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Best Gaming CPUs For The Money: May 2010

Best Gaming CPUs For The Money: May 2010
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April saw the introduction of AMD's Phenom II X6. Does this new architecture offer up enough performance to make the recommended list? We're bummed that there likely won't be a Zosma launch, but that makes it easier to pick our favorite gaming CPUs today.

April saw the introduction of AMD's Phenom II X6. Does this new architecture offer up enough performance to make the recommended list? We're bummed that there likely won't be a Zosma launch, but that makes it easier to pick our favorite gaming CPUs today.

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.

May Updates

The end of April saw the introduction of AMD's first desktop hexa-core CPU, its Phenom II X6 processor (code-named "Thuban") that we reviewed here. Armed with two more execution cores than the Phenom II X4 CPUs, these new models sport another enhancement: AMD's answer to Intel's Turbo Boost technology, which it calls Turbo CORE. The implementation is similar in that the technology automatically and dynamically boosts the multiplier of AMD's six-core CPUs to allow clock speed adjustments when only some of the CPU cores are being used. The end result is that Turbo CORE squeezes as much performance as it can out of the Phenom II X6, while keeping TDP under 125W.

The two Phenom II X6 AMD launched into the the 1090T Black Edition (a 3.2 GHz model currently priced at $310 dollars) and the 1055T (a 2.8 GHz model running $210 dollars). Both carry the same 6MB shared L3 cache as the rest of the Phenom II line, and both are compatible with a host of Socket AM3 and AM2+ motherboards.

AMD's $310 price tag is a stark contrast to Intel's hexa-core 'Gulftown' Core i7 980X, which costs more than $1,000. As you might expect, though, the Core i7 is a faster processor. But the new Phenom II X6 1090T is certainly great competition for comparatively-priced Intel CPUs, like the Core i7-930, especially when you're running threaded applications.

While all of this sounds great, stepping up to a six-core CPU isn't necessarily the way to go if you're primarily playing games. Unfortunately, most popular titles rarely use more than three CPU cores, and even with Turbo CORE, the Phenom II X4 965 sports similar gaming performance to the Phenom II X6 1090T Black Edition. The bad news is that this means the new Phenom II X6 CPUs will not have a presence on our recommended gaming CPU list. However, the Phenom II X6 processors likely make great workstation CPUs and are better suited to high-end A/V transcoding duties.

Aside from this news, there have been very slight price movements over the past month. The Athlon II X2 250 dropped a few dollars, earning it our lowest-priced recommendation, and the Core 2 Duo E7500 jumped a few dollars, making it a little less attractive for anyone upgrading an LGA 775-based platform.

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.

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  • 9 Hide
    touchdowntexas13 , May 17, 2010 6:16 AM
    I guess I'm not too surprised that the Phenom X6 1055t didn't beat out the i5-750 at it's price point. From what I have seen, the i5-750 does tend to perform better in games.

    However, I thought the 1055t would have made it into the honorable mention, especially for gamers looking for some awesome power for video conversions and that sorta thing. It may not be the best "gaming" cpu for $200, but for gamers looking for something a little extra, the 1055t presents a great value.

    Anyways, like I said I was not too surprised here. Another great article.
  • 0 Hide
    pr0m3th3us , May 17, 2010 6:29 AM
    touchdowntexas13I guess I'm not too surprised that the Phenom X6 1055t didn't beat out the i5-750 at it's price point. From what I have seen, the i5-750 does tend to perform better in games.However, I thought the 1055t would have made it into the honorable mention, especially for gamers looking for some awesome power for video conversions and that sorta thing. It may not be the best "gaming" cpu for $200, but for gamers looking for something a little extra, the 1055t presents a great value.Anyways, like I said I was not too surprised here. Another great article.


    AMDs Hexacore cpus don't help with gaming compared with deneb, unless you use its great overclocking ability. It OCs better than Deneb....
  • 0 Hide
    eklipz330 , May 17, 2010 6:33 AM
    What makes the Phenom II X4 965 Black Edition better than the 955? I mean they're both unlocked right? Is it that the 965 is better binned or something? Does it justify $25 extra bucks?? I mean newegg has the new steppings listed differently, so there's no way you can go wrong by getting a 955...
  • 5 Hide
    ohim , May 17, 2010 6:34 AM
    The AMDs hexacore cpus would have made the tops only if this was a: Best multimedia/video encoding CPUs For The Money: May 2010
  • 0 Hide
    Anonymous , May 17, 2010 7:09 AM
    I hear the 965 b and the 955 b are the same thing when unlocked.
  • -6 Hide
    Gigahertz20 , May 17, 2010 7:54 AM
    The i7-930 can be purchased for $200 at Micro Center in store only. Pretty damn good deal, no price online can beat it.

    http://www.microcenter.com/single_product_results.phtml?product_id=0331303
  • 4 Hide
    Otus , May 17, 2010 8:18 AM
    TA152HUpgrading is always something I've never understood. People seem to get a warm fuzzy feeling from saying they can upgrade their processor, but does anyone actually do it? It's been this way almost forever, show me someone that upgrades JUST his or her processor, and I'll show you an idiot. By the time the processor is obsolete, the whole platform is, so you just get both new. There are exceptions, but, really, upgrading processors alone has always sounded like something you'd want, until you realize you never end up doing it.


