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.