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Best Gaming CPUs For The Money: January '10

Best Gaming CPUs For The Money: January '10
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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 Review and January Updates

January 2010 has marked Intel's return to the sub-$200 CPU market with brand new technology, a space where the company has, up until now, relied on older Core 2-based processors. It released the new Core i5, i3, and Pentium G-series processors; 32nm models that employ two physical CPU cores, yet deliver four logical cores by way of Hyper-Threading. Intel has the distinction of offering the first CPUs with an integrated graphics core on the same package, though that's not going to be relevant to you as a gamer. Talk about a significant advancement in home and small office desktops, though. There are a lot of new CPUs available, and here are their particulars:

Intel's New Clarkdale Processors
Model
Code Name
Clock
Max. Turbo
HT
Cores/Threads
Power
Street Price
Core i5-750
Lynnfield
2.66 GHz
3.2 GHz
No
4/4
95W
$200
Core i5-670
Clarkdale
3.46 GHz
3.73 GHz
Yes
2/4
73W
$290
Core i5-661
Clarkdale3.33 GHz
3.6 GHz
Yes
2/4
87W
$210
Core i5-660
Clarkdale3.33 GHz
3.6 GHz
Yes
2/4
73W
$208
Core i5-650
Clarkdale3.2 GHz
3.46 GHz
Yes
2/4
73W
$195
Core i3-540
Clarkdale3.06 GHz
N/A
Yes
2/4
73W
$145
Core i3-530
Clarkdale2.93 GHz
N/A
Yes
2/4
73W
$125
Pentium G6950
Clarkdale2.8 GHz
N/A
No
2/2
73W
$99


We can see how Intel is differentiating these processor families, though it's significantly more difficult to distinguish the individual model numbers. The Clarkdale-based Pentium has two cores, no Hyper-Threading, and no Turbo Boost. The Core i3 processors have two cores armed with Hyper-Threading, but no Turbo Boost. And the Clarkdale-based Core i5 models (there are Lynnfield Core i5s, too) feature Hyper-Threading and Turbo Boost. Unfortunately, the Core i5 brand is now a little muddied, since the Lynnfield-based Core i5-750 has four physical cores and no Hyper-Threading.

There isn't a whole lot of performance data available for these new processors yet, so we've examined the information that is available and made the best educated guesses we can as to how these processors perform in games (this won't be the case for long; we have two stories planned for the end of the month covering i3 and Pentium G performance). From the limited data we've seen, it looks like these Clarkdale chips can really hold their own against true quad-core CPUs from a gaming performance standpoint.

We will note that, while the Core i3 CPUs seem to deliver good gaming value, the pricing is too high on the Clarkdale-based Core i5 models. Further tests will confirm, but we suspect the $200 Core i5-750 might offer better value than the more expensive i5-660 to 670 processors. It will be interesting to see how these Hyper-Threaded dual-core processors fare against AMD's quad-core budget models. Chances are good that we're going to see notable performance disparities, with the performance trophy changing hands depending on whether or not the application is optimized for threading.

Of course, AMD hasn't been sitting idle. It has a speed bump-based counter-attack planned for the end of January. The new models will include the Phenom II X2 555, Athlon II X4 635, Athlon II X3 440, and the Athlon II X2 255. We can't wait to see how this one plays out!

On a related note, it seems that Intel might be taking advantage of the diversity in its new lineup by increasing the prices of higher-end models. Both the Core i5-750 and Core i7-920 have gone up a few dollars since last month.

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.

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  • 7 Hide
    08nwsula , January 19, 2010 5:35 AM
    I've wanted an i7-920 system for a while now but I don't really know if it's worth the extra dough now that the 15-750 system is starting to cost so much less.
  • 0 Hide
    masterjaw , January 19, 2010 5:38 AM
    Very neat article as usual.

    Lots of new stuff in the list with the inclusion of new Intel CPUs.

    Hopefully, there would be something new that will come from AMD.
  • 2 Hide
    liquidsnake718 , January 19, 2010 5:47 AM
    08nwsulaI've wanted an i7-920 system for a while now but I don't really know if it's worth the extra dough now that the 15-750 system is starting to cost so much less.



