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Best Gaming CPUs For The Money: February 2011

Best Gaming CPUs For The Money: February 2011
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If you don’t have the time to research the 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.

February Updates: The Cougar Point Problem

The biggest news on the processor front actually doesn't involve a CPU at all. Rather, it's Intel's Cougar Point chipset stop-shipment. The company doesn't want its action referred to as a recall. However, we've confirmed that a number of vendors shipping hardware based on the faulty core logic are offering voluntary recalls of their products  based on Cougar Point.

As you no doubt already know, Intel discovered a problem with the four SATA 3Gb/s ports on its chipsets, which required a revision. Purportedly, the revision is complete and shipping, but boards based on the updated chipset still aren't available yet. Fortunately for anyone able to get their hands on a new board, the CPUs themselves are now shipping again from sites like Newegg after being temporarily pulled.

At the end of the day, there was a lot of noise made about this issue, and anyone who was pushing a lot of data over the 3 Gb/s ports had the right to be concerned. However, anyone with an older LGA 1155-based motherboard can get around the problem entirely by using the two SATA 6Gb/s ports, third-party controllers, or an add-in card.

As the editor responsible for our Best CPUs For The Money column, this puts me in an unfortunate position. Do I tell people to hold off on the second-generation Core chips and recommend inferior processors for a short while, or do I acknowledge the fact that Intel's new chips are actually worth waiting for?

For me, it comes down to this: Sandy Bridge-based CPUs offer such an impressive performance boost that I think it would be irresponsible to push new system builders toward a different platform, especially if they're spec'ing out a mid- to high-end machine. With this in mind, we're counting on revised motherboard availability in March (we're almost there), and sticking with our recommendations of the processors back on the market.

AMD: Price Drops And The Phenom II X4 975 BE

In response to Sandy Bridge, AMD deployed a number of price drops across its high-end Phenom II line, the most impressive on the Phenom II X6 1090T Black Edition. AMD's former flagship now sells for $200, which is impressive for a six-core multiplier-unlocked CPU. Budget-minded workstation builders may be tempted by this CPU. But don't be swayed if you're a gamer. It doesn't offer a performance advantage over the much cheaper Phenom II X4 955, which sells for $140 now.

The Phenom II X4 975 Black Edition was officially released some time ago, but is only now making its way to retail. This 3.6 GHz CPU is the fastest quad-core processor every launched by AMD. But, at $200, it offers little more than a 400 MHz increase over the Phenom II X4 955. When you consider that both the 975 and 955 are Black Edition CPUs with unlocked multipliers, the more expensive model is a hard sell.

Intel: Price Drops And The New Pentium E5800 And Core i7-990X

AMD isn't the only CPU manufacturer modifying its price structure. The Core i7-970 recently dropped from $900 down to $600, and the Core i7-960 dropped to $320 (from $580). These moves reflect a change in value compared to the new multiplier-unlocked $330 Core i7-2600K, which offers way more relative bang for the buck. Either way, owners of LGA 1366-equipped motherboards looking to upgrade have better-priced options to choose from.

Speaking of options, Intel also released two new processors into the wild: the Pentium E5800 (3.2 GHz, $74.99) and the Core i7-990X (3.46 GHz, 3.73 GHz Turbo Boost, $1049.99).

There's not a lot we can say about the Pentium E5800 except that it might be a decent upgrade option for LGA 775 motherboard owners who are limited to an 800 MHz FSB. The new Core i7-990X is an altogether more interesting beast, as it represents Intel's new ultimate desktop flagship. Armed with six cores able to handle twelve threads and a high 3.46 GHz base/3.73 GHz maximum Turbo Boost clock rate, the -990X is a brute. Realistically, though, we're not sure it'd perform any faster than the Sandy Bridge-based Core i7-2600K (3.4 GHz, 3.8 GHz maximum Turbo Boost) when it comes to games, and since the -2600K is a much cheaper proposition at $330, it keeps our recommendation as the ultimate gaming CPU, even if you'll have to wait a little while longer for complementary motherboards.

