Part 4: Building A Balanced Gaming PC

Processors

While a powerful GPU is certainly an important component in a balanced gaming PC, graphics performance alone does not guarantee an enjoyable experience. The processor, or CPU (as everyone calls it), amongst other pieces of hardware, must cope with tasks like physics and AI (artificial intelligence) calculations, on top of any background tasks running as you play your game.

Part 4: AMD Processors

AMD Phenom II X6 1055T

The AMD Phenom II X6 1055T features six physical processing cores, each equipped with 512 KB of L2 cache, and sharing 6 MB L3 cache. AMD Turbo CORE technology can boost the 2.8 GHz stock speeds, in effect enabling three 3.3 GHz cores in lightly-threaded applications.

We won’t put this technology into action until later in the series, as we disable Turbo for today’s overclocking story. More information on the Phenom II X6 architecture can be found in our launch coverage. Our sample is a 125 W TDP (Thermal Design Power) version, and not the newer 95 W TDP part.

AMD Phenom II X4 955 Black Edition

The AMD Phenom II X4 955 Black Edition is a quad-core Socket AM3 processor with 4 x 512 KB L2 cache and a 6 MB shared L3 cache. We could have used this Black Edition (BE) processor to simulate a Phenom II X4 965 BE, but knew we’d cover overclocking anyway. At stock settings, the slightly lower 3.2 GHz stock clock rate and lower price tag combine to enable an even more attractive price/performance ratio.

AMD Athlon II X4 640

At 3.0 GHz, this current king of AMD’s Athlon II series is not the highest-clocked model out of the box, but we’ll be cranking up the core speed anyway for this part of the series.

While the Athlon II X4 640 doesn’t match the “bang for buck” of the $75 triple-core Athlon II X3 440, it should provide a good look at what a gamer could hope to pull from an Athlon II with all four functioning cores active. The main area of interest here is the impact a lack of L3 cache will play in terms of gaming capability.

AMD Phenom II X2 550 Black Edition

The Phenom II X2 550 Black Edition is a 3.1 GHz, dual-core, Socket AM3 processor with 2 x 512 KB L2 cache and a shared 6 MB L3 cache. Of course, like all Phenom II Black Edition chips, the X2 550 has an unlocked multiplier and voltage ID.

Part 3: Intel Processors

Intel Core i7-920

Serving up solid performance and plenty of overclocking potential, the quad-core Intel Core i7-920 is the fastest CPU we will emphasize for this series. After all, it has the headroom to exceed even Intel's Core i7-975, and we address overclocked performance in Part 3 of in the series.

This 45 nm Bloomfield-based LGA 1366 processor is clocked at 2.66 GHz, has 4 x 256 KB L2 cache, an 8 MB shared L3 cache, support for three memory channels, and it features Intel’s Hyper-Threading and Turbo Boost technologies.

Intel Core i5-750

Similar to the Core i7-920 above, Intel’s mainstream Core i5-750 is also a 45 nm quad-core processor, clocked at 2.66 GHz, with 4 x 256 KB L2 cache, 8 MB shared L3 cache, and Intel’s Turbo Boost.

This LGA 1156 Lynnfield-based processor differs mainly in its integrated PCI Express 2.0 connectivity, leveraging 16 total lanes, and dual-channel memory controller. Additionally, Hyper-Threading is not part of Core i5's feature set.

Intel Core 2 Quad Q9550

The Intel Core 2 Quad Q9550 provides a good look at what you can still get from the LGA 775 interface, ideal for the folks with slightly older P45/X38/X48 systems and not afraid to upgrade.

This 45 nm quad-core Yorkfield-based chip is clocked at 2.83 GHz, has 12 MB L2 cache between its two physical die, and runs on a 1333 MT/s FSB.

Intel Core 2 Duo E8400

The Intel Core 2 Duo E8400 is a 45 nm, dual-core Wolfdale-based processor with 6 MB of L2 cache, also running on a 1333 MT/s FSB.

This once-legendary LGA 775 processor is clocked at 3.0 GHz, but is probably best known for its 4.0+ GHz overclocking potential.

Intel Pentium E6300

Because there is so much variance in Intel's dual-core processor lineup, no single processor best represented what Intel had to offer. Thus, we were torn between adding a Pentium E5200, E5300, or E6300 to the mix.

All of these 45 nm Wolfdale-based chips have 2 MB cache and offer big performance once overclocked. But the 2.8 GHz Pentium E6300 offers higher stock performance for an extra $15 or so. Unfortunately, its 1066 MT/s FSB does mean a lower available multiplier when it comes time to overclock.

Special thanks to Intel and AMD for arranging the CPUs needed to make this entire series possible.

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43 comments
    Your comment
  • wildeast
    "such as NVidia’s GeForce GTX 400-series and revamp the benchmark suite with some new DirectX 11 titles."
    i'll be waiting for that, and maybe some i5 cpu to see what fit sli best
    3
  • jsowoc
    "We set forth to measure the perfect balance in seven different games and four resolutions in this third of many parts." (?)

