Sign in with
Sign up | Sign in

Best Gaming CPUs For The Money: July 2009

Best Gaming CPUs For The Money: July 2009
By

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 CPU, 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.

Our First Gaming CPU for the Money Article

I approached writing an article about the best CPUs for the money with a great deal of caution. I write the Best Gaming Graphics Cards for the Money monthly piece and it's pretty straightforward—graphics cards are used to get higher frame rates in games, so all I really have to look at is the price/performance ratio in games and come up with what I think are the best buys. There are a lot more variables, but at the root it comes down to game performance and entry price.

On the other hand, a CPU can be used for a great many things. Anything and everything done on a PC is at least somewhat dependent on CPU performance, including writing documents, image editing, games, database queries, Internet use, server apps, scientific calculations...the list goes on and on. In truth, it's nearly impossible to make recommendations that will apply universally in light of the many different usage models that exist.

We therefore have to focus on a particular aspect of CPU performance that we can better measure, compare, and assess. Why not gaming? People are interested in the best graphics card they can get to game, so it stands to reason that they're also interested in the best gaming CPU their money can buy.

This still leaves us with the task of measuring CPU gaming performance versus price to come up with results on which we can base recommendations. With CPUs, this is a little tricky, as certain games favor multiple cores, clock speed, cache, and even a specific architecture.

Our largest database of CPU game performance is included in our Desktop CPU charts (Ed.: check out the 2009 Desktop CPU charts that were just posted, too). This includes a good cross-section of games on which to base our performance index: Crysis, Unreal Tournament 3, World in Conflict, and Supreme Commander. Admittedly, limited sampling, budget, and time means that we don't have detailed benchmark results for every CPU available, but we do have enough information to compare architectures and fill in the blanks with reasonable estimations. So, based on this performance index, as well as up-to-date pricing information, we have a reasonable price/performance base from which to launch some solid recommendations.

Please keep in mind that we aren't going to consider factors such as overclocking or platform costs. Instead, we'll stick to the basics of CPU price versus stock CPU game performance. In the future, we will try to make honorable mentions for the overclockers and for any other special circumstances we might come across. But for our first try, we're going to keep things simple.

Please do feel free to chime in with feedback on this maiden look at processor value in games. As always, we'll do our best to take your suggestions into consideration.

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 to this list. We may add honorable mentions for outstanding products in the future, though. But for now, our recommendations are based on stock clock speeds and performance.

Prices and availability change on a daily basis. We can’t offer up-to-the-minute accurate pricing information, 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 U.S. prices from online retailers. In other countries or at retail stores, your mileage will most certainly vary. Of course, these are retail CPU prices while we do not list used or OEM CPUs.

Ask a Category Expert

Create a new thread in the Reviews comments forum about this subject

Example: Notebook, Android, SSD hard drive

Display all 204 comments.
This thread is closed for comments
Top Comments
  • 23 Hide
    masterjaw , July 28, 2009 6:36 AM
    Weird. No x3 720BE nor x2 550BE.
  • 12 Hide
    da bahstid , July 28, 2009 8:17 AM
    Great idea.

    Though I might suggest a couple changes:

    First off, I own both an E8500 running at 3.8GHz and a Phenom II 940BE running at 3.6GHz, and I gotta say, with both running $190 at Newegg the Phenom II is clearly the better value. Even if it gives up a few percentage points on a clock/clock/core basis, the Phenom's four cores just hum along in any and all games while the E8500, much as I like it, does occasionally stutter. Crysis for example I can run all settings on Very High with the Phenom II, while the E8500 stutters on a few levels, which only clears up after I lower the Physics setting down to High. The Phenom II will also scale better with multi-gpu setups in much the same manner that the Core i7 did against the Phenom II in your recent test. I still like my E8500 but I bought it for $160 a year ago and especially with AMD's dual- and triple-core Phenom II BEs it's kind of overpriced. Although for non-gaming personal computing use it's still fantastic, and I can see why you make mention of the low power consumption.

    Second, the E5200 should probably be co-listed as a tie with AMD's 7850. It's a bit of an apples-to-oranges comparison, but the E5200 does have a higher ultimate overclocking potential. The drawback being that OCing success requires a reasonably educated overclocker and capable motherboard, the additional cost of which can negate some of the E5200's superb value. The 7850BE is still great though, especially for true budget builders who may not be as experienced with overclocking. The unlocked multiplier makes OCing completely brainless, and doesn't require any expensive motherboard to be stable and reliable over the long-term.

    I might niggle with a couple other things but overall I think this is a great idea and not bad for the first stab.
  • 10 Hide
    KT_WASP , July 28, 2009 11:57 AM
    I always wondered how one of these charts would look like. I like some things, but think I would change other things.

    I think, if you continue these charts, that you should stick with stock speeds only and leave the overclocking side of it out of the equation. There are to many variables in overclocking and if you took 10 of the same CPU you just might end up with 10 different results. Just add a blurb at the end of the article that the reader must do their own research if they wish to purchase based on over clocking ability of processors.

