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

Following our sub-$200 gaming CPU comparison, we put Intel's Core i3-2100 and AMD's FX-4100 under the microscope. This time, we test a number of different graphics cards from AMD to see how GPUs affect perceived processor bottlenecks.

At the end of January, we published our analysis of the sub-$200 gaming processor market called Picking A Sub-$200 Gaming CPU: FX, An APU, Or A Pentium?. We were surprised to find that Intel’s budget-oriented LGA 1155 offerings are surprisingly capable when it comes to handling modern titles. In fact, the $125 Core i3-2100 beat out AMD's entire line-up including top-tier Phenom IIs, Athlon IIs, APUs, and even the new FX models. Although they're easier to overclock, AMD’s best efforts could only achieve parity with the Core i3-2100, and Intel's Core i5 was so far ahead of the sub-$200 pack that it sat in a league of its own.

Now, we used a very high-end Radeon HD 7970 graphics card in that article because we wanted to isolate CPU performance. You can't draw conclusions about a CPU's potential when you're faced with a graphics card bottleneck, after all. But some of our readers rightly pointed out that, when it comes to building an inexpensive machine, our combination is unrealistic. A $110 CPU would never accompany a $550 graphics card. And if we used an entry-level GPU, the resulting bottleneck would have masked the differences between processors to a greater extent. The counter, of course, is that a cheaper graphics card would have also imposed lower resolutions and detail settings, shifting load back in the direction of the CPU.

As you know, though, we put a big emphasis on addressing your feedback, so we went back to the lab to run some follow-up data on two of the most interesting $120 options from our previous story. Intel's Core i3-2100 is the low-cost processor to beat, so we made sure to include it. On the other hand, with AMD's Phenom II and Athlon II lines disappearing from store shelves, the $110 FX-4100 represents that company’s best low-priced option.

Every game's workload is different, but Intel’s i3-2100, on average, achieved 18% higher minimum frame rates and 11% higher average frame rates compared to the FX-4100 in our previous story. As we said, though, that was with a Radeon HD 7970. This time around, we’re using a broader range of graphics cards ranging from the Radeon HD 5570 up to the Radeon HD 6950 to see if the bottleneck situation changes.

AMD FX-4100Intel Core i3-2100
Codename: ZambeziSandy Bridge
Process: 32 nm 32 nm
Cores (Threads): 4 (4)
2 (4)
Clock Speed (Turbo): 3.6 (3.8) GHz
3.1 GHz
Interface: Socket AM3+LGA 1155
L3 Cache: 8 MB3 MB
Thermal Envelope:
95 W
65 W
Online Price:

We also received some feedback on our test platform's memory configuration; it was suggested that AMD's FX might perform better complemented by higher memory data rates. So, this time we're using 8 GB (2 x 4 GB) of Corsair Vengeance DDR3-1600 at 8-8-8-24 timings.

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  • ilysaml
    Great...AMD is still capable.
  • 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.:)
  • 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...
  • 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 [afford an i5]. 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • manu 11
    Thanks for appreciating our feedback, thank you very much. Great Article As always.
  • lemlo
    439621 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.
  • 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.
  • erunion
    Love the FPS graphed over time. Keep using them!
  • king_maliken
    Brandon SI love my i5 2500k and I will never go back to amd

    This is all kinds of wrong... "NEVER" is really idiotic to say in this situation, you don't know, AMD might come out with something that will in the future be the best performer. You son have a lot to learn yet and probably have a lot of living left to do.
  • darkchazz
    Hey Toms, you want good game for testing cpus ? -> GTA IV
  • CaedenV
    Brandon SI love my i5 2500k and I will never go back to amd

    That is short sighted. I love my Intel build, but in 4-5 years when I upgrade again I will jump all over AMD if they have something good... but it just is not looking good now.
    reyshanWhats with the line graph Don, it's hard to read especially with the choice of color on the lines. Bring back the bar graphs.

    I love the line graphs! They show what we need to know, and more than the overly simplistic min/ave/max.
  • williehmmm
    I complained and complained on the most recent CPU recommendations list that the FX 4100 should not be 3 tiers lower than the i3 2100.

    The i3 is the better/faster chip for gaming, but not so much that you should spend a lot upgrading to it from a "somewhat parallel" performing FX 4100.

    Quote - "I don’t recommend upgrading your CPU unless the potential replacement is at least three tiers higher. Otherwise, the upgrade is somewhat parallel and you may not notice a worthwhile difference in game performance."

    This article at least shows that their will not be a noticeable difference in game performance. And I would go as fas as to say that once overclocked, there would be no difference whatsoever between the FX and an i3 (which is locked and can't be overclocked).

    Absolute respect to Toms for taking onboard these points and hopefully rearranging the table for the March CPU hierarchy chart. And it would seem the G860 & i3 should be closer together too.
  • williehmmm
    Also this "Even a $200 FX-8120 won’t solve your problem; our tests show that chip acts just like the FX-4100 in gaming environments."

    and this -,3043-18.html

    The FX 8150 seems to be absolutely equal to an i5 2500k at extreme resolutions 2560x1600, ultra detail levels, x8 AA. Would the FX 4100 deliver the same equal performance at these resolutions?

    I've never even seen a monitor that has that kind of resolution. 4 megapixels. However eyefinity and Nvidia surround do. 2.7 megapixels for a 720p 3 screen setup and 5.2 megapixels for a 1680x1050 3 screen setup.

