Core i3 CPUs are still a solid choice for gaming on a budget. If you want to get an Intel Core i3 processor for gaming, here are your best choices.
Years ago, Intel’s Core i3 series was the best choice for budget gaming setups. The combination of 2 cores with hyperthreading was enough to run every single game on max settings at 1080p. That era ended with the arrival of Ryzen CPUs from AMD in 2017. Once Ryzen came and offered 4 cores along with hyperthreading for the price of 2 cores/4 threads Core i3 CPUs we had a new budget gaming king.
Intel had to respond to AMD’s blow and they did by increasing core count in every CPU category. We received 4 core/4 thread Core i3 CPU which were more than solid choice for most gamers who were on a budget. But then in early 2019 AMD released 3rd gen Ryzen CPU lineup and Core i3 CPU lineup were more or less destroyed. K versions became way too expensive for what they offered, leaving only the most affordable Core i3 models as viable choices for gamers on a budget.
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Three best Core i3 CPUs for Gaming
There are basically two choices when it comes to Core i3 CPUs for gaming. Both are entry-level i3 CPUs since those are the only models that sport competitive prices. The third choice if looking for a used Core i3 8350K. It is a fast processor but it’s priced really high. The Core i3 9350k is simply too expensive and it’s next to impossible to find a used one.
Core i3 9100F
|Base Frequency||3.60 GHz|
|Max Turbo Frequency||4.20 GHz|
This is your best choice at the moment. The Core i3 9100F is capable of running titles such as Assassin’s Creed Odyssey and Shadow of the Tomb Raider at 60 frames per second. It can also run esports titles at high framerates (100 plus). The best of all is the great price regarding its gaming performance.
The F in the name means no integrated graphics. Since you already have a standalone graphics card you can invest those savings in a better GPU, more RAM, or quality MoBo. Pair this one with a B360 board and later upgrade to 9th gen Core i5/i7. That way you will have a futureproof build that will be available to run next-gen games without any trouble.
Pre-owned Core i3 8100
|Base Frequency||3.60 GHz|
The 8th gen Core i3 8100 is the second Core i3 CPU we can recommend. It’s about ten percent slower than the 9100F, offering great performance for the budget gamer. But the problem is that a new CPU is in the same price range as Ryzen 5 2600, which is a much better CPU overall.
Our recommendation is to visit eBay and look for a pre-owned Core i3 8100. Alternatively you could keep your eye out for a OEM/tray processor. As with the Core i3 9100F, pair it with a solid B360 MoBo and later upgrade to a Core i5/i7.
Core i3 10th gen CPUs
Our alternate recommendation is to wait for the 10th Gen desktop Core processors from Intel. They should arrive this spring so if you can, wait a couple of months. The word around is that the Core i3 lineup will feature 4 cores/8 threads, which is much better than what we have today. On top of it all, if Intel offers Core i3 10100 for a decent price that would be a great choice for gamers on a budget. Note though you will need a different motherboard as new 10th gen CPUs don’t use the LGA 1151 socket and a new LGA 1200 socket instead.
i3 CPUs are still a solid choice for budget gamers
When it comes to gaming performance 8th and 9th gen Core i3 CPUs can still offer a lot, even for games that are heavy on the CPU. Sure, you won’t be able to reach three-digit framerates and there could be some stuttering. But, in most cases, you can expect more than solid gaming performance with a recent Core i3 model.
We’re talking about 60 frames and higher performance when combined with a graphics card that’s up to the task. .1 percent cutoffs can dip at or below 30 fps in games that are especially heavy on the CPU such as Assassin’s Creed Odyssey and Origins, Battlefield V, or Shadow of the Tomb Raider.
Do note that most recent games, even if they’re not CPU-intensive, such as Metro Exodus, Rage 2, or Hitman 2 can also induce some occasional stuttering during gameplay. Not quite noticeable but present when running benchmarks or in case you have MSI Afterburner turned on during gameplay.
Finally, we noticed that Kingdom Come: Deliverance simply melted any Core i3 CPU thrown at it. The poor performance is tied to the fact the game was run on max settings, which you shouldn’t do even if you have a beast of a PC.
When it comes to eSports titles, 8th and 9th gen Core i3 CPUs are an excellent choice. Every game, be it CS: GO, League of Legends, Rocket League, Warframe, Apex Legends, World of Tanks, Fortnite or Overwatch should run flawlessly. You won’t reach insane, 200 frames plus the level of performance but 100 plus FPS experience is guaranteed, with some settings toned down. The only exemption is PUBG, but that game is still poorly optimized. By tweaking settings, you will be able to reach rock-solid 60fps with a Core i3 CPU. Do mind that the CPU is targeted at 1080p gaming.
