Picking A Sub-$200 Gaming CPU: FX, An APU, Or A Pentium?

AMD Or Intel: Which Offers Better Gaming Performance?

That’s a lot of data to digest, so let’s distill it down by averaging out performance in all benchmarks relative to AMD's A4-3400. Again, we sort by minimum frame rate because we're calling that statistic more important than the average. It's the best way to quantify the benefit of a powerful-enough processor, representing its ability to stand up to a worse-case scenario.

If the above chart presents any surprises, they'd be the dual-core Pentium G630 and G860, which perform incredibly well, matching up to AMD's former Phenom II X4 955 flagship. At $80 and $100 respectively, both Sandy Bridge-based Pentiums boldly snatch the budget gaming CPU recommendation from the Athlon II CPUs we’re used to seeing dominate this segment. Granted, AMD's lowest-priced models are starting to go extinct as the company's APUs gain prominence anyway.

To that end, we were hoping to see the Llano-based APUs succeed the inexpensive Athlons under $100, impressing gamers with discrete graphics cards on strict budgets. Unfortunately, the results don't reflect a net gain. Even the multiplier-unlocked A8-3870K is unable to distinguish itself overclocked to 3.6 GHz.

With the sub-$100 Pentiums performing so well, Intel's $125 Core i3-2100 easily beats more expensive Phenom II and FX models. And the $190 Core i5-2400 dominates the sub-$200 landscape without challenge, really. As such, we're almost-shockingly left without an AMD CPU to recommend at any price point.

While it’s true that AMD’s multiplier-unlocked models appeal to tweak-happy power users, the company's overclocked game performance manages to either hang close to or fall just behind Intel's stock Core i3-2100. Pumping up voltage, multipliers, and, consequently, power usage seems like a futile exercise just to keep pace with an efficient $125 budget-oriented chip running at its default settings.

The biggest flaw with Intel's low-end offerings is that the Pentium family limits you to dual-core configurations. Our concern is that, outside of a game, you're going to find situations where the two cores hurt performance in other applications. Having said that, the Pentium G630- and G860-based machines were snappy throughout testing, and their lack of Hyper-Threading didn't negatively impact our experience.

AMD’s Phenom II X4 955 and FX-4100 could certainly appeal to buyers who insist on the ability to handle four threads at a time. At their $125 and $110 respective price points, however, they’re too close to the Hyper-Threaded Core i3-2100 to earn a distinguished recommendation. In our last sub-$200 gaming CPU round-up, we showed that the Core i3-2100 can match AMD's Phenom II X4 955, even while background tasks run in parallel with a game. So, we couldn't even speculate that Intel's Core-i3 2100 might disappoint in a real-world environment with applications running in the background.

Interestingly, the best gaming value in AMD's FX family is its affordable FX-4100. Neither the FX-6100 nor the FX-8120 offer an advantage over this $110 model. Otherwise, things look bleak for AMD enthusiasts hunting for a new gaming rig. You can make the argument that the frame rates offered by FX and Phenom II processors are sufficient, but that's a tough stand to take in light of the competitive benchmarks. Let's be clear; in GPU-bound games, you wouldn't be able to tell the difference. But, to be perfectly frank, Intel's processors are the obvious choice in titles that do demonstrate reliance on host processing power. It simply doesn’t make sense to spend more for less. And, in many games, high-end AMD processors demonstrate a quantifiable performance deficit compared to the Core i3-2100. For $190, a stock Core i5-2400 gets you more gaming prowess than any AMD CPU can hope to deliver right now, even overclocked.

We have our fingers crossed that the upcoming Trinity-based APUs and Piledriver-based FX CPUs will augment IPC and, consequently, improve AMD's gaming performance story. At the same time, it'll have to contend with Intel's soon-to-be-released Ivy Bridge-based processors.

