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 processor for your next gaming machine, 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.
December Review and January Updates
January 2010 has marked Intel's return to the sub-$200 CPU market with brand new technology, a space where the company has, up until now, relied on older Core 2-based processors. It released the new Core i5, i3, and Pentium G-series processors; 32nm models that employ two physical CPU cores, yet deliver four logical cores by way of Hyper-Threading. Intel has the distinction of offering the first CPUs with an integrated graphics core on the same package, though that's not going to be relevant to you as a gamer. Talk about a significant advancement in home and small office desktops, though. There are a lot of new CPUs available, and here are their particulars:
|Intel's New Clarkdale Processors|
|Model||Code Name||Clock||Max. Turbo||HT||Cores/Threads||Power||Street Price|
|Core i5-750||Lynnfield||2.66 GHz||3.2 GHz||No||4/4||95W||$196|
|Core i5-670||Clarkdale||3.46 GHz||3.73 GHz||Yes||2/4||73W||$200|
|Core i5-661||Clarkdale||3.33 GHz||3.6 GHz||Yes||2/4||87W||$210|
|Core i5-660||Clarkdale||3.33 GHz||3.6 GHz||Yes||2/4||73W||$208|
|Core i5-650||Clarkdale||3.2 GHz||3.46 GHz||Yes||2/4||73W||$195|
|Core i3-540||Clarkdale||3.06 GHz||N/A||Yes||2/4||73W||$145|
|Core i3-530||Clarkdale||2.93 GHz||N/A||Yes||2/4||73W||$125|
|Pentium G6950||Clarkdale||2.8 GHz||N/A||No||2/2||73W||$99|
We can see how Intel is differentiating these processor families, though it's significantly more difficult to distinguish the individual model numbers. The Clarkdale-based Pentium has two cores, no Hyper-Threading, and no Turbo Boost. The Core i3 processors have two cores armed with Hyper-Threading, but no Turbo Boost. And the Clarkdale-based Core i5 models (there are Lynnfield Core i5s, too) feature Hyper-Threading and Turbo Boost. Unfortunately, the Core i5 brand is now a little muddied, since the Lynnfield-based Core i5-750 has four physical cores and no Hyper-Threading.
There isn't a whole lot of performance data available for these new processors yet, so we've examined the information that is available and made the best educated guesses we can as to how these processors perform in games (this won't be the case for long; we have two stories planned for the end of the month covering i3 and Pentium G performance). From the limited data we've seen, it looks like these Clarkdale chips can really hold their own against true quad-core CPUs from a gaming performance standpoint.
We will note that, while the Core i3 CPUs seem to deliver good gaming value, the pricing is too high on the Clarkdale-based Core i5 models. Further tests will confirm, but we suspect the $200 Core i5-750 might offer better value than the more expensive i5-660 to 670 processors. It will be interesting to see how these Hyper-Threaded dual-core processors fare against AMD's quad-core budget models. Chances are good that we're going to see notable performance disparities, with the performance trophy changing hands depending on whether or not the application is optimized for threading.
Of course, AMD hasn't been sitting idle. It has a speed bump-based counter-attack planned for the end of January. The new models will include the Phenom II X2 555, Athlon II X4 635, Athlon II X3 440, and the Athlon II X2 255. We can't wait to see how this one plays out!
On a related note, it seems that Intel might be taking advantage of the diversity in its new lineup by increasing the prices of higher-end models. Both the Core i5-750 and Core i7-920 have gone up a few dollars since last month.
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. We may add honorable mentions for outstanding products in the future, though. For now, our recommendations are based on stock clock speeds and performance at that price.
Cost and availability change on a daily basis. We can’t offer up-to-the-minute accurate pricing information in the text, 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 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.