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Best Gaming CPU: $200 And Up

Best Gaming CPUs For The Money: September 2011
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Best Gaming CPU for $210: None

Honorable Mention:
Core i5-760 (Check Prices)

Core i5-760
Codename: Lynnfield
Process: 45 nm
CPU Cores: 4
Clock Speed (Max. Turbo): 2.8 GHz  (3.3 GHz)
Socket: LGA 1156
L2 Cache: 4 x 256 KB
L3 Cache: 8 MB
Thermal Envelope:
95 W

The Core i5-760 is displaced by Intel's new Core-i5-2500K (and its accompanying interface). But for folks who already own a dual-core CPU on the LGA 1156 platform, the Core i5-760 continues to offer tremendous value. Just like the Core i5-750, Intel's -760 delivers serious gaming performance at its default frequency. What's more, these CPUs are monsters when overclocked, and even challenge more expensive Core i7 models.

Why do we limit our recommendation to folks with dual-core LGA 1156 CPUs? If you already have a quad-core on LGA 1156, it's at least a -750, and the -760 isn't worth the extra money. And if you're already rocking a Core i7, well, you probably don't want to step down. At the end of the day, this Lynnfield design is only really relevant to a handful of buyers.

Read our review of the Core i5-750, right here.

Best Gaming CPU for $220:
Core i5-2500K (Check Prices)

Core i5-2500K
Codename: Sandy Bridge
Process: 32 nm
CPU Cores/Threads: 4
Clock Speed (Max. Turbo): 3.3 GHz (3.7 GHz)
Socket: LGA 1155
L2 Cache: 4 x 256 KB
L3 Cache: 6 MB
Thermal Envelope:
95 W

From the standpoint of raw compute power, Core i5-2500K offers very little over the cheaper Core i5-2400. It does hold three distinctions, however: it's clocked a few hundred MHz higher, it comes with Intel HD Graphics 3000, and it has an unlocked CPU multiplier.

The 200 MHz (300 MHz with Turbo Boost) advantage is almost insignificant over the Core i5-2400, and gamers with discrete graphics cards will care little about the integrated graphics engine. But the unlocked CPU multiplier is a must for overclockers using any Sandy Bridge-based CPU. The Core i5-2500K is the obvious choice for gamers looking for the best combination of overclock-ability and gaming potential.

Read our review of the new Sandy Bridge-based CPUs here.

Past the Point of Reason:

CPUs priced over $220 offer rapidly diminishing returns when it comes to game performance. As such, we have a hard time recommending anything more expensive than the Core i5-2500K, especially since this multiplier-unlocked processor can be overclocked to great effect if more performance is desired. Even at stock clocks, it meets or beats the $1000 Core i7-990X Extreme Edition when it comes to gaming.

Is there any reason for a gamer to go with a Core i7-900-series CPU/X58 motherboard combo, now that Sandy Bridge has arrived? While the new Core i7-2000 series is faster than the Core i7-900-series from a processing standpoint, the platform can be a factor. The LGA 1155 processors have an inherent limit of 16 PCIe lanes for graphics use (the same limit imposed on LGA 1156 processors), so if a gamer plans to use three or more graphics cards in CrossFire or SLI, we have to ask if Bloomfield/Gulftown and X58 offer the potential for more performance?

No! In theory, the current ultimate gaming platform (until Intel releases the LGA 2011 interface in the second half of this year) would be a P67 chipset paired with the NF200 bridge. Our experience with the LGA 1156 chipset paired with the NF200 bridge indicates that a P67/NF200 combo would allow us to use the fastest Sandy Bridge CPUs available in conjunction with three or four graphics cards without noticeable graphics bandwidth trade-offs. Check out this three-part series by Thomas Soderstrom, which proves those claims.

