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September delivers familiar (moderate) price adjustments, a handful of new processors from AMD, and news of upcoming models from Intel as well. We also learn some interesting information about Intel's pilot program to enable upgradable CPUs.
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.
Of course, AMD released an update to its Phenom II and Athlon II families earlier this month. We saw a 100 MHz speed bump across the low-budget models, with the Athlon II X2 265, Athlon II X3 450, and Athlon II X4 645 at 3.3, 3.2, and 3.1 GHz, respectively. These new revisions replace existing flagship models in the Athlon II line at similar price points, and the previously-released models will drop a few dollars.
As for AMD's premium line, the new Phenom II X6 1075T is an interesting SKU, with a base clock of 3.0 GHz and a Turbo CORE clock of 3.4 GHz. Naturally, its performance falls between the Phenom II X6 1055T and Phenom II X6 1090T Black Edition. This new processor's $245 MSRP makes it an attractive option to users running heavily threaded applications, but it isn't an ideal gaming CPU, as the lower-priced Phenom II X4 models will perform just as well in this arena.
Aside from this, the new Phenom II X2 560 ($105) and Phenom II X4 970 ($189) Black Edition processors are 100 MHz speed bumps over the 3.2 GHz Phenom II X2 555 and 3.4 GHz Phenom II X4 965. While these models add a little more zip to the fastest dual- and quad-core Socket AM3 products, they don't really change the landscape in any significant manner.
But let's talk about the AMD price cuts. The Phenom II X6 1090T Black Edition recently plummeted from $310 to $265. This new price point drops the flagship Phenom II X6 CPU below the entire Core i7 line (a welcome surprise). While this processor doesn't offer anything more than the Phenom II X4 from a gaming standpoint, its Black Edition overclocking capabilities and hexa-core architecture make it an attractive option as a jack-of-all-trades processor, and with some tweaking it can certainly game just as fast as any other Phenom II.
The second price cut of note is the Phenom II X4 955 Black Edition, now found for $140. This price point is a real sweet spot for this processor, and there is incredible value here--simply raising the CPU multiplier from 16x to 17.5x will step this CPU's game up to the par with the $190 Core i5-750. Despite all of the processor releases this month, a $140 Phenom II X4 955 is the biggest news we've heard so far.
Intel released a few speed bumps of its own, with prices dropping a few dollars here and there. The three new models are the Core i3-560 (3.33 GHz), Pentium E6800 (3.33 GHz), and the Celeron E3500 (2.7 GHz). The new Core i3-560 is a speedy 3.33 GHz CPU. But at $150, the similarly priced Phenom II X4 models are better gaming processors. The 3.33 GHz Pentium E6800 offers an appealing LGA 775 upgrade option at the $100 price point, and it steals the honorable mention from its Pentium E6700 predecessor. Finally, the new 2.7 GHz Celeron E3500 doesn't offer any appealing characteristics for a gaming CPU despite the low $63 price tag.
One of the most interesting bits of information we've learned is that Intel is on the verge of releasing an upgradable processor: the Pentium G6951. At first glance, this CPU has the same vital statistics as the Pentium G6950. But the interesting part is that Intel is testing out a pilot program that will allow users to upgrade the CPU after it is installed. Available upgrades include a key to enable Hyper-Threading and the ability to increase shared L3 cache from 3 MB to 4 MB. The resulting CPU would be very similar to a Core i3, though early indications are that the upgraded chip will be called Pentium G6952. This is something we'll definitely be keeping an eye on.
At this point, we're all waiting for Sandy Bridge, Fusion, and Bulldozer to arrive to really change up the processor landscape. These upcoming products are poised to up the ante significantly when it comes to both raw performance and integrated graphics chipsets, although we'll probably have to wait a few more months for consumer availability.
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.