AMD's Zambezi processor isn't here yet. But Intel is keeping us busy with 16 new Sandy Bridge-based CPUs, all of which are covered in this month's update. AMD shows us a couple of new Llano-based chips, and we get our hands on Intel's Core i7-3960X.
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.
Perhaps the most exciting news this month was that we got our hands on a Core i7-3960X processor and X79 motherboard, which we wrote about in Intel Core i7-3960X (Sandy Bridge-E) And X79 Platform Preview. Our sources for that piece indicated that the first round of Sandy Bridge-E based processors would only support PCI Express 2.0. However, we heard from several other knowledgeable folks at IDF that those chips do, in fact, run at 8 GT/s transfer rates, and just need the validation. The real story remains to be seen.
We can also confirm that we're still sitting on our hands, waiting for the Bulldozer-based Zambezi samples to show up (that's Q3'11 come and gone, for anyone keeping track). But that doesn't mean we aren't busy. Intel is readying 16 new Sandy Bridge-based processors, and nine of them are already available: Celeron G440, G530, and G540; Pentium G630 and G860; Core i3-2120T, 2125, and 2130; and Core i5-2320.
Let's start with the Celerons. The $43 G440 is a single-core 1.6 GHz processor with a single megabyte of cache, a 35 W TDP, and a 650 MHz base graphics clock. The dual-core 2.4 GHz G530 and 2.5 GHz G540 have 2 MB of last-level cache, a 65 W TDP, and an 850 MHz base graphics clock. They're priced at $57 and $67, respectively. These processors aren't being marketed with HD Graphics 2000 or 3000. Instead, Intel is simply saying they include HD Graphics. On the plus side, if you plan to use a discrete graphics card, the only difference between the Sandy Bridge-based dual-core Celerons and dual-core Pentiums should be 1 MB of L3 cache. The G530 and G540 could be acceptable bargain-bin gaming CPUs, but we'll have to reserve judgement until we get them benchmarked in the weeks to come.
The Pentium G630 and G860 are architecturally identical to the Celeron G530 and G540, but with a larger 3 MB cache and higher 2.7 and 3.0 GHz clock rates, respectively. Both feature the same a 65 W TDP and 850 MHz base graphics clock. Intel's Pentium G630 is available for $90, and the G860 can be had for $100. Incidentally, the Pentium G860 takes our $100 gaming CPU recommendation from its predecessor, the G850.
More interesting than Celerons or Pentiums are the dual-core Hyper-Threaded Core i3 chips, including the -2120T, -2125, and -2130. The $135 Core i3-2120T is the low-voltage model boasting a 35 W TDP, 2.6 GHz clock, and Intel HD Graphics 2000 engine running at 650 MHz. The $146 Core i3-2125 is essentially the existing Core i3-2120 with Intel HD Graphics 3000 added to the mix, which doesn't make much difference to gamers adding their own discrete card (but would help transcoding with Quick Sync, since you get two times more execution units). Finally, at 3.4 GHz, the $150 -2130 represents the fastest Core i3 you can buy, but with Intel HD Graphics 2000 at 850 MHz.
The last Intel CPU we have to talk about is the Core i5-2320. This quad-core model features a 6 MB of L3 cache and 3.0/3.3 GHz default and peak Turbo Boost clock rates, essentially 100 MHz slower than the similarly-priced Core i5-2400. We suppose Intel will tweak pricing in the near future, as right now, there's very little spread between the -2300, -2310, -2320, and -2400, all of which can be purchased between $185 and $190 on Newegg.
AMD also has a couple of new SKUs at retail: the A4-3400 and Athlon II X4 631. Of course, neither is based on the Zambezi core for which we've been waiting. The A4-3400 is a dual-core 2.7 GHz Llano-based part with integrated Radeon HD 6410D graphics, including 160 Radeon cores at 600 MHz. At $80, this is an interesting starting point for a budget system with moderate 3D. Serious gamers need not apply, though. As for the 2.6 GHz Athlon II X4 631, this is one of the strangest processors we've ever seen. It's not a Socket AM3 CPU. Instead, it's a Llano-based Socket F1 chip. Essentially, the 631 is an A6-3650 with the graphics cores shut off. Frankly the existence of this $90 processor makes little sense, and we can only assume that it was created to make money from re-badged A6- and A8-series APUs that suffer from defective graphics silicon. After all, we have heard the rumors that AMD is struggling with yield issues right now.
Otherwise, there's little else going on. The world waits with bated breath for AMD's answer to years of Intel dominance.
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.