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Best Gaming CPU: $200 And Up

Best Gaming CPUs For The Money: June 2011
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Best Gaming CPU for $210: None

Honorable Mention:
Core i5-760 (Check Prices)

Core i5-760
Codename: Lynnfield
Process: 45 nm
CPU Cores: 4
Clock Speed (Max. Turbo): 2.8 GHz  (3.3 GHz)
Socket: LGA 1156
L2 Cache: 4 x 256 KB
L3 Cache: 8 MB
Thermal Envelope:
95 W

The Core i5-760 is displaced by Intel's new Core-i5-2500K (and its accompanying interface). But for folks who already own a dual-core CPU on the LGA 1156 platform, the Core i5-760 continues to offer tremendous value. Just like the Core i5-750, Intel's -760 delivers serious gaming performance at its default frequency. What's more, these CPUs are monsters when overclocked, and even challenge more expensive Core i7 models.

Why do we limit our recommendation to folks with dual-core LGA 1156 CPUs? If you already have a quad-core on LGA 1156, it's at least a -750, and the -760 isn't worth the extra money. And if you're already rocking a Core i7, well, you probably don't want to step down. At the end of the day, this Lynnfield design is only really relevant to a handful of buyers.

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

Best Gaming CPU for $220:
Core i5-2500K (Check Prices)

Core i5-2500K
Codename: Sandy Bridge
Process: 32 nm
CPU Cores/Threads: 4
Clock Speed (Max. Turbo): 3.3 GHz (3.7 GHz)
Socket: LGA 1155
L2 Cache: 4 x 256 KB
L3 Cache: 6 MB
Thermal Envelope:
95 W

From the standpoint of raw compute power, Core i5-2500K offers very little over the cheaper Core i5-2400. It does hold three distinctions, however: it's clocked a few hundred MHz higher, it comes with Intel HD 3000 graphics, and it has an unlocked CPU multiplier.

The 200 MHz (300 MHz with Turbo Boost) advantage is almost insignificant over the Core i5-2400, and gamers with discrete graphics cards will care little about the integrated graphics engine. But the unlocked CPU multiplier is a must for overclockers using any Sandy Bridge-based CPU. The Core i5-2500K is the obvious choice for gamers looking for the best combination of overclock-ability and gaming potential.

Read our review of the new Sandy Bridge-based CPUs here.

Past the Point of Reason:

CPUs priced over $220 offer rapidly diminishing returns when it comes to game performance. As such, we have a hard time recommending anything more expensive than the Core i5-2500K, especially since this multiplier-unlocked processor can be overclocked to great effect if more performance is desired. Even at stock clocks, it meets or beats the $1000 Core i7-990X Extreme Edition when it comes to gaming.

Is there any reason for a gamer to go with a Core i7-900-series CPU/X58 motherboard combo, now that Sandy bridge has arrived? While the new Core i7-2000 series is faster than the Core i7-900-series from a processing standpoint, the platform can be a factor. The LGA 1155 processors have an inherent limit of 16 PCIe lanes for graphics use (the same limit imposed on LGA 1156 processors), so if a gamer plans to use three or more graphics cards in CrossFire or SLI, we have to ask if Bloomfield/Gulftown and X58 offer the potential for more performance?

No! In theory, the current ultimate gaming platform (until Intel releases the LGA 2011 interface in the second half of this year) would be a P67 chipset paired with the NF200 bridge. Our experience with the LGA 1156 chipset paired with the NF200 bridge indicates that a P67/NF200 combo would allow us to use the fastest Sandy Bridge CPUs available in conjunction with three or four graphics cards without noticable graphics bandwidth trade-offs. Check out this three-part series by Thomas Soderstrom, which proves those claims.

To summarize, while we recommend against purchasing any gaming CPU that retails for more than $220 from a value point of view (sink that money into graphics and the motherboard instead), there are those of you who have no trouble throwing down serious money on the best of the best, and who require the fastest possible performance available. If this describes your processing goals, the following CPU is for you:

Best Gaming CPU for $325: (or for any price)
Core i7-2600K (Check Prices)

Core i7-2600K
Codename: Sandy Bridge
Process: 32 nm
CPU Cores/Threads: 4/8
Clock Speed (Max. Turbo): 3.4 GHz (3.8 GHz)
Socket: LGA 1155
L2 Cache: 4 x 256 KB
L3 Cache: 8 MB
Thermal Envelope:
95 W

Take the Core i5-2500, add 2 MB of L3 cache, Hyper-Threading, and a 100 MHz bump across the board. What do  you have? The Core i7-2600K.

It doesn't sound like much of an improvement, and frankly it will make remarkably little difference when it comes to gaming. The $100 spread between the Core i5-2500K and Core i7-2600K is only recommended if you want to brag, because you're probably not going to notice any appreciable frame rate difference. The Core i7's strength is only really exploited in heavily-threaded workstation applications, rather than games.

But no list is complete without the best-of-the-best, and that's the Core i7-2600K. For $330 you can have a CPU that games faster than the $1000 hexa-core Core i7-990X Extreme.

Read our review of the new Sandy Bridge-based CPUs here.

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Top Comments
  • 24 Hide
    tacoslave , June 29, 2011 4:28 AM
    amd needs bulldozer thats one thing we can all agree on.
  • 16 Hide
    dogman_1234 , June 29, 2011 4:33 AM
    Good review. I love the best Gaming CPU monthly. Ready for BD and to give a run against IB as well. will be interesting to see what AMD has to offer against the king i7-2600K.
Other Comments
  • 24 Hide
    tacoslave , June 29, 2011 4:28 AM
    amd needs bulldozer thats one thing we can all agree on.
  • 2 Hide
    wildeast , June 29, 2011 4:29 AM
    Good job again with these articles, always keeping me updated about the best buy. :) 
    I noticed there is no i5 2400 in the Hierarchy Chart though.
  • 16 Hide
    dogman_1234 , June 29, 2011 4:33 AM
    Good review. I love the best Gaming CPU monthly. Ready for BD and to give a run against IB as well. will be interesting to see what AMD has to offer against the king i7-2600K.
  • 15 Hide
    undead_assault , June 29, 2011 4:46 AM
    hmmm, nice reviews! But since you guys only updated a little sections because there are not much new CPU's to compare, please consider a new article like Best Gaming Motherboard (for AMD & Intel) For The Money!

