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Best Gaming CPUs For The Money: December 2010

Best Gaming CPUs For The Money: December 2010

AMD introduced a few new CPUs like the Athlon II X3 455, Phenom II X2 565, and the Phenom II X6 1100T. Intel is serving up an impressive Core i3-550 price drop. We consider the CPU landscape at the end of 2010 on the cusp of Sandy Bridge's introduction.

If you don’t have the time to research the benchmarks, or if you don’t feel confident enough in your ability to pick the right processor for your next gaming machine, fear not. We at Tom’s Hardware have come to your aid with a simple list of the best gaming CPUs offered for the money.

December Updates

AMD introduced a few new models in December: the 3.3 GHz Athlon II X3 455, the 3.4 GHz Phenom II X2 565 Black Edition, and the 3.3 GHz Phenom II X6 1100T Black Edition. All three of these CPUs are 100 MHz speed bumps over the previous flagships in their respective product lines. At $85, the Athlon X3 455 slightly ups the ante for budget gaming CPUs. The $100 Phenom II X2 565 BE continues the Phenom X2 tradition of low-priced, multiplier-unlocked, overclockable dual-core processors featuring the chance to unlock dormant cores. At $265, the Phenom II X6 1100T BE takes the pole position in AMD's desktop processor portfolio.

While the Phenom II X6 series attracts folks who focus on threaded applications, gamers should probably be more interested in the Phenom II X4 955 BE, a CPU that we've seen drop a few dollars to $145. This quad-core CPU sits in the sweet spot of price/performance and overclocking ability. To see any real advantage over the Phenom II X4 955, you need to spend roughly $200 for a Core i5-700-series CPU like the -760.

Speaking of Intel, the Core i3-550 recently landed at the $115 price point, and this 3.2 GHz processor is the first extremely compelling sub-$200 offering that we've seen from Intel in a long time. It can hold its own against lower-clocked Phenom II X4 CPUs as a gaming-oriented solution, and it's a solid overclocker, too. Its only relative weakness is performance in heavily threaded applications when you compare it to chips armed with more than two physical cores, such as AMD's Athlon II X3. But if gaming is your focus, you won't find a better $115 CPU.

If you already own a platform and don't want to invest in a new motherboard, you can probably upgrade to any of the CPUs on our recommended list without worrying too much about the future. For anyone planning a complete upgrade, though, realize that we're on the verge of Intel's Sandy Bridge architecture introduction, so consider holding off a little longer to see how the market change within the next two weeks. Intel's next-generation design is expected to have a significant impact on the processor landscape, especially as it pertains to media encoding/decoding (Ed.: I wish I could say more at this point, but it'll be big; trust me).

Some Notes About Our Recommendations

This list is for gamers who want to get the most for their money. If you don’t play games, then the CPUs on this list may not be suitable for your particular needs.

The criteria to get on this list are strictly price/performance. We acknowledge that there are other factors that come into play, such as platform price or CPU overclockability, but we're not going to complicate things by factoring in motherboard costs. We may add honorable mentions for outstanding products in the future, though. For now, our recommendations are based on stock clock speeds and performance at that price.

Cost and availability change on a daily basis. We can’t offer up-to-the-minute accurate pricing information in the text, but we can list some good chips that you probably won’t regret buying at the price ranges we suggest (and our PriceGrabber-based engine will help track down some of the best prices for you).

The list is based on some of the best US prices from online retailers. In other countries or at retail stores, your mileage will most certainly vary. Of course, these are retail CPU prices. We do not list used or OEM CPUs available at retail.

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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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