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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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