To summarize, while we recommend against purchasing any gaming CPU that retails for more than $220 from a value point of view (sink that money into graphics and the motherboard instead), there are those of you who have no trouble throwing down serious money on the best of the best, and who require the fastest possible performance available. If this describes your processing goals, the following CPU is for you:

Best Gaming CPU for $325: (or for any price)
Core i7-2600K (Check Prices)

Core i7-2600K
Codename: Sandy Bridge
Process: 32 nm
CPU Cores/Threads: 4/8
Clock Speed (Max. Turbo): 3.4 GHz (3.8 GHz)
Socket: LGA 1155
L2 Cache: 4 x 256 KB
L3 Cache: 8 MB
Thermal Envelope:
95 W

Take the Core i5-2500, add 2 MB of L3 cache, Hyper-Threading, and a 100 MHz bump across the board. What do  you have? The Core i7-2600K.

It doesn't sound like much of an improvement, and frankly it will make remarkably little difference when it comes to gaming. The $100 spread between the Core i5-2500K and Core i7-2600K is only recommended if you want to brag, because you're probably not going to notice any appreciable frame rate difference. The Core i7's strength is only really exploited in heavily-threaded workstation applications, rather than games.

But no list is complete without the best-of-the-best, and that's the Core i7-2600K. For $330 you can have a CPU that games faster than the $1000 hexa-core Core i7-990X Extreme.

Read our review of the new Sandy Bridge-based CPUs here.

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Top Comments
  • 16 Hide
    mayankleoboy1 , September 28, 2011 4:47 AM
    Quote:
    We can also confirm that we're still sitting on our hands, waiting for the Bulldozer-based Zambezi samples to show up


    that pretty much sums up this whole review. without zambezi, there is nothing thats beating intel in raw performance.
Other Comments
  • 3 Hide
    hmp_goose , September 28, 2011 4:46 AM
    This is the first time, IIRC, anyone has come out and said there was a point to looking for HD 3000 to go with QuickSync: Glad to finally have heard so.
  • 0 Hide
    alhanelem , September 28, 2011 4:46 AM
    im still waiting to replace my e8500 with something from bulldozer,the wait is killing me....
  • 16 Hide
    mayankleoboy1 , September 28, 2011 4:47 AM
    Quote:
    We can also confirm that we're still sitting on our hands, waiting for the Bulldozer-based Zambezi samples to show up


    that pretty much sums up this whole review. without zambezi, there is nothing thats beating intel in raw performance.
  • 0 Hide
    Vestin , September 28, 2011 4:51 AM
    EDIT: misread the article -_-". Nothing to see here...
  • 0 Hide
    Stardude82 , September 28, 2011 5:12 AM
    alhanelemim still waiting to replace my e8500 with something from bulldozer,the wait is killing me....


    You can probably continue to wait for a replacement even when it comes out. I don't think Bulldozer will change this list much, if at all.
  • 0 Hide
    The Greater Good , September 28, 2011 5:36 AM
    As per usual, a great round-up! Thanks, Tom!
  • 6 Hide
    joytech22 , September 28, 2011 6:02 AM
    Even though I own an i7 2600 and aren't even looking to upgrade at this time, I always like to read these. :p 
  • 0 Hide
    amk-aka-Phantom , September 28, 2011 6:17 AM
    Ah, good, 2600 is still at the top... no need to upgrade... I hope it will still be good for another couple of years :D 
  • 1 Hide
    jdw_swb , September 28, 2011 9:35 AM
    I see the 2500K is still the champion for gaming......awesome chip.
  • -3 Hide
    Anonymous , September 28, 2011 9:37 AM
    Only loosely related to the article but Walmart sells processors now? And I have no idea what you're using to get prices Toms but on Amazon.com AND Newegg.com you can get a i7-2600k for $314.95 which is cheaper than that little price thing at the bottom. Even clicking "See More Deals" shows them as cheaper...

