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Best Gaming CPU: $110-$200

Best Gaming CPUs For The Money: March 2011
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Best Gaming CPU for $120:
Core i3-2100 (Check Prices)

Core i3-2100
Codename: Sandy Bridge
Process: 32 nm
CPU Cores/Threads: 2/4
Clock Speed: 3.1 GHz
Socket: LGA 1155
L2 Cache: 2 x 256 KB
L3 Cache: 3 MB
Thermal Envelope:
65 W

As our Who's Got Game? Twelve Sub-$200 CPUs Compared article proved, the budget Core i3-2100 is a surprisingly capable force in the gaming arena, able to beat powerful quad-core CPUs that have traditionally dominated this price segment. And with budget LGA 1155 motherboards readily available below $70, this processor is a great starting point for folks who want to enjoy fast gaming now with an option to upgrade to Core i5 or i7 CPUs in the future.

Yes, you have to essentially forsake the potential for overclocking, given (what we consider to be) enthusiast-unfriendly locks on the multiplier and a BCLK with very little room to scale beyond 100 MHz. But the stock performance is compelling, and this CPU still warrants a recommendation.

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

Best Gaming CPU for $140: None

Honorable Mention:
Phenom II X4 955 Black Edition (Check Prices)

Phenom II X4 955 Black Edition
Codename: Deneb
Process: 45 nm
CPU Cores: 4
Clock Speed: 3.2 GHz
Socket: AM3
L1 Cache: 4 x 128 KB
L2 Cache: 4 x 512 KB
L3 Cache: 6 MB
HyperTransport: 4000 MT/s
Thermal Envelope:
125 W

A former flagship of AMD's Phenom II X4 family, the Phenom II X4 955 offers the best value in the AMD lineup. It is a true quad-core processor with a sizable 6 MB L3 cache and an unlocked clock multiplier. From our experience, the great majority of Phenom II X4 955 processors can run just as fast as the Phenom II X4 975 with a simple BIOS multiplier change from 16x to 18x. That's an easy way to put this $140 processor on par with a stock ~$210 Core i5-760 when it comes to gaming.

The real competition for the Phenom II X4 955 BE is Intel's Sandy Bridge-based Core i3-2100. Intel's new budget processor can out-game the Phenom II X4, but AMD's CPU retains an honorable mention as a good entertainment-oriented option that is better suited for multitasking, thanks to its quad-core architecture.

Read our review of the Phenom II X4 955 Black Edition, right here.

Best Gaming CPU for $190:
Core i5-2400 (Check Prices)

Core i5-2400
Codename: Sandy Bridge
Process: 32 nm
CPU Cores/Threads: 4
Clock Speed (Max. Turbo): 3.1 GHz (3.4 GHz)
Socket: LGA 1155
L2 Cache: 4 x 256 KB
L3 Cache: 6 MB
Thermal Envelope:
95 W

Sandy Bridge is here, and Intel's new microarchitechture is fast. Initial test data suggests that the new Core i5-2400 can stand toe to toe with Core i7-900-series processors when it comes to game performance. We're not talking about the entry-level models, either. This affordable processor has the chops to compete with Intel's thousand-dollar Extreme Edition chips when it comes to enabling the highest frames per second.

As great as the Core i5-700-series chips are, the new Core i5-2000 processors hit the afterburners and fly right by. Plus, the LGA 1156 interface is essentially dead, so it'd seem silly to sink any money into it at this point.

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

Display all 51 comments.
  • 2 Hide
    joytech22 , March 31, 2011 4:15 AM
    I just stepped up from a Phenom 955BE to a i7 2600 today and I can say it's definitely worth the upgrade if you render video's or 3d modelling or any CPU-Intensive task.

    But for gaming I didn't notice any major improvements, but that isn't to say I didn't notice a few things.
  • 2 Hide
    LuckyDucky7 , March 31, 2011 4:51 AM
    I have to disagree with the recommendation for the i3-2100.