Sure, it can be used for 1440p gaming. But, pairing it with a graphics card capable of running games at 60fps on max details will induce some stuttering. If you plan on gaming at 1440p, pick at a 6 core CPU such as 9th gen Core i5 or Ryzen 5 2600/3600.
So, to summarize. The Core i3 CPUs are solid choices for gaming on a budget, as long as you go with 8th and 9th gen processors. They can run every current game on max settings at 1080p resolution with the only exemption being Kingdom Come: Deliverance. Expect 100 frames plus level of performance with eSports titles at 1080p resolution. But be aware that many modern titles can push Core i3 CPU to 100 percent workload quite often. This won’t affect performance but it shows that modern titles are more and more optimized for more cores, and not for high single-core performance. Finally, if you plan on getting a CPU for productivity tasks and not exclusively for gaming, check out the Ryzen 5 2600. It comes with 6 cores/12 threads.
Graphics cards and the amount of RAM to pair with
As we already said, Core i3 CPUs are meant for 1080p gaming. You can pair them with 1440p monitors but expect occasional stutters no matter how powerful your GPU is. Further, if you’re into ultrawide gaming, 1080p ultrawide resolution (2560 x 1080) should work fine. When it comes to the upper limit of the graphics card power, we wouldn’t go above RTX 2060 or the recently published RX 5600 XT. The only more powerful option is RX 5700, but that’s a stretch. Every other card is designed for 1440p gaming or higher and shouldn’t be considered. Unless you plan on upgrading the CPU in the next year or so.
The GTX 1660Ti and GTX 1600 Super are the sweet spot to couple with a Core i3 processor. Both cards are superb for 1080p gaming, sport affordable prices, and aren’t overkill for the CPU. When it comes to AMD cards, we would recommend RX 580/590 cards. They both provide more than solid power for 1080p gaming at high settings.
When it comes to older models from Nvidia and AMD, you can use GTX 1070/1070Ti, and RX Vega 56. Cards such as RX Vega 64 and GTX 1080 are, like the RX 5700, placed at the upper limit of what Core i3 can deliver. Be aware that any card more powerful than a GTX 1660Ti/RX Vega 56 will deliver a higher average framerate, but minimum FPS will stay on the level of the two aforementioned cards. In other words, the CPU will start bottlenecking your GPU when using anything more powerful than GTX 1660Ti/RX Vega 56.
The amount of RAM should be 16GB. Ram is pretty cheap at the moment and you should go for 16 gigs, it can’t hurt. Some games are hungry when it comes to RAM and 16 gigs is the standard today. You shouldn’t worry about the RAM speed. Any DDR4 2666 RAM will be fine. Faster RAM can account for 5 to 8 percent gain in performance. For a budget build performance gain that low isn’t worth the price difference.
Finally, when it comes to the motherboard, we recommend getting a solid B360 or even H310. But to be honest, for a bit more the B360 board is a better choice. Especially if you plan on upgrading the CPU later with an i5 or i7 model. Our recommendations are ASUS PRIME B360M-A or Gigabyte B365M DS3H. Z270/370 is an option but Core i3 K models are just too expensive to be a reasonable choice for gaming. Especially when we take into account the higher cost of the motherboard plus the cooler.
Are i3 CPUs future-proof enough to run next-gen games?
Now, the most worrisome question about Core i3 CPUs. Are they future-proof? Well, to be honest, 4 cores and 4 threads definitely isn’t future-proof at the moment. More and more games are built to prefer more cores, not higher clocks. On the other hand, Core i3 processors are still solid for playing current AAA games and Esports titles.
And don’t worry, future multiplayer-focused games will be more than playable on 4 cores. But, starting with 2021 and the arrival of next-gen consoles, AAA games will demand more than 4 cores. You will be able to play them at 60 FPS without stuttering with lower details, but if you want a proper future proof budget build, look at AMD.
Getting the Ryzen 5 2600 along with a quality B450 board will allow you to upgrade to a Ryzen 3700X CPU with 8 cores/16 threads. Even 12 core Ryzen 9 3900X. These 2 CPUs will definitely allow high end gaming once the next-gen consoles arrive.
Your other option is to get one of the aforementioned B360 boards along with a Core i3 CPU and later upgrade. You can pick Core i5 9600 or Core i7 9700. Not as fast as K variants but still quite powerful CPUs for gaming. Either way you should invest in a good fan to prevent possible overheating since the ones that come by default are rather lackluster.
Finally, the last option is to wait, if you can, a couple of months for Intel to release 10th gen Core CPUs. The lineup should include 4 cores/8 threads Core i3 CPUs. Not great, but the hyperthreading should allow those to be used for high quality 1080p gaming for the foreseeable future.