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

Picking A Sub-$200 Gaming CPU: FX, An APU, Or A Pentium?
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We really like to hunt down great values in the processor space. Since our last round-up of affordable CPUs, AMD released its Llano-based APUs and Bulldozer-based FX family. Also, Intel introduced a handful of Sandy Bridge-based Pentium chips.

Whenever there are significant changes in the CPU market, we like to collect as many sub-$200 models as possible and put together a gaming comparison. Certainly a lot has happened since the last time we did this. Perhaps most obviously, the Phenom II and Athlon II families have started giving way to the FX series, along with the A4, A6, and A8 APUs. Intel, meanwhile, now has Sandy Bridge-based Pentium processors.

First, let's talk about AMD's new offerings. The company's Bulldozer micro-architecture landed in the desktop space as the Zambezi die, which came to be branded FX. There are only four processors in the entire family: the quad-core FX-4100, the hexa-core FX-6100, and the octa-core FX-8120 and FX 8150. They all sport unlocked multipliers, and, even in the face of less-than-elegant efficiency numbers, they're known to overclock pretty well. Unfortunately, the FX processors also make sacrifices in IPC, negatively affecting performance in lightly-threaded applications compared to older AMD CPUs and anything from Intel.

Nevertheless, we're still curious to see how these CPUs fare in gaming environments (especially the $110 FX-4100). And since all of the FX processors are easy to overclock, we'll also test them at more aggressive frequency settings to see how well they scale. In order to ensure the FX line-up puts its best foot forward, we also installed the new Windows 7 scheduler updates KB2645594 and KB2646060.

AMD also has its APUs, which combine traditional processing and a graphics engine on a piece of silicon referred to as Llano. Manufactured at 32 nm, these chips employ the Stars architecture utilized by the familiar Phenom IIs, along with mainstream Radeon graphics designs that facilitate respectable 3D performance. Although the APUs don't come with the Phenom's big L3 caches, the individual execution cores are slightly more efficient. We’re interested in seeing how these products perform complemented by discrete graphics cards compared to the other sub-$200 options. Two APUs are waiting for our affections: the dual-core A4-3400 and the multiplier-unlocked quad-core A8-3870K. We also have a quad-core Athlon II X4 631 to test, which is functionally identical to the A6-3650's processing component. It's cheaper though, because the integrated graphics are disabled.

Finally, we're taking a look at Intel's new Pentium processors manufactured at 32 nm and based on the Sandy Bridge architecture. Does a relatively small 3 MB shared L3 cache and dual-core, Hyper-Threading-less design hold these budget-oriented models back? Or, do the $100 Pentium G860 and $80 Pentium G630 give gamers on budgets ample muscle?

The Sub-$200 Gaming CPU Line-up

Today we have the following sub-$200 CPUs, plus a $230 Core i5-2500K for comparison:


AMD
FX-4100
AMD
FX-6100
AMD
FX-8120
AMD
A4-3400
AMD Athlon II
X4 631
AMD
A8-3870K
Codename: ZambeziZambeziZambeziLlano
Llano
Llano
Process: 32 nm 32 nm 32 nm 32 nm 32 nm32 nm
Cores (Threads): 4682
44
Clock Speed (Turbo): 3.6 (3.8) GHz
3.3 (3.9) GHz3.1 (4.0) GHz2.7 GHz
2.6 GHz
3.0 GHz
Interface: AM3+AM3+AM3+FM1FM1FM1
L3 Cache: 8 MB8 MB8 MBN/A
N/A
N/A
Thermal Envelope:
95 W
95 W
125 W65 W
65 W100 W
Online Price:
$110
$160
$200
$70
$85
$145