    Upgrading often makes sense with budget CPUs. Last year I upgraded from a Phenom based Athlon X2 to a new Athlon II X4. I more than doubled my threaded performance for the 40€ it cost me after selling the old CPU.
  • 1 Hide
    spentshells , May 17, 2010 8:32 AM
    i must agree with some of that mentioned above.
    but mostly just the shunning part. core2 is still very powerful and the hype is just that...hype not much more.
    remember when they were showing the 9550 along side the I7 the advantage they were showing when gaming was not staggering. I believe they removed core2 quad from the picture for just that reason.
    but ive been known to be wrong ;) 
  • 4 Hide
    Anonymous , May 17, 2010 8:37 AM
    I just upgraded my Athlon 64 X2 5000 to a Athlon II X4 thanks to a new BIOS on my ASUS M2N-E. Bought this four or so years ago and I'm happy that there was room to upgrade.

    I used to think that I would buy a new machine the next time I needed upgrades but now I realize that being able to upgrade the CPU and various other components along the way is much nicer (and cheaper).
  • 3 Hide
    iulianx , May 17, 2010 8:45 AM
    I agree with you, TA152H. The fact is, i haven't seen a proper head to head comparison here on Toms between core i3 530 and core2duo E8400, or between core i5 750 and core2quad Q9400. And let's not forget that Intel stated that each new cpu generation will bring a new socket, so there's really no upgrade path for 1156. For LGA775 you either get a core2duo, like a E8400, or a core2quad, like a Q9400 and you're done. There's nothing else. That's the same on 1156: you either take core i3 530 or core i5 750. It's not like you can upgrade beyond that, to a core i7 930 or smt. And the cpus Intel will release from now on will be on a new socket, so you're in exactly the same situation.
  • -1 Hide
    Stardude82 , May 17, 2010 9:01 AM
    TA152H.Also, the Pentium E6500 costs $75, the Core E7500 $117, both at the same clock speed. Is 1 MB cache worth $42 more?
    The E8400 in certain benchmarks is still a force to be reckoned with.. the E7500 is middling and not a big step up from the much cheaper E6300.

    Yes the 1156 platform is limiting, but the benchmarks for the i5 750 speak for themselves. On the other hand, I don't see any devices near max SATA 3 speeds and probably won't until the next upgrade cycle in a couple years.
  • -3 Hide
    Moshu78 , May 17, 2010 10:15 AM
    eklipz330What makes the Phenom II X4 965 Black Edition better than the 955? I mean they're both unlocked right? Is it that the 965 is better binned or something? Does it justify $25 extra bucks?? I mean newegg has the new steppings listed differently, so there's no way you can go wrong by getting a 955...

    965 is 3.4 GHz, consuming 125W while 955 is 3.2 GHz also comsuming 125W. Basically the 955 is a 965 that heats more/consumes more. You can OC the 955 to 3.4 GHz but then it will consume around 140-150W. The 965 can OC to higher frequences than the 955 due to the lower thermal dissipation, however, if you like the stock frequences, you can turn a 955 into a 965 without issues. The extra 25 bucks is worth if you go OC for 4.0 GHz and more.
  • 3 Hide
    dertechie , May 17, 2010 10:45 AM
    OtusUpgrading often makes sense with budget CPUs. Last year I upgraded from a Phenom based Athlon X2 to a new Athlon II X4. I more than doubled my threaded performance for the 40€ it cost me after selling the old CPU.


    Yeah, makes more sense with AM3 platforms where you can go from a $50 budget CPU to a high end PII. Meanwhile Intel doesn't really do that whole 'backwards compatible' thing.

    TA152H Stuff


    In my opinion the only reason Intel hasn't EOL'd LGA775 yet is because they haven't pushed Nehalem that far down the stack yet. Once we see $50 Nehalerons, I expect LGA775 to die.

    Most of the LGA775 CPUs seem overpriced for the performance they give. The E8400 costs more than the i3-530, but the two CPUs will go toe to toe in most benches. The Q9400 is only a hair cheaper than the i5-750, and the 750 is going to best it, particularly in poorly threaded apps like games.

    P55's lack of PCIE is not really a problem unless you're using a pair of top end GPUs. The x4 slot can take care of USB3/SATA6. So you may as well grab a modern CPU with your modern GPUs. If you are building with a pair of 5870s, then you're already spending at least $800 on graphics, the $50 price difference between an x48 and an x58 is rather small by comparison (you won't be buying an el cheapo LGA775 here). The other thing is that if you're using enough GPU to bottleneck at x8-x8, you'll need a good CPU to not bottleneck them anyway. Again, you're already shelling out enough that the difference between a Q9400 and an i7-930 isn't worth quibbling over (especially if you have a Microcenter nearby), and the 930 does have a performance lead over the Q9400.

    P55 is a pared-down X58, not a crippled/brain-dead one. Intel did well there, the cuts give X58 a solid advantage, but most normal builds won't be bottlenecked by them.

