If you are an emulator enthusiast or are someone who is looking to build a gaming HTPC then selecting the right CPU is paramount. If you are looking to run emulators on a Windows PC then you must ensure that your chosen processor is suitable for the emulated systems that you intend to throw at it. The PC processor world is dominated by Intel & AMD but there is still a huge range of CPU models and standards to choose from and all at different price points. For emulation you can save yourself a lot of money by selecting the optimum CPU for your requirements or a lot of disappointment by selecting a CPU with enough power to meet your chosen systems. In this article I will try to provide you with the best CPU for emulation dependant on the computers or consoles you are looking to emulate.
Best CPU for Emulation
This guide post focuses on CPUs for the Windows operating system. It is fair to say that the largest selection of system emulators have been produced for Windows. It is the only operating system to support the last generation of games consoles. [Read: Best PC Game Controllers for HTPC – Emulators & Steam]
To help to explain my best CPU for emulation thoughts I have grouped the computers, games consoles and arcade machines into three separate categories. These are Retro Classics, Mid-level and Last Generation. There are certainly more game system generations than this but the thinking behind this is to provide separate CPU price points from today’s processor market.
Please be aware that successful emulation is not simply down to the processor in your PC. There are many other factors that will contribute to the performance you see. For example later systems require graphics card power and we will discuss this in further posts. The purpose of this article is to allow gaming HTPC enthusiasts to select a CPU that will cater for their emulation requirements. [Read: Top 5 Emulator Frontends for your HTPC Media Center]
Legacy System CPU Specifications
Every old games console or computer than you may have enjoyed in the past comes with a different processor. Every game designed for the particular format is centred around the CPU it will run on. The image below shows a number of legacy gaming devices and their CPU details. This provides a feel for their capabilities and processing power when compared with the Windows desktop CPUs of today. I have grouped the systems into the emulation requirement categories outlined above. This list is accurate to the best of my knowledge and the information has been sourced from various web pages. The list is not conclusive and there are many more legacy systems that can be emulated on a Windows PC. [Read: LaunchBox & Big Box Emulator Frontend Review]
Arcade systems are not included in the above image due to the shear volume of different systems.. With many different Arcade hardware types it would be difficult to include them all. Read and understand the text for each category outlined below and you should be able to identify where your Arcade system should sit.
Retro Classic Systems
Classic games from yesteryear are the most commonly emulated games on a Windows PC. Reliving classic titles from the 90s and earlier is extremely popular. These include systems such as the NES, SNES, Megadrive (Genesis), Masters System and old desktop computers from vendors like Atari and Commodore. The games for these systems require very little in terms of hardware to emulate in today’s world. They feature no true 3D graphics and the file sizes for these consoles and computers are tiny. Most modern devices are cable of emulating these systems and the emulation software is available in many formats. Your average smart phone these days provides masses more processing power than these systems ever did. This technology is now small enough to fit into your pocket! [Read: Gaming On Your HTPC]
If you only want to emulate games at this level then then you do not need a great deal in terms of your CPU. Your best CPU for emulation decision will really be based on price. I suggest that you still select a processor that supports the Windows 7 operating system or higher. This is so that you can take advantage of the newer retro emulators and their features. For this level of emulation you can use either a lower end AMD processor that is compatible with modern motherboards or select from Intel’s Celeron range. As the system requirements are so small for these emulators you may want to consider using a Raspberry Pi or TV stick rather than a full Windows PC. [Read: Top Mini ITX Cases for the Smallest HTPC Build]
Retro Classic best CPU for emulation: Intel Celeron G3900 Dual-core (2 Core) 2.80 GHz
Mid-Level Games Consoles
What we are classing as Mid-Level games systems are the consoles that moved away from the use of 2D sprite style graphics to true 3D. These consoles and systems opened up the door to a whole new gaming genre and vastly improved the gaming experience. With more realistic worlds and cinematics they also encouraged the older generations and brought more adults to the gaming arena. For this field I am including systems like the PS1, PS2, Saturn and Dream Cast. [Read: Best Motherboard for Gaming]