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  • rambostyrer
    Another showcase of how disappointing the FX processor is in gaming terms.

    the fx-8120 outperformed by the i3-2100
    42
  • amuffin
    A pentium outperforming an 8 core fx 8120. What.
    35
  • Youngmind
    Does anybody else still think of Pentium 4s and the other flops that Intel created when they see "Pentium?"
    31
  • Other Comments
  • rambostyrer
    Another showcase of how disappointing the FX processor is in gaming terms.

    the fx-8120 outperformed by the i3-2100
    42
  • compton
    Given how well my 2500K (and every other 2500K) overclocks, 4.3 is a good every day top turbo bin for 4 cores, and the performance increase vs. power consumption is fantastic. I don't want to add to the chorus of negativity to Bulldozer, but the Phenom II x6 should be kicked down to 32nm soon -- I just can't really think of any reason that someone should by Bulldozer over Intel or an X6. For those that can make use of it's particular strengths, it's price is certainly reasonable. And there is a lot to like about AMD motherboards too. The Phenom might be venerable, but it's not terrible and it's a lot more honest than Bulldozer.
    28
  • Youngmind
    Does anybody else still think of Pentium 4s and the other flops that Intel created when they see "Pentium?"
    31
  • acerace
    So, is Pentium processors any good? Cause I think I want to upgrade my aging PC to that.
    22
  • alidan
    YoungmindDoes anybody else still think of Pentium 4s and the other flops that Intel created when they see "Pentium?"
    yea... personally i like numbers, like (name) (number) and that tells me all i need to know about the chip, i dont like (name) (letter-number) and than i have to look crap to figure out what it is, though the whole i series bugs me because of that.

    comptonGiven how well my 2500K (and every other 2500K) overclocks, 4.3 is a good every day top turbo bin for 4 cores, and the performance increase vs. power consumption is fantastic. I don't want to add to the chorus of negativity to Bulldozer, but the Phenom II x6 should be kicked down to 32nm soon -- I just can't really think of any reason that someone should by Bulldozer over Intel or an X6. For those that can make use of it's particular strengths, it's price is certainly reasonable. And there is a lot to like about AMD motherboards too. The Phenom might be venerable, but it's not terrible and it's a lot more honest than Bulldozer.


    if i had the money, id go i7, i woundt consider anything lower than that.
    if i dont have the money, i would only consider the phenom II x4 or x6 line, as i prefer real cores, and the lowest real 4 core intel is over 200$ and the phenoms are 100-150ish.

    granted i would wait for pilerdriver.
    -23
  • _Pez_
    Now I feel I made the right choice with my Phenom X6 1100T @4Ghz, DDR3 1752Mhz CL9 CR2
    -19
  • Yargnit
    this really confirms what I've been thinking about the Intel "Pentium" models flying under the radar in the budget market.

    The i3-2100 is actually down to $110 on Newegg right now, but at $125 it made the Pentium models an absolute steal. You were paying nearly $40 more for .2 Ghz faster and hyper-threading compared to the G850 between $85-90. A $110 i3-2100 not only addresses this difference much better, but basically kills almost every AMD CPU above that price point, while the Pentium's kill the AMD CPU's below it.

    The Phenom 2 x6's (which now appear to be all out of stock) for selective use, and maybe the FX4100 is really all AMD has left that's semi-viable anymore. IT's not looking good for AMD that's for sure. :\
    9
  • amuffin
    A pentium outperforming an 8 core fx 8120. What.
    35
  • de5_Roy
    thanks a lot for this article. cleared up a lot of things for me.
    it was great to see ph ii x4 955 outperform fx in gaming. imo it's the best gaming cpu from amd. fx4100's (and the rest of fx) overclocked (under)performance was sad.
    but core i3 2100 and sandy bridge pentiums...damn...
    i think intel sorta turned around the old 'pentium vs fx' (for gaming) with sandy bridge pentium vs bulldozer fx.
    amd must do better with piledriver and trinity. :sweat: need more competition in cpu arena...
    23
  • LuckyDucky7
    @compton

    There isn't, and won't ever be, a 32nm die shrink to the Phenom IIs.
    Bulldozer is IT, and that's all there is to it.

    Maybe Piledriver will have some improvements, but they just won't be enough. Even if they could get IPC parity with the old Phenom IIs they still get run over by Pentiums and the i3-2100.

    It will be interesting to see how Trinity performs but I'd be surprised if it wasn't just Bulldozer bolted on to a better GPU; IPC improvements might be there but I doubt they'll be as good as the Phenom IIs. The fall FX releases might get them to parity.


    I'd like to see what performance the Ivy Bridge i3 will have; or if Intel will (unlikely) release a K-series for it- thus ensuring that sub-200-dollar overclocking is shelved for at least another 2 years if not indefinitely.
    2
  • daglesj
    Just a shame most of those AMD chips are not available in the stores anymore.

