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Best Gaming CPU: $200 And Up

Best Gaming CPUs For The Money: December '09
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Best gaming CPU for $200:

Core i5-750 (Check Prices)

Core i5-750
Codename: Lynnfield
Process: 45nm
CPU Cores: 4
Clock Speed: 2.66 GHz
Socket: LGA 1156
L2 Cache: 4 x 256KB
L3 Cache:   8MB
QuickPath Interconnect (QPI): -
Thermal Envelope:
  95W

The new Core i5 brings top of the line Nehalem-class performance down to the $200 price point. We recently awarded it our Recommended Buy honor after seeing it stand up to more expensive CPUs in games and other demanding apps.

For those desiring the best possible performance, the Core i5-750 can be overclocked to great effect, performing similarly to the $1,000 Core i7-975 Extreme at its stock settings when pushed a bit.

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

Past the Point of Reason:

With rapidly-increasing prices over $200 offering smaller and smaller performance boosts in games, we have a hard time recommending anything more expensive than the Core i5-750. This is especially the case since the Core i5-750 can be overclocked to great effect if more performance is desired, easily surpassing the stock clock rate of the $1,000 Core i7-975 Extreme.

Perhaps the only performance-based justification we can think of for moving up from a Core i5-750 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 LGA 1366 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, there are those of you for whom money might not be much of an object and who require the best possible performance money can buy. 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 $280:

Core i7-920 (Check Prices)

Core i7-920
Codename: Bloomfield
Process: 45nm
CPU Cores: 4
Clock Speed: 2.66 GHz
Socket: LGA 1366
L2 Cache: 4 x 256KB
L3 Cache:   8MB
QuickPath Interconnect (QPI): 4.8 GT/s
Thermal Envelope:
  130W

Intel's Core i7 has proven itself to be the most powerful gaming CPU option available, based on the data we have gathered. The Core i7-920 is a great choice for systems coupled with multiple graphics cards in an SLI or CrossFire configuration.

The motherboards and DDR3 RAM that the i7 architecture requires 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' HyperThreading and triple-channel memory features, so spending the extra money on the Core i7-920 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, but 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 $1,000:

Core i7-975 Extreme (Check Prices)

Core i7 975 Extreme
Codename: Bloomfield
Process: 45nm
CPU Cores: 4
Clock Speed:   3.33 GHz
Socket: LGA 1366
L2 Cache: 4 x 256KB
L3 Cache:   8MB
QPI: 6.4 GT/s
Thermal Envelope:
  130W

This is the big kahuna, the fastest gaming CPU currently available for purchase, as our game tests show. Is it worth $1,000? If you have money growing on trees, are afraid to try to overclock the Core i7-920, want the ease of overclocking that the Extreme Edition's unlocked multiplier provides, and are willing to pay for the bragging rights, then it just might be.

Otherwise, the Core i7-975 Extreme is a hard sell from a value standpoint; you'd be better off investing more in graphics or solid state storage.

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  • 0 Hide
    wintermint , December 17, 2009 5:41 AM
    Sigh I wish all the prices you say are the same as the prices in the link "check prices" anyway good job on the update :) 
  • 1 Hide
    dirtmountain , December 17, 2009 5:47 AM
    Another good job on this excellent feature Cleeve. Have a Merry Christmas!
  • -1 Hide
    agnickolov , December 17, 2009 6:59 AM
    Still missing Core i7 960 in the top tier on the chart in the last page.
  • 1 Hide
    timbo , December 17, 2009 8:11 AM
    The core 2 duo e8500 has remaind $189.99 on the egg since your last installment quoting that price there a couple weeks ago. Why would you now direct people to needlessly spend $230.00 @ server supply, a difference of $40?
  • 0 Hide
    juliom , December 17, 2009 8:16 AM
    I really can't understand the fascination to recomend the i5 750 over a Phenom II 965. The i5 is faster in various applications, but their gaming results are very similar and the platform cost for AMD is much lower.
  • 1 Hide
    cyberkuberiah , December 17, 2009 8:34 AM
    juliomI really can't understand the fascination to recomend the i5 750 over a Phenom II 965. The i5 is faster in various applications, but their gaming results are very similar and the platform cost for AMD is much lower.


    what platform cost ? i am running a single 5850 on $105 gigabyte UD2 with i5 on 3.6 stock voltage . gskill ram , psu , case , hdd , dvdrw etc is the same price . and the i5 is only 5$ more than 965 "BE" .
  • -3 Hide
    bunga28 , December 17, 2009 8:49 AM
    Try this at dell.com

    http://slickdeals.net/forums/showthread.php?threadid=1750904

    Dual Core Xeon Processor 5060,2x2MB Cache, 3.20GHz, 1066MHZ FSB [dell.com], $10.99 DEAD

