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.
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.