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Best Gaming CPU: $200 And Up

Best Gaming CPUs For The Money: August 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 $220:
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 Graphics 3000, 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 $220 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 LGA 1155 processors have an inherent limit of 16 PCIe lanes for graphics use (the same limit imposed on LGA 1156 processors), 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. Check out this three-part series by Thomas Soderstrom, which proves those claims.

To summarize, while we recommend against purchasing any gaming CPU that retails for more than $220 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 $1000 hexa-core Core i7-990X Extreme.

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

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Top Comments
  • 10 Hide
    dragonsqrrl , August 23, 2011 7:16 AM
    iam2thecrowethis list is growing smaller indeed. This is good in a way, a top end cpu only costs $200, that is insane when many, lower end CPU's i have bought in the past cost much more than that.

    AMD's entry level dual-core processor (Athlon 64 X2 3800+) I bought back in summer 2005 cost me around $370. And now you can buy the fastest quad-core processor on the market (i7 2600K) for $315... amazing.
  • 10 Hide
    Anonymous , August 23, 2011 7:10 AM
    Heres to hoping this is the last list without bulldozer.
  • 10 Hide
    wribbs , August 23, 2011 5:54 AM
    Now that we have mobile GPU's in the GPU hierarchy chart it would be nice to see some mobile CPU's in the CPU hierarchy chart.
Other Comments
  • 1 Hide
    jdw_swb , August 23, 2011 5:31 AM
    2500K....awesome gaming chip.

    Got mine running at 4.5Ghz, so easy to overclock and maintain low temps.

    Another month gone, where is AMD/Bulldozer?
  • 5 Hide
    crisan_tiberiu , August 23, 2011 5:41 AM
    JDW_SWB.Another month gone, where is AMD/Bulldozer?

    September 18
  • 10 Hide
    wribbs , August 23, 2011 5:54 AM
    Now that we have mobile GPU's in the GPU hierarchy chart it would be nice to see some mobile CPU's in the CPU hierarchy chart.
  • 9 Hide
    iam2thecrowe , August 23, 2011 7:02 AM
    this list is growing smaller indeed. This is good in a way, a top end cpu only costs $200, that is insane when many, lower end CPU's i have bought in the past cost much more than that. AMD, you need to drop your prices or noone will buy your old tech.
  • 0 Hide
    alhanelem , August 23, 2011 7:09 AM
    i hope bulldozer will at least be up to par with the 2nd generation core i chips.
    i would love to replace my e850 with a cheap yet high performing chip from AMD
  • 10 Hide
    Anonymous , August 23, 2011 7:10 AM
    Heres to hoping this is the last list without bulldozer.
  • 10 Hide
    dragonsqrrl , August 23, 2011 7:16 AM
    iam2thecrowethis list is growing smaller indeed. This is good in a way, a top end cpu only costs $200, that is insane when many, lower end CPU's i have bought in the past cost much more than that.

    AMD's entry level dual-core processor (Athlon 64 X2 3800+) I bought back in summer 2005 cost me around $370. And now you can buy the fastest quad-core processor on the market (i7 2600K) for $315... amazing.
  • 0 Hide
    bombat1994 , August 23, 2011 8:45 AM
    remember the 2600k is the equivilent of the core i7 920 or 860 the real high end chips have yet to be release as of yet
  • 2 Hide
    traumadisaster , August 23, 2011 11:34 AM
    As long as these high end chips stay on 1155, fine. Dont make me buy a new mobo.
  • 1 Hide
    ojas , August 23, 2011 12:29 PM
    What really amazes me is the price drops in AMD processors. The Phenom II X6 1100T BE was originally a $265 (company estimate) chip. Today it sells for around $100 less, about 9 months from release (online rates are lower than the company estimated price). The X4 980 prices haven't moved so much during the last 8 months though.

    Compare that to any Sandy Bridge processor. I think all of them are selling for more than what the company prices them at, which is still the same as they were at the release date. The various SB i5s and i7s have been around for 8 months as well.

    We need to Bulldoze some Intel prices i guess...
  • -1 Hide
    flclkun , August 23, 2011 1:47 PM
    while i hope BD is successful. I'm gonna laugh my ass off if/when it falls right on its face when it wont be the game changer that AMD fans are hoping it will be or put an end to Intel's rein.

