Conclusion: Three Processors Stand Above The Sub-$150 Crowd
Well, that was fun. Let's have a look at the average 1920x1080 relative gaming results, with the Athlon II X2 260 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 three products that stand above the crowd when it comes to gaming value. Note that we didn't take multitasking performance into account in this chart.
First, available for under $90, is the Athlon II X3 445. This processor stands head and shoulders above its dual-core contemporaries under the $100 mark, and for good reason. It combines a high 3.1 GHz clock speed with three physical CPU cores for a low price, and since games rarely take advantage of more than three processor cores, the Athlon II X3 445 is a great budget gamer's choice.
The next product of interest is Intel's Core i3-530, a CPU that started out at $125 a few months ago. It seems that Intel has finally decided to compete with the lower-priced AMD models, and the Core i3-530 can now be had for $115. While this CPU does offer some great gaming performance for the dollar, its dual-core architecture (with Hyper-Threading) does show some weaknesses compared to true quad-core processors when multitasking. Even the Athlon II X3 445 demonstrates similar gaming performance when multiple applications are employed. Despite this, gaming performance is impressive enough and the price has gone down enough that the Core i3-530 cannot be ignored.
The next processor that impresses us with its gaming performance is the Phenom II X4 940/945. It beats out the more expensive Core i3-540—a CPU that hardly offers any performance increase over the cheaper Core i3-530—while delivering great multitasking performance, too. This is one of the instances where the Phenom II's large 6MB L3 cache can show a solid advantage. The Athlon II X4 640 is functionally identical and runs at the same 3 GHz clock speed, but lacks an L3 cache entirely, and the performance difference is obvious. Frankly, this surprises us, as we haven't noticed such a difference in past tests. In any case, the Phenom II X4 940 Black Edition is a great option for folks with Socket AM2+ motherboards, and buyers with AM3-based motherboards will appreciate the Phenom II X4 945.
With the value leaders out of the way, we'll have a few quick words about the CPUs that didn't perform as well in the gaming arena. In general, the Pentium G6950 isn't a good choice for a gamer. The Athlon II X4 640 didn't perform poorly, but it didn't show much of a gaming advantage over the Athlon II X3 445, despite its higher price (except when multitasking). In many cases, the Athlon II X4 showed no advantage over the cheaper triple-core processor at all, while the Core i3-530 consistently bested it. Finally, the Core i3-540 looks like a bad choice next to its Core i3-530 brother, a CPU that's $30 cheaper, yet performs almost identically with only a 133 MHz clock speed difference between them.
On a final note, it has to be mentioned that yes, all of these CPUs could be overclocked to good effect when it comes to gaming performance. Even the Pentium G6950 has a solid reputation for hitting high clocks. And after seeing these results, we can't help but wonder how the $115 Core i3-530 would fare against the $140 Phenom II X4 940 or 945 operating at its true potential. Perhaps this is something we should try to do in an upcoming comparison.