40 CPUs tested for budget, mid-range and gaming PCs
From Celerons to Core i7s, Semprons to Phenom IIs, David Bayon tests Mainsteam desktop processors and finds the best budget, mid-range and enthusiast (gaming) choice for you.
The past few months have seen the CPU battle move to the next phase, with each side launching a new product line into an already crowded arena.
Intel’s Core i7 promptly annihilated our previous benchmark records, then AMD’s Phenom II followed, with less brute force but an aggressive pricing strategy.
The top of the scale continues to excite, but the real processor bargains are to be found further down the pecking order: every new introduction at the top forces mainstream prices ever lower.
Existing processor families on both sides have also been updated and streamlined, the weakest models culled and – as we’ve found throughout our testing – more are disappearing by the week.
It’s a complicated state of affairs, so we’ve taken a snapshot of the market to reveal where you should be investing your hard-earned cash, and which models you ought to avoid.
Widely available processors have been benchmarked, and you’ll find details both in the feature table opposite and the graph overleaf.
Only processors found in plentiful stock in at least one of our chosen major online retailers have been included; anything else was considered to be discontinued.
What remains is a fascinating price-performance picture, which sees Intel take the honours for speed, but AMD stage a bold and successful defence using value as its weapon of choice.
Both companies are certainly worth considering if you’re building from scratch; if you’re just upgrading an existing PC, there are still plenty of options to weigh up on either side whether you want one, two, three or four cores.
So whatever your priorities, however large or small your budget, the following three pages contain all the vital information you’ll need to decide which processor will sit at the core of your next PC.
CPU Buyers Guide:
|Click on feature table for large size.|
We’ve gathered and tested 40 processors using our standard benchmarks and a pair of high-end test rigs – one for Intel and one for AMD. To keep the results comparable with our last CPU round-up, we used a Gigabyte GA-X48-DQ6 Intel board and a Gigabyte GA-MA790FX-DQ6 for the AMD CPUs.
We then completed each rig with identical components: 2GB of DDR2 RAM, an ATI Radeon HD 3870 graphics card, a 10,000rpm Western Digital Raptor hard disk and Windows Vista Ultimate.
All results are relative to our reference PC, which is a dual-core 3.2GHz Pentium D 840 with 1GB of RAM.The rising baseline
Over the past year, we’ve seen traditional “bottom-end” processors become an increasingly rare sight.
The old Celeron name is now attached to just a few Intel models and is gradually being swamped by a widening of the Pentium Dual-Core family, which itself is little more than a stripped-down implementation of the Core 2 architecture.
Meanwhile, AMD is clinging on to its last remaining Semprons – amazingly, still single core in this multicore age, but surely not for much longer.
While these processors are undoubtedly affordable – the Semprons start at just $48 for the LE-1200, and the Celerons at $85 for the E1200 – their lowly performance figures mean we’re reluctant to recommend them for all but the cheapest of budget PCs.
There may have been a time when 0.69 was considered a good benchmark score, but in today’s world that’s comfortably beaten by most average laptops.
Right now, the difference in performance between a $50 processor and one at $130 is surprisingly wide, so those looking for value should examine the upper ends of the budget processor segment instead.
AMD’s Athlon X2 family is still here and going strong, although it’s undergoing a bit of a revamp.
The remaining available classic models go right up to the 2.9GHz X2 5600+ – once a top-end luxury, but now a $113 bargain – scoring 1.17 in our benchmarks.
The newer X2 7750+ is good, too, with a score of 1.24 for just $123, so the Athlon X2 family offers plenty of dual-core power at enticing prices.
On price alone most of Intel’s budget line only just competes: as the graph below shows, AMD largely has the edge here. But it doesn’t have it all its own way.
Intel’s new E5000-series of Pentium Dual-Core CPUs offers a lot more bang per buck, and even the fastest of these – which improves hugely on the old range in terms of power – doesn’t cost a penny more.
AMD has reduced the price of its triple-core Phenom X3 range to compete, but it’s not yet cheap enough to be considered a true budget choice.
|CPU test graph|
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This Group Test appeared in the July, 2009 issue of PC & Tech Authority Magazine