    Quote:
    Best prices for tested products

    Athlon II X3 450 Triple Core Processor
    Walmart.com $96.88
    See More Deals


    Core i3-2100 Dual Core Processor (3.10GHz, 3MB L3 Cache, Socket LGA1155)
    Walmart.com $124.00
    See More Deals


    Core i5-2400 Quad Core Processor (3.1GHz, 6MB L3 Cache, 4x1MB, Socket H2 LGA1155)
    Walmart.com $193.00
    See More Deals


    Core i5 i5-760 2.80 GHz Processor - Quad-core (1 MB L2 - 8 MB L3 - Socket H LGA-1156 - Box)
    Walmart.com $218.00
    See More Deals


    Core i7-2600K Quad Core Processor (3.4 GHz, 8 MB L3 Cache, 4x256 MB L2 Cache, Socket H2 LGA1155)
    Walmart.com $328.00
    See More Deals
  • 0 Hide
    Flying-Q , September 28, 2011 9:47 AM
    After reading all of the previous updates and seeing how the price breaks have fluctuated over the years, I'm at a loss how Tom's defines and justifies the breaks.

    Don W. please could you add a section to the next "Best Gaming ...." to explain the reasoning behind the chosen pricing breaks. Alternatively, could you make it a seperate article and have a link to it near the top of each "Best..."

    These articles are brilliant for helping me show my friends and family what choices are available when I build or upgrade one of their machines.

    Keep up the great work.

    Q
  • -2 Hide
    CaedenV , September 28, 2011 12:17 PM
    nonameguy10923Only loosely related to the article but Walmart sells processors now? And I have no idea what you're using to get prices Toms but on Amazon.com AND Newegg.com you can get a i7-2600k for $314.95 which is cheaper than that little price thing at the bottom. Even clicking "See More Deals" shows them as cheaper...

    Micro Center is even cheaper with the i5K at $180 and the i7K at $280... granted you have to purchase in the store. They also have an interesting bundle deal this month of -$80 if you buy an i5/7 with a performance mobo. Granted their mobo prices are a little steep, but with the discount it looks like a good deal. When I upgrade next year it will be interesting if I go with Newegg or Micro Center.
    Every rig I have built from 2002 until now has been all Newegg because it was impossible to beat the price and warranty... but brick and mortar stores are coming back strong this year.
  • 5 Hide
    Onus , September 28, 2011 12:29 PM
    I do like seeing these hierarchy articles, but I agree that really we're just in a holding pattern until Bulldozer gets here. Even then, from looking at the architecture, my limited knowledge of the nitty-gritty of it leads me to suspect that it will be a kickass Productivity CPU, but nothing special in games. We shall see.
  • 0 Hide
    SteelCity1981 , September 28, 2011 1:31 PM
    i'm in no rush i'm still rockin and rollin on my Phenom X4 9750 AM2+ system. Whenever bulldozer comes out i'm more then ready to upgrade, but if i'm going to do it i'll prob wait alittle while longer when PCI-E 3.0 comes out and just do the upgrade all at once.
  • 0 Hide
    JamesSneed , September 28, 2011 1:46 PM
    Not much has changed but I do agree with the choices.

    On a side note a few months ago I upgraded from a Phenom II X4 940(original one that was DDR2 only) to an Intel 2500k and it made a huge difference in gaming. Even the wife noticed web pages were loading faster.
  • 0 Hide
    torque79 , September 28, 2011 1:55 PM
    Don't even see Bulldozer mentioned on AMD's website... STILL. God what is taking so long. I am regretting the fact that I did not just go buy a sandybridge months ago now. It's been so long that now i might as well wait for AMD 7000 series video too. I'll have 10 games to buy by the time I finally buy this damn computer I've been waiting for.
  • -2 Hide
    JohnnyLucky , September 28, 2011 1:59 PM
    Still no need or requirement to upgrademy system. Now if I could just resist the temptation.
  • 0 Hide
    BSMonitor , September 28, 2011 2:03 PM
    The Core i3 line makes AMD's entire mid-low end totally laughable.

    The only benchmarks it wins at are the threaded video encoding tasks and not by much...

    This is with TWO more cores!!

    The funniest part of this, Intel still hasn't even released a 125-30W Quad Core Sandy Bridge chip. 65 and 95W CPU's are wiping the floor 125W Phenoms with more cores.
  • -3 Hide
    custodian-1 , September 28, 2011 2:13 PM
    OverDrivenOn the first page you stated that Q3 2011 had come and gone. Last time I checked, Q3 2011 only started 5 days ago.


    Q4 = Sept Oct Nov Dec
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