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

Today we're putting the latest sub-$200 CPUs into a cage match armed with nothing but the latest DirectX 11 games (plus a helping of StarCraft 2) to see how they fare. Can AMD's familiar Athlons and Phenoms stand up to the new Sandy Bridge-based CPUs?

Intel’s Sandy Bridge architecture has received a lot of attention since its introduction in early January, first for its impressive performance, and more recently for the P67/H67 chipset’s 3 Gb/s SATA performance degradation problem. Despite this hiccup, Intel representatives tell us that the B3 stepping of Cougar Point is already being shipped to vendors and should emerge sooner than originally expected. The new architecture is here to stay and could potentially impact every desktop CPU price point it touches.

Intel is being a lot more aggressive with those price points, too. The lowest-priced Lynnfield-based CPU with a true quad-core architecture (that’s the Core i5-750) starts at about $200. But the Sandy Bridge-based Core i5-2300 can be purchased for $185. This means that Intel’s newest quad-core processors are no more expensive than AMD’s premium Phenom II X4 970.

And what about the $100-to-$150 market? When the dual-core Hyper-Threaded Core i3-2100 and -2120 finally make their way to market, we expect them to be available in that strategically-priced range. Preliminary testing from our launch coverage, Intel’s Second-Gen Core CPUs: The Sandy Bridge Review, showed us that the new Core i3 CPUs have tremendous gaming potential, and might even be able to challenge AMD’s quad-core flagship in this arena.

Indeed, game performance is what this article is all about. Up until now, AMD's Phenom II X4 and Athlon II X3/X4 processors have vigorously defended their status as value-packed engines in inexpensive gaming systems using sub-$200 price tags. Between June of last year (Game-Off: Seven Sub-$150 Processors Compared) and now, we've seen AMD add a couple hundred megahertz to each price point. Yes, we like more performance without a corresponding rate-hike. But the company is competing with architectural updates that make a far more profound impact on performance. Will incremental speed bumps be enough to help the company defend its position in the sub-$200 market, or will the least-expensive Sandy Bridge-based processors steal the spotlight?

We’re comparing the relevant sub-$200 CPUs; 12 models in total. Before we talk about the contenders, let’s address the processors not being included. We’re leaving out the Core i5-750, as we’ve already proven that the Sandy Bridge-based Core i5s are faster gaming processors. We’re not including dual-core processors without Hyper-Threading because we’ve shown that modern games require a minimum of three threads to demonstrate the best possible performance. LGA 775 did not make our list either, because it’s now three generations old.

Even after trying to narrow down the field, we have a lot of CPUs to test. The Clarkdale-based Core i3-550 and Core i3-560 are known decent products, and the Core i3-2100 and Core i3-2120 will show us what Intel’s newest dual-core Hyper-Threaded offerings can accomplish. The Sandy Bridge-based Core i5-2300 and Core i5-2400 represent true quad-core performance. Three quad-core models and the hexa-core Phenom II X6 1075T represent AMD's highest-end processors. On the lower end of the spectrum, we have the fastest quad- and triple-core AMD processors available for under $150: the Athlon II X4 645 and the Athlon II X3 455.

AMD Athlon II X3 455AMD Athlon II X4 645AMD Phenom II X4 925
Intel Core i3-550
Intel Core i3-2100AMD Phenom II X4 955
Codename: RanaPropusDenebClarkdale
Sandy Bridge
Process: 45 nm 45 nm45 nm 32 nm 32 nm45 nm
Cores (Threads): 3442 (4)
2 (4)4
Clock Speed: 3.3 GHz
3.1 GHz2.8 GHz3.2 GHz
3.1 GHz
3.2 GHz
Interface: AM2+/AM3AM2+/AM3AM2+/AM3LGA 1156LGA 1155AM2+/AM3
L3 Cache: N/A
6 MB4 MB3 MB
6 MB
Thermal Envelope:
95 W
95 W
95 W73 W
65 W125 W
Online Price:
$135 (est.)

Intel Core i3-560Intel Core i3-2120AMD Phenom II X4 970Intel Core i5-2300AMD Phenom II X6 1075TIntel Core i5-2400
Codename: ClarkdaleSandy BridgeDenebSandy BridgeThubanSandy Bridge
Process: 32 nm 32 nm45 nm32 nm45 nm32 nm
Cores (Threads): 2 (4)
2 (4)4464
Clock Speed: 3.33 GHz
3.3 GHz3.5 GHz2.8 GHz
(3.1 Turbo)
3.0 GHz
(3.5 Turbo)
3.1 GHz
(3.4 Turbo)
Interface: LGA 1156LGA 1155AM2+/AM3LGA 1155AM2+/AM3LGA 1155
L3 Cache: 4 MB
3 MB
6 MB6 MB6 MB6 MB
Thermal Envelope:
73 W
65 W
125 W95 W125 W95 W
Online Price:
$150 (est.)
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  • Anonymous
    Simulated CPU Chart: 3330 GHz

    o_O I'd like me one of those
  • alidan
    id just love to point out, i personally will never again make a mistake of getting a hyperthreaded cpu over real cores. i made that mistake once, and never again.

    a pc will never be gaming only, unless you have more than one, in that case, for for the cheaper dual core hyperthreaded, but if you do anything else, get a real quadcore and don't even take into consideration the logical cores.
  • lunyone
    I'm still thinking the AMD Athlon II x3's and x4's are the best buys around. If you take comparable configurations from AMD and Intel, AMD wins easily. Here is what I'm talking about below:

    AMD build w/AMD Athlon II x3 455 w/Asus 870 based mobo:
    $89 for Athlon II x3 455
    $90 for AMD mobo (Asus) w/6xSATA 3, 6 USB 2.0, 2 USB 3.0, 4 x DDR3 slots.
    ASUS M4A87TD/USB3 AM3 AMD 870 SATA 6Gb/s USB 3.0 AMD Motherboard

    Intel build w/i3 550 w/P55 based mobo (Asus also):
    $130 i3 550
    $150-$10 MIRc Comparable mobo (Asus also) 6xSATA 3, 6 USB 2.0, 2 USB 3.0, 4 DDR3 slots.
    ASUS P7P55D-E LX LGA 1156 Intel P55 SATA 6Gb/s USB 3.0 ATX Intel Motherboard

    **These are all Newegg prices**
    AMD build (using the same Case/PSU/RAM/DVD parts in both systems)
    $179 + shared parts.

