The conventional wisdom is that you need to invest in a high-end graphics card if you want high FPS with your games.
Sometimes, even the best GPU gives you a low frame rate and laggy images, however.
If you ask a gaming expert, they’ll tell you that your PC is CPU-bottlenecked, which makes you wonder if the general advice is wrong.
Which one should you spend more on: CPU or GPU?
The answer isn’t as straightforward as you may think.
This article will tell you everything you need to know before you can make an informed decision.
Is CPU Or GPU More Important For Gaming?
The GPU is the most crucial piece of hardware for gaming.
However, you get the best gaming experience when you have the right CPU, GPU, RAM, and monitor working together.
A balanced configuration avoids bottlenecks and gives you an optimal frame rate.
Generally, you need a strong GPU (e.g., the GeForce RTX 20 or 30 series) with at least a Ryzen 5 or Core i5 CPU, 16 GB of RAM, and a monitor supporting Full HD (1920 x 1080) resolution with at least 60 Hz refresh rate.
You also need to consider the title(s) you want to play because some games, such as Civilization, put more strain on the CPU.
On the other hand, most modern titles, including Shadow of the Tomb Raider and Red Dead Redemption, are GPU-intensive.
Below, we’ll consider the role of the different hardware components in your computer and how they’ll affect your gameplay.
The CPU is a general-purpose processor that can execute numerous types of operations.
It’s the brain in your computer that lets you open spreadsheets, browse online, edit videos, and attend online meetings.
When playing games, it’s mainly responsible for handling the game’s logic and physics.
It captures user interactions, calculates how they affect the game scenes, and sends the results to the GPU.
Essentially, it describes how each object in the game should look and behave.
To illustrate the CPU’s role, let’s consider two simple examples of what it does.
A. Non-Player Characters And Artificial Intelligence
When playing a game, you interact with the game’s universe, which consists of various objects, fields, and enemies.
Your interactions with the game universe need to be governed by a set of rules and conditions.
For example, in a sporting game, you need to be able to score a goal by putting the ball through a basket.
Game developers create those rules, and the CPU executes them.
It calculates whether the ball you threw landed in the basket and keeps the score.
Some game conditions may adapt to your level of skill, and the CPU is also responsible for creating that level of adaptability.
B. Hitboxes And Collision Detection
If you’re into first-player shooter games, you know that you need to aim accurately to kill the enemy on the first attempt.
What you might not know is that the CPU is responsible for calculating if and where your bullet lands on the enemy’s body.
It creates and tracks numerous hitboxes, invisible 3D shapes attached to the game’s characters.
The same principles are used to detect collisions in a car racing game or whether a punch lands in a fighting game.
Because hitboxes have no visible form, they fall entirely under the purview of the CPU.
2. Graphics Card
The GPU is a specialized processor that can perform a few operations very well.
It can perform millions of similar graphics-related calculations in parallel.
The GPU is responsible for the game’s visuals by taking the frame details from the CPU and rendering them into shapes and scenes you can see.
It generates shapes, reflections, shades, glowing effects, patterns, and even bodies of water in the game.
A more powerful GPU can display more fine-grained polygons, which means more detail and higher image quality.
The graphics card also affects the resolution at which you can play your game.
Some games also apply frame-wide filters to give the scene a particular feeling (e.g., being futuristic or gloomy).
Note: The terms GPU and graphics card are often used interchangeably, and most often, that won’t cause any problems.
However, they’re slightly different.
The GPU is the chip responsible for performing the calculations, but you can’t buy a standalone GPU.
You need a graphics card with virtual memory, PCI express connectors, and cooling fans.
RAM is the temporary memory that holds game-related data for quick access by the CPU.
The CPU can only perform one operation in every cycle.
Executing an entire game involves trillions of operations and millions of variables.
The RAM is responsible for temporarily holding all those variables so that when the CPU needs them, it can quickly retrieve the value.
The recommended RAM for modern titles such as Shadow of the Tomb Raider is 16 GB.
You may be able to run these games if you have 8 GB of RAM, but you’re likely to experience lags.
