Skip to main content

Core i5, Core i7, CrossFire, And SLI: Gaming Paradise, Redux?

Conclusion

Here’s the real deal: we can turn the settings down below 1680x1050 and show you 200+ frame per second results that make one processor look like a champ while another “languishes” along at 175 frames. But where’s the value in that?  Running at 1680x1050 represents a solid baseline for mainstream gamers, while 2560x1600 serves as today’s Holy Grail. Add or subtract anti-aliasing and anisotropic filtering anywhere in there for the best balance between performance and quality.

In games like S.T.A.L.K.E.R. and Far Cry 2, you see a lot of the same results, regardless of the platform on which you’re running. Those are the titles where frame rates drop perilously low—they’re limited by the GPU power plugged into their PCI Express slots. Ideally, when you add a second board and turn on CrossFire or SLI, that situation changes, performance jumps, and you get closer to approaching the CPU’s limit instead.

Other games, like Left 4 Dead and to a lesser extent Grand Theft Auto 4 (we’ve seen World in Conflict fall into this category, too), demonstrate more variance, even with one card installed. Frame rates are usually already playable, yielding less benefit when a second card is installed. These are the games that tend to be CPU-limited in some way—most playable, right up until a graphics bottleneck kicks in.

Thus, the conclusion here is pretty simple. When gaming is your top priority, buy “just enough” CPU and reallocate the rest of your budget toward graphics. In one test after another, we saw situations where a single ATI Radeon HD 4870 X2 or Nvidia GeForce GTX 285 wasn’t powerful enough to show some sort of benefit to one host processor or another. Only after adding a second card in CrossFire or SLI do you start seeing some benefit to a quicker CPU. And those are $400 graphics cards. Unless you’re planning on spending twice that on an upgrade, the point at which you’ll see GPU performance limit frame rates will come even sooner—long before integrated PCI Express or x8 links play any sort of role.

How does that apply to Intel’s new CPUs? Gamers planning on a single-card graphics subsystem will get plenty of mileage out of the $199 Core i5-750 and a $100 motherboard. Because this falls below where the Core 2 Quad Q9550 or Phenom II X4 965 BE are currently priced, we’ll have to see how Intel and AMD adjust post-launch. However, a 2.66 GHz quad-core chip capable of scaling up to 3.2 GHz in single-threaded applications is good for more than just gaming, and as a result, it looks a heckuva lot better than the two architectures it undercuts today.

One more thing: SLI versus CrossFire. Oy. In certain games, ATI simply kicks butt. Its performance with one Radeon HD 4870 X2 simply walks Nvidia’s GeForce GTX 285, despite the fact that the two models we used are priced similarly. But add a second, and in some cases SLI gets close to doubling performance, while ATI not only fails to scale well, but outright loses its lead. Left 4 Dead, Grand Theft Auto, and Crysis are three examples. ATI still wins out in S.T.A.L.K.E.R., but SLI buys more performance for Nvidia. ATI simply dominates Far Cry 2, no matter which way you cut it. Even still, we'd like to see ATI match the scaling Nvidia is getting from SLI. At least then our point that gamers are better off with a second graphics card versus a pricey CPU would be easier to drive home.

Chris Angelini is an Editor Emeritus at Tom's Hardware US. He edits hardware reviews and covers high-profile CPU and GPU launches.
  • lashton
    so we can assume for gaming the 965BE (or 955 oc) and ATi cards are just as fast as Core i7 and i5 but at a fraction of the price
    Reply
  • cangelini
    The 955 does cost less. The 965 is more expensive than Core i5.
    Reply
  • Dekasav
    Only thing I don't like is how you knock Crossfire with 2 HD 4870X2's, since when is it even feasible that 4-way CF would scale as well as 2-way SLI?

    But excellent review, overall, I'm actually surprised at how the 965BE did, I thought it'd be behind, where it was actually right in the pack.
    Reply
  • dirtmountain
    I would have liked to see a 780a or a 980a SLI motherboard used to check the SLI numbers on the P2 965BE. I'm also surprised there's no overclocking numbers in the comparison, is that article still to come out?
    Reply
  • cangelini
    It's upcoming dirt; Patrick is the one working on it (and our Italian team sent word of its i5 and i7s in excess of 4.2 GHz)
    Reply
  • sudeshc
    Nice game collection you got there.......:)

    Great review.
    Reply
  • anonymous x
    Let us know what you think about this in the comments section, but it was pretty clear that Vista was never a favorite, so we're hoping Windows 7 is a more popular environment in which to test
    I like vista, rock solid and stable since I got it years ago. Don't listen to the bashers who never have tried the product.
    Reply
  • lashton
    You giotta remember vista is design for spoecific hardware and powerfull hardware that can run it, so people with P4 3GHz and vista complain about its speed, vista is OK, i dont like it cause my computer doesm't like it thats fine i get over it and chnage my OS
    Reply
  • cangelini
    Thanks for weighing in, guys!
    Reply
  • crash27
    So there's no benafit from adding a second 285 to a q9550s or an x4 965 be ??

    I get a good performance boost from my second gtx280 with my q9650 @ 4 gz
    Reply