    Yes the LGA1336 system is worth it... the prices are probably going to drop just a tad bit in the next few months as there are also a bunch of sub$200 core 1336mbs out there. If you read this article, the author even states that it will be well worth it especially this year when usb3.0, sata and ssds become cheaper and the norm. Expect to see a new LGA1336 processor coming out as well but for now the i7 920 is a jewel. It is like the older q6600 when it first came out. Great in overclocking and really preforms well overall fora decent price. There are few problems with heat, games, video, processes, ect that the i7 920 will give you....
  • 4 Hide
    anamaniac , January 19, 2010 5:49 AM
    08nwsulaI've wanted an i7-920 system for a while now but I don't really know if it's worth the extra dough now that the 15-750 system is starting to cost so much less.

    If you're going multi-GPU, go for a i7 920, otherwise, grab its cheaper brother.
    masterjawVery neat article as usual.Lots of new stuff in the list with the inclusion of new Intel CPUs.Hopefully, there would be something new that will come from AMD.

    We can only hope. Sad to say, but I think I'd rather a Intel 32nm dual core with HT over a quad core AMD.

    AMD, wake up pretty pleae. My old 1.6GHz athlon (which I still have, though it's burried under a foot of snow outside) was a beast, and my Pentium D and i7 since just haven't felt to par for me.
  • 0 Hide
    dlpatague , January 19, 2010 6:19 AM
    I just built my first i7 comp and I'm going to purchase a 920 for now until the 930 comes out (I'm going to sell the 920 to a friend who is going to be building a comp soon). Are there any performance/spec numbers as of yet and what to expect comparing the 930 to the 920? I know it's 32nm and 2.8GHz, so I'm assuming that the performance will probably compare more to something like the 940 or 950 and it should overclock just as well if not better.
  • 0 Hide
    Ehsan w , January 19, 2010 7:18 AM
    what reason is there to pick the core i5 660 over the core i5 670??
    core i5 660 is $208,- while the 670 is $200,-
    The 670 also has faster clocks, anybody know??
  • 3 Hide
    daeros , January 19, 2010 7:24 AM
    I just noticed the PII X4 910 is rated below the PII X4 810. Can someone please explain to me if this is just an error, or, if not, how is it that increasing cache size by 50% hurts performance.
  • 0 Hide
    barmaley , January 19, 2010 7:58 AM
    dlpatagueI just built my first i7 comp and I'm going to purchase a 920 for now until the 930 comes out (I'm going to sell the 920 to a friend who is going to be building a comp soon). Are there any performance/spec numbers as of yet and what to expect comparing the 930 to the 920? I know it's 32nm and 2.8GHz, so I'm assuming that the performance will probably compare more to something like the 940 or 950 and it should overclock just as well if not better.


    According to this wiki page i7 930 is still 45nm:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_future_Intel_Core_i7_microprocessors#.22Gulftown.22_.2832_nm.29
  • 0 Hide
    jfem , January 19, 2010 8:39 AM
    I think the tier below phenom II x4 BE 965,955 should be phenom II x4, 945, 940... not phenom x4 945, 940...
  • 0 Hide
    huron , January 19, 2010 11:04 AM
    Always look forward to these articles. Thanks again.

    I do appreciate the value perspective and not recommending the 920, since most value-minded people would not go for multi-GPU setups that need a far more expensive board like the X58.
  • 0 Hide
    thedreadfather , January 19, 2010 11:24 AM
    Isn't the Phenom II 720 only 109.99 at newegg?
    http://www.newegg.com/Product/Product.aspx?Item=N82E16819103652
    True enough there's no heatsink, but you can still get a half-decent one for ~$20.
  • 2 Hide
    marraco , January 19, 2010 11:27 AM
    08nwsulaI've wanted an i7-920 system for a while now but I don't really know if it's worth the extra dough now that the 15-750 system is starting to cost so much less.