    TL;DR: If you're spending enough on GPUs that P55 PCIe bottlenecks matter, you may as well go big and get X58. If you aren't get P55 and a decent CPU/GPU pairing. LGA775 is really only worthwhile if you already have parts of it.
  • -4 Hide
    Anonymous , May 17, 2010 11:38 AM
    the 635 is now $105
  • -4 Hide
    steddy , May 17, 2010 12:44 PM
    No! My E1400 is at the bottom of the heirarchy chart. I hope it doesn't bottleneck my GMA 4500.
  • 3 Hide
    husker , May 17, 2010 1:39 PM
    TA152HUpgrading is always something I've never understood. People seem to get a warm fuzzy feeling from saying they can upgrade their processor, but does anyone actually do it? It's been this way almost forever, show me someone that upgrades JUST his or her processor, and I'll show you an idiot. By the time the processor is obsolete, the whole platform is, so you just get both new. There are exceptions, but, really, upgrading processors alone has always sounded like something you'd want, until you realize you never end up doing it.

    I have to admit there is some truth to this. I myself in a recent build was constantly debating about justifying the additional cost of a more "future proof" motherboard vs. one that was just good-enough for what I needed today. I finally decided it simply made more sense to ignore SATA II, USB 3, and 6 core support for now and put the money elsewhere.
  • 0 Hide
    buzznut , May 17, 2010 1:40 PM
    Another great article, but it doesn't look like much has changed since AMD did some shuffling with a few new CPU's. Intel isn't doing its users any favors with the constant socket changes. On the other hand, Intel has a few really solid models while AMD has so many in all different price ranges, it seems they may be competing with themselves. I'm not sure it is a wise strategy to have so many CPU's in the market.

    I have to disagree with the cpu upgrades though, my current platform has gone from a fx-62 dual core to a X4 9850 to a X4 PhII 940. All of these were significant upgrades with much higher performance and overclocking ability. This has kept my PC relevant for 3 years. I will need to move to another mobo for 6 or 8 cores, but I don't think I will do that for another year.
  • 1 Hide
    ta152h , May 17, 2010 2:11 PM
    dertechieYeah, makes more sense with AM3 platforms where you can go from a $50 budget CPU to a high end PII. Meanwhile Intel doesn't really do that whole 'backwards compatible' thing.In my opinion the only reason Intel hasn't EOL'd LGA775 yet is because they haven't pushed Nehalem that far down the stack yet. Once we see $50 Nehalerons, I expect LGA775 to die.Most of the LGA775 CPUs seem overpriced for the performance they give. The E8400 costs more than the i3-530, but the two CPUs will go toe to toe in most benches. The Q9400 is only a hair cheaper than the i5-750, and the 750 is going to best it, particularly in poorly threaded apps like games. P55's lack of PCIE is not really a problem unless you're using a pair of top end GPUs. The x4 slot can take care of USB3/SATA6. So you may as well grab a modern CPU with your modern GPUs. If you are building with a pair of 5870s, then you're already spending at least $800 on graphics, the $50 price difference between an x48 and an x58 is rather small by comparison (you won't be buying an el cheapo LGA775 here). The other thing is that if you're using enough GPU to bottleneck at x8-x8, you'll need a good CPU to not bottleneck them anyway. Again, you're already shelling out enough that the difference between a Q9400 and an i7-930 isn't worth quibbling over (especially if you have a Microcenter nearby), and the 930 does have a performance lead over the Q9400.P55 is a pared-down X58, not a crippled/brain-dead one. Intel did well there, the cuts give X58 a solid advantage, but most normal builds won't be bottlenecked by them.TL;DR: If you're spending enough on GPUs that P55 PCIe bottlenecks matter, you may as well go big and get X58. If you aren't get P55 and a decent CPU/GPU pairing. LGA775 is really only worthwhile if you already have parts of it.


    You kind of missed the point with your rambling.

    x58 is a LOT more expensive, and would perform worse in most cases if the extra money were spent on video cards. That's the irony with this type of article - with games, the processor really isn't so important, the video card is. That's why they struggle to find a point in processors in a pretty big cost range and just give honorable mentions.

    You're comparing x58 to x48, when you talk about dual GPUs, I was comparing to P55. When you start comparing x58 to x48, you're automatically looking at a much more expensive platform and more expensive processors. Put another way, would you do better on most games with an overclocked Pentium E6500 and an extra $250 on the video card(s), or a i7 930? I think we both know the answer to that. It's not an absolute, but the more money you can spend on the video card, the better.

    I like x58, but for this narrow criteria, on almost all price points, and most games, you'd be better off with a cheaper CPU and more expensive video cards. It doesn't make it bad, it's just the nature of games right now - video cards matter more, especially at resolutions where you want to play.
  • -7 Hide
    kelemvor4 , May 17, 2010 3:22 PM
    I think this list is a total failure. You're going to have a major bottleneck even with an i7-920 on systems with a current GPU (GF100, ATI 5770). To recommend i5 and lower for gaming is just not reasonable. Those may be useful for web surfing and office computing but not gaming.
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