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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.

  • 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