Before You Read the List
The big news in March was the introduction of the worlds first hexa-core CPU for the desktop, Intel’s Core i7-980X Extreme Edition processor. With six physical CPU cores and capable of running 12 threads thanks to Hyper-Threading, the 32nm Gulftown core is the most powerful desktop CPU on the planet, taking that top spot from the Core i7-975 Extreme processor. At $US1090 it’s not a wise choice from a budgetary perspective, but we have to give it props for being the best gaming CPU money can buy. You can read more about the Core i7-980X Extreme here.
This list is for gamers who want to get the most for their money. If you don’t play games, then the CPUs on this list may not be suitable for your particular needs. Pricing is based on some of the lowest US prices from online retailers. In other countries or at retail stores, your mileage will most certainly vary. Of course, these are retail CPU prices. We do not list used or OEM CPUs. With that in mind, let the list begin:
Best Gaming CPU: Under $US90
Best Gaming CPU for ~$US65:
Athlon II X2 245
This chip allows the flexibility to go one of two different ways: either drop it in as an upgrade for your Socket AM2+-based platform or build a brand new, low-cost Socket AM3 machine based on it. With a high 2.9GHz clock speed, the Athlon II X2 245 offers excellent gaming performance at the price. Moreover, its 65W thermal design power is great for electricity- and heat-conscious enthusiasts.[imgclear]
Best Gaming CPU for ~$US75:
Athlon II X3 435
Read our review of the Athlon II X3 435, right here.[imgclear]
Best gaming CPU for ~$US85:
Athlon II X3 440
When you consider the big picture, this CPU really offers an attractive combination of multiple CPU cores, high clock speed, low price and overclockability. It is such a great gaming CPU, in fact, that it almost renders most of the CPUs in the $US100 to $US130 range redundant. As a result, most of our recommendations in this range are aimed specifically at overclockers and users upgrading an older platform.[imgclear]
Best Gaming CPU: $US90-$US105
Best gaming CPU for $US100: None
As mentioned previously, the Athlon II X3 440 features such value-oriented (and yet wholly solid) gaming performance that it is difficult to recommend spending $US100 to $US130 for similar results. Having said that, other factors can come into play. For these reasons, the following CPUs are being given honourable mentions.
Athlon II X4 630
However, there are a few titles out there that will take advantage of a fourth CPU core, making the Athlon II X4 a potentially attractive choice to buyers who want all four CPU cores and are willing to overclock this processor. Moreover, as a general-purpose CPU (during the hours you don’t spend gaming, of course), the quad-core solution is going to be superior. Now found as low as $US100, true quad-core CPUs are well within the grasp of the budget gamer.
Read our review of the Athlon II X4, right here.[imgclear]
Phenom II X2 555 Black Edition
Increased availability over the past few weeks cements our honourable mention status for this chip, which, again, is best suited to the enthusiasts willing to finesse its clock rate as high as possible.
Read our overclocking review of the Phenom II X2 555 Black Edition, right here.[imgclear]
Best Gaming CPU: $US110-$US125
Best gaming CPU for $US110: None
Core 2 Duo E7500
It has a high clock rate, but its dual-core design won't be as nimble as AMD's triple-core offerings when it comes to multi-threaded apps. Most folks considering this CPU are probably trying to squeeze longevity from an older LGA 775 platform. If you're looking to upgrade your motherboard as well, it'd be best to consider a Phenom II or Core i3 instead.[imgclear]
Best gaming CPU for $US120: 3-Way Tie
Athlon II X4 635
This model isn't unlocked (it's not one of AMD's Black Edition chips), but it does sport a higher multiplier than the Athlon II X4 630, making it a solid quad-core processor with (ideally) a bit of scalability on the cheap. With a $US120 asking price, there is a lot of value here.[imgclear]
Stock performance is usually quite good from what we've seen, although you can't expect Hyper-Threading to yield the same performance gains as an additional physical core or two.
If you don't believe us, check out Thomas Soderstrom's look at gaming performance on a Core i3-530.[imgclear]
Phenom II X3 720 Black Edition
The OEM version of this CPU is now $US105. Add a $US15 aftermarket cooler (such as the Cooler Master Hyper TX3), and you have a triple-core unlocked CPU on your hands for $US120.