AMD Athlon II
X3 455
AMD Athlon II
X4 645
AMD Phenom II
X4 955
AMD Phenom II
X4 980
AMD Phenom II
X6 1090T
Codename: RanaPropusDenebDenebDeneb
Process: 45 nm 45 nm45 nm 45 nm 45 nm
Cores (Threads): 3444
6
Clock Speed (Turbo): 3.3 GHz
3.1 GHz3.2 GHz3.7 GHz
3.2 (3.6) GHz
Interface: AM2+/AM3/AM3+AM2+/AM3/AM3+AM2+/AM3/AM3+AM2+/AM3/AM3+AM2+/AM3/AM3+
L3 Cache: N/A
N/A
6 MB6 MB6 MB
Thermal Envelope:
95 W
95 W
125 W125 W125 W
Online Price:
$80
$105
$125
$160
$180

Intel
Pentium G630
Intel
Pentium G860
Intel
Core i3-2100
Intel
Core i5-2400
Intel
Core i5-2500K
Codename: Sandy BridgeSandy BridgeSandy BridgeSandy BridgeSandy Bridge
Process: 32 nm 32 nm32 nm32 nm32 nm
Cores (Threads): 2
22 (4)44
Clock Speed (Turbo): 2.7 GHz
3.0 GHz3.1 GHz3.1 (3.4) GHz

3.3 (3.7) GHz

Interface: LGA 1155LGA 1155LGA 1155LGA 1155LGA 1155
L3 Cache: 3 MB
3 MB
3 MB
6 MB6 MB
Thermal Envelope:
65 W
65 W
65 W95 W95 W
Online Price:
$80
$100
$125
$190$230
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Top Comments
  • 42 Hide
    rambostyrer , January 30, 2012 5:08 AM
    Another showcase of how disappointing the FX processor is in gaming terms.

    the fx-8120 outperformed by the i3-2100
  • 35 Hide
    amuffin , January 30, 2012 6:58 AM
    A pentium outperforming an 8 core fx 8120. What.
  • 31 Hide
    Youngmind , January 30, 2012 5:53 AM
    Does anybody else still think of Pentium 4s and the other flops that Intel created when they see "Pentium?"
Other Comments
  • 42 Hide
    rambostyrer , January 30, 2012 5:08 AM
    Another showcase of how disappointing the FX processor is in gaming terms.

    the fx-8120 outperformed by the i3-2100
  • 28 Hide
    compton , January 30, 2012 5:28 AM
    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.

  • 31 Hide
    Youngmind , January 30, 2012 5:53 AM
    Does anybody else still think of Pentium 4s and the other flops that Intel created when they see "Pentium?"
  • 22 Hide
    acerace , January 30, 2012 6:06 AM
    So, is Pentium processors any good? Cause I think I want to upgrade my aging PC to that.
  • 9 Hide
    Yargnit , January 30, 2012 6:57 AM
    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. :\
  • 35 Hide
    amuffin , January 30, 2012 6:58 AM
    A pentium outperforming an 8 core fx 8120. What.
  • 23 Hide
    de5_Roy , January 30, 2012 7:07 AM
    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...
  • 2 Hide
    LuckyDucky7 , January 30, 2012 7:16 AM
    @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.
  • 5 Hide
    daglesj , January 30, 2012 7:21 AM
    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.
  • 3 Hide
    manu 11 , January 30, 2012 7:24 AM
    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.
  • 0 Hide
    kancaras , January 30, 2012 7:28 AM
    am i the only one noticing that they are testing 100$cpu + 500$ gpu VS 100$apu + 500$ gpu?
  • 1 Hide
    SpadeM , January 30, 2012 7:38 AM
    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.
  • 0 Hide
    Anonymous , January 30, 2012 7:44 AM
    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!
  • 11 Hide
    jezus53 , January 30, 2012 7:49 AM
    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.
  • 1 Hide
    doive1231 , January 30, 2012 7:59 AM
    Bought a SB Pentium like Porta to wait for IB but so good gonna upgrade the graphics card instead.
  • 5 Hide
    kinggraves , January 30, 2012 8:05 AM
    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.
  • 8 Hide
    Stardude82 , January 30, 2012 8:06 AM
    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.
  • -5 Hide
    stingstang , January 30, 2012 8:23 AM
    Don't care. I still bought an FX.
    ...So there!
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