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Best Gaming CPUs For The Money: March 2011

Best Gaming CPUs For The Money: March 2011
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It's March, and at long last, Intel's P67 and H67 chipset woes seem to be solved. Of course, now we have Z68 knocking at our door. Still, the Sandy Bridge-based Core i3s are now floating around, making it a good time to shop for a cheap LGA 1155 board.

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.

March Updates: Fixed P67/H67 (Cougar Point) Motherboards Return To Retail

Intel LGA 1155-based motherboards with revised chipsets are now available for purchase, with more models popping up on a regular basis. At this point, it seems safe to say that the problem is behind Intel and the company can concentrate on moving forward (unless, of course, you'd rather hold out for some of the goodness that Z68 will introduce). For the PC buying public, the new Sandy Bridge processors are once again a viable option. Which brings us to our next point...

Sandy Bridge Expands Into The $100-$150 Price Range: The Core i3-2100 and -2120

Sandy Bridge-based Core i3 CPUs have finally reached the retail market (Core i3-2100 and Core i3-2120). These are the first dual-core LGA 1155-based products available, although they are capable of handling four simultaneous threads with Intel's Hyper-Threading feature. Both models employ 32 nm manufacturing technology and a 65 W power ceiling, but do not include support forIntel's Turbo Boost feature. The $120 Core i3-2100 has a 3.1 GHz base clock, and the Core i3-2120 ups that number to 3.3 GHz. Neither model has any real overclocking potential, unfortunately, with locked clock multipliers, and very little headroom for increasing BCLK speeds.

In our recent Who's Got Game? Twelve Sub-$200 CPUs Compared article, the big surprise was just how potent these new models are, even in stock form, when it comes to gaming. Inexpensive motherboards accommodating the Core i3-2100 can be found under $70, making Intel's entry-level Sandy Bridge chip a viable option for budget builders. These dual-core Hyper-Threaded processors meet or beat costlier quad-core models. And as a result, the $140 Phenom II X4 955 has been demoted from an all-out recommendation to an honorable mention.

The Phenom II X4 might be a better choice for an all-purpose processor, but from a pure gaming standpoint, the $120 Core i3-2100 is superior. And while the Phenom II X4 955 is multiplier-unlocked, experience shows us that AMD's CPUs rarely go more than a couple hundred MHz past 4 GHz. And we're confident that you won't see much of a gaming advantage over the stock Core i3-2100, according to our tests that show the Core i3 sail past a 3.5 GHz Phenom II X4.

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.

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  • 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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