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

Your Game And Performance Target Matter Most

Not only are we happy to address reader feedback, but we also take great pleasure in exploring areas of performance that might otherwise get ignored. Challenging dogma is part of what we do here, and every chart based on data gives us a little more information. So, what did we learn after today's experiments?

Despite the fact that Intel’s Core i3-2100 achieves 18% higher minimum frame rates (on average) and 11% higher average frame rates than AMD's FX-4100 when it's matched up to a very fast single-GPU graphics card, it was much rarer to observe an advantage in the same tests when we set a specific performance target. With a goal of achieving 30 FPS minimum frame rates, only one out of six tested games definitively favored Intel's budget-oriented chip.

But while a 30 FPS minimum is playable, it doesn't translate to a completely smooth experience, especially when the average frame rate hovers close to 40 FPS, as we saw in our tests. Competitive gamers looking for responsiveness want minimums in the 40 FPS range, with averages at or above 60 FPS. With this target in mind, we can add Metro to the list of titles that favor the Core i3, demonstrating between 27% to 32% higher minimums. In addition, Skyrim biases toward Intel's chip once we drop in a Radeon HD 6950.

The important message here is that, if you're concerned about a processor bottleneck, your favorite games and the performance you want to see from them are more influential than the price of your graphics card. At least up to a Radeon HD 6870 or GeForce GTX 560, we'd expect that to be the case.

What conclusions can we draw from all this? First of all, AMD’s FX-4100 isn't necessarily the disappointment it appeared to be in our sub-$200 gaming processor comparison if you match it up to a comparably entry-level graphics card. Equipped with anything slower than a Radeon HD 6950, you can set your resolution and detail settings as high as possible to maintain a 30 FPS minimum, and in most cases, the graphics card will emerge as your bottleneck. With a higher-end GPU installed (or a CrossFire/SLI arrangement), the CPU's limitations are more likely to be exposed. Oh, and take advantage of AMD's unlocked multiplier ratio to crank the clocks up as high as possible.

The good news is that AMD fans can still enjoy games on a capable machine without spending a ton of cash. With that established, though, getting in the door with an LGA 1155-based platform costs about the same and yields a more consistently-good experience. We've seen enthusiasts throw blame all over the place: review sites aren't picking the right benchmarks, developers aren't spending enough time optimizing for AMD's architecture, and Intel is squelching innovation. But it comes down to this: when a new game you’ve been waiting for gets installed on your machine, finger-pointing won't help you enjoy it any more if it behaves like Metro 2033, demonstrating between 27% and 33% higher minimum frame rates on the Core i3-2100. Even a $200 FX-8120 won’t solve your problem; our tests show that chip acts just like the FX-4100 in gaming environments.

Today, Intel's LGA 1155 platform remains the best bet for a gaming rig. And not only for its budget-oriented performance, which is great, but also for its potential. Start with a cheap Core i3 and an inexpensive discrete GPU. Then, upgrade later to an Ivy Bridge-based chip and a faster graphics card without imposing any sort of bottleneck. SLI and CrossFire are both viable with a fast-enough CPU (even splitting PCI Express connectivity between two x8 slots), and the $180 Core i5-2400 is a gaming beast that AMD's overclocked processors cannot touch.

AMD simply cannot counter those advantages right now. We must look to the Piledriver architecture and hope that our current assessment can be reevaluated later this year.