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Best Gaming CPU: $200 And Up

Best Gaming CPUs For The Money: December 2010

Best Gaming CPU for $205:

Core i5-760 (Check Prices)

Core i5-760
Codename: Lynnfield
Process: 45 nm
CPU Cores: 4
Clock Speed (Max. Turbo): 2.8 GHz  (3.3 GHz)
Socket: LGA 1156
L2 Cache: 4 x 256 KB
L3 Cache: 8 MB
Thermal Envelope:
95 W

The Core i5-760 ups the ante with a single multiplier ratio bin increase over the Core i5-750, and the 133 MHz stock speed bump makes the new model just a little bit better. With the -750 rising in price a little, the slightly faster Core i5-760 becomes the obvious choice. Just like the Core i5-750, the 760 sports some serious stock gaming performance. What's more, these CPUs are monsters when overclocked and will even challenge far more expensive Core-i7 models.

Our only real hesitation in recommending an LGA 1156-based chip at this point is Sandy Bridge. As you stated on page one, if you're starting from scratch, take a wait-and-see approach. Otherwise, this is still a solid upgrade for anyone using a lower-end Core i3.

Read our review of the Core i5-750, right here.

Past the Point of Reason:

With rapidly-increasing prices over $200 offering increasingly difficult to quantify advantages in games, we have a hard time recommending anything more expensive than the Core i5-760. This is especially the case since the Core i5-760 can be overclocked to great effect if more performance is desired, easily surpassing the stock clock rate of the $1000 Core i7-980X Extreme Edition.

Perhaps the only performance-based justification we can think of for moving up from a Core i5-760 is that LGA 1156 processors have an inherent limit of 16 PCIe lanes for graphics use. This is an architectural detail that the LGA 1156-based Core i5 and Core i7 processors share, so if a gamer plans to use more than two graphics cards in CrossFire or SLI, the Core i7-900-series processors are the way to go.

To summarize, while we recommend against purchasing any CPU that retails for more than $200 from a value point of view (sink that money into graphics or an SSD instead), there are those of you who have no trouble throwing down serious money on the best of the best, and who require the fastest possible performance available. If you're buying several hundred dollars worth of graphics and are worried about a potential platform bottleneck, we recommend the following CPUs:

Best Gaming CPU for $295:

Core i7-950 (Check Prices)

Core i7-950
Codename: Bloomfield
Process: 45 nm
CPU Cores/Threads: 4/8
Clock Speed (Max. Turbo): 3.06 GHz (3.33 GHz)
Socket: LGA 1366
L2 Cache: 4 x 256 KB
L3 Cache: 8 MB
QuickPath Interconnect (QPI): 4.8 GT/s
Thermal Envelope:
130 W

Intel's Core i7 has proven itself to be the most powerful gaming CPU option available, and the Core i7-950 is the obvious choice for systems coupled with multiple graphics cards in an SLI or CrossFire configuration, thanks to a recent 50% price reduction.

The X58-based motherboards and triple-channel DDR3 RAM kits that the i7 architecture utilizes will bring the total platform cost higher than other systems, but the resulting performance should be worth the purchase price.

While the Core i5 performs similarly, there are a few applications and games that can take advantage of the Core i7-900-series' Hyper-Threading and triple-channel memory features, so spending the extra money on the Core i7-950 can pay off, particularly if you plan to overclock.

In addition, LGA 1156-based Core i5 and Core i7 processors are limited to 16 PCIe 2.0 lanes. The LGA 1366-based Core i7-900s do not share this limitation, since they get their PCI Express connectivity from the X58 chipset. This makes the LGA 1366 Core i7 processors a good choice for CrossFire or SLI configurations with more than two graphics cards.

Best Gaming CPU for $999:

Core i7-980X Extreme (Check Prices)

Core i7-980X Extreme
Codename: Gulftown
Process: 32 nm
CPU Cores/Threads: 6/12
Clock Speed (Max. Turbo): 3.33 GHz (3.6 GHz)
Socket: LGA 1366
L2 Cache: 6 x 256 KB
L3 Cache: 12 MB
QPI: 6.4 GT/s
Thermal Envelope:
130 W

This six-core monster recently stole the bragging rights for the world's fastest CPU from the Core i7-975 Extreme. Despite the fact that most games don't utilize more than three CPU cores, this is the fastest desktop gaming CPU currently available for purchase, as our tests have shown. Is it worth $999? If you have money growing on trees, are afraid to try to overclock the Core i7-950, want the ease of overclocking that the Extreme Edition's unlocked multiplier provides, and are willing to pay for the bragging rights of having six CPU cores capable of running 12 threads, then it just might be.

Otherwise, the Core i7-980X Extreme is a hard sell from a value standpoint; you'd be better off investing more in graphics or solid state storage.

For more information on Intel's Gulftown architecture and the Core i7-980X processor, read our review right here.

