The Processors: Pentium, Core i3, Core i5, and Core i7

The least expensive Sandy Bridge processors continue to be the venerable Pentium line. These are the newest Sandy Bridge CPUs and are currently available at clock speeds of 2.6GHz (the Pentium G620), 2.8GHz (Pentium G840), and 2.9GHz (Pentium G850), as well as a low-power (35W TDP) 2.2GHz variant (Pentium G620T). The Sandy Bridge Pentiums are very similar to the Core i3 CPUs: they’re all dual-core chips fabricated on Intel’s 32nm process. They come with 3MB of L3 cache, lack Turbo Boost, and have Intel HD integrated graphics. While the i3s have “Intel HD 2000” graphics and the Pentiums have “Intel HD” graphics, both IGPs feature 6 EUs (Execution Units) that can turbo up to 1100MHz and thus perform very similarly, including support for dual displays. Unlike the Core i3 models, however, the Sandy Bridge Pentiums do not support Intel’s Quick Sync Video technology or DDR3-1333 RAM; perhaps most importantly, the Pentiums do not feature Hyper-Threading.  Outside of the low-power G620T, they come with a 65W TDP (35W on the G620T). Subjective performance of the G620 for general office productivity tasks and web browsing is, in my estimation, broadly similar to the older Core 2 Duo E8400 CPU and current AMD Athlon II X2 260.

There are now four Sandy Bridge Core i3 CPUs ready for purchase in North American retail channels. These are all dual-core CPUs that feature Hyper-Threading, support for Intel Quick Sync technology, and Intel HD 2000 graphics (save the Core i3-2105). The chips are the Core i3-2100 (3.1GHz), i3-2100T (2.5GHz and featuring a 35W TDP), i3-2105 (3.1GHz but featuring Intel HD 3000 graphics), and i3-2120 (3.3GHz). The i3s do not support Turbo Boost, nor are there any ‘-K’ models for easy overclocking (though an unlocked i3 is rumored to be available eventually).

The 2nd Generation Core i5 processors (with one exception) are all quad-core CPUs that feature Turbo Boost but without Hyper-Threading, and they come with 6MB of L3 cache. All support Intel Quick Sync, and most have a TDP of 95W and feature Intel HD 2000 graphics. The 2500K model is fully unlocked, facilitating extremely easy overclocking, and it comes with HD 3000 graphics. The ‘-S’ models are lower-powered chips featuring a 65W TDP, and the Core i5-2405S includes Intel HD 3000 graphics. The exception to the above is the i5-2390T, which is a dual-core 2.7GHz part with Turbo Boost up to 3.5GHz, a 35W TDP, and 3MB L3 cache—basically a souped up, low-power i3. The entire line of Core i5s fit within about a $50 range—from about $175 to $225.

The Core i7 Sandy Bridges currently comes in only three variants: the i7-2600, its unlocked counterpart the i7-2600K, and the low-power i7-2600S. The 2600K enables all the bells and whistles: 3.4GHz base with up to 3.8GHz Turbo Boost, Hyper-Threading, HD 3000 graphics, 8MB of L3 cache, 95W TDP, and an unlocked multiplier. The Core i7-2600 is the same, except without the fully unlocked multiplier and with HD 2000 graphics. The 2600S is clocked at 2.8GHz with up to 3.8GHz Turbo Boost, HD 2000 graphics, and it has a 65W TDP. The 2600K is the fastest mainstream desktop CPU currently available at retail. We provided a very thorough, comprehensive review of the Core i3, i5, and i7 CPUs back in January; if you are considering building a second-gen Core system, it’s an invaluable resource.

The Chipsets: H61, H67, P67, and Z68

Simply put, in order from least to most expensive (in general), as well as least to most feature-rich, the Cougar Point hierarchy is: H61, H67, P67, and Z68. (We’ll go ahead and skip over the business-centric B65, Q65, and Q67.) While there are far more differences than those discussed here, a few variations are worth noting for the purposes of this guide. You can read more about the chipsets on AnandTech in our ASRock P67 review, H67 motherboard roundup, and ASUS Z68 review.

The H61 chipset does not support CPU multiplier overclocking, has no SATA 6.0Gbps ports, and features the fewest USB 2.0 ports (‘only’ 10). Intel’s Sandy Bridge CPUs feature on-die graphics processors, and the H61 does not support overclocking the GPU. The H67 chipset is similar in that it doesn’t support CPU multiplier overclocking, but it does support GPU overclocking. It also has two SATA 6.0Gbps ports. These chipsets also let you use Intel’s Quick Sync technology, since they provide access to the IGP block. The P67 chipset is the reverse of the H67 and targets the enthusiast segment, with support for CPU multiplier overclocking and two SATA 6.0Gbps ports. However, P67 does not utilize the on-die graphics and thus requires a discrete GPU. That means you also lose out on support for Quick Sync.