    The reason being is that the previous-generation Core i3-530 (the slowest one) can be overclocked to speeds over 3.75 GHz at stock voltages (4 GHz isn't uncommon).

    Also, since the i3-2100 isn't much faster than a stock i3-530, and even at 3.75 GHz the 2100 folds to the O/C'd 530.

    Socket 1156 may be a dead platform now, but chances are good that if you're on a budget you won't be buying Ivy Bridge either- so by the time 1155 is obsolete you'll be looking at an upgrade again anyways.
  • 3 Hide
    jj463rd , March 31, 2011 5:00 AM
    Poor AMD is being nudged out.Well let's hope BD turns out well for them (and us) in a couple of months from now.It would be nice to have better competition between AMD and Intel on the desktop front.
  • 1 Hide
    Assmar , March 31, 2011 5:16 AM
    Where would an X3 720 with the 4th core unlocked and a clock rate of 3.6 rank in the chart for gaming? Same as the regular one? I've a 5870 and have wanted to drop in another but is it worth it? Crossfire's been killing it, i hear.
  • 1 Hide
    jadavis1992 , March 31, 2011 5:27 AM
    AMD's 955 is the same price as the 965 on newegg.
  • 1 Hide
    Anonymous , March 31, 2011 5:35 AM
    Do these recommendations make any difference at resolutions of 1920X1200 and above? I just can't understand spending more on the cpu than the monitor or graphics card for gaming.

    Coming from a i5-750, 6950 2gb, HP ZR24w IPS user.
  • 2 Hide
    kg2010 , March 31, 2011 5:54 AM
    Quote:
    awww, i feel bad for the i7-990x. it didne get even a honorable mention :( 


    That's because this is for GAMING. The 2500K is by far the best bang for buck CPU when it comes to gaming.

    The 990x is useful for people who do lot of rendering, encoding, and use a lot of multi-threaded apps on a regular basis, and even for that, the 2600K is a great choice at just over $300.
  • 0 Hide
    werr20 , March 31, 2011 6:35 AM
    an upgrade from i7 860 to 2600k is a good upgrade? What about upgrading from 5870 to 6970/gtx 570 ?
  • 2 Hide
    joytech22 , March 31, 2011 6:46 AM
    werr20an upgrade from i7 860 to 2600k is a good upgrade? What about upgrading from 5870 to 6970/gtx 570 ?


    I don't think it would be worth upgrading at all in that case, I had 1 GTX470 and grabbed a second one instead of buying a different card.
  • 0 Hide
    werr20 , March 31, 2011 7:15 AM
    keep in mind that i cant overclock my cpu very easy ! @3,8ghz i am reaching very high temps +85* @ 1,375voltage and it's still unstable ! and i understand that my cpu @2,8 it lowers the gpu's performance !
  • 3 Hide
    vk_87 , March 31, 2011 8:02 AM
    Just waiting for that blank space below the AMD column in the first row to get filled up with BD procs. Come on AMD...

    Also i dont think people on a budget will go with LGA1156. Even if it is a couple of $$$ cheaper as gamers will know that SNB is way better and that those $$$ are better spent there.
  • 3 Hide
    SteelCity1981 , March 31, 2011 8:10 AM
    LuckyDucky7Also, since the i3-2100 isn't much faster than a stock i3-530, and even at 3.75 GHz the 2100 folds to the O/C'd 530.



    And why is that, is it the fact that you have to oc the i3 530 650mhz faster to beat the Core i3 2100? Which proves toms hardwares point about how powerful the core i3 2100 compared to the core i3 530.
  • 2 Hide
    Olle P , March 31, 2011 8:28 AM
    The Core i3-2400 is missing from the hierarchy chart.
    I suppose it's a border case between the two top fields.
  • 1 Hide
    gaborbarla , March 31, 2011 8:57 AM
    I would love to see these CPUs in this article neck to neck in a chart to see what really is the difference in games. All games averaged out should give a good indication what you are buying.

