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.