Our recent sub-$200 CPU gaming CPU comparison

On a final note, we have a comparison of sub-$200 CPUs coming in the next couple of days that line up twelve different models in a number of our favorite games. The data from this story is flavoring the recommendations you see here today.  For example, we learned that, as clock rates increase to 3.0 GHz, the quad-core Athlon II X4 outshines AMD's triple-core Athlon II X3 processors, despite the discrepancy in clock rate. Because of this, the $100 Athlon II X4 635 transitioned from an honorable mention to a full recommendation, representing the best budget gaming CPU in our list.

We also learned that the upcoming dual-core, Hyper-Threaded, Sandy Bridge-based Core i3-2300 and Core i3-2320 are extremely powerful gaming processors for the price, upping the ante from the previously unchallenged Phenom II X4 955. The new Core i3s aren't available yet, but once they are, you can expect a shake-up in the sub-$200 gaming recommendations.

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.

Display all 72 comments.
  • 1 Hide
    agnickolov , February 23, 2011 4:14 AM
    We are all waiting with bated breath the new updated Cougar Point motherboards...
  • 2 Hide
    wribbs , February 23, 2011 5:33 AM
    Well as you said yourself you're not counting on motherboards to be available for the SB chips until March so I wasn't expecting to see them return for this month's round of Best Gaming CPUs For The Money. I think they should have been left out as this is February's guide. I would agree though that people building now should wait for their return though.

    I also think we need some sort of inclusion of typical motherboard cost for each CPU.
  • 0 Hide
    fstrthnu , February 23, 2011 5:36 AM
    I'm almost scared to see what Intel's going to throw at us for the new $750-1000 category. Hexacore or even octacore Intel Extreme-Edition Sandy Bridge? Yowza!
  • 2 Hide
    fstrthnu , February 23, 2011 5:37 AM
    fstrthnuI'm almost scared to see what Intel's going to throw at us for the new $750-1000 category. Hexacore or even octacore Intel Extreme-Edition Sandy Bridge? Yowza!

    Er, that is, their new addition for that price point, not that it's an all-new category. The 980x is still there for whoever's foolish enough to buy it at this point
  • 1 Hide
    JohnnyLucky , February 23, 2011 5:49 AM
    I am not planning to upgrade this year. I have a good system that is definitely more than adequate for the work I do.
  • 0 Hide
    binoyski , February 23, 2011 6:17 AM
    Don Woligroski, please!, please!, when you wrote "we already have a story in the works that should prove this definitively" regarding multi-gpu setups(p67 & NF200), again, please!, include 5670x1080 resolutions, not just single monitor gaming. You know peeps using 2x(22/23/24) 1080p monitors for their gaming. I want to really see benchmarks w/c motherboard will perform better than the others.
  • 2 Hide
    jj463rd , February 23, 2011 6:59 AM
    Hopefully AMD's Zambezi (Bulldozer) will reach the top of the CPU hierarchy and be at least on equal footing with Intel in the next couple of months.
    Sadly only their Phenom II X4 975 BE is on a second tier (and just barely).
    Yes,it would be nice to have AMD have a high performance desktop CPU since 2006 even if just for a couple of months time.
  • 1 Hide
    pinkfloydminnesota , February 23, 2011 7:38 AM
    Excellent. I wish the graphics card best of would break down to as few options.
  • 0 Hide
    7amood , February 23, 2011 8:25 AM
    This is one of the most anticipated articles (along with GPU of the month)
    it only needs more info such as:
    base clock
    multiplier range
    base voltage

    this is the third time for me to requiest these.
    If you have these CPUs during review, why don't u add the info here, it's a necessity for overclockers.

