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Best Gaming CPU: $200 And Up

Best Gaming CPUs For The Money: November 2011

Best Gaming CPU for $200: 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 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)

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 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)

Core i7-3930K
Codename: Sandy Bridge-E
Process: 32 nm
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.

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  • 1 Hide
    manu 11 , November 28, 2011 3:28 AM
    please test the fx 4100 gaming performance, eagerly waiting for some decent benchmarks.
  • 0 Hide
    AbdullahG , November 28, 2011 3:31 AM
    Interesting list. I see Intel isn't far from dominating ever category for gaming CPUs. The ~$80 zone is holding them back. I'm still glad to see AMD holding up.
  • 2 Hide
    Onikage , November 28, 2011 3:37 AM
    yeah well, still waiting for ivy, i'll get the same speed if not faster than a 2700k but with less heat and less energy,and a better oc, maybe a better price too,,
  • 6 Hide
    Zero_ , November 28, 2011 3:42 AM
    I believe Intel owns sub $80 as well. The G850 costs just $82 and beats the Athlon II X3 455 easy, and the $60 Celeron G540 is faster than any Athlon II X2.

    The only AMD CPU worth buying right now is the Phenom II X2 955.
  • 1 Hide
    de5_Roy , November 28, 2011 3:45 AM
    love the new hierarchy chart :) 
    i read fx 4100's performance in a legitreviews article, that this got beaten by a core i3 and a llano a8 in a lot of cases and it sucks more power (at stock settings) than core i3. it does have a lower price tag than bigger fx cpus but what amd conveniently skips over is this - fx 4100 is a Dual Module, 4 core, 95w processor. it's more like a core i3 (65w), but unlocked and far more watt-hungry. imo one can get more out of a ph ii x4/x6 + 990x/990fx or an (oc over 3 ghz) a8 3850 + a75 combo for gaming.
  • 4 Hide
    alhanelem , November 28, 2011 3:58 AM
    thankfully my e8500 is still pretty high up in the hierarchy so ill hold off upgrading till later
  • -1 Hide
    amk-aka-Phantom , November 28, 2011 4:03 AM
    *Sigh*... does this really have to come out every month? i5-2500K for gaming, Sandy Bridge Pentium or Core i3 for budget builds, i7-2600K for enthusiast or future-proof gaming, period. No need for a new article every month until IB is out :) 
  • 1 Hide
    Dacatak , November 28, 2011 4:03 AM
    Micro Center was selling the 2500K for $149.99 on Black Friday....

    ...and I gots me one.
  • 1 Hide
    ojas , November 28, 2011 4:04 AM
    Hmmm....i looked up Anandtech for benchmarks for the Pentium G860 and Phenom II x4 840, they didn't have them, so i had to compare the Phenom II x4 940 and Pentium G850, and well, Intel wins mostly, except in some threaded applications. Games favour Intel slightly too.

    Here's the permalink
  • 2 Hide
    iam2thecrowe , November 28, 2011 4:21 AM
    manu 11please test the fx 4100 gaming performance, eagerly waiting for some decent benchmarks. it sucks for gaming and everything else. Get yourself a phenom II x4 over any FX chip.
  • -5 Hide
    Zero_ , November 28, 2011 4:30 AM
    Request to editors.

    When you do test out the FX4100, please make a direct comparison with the X4 955. Not the 965, not the 980, not the A8-3850. The 955.
  • 2 Hide
    gmcizzle , November 28, 2011 4:39 AM
    Wow, Intel dominates basically every price range in the consumer field. I think giving AMD the $80 range was just out of pity, since the G850 beats the Athlon II X3 455, as mention above.
  • -1 Hide
    jrharbort , November 28, 2011 5:05 AM
    The recommendations have remained unchanged for the past few months, with the exception of the $600+ range thanks to the introduction of the LGA2011 platform.

    I used to recommend AMD for quite a while over Intel for budget gamers, but Sandy Bridge really pushed Intel above and beyond anything that AMD can offer at multiple price points. For once, Intel's prices are actually justified.

  • 0 Hide
    Anonymous , November 28, 2011 8:22 AM
    I'm a gamer, just got the Intel Core i7-2600K from for around $300 and it satisfies all my gaming needs. I was tempted to go with the Core i7-3930K for even more speed but the double price tag 0f $600 turned me off. I can play any game now this this and don't see the need for anything faster. Maybe eventually.
  • -1 Hide
    assassin123 , November 28, 2011 8:32 AM
    can anyone tell me in now day intel is good or amd i know great performance but i want to know it
  • 0 Hide
    jemm , November 28, 2011 9:42 AM
    Great article!
  • -2 Hide
    AppleBlowsDonkeyBalls , November 28, 2011 11:58 AM
    Intel is actually the best for gaming at all price points.

    Celeron G530: $57
    Athlon II X2 250: $62

    The G530 beats the 250 by 15-25% in gaming.

    Pentium G620: $72
    Athlon II X3 445: $75

    The G620 beats the 445 in gaming by 5-15%.

    Pentium G850: $88
    Athlon II X4 640: $100

    The G850 beats the 640 in gaming by 5-15%.

    Core i3-2100: $125; Core i3-2120: $130
    Phenom II X4 955: $125; Phenom II X4 965: $130

    Both beat the 955 and 965 in gaming by 5-10%, respectively.

    Everything above these get no competition at all from AMD when it comes to gaming. The Phenom II X6 1090T isn't a gaming processor; if you want that you get a 955/965.
  • 0 Hide
    jdw_swb , November 28, 2011 12:18 PM
    The 2500K is such an amazing gaming CPU.

    It will really take something special, both in price and performance, to beat it.
  • 0 Hide
    elbert , November 28, 2011 1:36 PM
    Please benchmark the Athlon II X4 631. It runs about equal to 300~400MHz higher clocked older athlon II's and is lower priced. At $89.99 its a much better deal than the X3's and price wise better than any older X4's. Possible this CPU can give the FX-4100 a run for the money.
  • 1 Hide
    giovanni86 , November 28, 2011 1:55 PM
    I always enjoy these each month, wish they had one for each component of a PC. But that would be quite a lot of work but i would like to see more articles on specific hardware like Motherboards, power supply's, hard-drives/SSD's, cases, CPU coolers. Might be a lot of work, i'd do it if i worked there =D. As always Core i5-2500K owns all, waiting on what IVY bridge offers, otherwise that $600 i-3930k seems like the best future proof bet.
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