Whether you’re playing competitive eSports titles with a high refresh rate or trying to max out your graphics settings on the latest Triple-A title, increasing your FPS can certainly improve your gaming experience.
While your graphics card clearly plays a big part in this, it might be less clear to what extent your CPU affects FPS. A CPU, after all, does so much more than churn out in-game frames. In fact, it processes pretty much everything your operating system and applications throw at it.
And even though which CPU you use affects your in-game framerate, there are diminishing returns, which means that some of the very best CPUs for gaming can be overkill depending on your gaming needs.
In short, different aspects of the CPU affect your FPS to varying degrees. Let’s take a closer look.
Does the CPU Affect FPS?
In a PC system the CPU is essentially the computer itself, because it’s what executes operating system and program instructions by default. The faster your CPU is at doing this, the faster your PC should run overall.
Your CPU also delegates different tasks to other specialised components in your system – a bit like how your brain delegates the task of ‘running’ to your legs. For example, while gaming, the CPU delegates rendering tasks to the GPU because GPUs are designed to be quicker at rendering than the CPU.
Graphics cards render in-game environments, but they need to know what these environments are. The CPU tells the GPU what this environment is, essentially describing the game environment to the GPU for it to render.
The CPU is also what deals with other elements of game processing, such as in-game physics, NPC logic, player-vs-enemy interactions, and so on. It’s also what feeds the GPU the information it needs for rendering via memory, which means GPU performance and CPU performance are often linked.
While GPU rendering is often the most demanding part of the process, the CPU affects FPS greatly in all these different ways, and it also influences how much your GPU affects your FPS.
How Many Cores do you Need for Gaming?
CPUs are split into ‘cores’, which are separate processing units that process and execute program instructions. The more cores your CPU has, the more that it can process simultaneously.
But how many CPU cores a program makes efficient use of depends on how the software has been designed and programmed. Traditionally, games relied very heavily on a single core and didn’t use multiple cores very effectively, so having many CPU cores wasn’t too important.
These days, however, games have started to utilise multiple cores more effectively, meaning a CPU’s multi-core performance is increasingly important. Despite this, single-core performance is still very important, and there are diminishing returns for your FPS when it comes to a CPU’s core count.
Generally, six CPU cores should be more than enough to run pretty much any modern game close to optimally. Even a good four-core CPU shouldn’t bottleneck your system too much in most games. Having more than six cores might increase your FPS a little, but most games don’t utilise more than six cores effectively enough for it to make a massive difference.
Does CPU Speed Affect FPS?
All CPUs run at a certain ‘speed’, measured in MHz (megahertz) or GHz (gigahertz). This refers to the CPU’s ‘clock speed’, which is how many times its transistors can switch from on to off, or vice versa, each second. CPU clock speed can affect in-game FPS, because the more cycles per-second, the more game instructions it can process each second.
Modern midrange and high-end CPUs, however, are all very fast, often boosting up to close to 5GHz while gaming. In other words, the playing field is now quite level when it comes to clock speeds.
But a CPU’s overall speed can be affected by all kinds of things, not just its clock speed, such as its architectural design and transistor density. One way to get an idea of a CPU’s overall speed is to see how many instructions per clock (IPC) cycle it can perform.
In the end, though, there’s no replacement for checking a CPU’s real-world gaming performance. There are so many different elements of a CPU that affect its ability to churn out frames that it’s often better to look at benchmark comparisons for different games and see how a CPU performs in practice.
Does CPU Temperature Affect FPS?
CPUs are designed to run at hot temperatures without any performance impact. However, if they start to approach their maximum temperature threshold, safety measures can kick in to prevent CPU damage which throttle its performance or even shut it down.
As such, you need a CPU cooler that always keeps your CPU well below this maximum temperature. Providing your CPU is running safely below its maximum threshold, its temperature shouldn’t affect your FPS. But if it gets too close to its maximum threshold then it will throttle itself, and your FPS will take a hit.
You should monitor your CPU’s temperature while gaming and compare this to its maximum rated temperature, which can often be found on its specification page on the manufacturer’s website. If it’s too hot, consider reapplying your cooler with some new thermal paste, adjusting your fan curves, and, if that fails, buying a new CPU cooler.
When Does your CPU Affect FPS?
Your CPU will always affect your in-game FPS because, as explained above, it’s heavily involved in so many aspects of game processing. However, certain factors change how relevant the CPU is to your FPS.
For one, while most games are very GPU intensive, some are CPU intensive. CPU intensive games are ones that require a lot of game logic for the CPU to process, such as simulation games and strategy games like Civilization 6 or Cities: Skylines. These games’ framerates will be affected by the CPU more than others.
Your CPU has less of an affect on FPS when graphics settings are increased. The more you increase your graphics settings – especially resolution – the more work your graphics card must do. This means your CPU’s workload is lessened in proportion to your GPU’s workload, making the game more GPU-intensive.
If you play at 4K resolution, for example, it’s unlikely that a CPU upgrade will increase your FPS as much as a GPU upgrade would. And if your GPU is already bottlenecking your system while gaming, a CPU upgrade likely won’t help much.
How Much FPS do you Need?
While it’s important to consider how much your CPU affects FPS, it’s also important to remember that you might not need more FPS than you currently get in games. In fact, depending on your game settings and other system components, increased FPS might not improve your gaming experience at all.
For instance, if your monitor has a low refresh rate then surpassing this likely won’t improve your gaming experience, as your monitor won’t be able to display these extra frames on the screen each second.
Even if your monitor does have a high refresh rate, if you only tend to play casual games while sat back from the screen with a controller in hand, you might not notice the extra frames as much as you would if you were playing a competitive shooter while sat right in front of your screen.
CPUs are Important for More than just FPS
Having a good CPU is important because it affects every aspect of your PC’s performance. Even if you only really use your PC for gaming, you still boot up your PC, login, install games, run game clients, update drivers and gaming software, and keep your games updated.
In other words, PCs aren’t consoles: we do much more with them than just gaming, even if gaming is what we do most often. And the CPU is like the brain of your entire system, meaning it affects how all these other things perform.
As such, while upgrading from six cores to more might not affect your FPS too much, it might still be worth it to improve your overall system performance, especially if you use professional software that makes effective use of multiple cores.
How Much does your CPU Affect FPS?
While your graphics card usually affects FPS more than your CPU, your CPU does affect FPS in many ways. It gives the GPU environment information for it to render, and it handles game logic such as calculations relating to your character’s interactions with other in-game objects or characters.
And, in fact, if your CPU is too slow, it will bottleneck your system by preventing your GPU from rendering things as fast as it could if it was passed information quicker.
So, your CPU affects FPS both directly and indirectly, and is therefore very important. But there are diminishing returns with CPUs and how they affect FPS, meaning if you have a decent, midrange six-core CPU, in most games you won’t gain much of a framerate increase by upgrading.
Once you’ve got a decent, modern midrange CPU, a GPU upgrade will likely net you more FPS than a CPU upgrade.