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Best Gaming CPU: Under $110

Best Gaming CPUs For The Money: October 2010
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Best Gaming CPU for ~$85:

Athlon II X3 450 (Check Prices)

Athlon II X3 450
Codename: Rana
Process: 45 nm
CPU Cores: 3
Clock Speed:  3.2 GHz
Socket: AM2+/AM3
L1 Cache:   3 x 128 KB
L2 Cache:   3 x 512 KB
HyperTransport: 4000 MT/s
Thermal Envelope:
95 W

This is the fastest triple-core Athlon II available, and it sports an ideal combination of three CPU cores, a high clock rate, a low price, and respectable overclocking headroom. Despite the deceptively low buy-in, this processor delivers some serious gaming capability. It is such a great gaming CPU, in fact, that it almost renders most of the CPUs in the $100 to $130 range overkill.

Intel's Core i3-530 does manage to up the ante, but it costs $30 more, and doesn't perform as well in threaded environments due to its less complex dual-core architecture.

Honorable Mention:
Phenom II X3 740 Black Edition (OEM) (Check Prices)

Phenom II X3 740 Black Edition
Codename: Heka
Process: 45 nm
CPU Cores: 3
Clock Speed: 3.0 GHz
Socket: AM3
L1 Cache:   3 x 128 KB
L2 Cache:   3 x 512 KB
L3 Cache: 6 MB
HyperTransport: 4000 MT/s
Thermal Envelope:
80 W

As a rule, we avoid recommending OEM processors--we prefer steering folks toward full retail models bundled with a CPU cooler to save money, and a full warranty for peace of mind. The Phenom II X3 740 Black Edition is exactly the kind of processor that we'll break the rules for. Take all of the positive things we've said about the Athlon II X3 CPUs, add the Phenom II series' fat 6 MB of L3 cache, and sprinkle an unlocked multiplier on top. Tah-dah! You have the Phenom II X3 740 Black Edition.

Our tests have shown that most games have little use for more than three CPU cores, but experience also tells us that games can benefit from the large L3 cache and high clock speeds on high-end Phenom II processors. The Phenom II X3 740 has an ideal blend of these features, with an unlocked CPU multiplier that makes it possible to increase CPU overclocks without pushing the rest of the platform out of spec.

The downside is that the Phenom II X3 740 buyer needs to purchase a separate CPU cooler because this OEM-only model doesn't include one, nor does it include more than a 30-day warranty. But a beefy cooler might be a foregone conclusion, anyway. No matter how you slice it, this processor at deserves an honorable mention.

Best Gaming CPU for $100: None

Honorable Mention:
Athlon II X4 640 (Check Prices)

Athlon II X4 640
Codename: Propus
Process: 45 nm
CPU Cores: 4
Clock Speed:   3.0 GHz
Socket: AM3
L1 Cache:   4 x 128 KB
L2 Cache:   4 x 512 KB
HyperTransport: 4000 MT/s
Thermal Envelope:
95 W

There are a few gaming titles out there that will take advantage of a fourth CPU core---real-time strategy games, mostly--making the Athlon II X4 a potentially attractive choice to enthusiasts who multitask while gaming, and are willing to overclock this processor. Moreover, as a general-purpose CPU (during the hours you don't spend gaming), the quad-core solution is going to be superior.

Now found as low as $100, true quad-core CPUs are well within the grasp of the budget gamer. Specifically, the Athlon II X4 640 model is impressive with it's 3 GHz clock speed.

Read our review of the Athlon II X4, right here.

Honorable Mention:
Pentium Dual-Core E6800

Pentium Dual-Core E6800
Codename: Wolfdale-2M
Process: 45 nm
CPU Cores: 2
Clock Speed: 3.33 GHz
Socket: LGA 775
L2 Cache:   2 MB
Front Side Bus: 1066 MT/s
Thermal Envelope:
65 W

The new 3.33 GHz Pentium E6800 replaces the 3.2 GHz Pentium E6700 as the fastest budget dual-core available for the LGA 775 interface.

While the E6800 doesn't have any dormant cores that could be unlocked (like the Phenom II X2 555), it has a solid overclocking reputation and makes a good upgrade option for tweakers with older LGA 775-based systems who are not yet ready to put money into a new motherboard and CPU. For folks considering a full upgrade, the Socket AM3 and LGA 1156 platforms are probably better choices. Just bear in mind that LGA 1156's days are numbered. The launch of Sandy Bridge early next year sees Intel pulling a hack-job with yet another interface, leaving mainstream buyers with Core i3, Core i5, and Core i7 CPUs stranded without a viable upgrade path.

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