CPU and GPU for online multiplayer and 1080p gaming
Sample games: League of Legends, Fortnite, Genshin Impact, Total War: Warhammer II, Far Cry 5, Minecraft
- CPU: 11th gen Intel Core i5 (desktop); 10th gen Intel Core i7 (laptop)
- GPU: Nvidia GeForce GTX 1060; AMD Radeon RX 580
- Price: $700
At 1080p, most games will aim to run at 60fps with this level of hardware—the most popular GPUs used for PC gaming are the Nvidia GTX 1060, GTX 1650, and GTX 1050 Ti according to Steam’s May 2022 hardware survey. Making a game that needs more powerful hardware to run smoothly substantially limits its user base, so you can count on the most popular online multiplayer games to cater to this category. Most Playstation 4-era single player games also run well with this hardware at 1080p resolution.
For more intensive games like Cyberpunk 2077 or The Medium, you may need to lower the graphics settings to keep the frame rate above 60fps. However, these titles are not numerous, and it will be some time before integrated graphics can keep up with modern budget GPUs like the GTX 1060.
Our best gaming laptops under $1,000 should be able to reach these levels of performance or greater, or you can spend a little more to get a productivity or business laptop that happens to have a discrete GPU, like the MSI Summit E16 or the Dell XPS 15. Finding a used or deeply discounted laptop, like this Acer Nitro 5 model, can net you even greater savings.
The top CPU and GPU for mid-tier and 1440p gaming
Sample games: Civilization VI, Red Dead Redemption 2, Shadow of the Tomb Raider, Cyberpunk 2077 (1080p)
- CPU: 12th gen Intel Core i5; 5th gen AMD Ryzen 5
- GPU: Nvidia GeForce RTX 3060; AMD Radeon RX 6600XT
- Price: $1,000
If a resource-intensive game like Cyberpunk 2077 can run at 1080p 60fps ultra without ray tracing enabled, then just about any game should be able to run above 60fps at this resolution, and most lighter games like Overwatch will run at 60fps on 1440p epic resolution. Some games like Civilization VI and Europa Universalis 4 aren’t as graphics-intensive as most in this category, but their CPU-intensive load needs a high-end processor to keep up.
The new Acer Nitro 5 hits this benchmark exactly, running Cyberpunk 2077 at 61fps with 1080p ultra graphics. The MSI Delta 15, the Asus ROG Zephyrus G14, and the Razer Blade 14 are all great alternatives if you don’t mind spending a little more for a slimmer laptop. You may be able to find some laptops under $1,000 that meet this threshold if they’re on sale, but a desktop like the iBuyPower Slate MR Gaming Desktop will get you greater performance at the same price.
The top CPU and GPU for high-end, VR, and 4K gaming
Sample games: Control (4K resolution), Horizon: Forbidden West (4K resolution), Half Life: Alyx
- CPU: 12th gen Intel Core i5; 5th gen AMD Ryzen 7
- GPU: Nvidia GeForce RTX 3070, AMD Radeon RX 6800
- Cost: $1,500 - $2,000
Machines with this hardware will serve as great gaming PCs, able to run most games in 4K resolution at 60fps for years to come. That said, sometimes you’ll run into a game like Microsoft Flight Simulator that’ll force you to either turn down the resolution or set the graphics down to high or even medium.
In this category, desktop PCs far outdo their laptop cousins for performance per dollar. The MSI Aegis ZS and NZXT Streaming Plus pre-built PCs can play many games at 4K without a hitch, although a game like Cyberpunk 2077 will only run below 60fps at that resolution. There are also some stellar gaming laptops that match this performance level that won’t leave you completely broke, although they’ll push lower framerates than a similarly-priced gaming PC. The Asus ROG Strix G15 AMD laptop is a fantastic deal if you don’t need ray-tracing performance, and the Lenovo Legion 5 Pro offers the framerates to make most ray-traced games look amazing.
The top CPU and GPU for extreme gaming and 4K ray-tracing
Sample games: Cyberpunk 2077 (4K resolution with ray-tracing enabled), Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla (4K resolution with ray-tracing), Microsoft Flight Simulator
- CPU: 12th gen Intel Core i9; 5th gen AMD Ryzen 9
- GPU: Nvidia RTX GeForce 3080
- Cost: $2,000+
The best of the best, these PCs show off the latest gaming has to offer. They can easily handle ray-tracing in games, even at 4K ultra graphics. Notoriously detailed, realistic, and complex games like Microsoft Flight Simulator can run with maxed-out graphics settings, and with this hardware you can count on stellar 4K frame rates in any modern game.
The best gaming desktop will outdo the best gaming laptops, but the best gaming laptops can still play Cyberpunk 2077 with ray tracing enabled in 4K resolution at 60 fps set to ultra graphics. AMD’s graphics cards can’t handle ray-tracing as well as Nvidia’s graphics cards in the current generation, but with regular game graphics, the Nvidia RTX 3080 and AMD Radeon RX 6900XT are otherwise comparable. The MSI GE76 Raider and the Acer Predator Triton 500SE are both killer laptops in this range, but they will set you back $3,000 or more.
As for desktops, the Acer Predator Orion 7000 is a smashing option that outdoes both laptops for the same price—but there are cheaper desktops available with an RTX 3080 and an Intel Core i9 processor or similar, like the iBuyPower Trace MR or the MSI Aegis RS.
For most people, a midweight gaming PC with a 12th Intel Core i5 processor and an Nvidia RTX 3060 graphics card will perform phenomenally for years to come. Looking beyond those specs is only recommended for gamers who need 1440p or 4K resolution, since the higher resolutions will put a strain on the graphics card. But the price of these PCs quickly climbs.
If you want to keep your PC updated or generally want to spend less money for the same performance, a gaming desktop will outperform a similarly priced laptop and you can usually upgrade the components later on. You can even stream your gaming desktop to your laptop with remote streaming software, which is a boon for those with great internet connection. But gaming laptops still hold the edge for portability and lag-free online gaming compared to a desktop stream or cloud gaming.
Prices were accurate at the time this article was published but may change over time.