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AMD FX Vs. Intel Core i3: Exploring Game Performance With Cheap GPUs

Test System And Benchmarks

One of the challenges we face every time we analyze game performance is that most titles offer a large number of customizable graphics settings. Typically, we apply the same settings to every contender. The result is often that low-end GPUs hold performance back when they try to push the same options as the high-end models. Those results end up being unrealistically-low. Nobody plays a game on a Radeon HD 5570 at 12 FPS using the same settings as a Radeon HD 7970.

In order to keep our scores in tune with reality, we're going to try using different settings for each graphics card. How do we choose the right options? Some folks find that, in some games, 30 FPS is perfectly playable, while others won’t take any less than 60 FPS across all of the titles they enjoy. There’s no objective way to choose settings, so we test each game twice, each time using a different performance target.

Our first performance target is a 30 FPS minimum. The video game industry traditionally considers this to be the goal for smooth game play. So, we choose settings that keep the game's minimum frame rate around 30 FPS, but at the highest detail and resolution possible. If you value resolution and visual fidelity over all else, this is the kind of performance target you’re probably shooting for.

The second target is for gamers who want a more fluid experience. In this case, we’re looking for about 60 FPS average, and we don’t want to dip below 40 FPS. This imparts a much smoother feel than 30 FPS minimum, even though we’ll probably have to drop visual settings and resolution to achieve it with lower-end hardware. Gamers who enjoy first-person shooters often favor responsiveness over visual fidelity, especially in competitive environments.

Our FX-4100 is actually an FX-8120 with two of its Bulldozer modules turned off. We've run exhaustive testing against an actual FX-4100 to confirm that the performance is similar. The only complication is a lack of granularity in setting its Turbo Core multiplier. So, the CPU itself runs at 3.8 GHz (rather than ranging between 3.6 and 3.8 GHz). With that established, a 100 or 200 MHz difference isn't going to impact our results noticeably.

Finally, we want to point out that the $125 Core i3-2100 is only $3 less than the Core i3-2120, a CPU that is 200 MHz faster. Although the -2120 would be our recommended buy, we're using the -2100 because that's what we have on-hand.

Socket AM3+LGA 1155
CPUAMD FX-4100 (Zambezi), 3.6 GHz Base, 3.8 GHz Turbo CoreIntel Core i3-2100 (Sandy Bridge), 3.1 GHz, Hyper-Threading enabled
MotherboardBiostar TA990FXESocket AM3+, Chipset: AMD 990FXAsus P8P67 ProLGA 1155, Chipset: Intel P67 Express
NetworkingOn-Board Gigabit LAN controller
MemoryCorsair Vengeance LP PC3-16000, 2 x 4 GB, 1600 MT/s, CL 8-8-8-24-2T
GraphicsAMD Radeon HD 5570650 MHz GPU, 1 GB DDR3 at 900 MHzAMD Radeon HD 6770850 MHz GPU, 1 GB GDDR5 at 1200 MHzAMD Radeon HD 6850775 MHz GPU, 1 GB GDDR5 at 1000 MHzAMD Radeon HD 6950800 MHz GPU, 1 GB GDDR5 at 1250 MHz
Hard DriveWestern Digital Caviar Black 750 GB 7200 RPM, 32 MB Cache, SATA 3Gb/s
PowerePower EP-1200E10-T2 1200 W ATX12V, EPS12V
Software and Drivers
Operating SystemMicrosoft Windows 7 x6, Service Pack 1, KB2645594 and KB2646060 installed
DirectXDirectX 11
Graphics DriversAMD Catalyst 12.1
Benchmark Configuration
3D Games
Metro 2033Version 1.0.0.1, Built-In Benchmark
Battlefield 3Version 1.0.0.0, Operation Swordbreaker, FRAPS runs
Elder Scrolls V: SkyrimVersion 1.4.21.04, FRAPS runs
DiRT 3Version 1.2.0.0, Built-In Benchmark
Just Cause 2Version 1.0.0.2, Concrete Jungle Benchmark
StarCraft 2Version: 1.4.2.20141, Tom's Hardware Guide Benchmark
  • ilysaml
    Great...AMD is still capable.
    Reply
  • reyshan
    Whats with the line graph Don, it's hard to read especially with the choice of color on the lines. Bring back the bar graphs.:)
    Reply
  • jjb8675309
    This is a great article, Toms needs more budget rundowns like this and perhaps more games in the test sweet that exploit the cpu difference more...
    Reply
  • compton
    I think if you're really budget limited, but need to build a system today, buying 1155 makes a little more sense. Get a decent motherboard, then get an 1155 Celeron G530/540 or Pentium. Then save up some money, and upgrade to an Ivy Bridge CPU later. The i3 is great, but the i5s are a much better deal $/performance.

    So if you need a new system and can't afford an i5, just buy a cheap 1155 SB as a placeholder until you can . Like the conclusion states, the upgrade path is there -- I just think that if it's a temporary step, you might as well save $60 to $80 if you're upgrading in the next 4 months anyway. You'd be surprised how fast the SB budget parts are, and they're fast enough to get you through till IB.

    Reply
  • esrever
    would be nice if more benchmarks were done, there are a lot of popular games that would be nice to test like civ 5, l4d2 or similar source game, mw3, SWTOR ect. Even if some of them aren't the most demanding games it would be nice to see them as they would be more relevant than dirt 3 or battlefield 3 single player.
    Reply
  • jp182
    esreverwould be nice if more benchmarks were done, there are a lot of popular games that would be nice to test like civ 5, l4d2 or similar source game, mw3, SWTOR ect. Even if some of them aren't the most demanding games it would be nice to see them as they would be more relevant than dirt 3 or battlefield 3 single player.
    It would be nice if they through Civ 5 or MW3 in but at least on the FPS front, I think BF3 has a bigger following on the PC and the same thing goes for Skyrim. Not sure how many people are still playing Just Cause 2 though. In either case, I think this has more to do with being able to compare these results to the results from past benchmarks they've run.
    Reply
  • manu 11
    Thanks for appreciating our feedback, thank you very much. Great Article As always.
    Reply
  • lemlo
    9527590 said:
    Whats with the line graph Don, it's hard to read especially with the choice of color on the lines. Bring back the bar graphs.:)


    The line graph is better way to show it's behaviour over a period of time rather than a flat average, which doesn't explain frequent dips or long stretches of smooth gameplay in fps and such.

    A very informative and realistic article, nice work Tom's. Lets hope AMD has something with piledriver.
    Reply
  • amdfangirl
    Sucks that the Core i3 can't be overclocked like the legendary e4xxx series or the e2160 which you could get a 100% OC with.

    If DC Sandy Bridges could be unlocked, they would be so good for gaming.
    Reply
  • erunion
    Love the FPS graphed over time. Keep using them!
    Reply