Frames per second (FPS) is one of the most straightforward metrics used for measuring gaming performance, and it’s affected by many things.
Ideally, you need 60 FPS, and anything below 40 FPS is virtually unplayable.
Everything from your graphics card to your display and even the game settings can drastically change your frame rate.
What about the CPU?
Does your processor affect how many frames you get each second?
This article explains why the answer is a big yes, and why you shouldn’t obsess over picking the perfect processor despite its impact.
How Much Does CPU Affect FPS?
CPU affects your frames per second (FPS) only if it’s a bottleneck, the least capable component in your system.
For instance, if your CPU is so slow that your GPU utilization is around 40 to 50 percent despite 100 percent CPU utilization, your overall game experience and FPS will be subpar.
On the other hand, if you get over 80 percent GPU utilization and your CPU cores aren’t maxed out, using a more powerful one won’t affect your FPS.
Ideally, your game should run at 60 FPS or higher without putting strain on your CPU, GPU, or RAM.
When your CPU has become the bottleneck, upgrading it allows your GPU to generate images more quickly because it receives CPU input faster.
You’re likely to experience a 40 percent increase in your FPS by pairing your GPU with an appropriate CPU.
However, if the CPU isn’t the limiting factor, installing a more powerful one will only improve your performance by a small margin.
In most cases, a four-core processor with a frequency of at least 3 GHz is enough for a lag-free gaming experience.
For example, if you intend to use your PC for gaming exclusively, you can go for an Intel Core i3 or an AMD Ryzen 3 processor and allocate more budget to buying a powerful GPU such as the Geforce RTX 3080 Ti or a Radeon RX 6800.
In addition to CPU and GPU, your game performance will depend on many other factors, including the title you want to play, your display, RAM, and whether you play in full-screen mode.
Below we’ll explore how and when your CPU will cause a drop in your FPS.
We’ll also go over the other factors that impact your game performance.
Why Does CPU Affect FPS?
To understand why the CPU is a critical element in your game experience, you need to learn about the different tasks involved in rendering a game.
You can divide any game into two broad aspects: logic and visuals.
The logic is all about how the game behaves.
For example, when you’re playing a first-person shooter game, the logic includes all the calculations that have to run for the game to detect whether you’ve hit an enemy.
Intelligent non-player characters also fall under logic because they need an algorithm that controls their interactions with the player.
In contrast, visuals pertain to the game’s appearance, including object positions, textures, lighting, shadows, and colors.
With that separation of concerns, it’s easy to see that the CPU handles the logic while the GPU takes care of the visuals.
For example, the graphics card generates glowing effects, reflections, and even water in games.
The moving objects, collisions, and in-game physics are handled by the CPU.
In other words, the CPU calculates the points and details, effectively describing how each frame in the game should look.
Then it passes that information to the GPU, which draws the scenes and sends the images to your display.
As you can see, you need a balanced CPU/GPU setup if you want to get the best frame rate and avoid bottlenecks.
A high-end GPU can’t generate amazing graphics and a high frame rate if the CPU isn’t fast enough to feed the frame specs.
Conversely, if you have a low-quality graphics card, your CPU can’t make up for lack of power, and you won’t get acceptable image quality.
Balancing Your CPU And GPU
In addition to hardware specs, the balance between CPU and GPU partly depends on the specific games you want to play.
Some titles, such as Civilization, are CPU-bound because the game’s AI requires intensive calculations.
On the other hand, other titles are GPU-bound, meaning the visual effects are more complex than the game’s logic.
Shadow of the Tomb Raider is famous for its complex physics simulations, ranging from spectacular nature scenes to Lara’s hair.
It will require a bit more CPU power.
In a GPU-bound game, the graphics process determines the upper limit of the performance you get.
If you have trouble with the FPS in these games, you can drop to lower-quality settings and a lower resolution.
Doing so takes the pressure off the GPU, allowing it to generate more frames per second.
As a result, the processor has to work harder to maintain the higher frame rate.
In this situation, a more powerful CPU can make a noticeable difference because it can perform more calculations per second.
However, the CPU won’t affect your FPS as much at higher graphics quality.
The CPU’s impact becomes negligible when you play your games on a large screen because the GPU becomes the limiting factor again.
That’s why any decent four-core CPU will be enough for almost all titles.
If performance really matters to you, you should invest in a higher-end GPU.
However, a more robust CPU with more cores is critical for video editing and rendering complex simulations.
In general, a computer used for non-gaming computational purposes benefits from more CPU horsepower than one mainly used for gaming.
So far, we’ve mentioned the word bottleneck a few times.
What does “bottleneck” really mean, and is it even important?
A bottleneck means one aspect of your computer holds back the other components, keeping them from reaching their full performance potential.
There’s no way to avoid a bottleneck in computers because computing resources aren’t unlimited.
However, whether a system runs into a bottleneck depends on the type of work you plan to do.
The bottleneck can even depend on your computer’s games and programs you want to run.
Some games favor faster CPUs, whereas others need more GPU to create amazing graphics.
Finally, bottlenecks can also emerge depending on your settings.
For example, reducing your display resolution makes it easier for your GPU to generate frames, but it doesn’t reduce the CPU’s workload much.
On the other hand, higher-resolution gaming forces your GPU to work harder, but your CPU won’t have to work as hard because the frame rate will drop.