    If the new i3 might give 50 FPS average and an i7 58 (thumbsuck) then it might not be worth getting and i7. The hierarchy is nice, but doesn't give enough conrete % information.

    Alternatively in the hiearachy one could put the top CPU as 100% average frame rate in games, and each CPU below could show its relative speed to he fastest. (E.g. 93% etc)

    Also, there was an article last year on how an i3 is really what one needs for gaming (so I thought a high Mhz Core2 will do the trick for now). Based on that I only upgraded my Graphics card to a 5870 and suffered very bad frame rate in Bad Company 2. Later Upgrading to an i7 3hgz (with the same graphics card) gave a shocking improvement.
  • 0 Hide
    philologos , March 31, 2011 9:57 AM
    Please explain why the Phenom II X4 975 is six slots above the 970 when the difference between the two is a measly 100 MHz. Surely this is a mistake...
  • 0 Hide
    iam2thecrowe , March 31, 2011 11:20 AM
    well, amd may aswell just drop their phenom line completely and concentrate on the low end. It wont matter if they make it to 4ghz on the phenom, an i3 is faster.......bring bulldozer now or go home!
  • 1 Hide
    youssef 2010 , March 31, 2011 11:33 AM
    QuoteBut 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 $1050 hexa-core Core i7-990X Extreme.


    This is wrong, as your article states, at no situation did the 2600K surpass the 990X. But the difference is infinitesimal that it's not worth the money based on it's gaming. As an all-around platform, though the 990X is much better when it comes to performance.

    Olle PThe Core i3-2400 is missing from the hierarchy chart.I suppose it's a border case between the two top fields.


    They might've been in a rush and simply forgot to add it.

    philologosPlease explain why the Phenom II X4 975 is six slots above the 970 when the difference between the two is a measly 100 MHz. Surely this is a mistake...


    How many of this series did you read? they group the similar processors in tiers and the difference between the 975 and the 970 is only one tier and not six slots.

    werr20an upgrade from i7 860 to 2600k is a good upgrade? What about upgrading from 5870 to 6970/gtx 570 ?


    Both upgrades aren't worth it. The 6970 is worth it if and only if you can use its extra memory i.e. if you game at 2560x1600 or you use Eyefinity. Also, the upgrade from the 870 to the 2600K isn't worth it as it is not "at least three tiers higher". You'd better wait until Z68 is here except if REALLY need Quick-Sync now.

    assmarWhere would an X3 720 with the 4th core unlocked and a clock rate of 3.6 rank in the chart for gaming? Same as the regular one? I've a 5870 and have wanted to drop in another but is it worth it? Crossfire's been killing it, i hear.


    I think it would have the same performance as the 955BE. so, Xfire performance will decrease slightly depending on your gaming resolution.
  • 1 Hide
    philologos , March 31, 2011 12:07 PM
    How many of this series did you read? they group the similar processors in tiers and the difference between the 975 and the 970 is only one tier and not six slots.

    Okay, I see what you mean, although the chart seems to split into tiers and sub-groupings, and this division is lost by having the 975 on an island. What adjacent Intel CPU would you say the 975 is on a par with? The Phenom II architecture is slightly slower than Core 2 clock-for-clock, right? At 3.6 GHz it must be better than any of those Core 2 Extremes. Can it match a i5 750?
  • 1 Hide
    ta152h , March 31, 2011 2:30 PM
    Who does the editing for these articles? Since you actually mention the Pentium E6800, don't you think you should put it on your CPU Hierarchy Chart?
  • 1 Hide
    ta152h , March 31, 2011 2:43 PM
    TA152HWho does the editing for these articles? Since you actually mention the Pentium E6800, don't you think you should put it on your CPU Hierarchy Chart?


    It's catching. E8600.
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