Sure the PS1 and PS2 systems are from different games console generations and there is significant difference in the specifications of both. The PS1 offered a mere 34MHz CPU whilst the PS2 gave 10 times the clock rate at 299MHz. The reason they have been put together for the purposes of this post is that the cost difference in the available CPUs to emulate these is minimal. The Mid-Level games console emulators were also the first emu applications to allow resolution changes and other display configuration optimisations. With many of these emulators it is possible to play your titles in resolutions far greater than the real console ever could. As the required CPU prices for both generation consoles are not hugely different your older PS1 and Saturn console emulation will benefit from the CPU that I will recommend. [Read: Top 5 Handheld Games Consoles]
The Wii Addition
In this category we will also include the Nintendo Wii. The Wii could be considered a Last Generation games console (covered next) but it has a considerably lower hardware specification when compared to the other systems of its era (PS3 & XBOX 360). It was also the only console of its generation not to support HD resolutions. The Nintendo Wii has a similar CPU requirement to emulate as the PS2. It therefore falls into our Mid-Level category. [Read: Dolphin – The Nintendo Gamecube / Wii Emulator]
Mid-Level games console best CPU for emulation: Intel i3 4170 3.7GHz
When we talk about last generation games consoles we are referring to the latest systems to leave the high street. Sales have now ceased on such devices and they provide the biggest challenge to emulator developers. At the time of writing this includes the Sony PS3 and the XBOX 360. These games consoles listed are still considered powerful when compared with today’s desktop PC hardware. The emulators for these systems are in relatively early stages of development. [Read: RPCS3 – The Working Playstation 3 (PS3) Emulator]
Both the RPCS3 PS3 and Xenia Project XBOX 360 emulators are now able to run some commercial game titles. In some cases at playable speeds. As these emulators are in the early stages of life they rely heavily on the CPU of your system. Generally emulator developers look for a high level of game compatibility before they build in performance optimisations. The CPU will conduct the majority of the required processing when later down the line some of this will be shifted to the GPU & other components. [Read: Xenia Project – The Working XBOX 360 Emulator for PC]
For this level of emulation you will require a CPU with some grunt! If you think about how an emulator works you will understand why. A CPU contains a set of instructions that it will use to execute a piece of code. Every model of CPU is different and you can think of console CPUs as different countries or languages. What the emulator will do is translate each instruction of the games console CPU you are trying to emulate into something that your installed physical CPU will understand. It acts kind of like an interpreter for a foreign language. It will do this process for your entire gaming duration continually reading the game code and translating games console CPU instructions. [Read: PS Now Available on Windows PC]
For effective emulation a CPU should really have a high enough clock speed to accommodate both the emulated consoles clock rate and the afore mentioned translation process. For example the Playstation 3 games console has a clock rate of 3.2GHz and so to emulate it a CPU is required of around 4GHz plus to accommodate both your operating system and the instruction translation activity. If an emulator is optimised for multiple cores this can also aid the instruction translation process. This is merely a guideline and there are many other factors that contribute towards successful emulation. Last generation console emulation is tough and it will be a while before we see anywhere near perfect solutions. That said if you want to try emulators like RPCS3 at playable speeds then you need a high end CPU. [Read: How to Play Games on Kodi]
Last Generation best CPU for emulation: Intel Core i7 7700K 4.2GHz
With so many different gaming systems and Windows based emulators choosing the right CPU for a HTPC system is important. You can overspend if you simply want to try 90s classics or your system. Or your HTPC will lack performance if your processor is not up to scratch for Last Generation systems. The CPUs that are recommended in this post have been selected from the processor range currently available on the market today. Older CPUs will run many retro emulators but the cheaper hardware may no longer be easily accessible. Also it may not support a Windows 7 or greater OS.
Remember that successful emulation is not simply down to the CPU alone. It does play the biggest part but many newer emulators will require other good hardware and high-end graphics cards. This post is designed to create an easy to follow rule-of-thumb to show you what the generic requirements are for different levels of emulated system. Work out what systems you want to run and then select your best CPU for emulation.