So, when faced with a CPU bottleneck, you may be able to resolve the issue by upgrading to a higher-resolution monitor.
Admittedly, that’s a counterintuitive solution, but it works.
Does CPU Gigahertz Affect FPS?
A common misconception about CPUs is that higher clock speeds equal superior performance.
However, your processor’s frequency only affects your FPS if it’s below 3 GHz.
As you pass that threshold, the gains from a higher clock rate become marginal because other factors, such as the number of cores and threads, become more critical.
Those factors also have an upper bound on how much they improve your FPS.
A four-core processor running two threads on each core is enough for playing most modern, GPU-bound titles.
Still, a CPU-bound title such as Counter-Strike: Global Offensive can benefit from a more advanced CPU.
Other factors that determine CPU performance include Instructions Per Clock (IPC), cache size, branching strategy, and the physical layout of the cores.
Nevertheless, these are highly technical details that the average gamer doesn’t need to know about.
Do CPU Cores Affect FPS?
You can only expect an improvement in your game performance (and frame rate) if you upgrade from a single or dual-core processor to a quad-core processor.
Most modern games are GPU-bound and won’t get a bump in frame rate from the CPU after a certain threshold.
Moreover, high-end processors with eight or even sixteen cores consume large amounts of power.
For example, Intel’s Core i9 processors can use around 200 watts of power during regular usage.
Overclocking them can bump the power consumption to over 250 watts.
With increased power usage comes higher cooling requirements, which means a higher initial investment and running costs.
Only consider more CPU horsepower for your gaming rig if you plan to do CPU-intensive tasks such as video editing.
Does CPU Temperature Affect FPS?
CPU temperature only affects your FPS if it gets so high that the processor can’t function normally.
Such a situation is uncommon because CPUs have built-in mechanisms to shut down automatically if the temperature exceeds 100°C.
On the other hand, cooling your CPU to below zero won’t affect its performance, which means you won’t see any meaningful increase in your frame rate.
Only invest in an advanced cooling solution if you have a powerful CPU and put it through significant strain.
Regular gaming doesn’t usually qualify as that type of strain.
Will A New CPU Increase FPS?
Replacing your current CPU with a more powerful one will only increase your FPS if your game is CPU-bound.
Most games come with sophisticated benchmarking tools to view CPU and GPU usage statistics in real-time.
If your CPU usage is near 100 percent for a long time while your graphics card’s usage is below 80 percent, your frame rate will improve after an upgrade.
Moreover, if your current CPU operates below a 3 GHz clock rate or has fewer than four cores, you can benefit from an upgrade.
Otherwise, the frame rate gains will only be marginal.
Does RAM Affect FPS?
RAM only affects your frame rate if you don’t have enough of it installed, but adding extra RAM as a precaution won’t give you more FPS.
When you don’t have enough RAM to hold the game’s data, your processor has to swap data in and out of the RAM to allow the most critical operations.
Therefore, it wastes more of its cycles on the swap operations, leaving less effective CPU time for processing frames.
As a result, your FPS will drop, and your game will be laggy.
You need at least 4 GB of RAM with current computers because Windows 10 will consume around 2.7 GB of memory without running any applications.
If you open a few Chrome tabs, you’ll max out your RAM usage, and Windows will have to swap out a few files to make room for your most recent operations.
Four GB of RAM is nowhere near enough for gaming these days unless you want to play Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, which only needs 2 GB of RAM.
You can have a much more comfortable experience with 8 GB because Windows will take up less than 40 percent of your RAM.
(You can still get away with 4 GB on Linux.)
You can use the remaining memory to play many games, but you won’t have any RAM left for background processes or game mods.
For example, Shadow of the Tomb Raider requires 8 GB as its minimum specs but recommends 16 GB for an optimal experience.
That’s because, together with Windows, the game takes up around 7.5 GB to perform at its best.
There won’t be any room left for background processes and apps.
Anything exceeding 32 GB of RAM is overkill for home users and gamers.
Note: Your average FPS won’t be considerably low when you install a game on a PC that doesn’t meet the minimum requirements.
Instead, you’ll experience frequent dips in the frame rate, which makes gameplay frustrating.
The cause is the recurring memory swaps that we discussed above.
How To Choose A Good CPU For High FPS
We’ve already discussed some characteristics of a decent CPU for a gaming rig.
However, when choosing one, you need to consider multiple factors.
For the sake of comprehensiveness, let’s go over the most critical items to pay attention to when picking out your CPU.
- GPU: You need to establish a balance between the capacity of both processing units in your computer so that they don’t limit each other. A mid-range CPU with a high-end GPU is the most common arrangement these days.
- Display: Your FPS will be limited by your monitor’s refresh rate in most cases. For example, if your monitor is 60 Hz, you’ll only see 60 frames per second even if your computer generates triple that number.
- Usage: Consider if you’ll use your rig for purposes other than gaming—e.g., word processing or creative work. If so, it’s more conservative to buy a higher model CPU to give yourself some freedom.
- Cooling: As the CPU’s horsepower goes up, so does its heat generation. You can’t expect a simple air fan to cool down a powerful Core i9 processor. Therefore, you’ll need a sophisticated cooling solution, which will cost a lot.
- Budget: There’s practically no limit to how much you can spend on a gaming rig. You should decide what your maximum budget is and choose your components accordingly. Regular quad-core CPUs can cost around $200, while Core i9 power beasts go in the realm of $600 or more.