    Would a $110 FX4100 deliver the same FPS as a $230 i5 2500k? The FX 8150 did.
  • Stardude82
    comptonGet a decent motherboard, then get an 1155 Celeron G530/540 or Pentium.

    Totally, I bet you could feed a 6770 just fine with a $50 CPU. No need for these extravagant $120 chips.
  • ivaroeines
    I will still buy AMD, not because they are better or cheaper than Intel i know they arent, but because they are good enough for me and that Intel need to be challenged. To me it seems like "Tom's hardware" is on a crusade to bring down AMD, looking back to the release of the Core i7 cpu's "Tom's Hardware" have used encryption suits in testing cpu performance and made a big point of how excellent Intel cpu's are at encryption, i dont know of anyone besides myself( i use it only for testing ) who use encryption on their computers. I have always felt that the encryption suits "Tom's hardware " employ have been used to show how bad cpu's AMD makes, AMD dont make bad cpu's( to my knowledge that is ), at any given price point up to $800 to $1000 i think most people wouldnt recognize the difference between a AMD and a Intel system in a blind test.

    The thing that made me raise my eyebrows in regards to "Tom's Hardware" wasnt any cpu test, but the tests of the HD 79** series, in a test where the results showed better results in most benchmark and trashing the competition in 1, the conclusion from "Tom's Hardware" was the this gpu wasnt any good and i almost felt like "Tom's Hardware" was warning me against buying such a card.

    This may just be the rantings of a AMD fanboy, but i think "Tom's Hardware" need to see if they are as objective as they claim to be.
  • de5_Roy
    nice article! you addressed and cleared up a lot of issues concerning the 4100.
    good to know that fx 4100 is viable for using with entry level gfx cards. actually it makes more sense to couple the $110~ cpu with a similarly priced gfx card.
    as for cpu limitations in cfx/sli: imo those are more likely to come out in budget pcs than higher end pcs as budget gamers might want to upgrade their gfx card or add another for cfx/sli relatively sooner than people who build with cfx/sli in mind or start with 2x cards. intel's h61 and most h67 mobos would be useless for cfx/sli but a lot of cheap p67 and z68 mobos can support cfx/sli. i suspect that a lot of people who bought pcs with llano apus might eventually want to upgrade /add gfx cards without changing their apu and mobo.
    another issue most amd users/amd-biased people usually avoid: power consumption. in budget gaming pcs power consumption matters because higher load power consumption results in higher wattage (likely costlier) psu. the locked core i3 uses less power than fx4100, so builders can afford to add higher tdp gfx cards or save money with smaller psu yet use a high perf. gfx card.
    overall core i3 is still much more suitable for budget gaming.
  • de5_Roy
    167578 said:
    something about encryption (read the reply below) and tom's intel bias (totally baseless), something about being amd fanboy and something about the 7970 'preview' article (off topic....) .

    phenoms and athlons didn't have aes hardware acceleration. llano apus don't have it either. trinity might have it, but i doubt that. zambezi actually supports aes hardware acceleration. 4/6/8 core (2/3/4 modules) zambezi can outperform 2/4 core intel cpus respectively in encryption benchmarks. some review sites that favored fx8150 used encryption benchmarks (among others) and it's high scores in those benchmarks to pitch it as a 'great cpu'. they also undermined it's power consumption. :)
    intel's sb core i5 and i7 support aes acceleration, core i3 doesn't. so in an encryption benchmark, the core i3 would lose to fx 4100. your claim is baseless.
  • haplo602
    One of the best articles I read in a while. Observing the bottlenecks to shift from CPU to GPU and back is great. Also it showed that if the CPUs are paired with adequate GPUs, there is virtualy no difference in most applications.

    The 6850 looks to be the best one to use as it becomes the bottleneck at 1080p for most tested games.

    Also can we have a similar article with Nvidia cards please ? :-)))
  • TheApocalypse
    First things first, I think you review was great. However, next time you use a line graph to show results that won't show up in the frame of the graph please change the scaling on your axis so that we will actually be able to see the results. Thanks :-)
  • Novulux
    Wonder if overclocking the FX 4100 would boost it's performance by much.
  • buzznut
    NovuluxWonder if overclocking the FX 4100 would boost it's performance by much.

    HEHHEH I'm about to find out when my wife's RMA'd board gets back. :D

    I also have an 8120 that I'm putting through its paces soon, my mobo should be here tomorrow. Unfortunately from what I've seen you can crank these puppies up pretty good, but it doesn't scale well. However I'm running Dev Prev and I expect to see a little better performance boost. Then I'll be loading the Beta (Consumer preview) on the 29th.

    I think bulldozer is a viable gaming chip, just because its not faster than a core i5 doesn't mean that it can't perform at all. I am disappointed that it isn't faster, but I have been an AMD guy for so long..I just have to give it a shot. Anyway, there isn't anything especially wrong with these CPUs, other than they could be priced a bit cheaper in line with relative performance. I am seeing the FX 8150 going for $240 now in places.
    Last week Microcenter had a deal on the 8120 with a free ($100) Gigabyte mobo. Don't know if thats still happening.
  • buzznut
    BTW, my wife is a casual gamer and the FX 4100 will go with my old HD 4850 so I think she'll be very happy with the performance. She on a 22inch and doesn't want anything bigger. But I also think she'll like the fact that it will be overclocked over 4 Ghz!