How many CPU cores do games need?

PC gaming is often a central concern in the purchase of a new PC, but knowing how many CPU cores to buy - whether it's worth the upsell from two to three or four, or even six, is a key issue.

Do gamers really need a quad-core, or six-core CPU, or is a dual-core CPU still good enough? Which game engines are multi-threaded, and to what extent? We've aimed to answer these questions by running some of the latest and most popular games to show CPU scaling across cores. We've also tested Nvidia and ATI hardware separately because graphics drivers can affect how the system works - and of course, if the drivers themselves are multi-threaded it will benefit the gaming experience.

How many CPU cores do games need?
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We used an Intel Core i7-980X to maximise the core count available, but we disabled Hyperthreading and power saving states. A hyperthreading core is not a 'real' core, it merely just opens up 'what's left' of the available CPU pipeline so could easily have created inconsistencies in our tests. All games tested were also entirely run from the hard disk - no slower optical media was involved.

Test Setup

  • Intel Core i7-980X CPU, HyperThreading and power saving states disabled;
  • Gigabyte GA-X58A-UD7 motherboard
  • 6GB G.Skill Ripjaw 1,600MHz CL8 memory, set to these timings

  • Asus ATI Radeon HD 5870 1GB graphics card
  • EVGA Nvidia GTX 470 1,280MB graphics card

  • Titan Fenrir CPU cooler
  • Seagate Barracuda 7200.12 1TB SATA Hard Disk
  • Seasonic X-Series 650W PSU

  • Intel inf
  • ATI Catalyst 10.6 WHQL
  • Nvidia Forceware 257.21 WHQL
  • Microsoft Windows 7 Home Premium x64
How many CPU cores do games need?
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