Best Gaming CPU for $200: None
Core i5-760 (Check Prices)
|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 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 $225:
Core i5-2500K (Check Prices)
|Codename:|| Sandy Bridge|
|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 Sandy Bridge-based CPUs here.
Past the Point of Reason:
CPUs priced over $225 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.
But now that LGA 2011 has arrived, there's certainly an argument to be made for it as the ultimate gaming platform. LGA 2011-based CPUs have more available cache and as many as two more execution cores than the flagship LGA 1155 models. Additionally, more bandwidth is delivered through a quad-channel memory controller. And with 40 lanes of third-gen PCIe connectivity available from Sandy Bridge-E-based processors, the platform natively supports two x16 and one x8 slot, or one x16 and three x8 slots, alleviating potential bottlenecks in three- and four-way CrossFire or SLI configurations.
Although they sound impressive, those advantages don't necessarily translate into significant performance gains in modern titles. Our tests demonstrate fairly little difference between a $225 LGA 1155 Core i5-2500K and a $1000 LGA 2011 Core i7-3960X, even when three-way graphics card configurations are involved. It turns out that memory bandwidth and PCIe throughput don't hold back the performance of existing Sandy Bridge machines.
Where we do see the potential for Sandy Bridge-E to drive additional performance is in processor-bound games like World of Warcraft or the multiplayer component of Battlefield 3. If you're running a three- or four-way array of graphics cards already, there's a good chance that you already own more than enough rendering muscle. An overclocked Core i7-3960X or 3930K could help the rest of your platform catch up to an insanely powerful arrangement of GPUs.
To summarize, while we generally recommend against purchasing any gaming CPU that retails for more than $225 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 goals, the following CPU is for you:
Best Gaming CPU for $600: (or for any price)
Core i7-3930K (Check Prices)
|Codename:|| Sandy Bridge-E|
|CPU Cores/Threads:|| 6/12|
|Clock Speed (Max. Turbo):|| 3.2 GHz (3.8 GHz)|
|Socket:|| LGA 2011|
|L2 Cache:|| 6x 256 KB|
|L3 Cache:||12 MB|
|Thermal Envelope:||130 W|
Take the $1000 Core i7-3960X, remove 3 MB of L3 cache, and drop the clocks by 100 MHz. What do end up with? Four hundred dollars in cash left over and an Intel Core i7-3930K.
The 100 MHz difference in clock rate is irrelevant, given unlocked multiplier ratios benefiting both CPUs, and you'd be hard-pressed to quantify the benefit of 15 MB of shared L3 cache over 12 MB. Moreover, a greater-than $400 savings lets you buy a nice motherboard and cooler, while still getting the same four-channel memory subsystem and 40-lane PCI Express 3.0-capable controller.
Read our review of the new Sandy Bridge-E based CPUs here.