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Best Gaming CPUs For The Money: November 2011

Best Gaming CPUs For The Money: November 2011

November was a busy month in the CPU world, with the introduction of Intel's LGA 2011 platform and the Core i7-3960X Extreme Edition CPU. The Core i7-3930K and Core i7-2700K processors also made it to online retailers, in addition to AMD's FX-4100.

If you don’t have the time to research 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.

November Updates

The huge news this month was Intel's LGA 2011-based X79 platform and the accompanying Core i7-3000 series CPUs. Read all about them in Intel Core i7-3960X Review: Sandy Bridge-E And X79 Express. This new processor interface represents the company's ultimate desktop performance platform, supplanting LGA 1366 and its 1.1 billion-transistor Gulftown design with the 2.27 billion-transistor Sandy Bridge-E.

What was improved in the process? The platform sports a notable list of incremental changes, including a quad-channel memory controller and 40 PCIe 3.0-capable lanes. Intel announced three models in its Core i7-3000-series family, though only two of them are currently available. The top-of-the-line Core i7-3960X Extreme Edition features an unlocked multiplier, 15 MB of shared L3 cache, six execution cores capable of executing 12 threads concurrently, a 3.3 GHz base clock that scales as high as 3.9 GHz via Turbo Boost, a 130 W TDP, and a $990 price tag. Below that, the $550 Core i7-3930K (which is currently commanding an additional $50 premium) is largely the same, though its cache is cut back to 12 MB and its base and maximum Turbo Boost clocks are scaled back to 3.2 and 3.8 GHz, respectively. The Core i7-3820, expected to hit shelves in Q1 of next year, is the only quad-core model in Intel's line-up. Able to address eight threads at a time, Intel tells us that this CPU has a 45x multiplier ceiling (six bins above the highest Turbo Boost setting) and a 3.6 GHz base clock rate. Its shared L3 cache gets cut back to 10 MB, and we're still waiting on official word as to what its price might be.

As impressive as those specifications are (particularly for the folks who run a lot of workstation-class applications), this column focuses on gaming performance, and the LGA 2011 platform currently doesn't facilitate much more than LGA 1155 in that discipline. In our tests, Intel's popular $225 Core i5-2500K performed very much like the $1000 Core i7-3960X.

Nevertheless, LGA 2011 represents the ultimate desktop gaming platform, able to throw tons of PCI Express connectivity at three- and four-way graphics configurations, so it takes an honorable mention at the end of our recommendations. If you don't have all of that money to just burn, then LGA 1155-based Core i5 and i7 processors remain solid recommendations.

Intel also let loose with a multiplier-unlocked Core i7-2700K. Offering a 3.5 GHz base frequency that scales as high as 3.9 GHz, this new processor is priced at $332. Poor availability and an unfortunate lack of compelling competition translate into an inflated $370 online asking price, though. For that 100 MHz clock rate boost, the premium simply isn't worth paying. At $320, the Core i7-2600K is a smarter buy if you really want a high-end, multiplier-unlocked Sandy Bridge part.

Intel also released its $85 Pentium G630T, a low-power, 35 W, 2.3 GHz processor, to retail. Offering a 100 MHz increase over the G620T, this model isn't that interesting of a gaming-oriented part.

Aside from those introductions, Intel slightly cut the prices on its Pentium G630, G850, Core i3-2120, and Core i5-760, which each dropped about $10 bucks. The Core i7-970 and 980X each fell $20, likely in response to the LGA 2011 platform replacing LGA 1366. Though the changes are worth mentioning, none of them impact our recommendations.

From AMD, we finally see the FX-4100 become a processor we can buy. Of the models in its new portfolio, this $119 processor has the best chance of facilitating additional value, thanks to its unlocked multiplier and 3.6 GHz base frequency and 3.8 GHz Turbo Core setting. We'll have to test it, however, before we can say for sure.

Prices are also lower on AMD's FX and Llano-based A4 processors: the FX-8120, -8150, A4-3300, -3400, and -3500 are about $10 cheaper, and the FX-6100 fell $20 to $170. That's hardly news, considering prices on all of the FX-based chips were inflated at launch, and are still higher than the company's recommended pricing.

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 available at retail.

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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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