Best Gaming CPUs For The Money: July 2009

If you don’t have the time to research the benchmarks or if you don’t feel confident enough in your ability to pick the right CPU, fear not. We at Tom’s Hardware have come to your aid with a simple list of the best gaming CPUs offered for the money.

Our First Gaming CPU for the Money Article

I approached writing an article about the best CPUs for the money with a great deal of caution. I write the Best Gaming Graphics Cards for the Money monthly piece and it's pretty straightforward—graphics cards are used to get higher frame rates in games, so all I really have to look at is the price/performance ratio in games and come up with what I think are the best buys. There are a lot more variables, but at the root it comes down to game performance and entry price.

On the other hand, a CPU can be used for a great many things. Anything and everything done on a PC is at least somewhat dependent on CPU performance, including writing documents, image editing, games, database queries, Internet use, server apps, scientific calculations...the list goes on and on. In truth, it's nearly impossible to make recommendations that will apply universally in light of the many different usage models that exist.

We therefore have to focus on a particular aspect of CPU performance that we can better measure, compare, and assess. Why not gaming? People are interested in the best graphics card they can get to game, so it stands to reason that they're also interested in the best gaming CPU their money can buy.

This still leaves us with the task of measuring CPU gaming performance versus price to come up with results on which we can base recommendations. With CPUs, this is a little tricky, as certain games favor multiple cores, clock speed, cache, and even a specific architecture.

Our largest database of CPU game performance is included in our Desktop CPU charts (Ed.: check out the 2009 Desktop CPU charts that were just posted, too). This includes a good cross-section of games on which to base our performance index: Crysis, Unreal Tournament 3, World in Conflict, and Supreme Commander. Admittedly, limited sampling, budget, and time means that we don't have detailed benchmark results for every CPU available, but we do have enough information to compare architectures and fill in the blanks with reasonable estimations. So, based on this performance index, as well as up-to-date pricing information, we have a reasonable price/performance base from which to launch some solid recommendations.

Please keep in mind that we aren't going to consider factors such as overclocking or platform costs. Instead, we'll stick to the basics of CPU price versus stock CPU game performance. In the future, we will try to make honorable mentions for the overclockers and for any other special circumstances we might come across. But for our first try, we're going to keep things simple.

Please do feel free to chime in with feedback on this maiden look at processor value in games. As always, we'll do our best to take your suggestions into consideration.

Some Notes About Our Recommendations

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.

The criteria to get on this list are strictly price/performance. We acknowledge that there are other factors that come into play, such as platform price or CPU overclockability, but we're not going to complicate things by factoring in motherboard costs to this list. We may add honorable mentions for outstanding products in the future, though. But for now, our recommendations are based on stock clock speeds and performance.

Prices and availability change on a daily basis. We can’t offer up-to-the-minute accurate pricing information, but we can list some good chips that you probably won’t regret buying at the price ranges we suggest (and our PriceGrabber-based engine will help track down some of the best prices for you).

The list is based on some of the best U.S. prices from online retailers. In other countries or at retail stores, your mileage will most certainly vary. Of course, these are retail CPU prices while we do not list used or OEM CPUs.

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  • Phenom II X3 710= 99$ on Newegg now so it is the best So move E6300 away .
  • In the UK for an equivalant (£149.99) $247 you can get a AMD Phenom II X4 Quad Core 955 Black Edition.

    To give a comparison a AMD Phenom II x3 720 is (£105) $173
    An iCore7 920 D0 Stepping £208.99 ($344)
    All are retail
  • the x3 720 is £92 @ overclockers in the uk, plus you need to take into account heat / power consumption and total cost of other vital parts like motherboard/ram no point in getting a top of the line cpu and sticking a £80 motherboard in it.
  • avatar12mthe x3 720 is £92 @ overclockers in the uk, plus you need to take into account heat / power consumption and total cost of other vital parts like motherboard/ram no point in getting a top of the line cpu and sticking a £80 motherboard in it.

    I think this is where the AMD-based rigs win hands down, especially for upgrades. The platform solution seems cheaper overall, more so if you just need basic gaming performance (eg AMD/ATI 780 Chipsets), with minimal power consumption. The cost of electricity in the UK has rocketed and more people are looking to cut back without sacrificing performance or features.
  • 'Dual-Core Pentium'..I'd have chosen a different name for that product.

    It's name implies everything but the latest technology, yet as the article explains it is a stripped-down Core 2 that still offers good performance and energy efficiency. The moment I've mentioned the name of this chip to unsuspecting clients they've steered away from it, under the impression it's something inferior like the old 'Pentium D'..

    I'd have gone with 'Core 2 Duo L' (Light Edition). I wouldn't use Celeron because many folks have bad memories of those xD.
  • Interesting article. It's nice to see the AMD hardware under consideration, as well as the Pentium Dual Core. I can't fault any system here especially with the latest grafix cards, it's just a pity the prices of those cards seem to be higher in the UK than in the US. Sometimes much higher.

    Be interesting to see a similar article a couple of months down the line, what with AMD's latest 45nm products hitting the market :)
  • I have a Core 2 Quad Q9550. I am extremely happy with it. Have always been since i bought it. I succed to overclock it to 3.8ghz (air) but i now run it in 3.6ghz. Together with 4gb Corsair 1066mhz DDR2, and raided regular 500gb drives this is a incredible workhorse. I just love to stream my bluray content to my 42" LCD TV via HDMI with my Asus EN9800GTX. Windows Vista Ultimate with SP2 and NOD32 makes me feel comfortable, safe and have a fast computer that can handle both x86 as x64.

    I run a community. The game servers is virtualized in vmware on this computer. As i do only need 2 cores for gaming (games does rarely use 4 cores today) the other two cores can serve for gameservers.

    Think about it. Computers of today is extremely more then you probably ever will take advantage of. Before you buy quad, if the price is not to convincing you will probably never notice the difference between a dual or quad core cpu.
  • Micro Center has been selling the Intel i7 920 for $200 for months now...

    Best bang for the buck!