The idea of building a gaming computer just to run an emulator and have it connected to your living room TV is very popular. Many people choose small form factor (SFF) cases for this purpose, but pretty much any computer can run an emulator. The biggest factor is what kind of emulators you want to run.
The best CPU for emulation when it comes to old consoles, like the SNES and original Playstation, would be the cheapest one you can find. But if you want to run an Xbox 360 or Playstation 3 emulator, you are going to need something much more powerful. This is because an emulator has to simulate proprietary hardware using software, which is very demanding. By reading this article, you will know how to choose the best CPU for emulation in your next build.
Best CPU for Emulation
- Best CPU for Emulation Overall: AMD Ryzen 5 3600.
- Best High-End CPU: Intel Core i7-9700K.
- Best Mid-Range CPU with TSX: Intel Core i5-9600K.
- Best Budget CPU (APU): AMD Athlon 3000G.
- Best Value CPU (APU): AMD Ryzen 5 3400G.
Things to Consider
The most important factor that you have to take into account when choosing the best CPU for emulation is which emulators you plan to run on it. If you are only going to play old SNES, Sega Master System/Sega Game Gear, Playstation, and Game Boy games, you can do well with a cheap AMD Athlon or Intel Celeron CPU. But if you plan to run demanding emulators, like the Playstation 3 RPCS3 emulator, then you will need the most high-end CPU that you can get for a smooth 60 FPS.
Latency is also very important. Most gamers claim that Intel CPUs are generally better for emulating Playstation 3 games than Ryzen because of the latency. Even though Ryzen improved latency on their newer generation CPUs, the problem is that the emulated threads can’t be run on a single CCX.
On the other hand, Intel CPUs have a design that is more oriented towards single-threaded performance, which in turn means that you will experience less latency. This has mostly to do with the architecture.
So, despite Intel generally being a worse value for gaming or productivity, it is generally the better choice for demanding emulators. If you can’t decide between Intel and AMD, then check if the emulators that you plan to run are AVX intensive. If they are, go with Intel. If not, an AMD CPU will almost always be cheaper and provide better value.
Another important factor when buying the best CPU for emulation is your budget. If you have to stay within a certain budget, then consider going with an APU instead of a CPU + GPU combination. This will save a lot of money and it won’t sacrifice performance if you plan to run emulators for older games. It is very common to see people running emulators on a tiny Raspberry Pi under their desk or TV.
But Raspberry Pis are generally used for only one purpose. If you plan to build a general-purpose computer that is very capable of running emulators too, then going with a proper CPU or APU is best.
Some APUs can cost as little as $49 and deliver outstanding performance when using PPSSPP, RetroAtch, Redream, Dolphin, PCSX2, etc. It can run most emulators at 60 FPS at 1080p, but more demanding emulators, like the RPCS3, are going to be playable but not perfect.
Let’s now take a look at the list of the best CPUs for emulators. There are going to be options for everyone here.
Top 5 Best CPU for Emulation
1- Best CPU for Emulation Overall – AMD Ryzen 5 3600
The Ryzen 5 3600 is one of the most popular CPUs of 2020. This is because it is a $200 CPU that comes with 6 cores and 12 threads that boost up to 4.2 GHz. It has a low TDP of only 65W, support for PCIe 4.0, comes with a good stock cooler (Wraith Stealth), can be easily overclocked, and it has 32 MB of L3 cache. It is a perfect middle-ground for both professionals and gamers.
Of course, this CPU can run all emulators for older consoles, but it also does a decent job in more demanding emulators. RPCS3 and Xenia are usable on this CPU, but some games are very hard to run nonetheless. There is no TSX on AMD, which means that Playstation games are going to be much more playable on equivalent Intel CPUs.
If you are someone who needs a good computer and only occasionally run emulators, then the Ryzen 5 3600 is a better choice than Intel. If you want to play The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild or Persona 5, then this CPU will do just fine. But games like the original Red Dead Redemption are going to run at 20-25 FPS, so it is not playable for the vast majority.
But if you consider the price and the features of this CPU overall, it is hard to argue against it. It will make short work of almost anything. Overall, this is the best CPU for emulation if you do not want to go high-end.
2- Best High-End CPU – Intel Core i7-9700K
The Intel Core i7-9700K was $410 when it was first released, but nowadays, you can find it for around $260 on sale. It only costs a little more than the Ryzen 5 3600. While the performance between the two is similar in regular gaming, the Ryzen wins in productivity. This is because the i7-9700K has only 8 cores and 8 threads, and it is built on the 14nm process.
The i7-9700K was released in October 2018, which makes it very old. This means that you don’t have support for the latest PCIe 4.0 and the TDP of this chip is 95 W. You also only have 12 MB of L3 cache.
