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Best Gaming CPU: $200 And Up

Best Gaming CPUs For The Money: October 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 noticeable 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 $315: (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 $315 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
  • 30 Hide
    julianbautista87 , October 26, 2011 4:55 AM
    you basically have two options: Intel or f*** you. Come on AMD! why are you so good on the gpu market and so bad in the cpu market?
  • 17 Hide
    cleeve , October 26, 2011 5:10 AM
    ojasweren't we promised a round-up of the sandy bridge pentium processors a long time ago?


    Yes, and I'm working on it! behind schedule, although the delay means we can include the FX series. The budget FX-4000 CPUs look like they might not be that terrible considering they're multiplier-unlocked.
  • 13 Hide
    alhanelem , October 26, 2011 7:33 AM
    not surprised that bulldozer didn't even show up in this article
Other Comments
  • 30 Hide
    julianbautista87 , October 26, 2011 4:55 AM
    you basically have two options: Intel or f*** you. Come on AMD! why are you so good on the gpu market and so bad in the cpu market?
  • 2 Hide
    ojas , October 26, 2011 5:09 AM
    weren't we promised a round-up of the sandy bridge pentium processors a long time ago?

    really should have a comparison of the various sub $100 processors from both AMD and Intel. Could use the i3-2100 for reference.

    would be useful for entry-level gaming builds and office builds.

    Or, could be useful to check if it's a good idea to pair a G860 or Phenom II x4 840 with a GTX 460/560 or 6850 and get decent gaming performance.
  • 17 Hide
    cleeve , October 26, 2011 5:10 AM
    ojasweren't we promised a round-up of the sandy bridge pentium processors a long time ago?


    Yes, and I'm working on it! behind schedule, although the delay means we can include the FX series. The budget FX-4000 CPUs look like they might not be that terrible considering they're multiplier-unlocked.
  • 9 Hide
    tlmck , October 26, 2011 5:29 AM
    I for one am very happy with my Phenom II X4 840. Of course I got mine on sale at a local place called Microcenter for $59.99. Won't win any benchmark contests, but it plays every game I throw at it at high settings. Good enough for me.
  • 3 Hide
    de5_Roy , October 26, 2011 6:03 AM
    1. i totally agree with this article.
    2.
    Quote:
    Instead, Intel's lower-cost Core i3s and Core i5s are likely better (and less expensive) options.

    this made me chuckle. okay, it made me laugh. i never imagined the day when intel would seem like a value proposition, in gaming, even. but this is true - among 32 nm cpus, intel is cheaper and a better all round performer.
    if you read anandtech's bd review they used a core i5 2400 in their benches which beat bd in some if not enough benchmarks. i wonder how a core i3 2100, core i5 2400 will fare against fx 4100, 6100 and 8120. i think the core i5 will emerge as a better cpu despite being locked.
    it's funny to see 'quadcore' 3.6 GHz FX-4100 @ $115. imo fx 4100 is a 125 tdp dual core with ht(amd version). no one needs this space-heating-almost-as-costly-core-i3 dud. it's not a good upgrade from a ph ii 955. fx 6100 and fx 8120 are of better value among bd cpus.
  • 3 Hide
    qu4k3r , October 26, 2011 6:03 AM
    When will the other FX models review be ready ?

    I'd like to see where 8120,8100,6100,4170,4100 are located in this chart.-
  • 5 Hide
    dragonsqrrl , October 26, 2011 6:19 AM
    qu4k3rWhen will the other FX models review be ready ?I'd like to see where 8120,8100,6100,4170,4100 are located in this chart.-

    Guru3D did a review of the FX lineup. It's mostly non-gaming benchmarks, but it gives you a good idea of how the other processors in the FX series perform in general.

    http://www.guru3d.com/article/amd-fx-8150--8120-6100-and-4100-performance-review/
  • 6 Hide
    Stardude82 , October 26, 2011 6:35 AM
    The G840 is about $80 now. That should shift things next month. Heck the G620 is faster than the 455 in gaming benchmarks and that's been sub $80 for a while.
  • 0 Hide
    jet-21 , October 26, 2011 6:56 AM
    I think it would be nice if toms would do a chart where they would merge both the best gaming cpu and the best cpu for the money. ie: the best gpu combo for the best cpu price point. Just my musings
  • 0 Hide
    de5_Roy , October 26, 2011 6:57 AM
    just a little correction to my earlier comment: seems only fx 4170 is a 125 w tdp, fx 4100 is a 95 w tdp bulldozer cpu(still 30w higher than core i3's 65 w tdp).
  • 0 Hide
    qu4k3r , October 26, 2011 7:10 AM
    dragonsqrrlGuru3D did a review of the FX lineup. It's mostly non-gaming benchmarks, but it gives you a good idea of how the other processors in the FX series perform in general.http://www.guru3d.com/article/amd- [...] ce-review/

    I also saw these reviews:
    http://nl.hardware.info/reviews/2382/amd-fx-8150--8120--6100--4100-bulldozer-review
    http://www.techspot.com/review/452-amd-bulldozer-fx-cpus/page10.html

    But I'm still doubtful about what cpu to buy

    Having a Q6600 oc@3.2GHz I've bought an AM3+ mobo which I really like and I want to use it, so I'd rather buy a cpu 3 tiers higher than mine on AMD side.
  • 13 Hide
    alhanelem , October 26, 2011 7:33 AM
    not surprised that bulldozer didn't even show up in this article
  • -8 Hide
    dontqqnub , October 26, 2011 7:35 AM
    The 2700k isn't on the list. =\
  • 6 Hide
    fyasko , October 26, 2011 8:18 AM
    dontqqnubThe 2700k isn't on the list. =\

    it's best "gaming" cpu's for the $... think about it...
  • 4 Hide
    Dacatak , October 26, 2011 8:32 AM
    I got an X4 955 BE for $88. No tax, no BS MIR, free shipping. Boo-yeah.
  • 9 Hide
    jdw_swb , October 26, 2011 8:37 AM
    2500K....still an awesome CPU for the price.
  • -2 Hide
    Aoyagi , October 26, 2011 8:43 AM
    julianbautista87you basically have two options: Intel or f*** you. Come on AMD! why are you so good on the gpu market and so bad in the cpu market?

    Because AMD has never intered GPU market itelf, it's ATI. And come on, they still need to get over their own CPUs ^^ (meaning Phenom 2s)
  • 4 Hide
    RCPG , October 26, 2011 11:40 AM
    Where is the Phenom II X4 840 on the hierarchy chart? It's recommend and it's not even on the chart. And I have a Phenom II X4 850 which also isn't on the chart. Please update the chart with these two processors.
  • 1 Hide
    Onus , October 26, 2011 11:56 AM
    Disappointing for AMD, but predictable.
    At the low end, unless perhaps it is for a single, specific application in an unchanging environment, I still don't see ever recommending a non-HT dual core (e.g. Pentium) over a 3- or 4-core CPU (e.g. Athlon II); not for modern workloads.
  • 0 Hide
    Reynod , October 26, 2011 1:10 PM
    By the looks of it don you haven't had time to bench the rest of the Bulldozer CPU lineup yet?

    Once some of the cheaper silicon in that range hits the street would you mind doing some gaming benchies and seeing if there is a good quality gaming chip in the mix?

    I would think there might be.

    Good work on this regular article as usual.

    :) 
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