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Best Gaming CPUs For The Money: April 2011

Best Gaming CPUs For The Money: April 2011
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April is relatively quiet on the processing front. However, we know AMD recently started shipping its new Fusion-based Llano CPUs to customers, so we may be on the cusp of significant changes to the market. Learn more in this month's review!

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.

What's New?

Pricing remains surprisingly stable since our last update. That's fair enough; there really isn't any reason we'd expect movement, since Intel's Sandy Bridge architecture is still pretty new, and AMD has little to compete with it above the $130 mark. Frankly, Intel will probably stay pretty quiet without compelling competition, and we may not see any significant new products from the company until its LGA 2011 interface arrives in Q4 2011.

Llano Now Shipping (Not For Sale)

AMD has some interesting products in the pipeline, however. On April 6th it announced that new quad-core Llano CPUs are being shipped out to OEM system providers. This means we should see Llano available for purchase sometime this quarter, by the end of June.

For those of you unfamiliar with what Llano will bring to the table, it's AMD's Fusion-based product aimed at the notebook and desktop markets, combining both CPU and graphics hardware on the same 32 nm die. While the Brazos platform brought Fusion to low-power nettops and netbooks, Llano is far more powerful. It sports Phenom II-class dual- and quad-core processors (sans L3 cache), combined with capable graphics hardware. Initial speculation suggests that the most powerful of these integrated GPUs may be comparable to a Radeon HD 6570.

The impact that Llano will have on the market is difficult to predict. Sandy Bridge should have little trouble outpacing AMD's aging Stars architecture when it comes to CPU processing power. But AMD's integrated GPU promises to be worlds ahead of HD Graphics 3000 (and even more so versus HD Graphics 2000). Enthusiasts will continue favoring Intel's processors paired up to discrete graphics cards. But Llano may offer something we've never seen before: a budget-oriented solution capable of handling a taxing graphics load.

Only time will tell how this will affect the market, and we'll be sure to keep our readers appraised of developments as they happen.

Some Notes About Our Recommendations

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.

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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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