Gamers: Do You Need More Than An Athlon II X3?

AMD's Athlon II X3 440 is such a capable little chip, and and it costs so little. Is there any real point in spending more money on your gaming machine’s CPU? We explore this question with a head-to-head challenge against Intel's venerable Core i7-920.

Every month, we publish our Best Gaming CPUs For The Money column. This is where we share our picks for the processors that we feel provide the best gaming value for your hard-earned dollar. Our recommendations are based on a lot of testing, and that testing has shown that games respond best to high clock speeds.

However, our benchmarks also show that the number of processor cores is a secondary consideration. There is a large performance jump from single- to dual-core CPUs, but most games only show a slight performance increase when a third core is added. In fact, it is rare to find a game that will take advantage of more than three processor cores and demonstrate a notable performance increase.

Since its release, the Athlon II X3 440 has had a strong impact on our recommended gaming CPU list. When you combine its high 3 GHz clock speed, trio of processor cores, and sub-$90 price tag, you end up with a real force in the gaming arena. On top of that, the third processing core allows the Athlon II X3 to be an especially great processor compared to dual-core models because that extra core can smooth out desktop performance when multitasking.

When it comes to gaming, though, the CPU can only do so much; the graphics subsystem is key. We've received some feedback on the forums suggesting that our recommendation of any processor more expensive than the Athlon II X3 440 is frivolous. The argument is that, while game performance may increase with a costlier CPU, the money is wasted because the Athlon II X3 440 is supplying all the performance that games require to achieve smooth frame rates, and that upgrading the graphics cards is the only way to remove a meaningful game performance bottleneck.

We decided to run a series of tests to really explore whether or not there's any point in investing in a CPU more powerful than the Athlon II X3 440 for gaming duty. First, we need to examine how we measure game performance and get a better understanding of how meaningful the numbers are.