    If that's too much, you can begin with new platforms first (AMD 900 series, Intel 1155, 1366).

    Thanks Toms, you rocks!
  • 3 Hide
    jdw_swb , June 29, 2011 5:05 AM
    2500K all the way for gaming. Awesome CPU for an amazing price.

    OC's effortlessly, and rips through every game it meets.
  • 3 Hide
    lothdk , June 29, 2011 6:06 AM
    Since the Phenom II X4 955 is now a Best Gaming CPU you might want to edit the last paragraph that reads

    Quote:
    But AMD's CPU retains an honorable mention as a good entertainment-oriented option better suited to multitasking, thanks to its quad-core architecture. And at its new low price, it remains a recommendable option.
  • 2 Hide
    crisan_tiberiu , June 29, 2011 6:36 AM
    well, i went i7 2600k. I was thinking that of i spend some money now ill get the best... but i was not sure becasue i wanted to wait for BD..bit it takes to long..
  • -5 Hide
    clonazepam , June 29, 2011 7:00 AM
    If Ivy Bridge is as boring to overclock as Sandy is I may go with Bulldozer even if there's a loss in performance, just for the fun of the tweaking inside and out. If BD's bad, then maybe i'll just go retro with the x58 platform and hope Intel puts the nail in its coffin with a new 1366 chip in 22nm flavor... hmmm I should start writing that letter.
  • -1 Hide
    renz496 , June 29, 2011 7:03 AM
    honestly i hope bulldozer able to make i5 2500k much more affordable :p 
  • 0 Hide
    clonazepam , June 29, 2011 7:06 AM
    I hope there's an extreme series of sandy and ivy that replace the graphics section with bigger L1, L2, and L3 caches all shared up and pretty.
  • 4 Hide
    iam2thecrowe , June 29, 2011 7:06 AM
    clonazepamIf Ivy Bridge is as boring to overclock as Sandy is I may go with Bulldozer even if there's a loss in performance, just for the fun of the tweaking inside and out. If BD's bad, then maybe i'll just go retro with the x58 platform and hope Intel puts the nail in its coffin with a new 1366 chip in 22nm flavor... hmmm I should start writing that letter.

    In what way is SB boring to overclock? you get amazing performance for little money.....i think your really missing something here, maybe do some more reading about SB overclocking.
  • 0 Hide
    haplo602 , June 29, 2011 7:06 AM
    dual opteron 2220 here ... plenty fast for what I need. looking for a better GPU :-)
  • 0 Hide
    clonazepam , June 29, 2011 7:08 AM
    Most only need to change voltage and multiplier. Compare that to socket 775 and even moreso involved overclocking the x58 and AMD's platforms. I know I have issues and am OCD so normal folks won't understand I just really enjoy tweaking the system endlessly for better performance gains... That's just me. I'm special.
  • -2 Hide
    clonazepam , June 29, 2011 7:12 AM
    I'm loving that core i3, want that, max ram, single slot low power grfx, most efficient mobo, and a case with 6 to 8 drive bays. I bought my cheap 4 port sata II pci-x1 slot card for it, now need the rest hehe.

    I have to read up on watercooling but I'd like to do a nice passive water cooling setup with a fan on the drive bays only. I wanna beefy NAS.

    I'll worry about overclocking whenever i decide between bulldozer / sb / and ib for the new multimedia creation gaming station.
  • 4 Hide
    lunyone , June 29, 2011 8:53 AM
    I'd like to see the best mobo/CPU combo for gaming for the $!!!
  • 0 Hide
    ubercake , June 29, 2011 9:18 AM
    I can get an i5-2500K (4-core no HT) or an i7-960 (4-core with HT) at Microcenter for $180 these days. For gaming, I'd suggest the i5-2500K at this price point.
  • 2 Hide
    silverblue , June 29, 2011 10:02 AM
    widream and eidream are two examples of the new spam craze that seems to have hit this site over the past few days or so. I honestly don't get what they're trying to say.

    The i5-2500K is still looking to be the perfect choice for the enthusiast. due to its unique architecture, I am not placing any bets on Bulldozer being a top-tier gaming CPU; its capabilities seem far more suited to server workloads. However, I did think that about Sledgehammer and Barcelona, so maybe I'm wrong, especially considering AMD seems to want to resurrect the FX branding.
  • -6 Hide
    tomate2 , June 29, 2011 10:56 AM
    comments are getting so repetitive!
    waiting for bulldozer and stuff...
    is it not obvious enough that EVERYONE is waiting to see some benches for bulldozer??
    or that it needs something to compete with the sandy bridge k cpus?
    amd didnt launch a new line of performance cpus for how many years?
    everyone knows that they need bulldozer
    stop stating the obvious... its getting old
  • 3 Hide
    Onus , June 29, 2011 11:55 AM
    I chose a X4 970 over a x4 955 recently because the benchmarks over at Anandtech show the faster chip also using considerably less power, a difference that would become even more pronounced if I OC'ed a 955 to 970 speeds.
  • -2 Hide
    grody , June 29, 2011 2:01 PM
    Well this was a yawnfest. Not much has changed since the last 2 times they did this.
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