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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.
Happy New Year! January 2011 has been a very, very busy month in the CPU world. Intel's Sandy Bridge architecture turned Intel's previous high-end products into yesterday's news, and our first glimpse of Fusion set a new standard for nettop/netbook graphics. There are even a couple of other surprises thrown in.
Let's start with Sandy Bridge. Intel introduced a number of Core i3, i5, and i7 CPUs for the disruptive LGA 1155 interface. The company's new processors feature improved integrated graphics and incredibly fast video transcoding abilities that you can take advantage of if you buy a motherboard based on the H67 Express chipset. But what matters to gamers is how they fast they can push frames out when paired with a discrete graphics card, and for that, you're going to want P67 Express with its CrossFire and SLI support. In short, these Sandy Bridge-based processors are very quick. They easily outperform Intel's previous-generation offerings and even give the higher-end LGA 1366-based chips competition.
We have a notable reservation regarding certain Sandy Bridge-based SKUs. Mainly, overclocking is not possible on the second-gen Core i3s, and is very much limited on standard Core i5 and i7 models. The clock generator is now part of the platform controller hub, rather than an a separate motherboard-based IC, so BCLK adjustments are no longer a viable technique for pushing Intel's scalable 32 nm process beyond stock clock rates. CPUs that sport Turbo Boost functionality facilitate modest overclocking in the form of four bins above the maximum Turbo frequency, which equals 400 MHz. Bear in mind that you have to be using a P67-based board for this. Processors without Turbo Boost, such as the Core i3s, cannot be overclocked at all. The good news is that Intel offers multiplier-unlocked K-series SKUs of the Core i5-2500 and i7-2600 CPUs for $15 and $30 more than their locked counterparts, respectively. These processors have lots of headroom, making 4+ GHz an easy target on air cooling.
Let's talk about the specifics of the new Core i3 models, the 3.1 GHz Core i3-2100 and the 3.3 GHz Core i3-2120. These processors are dual-core chips with Hyper-Threading, allowing them to handle four threads at a time. They both have 3 MB of last-level cache, include the HD Graphics 2000 engine, and ship with Turbo Boost disabled. The only functional difference between these CPUs is 200 MHz of clock speed. The Core i3-2000 processors won't be available for purchase until next month, and will cost an estimated $125 to $150. The one potentially exciting characteristic of these processors is that preliminary testing suggests they can stand toe-to-toe against AMD's fastest Phenom II X4 models and Intel's own Core i5-760 in gaming environments, despite their locked clocks.
Unlike Clarkdale-based Core i5 processors (and like the Lynnfield-class i5s), all of the Sandy Bridge-based Core i5s are quad-core CPUs without Hyper-Threading. They feature a nice big 6 MB LLC and support dynamic overclocking via Turbo Boost. Intel launched four models, already available at retail: the 2.8 GHz (3.1 GHz peak) Core i5-2300, the 3.1 GHz (3.4 GHz peak) Core i5-2400, the 3.3 GHz (3.7 GHz peak) Core i5-2500, and the Core i5-2500K, which is multiplier-unlocked for overclockers. All of these models include Intel HD Graphics 2000 except for the Core i5-2500K, which boasts the better Intel HD Graphics 3000 engine. The irony there, of course, is that if you're using a P67-based motherboard, the HD Graphics and Quick Sync features cannot be accessed. They can be purchased for $185, $195, $210, and $225, respectively.
Last but not least there are two Sandy Bridge-based Core i7 models, the 3.4 GHz (3.8 GHz peak) Core i7-2600 and the multiplier-unlocked Core i7-2600K. These processors are quad-core models with Hyper-Threading and 8 MB of L3 cache, just like previous Core i7 models (except the six-core Gulftown processors). The Core i7-2600 includes Intel HD 2000 Graphics, while the i7-2600K features the 3000 version.
The bottom line: when it comes to game performance, the Core i5-2000- and Core i7-2000-series processors can deliver frame rates higher than Intel's Extreme Edition flagships like the Core i7-980X, but can be purchased from $185 to $330 right now. With the new Core i3 unavailable for purchase at time of writing, we can replace our $200 and up recommendations with the new Sandy Bridge-based Core i5 and i7 processors.
What about Fusion? This month AMD released its Zacate and Ontario APUs, representing the first Fusion-based processors. Gamers, prepare yourselves for disappointment. Unless you plan to play on a low-cost netbook/nettop, this is not the Fusion you have been waiting for. The E-350 APU is a dual-core 1.6 GHz processor integrated with Radeon HD 6310 graphics (think Radeon HD 5450: 80 stream processors, eight texture units, and four ROPs), and the E-250 APU is the single-core 1.5 GHz model with the same integrated graphics core. To make a long story short, these products are meant to drive low-power platforms, not a potent desktop. While these processors won't be making it to our recommendations any time soon, they do offer an attractive and affordable netbook gaming option. Gamers hoping for AMD's next big thing will probably need to wait for APUs based on the Llano design (at the earliest) and Zambezi, based on Bulldozer, later in 2011. In the meantime, you can check out our Brazos coverage here:ASRock's E350M1: AMD's Brazos Platform Hits The Desktop First.
On a final note, we should mention a couple of CPU refreshes from AMD: two new processors, the Phenom II X4 840 and Phenom II X4 975 Black Edition. The Phenom II X4 975 BE is the new quad-core flagship that runs at 3.6 GHz. That's 100 MHz faster than the Phenom II X4 970 for an MSRP of $195. The Phenom II X4 840 is the more interesting model, and at first glance the 3.2 GHz clock combined with a $102 MSRP looks too good to be true for a fully-functional Phenom II X4. On second glance, we see that the Phenom II X4 has no L3 cache: it's a re-branded Athlon II X4 using the same Propus die. If AMD had kept the traditional nomenclature, this processor would have been called the Athlon II X4 650. At a ~$100 price point, the new Phenom II X4 840 remains a reasonable buy for a true quad-core CPU. But we'd remiss in not scolding AMD for its unfortunate marketing-driven (and downright misleading) naming shenanigans.
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.