    Intel is a multi-billion dollar company for a reason.
  • 0 Hide
    hameem 1 , August 23, 2011 2:13 PM
    they should chose the phenom ii x3 720BE as the best cpu for $75 ..right ?
  • 3 Hide
    quicksilver98 , August 23, 2011 2:31 PM
    traumadisasterAs long as these high end chips stay on 1155, fine. Dont make me buy a new mobo.


    ROFL - That's what you get when buying an Intel CPU...
  • 2 Hide
    Onus , August 23, 2011 3:30 PM
    There's another tiny reason to choose a X4 970BE over a 955BE or 965BE: power consumption. For whatever reason, the 970BE uses less power at stock, even though it is faster. OC the other two to match it, and the difference will be even greater. Here's just one chart; I think there were others, but I can't find them: http://www.anandtech.com/bench/CPU/64
    There are performance differences, certainly, but any modern CPU can play any game. Yes, you've shown that CPU makes a difference (a lot more than expected in some games), but GPU still generally makes more, and someone willing to lower just a few settings will not experience a decrease in the quality of the game play. With that said, for the same money, I'll take a slower AMD CPU on a full-featured, high quality mobo over a faster Intel CPU on a stripped-down mobo any day.
  • -1 Hide
    Anonymous , August 23, 2011 5:20 PM
    I feel like you could have saved yourself some time and just posted a link to any of the last 5 "Best CPU" articles. The only change is the price, and in the technology world a price drop is not exactly a surprise to anyone.

    :) 
  • 0 Hide
    dragonsqrrl , August 23, 2011 6:54 PM
    ojasWhat really amazes me is the price drops in AMD processors. The Phenom II X6 1100T BE was originally a $265 (company estimate) chip. Today it sells for around $100 less, about 9 months from release (online rates are lower than the company estimated price). The X4 980 prices haven't moved so much during the last 8 months though.Compare that to any Sandy Bridge processor. I think all of them are selling for more than what the company prices them at, which is still the same as they were at the release date. The various SB i5s and i7s have been around for 8 months as well.We need to Bulldoze some Intel prices i guess...

    ... the irony is that the AMD price drops you're referring to occurred because of Sandy Bridge. There's really no immediate reason for Intel to enact a price drop on their Sandy Bridge processors, but even if they did, it would only mean that AMD would have to follow suit with an additional price drop of their own to remain performance competitive at a given price point.

    AMD is in desperate need of higher performance processors that they can price against Intel at the $200+ price points. The good news is that the FX-8150P seems to be targeted at the $300 price point. If this is true then in all likelihood AMD's highest-end Bulldozer processor will be performance competitive with the i7-2600K.

    http://www.guru3d.com/news/amd-eightcore-fxseries-bulldozer-cpus-cost-300/
  • 0 Hide
    cleeve , August 23, 2011 7:02 PM
    hameem 1they should chose the phenom ii x3 720BE as the best cpu for $75 ..right ?


    Doesn't come with a cooler, so add at least $15 on top of that. Then it doesn't look as good, especially since the OEM models come with a reduced warranty...

    But it can still be decent if you know what you're getting and are hoping for one that unlocks to four cores.
  • 6 Hide
    cleeve , August 23, 2011 7:10 PM
    Quote:
    With that said, for the same money, I'll take a slower AMD CPU on a full-featured, high quality mobo over a faster Intel CPU on a stripped-down mobo any day.


    The GPU is important, yes, but some modern games can be held back significantly by a Phenom II.

    If you're thinking an AMD 980 vs i5-2500K, then you're losing out on a big chunk of performance in some cases. A cheap 1155 mobo will that CPU be *significantly* faster in some games. But if you look past games, you're losing an even more significant amount of performance with everything else if you go with a Phenom II.

    Don't get me wrong, I've been recommending AMD CPUs for years. But Sandy bridge is just that good. Bulldozer needs to arrive soon, and it needs to be decent enough to reach the GPU bottleneck again.


  • 2 Hide
    eddieroolz , August 23, 2011 8:58 PM
    Here's hoping that Zambezi can turn this chart on its head next month!
  • -2 Hide
    fyasko , August 23, 2011 9:51 PM
    AMD's future is key to keeping prices where they are or potentially dropping for mid-mid/upper class chips. i was an AMD fanboi, now i realize the relationship amd has with intel is what keeps our price/performance ratio where enthusiast want it. hopefully amd's BD has a flawless release and is a great chip.
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