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Best Gaming CPU: $200 And Up

Best Gaming CPUs For The Money: January 2011
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Best Gaming CPU for $225:
Core i5-2500K

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 a raw processing standpoint the 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, and gamers with discrete graphics cards will care little about the integrated graphics power, 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 brute gaming force and tweakability.

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

Past the Point of Reason:

CPUs priced over $225 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 i7-980X 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 new LGA 1155 processors have an inherent limit of 16 PCIe lanes for graphics use (the same limit that LGA 1156 processors suffered), 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. In fact, we already have a story in the works that should prove this definitively.

To summarize, while we recommend against purchasing any gaming CPU that retails for more than $225 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 $330: (or for any price)
Core i7-2600K

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 i7-980X Extreme.

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

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  • 0 Hide
    Stardude82 , January 26, 2011 4:13 AM
    Odd you don't have the i5-2300 and i5-2400 up on your board even if they were mention in the article. I was wondering if they were going to get stuck on the top or the second to the top. That being said, the i3-2100 isn't even out yet.
  • -1 Hide
    Stardude82 , January 26, 2011 4:14 AM
    Oh and you still a have a "Core 2 Duo E5500" which I'm pretty sure doesn't exist.
  • 0 Hide
    cleeve , January 26, 2011 5:15 AM
    stardude82Odd you don't have the i5-2300 and i5-2400 up on your board even if they were mention in the article.


    Haven't been able to test them. Once that's out of the way I can assign them an appropriate place. :) 
  • 0 Hide
    joytech22 , January 26, 2011 5:38 AM
    I'm thinking about upgrading from my Phenom 955BE to a i7 2600K simply because the price is very low for Intel while providing performance on-par with their 980X which is significantly more expensive.

    The only problem I have is I want to use SLI, but I need a board with enough space between the slots to use aftermarket coolers.
  • 1 Hide
    andy5174 , January 26, 2011 5:45 AM
    750/760 is not there anymore! :( 

    Time to upgrade? nah
  • 8 Hide
    hardcore_gamer , January 26, 2011 6:16 AM
    summary
    $100 ---------> Athlon II x3 or x4
    $150 ---------> Make another $70
    $220----------> Core i5 2500k
    $330----------> Core i5 2500k, use $110 for a better GPU
  • 5 Hide
    effy92 , January 26, 2011 6:22 AM
    i'm regret of buying 760..after only 1 month, there is new sandy bridge with more bang for buck..
  • 0 Hide
    jgv115 , January 26, 2011 6:35 AM
    Wow those Sandy Bridge CPUs look tasty but I'm fine with my 750 :) 
  • 0 Hide
    jj463rd , January 26, 2011 7:08 AM
    This was the article that I was waiting for.Congrats Sandy bridge.
    Glad that the i7-980X is bumped off.
  • 6 Hide
    MasterZoen , January 26, 2011 7:19 AM
    I really love this article and the Best Graphics Card For The Money article as well. I'm always referencing these two articles as I make builds. Will we ever see a Best Gaming MOBO For The Money article?
  • 2 Hide
    tony singh , January 26, 2011 7:23 AM
    I am still in love with my ph2 x4 965 overclocks to 3.8 on stck v & great for general use as well !!
  • 2 Hide
    Zeh , January 26, 2011 7:40 AM
    hardcore_gamersummary$100 ---------> Athlon II x3 or x4$150 ---------> Make another $70$220----------> Core i5 2500k$330----------> Core i5 2500k, use $110 for a better GPU


    Agreed. When people ask me sugestions about which cpu to buy, it's one of those two.
    "Oh but I have a lot to spend, what's better than the i5 2500k?"
    "Get a better gpu. Or a SSD. Or more memory. Or a good air cooler. Anything, really..."
  • 1 Hide
    JohnnyLucky , January 26, 2011 7:53 AM
    Glad to see my cpu hanging in there. No need to upgrade right now. Can't afford it anyway.
  • 1 Hide
    deo domuique , January 26, 2011 9:59 AM
    I was patient one month for Sandy-B release. I'm pretty happy for that. Got for 199 euros the i5 2500. You wanna know which processor I replaced? "E7300"! Made its money that old-dog!

    Now the next upgrade will not come for long time... and when will come, must have lower nm architect and higher clocks! i5 2500 will do perfectly, fast and economic its job!

    Also I got 460GTX OC 1GB for 199 euros too... I really would like to wait for 560 but couldn't resist anymore... The card I replaced was the xFx 7950GTX. That time, 3+ years before, bought Gamer PC 1500 euros!!! I don't make that mistake again! Now I went one scale lower, to "enthusiasts" for 900 euros!

    If TH will not include some parts I got, really I don't give a damn and not a chance to think its "dead". Don't get into that trap and think about upgrade without reason!...
  • -2 Hide
    deo domuique , January 26, 2011 10:14 AM
    deo domuiqueI was patient one month for Sandy-B release. I'm pretty happy for that. Got for 199 euros the i5 2500. You wanna know which processor I replaced? "E7300"! Made its money that old-dog! Now the next upgrade will not come for long time... and when will come, must have lower nm architect and higher clocks! i5 2500 will do perfectly, fast and economic its job! Also I got 460GTX OC 1GB for 199 euros too... I really would like to wait for 560 but couldn't resist anymore... The card I replaced was the xFx 7950GTX. That time, 3+ years before, bought Gamer PC 1500 euros!!! I don't make that mistake again! Now I went one scale lower, to "enthusiasts" for 900 euros! If TH will not include some parts I got, really I don't give a damn and not a chance to think its "dead". Don't fall into that trap and think about upgrade without reason!...

  • 1 Hide
    lashton , January 26, 2011 10:35 AM
    people forget that the phnom II line was to content with the core2quads and it rips them a new asshole, AMD havfe missed a generation (core i5, i7) competitors, and now fusion looks romising im a little worried about bulldozer though
  • -1 Hide
    stingstang , January 26, 2011 11:05 AM
    Best CPU for 300: i7-2500k (Or at any price)
    Agreed. I like your sense of humor, too. If intel DID put a 1000 price tag on that chip, you can bet the sales would be the same.
  • 4 Hide
    marraco , January 26, 2011 11:24 AM
    Hate Intel and his "no, you can't reuse your old mobo".
    From an updater perspective, AMD costs much less. You should add a motherboard price to each Sandy Bridge.
  • 4 Hide
    skora , January 26, 2011 11:35 AM
    I'm a little surprised the first gaming CPU is the $90 x3 455. I would figure one of the $70 x3s to start the line. Not sure what pricing looked like when written, but the 3.2 ghz x3 450 is $10 cheaper. $10 isn't worth 100 mhz if I'm looking at an entry level budget build.
  • 0 Hide
    scook9 , January 26, 2011 12:33 PM
    I kind of wanted to see the 980x for the past the point of reason just to have 4 intel sockets in one month LOL
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