Before we analyze the results, I think it's important to note that out of the nine games we tested, only two of them--Crysis and Tom Clancy's H.A.W.X.--demonstrated any notable performance decrease between 1280x1024 and 1920x1200. This is a real wake-up call to folks who believe that all modern games are limited only by the graphics hardware and that the CPU is almost irrelevant when it comes to gaming. Clearly, the benchmarks demonstrated that this isn't the case, and the CPU has a very significant impact on game performance.
Here we have the diluted percentages. What can we learn from them? Looking at this chart, we can see that the Athlon II X4 620 has achieved the highest average frame rates of all of our $100 CPUs. At the same time, even though the Phenom II X3 710 and Phenom II X2 550 aren't able to achieve the same lofty averages, their respective minimum frame rates are higher to the tune of roughly 10 percent--likely a result of faster stock clock rates.
A third factor, aside from minimum and average frame rates, and one not shown on this chart, are the multitasking benchmark results. The Athlon II X4 can run a processor-intensive task while gaming like a breeze. The Phenom II X3 has a tougher time and the Phenom II X2 and Pentium dual-core CPUs are absolutely crippled. If you don't think this is a realistic scenario, then think again. I can't even count the number of times I've stayed up late for a bout of Left 4 Dead, exited, and found my middle-of-the-night virus scan cranking along in the background.
Unfortunately for Intel, it looks like gamers building on a budget can skip over the dual-core Pentium E6500. While it certainly wasn't trounced in comparison to the other contenders, it really doesn't offer anything special. The processor might make a worthwhile upgrade from an older LGA 775-based configuration, but for those constructing new machines, the AM2+ and AM3 platforms are much more attractive and have a brighter future.
Are we recommending a specific $100 CPU? The results are too close to call between the AMD offerings, and we can say with confidence that any of these CPUs will provide excellent performance for the dollar spent. Multitaskers will want to look hard at the Athlon II X4 620, while those looking for consistency will be attracted to the Phenom II X3 710. Of course, overclockers will be drawn to the Phenom II X2 550 Black Edition. There's no right or wrong answer, and variety is the spice of life, so feel free to follow your desire. One thing that is for sure here: AMD is looking at too much inter-family competition, making it more difficult for value-oriented enthusiasts to pick the right part. We're sure AMD already knows this, and we expect the company to take measures to cut costs in the Phenom II class (likely starting with the low-margin X3). If an inexpensive Phenom II is what you're after, it's a safe bet that you'll want to buy it sooner than later.
One final factor we didn't have time to test this time around is overclocking. When overclocked, would the Phenom II 550 Black Edition become a monster? Would the dual-core Pentium E6500 pull a rabbit from its hat? Or would the Athlon II X4 620 and Phenom II X3 710 be able to hold on to their strengths? If this is something you'd like us to explore, please let us know in the comments section.