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Best Gaming CPUs For The Money: February 2012

Best Gaming CPUs For The Money: February 2012
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How do AMD's new FX and APU lines compare when it comes to gaming, and are Intel's Sandy Bridge-based Pentiums worth a look? The shocking answers to those questions shake up our recommendations. Check this month's update for details!

If you don’t have the time to research 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.

February Updates

At the end of January, we published our analysis of the sub-£160 CPU market as it pertains to gaming in a story called Picking A Sub-£160 Gaming CPU: FX, An APU, Or A Pentium? The big surprise was that Intel's budget Sandy Bridge-based Pentiums are able to hang with some of AMD's best efforts. For example, the Pentium G630 and Pentium G860 performed just slightly below and above AMD's venerable Phenom II X4 955, respectively. Even more eye-opening was that the new FX-4100, -6100, and -8120 actually underperformed both budget-oriented Intel chips, despite their higher price points. The Athlon II X3 and X4 CPUs were left in the dust, along with the Llano-based A8 and A6 APUs, and the A4-3400 performed dismally. To be clear, the tests were performed using a Radeon HD 7970 graphics card, so we're certainly not detracting from AMD's excellent integrated graphics. Rather, we're concerned with each processor's ability to handle demanding games in a CPU-bottlenecked scenario.

Of course, this is going to affect our recommendations. We would have had to remove the Athlon II and Phenom II CPUs from our chart sooner or later anyway, since they're all being displaced by the FX and APU families. We had hoped that some of AMD's new models would claim spots on this list, though. For a long time now, affordable processors from the company have dominated the first few pages of our monthly column, and that's now going to change. As it stands, the closest thing to a recommendation earned by one of AMD's processors is an honourable mention favouring its £85 FX-4100, a dual-module chip with a lot of overclocking headroom enabled by an unlocked multiplier. Keep its value proposition in perspective, though: overclocked to 4.5 GHz, the FX-4100 and FX-6100 barely achieve parity with a stock £90 Core i3-2100 in our gaming tests. Pushed as far as they can go on air, no AMD CPU can touch a stock Core i5-2400 in the same benchmark suite.

Unfortunately, we see this trend continuing unless AMD can reverse Bulldozer's problems with the next wave of FX processors based on its Piledriver architecture. The company claims to be gunning for at least a 10% performance improvement over its current design, though recent server roadmap changes suggest that it might be seeing more. Just remember that Intel's Ivy Bridge-based chips will almost certainly emerge before anything with Piledriver in it, and that architecture will introduce performance gains of its own.

Speaking of Intel, the company recently introduced the Core i7-2600S, a low-power version of the familiar Core i7-2600. It has the same 3.8 GHz peak Turbo Boost bin as the non-S version, but a 600 MHz-lower base frequency of 2.8 GHz, which facilitates a 65 W TDP (down from 95 W). This model is selling on Scan.co.uk for £230. But since its focus is on low power and not performance, it has no place in our recommendations.

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 honourable 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.

The list is based on some of the best US/UK 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 available at retail.

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    williehmmm , 18 February 2012 20:29
    My direct experience of a FX-4100, I saw a 50% increase in frame rates in the game F1 2011 compared to a core 2 duo e8500 OC'd to 3.9Ghz. GTX470, Ultra details, 1280x1024, x4AA, 40fps for the core 2, compared to 60fps for the FX 4100.

    Yet these 2 CPUs are on the same tier.

    You need to do an extensive testing benchmark of what I consider to tbe the best value CPU currently on the market.

    Compare it to older CPUs, Phenoms, core 2 duos, i3, and the mighty i5 2500k. Resolutions through to the ridiculous, where the FX 4100 really seems to be on par with much more expensive CPUs.

    And overclock them to see what extra is available.

    Then give us that all important frame rate per pound/dollar bar graph. And make sure you include the cost of the motherboard. My experience is that AM3+ boards cost 30% - 40% less.

    The FX 4100 is significantly faster than a core 2 duo. If you read this chart, you would be persuaded not to upgrade. And that information is plain wrong.