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Best Gaming CPU: $110-$200

Best Gaming CPUs For The Money: April 2011
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Best Gaming CPU for $125:
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 AMD's 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 seems silly to sink any money into it at this point.

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

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  • 0 Hide
    KardisF1 , April 29, 2011 4:17 AM
    Is the Sandy Bridge i3 really on the same step as a Lynnfield i7? It seems that the levels are a little bit too compressed.
  • 0 Hide
    joytech22 , April 29, 2011 4:33 AM
    I was incredibly surprised when I saw the Phenom II 975 was up in the hierarchy with the i7's.
  • 3 Hide
    tacoslave , April 29, 2011 4:55 AM
    i still have my 940 and am waiting to upgrade to bulldozer sigh
  • 0 Hide
    hawk66 , April 29, 2011 5:31 AM
    It's scary to think that 32nm process will stand up to gaming and video processing. I will like to see what happens after two years of gaming if they will withstand the test of time.
  • 0 Hide
    dragonsqrrl , April 29, 2011 5:49 AM
    KardisF1Is the Sandy Bridge i3 really on the same step as a Lynnfield i7? It seems that the levels are a little bit too compressed.

    That may very well be the case. Remember these recommendations are based purely on gaming performance, and in many cases the additional threads found in the Lynnfield i7's go unused. This compounded with the increased performance per clock of Sandy Bridge, as well as the increased performance per core, and it isn't difficult to see how the Sandy Bridge based i3's perform so well in an area that tends to be poorly threaded.
  • 3 Hide
    exenter , April 29, 2011 6:32 AM
    I love all these "Best Gaming CPU/Graphics Card For The Money" articles. It's what makes toms hardware the best tech/review site.
  • 1 Hide
    gondor , April 29, 2011 7:56 AM
    "Phenom II-class dual- and quad-core processors (sans L3 cache)"

    Aren't these called simply Athlon II ? :) 

    "combined with capable graphics hardware"

    Compared to Intel's current offerings everything AMD puts out is capable. However based on your GPU reviews, I have a distinct feeling that you guys would draw the line where "capable" begins somewhere above the rather mediocre combination of 400 SP clocked at under 700 MHz, coupled to DDR3 memory through a shared memory interface which allows 2x 64-bit (= 128 bit) path at best, assuming CPU isn't doing any memory accesses at the same time.

    APUs sound like a great concept and I'm sure lower TDP versions of Llano will do wonders in the portable world while higher TDP versions will clinch the desktop market with large manufacturers such as HP etc., but this review is about gaming CPUs and AMD has a different breed of CPU scheduled to come out for the gaming segment which wasn't even mentioned today.

    Eventually, when APUs become more potent (lower clocked version of Athlon II x4 + HD6570 + slow and low bandwidth memory doesn't sound very potent, does it ?) they will surely become gamers' choice in bottom segment, provided that the pricing makes sense, but I don't think it's going to be the first incarnation of Llano. Perhaps if AMD waived one or two CPU cores and instead go for 50-100% more GPU execution units to create a more balanced gaming APU which would compete with its current Athlon II x2 which you recommended, paired with 5670/5750-type graphics ?

    Can you guys (readers and tomshardware.com staff) post your opinions on what a tue gaming APU should look like (within reason, of course, keep in mind technological constraints) ?
  • 0 Hide
    vk_87 , April 29, 2011 8:05 AM
    I still have my trusty old Athlon X2 and am waiting for BD. But not for too long. Else will go with SB.
  • 0 Hide
    grimlan , April 29, 2011 10:11 AM
    I thought the NF200 chip had latency issues and created more heat on the motherboard with cards in SLI?
  • 0 Hide
    Anonymous , April 29, 2011 11:26 AM
    As far as APU, it is getting improved. Thats Trinity, which puts BULLDOZER , and not this years bulldozers, but an improved bulldozer core with an improved graphics sections, possibly 7xxx by then, we'll see far better performance, but Llano now offers to a far larger audience what was available before. in the past 5 years, you could get an amazing, far more than necessary processor, get a very large harddrive, but you'd get a crap IGP, personally, I found it ridiculous how hard they made it to upgrade in some cases with a rather limited motherboard. So, it was either, buy it powerful, or build your own. With APU's it'll be easier for the normal user, to pick up a pre-built and not need to upgrade for a year or 2. Personally, I can see my self picking up a decent HP with a quad Llano until Trinity comes out if BD proves powerful.
  • 0 Hide
    eddieroolz , April 29, 2011 12:16 PM
    The price range of AMD recommendations have been shrinking steadily over the last couple of months. Bulldozer can't happen sooner.

