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Best Gaming CPU: $110-$150

Best Gaming CPUs For The Money: January 2011
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Best Gaming CPU for $115: None

Honorable Mention: Core i3-540 (Check Prices)

Core i3-540
Codename: Clarkdale
Process: 32 nm
CPU Cores/Threads: 2/4
Clock Speed: 3.06 GHz
Socket: LGA 1156
L1 Cache: 2 x 64 KB
L2 Cache: 2 x 256 KB
L3 Cache: 4 MB
Thermal Envelope:
73 W

Our Game-Off: Seven Sub-$150 Processors Compared review proved it to our satisfaction: the Core i3 deserves a solid recommendation as a gaming processor. The Core i3-530 consistently beat the Athlon II X3 445, and came surprisingly close to challenging the Phenom II X4 940 in a number of situations. The slightly faster 3.06 GHz Core i3-540 is even more attractive, and may even be able to stave off AMD's sub-$140 Phenom II X4 models in many gaming scenarios. The only downside is that this dual-core, Hyper-Threaded processor doesn't handle multitasking as well as a true quad- or even triple-core processor like the Athlon II X3.

Note that we're demoting the Core i3-540 to an honorable mention this month because the Sandy Bridge-based Core i3s will be available in the near future, and (depending on the street pricing) might completely dominate the $100-$200 price point from a gaming CPU perspective. We require availability to make a recommendation though, so those are still off of the table.

Best Gaming CPU for $125: None

Honorable Mention:
Phenom II X4 925 (Check Prices)

Phenom II X4 925
Codename: Deneb
Process: 45 nm
CPU Cores: 4
Clock Speed: 2.8 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

The Phenom II X4 925 offers AMD's premium quad-core CPU architecture at $125, and the Core i3-550 is a strong LGA 1156 option for the same price, so long as you're already rocking a compatible motherboard. With the Sandy Bridge-based Core i3s arriving in February, we wouldn't recommend building a new gaming system based on either of these options. But the Phenom II offers a good upgrade path for AM2+/AM3 systems, and the Core i3-550 is a nice upgrade from a Pentium G6950.

Honorable Mention:
Core i3-550

Core i3-550
Codename: Clarkdale
Process: 32 nm
CPU Cores/Threads: 2/4
Clock Speed: 3.2 GHz
Socket: LGA 1156
L1 Cache: 2 x 64 KB
L2 Cache: 2 x 256 KB
L3 Cache: 4 MB
Thermal Envelope:
73 W

Best Gaming CPU for $145:

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 Black Edition was relegated to fourth-place status by the new Phenom II X4 975 BE model.

Despite the pecking order, the Phenom II X4 955 offers the best gaming value of the bunch. It is a true quad-core processor with a sizable 6 MB L3 cache. But even more impressive at this price is its unlocked 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--an easy way to put this $145 processor on par with a stock ~$200 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 lineup, arriving at retail in February. For now we'll allow the 955 to keep its recommended buy title, but we're going to revisit this in the near future after we've done extensive testing of the new Core i3 lineup.

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

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