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Your PC's Processor: The Foundation of Your Gaming PC

Where do you start when shopping or planning a rock-solid gaming machine? The real brawn behind any high-performance PC depends on the Big Three: your CPU, system memory, and graphics card. These are the foundations of good gaming hardware, and they're hidden in the innards of your computer.

As you probably already know, your PC's CPU processes data according to the instructions provided by a program — in this case, a game or Windows itself — and it also sends commands and data to the various peripherals in your system. But why are games so demanding on your CPU?

Consider the work involved in running a popular 3D first-person shooting game such as Crysis 3, where the processor in your gaming computer must handle all of these chores:

  • Artificial intelligence: Your PC must react to your movements, calculate the appropriate strategy, and manipulate the computer players (which are becoming more and more sophisticated with every passing year).

  • Level control: Your PC must calculate the appearance of both your character and your surroundings for your current position on the game level. Plus, your computer must process the results when your character interacts with traps, switches, doors, and their corresponding keys.

  • Calculations and events: Your PC must calculate the path of your last missile launch, determine whether it hit its target, and alter the statistics of the target where appropriate.

  • Multiplayer support: If you're participating in a multiplayer match or a multiplayer online world, your PC must send and receive data packets across the network (whether it's a local network or the Internet) from other computers and incorporate other players into your environment. In today's games, that may also include voice chatting between players as the fight continues!

Oh, and meanwhile your PC must still keep Windows running smoothly, as well as any other background tasks you're using. No wonder your CPU needs its own cooling system! Of course, your graphics card relieves your CPU from the lion's share of the low-level graphic calculations necessary for 3D gaming, but your CPU's performance still determines what types of games you can play.

(In other words, even the fastest graphics card won't help you play a game with computing requirements that swamp your CPU.) Therefore, when you're building or buying a new gaming PC from scratch, the processor you select is a hugely important decision.

While shopping, consider a balance between the number of cores (in multicore processors like the AMD FX and Intel i7) and the processor's overall speed. You need at least a four-core processor, but there's typically not much need for additional cores after that in a gaming PC — instead, concentrate on getting the highest processor speed you can afford with four cores.

On-board cache memory is also important for the gamer's CPU because it's the fastest memory available on your PC. It acts as a temporary "waiting room" for data that your CPU is likely to need in the near future; some CPUs also use it to store data that has recently been accessed, so that it can be recalled again without reloading it from your hard drive or system RAM.

The more cache you have, the better. It's also better to use on-board cache memory, which is actually built into the CPU itself; all current processors offer some amount of on-board cache.

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