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  • 4 Hide
    Tamz_msc , December 29, 2010 4:41 AM
    It will be interesting to look up this article in January.
  • 1 Hide
    carlhenry , December 29, 2010 4:58 AM
    i think the Phenom II 965's & 970's should be out of consideration. the i5 750/760 obliterates the opposition. hey, i'm an AMD guy, bought a phenom II 940 back in the day. but if i'm upgrading to that price segment, i'd go for an i5. no need to upgrade to phenom II 955++ if ever, just OC the 940 to get more value from it, plus it OC's pretty well without a sweat.
  • 1 Hide
    Stardude82 , December 29, 2010 5:33 AM
    Again, am I the only guy annoyed with the disapearance of the 95W Phenom II x4's?
  • 1 Hide
    firefyte , December 29, 2010 7:04 AM
    Does the Athlon II X3 455 even work in a AM2+ socket, as it is a AM3 socket-product?
  • 1 Hide
    aznshinobi , December 29, 2010 7:43 AM
    Yes it does, AM2+ has more pins than AM3. Just drop it in and it should work.
  • -1 Hide
    tmk221 , December 29, 2010 8:15 AM
    it seems to me like cpu market is dead like for 6 months. intel and amd please release new line of cpu already!!
  • 2 Hide
    7amood , December 29, 2010 8:17 AM
    2011 is a new year
    some evolution to this highly anticipated article is highly appreciated.
    pleeeeeeeeease add info such as bas BCLK, Ratio, VCore, TDP, ...etc.

    to be honest i tried manytimes to leave tom's but i keep commin' back for some great articles.

    and by 'some' i mean 2 ~ 3 / week.

    other websites are evolving, tom's hardware is still the same...
  • 2 Hide
    elkein , December 29, 2010 8:42 AM
    I really don't believe that Intel creating even more blank space on the amd column next month is gonna be healthy for anyone.
  • 2 Hide
    Onus , December 29, 2010 9:09 AM
    Please add AMD's 45W CPUs to the chart. I'm sure they won't win any performance prizes, but it would be nice to see where they fall. If even the X2 255 was able to play most games not all that long ago, perhaps the X3 415e is also "good enough" where power saving is important.
  • 1 Hide
    billj214 , December 29, 2010 10:49 AM
    I think this re-occurring article is great but I don't see a future in it with AMD dropping from the upper end chip competition and the i5 760 is really the only budget choice due to its extreme flexibility.

    I was running a Q9650 over 2 years ago and it still outperforms most AMD's according the the CPU hierarchy.
  • 2 Hide
    Onus , December 29, 2010 11:02 AM
    I disagree that AMD is in any trouble here. If you can go 3-4 tiers down in the chart and still have a decent gaming CPU, having nothing in the top tier really doesn't make much difference.
  • 0 Hide
    dowsire , December 29, 2010 11:33 AM
    Bulldozer is taking forever. My system I have now is going to be my new HTPC and a new build for bulldozer, is just waiting for it to get here. AM3+ motherboards needs to come out already. 4 module(8core) AMD Bulldozer here I come. When bulldozer comes out buy them by modules not by cores cause, with the new design 1 new module(AM3+) design will equal 1 old core(AM3) design. So todays AMD PII X4 955=Bulldozer 4module.
  • -1 Hide
    gxpbecker , December 29, 2010 12:10 PM
    still holding strong with my 3.8gig OC 940 and 4770. :)  will upgrade when SB and BD come around.
  • 1 Hide
    mliska1 , December 29, 2010 12:25 PM
    Shouldn't you start at a point lower than $85? Some of us still want to know what's best for those really low-budget rigs. Should start in the $50-$60 range.
  • 3 Hide
    KBentley57 , December 29, 2010 1:04 PM
    I love the recommendations for "best 999 dollar cpu". There is only one CPU that costs that much, so I guess it's winner by default.
  • 1 Hide
    Anonymous , December 29, 2010 1:21 PM
    your adds suck!
  • 1 Hide
    poppasmurf , December 29, 2010 1:42 PM
    I think a misprint is above in the article in the stating of the newer line from AMD
    Phenom II X2 965
    haven't heard of this chip, I believe they are referencing to the Phenom II X2 565 not a Phenom II X2 965
  • 0 Hide
    elbert , December 29, 2010 1:43 PM
    I think the E5620 and E5630 should be mentioned. Due to the 32nm process both these CPU's can run 4GHz+ long term stable unlike i5's and i7's. The i5's and i7's shouldn't be clocked more than 3.73GHz else they start showing problems in under a year. The memory bandwidth of the E56x0 put them far ahead of i7's clock for clock. These 2 workstation CPU's with an ASUS rampage III are much better gaming CPU's than the 6 core i7's. These 2 CPU's are a real step up from an i7 950 but for price premium.
  • 0 Hide
    cleeve , December 29, 2010 1:58 PM
    I think a misprint is above in the article in the stating of the newer line from AMD
    Phenom II X2 965

    Thanks for catching that, fixed to Phenom II X2 565!
  • 0 Hide
    fuzzyplankton , December 29, 2010 2:18 PM
    firefyteDoes the Athlon II X3 455 even work in a AM2+ socket, as it is a AM3 socket-product?

    Yes it does. i put one in a am2+ board and am3 board already. The chip comes with a ddr2 and ddr3 controller and have unlock 3 in a row there 4 cores.
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