We're a bit torn here. On the one hand, we know that overclocking is the surest way to negate your warranty coverage. However, the Phenom II X3 720 Black Edition not only has that unlocked multiplier, but we've also had some luck unlocking the fourth core on a handful of samples. The chance may or may not be worth the extra money you drop in this chip. Bear in mind, though, that it's an "expensive" model for AMD to sell, and its starting to disappear fast. The retail version has all but disappeared.[imgclear]
Best Gaming CPU: $US130-$US190
Best gaming CPU for $US140:
Bear in mind that, although Intel launched this processor alongside the H55 and H57 chipsets, gamers are likely going to want to stick with P55 when they shop for an LGA 1156-equipped motherboard, even if it means ignoring the integrated graphics core built onto the Core i3-540. When used with Clarkdale-based processors, Intel's H55 and H57 chipsets aren't able to divide on-package PCI Express connectivity between CrossFire and SLI graphics configurations.[imgclear]
Best gaming CPU for $US160:
Phenom II X4 955 Black Edition
Read our review of the Phenom II X4 955 Black Edition, right here.[imgclear]
Best gaming CPU for $US180:
Phenom II X4 965 Black Edition
Read our review of the new Phenom II X4 965 Black Edition, right here.[imgclear]
Best gaming CPU for $US190: None
Core 2 Quad Q9400
This CPU is a strong competitor for the Phenom II X4 955 and will overclock well, despite its locked CPU multiplier. Even in the face of a somewhat low stock clock, 6MB of shared L2 cache and a speedy 1333MHz front side bus help the chip compete aggressively for less than $US200. With the Phenom II X4 965 and Core i5-750 priced so close, this one should only really be a consideration for the gamer upgrading an LGA 775-based machine. This is as far as I'd recommend taking a 775 platform however, anything more expensive than this is better spent on a platform with a better upgrade path.
Best gaming CPU for $US200:
For those desiring the best possible performance, the Core i5-750 can be overclocked to great effect, performing similarly to the $US1000 Core i7-975 Extreme at its stock settings when pushed a bit.
Read our review of the Core i5-750, right here.[imgclear]
Past the Point of Reason:
With rapidly-increasing prices over $US200 offering smaller and smaller performance boosts in games, we have a hard time recommending anything more expensive than the Core i5-750. This is especially the case since the Core i5-750 can be overclocked to great effect if more performance is desired, easily surpassing the stock clock rate of the $US1,000 Core i7-975 Extreme.
Perhaps the only performance-based justification we can think of for moving up from a Core i5-750 is that LGA 1156 processors have an inherent limit of 16 PCIe lanes for graphics use. This is an architectural detail that the LGA 1156-based Core i5 and Core i7 processors share, so if a gamer plans to use more than two graphics cards in CrossFire or SLI, the LGA 1366 Core i7-900-series processors are the way to go.
To summarise, while we recommend against purchasing any CPU that retails for more than $US200 from a value point of view, there are those of you for whom money might not be much of an object and who require the best possible performance money can buy. If you're buying several hundred dollars worth of graphics and are worried about a potential platform bottleneck, we recommend the following CPUs:[imgclear]
Best gaming CPU for $US295:
The motherboards and DDR3 RAM that the i7 architecture requires will bring the total platform cost higher than other systems, but the resulting performance should be worth the purchase price.
While the Core i5 performs similarly, there are a few applications and games that can take advantage of the Core i7 900-series' Hyper-Threading and triple-channel memory features, so spending the extra money on the Core i7-930 can pay off, particularly if you plan to overclock.
In addition, LGA 1156-based Core i5 and Core i7 processors are limited to 16 PCIe 2.0 lanes, but the LGA 1366-based Core i7-900s do not share this limitation, since they get their PCI Express connectivity from the X58 chipset. This makes the LGA 1366 Core i7 processors a good choice for CrossFire or SLI configurations with more than two graphics cards.[imgclear]
Best gaming CPU for $US1090:
Core i7-980X Extreme
Otherwise, the Core i7-980X Extreme is a hard sell from a value standpoint; you'd be better off investing more in graphics or solid state storage.
CPU Heirarchy Chart
What about this other CPU that's not on the list? How do I know if it's a good deal or not?
This will happen. In fact, it's guaranteed to happen because availability and prices change quickly. So how do you know if that CPU you've got your eye on is a good buy in its price range?
Here is a resource to help you judge if a CPU is a good buy or not: the gaming CPU hierarchy chart, which groups CPUs with similar overall gaming performance levels into tiers. The top tier contains the highest-performing gaming CPUs available and gaming performance decreases as you go down the tiers from there.
However, a word of caution: this hierarchy is based on the average performance each CPU achieved in our charts test suite using only four game titles: Crysis, Unreal Tournament 3, World in Conflict and Supreme Commander. While we feel this represents an acceptable cross-section of typical gaming scenarios, a specific game title will likely perform differently. Some games, for example, will be severely graphics subsystem-limited, while others may react positively to more CPU cores, larger amounts of CPU cache or even a specific architecture. We also did not have access to every CPU on the market, so some of the CPU performance estimates are based on the numbers similar architectures deliver. Indeed, this hierarchy chart is useful as a general guideline, but certainly not as a gospel one-size-fits-all perfect CPU comparison resource.
You can use this hierarchy to compare the pricing between two processors, to see which one is a better deal, and also to determine if an upgrade is worthwhile. I don't recommend upgrading your CPU unless the potential replacement is at least three tiers higher. Otherwise, the upgrade is somewhat parallel and you may not notice a worthwhile difference in game performance.
There you have it folks: the best gaming CPUs for the money this month. Now all that's left to do is to find and purchase them.
Also remember that the stores don't follow this list. Things will change over the course of the month and you'll probably have to adapt your buying strategy to deal with fluctuating prices. Good luck!