Game-Off: Seven Sub-$150 Processors Compared

Today, we're putting the newest and fastest sub-$150 processors against each other in a gaming competition to see which models offer the best bang for your buck. Will it be Intel's Core i3, its Clarkdale-based Pentium, or AMD's Athlon and Phenom II CPUs?

At Tom's Hardware, we recently explored the ability of the Core i3-530 (Is Intel's Core i3-530 Fast Enough For Performance Gaming?) and the Athlon II X3 440 (Gamers: Do You Need More Than An Athlon II X3?) to play games compared to more powerful processors.

We've seen some interesting results and used some different methods for testing gaming prowess, but we haven't yet focused on comparing a wide variety of budget CPUs with each other in the gaming arena. Until today, that is.

We test the most compelling sub-$150 CPUs to see which ones offer the best bang for the buck, and to find out whether or not the more expensive models have something to offer compared to the sub-$100 options.

Let's start with a look at the competitors.

We're going to compare what we feel are the most relevant sub-$150 CPUs. We'll avoid Intel's LGA 775 because it's a dated platform, and that leaves us with AMD's Socket AM2+/AM3 and Intel's LGA 1156 interface. This provides us with a great number of models to look at, so we'll stick with the fastest and newest processors available at retail. From the AMD camp, that gives us the Athlon II X2 260, the Athlon II X3 445, the Athlon II X4 640, and the Phenom II X4 540 and 545 processors. On the Intel side, we have the Pentium G6950, the Core i3-530, and the Core i3-540.

AMD Athlon II X2 260Intel Pentium G6950
AMD Athlon II X3 445
Intel Core i3-530
AMD Athlon II X4 640AMD Phenom II X4 940/945
Intel Core i3-530
Codename: RegorClarkdaleRanaClarkdale
Process: 45 nm 32 nm 45 nm 32 nm 45 nm45 nm32 nm
Cores (Threads): 2 2 32 (4)
2 (4)
Clock Speed: 3.2 GHz
2.8 GHz3.1 GHz2.93 GHz
3.0 GHz
3.0 GHz
3.06 GHz
Socket: AM2+/AM3LGA 1156
AM2+/AM3LGA 1156AM2+/AM3AM2+ (940)
AM2+/AM3 (945)
LGA 1156
L3 Cache: N/A
Thermal Envelope:
Online Price:
$125.99 (X4 940)
$139.99 (X4 945)

Looking at the stats, we can see that the Athlon II models start a lot lower on the price scale and represent true dual-, triple-, and quad-core CPUs that retail for under the $150 mark.

The Intel offerings are all dual-core processors, but the Core i3 models do support Hyper-Threading and can handle four threads at a time. Since we're concentrating on games, it will be interesting to see if Intel's Hyper-Threading feature can help the Core i3 processors keep up with true triple- and quad-core CPUs.

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  • Silmarunya
    A minor complaint: where is the Phenom II X2 255? It's in the same pricing area and is often cited as AMD's best gaming CPU when taking price, performance and overclockability are taken into account.

    As you said in your conclusion, only when overclocked would these CPU's show their true potential. The Intels would probably benefit the most. At 32nm, they are known to achieve insane clocks even with just stock cooling. The AMD offerings are less competent in that field, but they have the core unlocking advantage and are able to go a fair end as well when overclocked.

    But assuming you don't have the budget for a higher end CPU, you're not likely to be able to afford an aftermarket cooler either. And at stock cooling, the Intel i3-530 is easily the best OC'ing CPU on the market.
  • mactronix
    Yes i to am surprised there is no 555 BE in this test.Kind of invalidates the whole thing for me.
  • wild9
    It's nice to see some games making use of extra cores, threading units and L3 cache.
  • ksampanna
    So there is no outright winner?
  • Silmarunya
    ksampannaSo there is no outright winner?

    Of course there isn't. In computing (and most other things for that matter) there is never a 'best'. All these CPU's have something going for them and that's a good thing. My ideal CPU is different than my neighbor's. In that way, everyone can get a CPU that suits him best. One size fits all just doesn't work and I'm glad CPU manufacturers realize this.
  • Userremoved
    I'm sorry but on the first page it says the X4 940
    /945 has 125W TDP. I tough it was a 95W (it is no)?