There are some people who might get the impression that we're being unfairly hard on the Athlon II X3 440 by pitting it against the Core i7-920. In fact, the opposite is true. We have tremendous confidence in the gaming abilities of AMD's Athlon II X3 440, and that's why we think it's up to this kind of challenge.
It's all too easy to look at benchmark graphs and get caught up in the trends, but let me point something out to you: in every single game we benchmarked at 1920x1080, the Athlon II X3 440 was capable of a playable average frame rate in excess of 40 FPS. All of the games we tested were benchmarked at attractive and demanding visual settings, and all of them have a reputation for higher-end hardware requirements.
But to those suggesting that there is never a need for a better gaming CPU than the Athlon II X3 440, the facts show that this is simply not true. It is very clear that the Core i7-920 sports notable gaming advantages in a number of scenarios.
Breaking It Down
The first scenario is minimum frame rates. As we've discussed, minimum frame rates are far more important than average frame rates, and any advantage here is noticeable. When we tested World in Conflict, one of the more CPU-dependent games we've tested, it became apparent that the Athlon II X3 440 does not have the same capabilities as the Core i7-920. The Core i7-920 doubles the Athlon II X3 440's minimum of 10 FPS in this title. Granted, the Athlon II X3 440 also achieves a better minimum frame rate in S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Call of Pripyat, but the Core i7-920 manages to double 10 FPS in that title, too. In general, the Athlon II X3 440 might not be the best choice for CPU-intensive games like World in Conflict and perhaps even CPU-intensive, real-time strategy games in general.
The second scenario in which the Athlon II X3 440 might not be ideal is when multiple graphics cards are employed. When we use two Radeon HD 5870 cards in CrossFire, the Core i7-920 system stretches its legs, while the Athlon II-based system doesn't seem to gain much additional performance at all. In fact, when we compare the Athlon II X3 440 results in CrossFire mode with the single-card Core i7-920 results, we are surprised to see that the Core i7-920 manages to beat the Athlon-based system more often than not (at least up to 1920x1080). At 2560x1600, the graphics subsystem is always the bottleneck. But realistically, who pairs an extremely expensive 30" monitor with one of the cheapest CPUs available?
To summarize, the Athlon II X3 440 is an excellent budget gaming processor for single graphics card applications, and probably represents the best price/performance value we've seen to date. But for folks with more cash who are looking for greater performance out of their gaming system (particularly when using multi-card graphics configurations or CPU-intensive game titles) ,higher-end CPUs are definitely a viable option. Remember that the name of the game here is balance. As you scale up graphics muscle, adding the processing horsepower to match will yield an optimal balance between the two subsystems.
For more detail, check out Paul Henningsen's excellent series on Building A Balanced Gaming PC.