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Conclusion: Making Some Picks
The CPU battle taking place in the $100 - $200 price bracket is an interesting one largely because there are so many competitors. Although it would seem like Intel has more offerings, half of them can be ignored by new system builders. We strongly recommend those stuck on the LGA775 platform think long and hard about investing more money in it rather than waiting a bit longer (if needed) and moving to a newer platform instead.
At the top of the food chain we have just one AMD processor, the Phenom II X4 965 Black Edition priced at roughly $185. However from $185 - $195 there are four Intel processors to choose from. Remove the older Core 2 models that are excessively overpriced by today's standards and we are left with the Core i5 650 and the Core i5 750.
In spite of being innovative technology, the entire Core i5 6xx series is pointless in our opinion, as these dual-core processors are nothing more than a Core i3 with Turbo Boost. For roughly the same price the Core i5 750 is far superior in terms of performance and efficiency. So it comes down to the Core i5 750 or Phenom II X4 965 Black Edition at the top end of the scale.
Here the Core i5 750 wins hands down. With P55 motherboards now available at $100 or more, and H55 motherboards costing even less, the LGA1156 platform is also very affordable. In other words, not much has changed since its inception, the Core i5 750 remains king if you are willing to spend $200 on your next processor, but if you have waited until now many new options are available on the motherboard front.
The next CPU battle takes place at $140 between the Phenom II X4 925, Phenom II X3 720 and Core i3 540 processors. Although OEM versions of the Phenom II X3 720 can be had for just $105, we are using retail pricing as reference for all products. In those circumstances we felt that the Phenom II X4 925 outmuscled the triple-core part.
More often than not the Phenom II X4 925 was faster than the Core i3 540, in some cases much faster thanks to its quad-core design. When looking at the clock-for-clock data, the Phenom II X4 925 was considerably speedier across the board. So far so good, but taking operating efficiency into account, the Phenom II X4 925 and Phenom II X3 720 processors performed poorly in this respect using roughly twice as much power as the Core i3 540.
Picking between the Core i3 540 and Phenom II X4 925 processors is no easy task as they are both excellent options. The Core i3 540 is designed for the LGA1156 platform and therefore should provide users with an excellent upgrade path. On the other hand, the Phenom II X4 925 supports the latest AMD platform as well as a few previous platforms, making it highly flexible.
As games and applications ramp up to take advantage of more cores, the Phenom II X4 925 makes more sense. For gamers and power users we are going to suggest the Phenom II X4 925, while the Core i3 540 makes more sense for casual or HTPC usage thanks to its low power consumption and heat output.
At the lower end of the spectrum it was all AMD, as the Athlon II X4 635 and Phenom II X2 555 Black Edition processors priced at $120 and $100, respectively, proved too much for the aging Core 2 Duo E7500 selling for $110. The Core 2 Duo E7500 was the last kid picked, where it secured bottom position in our gaming and encoding graphs. Again, simply because it is an LGA775 processor we would write it off anyway, but at $110 it is more expensive than the Phenom II X2 555 despite providing considerably less performance. The only real weakness of these AMD processors is power consumption, which is considerably higher when compared to the E7500.
Out of these three affordable AMD processors we would pick the Phenom II X2 555 without hesitation. Given the strong possibility of enabling the other two cores, the Phenom II X2 555 is a very tempting product for those looking for a serious bargain.
The Athlon II X4 635 really failed to impress us despite being an unbelievably affordable quad-core part. The lack of L3 cache really hurts this processor and as a result the Phenom II X2 555 was faster in a number of tests. If it were not for the cheaper and often faster Phenom II X2 555, then chances are we would be raving about a $120 Athlon II X4 635.
In a nutshell, if you are looking to spend ~$200 on a CPU then we recommend the Core i5 750 without exception. At the half way point of $150 we recommend either the Phenom II X4 925 or the Core i3 540 depending on your needs, and as much as we like Intel's offering here we are leaning towards the Phenom II X4. Finally, at $100 it's all AMD and we feel the Phenom II X2 555 is the best option here.