But let’s talk about the upsides now. The CPU boosts up to 4.9 GHz and it is overclockable. The biggest advantage for Intel when it comes to emulators is that it has TSX, which means that the performance in PCS3 emulator is going to be much better than anything AMD has to offer.
On the topic of TSX, Intel has ditched it for the 10th gen CPUs. And the i7-10700K also costs significantly more than the i7-9700K, which is why it’s not recommended. Also, the i9-9900K will do just as well as the i7-9700K in demanding emulators, but there is no FPS increase, which is why it is not on the list either. The i7-9700K is the best CPU for emulation that you can get, but the next entry is a close contender as well.
3- Best Mid-Range CPU with TSX – Intel Core i5-9600K
This CPU is very similar to the i7-9700K. It has only 6 cores and 6 threads and a lower boost clock of 4.6 GHz. But most emulators only use a few cores and threads anyway. We find that the i7-9700K is the better choice if you use it as your primary computer because of the extra cores, but the i5-9600K will have identical performance in all emulated games.
At only $200, the i5-9600K is the cheapest CPU with TSX that won’t make any sacrifices. You can pair this with a decent mid-range GPU and you will be happy for the next few years for both emulators and modern games. This CPU is also very old, just like the i7-9700K, So you won’t get any PCIe 4.0 support and you only get 9 MB of L3 cache, which has a significant impact on newer games and multitasking.
But if you want a serious CPU that can run Dolphin, RPCS3, Xenia, and everything else you need, then the i5-9600K is still a solid choice. Remember that this is an unlocked CPU, so you can overclock it. But pay attention to the thermals because it already has a TDP of 95 W out of the box, so you want to get a good aftermarket cooler for it.
4- Best Budget CPU (APU) – AMD Athlon 3000G
This is a CPU that most people will be happy with for almost all emulators. It is actually an APU, which means that it has a built-in GPU. At only $49, this is the best value that you can get. While it can’t run games like Red Dead Redemption, it can certainly run less-demanding titles. AMD APUs are not very good in almost all Citra games, so skip this one if you want to run it. The performance in CEMU is acceptable, but games sometimes freeze and crash.
The Athlon 3000G has only 2 cores, but it does have 4 threads. Nonetheless, the two cores are a huge limitation in RPCS3 and you will experience weird graphical glitches in almost all titles. But where the Athlon 3000G shines are simple emulators. You can build an SFF computer with this chip and you can easily overclock it as well. With a TDP of only 35 W, you can easily do some serious overclocking on the included Wraith Stealth cooler.
You should buy this APU if you don’t plan to buy a graphics card. While you can play some modern titles on this APU as well, the experience will be equivalent to what you paid. But regular tasks in Windows are fine here. This APU is one of the cheapest new processors that you can get and it is great for a second computer that is going to sit under your TV or for a budget emulator PC.
5- Best Value CPU (APU) – AMD Ryzen 5 3400G
The AMD Ryzen 5 3400G does everything that the AMD Athlon 3000G does but in a much better way. It is a significantly more powerful APU. If you are not interested in an APU and plan to use a dedicated graphics card, then go with the AMD Ryzen 5 3600 because it has better performance, largely thanks to having more cores and threads. The Ryzen 5 3400G has 4 cores and 8 threads clocked at up to 4.2 GHz.
This APU only has support for PCIe 3.0 x8, which shows how serious it is about its built-in Radeon RX Vega 11 GPU. Because it is built on the 12 nm node, it means that it is a bit outdated when compared to the Ryzen 5 3600, but this is still the best APU that you can get and it costs only around $185. You can play modern titles too and you can overclock both the CPU and GPU quite a bit, largely thanks to its 65 W TDP.
When it comes to emulating, this APU does very well in most newer emulators. Just like the Athlon 3000G, Citra is very buggy and games are not playable. Most RPCS3 titles are playable on this APU, but some games have weird flickering issues, depending on the RPCS3 version.
Skate 3, one of the hardest PS3 games to run, is actually playable on the Ryzen 5 3400G, which is impressive. SEGA emulators run very well too. All in all, it is the best CPU for emulation if you do not plan to buy a GPU and perhaps want an SFF computer.
Most newer emulators are designed to run well on both AMD and Intel CPUs. Intel still pulls ahead when it comes to stability and compatibility with almost all emulators. If you want TSX, then go with one of the Intel CPUs from this list. The i7-9700K is the best CPU for emulation when it comes to performance.
Emulators are constantly being worked on, which is why Ryzen compatibility is getting better every day. An AMD APU is still going to be the best value for the money because it allows you not to buy a GPU.