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Gaming CPU Hierarchy Chart

Best Gaming CPUs For The Money: April 2011

What about this other CPU that’s not on the list? How do I know if it’s a good deal or not?

This will happen. In fact, it’s guaranteed to happen because availability and prices change quickly. So how do you know if that CPU you have your eye on is a good buy in its price range?

Here is a resource to help you judge if a CPU is a reasonable value or not: the gaming CPU hierarchy chart, which groups CPUs with similar overall gaming performance levels into tiers. The top tier contains the highest-performing gaming CPUs available and gaming performance decreases as you go down the tiers from there.

This hierarchy is originally based on the average performance each CPU achieved in our charts test suite using only four game titles: Crysis, Unreal Tournament 3, World in Conflict, and Supreme Commander. We have since incorporated new game data into our criteria, but it should be known that any specific game title will likely perform differently depending on its unique programming. Some games, for example, will be severely graphics subsystem-limited, while others may react positively to more CPU cores, larger amounts of CPU cache, or even a specific architecture. We also did not have access to every CPU on the market, so some of the CPU performance estimates are based on the numbers similar architectures deliver. Indeed, this hierarchy chart is useful as a general guideline, but certainly not as a gospel one-size-fits-all perfect CPU comparison resource.

You can use this hierarchy to compare the pricing between two processors, to see which one is a better deal, and also to determine if an upgrade is worthwhile. I don’t recommend upgrading your CPU unless the potential replacement is at least three tiers higher. Otherwise, the upgrade is somewhat parallel and you may not notice a worthwhile difference in game performance.

Gaming CPU Hierarchy Chart
Core i7-2600, -2600K
Core i7-965, -975 Extreme, -980X Extreme, -990X Extreme
Core i7-970, -960
Core i5-2500, -2500K

Core i7-860, -870, -875K, -920, -930, -940, -950,
Core i5-750, -760
Core 2 Extreme QX9775, QX9770, QX9650
Core 2 Quad Q9650
Core i3-2100, -2120
Phenom II X4 Black Edition 975
Core 2 Extreme QX6850, QX6800
Core 2 Quad Q9550, Q9450, Q9400
Core i5-650, -655K, -660, -661, -670, -680
Phenom II X6 1100T BE, 1090T BE, 1075T
Phenom II X4 Black Edition 970, 965, 955
Core 2 Extreme QX6700
Core 2 Quad Q6700, Q9300, Q8400, Q6600, Q8300
Core 2 Duo E8600, E8500, E8400, E7600
Core i3 -530, -540, -550
Phenom II X6 1055T
Phenom II X4 945, 940, 920, 910, 910e, 810
Phenom II X3 Black Edition 720, 740
Athlon II X4 645, 640, 635, 630
Athlon II X3 455, 450, 445, 440, 435
Core 2 Extreme X6800
Core 2 Quad Q8200
Core 2 Duo E8300, E8200, E8190, E7500, E7400, E6850, E6750
Phenom II X4 905e, 805
Phenom II X3 710, 705e
Phenom II X2 565 BE, 560 BE, 555 BE, 550 BE, 545
Phenom X4 9950
Athlon II X4 620
Athlon II X3 425
Core 2 Duo E7200, E6550, E7300, E6540, E6700
Pentium Dual-Core E5700, E5800, E6300, E6500, E6600, E6700
Pentium G9650
Phenom X4 9850, 9750, 9650, 9600
Phenom X3 8850, 8750
Athlon II X2 265, 260, 255
Athlon 64 X2 6400+
Core 2 Duo E4700, E4600, E6600, E4500, E6420
Pentium Dual-Core E5400, E5300, E5200
Phenom X4 9500, 9550, 9450e, 9350e
Phenom X3 8650, 8600, 8550, 8450e, 8450, 8400, 8250e
Athlon II X2 240, 245, 250
Athlon X2 7850, 7750
Athlon 64 X2 6000+, 5600+
Core 2 Duo E4400, E4300, E6400, E6320
Celeron E3300
Phenom X4 9150e, 9100e
Athlon X2 7550, 7450, 5050e, 4850e/b
Athlon 64 X2 5400+, 5200+, 5000+, 4800+
Core 2 Duo E5500, E6300
Pentium Dual-Core E2220, E2200, E2210
Celeron E3200
Athlon X2 6550, 6500, 4450e/b,
Athlon X2 4600+, 4400+, 4200+, BE-2400
Pentium Dual-Core E2180
Celeron E1600
Athlon 64 X2 4000+, 3800+
Athlon X2 4050e, BE-2300
Pentium Dual-Core E2160, E2140
Celeron E1500, E1400, E1200


There you have it folks: the best gaming CPUs for the money this month. Now all that’s left to do is to find and purchase them.

Also remember that the stores don’t follow this list. Things will change over the course of the month and you’ll probably have to adapt your buying strategy to deal with fluctuating prices. Good luck!

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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 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( 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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