    I think you copied this paragraph from part 3 and forgot to change it to 4... ;-)
    8
  • theshonen8899
    With the amount of love you guys have for the Athlon x3 I was really hoping to see it on here :\
    I guess I can kind of predict where it'd fall though.
    4
  • Darkerson
    I love the in-depth articles like these. Keep 'em coming!
    2
  • L0tus
    Brilliant piece.

    I wish I had read this before building my system as I can see that I clearly spent too much on my CPU instead of GPU (i5-750 + HD5770) . Would have done much better with (X2 550 BE + HD5850) !

    ...ain't hind sight a b***h!

    Also interesting to see how GPUs really start to distinguish themselves at higher resolutions. Again, brilliant work.
    7
  • TheStealthyOne
    I built a computer for my brother using a Phenom ii 550 paired with a 5770, and it screams! Fantastic gaming chip! It just goes to show you can achieve fantastic performance by planning and balance.
    2
  • garlik_bread
    Personally, i'd be interested to see results from a card with less han 1GB RAM on the GPU.

    On the lower end of the spectrum, with the lower resolutions, is the 1GB really necessary?

    Basically, i have a 512MB Asus 5770 and want to validate my purchase :D
    -1
  • plasmastorm
    Still running a Maximus formula 775 board with a Q6600, 8gb ram and a Radeon 5850 but this is certainly handy for future reference.
    Probably skipping the i5/i7 generation as I can still play anything at max settings on my 22" monitor while running a 2nd for a film tho :)
    -1
  • Tamz_msc
    Please test some newer games, which is essential for an article like this.
    4
  • descendency
    plasmastormStill running a Maximus formula 775 board with a Q6600, 8gb ram and a Radeon 5850 but this is certainly handy for future reference.Probably skipping the i5/i7 generation as I can still play anything at max settings on my 22" monitor while running a 2nd for a film tho


    i5/i7 isn't a generation. it's like 5 or so.

    It's the same thing as C2D and C2Q
    1
  • jonpaul37
    plasmastormStill running a Maximus formula 775 board with a Q6600, 8gb ram and a Radeon 5850 but this is certainly handy for future reference.Probably skipping the i5/i7 generation as I can still play anything at max settings on my 22" monitor while running a 2nd for a film tho


    I hear ya man, i have a Q6600 @ 3.6 and a GTX 285 and i can rock anything i play with really nice settings at 1920 x 1080 so it looks like i will be holding out for another year or two...
    -1
  • Onus
    Very nice. I really like this series.
    Suggestions: there's no need to draw curves; they should be point-to-point lines, as the data is discrete rather than continuous.
    For the RPG, I would suggest Dragon Age: Origins as being more demanding at higher settings, and/or Sacred 2 because of its use of PhysX. The latter runs the risk of becoming an ATi vs. nVidia comparison, but still may be useful.
    It would also be useful to have commentary on what bare minimum lowering of a setting or two is most likely to restore playability without sacrificing appearance too much.
    1
  • lunyone
    This totally makes my point, when I say a ~$100 CPU and a $200-$300 GPU are a the best budget gaming machines you can get. I usually make ~$100 CPU choices and ~$100-150 GPU choices when I'm building a budget gaming rig!! :)
    1
  • lemieuxxx
    what about the i3 540. Is it horrable i see its not on here.
    -4
  • wolfram23
    Great article. Good to see how a faster CPU can really pull out better FPS, and it seems to make much more difference when having dual GPUs - I can only assume the trend would hold true on dual card (sli/cf) set ups, which makes me even happier to have an i5 750 @ 4ghz with my two 5850s.

    I hope Part 5 has i3, i5, i7, X955, X965, 1055T, 1090T and concentrates on DX11 performance (4xx vs 5xxx). I'd also LOVE to see a more in depth look at CF/SLI configs. There's not a lot of in depth looks at CF5770, CF5850, SLI470... there's some, but not a lot and none comparing these set ups to different CPUs.
    -2
  • felang
    Catalyst 9.12 and only outdated games... is this January 2010 or what? you should at least test BFBC2, it uses as many cpu cores as you can throw at it...
    2
  • Onus
    Felang: they wanted it possible for readers to compare the results with previous articles in the series.
    1
  • DXRick
    Very nice article! I noticed that HD5970 and GTX295 benefited the most from the i7-920 CPU. This implies that Crossfire and SLI (multi-GPU setups) scale better with faster quads (and duals?). Thus, it would be nice to see how various CF and SLI setups depend on the CPUs in this test.

    Why did you use the older generation of Nvidia GPUs in this test? We are looking at the GTX460/470/480 now, with numerous test showing how well two 460's in SLI do.
    -1
  • nforce4max
    Nice article, as for the L3 assessment I do agree that the lack of L3 cache does negatively impact performance but at least its not catastrophic as seen with the early days of the Celeron. Personally I use a meager 8250e that I nuked to 2.57ghz and it gets the job done plus it was dirt cheap. $16 after selling off some junked parts.
    0
  • tognetta
    I would like to see the great GTX460 here too ...

    Great job, i am thankful that i read it before building my next gaming machine !
    1