Since H67 and P67 both have desirable elements—Quick Sync on the one hand and overclocking on the other—there was clearly a gap in the chipset lineup. The Z68 chipset fills that gap, supporting both CPU multiplier overclocking and IGP overclocking, Quick Sync, and SATA 6.0Gbps. It also supports Intel Virtu Technology, which uses the on-die GPU for less demanding tasks and the discrete GPU for more intensive applications, which potentially saves energy but more importantly allows the use of a dGPU while still providing Quick Sync support. Finally, Intel introduced their Smart Response Technology (SSD caching) with Z68; it’s just software that could work with other chipsets, but right now it remains a Z68 exclusive. At the risk of sounding flippant, Z68 is what P67 should have been, and aside from the fact that Z68 boards are typically a bit more expensive than P67 boards, there aren’t many (any?) compelling reasons to buy a P67 motherboard now that Z68 is out.

With the overview of the CPUs and chipsets out of the way, this guide outlines a budget (<$500) Core i3-based computer, a $1000 Core i5 midrange system, and a $2000 Core i7 gaming monster. Keep in mind that prices on components frequently fluctuate and that these guides might be a bit over or under budget when you read them. It’s always a good idea to shop around and watch for particularly low prices (AnandTech’s Hot Deals forum is full of useful information). Now let’s get to the system builds.

Sandy Bridge and Cougar Point Sandy Bridge on a <$500 Budget
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  • ericloewe - Friday, June 17, 2011 - link

    I think Virtu is actually by Lucid, not Intel
  • odditude - Friday, June 17, 2011 - link

    It also doesn't require Z68 - I just ordered an Intel DH67GDB3 that supports it.
  • Termie - Friday, June 17, 2011 - link

    You linked to the EVGA GTX460 1GB "SE" model, but in your writeup and linked benchmark, you are referring to the non-SE model. The SE model is not comparable to the HD6850, and is not a good deal at $115 after rebate. May I recommend the ASUS ENGTX460 DirectCU TOP 768MB, which is currently on Newegg for $115 after $30 rebate? If you're willing to go over $1000 pre-rebate, the EVGA GTX460 1GB non-SE model is also available for $170 with a $40 rebate.
  • cobalt42 - Friday, June 17, 2011 - link

    True, that is the SE model, and that fact should probably have been mentioned. I think it's still definitely a good deal though. It's factory overclocked, with a higher clockspeed than the 768MB, and the extra RAM and memory bandwidth can make a big difference even at 1920x1200 resolutions and moderate AA, so for about the same price I'd pick the SE 1GB over the 768MB, personally. The only thing you're getting by going up to the non-SE is an extra SM's worth of shader processors. (Non-SE 1GB is probably the best deal, but the extra $20 here would have put them over budget.)
  • JarredWalton - Friday, June 17, 2011 - link

    Sorry, that was my bad. Zach had the 6850 in there initially, but after discussing it with Ryan I switched out for the GTX 460. Unfortunately, I accidentally snagged an SE instead of the full 460; I've updated the prices and text accordingly, but it's only a $10 increase after MIR (and $5 increase before MIR).
  • GatoRat - Friday, June 17, 2011 - link

    Why jump from sub 1000 to 2000? For about 1200-1400, you can build a pretty good Core i7 2600 based system.
  • DanNeely - Saturday, June 18, 2011 - link

    The first paragraph of the $2k build discusses a $1400 build (upgrade the GPU + PSU on the $1k build)
  • StormyParis - Friday, June 17, 2011 - link

    I'm all for spending money on fancy things (not !), but could we at least get a handful of benchmarks to know what that extra cash is buying ? A very appreciated extra would be a CPU vs GPU upgrade tryout, where we can see for the 2 lower builds where extra money would be well spent (my guess, GPU, always ?)

    Apart from that, thanks for a nice article, especially the first page which helps understand the ungodly mess that Intel's CPU/GPU/Chipset catalog is.
  • another user - Friday, June 17, 2011 - link

    > Unlike the Core i3 models, however, the Sandy Bridge Pentiums do not support Intel’s Quick Sync Video technology or DDR3-1333 RAM

    According to Pentiums G8xx do support DDR3 1333.
  • Shadowmaster625 - Friday, June 17, 2011 - link

    Reminds me of Cramer pumping up stocks in the summer of 2008. Oh yeah, great time to buy! Why would any sane person recommend an i3-2100 + a 6570 for a combined $180 when you will be able to get a llano cpu and motherboard for less than that, and it will game better?

    Of course llano isnt out yet, and of course this is a "sandy bridge" buyer's guide. But gimme a break... who you foolin? The timing on this is laughably conspicuous. Right now is an especially wise time to buy! No, it's not.

    It's ok to kiss the hand of your master, but jeez you dont have to lick it.

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