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Best Gaming CPU: $200 And Up

Best Gaming CPUs For The Money: April 2011
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Best Gaming CPU for $210: None

Honorable Mention:
Core i5-760 (Check Prices)

Core i5-760
Codename: Lynnfield
Process: 45 nm
CPU Cores: 4
Clock Speed (Max. Turbo): 2.8 GHz  (3.3 GHz)
Socket: LGA 1156
L2 Cache: 4 x 256 KB
L3 Cache: 8 MB
Thermal Envelope:
95 W

The Core i5-760 is displaced by Intel's new Core-i5-2500K (and its accompanying interface). But for folks who already own a dual-core CPU on the LGA 1156 platform, the Core i5-760 continues to offer tremendous value. Just like the Core i5-750, Intel's -760 delivers serious gaming performance at its default frequency. What's more, these CPUs are monsters when overclocked, and even challenge more expensive Core i7 models.

Why do we limit our recommendation to folks with dual-core LGA 1156 CPUs? If you already have a quad-core on LGA 1156, it's at least a -750, and the -760 isn't worth the extra money. And if you're already rocking a Core i7, well, you probably don't want to step down. At the end of the day, this Lynnfield design is only really relevant to a handful of buyers.

Read our review of the Core i5-750, right here.

Best Gaming CPU for $225:
Core i5-2500K (Check Prices)

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 the standpoint of raw compute power, 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 over the Core i5-2400, and gamers with discrete graphics cards will care little about the integrated graphics engine. 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 overclock-ability and gaming potential.

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 i7-990X 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 $325: (or for any price)
Core i7-2600K (Check Prices)

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 $1050 hexa-core Core i7-990X Extreme.

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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