    Xeon 3.0 GHz Dual Core Processor [dell.com], $16.99 DEAD

    Xeon L5430 2.66 GHz Quad Core Second Processor [dell.com], $12.99

    Xeon E3110 3 GHz Dual Core Processor [dell.com], $16.99

    Xeon X5470 3.33 GHz Quad Core Processor [dell.com], $23.99

    Xeon E5450 3.0 GHz Quad Core Processor [dell.com], $39.99
  • 0 Hide
    cyberkuberiah , December 17, 2009 8:59 AM
    yeah , merry xMas all of tom's hardware !
  • 0 Hide
    JohnnyLucky , December 17, 2009 9:44 AM
    Are there any industry stats indicatings which cpu's are most popular with gamers? Intel Core2 Quads?
  • 0 Hide
    ytoledano , December 17, 2009 9:52 AM
    What this review always lacks is a recommendation on what to buy regardless of price. I think most people are like me - want to buy a graphics card for $70-$150 with the best value. Most times, good value is more important than a $15 price difference between two cards.

    I would like a section saying: "The following 3 cards have great value". Then I could just pick one which fits in my budget.
  • 2 Hide
    GBleezy , December 17, 2009 11:06 AM
    Yes! I just researched and put together an $800 system and I came to the conclusion after my studies that the i5 with the GeForce GTS 250 would be the best value for my price range (leaving enough budget for case, mobo, ram, hdd, psu). With what I have been learning/reading these last few weeks (which is everything i now know about hardware) basically left me with the i5 or i7 to use, and the i7 was a little steep and like the 1156 is dual channel ddr3 where as the 1136 is tri-chan so going i5 i think gives cheaper ram and mobo to buy too, and i5 overclocks so well! Anyways, i ordered my parts Monday and I'm just glad to read that tomshardware recommends the i5 as the best CPU for gaming! Means i made the right choice... :) 
  • 0 Hide
    huron , December 17, 2009 11:09 AM
    I always enjoy the "Best...for the money" articles. I'm amazed that the 1366 chips are considered past the point of reason...interesting take on that.
  • 0 Hide
    Onyx2291 , December 17, 2009 11:25 AM
    Ohh finally for the perfect month.
  • 1 Hide
    caamsa , December 17, 2009 11:47 AM
    How about the II X4 925 Deneb 2.8GHz for $140.00 on new egg. The only problem I see with the X3 425 and 435 is that new egg does not offer free shipping and that adds an extra 6 bucks to the price.
  • 1 Hide
    Railgun1369 , December 17, 2009 11:49 AM
    Micro Center has an i7-920 for $199.99. Seems like the winner to me.
  • 3 Hide
    smasher5000 , December 17, 2009 12:43 PM
    You forgot to mention that the $199.99 i7-920 at Micro Center is the in-store price only. Can't have that shipped to you. They also have the i5-750 for $149.99. Great deals on all their processors (in-store only though).

    Ewiz.com has $10 off any order over $75. Good savings there too.
  • -1 Hide
    SevWarfare , December 17, 2009 1:18 PM
    Micro Center FTW. Bought my i7-920 there.

    Antec P182 Gunmetal w/ Custom Side Panel Window/ Cooler Master Silent Pro M 700W
    Intel Core i7 920 D0 @ 3.2 / OCZ Gladiator Max 120mm CPU Cooler
    MSI X58 Platinum SLI / OCZ Reaper HPC 6GB DDR3-1800 @ 7-7-7-16 / XFX GTX 275 OC
    160GB VelociRaptor(OS) / 2TB Storage / Samsung 22X & 20x SATA DVD Burner with LS
    Hanns·G 24" 1080P Widescreen LCD Monitor / Logitech Wireless Slim Desktop S 510
    Windows 7 Professional x64
  • 6 Hide
    Summer Leigh Castle , December 17, 2009 3:48 PM
    It's a good thing the closest Micro Center is only about 500 miles away from me because 1000 miles in gas is penny change.
  • 2 Hide
    10tacle , December 17, 2009 4:31 PM
    Micro Center pwns the CPU prices, but not everyone has one in their region and they do not ship orders - it's in store purchases only.

    But I don't know why people slam E8500 CPU builds. I've got an E8400 overclocked to 4.4GHz on air and it mows through heavily CPU bound games/sims like FSX at high resolution and graphic settings. If you are on a budget and can't afford an i7/x58 build, it's the way to go if you are successful at getting it overclocked. I'd shy away from the 1156/P55 platform as they aren't as proven to overclock success as the x58 boards.
  • -4 Hide
    pseton , December 17, 2009 6:26 PM
    Not factoring in things like motherboard cost and overclockability renders this list just about worthless, especially when you consider the variability of price in short term.
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