    plzthnxbai
  • -1 Hide
    Onus , February 23, 2011 9:18 AM
    Where do the i5-2400 and i5-2400S fall on the chart?
  • 2 Hide
    darkchazz , February 23, 2011 9:49 AM
    wow my Phenom II 955 is still on this list :D 
  • -1 Hide
    philologos , February 23, 2011 10:29 AM
    Umm... why is the Phenom II X4 975 six levels above the 970? There is a whopping 100 MHz difference between the two.
  • 0 Hide
    jfby , February 23, 2011 10:41 AM
    It's tough when an i7-930 or similar is no longer on the list. Oh well; it gets the job done and at 4.0 GHz I think it will get it done for some time.
  • 0 Hide
    Onus , February 23, 2011 10:45 AM
    That there are so few CPU recommendations is good, and I'm hoping illustrates a point. Concerning GPUs, everyone knows that certain ones are simply not up to the task of running modern games at all, let alone well.
    Considering CPUs however, while clearly an i5-2500K will squish an Athlon II (or a C2D), are there any games that the Athlon II simply can't play? There are settings changes that affect how powerful a GPU needs to be, but can anything similar be done to make a game playable on a weak CPU?
  • 3 Hide
    joshyboy82 , February 23, 2011 10:46 AM
    Who cares if AMD is on the top or not. The better the Intel processor is, the cheaper AMD is. We all win. Those who want the best always pay the premium, and those who want the cheapest never get the best. Fanboy shit makes no sense to me, buy the best you can afford. The end.
  • 1 Hide
    tpi2007 , February 23, 2011 10:48 AM
    wribbsWell as you said yourself you're not counting on motherboards to be available for the SB chips until March so I wasn't expecting to see them return for this month's round of Best Gaming CPUs For The Money. I think they should have been left out as this is February's guide. I would agree though that people building now should wait for their return though.I also think we need some sort of inclusion of typical motherboard cost for each CPU.



    I agree with everything you said, except removing Sandy Bridge from the list (at least completely). But I don't agree with the author of the article Don Woligroski either.

    The responsible thing to do right now is put all of the Sandy Bridge processors in the Honorable mention section, with a specific note before introducing each processor saying they will regain their recommended position when motherboards are available again.

    I mean, you can't seriously recommend a CPU that does not have a motherboard to go with on sale right now, no matter if it is available in 15 days or a month. Imagine Intel discovers another problem (I hope not) and the relaunch has to be delayed again ? These recommendations should be for CPU's on sale now you can actually build a computer with. Sure, you know the performance of Sandy Bridge, but if a week ago AMD had shipped to you a sample of each Bulldozer CPU along with retail price, would you put them up in the recommendations, despite them not being available to the public ?

    For all we know, the general public will only have access to the revised Motherboards by the time you write the next article, in a month!

    And if the boards arrive sooner, why not just update this article when they do ? What is the problem with that ?
  • 0 Hide
    kresso , February 23, 2011 11:34 AM
    tpi2007I agree with everything you said, except removing Sandy Bridge from the list (at least completely). But I don't agree with the author of the article Don Woligroski either.The responsible thing to do right now is put all of the Sandy Bridge processors in the Honorable mention section, with a specific note before introducing each processor saying they will regain their recommended position when motherboards are available again.I mean, you can't seriously recommend a CPU that does not have a motherboard to go with on sale right now, no matter if it is available in 15 days or a month. Imagine Intel discovers another problem (I hope not) and the relaunch has to be delayed again ? These recommendations should be for CPU's on sale now you can actually build a computer with. Sure, you know the performance of Sandy Bridge, but if a week ago AMD had shipped to you a sample of each Bulldozer CPU along with retail price, would you put them up in the recommendations, despite them not being available to the public ? For all we know, the general public will only have access to the revised Motherboards by the time you write the next article, in a month! And if the boards arrive sooner, why not just update this article when they do ? What is the problem with that ?


    I don't agree. I think that the list is just fine. There is no problem with the Sandy Bridge processors, and performance is as they say. Yes there is the motherboard problem, but that is clearly stated.
  • 0 Hide
    nforce4max , February 23, 2011 11:39 AM
    You left out the Phenom II X4 820 that is going for $105 on newegg for free ship plus it is a 95w edition. For the same price as many athlon x4 s why bother when you can get this.
  • -1 Hide
    tsk_cable , February 23, 2011 11:58 AM
    nforce4maxYou left out the Phenom II X4 820 that is going for $105 on newegg for free ship plus it is a 95w edition. For the same price as many athlon x4 s why bother when you can get this.


    Phenon II x4 820 don't have L3 cache as the Athlons, so its a matter of clock / prices
  • -1 Hide
    bhaberle , February 23, 2011 12:07 PM
    I also think that the list is fine. We have already seen the final product of SB. They are just fixing an issue. It will be back in no time, and I will be sure to be there to buy it. =D
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