July sees Intel's ratio-locked Core i7-980 emerge, while AMD's A6-3650 and A8-3850 APUs show up at retail. In addition, the new Sandy Bridge-based Pentium G800 processors challenge AMD's sub-$100 gaming CPU dominance for the first time in recent memory.
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.
AMD's desktop CPU/GPU hybrid was officially released at the end of last month (check out AMD A8-3850 Review: Llano Rocks Entry-Level Desktops), and Llano-based processors started tricking out slowly thereafter. So far, though, there are only two models to choose from and both are quad-core models with 100 W TDPs.
The A6-3650 is a 2.6 GHz part with integrated Radeon HD 6530D graphics, while the A8-3850 runs at 2.9 GHz with an integrated Radeon HD 6550D engine. Although the four processing cores are identical between the two SKUs (except for clock rates), the graphics silicon is significantly different. The A6-3650 includes 320 Radeon cores operating at 443 MHz, while the A8-3850 sports 400 Radeon cores at 600 MHz.
Graphics specifications aside, AMD's Llano-based APUs perform almost identically to similarly-clocked Athlon II X4s. And since they cost more than Athlon IIs, there's little incentive to recommend either APU, at least from the perspective of a gamer. At best, these processors are a good option for folks who want a well-rounded entry-level system, as the integrated Radeon HD 6530D and 6550D circuitry is capable of handling light gaming at resolutions below 1680x1050. But serious gamers should choose a discrete GPU with more power. If that's you, your money is better spent on a well-balanced processor and complementary graphics subsystem.
From Intel, we have the new Core i7-980 processor, stealth-launched straight into retail without any fanfare. Essentially a Core i7-980X with a locked multiplier, this 3.33 GHz Gulftown-based processor with six cores is capable of handling 12 threads simultaneously by virtue of Hyper-Threading. At $600, it doesn't offer much more than the 3.2 GHz Core i7-970 we've had access to for months, but it's yet another option for folks who need to run threaded apps.
While we haven't had a lot of time to test the Sandy Bridge-based Pentium G6xx and G8xx processors, we've seen enough to suspect that they're going to be viable options for gamers. Unlike the Pentium G6950, a poor performer, the new G850, G840, and G620 could be strong competitors against the sub-$100 Athlon II processors. We do have a piece on these new Pentiums in the works, and we can say that they're compelling enough to warrant a recommendation at $100.
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.