    My major gripe with this article is thus....

    The price structure is a bit out of whack. You jump from $120 to $190 in your recommendations.. I think that is too much of a jump when you consider all of the good choices (AMD or Intel) within that price range.

    For instance, in that price range, higher then $120 but lower then $190, are many viable choices. (Prices are, and have been, current for July 09)..

    AMD:
    PII x4 810 2.6GHz
    PII x4 920 2.8GHz
    PII x4 945 3.0GHz

    Intel:
    C2D e7300 3.06GHz
    Q8200 2.33GHz
    Q8300 2.5GHz
    Q8400 2.66GHz
    C2d e8400 3.0GHz

    Now take the PII x4 945 up there, for July (I've been watching the prices) it is selling for $180 and it beats the $190 e8500 CPU in games even on Tom's own charts. Makes me wonder why the e8500 was chosen over the PII x 4 940 when it only has two cores and was beaten in games?

    I think a better price structure is needed, not this random prices that skip over viable choices. This would lead to speculation as why a particular processor or set of processors were skipped over, as we see in this article. I think you should do a "set in stone" price structure, some thing like $25 increments.

    If you think there is no good choice for any particular $25 price increment, then you can write that "this so-and-so CPU is a good choice at this price, but for the extra $25 (or less $25) your better off going with this so-and-so CPU.

    I think that would make for better overall recommendations in an article like this one.


Other Comments
  • 23 Hide
    masterjaw , July 28, 2009 6:36 AM
    Weird. No x3 720BE nor x2 550BE.
  • 1 Hide
    Ramar , July 28, 2009 6:36 AM
    Never thought I'd see this, as GPU's tend to change much more often than CPU's do. Still, great idea and I hope it stays a monthly thing for us to look forward to.
  • 2 Hide
    ColMirage , July 28, 2009 6:40 AM
    Best CPU for the money? Good idea, imo. The end chart is rather clunky though :\
  • 3 Hide
    chowmanga , July 28, 2009 6:47 AM
    I thought the fsb for the pentium 6300 was 1066mhz. Intel chose to give it the 6xxx series name as to differentiate the fsb from the 5xxx series which are 800mhz.
  • 3 Hide
    astrodudepsu , July 28, 2009 6:58 AM
    This is a good idea, but we all know that this will not go over well with some folks. All in all I think the choices were solid, and could be defended with logic. But as was said in the article there are just too many variables. Kudos for taking the chance and writing this up, I'm sure it will help someone.
  • 10 Hide
    firemage , July 28, 2009 7:02 AM
    Formatting suggestion Put the series name and then just note the units from said line that share said tier. ex Phenom II 940, 920. or Core 2 Duo E6000, E6001.

    I would have thought that the Athlon II would have pulled higher with such a massive clockspeed.
  • -1 Hide
    zacktheperson , July 28, 2009 7:03 AM
    Hooray
  • 4 Hide
    Proximon , July 28, 2009 7:15 AM
    There are so many factors in a gaming CPU decision that I think this creates more confusion than anything. Now, I'll have to talk people out of getting a Q9550 because they can build for less with an AMD board, for instance.
    From what I have seen of the Athlon X2s, framerates are seriously impaired by these CPUs compared to more expensive CPUs. At some point, it has to make sense to spend money on CPU over GPU... I'm not sure where that point is right off, but it has to be considered.
    Finally, I'm fairly certain the X2 6000+ was significantly stronger than the Kuma 7750. Are you sure the 7850 is better than the 6000+? The 6000+ actually costs less.
  • 1 Hide
    dirtmountain , July 28, 2009 7:27 AM
    Good decision to add this to the GPU charts. I can't say i agree with everything in all the tiers (E6550 at 2.3GHz = phenomII x2 550 at 3.0GHz?), but then i've never agreed about everything with anyone..... ever. Good work Cleeve, i'm sure over time things will be adjusted and credit for great overclocking will be given and other changes will be made. A good addition to TomsHW
  • 1 Hide
    Cwize1 , July 28, 2009 7:32 AM
    About time, I have wanted one of these guides for a while.

    Its been a long time since I have considered AMD CPUs and its good to now see where they fit in.

