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.
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.