Case in Point: The Best CPU Under $300

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I’ve recently built up two midrange Core i7 based systems, which I discuss on my blog at Improbable Insights. One is based on Bloomfield, more specifically, the popular (among performance enthusiasts, anyway) Core i7 920. The other is the new Lynnfield-based Core i7 860. What’s interesting is the similarity in pricing between the two systems. I’ll talk about the individual system builds, but I also want to explore why you might build one type of system over the other.

These systems are similar, but don’t have identical components (motherboards obviously differ.) But they are good case studies into what to think about when building a system that has some legs.

Both CPUs are priced identically on Intel’s price list -- $284 – but differ in other respects. Both have advantages and disadvantages. Let’s dig into the details of each system, then do a little postmortem analysis.

Core i7 920 and Core i7 860 Features
The Core i7 920 is the entry level of the Bloomfield CPUs. It has become something of a darling among the overclocking crowd, particularly since the “D” stepping came out a few months back. The 920 requires an LGA 1366 socket and has a triple channel DDR3 memory controller. The core i7 860 uses the newer LGA 1156 socket, and has a dual channel DDR3 memory controller. Here’s a table of their base specs:



Core i7 920

Core i7 860

Clock Frequency (Default)



                Number of QPI / DMI Paths



                Turbo Boost “bins” (1 core active)



                PCI Express Controller


On Die

                DDR Memory Channels



                Shared L3 Cache Size



                Price (Intel Official Wholesale)



               Price (Average of top 3 sites)



Of course, you have to factor in platform costs as well. Comparing similar motherboards and memory averages out to around a $40-60 cost disparity, with the Core i7 920 systems on the more expensive side. X58 motherboards generally cost more, for similar feature sets, and you need triple channel memory kits, rather than dual channel. On the other hand, triple channel, 6GB DDR3 kits are cheaper on a per-gigabyte basis, than similar dual channel kits.

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Crisis Causer 5 years ago

Yup, 1156 is the way to go.  And I see no need for buying higher than an i7 860.  I'd love to see the i5 750 thrown in the battery of tests too.  For $199, that's the one I recommend for new Intel builds.  For 45% more cost, the i7 860 really takes a beating in the price to performance ratio.

marco c 5 years ago

Only if you're talking about single-threaded performance. If you look at multi-threaded performance, the 860 is a significant step up from the 750, due to its support for HT.

gibbersome 5 years ago

Very correct. But for gamers, the HT wouldn't be so important.


Here's a quick rundown of most CPU options available:

3vi1 5 years ago

You know what would be interesting? A HH side-by-side comparison of modern games running on a multi-core processor, and then with only single core enabled.

Undoubtedly things have progressed where sound, AI, physics, etc. take better advantage of multiple cores. I'd be interested in knowing exactly how much of a difference it makes in the more popular engines (Valve, ID, etc...).

eunoia 5 years ago


ClemSnide 5 years ago

I was hoping that someone would pit the 860 and 920 head-to-head! The odd thing, though, is that when I use a system builder's configurator to put together the X58 or P55 system I want, they come out about the same price. [shrug]

This isn't my own work; it's been bouncing around the World of Warcraft forums for a while. But, it's relevant, I think:

Technically WoW only utilizes 2 cores max. However, you can modify your file, the "set process affinity" value to 15 to use all 4 cores equally. If you google "setprofessaffinity" you might be able to find a map, but some general values...

  • 5 = cores 1&3
  • 7 = cores 1,2,3
  • 10 = cores 2&4
  • 14 = Cores 2,3,4
  • 15 = Cores 1,2,3,4
3vi1 5 years ago


ClemSnide said...

* 5 = cores 1&3

* 7 = cores 1,2,3

* 10 = cores 2&4

* 14 = Cores 2,3,4

* 15 = Cores 1,2,3,4


Looks binary, with each core being represented by an individual bit:

From your examples, core 1 is the right most bit, and the others move left (as is standard for binary)

So, using one core would be: b0001 = 1 in decimal.

Using cores 1 & 3, would be: b0101 = 5 in decimal.


So here's the missing map you mentioned for the combinations not shown:

Only core 1 = b0001 = 1 decimal.

Only core 2 = b0010 = 2 decimal.

Cores 1&2 = b0011 = 3 decimal.

Only core 3 = b0100 = 4 decimal.

Cores 1&3 = b0101 = 5 decimal.

Cores 2&3 = b0110 = 6 decimal.

Core 4 only = b1000 = 8 decimal.

Cores 1&4 = b1001 = 9 decimal.

Cores 1,2 & 4 = b1011 = 11 decimal.

Cores 3&4 = b1100 = 12 decimal.

Cores 1,3 & 4 = b1101 = 13 decimal.

And of course, my favorite way to play WoW:

No processor cores = b0000 = 0 decimal

Kyouya 5 years ago

Thank you for this comparison, Hothardware. I am in the process of choosing which Core i7 socket to go with....the 1156 or 1366. I had to ask various computer engineers, friends and early tech adopters on which socket is for the better. You brought interesting economical and future-proof arguments into the mix. Since I am building a PC now, I will stick with the 1156. It may be a gamble...but the cost is an important factor in my purchasing (especially since the Motherboards for 1366 is ridiculously expensive).

realneil 5 years ago

I like to build for as much performance as possible for the money I'm spending at the time. Then I just enjoy what I have until something happens and I can afford to upgrade or build again. If I was building right now it would have to be the Lynnfield Core, i7 860. As software and game development progresses, this platform will be the most advantageous to own.

Bongr 5 years ago

I've been waiting for the new CPUs and chipsets before buying anything. I don't need to have the top of the line super expensive stuff. The i5 is just what I needed.

Soupstyle 5 years ago

I have to agree that the newer i7 860 seems to be the best bang for the buck that intel has right now for midsize budget users.

I think Crisis Causer has a good idea with comparing the i5 750 on the same platform to compare it with the 860, if it puts up similar scores (or even moderately lower) in comparison to the 860, you could possibly get this type of performance to people on an even tighter budget.

slugbug 5 years ago

You can't count out the Core i7 920. Micro Center stores still sell it for $200.

strid3r 5 years ago

I'm definitely looking into an i5/i7 1156 rig as my upgrade.  The CPU and the mobos are cheaper and I don't intend on going multi-GPU.

martin_nj 5 years ago

go big or go home. i7 all the way is my plan

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