    Keep up the good work
  • -1 Hide
    drealar , July 28, 2009 7:45 AM
    It's good to know that my current CPU is not in the chart, so which ever I pick next will guarantee a performance boost (currently still with my ancient P4 HT 2.6GHz :p  )

    I really like the hierarchy chart (both CPU & GPU). With the ever dropping prices, I rely partly on the chart to know if it's worth it at that particular time. Even when I know by waiting for 2~4 weeks, there will be a faster CPU/GPU or rather the price dropped dramatically :D 
  • -1 Hide
    727stretch , July 28, 2009 8:05 AM
    Chowmanga is right - the Pentium Dual Core E6300 does sport a 1066 MHz FSB... must be a typo in the article, but weird since the article states how it's based on the C2D architecture (which have a minimum 1066 FSB). *shrug* All I know is them Pentium Dual cores rock. I built a cheap-o gaming rig with the "older" E5200 - stock 2.5 GHz OC'd to 3.5 (10.5x333) on air with the stock cooler (!)... HD4850 GPU ... and the 3DMark06 scores were actually a tad higher than the HD4850 paired with a Core 2 Duo E8400 at the same clock speed. Stable as a rock too. Signed, Pentium Dual core Fanboy
  • 12 Hide
    da bahstid , July 28, 2009 8:17 AM
    Great idea.

    Though I might suggest a couple changes:

    First off, I own both an E8500 running at 3.8GHz and a Phenom II 940BE running at 3.6GHz, and I gotta say, with both running $190 at Newegg the Phenom II is clearly the better value. Even if it gives up a few percentage points on a clock/clock/core basis, the Phenom's four cores just hum along in any and all games while the E8500, much as I like it, does occasionally stutter. Crysis for example I can run all settings on Very High with the Phenom II, while the E8500 stutters on a few levels, which only clears up after I lower the Physics setting down to High. The Phenom II will also scale better with multi-gpu setups in much the same manner that the Core i7 did against the Phenom II in your recent test. I still like my E8500 but I bought it for $160 a year ago and especially with AMD's dual- and triple-core Phenom II BEs it's kind of overpriced. Although for non-gaming personal computing use it's still fantastic, and I can see why you make mention of the low power consumption.

    Second, the E5200 should probably be co-listed as a tie with AMD's 7850. It's a bit of an apples-to-oranges comparison, but the E5200 does have a higher ultimate overclocking potential. The drawback being that OCing success requires a reasonably educated overclocker and capable motherboard, the additional cost of which can negate some of the E5200's superb value. The 7850BE is still great though, especially for true budget builders who may not be as experienced with overclocking. The unlocked multiplier makes OCing completely brainless, and doesn't require any expensive motherboard to be stable and reliable over the long-term.

    I might niggle with a couple other things but overall I think this is a great idea and not bad for the first stab.
  • 7 Hide
    ravenware , July 28, 2009 8:23 AM
    The Phenom II x3 720 should probably replace the 710 and e8500 on this list. In several benchmarks (mainly gaming) the e8500 and 720 are about even, the e8500 pulls ahead in AVG, winzip, and a couple video encoding benches.

    The 720 is currently priced at $119 on newegg.com
  • 3 Hide
    azxcvbnm321 , July 28, 2009 8:39 AM
    The biggest problem I have is with the hierarchy chart. This is only for gaming right? So all the encoding and synthetics are thrown out. From what I've seen, the Phenom IIs are on the same level of the Core 2 Quads, especially with the new AM3 DDR3. Motherboard and RAM prices are not factored in right? Yet only one PhenII is included with the top Intel Quads? The 945 needs to be moved up at least, and/or some Quads need to be moved down. Seems as though some non-gaming benchmarks have subconsciously influenced the hierarchy, or else unrealistic settings are being applied. 1650x1080 should be the minimum resolution considered, otherwise the best suggestion is to go buy a new monitor as a bigger monitor will produce the best bang for the buck.
  • 3 Hide
    abhilash , July 28, 2009 9:26 AM
    nice idea,but incomplete without platform costs and platform upgradability,OCing is another consideration
  • -1 Hide
    astrodudepsu , July 28, 2009 9:41 AM
    @ da bahstid, it was quite clearly mentioned that OC'ing would not be a factor here. There are already too many variables to throw something as unpredictable as OC'ing into the mix
  • 1 Hide
    scrumworks , July 28, 2009 9:48 AM
    ProximonThere are so many factors in a gaming CPU decision that I think this creates more confusion than anything. Now, I'll have to talk people out of getting a Q9550 because they can build for less with an AMD board, for instance.From what I have seen of the Athlon X2s, framerates are seriously impaired by these CPUs compared to more expensive CPUs. At some point, it has to make sense to spend money on CPU over GPU... I'm not sure where that point is right off, but it has to be considered.Finally, I'm fairly certain the X2 6000+ was significantly stronger than the Kuma 7750. Are you sure the 7850 is better than the 6000+? The 6000+ actually costs less.


    I went from 5600+ to 7750 and got some good gains thanks to additional 2MB L3 cache. 7750 definitely kicks 6000+ arse.
  • 1 Hide
    ufo_warviper , July 28, 2009 10:10 AM
    Great guide so far Cleeve! This guide makes decent reccommendations. Phenom II X4's are too close in price to core i7 920 to make this list, so their absence makes sense to me. The only surprise I had, was that the legendary PII X3 720 was MIA, but I think that the reason was hinted at in the intro, since the PII x3 720 is loved for overclocking.
Display more comments