    And no 960T? Thats about the only non FX/Llano chip left available in any numbers. That and the 2.8GHz hex core.
    5
  • manu 11
    Glad to see my little beast i3 2100 topping the charts just under the i5's, fehhh, i made the right choice not to opt the fx cpu :D, meanwhile, hey, fx 4100 is not that bad at all seeing its price point, decent enough.
    3
  • kancaras
    am i the only one noticing that they are testing 100$cpu + 500$ gpu VS 100$apu + 500$ gpu?
    0
  • SpadeM
    I do understand the reasoning behind using a HD 7970 to show off the big gap between intel and amd and to limit bottlenecks, but is it really necessary? I mean when you're on a tight budget you are going to run into one bottleneck or the other, no matter what you do so why not just use a generic $200 video card to begin with. It's not like amd will steal intel's thunder. You have to be a fanatic not to admint that intel has the faster processor no matter the price range so let the boys be boys and compete in a low level arena.

    PS: Also as a side note, my own i5 2400 allows me to "overclock" (31 to 38) with no base clock increase, through a limited multiplier on the UD4 motherboard and so if Asus has this ability which i assume it does, could have posted overclocked numbers for those parts too.
    1
  • Anonymous
    Very interesting article! Upgraded to a Z68 board and bought me a cheap used i3-2100 while I wait for Ivy bridge, but I'm thoroughly impressed by the cpu, and so far is has been quite enough for me, so might not even have to upgrade for a while!
    0
  • jezus53
    greghomeYou guys have got to stop looking at AMD's A-series CPUs as mere CPUs,you can't recommend them on a CPU-only basis....They were built to have discrete graphics on die, which means you have to recommend them on a system performance/price basis.


    I completely agree. I've been wanting to build a somewhat light gaming machine based on these APUs but I haven't really found anyone that tests them all as they are. Instead they throw in a discrete card and scream intel is better. Though that is true with discrete graphics, I want to know how it does with the GPU on die because I know the APUs will destroy the intel CPUs when it comes to all around performance based on integrated graphics.

    But I do still like this article, it was very well done.
    11
  • doive1231
    Bought a SB Pentium like Porta to wait for IB but so good gonna upgrade the graphics card instead.
    1
  • kinggraves
    It does also prove the point though that in GPU bound games, none of these offerings really are a bottleneck (except the A4 which doesn't even belong here). Reality is though that most games out at this point are still not really optimized for multithreading. Games take years to develop, so that isn't too surprising. When some of these engines were first started, quad cores weren't even out. More games in the future should be using multi cores.

    greghomeYou guys have got to stop looking at AMD's A-series CPUs as mere CPUs,you can't recommend them on a CPU-only basis....They were built to have discrete graphics on die, which means you have to recommend them on a system performance/price basis.


    What disappoints me is actually the weak overclocks I've seen so far on the unlocked Llano. 3.6 vs 4.0 on the 955 mainly accounts for the .3 difference between them, but considering it's a lower TDP part, I'd think that Llano could be pushed a bit further than Phenom IIs. Anyway, the Llanos are brought into this because they're the only Stars based chips on a process similiar to SB chips, meaning they can actually compete on a wattage basis. Bulldozer was supposed to be the 32nm CPU part, but...well that didn't turn out as expected. It's pretty clear though that Llano performs as well as an Athlon II using less energy, so they could have likely had the same results from a Phenom II on a 32nm process.

    Anyway, Ivy isn't going to be a major improvement in CPU performance, it's a wattage reduction/better IGP upgrade. Piledriver has a lot of room for improvement, so hopefully they manage to fix everything wrong so far and get a solution that runs well. If AMD drops out of the market, we won't be discussing sub 200 processors much longer.
    5
  • Stardude82
    SpadeMI do understand the reasoning behind using a HD 7970 to show off the big gap between intel and amd and to limit bottlenecks, but is it really necessary?


    I'd like to see some GPU scaling with CPU too. As a side note, I was sad to see the G530 not up there. It's only $50 and should be hanging with the more expensive and soon to be extinct Athlon II's. To me that is the only CPU in the Intel range that puts enough $$$ between it and an i5-2500K to really be worth looking at.
    8
  • stingstang
    Don't care. I still bought an FX.
    ...So there!
    -5