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 available at retail.
Best Gaming CPU: Under $110
Best Gaming CPU for ~$80:
Athlon II X3 450
The Athlon II X3 450 is the second-fastest triple-core Athlon II available, and it sports an ideal combination of three execution cores, a high clock rate, a low price, and respectable overclocking headroom. Despite the deceptively low buy-in, this processor delivers some serious gaming capability.
AMD's own Athlon II X4 635 will outperform the X3 in modern CPU-heavy game titles. But at a price point $20 cheaper, the Athlon II X3 450 remains a good low-budget option.
Best Gaming CPU for $100:
Athlon II X4 635
The Athlon II X4 lineup continues to evolve gracefully as its clock speed steadily increases over time. We've also seen the chip lineup's price drop. And, games are starting to take better advantage of multiple CPU cores. Moreover, as a general-purpose CPU (during the hours you don't spend gaming), the quad-core solution is going to be superior to dual- and triple-core competitors.
Now found as low as $100, this particular model is well within the grasp of budget-oriented gamers, and it represents a solid starting point for any value-based system, gaming or otherwise.
Read our review of the Athlon II X4, right here.
Pentium Dual-Core E6800
The 3.33 GHz Pentium E6800 replaced the 3.2 GHz Pentium E6700 as the fastest budget dual-core available for the LGA 775 interface.
While the E6800 doesn't have any dormant cores that could be unlocked (like the Phenom II X2 555), it has a solid reputation for overclocking well, and it makes a good upgrade option for tweakers with older LGA 775-based systems who are not yet ready to put money into a new motherboard and CPU.
For folks considering a full upgrade, the Socket AM3 and LGA 1155 platforms are probably better choices. Of course, in order to get onboard with LGA 1155 at this price point, you'll have to go with the least expensive Core i3 available. That part isn't available yet, and when it is, it'll likely cost somewhere around $130. For folks looking to spend $100 or less on their processor, Socket AM3 is the only low-cost option we'd recommend for now.
Best Gaming CPU: $110-$200
Best Gaming CPU for $110-$130: None
Our upcoming roundup of twelve sub-$200 processors shows that there is currently little reason to go beyond an Athlon II X4 in this price range. But it also lets us know that Intel's Sandy Bridge-based Core i3-2300 and -2320 have the potential to bring impressive gaming performance down to the $130 price point. Previously, we had to pay $200 or more for equivalent speed.
For now the Phenom II X4 955 keeps its recommendation at $140. However, the Core i3-2300 will probably steal that nod away in the next month, so long as it becomes available for purchase.
Best Gaming CPU for $140:
Phenom II X4 955 Black Edition
A former flagship of AMD's Phenom II X4 family, the Phenom II X4 955 Black Edition was relegated to fourth-place status by the new Phenom II X4 975 BE model.
Despite its position in the pecking order, Phenom II X4 955 offers the best gaming value. It is a true quad-core processor with a sizable 6 MB L3 cache. But even more impressive at this price is its unlocked multiplier. From our experience, the great majority of Phenom II X4 955 processors can run just as fast as the Phenom II X4 975 with a simple BIOS multiplier change from 16x to 18x. That's an easy way to put this $140 processor on par with a stock ~$210 Core i5-760 when it comes to gaming.
The real competition for the Phenom II X4 955 BE is Intel's Sandy Bridge-based Core i3 lineup, arriving at retail as early as March. For now, we'll allow the 955 to keep its recommendation. But we're going to revisit this when the Core i3-2300 becomes available.
Read our review of the Phenom II X4 955 Black Edition, right here.
Best Gaming CPU for $195:
Sandy Bridge is here, and Intel's new microarchitechture is fast. Initial test data suggests that the new Core i5-2400 can stand toe to toe with Core i7-900-series processors when it comes to game performance. We're not talking about the entry-level models, either. This affordable processor has the chops to compete with Intel's thousand-dollar Extreme Edition chips when it comes to enabling the highest frames per second.
As great as the Core i5-700-series chips are, the new Core i5-2000 processors hit the afterburners and fly right by. Plus, the LGA 1156 interface is essentially dead, so it'd seem silly to sink any money into it at this point.
Read our review of the new Sandy Bridge-based CPUs here.
Best Gaming CPU: $200 And Up
Best Gaming CPU for $210: None
The Core i5-760 is displaced by Intel's new Core-i5-2500K (and its accompanying interface). But for folks who already own a Core i3 on an LGA 1156 platform, the Core i5-760 continues to offer tremendous value. Just like the Core i5-750, Intel's -760 delivers serious gaming performance at its default frequency. What's more, these CPUs are monsters when overclocked, and even challenge more expensive Core i7 models.