    Though, with Llano's shipping, the stage is set.
  • 0 Hide
    blackened144 , April 29, 2011 1:13 PM
    KardisF1Is the Sandy Bridge i3 really on the same step as a Lynnfield i7? It seems that the levels are a little bit too compressed.


    I was thinking the same thing.. If they spaced them out correctly though the first Phenom would be half was down the list and not be in the same bracket as i7..

    joytech22I was incredibly surprised when I saw the Phenom II 975 was up in the hierarchy with the i7's.

  • -1 Hide
    robwright , April 29, 2011 2:26 PM
    Was tempted by the i7 2600k, and thought about waiting to see what Llano was all about, but ultimately I pulled the trigger on the i5 2500k for the new build to go alongside dual 2GB 6950s.
  • -1 Hide
    dgingeri , April 29, 2011 2:32 PM
    The Core i7-950 is down to $180 at Microcenter. I'd call that a better deal than the Core i5-2400. I'm going to get one this evening after work.
  • 1 Hide
    enzo matrix , April 29, 2011 3:24 PM
    dgingeriThe Core i7-950 is down to $180 at Microcenter. I'd call that a better deal than the Core i5-2400. I'm going to get one this evening after work.

    I'd take the 2400K over the 950, personally.
  • 0 Hide
    billj214 , April 29, 2011 4:28 PM
    I wouldn't take the CPU hierarchy as good for all since it is mainly compiled for games and yes the Core i3 (Sandy Bridge)looks to be placed right.

    If you are strictly buying a CPU for games then any of these recommendations will work but if you plan to run any SLI or Crossfire configurations then you may want to look at the top tier or $200+ including Core i7/X58 combo or NF200/P67 Sandy Bridge.

    Also X58 boards are showing up on craigslist cheap and i7 9XX chips are dropping in price as well since people are now upgrading to Sandy Bridge.

    I think I will wait for Z67.
  • 0 Hide
    vk_87 , April 29, 2011 6:49 PM
    Why is the Intel Pentium E6800 still present as a honorable mention?

    Also amazingly, I cannot find the same processor on the Gaming CPU Hierarchy Chart (last page).
  • 0 Hide
    jdwii , April 29, 2011 6:49 PM
    i will be buying bulldozer when it comes out in june and i'll be getting the quad core. i just hope the reported clocks(http://www.brightsideofnews.com/news/2011/4/26/amds-fx-bulldozer-cpu-clock-speeds-revealed.aspx) are right then sandy bridge might lose.
    either way a athlon x4 is real powerful in my pc (with a Amd 6850 OC) i can do video compressing well and i can play crysis 2 max out and i can play GTA4 fine...
    I'm easily going amd, as there usually best for the money.
    my prediction about bulldozer is it will be 5-10% slower per/clock and per/core but they will sell more cores then intel and OC them higher(over the SB Competition)and bulldozer will be available to be clock as high or higher then sandy bridge
  • 1 Hide
    dgingeri , April 29, 2011 7:47 PM
    Enzo MatrixI'd take the 2400K over the 950, personally.


    I'd take the 950 over the 2400 for three reasons: the 2400 doesn't overclock, which the 950 can, the PCIe capabilities on the 950's platform are far better, and the 950 has 8MB of cache, where the 2400 only has 6MB. (The cache makes a big difference on many games, but has the biggest impact on WoW.)

    Note: there is no 2400k. the closest is the 2500k, and that is considerably more expensive.
  • 2 Hide
    cleeve , April 29, 2011 7:53 PM
    robwrightWas tempted by the i7 2600k, and thought about waiting to see what Llano was all about, but ultimately I pulled the trigger on the i5 2500k for the new build to go alongside dual 2GB 6950s.


    You just can't go wrong with a 2500K. :) 
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