You may also have to kill a few background operations to free up RAM space for your games.
Eight GB isn’t enough because Windows 10/11 takes up around 3 GB when it loads.
Moreover, 8 GB is only the nominal value of your RAM, meaning you’ll only have access to 7.8 to 7.9 GB of RAM.
That effectively leaves you with less than 5 GB of RAM.
When you don’t have enough RAM, two things can happen:
- The game can’t preload a large enough part of the universe, causing frequent black screens.
- The game’s data must be transferred in and out of the hard drive because there isn’t enough space for it on the RAM. This creates extra work for the CPU and wastes clock cycles that could be spent on executing the game.
You’ll also see much longer load times and more frequent crashes without enough RAM.
The monitor is another essential component you should consider when optimizing your gaming system.
It often gets overlooked because people don’t see it as part of the chain but rather as an afterthought.
The refresh rate and resolution are the two most important specs you need to check when thinking about gaming performance.
Refresh rate refers to the number of frames the monitor displays each second.
Get a monitor with at least a 60 Hz refresh rate, which gives you 60 FPS.
Resolution is the number of pixels in each frame.
Higher resolution means more pixels, which means more work for your GPU.
Your monitor should at least support Full HD, but 4K is preferred.
Note: As mentioned, increasing your resolution puts more load on your GPU. If you find that your game is GPU-bottlenecked, you can lower your resolution to give your GPU some breathing room.
As explained above, the CPU is a general-purpose processor, while the GPU is highly specialized.
The GPU’s job is only to crank out frames, whereas the CPU has to keep your entire computer running, including the background operations you don’t notice when playing.
The two chips need to work in lockstep to deliver the best gaming experience.
If one of them is significantly slower than the other, you run into a bottleneck, and your frame rate drops.
A CPU bottleneck occurs when the GPU has to wait around for the CPU to produce the frame descriptions, whereas a GPU bottleneck occurs when GPU can’t keep up with the information it receives from the CPU.
Neither case is better because both decrease your FPS and make the gameplay less enjoyable.
However, a CPU bottleneck is more common because GPUs are specialized pieces of hardware and perform their operations more quickly.
Moreover, avid gamers spend much more on graphics cards than CPUs because everyone says they’ll get better performance.
Having your GPU become the bottleneck is a preferable option because your CPU’s job isn’t only to run your game.
It has to manage your operating system and background applications, too.
Having a bit of headroom in terms of CPU will make your computer run much more smoothly.
You can even have a virus scanner, Windows update, or file download running in the background without experiencing stutters if your CPU has spare cycles.
We’ll talk about ideal CPU-GPU combinations you can buy later in this article.
How To Identify Bottlenecks
There’s no way to avoid bottlenecks because you can expect your hardware to have unlimited capacity.
There will always be a bottleneck—the only question is, is it making your game laggy and unstable?
If so, you need to identify and remove the issue.
You have two options:
- Check the signs.
- Check the numbers.
1. Check The Signs
Each type of bottleneck has specific signs.
Highly inconsistent frame rates are usually a sign of CPU bottlenecks.
A telltale sign is that your frame rate is acceptable when you have simple scenes with very few dynamic components, but it drops as soon as the game action begins.
The reason is that static scenes don’t involve many calculations, but complex situations such as fights involve many moving parts, which put much more strain on your CPU.
Being CPU-bottlenecked means your CPU can’t dedicate enough clock cycles to executing your game.
That may be because you have too many programs or background services open, each of which consumes a slice of the CPU’s time.
Alternatively, your CPU may not have the capacity to keep up with the game’s requirements.
In this case, overclocking your CPU can boost its performance by 10 to 20 percent.
If your CPU can’t be overclocked or doesn’t give you enough of a performance boost, you’ll need to upgrade to a higher model.
On the other hand, you get a more consistent, albeit low, FPS when you’re GPU-bottlenecked.
The consistent frame rate is because the GPU has one job: render frames based on the descriptions it receives from the CPU.
The low frame rate is because the GPU can’t keep up with the information it receives, so it can only process a limited number of frames.