Read our review of the Core i5-750, right here.
Best Gaming CPU for $225:
From a raw processing standpoint the Core i5-2500K offers very little over the cheaper Core i5-2400. It does hold three distinctions, however: it's clocked a few hundred MHz higher, it comes with Intel HD 3000 graphics, and it has an unlocked CPU multiplier.
The 200 MHz (300 MHz with Turbo Boost) advantage is almost insignificant, and gamers with discrete graphics cards will care little about the integrated graphics engine. But the unlocked CPU multiplier is a must for overclockers using any Sandy Bridge-based CPU. The Core i5-2500K is the obvious choice for gamers looking for the best combination of brute gaming force and tweakability.
Read our review of the new Sandy Bridge-based CPUs here
Past the Point of Reason:
CPUs priced over $225 offer rapidly diminishing returns when it comes to game performance. As such, we have a hard time recommending anything more expensive than the Core i5-2500K, 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 $1000 Core i7-990X Extreme Edition when it comes to gaming.
Is there any reason for a gamer to go with a Core i7-900-series CPU/X58 motherboard combo, now that Sandy bridge has arrived? While the new Core i7-2000 series is faster than the Core i7-900-series from a processing standpoint, the platform can be a factor. The new LGA 1155 processors have an inherent limit of 16 PCIe lanes for graphics use (the same limit that LGA 1156 processors suffered), so if a gamer plans to use three or more graphics cards in CrossFire or SLI, we have to ask if Bloomfield/Gulftown and X58 offer the potential for more performance?
No! In theory, the current ultimate gaming platform (until Intel releases the LGA 2011 interface in the second half of this year) would be a P67 chipset paired with the NF200 bridge. Our experience with the LGA 1156 chipset paired with the NF200 bridge indicates that a P67/NF200 combo would allow us to use the fastest Sandy Bridge CPUs available in conjunction with three or four graphics cards without noticable graphics bandwidth trade-offs. In fact, we already have a story in the works that should prove this definitively.
To summarize, while we recommend against purchasing any gaming CPU that retails for more than $225 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 processing goals, the following CPU is for you:
Best Gaming CPU for $330: (or for any price)
Take the Core i5-2500, add 2 MB of L3 cache, Hyper-Threading, and a 100 MHz bump across the board. What do you have? The Core i7-2600K.
It doesn't sound like much of an improvement, and frankly it will make remarkably little difference when it comes to gaming. The $100 spread between the Core i5-2500K and Core i7-2600K is only recommended if you want to brag, because you're probably not going to notice any appreciable frame rate difference. The Core i7's strength is only really exploited in heavily-threaded workstation applications, rather than games.
But no list is complete without the best-of-the-best, and that's the Core i7-2600K. For $330 you can have a CPU that probably games faster than the $1050 hexa-core Core i7-990X Extreme.
Read our review of the new Sandy Bridge-based CPUs here.
Gaming CPU Hierarchy Chart
What about this other CPU that's not on the list? How do I know if it's a good deal or not?
This will happen. In fact, it's guaranteed to happen because availability and prices change quickly. So how do you know if that CPU you have your eye on is a good buy in its price range?
Here is a resource to help you judge if a CPU is a reasonable value or not: the gaming CPU hierarchy chart, which groups CPUs with similar overall gaming performance levels into tiers. The top tier contains the highest-performing gaming CPUs available and gaming performance decreases as you go down the tiers from there.
However, a word of caution: this hierarchy is based on the average performance each CPU achieved in our charts test suite using only four game titles: Crysis, Unreal Tournament 3, World in Conflict, and Supreme Commander. While we feel this represents an acceptable cross-section of typical gaming scenarios, a specific game title will likely perform differently. Some games, for example, will be severely graphics subsystem-limited, while others may react positively to more CPU cores, larger amounts of CPU cache, or even a specific architecture. We also did not have access to every CPU on the market, so some of the CPU performance estimates are based on the numbers similar architectures deliver. Indeed, this hierarchy chart is useful as a general guideline, but certainly not as a gospel one-size-fits-all perfect CPU comparison resource.
You can use this hierarchy to compare the pricing between two processors, to see which one is a better deal, and also to determine if an upgrade is worthwhile. I don't recommend upgrading your CPU unless the potential replacement is at least three tiers higher. Otherwise, the upgrade is somewhat parallel and you may not notice a worthwhile difference in game performance.
There you have it folks: the best gaming CPUs for the money this month. Now all that's left to do is to find and purchase them.
Also remember that the stores don't follow this list. Things will change over the course of the month and you'll probably have to adapt your buying strategy to deal with fluctuating prices. Good luck!