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Who's Got Game? Twelve Sub-$200 CPUs Compared

Conclusion: Sandy Bridge Has Game

Well, that was fun. Let's have a look at the average 1920x1080 relative gaming results, with the Athlon II X3 455 representing the baseline:

Because our charts are arranged in order of processor price, with the most expensive at the top and the least expensive at the bottom, we can see how these products stack up against each other when it comes to gaming value.

Let's start at the bottom. AMD's Athlon II X3 455 is available just under $90. In our previous sub-$150 game-off, the Athlon II X3 emerged as the obvious victor in the price/performance war. Now, with an updated gaming suite and more compelling competition, this is no longer the case. It used to be that the higher clock rate of the Athlon II X3 helped it meet or beat the Athlon II X4's performance. But now the quad-core chip offers slightly higher frequencies, and the latest games are increasingly putting its extra core to better use. While the Athlon II X3 is a good sub-$90 entry-level CPU, the $100 Athlon II X4 640 (only 100 MHz slower than the Athlon II X4 645 we tested, but about $20 cheaper) is a superior choice in a budget gaming rig.

At $125, the Phenom II X4 925's existence is justified as an upgrade to the Athlon II X4. But the Core i3-550 is only $5 more, and it boasts slightly better performance in the games we're testing. Frankly, we’d choose the Phenom II X4 due to the fact it sports four cores (a boon in other disciplines, aside from gaming). But we can’t deny that the Clarkdale-based Core i3 are more attractive in the face of recent price drops. It's unfortunate that LGA 1156 is doomed to disappear so soon after its birth. At this point, it's difficult to recommend any Clarkdale- or Lynnfield-based processor.

The next step up is Intel's Core i3-2100. Based on our results, no value-oriented performance-focused gamer can ignore this processor's potential. Priced at an estimated $135 when it finally does emerge (originally scheduled for February, but almost certainly delayed until B3-revision Cougar Point chipsets start surfacing), the Core i3-2100 performs as well as (or slightly better than) AMD's Phenom II X4 970 flagship. Granted, these Core i3s boast little to no overclocking headroom due to their locked multipliers. But let’s be honest here: at 3.5 GHz, the Phenom II X4 970 probably has about 500 MHz more available, even with its unlocked multiplier. The Core i3-2100 has amazing potential to bring superlative gaming power down to the sub-$150 price point. The worst thing we can say about it is that its dual-core Hyper-Threaded architecture might not perform ideally in parallel tasks, but that doesn’t seem to slow it down when it comes to gaming.

That brings us to the Phenom II X4 955, a processor that was really unbeatable at $150, prior to the less-expensive Sandy Bridge-based Core i3s launching. The Phenom II X4 955 remains a viable option because of multiplier-unlocked overclockability and true quad-core prowess. But the upcoming Core i3-2100 steals its status as the obvious choice, making this CPU part of a decision that gamers and modders will have to think about. Perhaps it'll come down to the platform already under your proverbial hood, and if an AM3-based chip makes an upgrade less expensive than a new Core i3 and LGA 1155 motherboard.

Next up is Intel's Core i3-560, a CPU that stands up well compared to the Phenom II X4 but doesn’t have a lot going for it when you consider its two cores versus similarly-priced quad-core chips from AMD and a dying platform. Modders might find this processor appealing based on its overclocking headroom, but we'd encourage new system builders to hold out for Sandy Bridge instead.

The Core i3-2120 shows us nice results, but it’s probably not worth the price premium over Core i3-2100. In the same vein, AMD's Phenom II X4 970 probably isn’t worth the extra cost over Phenom II X4 955. Feel free to bypass both of these CPUs.

We now consider the Core i5-2300, Intel’s lowest-cost quad-core chips based on the Sandy Bridge architecture, priced at $185. This chip's performance results are good, but you'd be crazy not to spend the extra $10 on the $195 Core i5-2400, buying a 300 MHz clock increase. Overclockers will want to upgrade to the multiplier-unlocked Core i5-2500K for $225. But the Core i5-2400 delivers excellent service to folks happy to leave their systems at stock speeds.

What of the Phenom II X6? Well, games largely don’t seem to utilize more than four threads at a time. The final results suffer a little from the curious issue this processor suffers when playing F1 2010, but even when this game isn't taken into account the results are identical to a cheaper Phenom II X4. I suppose users who do a lot of media encoding and heavy threading will want to consider the AMD’s hexa-core architecture. However, from a purely gaming perspective, this CPU doesn’t have a lot to offer.

Wow, that’s not quite what we expected

That a dual-core Hyper-Threaded Sandy Bridge-based CPU can not only compete with, but also beat an AMD Phenom II X4 970 in the latest games is somewhat shocking. Up until now, AMD's showings in the sub-$200 space have shown us excellent value that Intel's previous-generation offerings didn't really touch. Those qualifications are in question now, though, all the way down to price points as low as $135. The Phenom II X4 955 can no longer be recommended without reservation, and the $100 Athlon II X4 640 is probably the company's most attractive offering right now for a budget gaming (or multipurpose) rig.

This changes the gaming CPU landscape far more than we thought it would. As soon as Intel gets its platform problems solved, it'll be a serious contender under the $150 mark for the first time in, well, a while. AMD's next-generation processors cannot get here soon enough. Until then, the company should worry hard about the possibility of a $100 dual-core Sandy Bridge-based Pentium.

One final note: yes, we know that LGA 1155-based motherboards are currently unavailable, and the CPUs have largely been pulled back as well in response. Frankly, if you’re about to build a system and Intel’s most recent developments look good to you, then it’s worth the month or two wait until motherboards become available.

Having said that, 60 days is a long time in the tech industry. Folks already sporting an LGA 1156-based Core i3 might be better served by an upgrade to a Core i5-760 or compatible Core i7. AM2+/AM3 motherboard owners with low-end CPUs might want to consider the Phenom II X4 955 as a cost-effective alternative, instead of spending substantial cash to migrate over to a Sandy Bridge platform. We’ll also be a lot closer to AMD’s desktop version of Fusion, as Llano is expected to arrive in the July timeframe.