The obvious solution is to upgrade to a more capable GPU, but you may have to spend a few hundred dollars, depending on your current setup.
The more cost-effective solution is to lower your resolution and modify some of your graphics card settings.
Admittedly, playing a game at 4K is much more fun, but having a dent in your pocket can be painful—think about which one you prefer.
Here’s a helpful video on the graphics card settings you can tweak to optimize your performance:
2. Check The Numbers
Most popular titles come with benchmarks and test utilities that give you extensive information on your hardware performance.
For example, War Zone tells you the CPU and GPU render times in milliseconds.
You can then divide 1,000 by the render time for both the CPU and GPU and then compare the numbers.
The smaller number will be your bottleneck.
For example, if you get 10 ms CPU render time and 8 ms GPU render time, your CPU and GPU frame rates will be 1000 and 125, respectively.
Therefore, your system is CPU-bottlenecked in this example.
Shadow of the Tomb Raider makes it a bit easier by displaying charts and CPU/GPU usage.
If you see your CPU usage is maxed out at 99 percent while your GPU is only 80 percent, your system is CPU-bottlenecked.
The reverse situation indicates a GPU bottleneck.
When you look at the game’s charts, the item that’s higher on the chart is the one that’s being bottlenecked.
Ideal CPU-GPU Combinations
As you probably know by now, spending too much on a GPU or CPU won’t necessarily give you excellent performance.
Instead, you’ll need a CPU and GPU that complement each other.
Below, we’ll give you three ideal combos for different budgets.
1. Low Budget
On the lowest end of the spectrum, Intel’s Core i3 12100F and AMD’s Ryzen 3 3200 are excellent choices.
The Intel CPU features four cores, runs at 3.3 GHz, and doesn’t come with an integrated GPU, allowing you to save a bit on costs.
The AMD option costs a bit more and offers slightly less performance, but you can save significantly on motherboard costs.
You can pair these CPUs with the following GPUs:
- Radeon RX 580
- Nvidia GTX 1650 super
- Nvidia RTX 3050
Depending on the title, you can expect to get 45 to 100 FPS with this combination.
If you’re looking for a very low-cost GPU, you can go with Radeon’s RX 6500 XT, which has fewer compute units and display outputs.
A pleasant side effect of using low-end hardware is that you won’t need a massive PSU because these CPU-GPUs are designed for power efficiency.
If you’re not on a tight budget, you can go with Intel’s Core i5 12400F or AMD Ryzen 5 5600X.
Both options are affordable and have identical core counts, but the Ryzen 5 operates at a slightly higher clock rate, and it’s overclockable.
As with all Intel F series, the processor doesn’t have a built-in GPU, which shouldn’t be a problem since you’ll have a dedicated graphics card.
The best GPU choices for these CPUs are:
- Nvidia RTX 3060
- Nvidia RTX 2070 super
- Radeon RX 6600 XT
- Radeon RX 5700 XT
If you go with a pair of AMD products, you can enable the company’s Smart Access Memory technology, allowing the CPU to use the extra memory in the GPU.
This way, you’re less likely to experience CPU bottlenecks and experience a performance bump of up to 15 percent.
As you might expect, Intel’s Core i7 and AMD’s Ryzen 7 series fall under this category, although you may still be able to use the Core i5 or Ryzen 5 series depending on the titles you want to play.
The i7 12700K is one of Intel’s best options for gamers.
It comes with 12 cores and 25 MB of cache and runs at 4.9 GHz, which can go up to 5.4 GHz if you overclock it.
The AMD alternative is the Ryzen 7 5800X, which runs at 4.7 GHz but offers overclocking capabilities.
These high-end GPUs can be paired with the following GPUs for optimal results:
- Nvidia RTX 3080
- Nvidia RTX 3080 Ti
- Radeon RX 6900 RX
These GPUs let you game at 4K, and they’re excellent for video editing and rendering graphics.
Note: If you want to use your computer for more than just gaming, don’t pair these GPUs with a Core i5 or Ryzen 5 CPU.
That is a solid explanation.