June saw an army of new processors pushed to retail: Intel's new Pentium G6xx and G8xx lines, fresh Core i3 and i5 models, and AMD's Athlon II X3 460 and Phenom II X4 980 (not to mention a preview of the Llano desktop APU in a few days). Details inside.
If you don’t have the time to research 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.
May saw the retail introduction of AMD's 3.4 GHz AMD Athlon II X3 460 and 3.7 GHz Phenom II X4 980 Black Edition, priced at $92.99 and $189.99, respectively. Both processors represent new 100 MHz speed bumps in their own families. They're built on the same 45 nanometer manufacturing process and feature the same amount of cache as previous Athlon II X3 and Phenom II X4 models. Though the pair boast the highest clock rates in the X3 and X4 lineups, neither is very attractive from a gaming standpoint when you consider that the Phenom II X4 955 Black Edition is available for just under $115 right now; it's only $20 more expensive than the Athlon II X3 460, bears the same unlocked clock multiplier, and includes 6 MB of L3 cache, like the Phenom II X4 980.
AMD's desktop-class Fusion processor, code-names Llano, was first previewed in a reference notebook and proved to be an interesting component for budget-oriented gamers. Our first tests on the A8-3500M laptop derivative prove that this APU is about as fast as a Athlon II and Radeon HD 5570 operating at the same clocks. That could translate to a cost-effective budget gaming solution, assuming these processors are priced well. But AMD won't be releasing that information until tomorrow when the desktop version is ready to be previewed. We'll have to wait until then to see if this product offers ample performance for a low-cost rig.
Intel also launched a number of processors this month. Some of them appear to be in anticipation of Llano. Specifically, the company's $140 Core i3-2105 and $218 Core i5-2405S. Both boast specifications very similar to the 3.1 GHz Core i3-2100 and 2.5 GHz (3.3. GHz with Turbo Boost) Core i5-2400S, except they're also equipped with Intel's HD Graphics 3000 solution instead of the neutered 2000-level part standard on other desktop Sandy Bridge-based CPUs.
This is a step in the right direction for Intel, as we openly criticized its decision to limit the fastest graphics implementation to K-series parts. Unfortunately, that's not going to be enough to keep the Sandy Bridge architecture competitive with Llano in measures of 3D alacrity, though. Intel's hope now needs to be that Ivy Bridge includes enough improvements to catch the company back up. We don't have our fingers crossed, though. Intel introduced a Core i5-2310 with the standard Intel HD Graphics 2000 implementation too, but with 2.9 GHz (3.2 GHz maximum Turbo Boost) clocks, a 100 MHz speed bump over the Core i5-2300.
Intel also launched an entirely new line of LGA 1155-based Pentium processors, physically identical to the Core i3-2xxx models, but limited to two cores and two threads, as Hyper-Threading is disabled. Unlike the Clarkdale-based Pentium G6950, though, the new Pentium G6xx and G8xx-series SKUs include the full 3 MB cache proffered by the more expensive Core i3s. None of these processors sport Turbo Boost, and they're all armed with HD Graphics 2000. The four models are as follows: a 2.2 GHz Pentium 620T ($83, 35 W), a 2.6 GHz Pentium 620 ($78, 65 W), a 2.8 GHz Pentium 840 ($87, 65 W), and a 2.9 GHz Pentium 850 ($97, 65 W).
We can't draw any conclusions about the viability of these chips in a gaming environment, as we don't have one on-hand to test yet. If we use history as a gauge, the Pentium G6950 was dismal in comparison to the Clarkdale-based Core i3 lineup. However, these new models have a lot more shared L3 cache. Really, the only feature differentiating the two families is Hyper-Threading. Only testing will tell (yes, we're working on that) whether the new Pentiums can displace AMD's more value-oriented sub-$100 parts.
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.