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Best Gaming CPUs For The Money: September 2011

Best Gaming CPUs For The Money: September 2011
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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.

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.

September Updates

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.

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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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