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Best Gaming CPU: High-end and Beyond

Best Gaming CPUs For The Money: April 2012

Best Gaming CPU for £170:

Core i5-2550K

Core i5-2550K
Codename: Sandy Bridge
Process: 32 nm
CPU Cores/Threads: 4
Clock Speed (Max. Turbo): 3.4 GHz (3.8 GHz)
Socket: LGA 1155
L2 Cache: 4 x 256 KB
L3 Cache: 6 MB
Thermal Envelope:
95 W

From the standpoint of raw compute power, Core i5-2550K offers very little over the cheaper Core i5-2400. It does hold three distinctions, however: it runs, by default, a few hundred megahertz faster, it comes with Intel HD Graphics 3000, and it has an unlocked CPU multiplier.

The 300 MHz (400 MHz with Turbo Boost) advantage held over the Core i5-2400 is quantifiable, but arguably not very significant. And gamers with discrete graphics cards care little about a faster integrated graphics engine. But the unlocked CPU multiplier is a must for overclockers using any Sandy Bridge-based CPU. The Core i5-2550K is an obvious choice for enthusiasts looking for the best combination of overclocking headroom and gaming potential.

Read our review of the Sandy Bridge-based CPUs here.

Past the Point of Reason:

CPUs priced over £170 offer rapidly diminishing returns when it comes to game performance. As such, we have a hard time recommending anything more expensive than the Core i5-2550K, especially since this multiplier-unlocked processor can be overclocked to great effect if more performance is desired. Even at stock clocks, it meets or beats the £780 Core i7-990X Extreme Edition when it comes to gaming.

But now that LGA 2011 is here, there's certainly an argument to be made for it as the ultimate gaming platform. LGA 2011-based CPUs have more available cache and as many as two more execution cores than the flagship LGA 1155 models. Additionally, more bandwidth is delivered through a quad-channel memory controller. And with 40 lanes of third-gen PCIe connectivity available from Sandy Bridge-E-based processors, the platform natively supports two x16 and one x8 slot, or one x16 and three x8 slots, alleviating potential bottlenecks in three- and four-way CrossFire or SLI configurations.

Although they sound impressive, those advantages don't necessarily translate into significant performance gains in modern titles. Our tests demonstrate fairly little difference between a £170 LGA 1155 Core i5-2500K and a £780 LGA 2011 Core i7-3960X, even when three-way graphics card configurations are involved. It turns out that memory bandwidth and PCIe throughput don't hold back the performance of existing Sandy Bridge machines.

Where we do see the potential for Sandy Bridge-E to drive additional performance is in processor-bound games like World of Warcraft or the multiplayer component of Battlefield 3. If you're running a three- or four-way array of graphics cards already, there's a good chance that you already own more than enough rendering muscle. An overclocked Core i7-3960X or -3930K could help the rest of your platform catch up to an insanely powerful arrangement of GPUs.

To summarize, while we generally recommend against purchasing any gaming CPU that retails for more than £170 from a value point of view (sink that money into graphics and the motherboard instead), there are those of you who have no trouble throwing down serious money on the best of the best, and who require the fastest possible performance available. If this describes your goals, the following CPU is for you:

Best Gaming CPU for £450: (or for any price)
Core i7-3930K

Core i7-3930K
Codename: Sandy Bridge-E
Process: 32 nm
CPU Cores/Threads: 6/12
Clock Speed (Max. Turbo): 3.2 GHz (3.8 GHz)
Socket: LGA 2011
L2 Cache:   6x 256 KB
L3 Cache: 12 MB
Thermal Envelope:
130 W

Take the £780 Core i7-3960X, remove 3 MB of L3 cache, and drop the base clock rate by 100 MHz. What do end up with? Three hundred pounds in cash left over and an Intel Core i7-3930K.

The 100 MHz difference in clock rate is hardly relevant, given unlocked multiplier ratios benefiting both CPUs. And you'd be hard-pressed to quantify the advantage of 15 MB of shared L3 cache over 12 MB. Moreover, a greater-than-£300 savings lets you buy a nice motherboard and cooler, while still getting the same four-channel memory subsystem and 40-lane PCI Express 3.0-capable controller.

Read our review of the new Sandy Bridge-E based CPUs here.

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