    I own a Core i7-920, and no. It's not worth the extra cost. It cost more, RAM cost more, mother cost more, at it eats so much more power, that you will need to buy a better power source.

    also it produces too many heat, and gets too high temperature, so is not really a good overclocker, unless you also spend on a really really expensive cooler.

    the 920 only makes sense if you plan to go for SLI/Crossfire, but then again, dual video cards only make sense if you use only top cards.
    otherwise, go for cards with dual video on a single package (as the ati 5950, or Geforce 295) because they eat less power, are more silent, produces less heat (which is a real problem with the 920), and don't ask for so expensive power sources.
  • 0 Hide
    El_Capitan , January 19, 2010 11:54 AM
    thedreadfatherIsn't the Phenom II 720 only 109.99 at newegg?http://www.newegg.com/Product/Prod [...] 6819103652True enough there's no heatsink, but you can still get a half-decent one for ~$20.

    You don't need an after-market heatsink with the Phenom II x3 720, you can overclock it to 3.4 GHz stable with the stock heatsink, just apply good thermal compound (at the least, Arctic Silver 5). I compared two of my builds, one with a $35 heatsink and one with stock, and the differences in heat is minimal unless the CPU is stressed, then the difference is around 5C. However, with the stock cooler, you won't be able to overclock to 3.7 GHz. :) 
  • 2 Hide
    envolva , January 19, 2010 12:02 PM
    The i5-750 have the best value for gaming at this time. Even using SLI/Crossfire the platform loses very little performance. And with the money you save you can spend more on your graphic card. Besides with monsters like the ATI 5850 or anything better, you won't have to worry with SLI or Crossfire anyway.

    If you are not afraid of overclocking you will be good for long while.
  • -4 Hide
    El_Capitan , January 19, 2010 12:06 PM
    marracoI own a Core i7-920, and no. It's not worth the extra cost. It cost more, RAM cost more, mother cost more, at it eats so much more power, that you will need to buy a better power source.also it produces too many heat, and gets too high temperature, so is not really a good overclocker, unless you also spend on a really really expensive cooler.the 920 only makes sense if you plan to go for SLI/Crossfire, but then again, dual video cards only make sense if you use only top cards.otherwise, go for cards with dual video on a single package (as the ati 5950, or Geforce 295) because they eat less power, are more silent, produces less heat (which is a real problem with the 920), and don't ask for so expensive power sources.


    RAM does not cost more, wtf are you talking about? Motherboard and Heatsink costs are what set you back. For a $170 Motherboard and a $35 Heatsink, you can overclock stable at 3.6 GHz. For a $300 Motherboard and a $55+ cooling solution, you can hit the 4.0 GHz stable. It's all up to whether you, as a builder, sees a need for a 400 MHz additional overclock for $150 (or $37.50 per 100 MHz).

    The Core i7-920 is the BLACK of CPU's. Once you go BLACK, you don't go back...
  • 2 Hide
    El_Capitan , January 19, 2010 12:16 PM
    The biggest factor I see for getting a CPU is what it's intended for, and if the prices for higher-line CPU's ever go down. Owning an LGA 1366 x58 and an AM3 motherboard, I know there's an upgrade in the future lined up for both the Intel and AMD world regarding CPU and Video Card upgrades. The LGA 1156? It's a dead end to me.
  • 0 Hide
    callousdigits , January 19, 2010 12:17 PM
    Microcenter (if you're near one) has the I5-650 for $149.99. I really wish it was time for me to upgrade!
  • 3 Hide
    San Pedro , January 19, 2010 12:23 PM
    I still don't think 4.0 ghz is really needed for games. Once you start cranking up settings/resolution you're much more likely to hit a GPU bottleneck that will mean your overclock has no tangible effects in gaming, at least if you're using a quad core. I know a few articles on this site have showed that is the case.

    Now if I only can get my wife to let me buy the Q9400 replacement that is coming out soon, I think I'll be good for another 2 years on my system.
  • 0 Hide
    warmon6 , January 19, 2010 12:24 PM
    callousdigitsMicrocenter (if you're near one) has the I5-650 for $149.99. I really wish it was time for me to upgrade!


    Not any more

    http://www.microcenter.com/single_product_results.phtml?product_id=0317379
  • 0 Hide
    warmon6 , January 19, 2010 12:37 PM
    warmon6Not any morehttp://www.microcenter.com/single_ [...] id=0317379


    Never mind. Though it said 750.....

    Tom, when are going to get an edit feature in this!
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