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Picking A Sub-$200 Gaming CPU: FX, An APU, Or A Pentium?

Can FX, APUs, And Pentium Processors All Game?

Whenever there are significant changes in the CPU market, we like to collect as many sub-$200 models as possible and put together a gaming comparison. Certainly a lot has happened since the last time we did this. Perhaps most obviously, the Phenom II and Athlon II families have started giving way to the FX series, along with the A4, A6, and A8 APUs. Intel, meanwhile, now has Sandy Bridge-based Pentium processors.

First, let's talk about AMD's new offerings. The company's Bulldozer micro-architecture landed in the desktop space as the Zambezi die, which came to be branded FX. There are only four processors in the entire family: the quad-core FX-4100, the hexa-core FX-6100, and the octa-core FX-8120 and FX 8150. They all sport unlocked multipliers, and, even in the face of less-than-elegant efficiency numbers, they're known to overclock pretty well. Unfortunately, the FX processors also make sacrifices in IPC, negatively affecting performance in lightly-threaded applications compared to older AMD CPUs and anything from Intel.

Nevertheless, we're still curious to see how these CPUs fare in gaming environments (especially the $110 FX-4100). And since all of the FX processors are easy to overclock, we'll also test them at more aggressive frequency settings to see how well they scale. In order to ensure the FX line-up puts its best foot forward, we also installed the new Windows 7 scheduler updates KB2645594 and KB2646060.

AMD also has its APUs, which combine traditional processing and a graphics engine on a piece of silicon referred to as Llano. Manufactured at 32 nm, these chips employ the Stars architecture utilized by the familiar Phenom IIs, along with mainstream Radeon graphics designs that facilitate respectable 3D performance. Although the APUs don't come with the Phenom's big L3 caches, the individual execution cores are slightly more efficient. We’re interested in seeing how these products perform complemented by discrete graphics cards compared to the other sub-$200 options. Two APUs are waiting for our affections: the dual-core A4-3400 and the multiplier-unlocked quad-core A8-3870K. We also have a quad-core Athlon II X4 631 to test, which is functionally identical to the A6-3650's processing component. It's cheaper though, because the integrated graphics are disabled.

Finally, we're taking a look at Intel's new Pentium processors manufactured at 32 nm and based on the Sandy Bridge architecture. Does a relatively small 3 MB shared L3 cache and dual-core, Hyper-Threading-less design hold these budget-oriented models back? Or, do the $100 Pentium G860 and $80 Pentium G630 give gamers on budgets ample muscle?

The Sub-$200 Gaming CPU Line-up

Today we have the following sub-$200 CPUs, plus a $230 Core i5-2500K for comparison:

AMD FX-4100AMD FX-6100AMD FX-8120AMD A4-3400AMD Athlon II X4 631AMD A8-3870K
Codename:ZambeziZambeziZambeziLlanoLlanoLlano
Process:32 nm32 nm32 nm32 nm32 nm32 nm
Cores (Threads):468244
Clock Speed (Turbo):3.6 (3.8) GHz3.3 (3.9) GHz3.1 (4.0) GHz2.7 GHz2.6 GHz3.0 GHz
Interface:AM3+AM3+AM3+FM1FM1FM1
L3 Cache:8 MB8 MB8 MBN/AN/AN/A
Thermal Envelope:95 W95 W125 W65 W65 W100 W
Online Price:$110$160$200$70$85$145
AMD Athlon II X3 455AMD Athlon II X4 645AMD Phenom IIX4 955AMD Phenom II X4 980AMD Phenom IIX6 1090T
Codename:RanaPropusDenebDenebDeneb
Process:45 nm45 nm45 nm45 nm45 nm
Cores (Threads):34446
Clock Speed (Turbo):3.3 GHz3.1 GHz3.2 GHz3.7 GHz3.2 (3.6) GHz
Interface:AM2+/AM3/AM3+AM2+/AM3/AM3+AM2+/AM3/AM3+AM2+/AM3/AM3+AM2+/AM3/AM3+
L3 Cache:N/AN/A6 MB6 MB6 MB
Thermal Envelope:95 W95 W125 W125 W125 W
Online Price:$80$105$125$160$180
Intel Pentium G630Intel Pentium G860Intel Core i3-2100Intel Core i5-2400Intel Core i5-2500K
Codename:Sandy BridgeSandy BridgeSandy BridgeSandy BridgeSandy Bridge
Process:32 nm32 nm32 nm32 nm32 nm
Cores (Threads):222 (4)44
Clock Speed (Turbo):2.7 GHz3.0 GHz3.1 GHz3.1 (3.4) GHz3.3 (3.7) GHz
Interface:LGA 1155LGA 1155LGA 1155LGA 1155LGA 1155
L3 Cache:3 MB3 MB3 MB6 MB6 MB
Thermal Envelope:65 W65 W65 W95 W95 W
Online Price:$80$100$125$190$230