Life is tough for a gaming CPU. The CPU often gets relegated to the background when its time for an upgrade with all the cash being hoarded for a new graphics card. That kinda makes sense given how CPU performance has been stagnating over the last decade. But VR is a different beast altogether. VR will bottleneck both your CPU and your GPU.
Do I even need a CPU upgrade?
Do. Not. Trust. Windows Task Manager.
The Task Manager has a fatal flaw. It tells you the average utilisation over a period which can be very misleading. For example, let’s say your CPU reaches 100% utilisation (and bottlenecks) for the first half of a second and 0% for the second half of the second. Windows Task manager will show you the average utilisation of 50%.
So you will think its all fine but you will start to lose frames. In order to see actual CPU utilisation, you need to use Windows Performance Toolkit which can show you the utilisation at the milii or microsecond level.
Check this screenshot from Windows Performance Toolkit:
You are looking at CPU utilization over the course of 0.01 seconds (horizontal axis). As you can clearly see, the CPU is reaching 100% and bottlenecking for microseconds. But Task Manager will show the average and the average in this graph would probably be closer to 30% or something like that.
Another issue that gives misleading information is something called thread hopping. What happens is that Windows may shift a task from Core 1 to Core 2 (to allow core 1 to cool down) several times a second.
So when you look at the average utilisation both Core 1 and Core 2 seem to be utilised equally. But that is the result of averaging and at any given time its just a single core that is being used.
Some games do use multiple cores but not optimally. Most of the time you see even utilisation across all cores, it’s because of thread hopping and averaging of the results.
Best CPUs for VR?
Given all of the above issues, you need maximum single core performance for VR. Even non-VR games hardly benefit from multi-core setups. Sorry AMD fans.
AMD does give you more bang for the buck though. But having more cores is not all that helpful.
You need the fastest single core possible. Remember this core mantra.
Based on all of my research, these are the best CPU’s I recommend for VR.
1. Best Premium CPU
- 10 Cores / 20 Threads
- Socket type LGA 1200
5 GHz Baby! The 10900K is a beast of a CPU and the best CPU for VR gaming that money can buy. Its also a significant improvements over its predecessor – the 9900K which ran hot and was slightly overpriced. The 10900K has the best single-core performance out of all reasonably priced CPUs out there. That makes it the undisputed champion of CPUs for VR gaming!
Just a general word of advice on overclocking – go slow on the voltages. Even a tiny voltage increase can increase temps massively and decrease CPU life.
2. “Sweet Spot” CPU Option
- 8 Cores / 8 Threads
- 3.60 GHz up to 4.90 GHz / 12 MB Cache
I like the 9700K (which boosts to 4.9 GHz) because it is only marginally slower than the 9900K while being significantly cheaper. Personally, I think the difference in performance should not be noticeable on most VR games other than those resource hogging flight simulators which is what I mostly play.
The 9700K does not have hyper threading and that doesn’t matter for VR or gaming in general. Hyper threading just splits normal physical cores into more virtual cores which is useless for games because they barely make use of the existing cores anyway.
The REAL difference would be that the 9900K chips are likely to overclock a bit higher (and guarantee 5 GHz) than the 9700K but that might not be worth the price difference.
3. Value for Money Options
- The world's most advanced processor in the desktop PC gaming segment
- Can deliver ultra-fast 100+ FPS performance in the world's most popular games system memory...
I like AMD. I really do. But when it comes to single core performance, the Intel’s just do it better.
But Ryzens are the clear champions when it comes to value for money (and also when you need to do non-gaming stuff like video rendering etc. but this is a VR gaming article).
This is still a decent CPU for VR gaming and you might not even notice the difference for most VR games. The premium options are meant for enthusiasts who want to squeeze out that last 10% extra bit of performance.