    Intel build (same parts shared w/AMD build)
    $280 + shared parts.

    This equals out to ~$100 price difference between the 2 builds, which to me is quite a bit!

    So in general when trying to factor in "Value" for the gaming buck I still see the AMD based system being the better buy. Assuming your using mobo's with about the same features. If you notice the Intel based mobo's will cost you more for similar AMD based mobo's. This is where a lot of the value comes from AMD. Don't get me wrong here, the Intel based system is very good system too, you just have to pay more for them.
  • amirp

    Yes the amd build is pretty cheap, but swap you're i3 550 with the i3 2100 and the p55 mobo with the p67 mobo, and you have a build that is now worth the $100 over the amd build
  • amirp
    sorry I meant to add, the drawback is waiting for the SB mobo's to arrive

    also I think this conclusion summarizes well AMD's predicament in a months time:
    "the Core i3-2100 performs as well as (or slightly better than) AMD's Phenom II X4 970 flagship."
  • dco
    Up until now, AMD's Pentium II X4

    I almost missed this typo an AMD pentium hmmm something seems wrong.
  • Anonymous
    So what everyone is saying is - AMD's old technology is getting beat by Intel's newest? This is to be expected.

    If the point is that Intel has the best budget system at the current prices - then yes, the point is made. But it looks more like you're trying to prove Intel is better just before AMD launches a new generation of CPU's. While I can't speak for anyone else, I'm at least going to give their next generation a chance.
  • kashifme21
    Why even bother upgrading when most games are console ports, and dont need more then 3-4 yr old hardware to run maxed out?

    Certainly no one needs quad cores for web browsing and word lol.
  • hardcore_gamer
    Don't forget the fact that these sandy-bridge CPUS can not be overclocked
  • iam2thecrowe
    id like to see a core 2 duo comparison to the new cpu's. Everyone says they are old and slow, but in reality they are similar to an i3 without hyperthreading.
  • dco
    So glad you did the bench's in 1920x1080 instead setting the resolution really low to make the differences more prominent. Much more realistic and usable as a real world benchmark. good read.
  • haplo602
    what are you guys at Tom's smoking lately ?

    quote from the conclusion page:
    "Because our charts are arranged in order of processor price, with the most expensive at the top and the least expensive at the bottom,"

    but the first page shows the X6 being the most expensive CPU !!!

    Also I miss the price/performance graph:

    X3 455 = 88.99USD
    i5 2400 = 189.99USD

    from the average game performance graph:

    i5 2400 offers 148% of X3 455 performance but it is priced at 213% of the X3 455 !!!

    how about graphing the performance progression and cost progression in one graph to actualy see the best value for money ? the last graph only focuses on relative performance but price increase is not considered (at least only in the relative more/less expensive way).
  • haplo602
    oh yes one more thing. missing out on lga775 is a huge mistake. this way people have to run through several benchmarks to establish their still working rigs relative performance to the SB ships.

    and ... do NOT test HT on I/O intensive workloads (winrar). run something like super pi or a physics simulation on the CPU. I/O limited workloads are the most favorable HT scenario.
  • Bigmac80
    To bad they didn't add the i5 2500k since it's only $199.99 at microcenter..
  • joytech22
    Good to see Intel making great progress in the budget market.
    But they still have nothing to combat AMD's APU + GPU combo.

    Wait yes they do, i3..

    I wonder if AMD's planning to go out in a bombshell..
    Or will they make a comeback to remember them by?
  • Anonymous
    Im not agree with you Toms Hardware. There is a lot of difference btw Intel and AMD cpus in blizzard games because in those games GPU isnt the cap. And Intel is way faster than AMD...

    Its stupid compare CPUs in games where the graphic card scores under 50pfs...
  • jj463rd
    I think AMD needs to lower their prices again.Comparing to the Phenom II X4 955 BE with the i3-2100 on your conclusion chart the Phenom II X4 955 BE should be priced at $115 to $125 to be competitive.Of course AMD will have a couple months until their new CPU line comes out though so they do have some time.
  • SpadeM
    In Europe the price difference between 2300 and 2400 is around 4$ in some markets so even better :P. I do have a request though, could you switch from winrar to 7zip for multitasking testing on future reviews? All in all, it's nice to see where things stand at now, even though only AMD is available on the market till ... april or may.
  • rambostyrer
    Nice article there.

    would have been interesting to see some overclocked benchmark though, to see how the unlocked muliplyer of the Phenoms would do against Sandy bridge with no unlocked muliplyer.

    And I know it's an older game, but GTA has the reputation of being a real cpu killer, so would have been interesting with that ass well.

    And what did i learn? that my next cpu, will be a Phenom II 955, an upgrade from my current Athlon II 445.
  • darkchazz
    Wait for bulldozer , then compare it with SB :/