How Do Five-Year-Old CPUs Hold Up Against Ivy Bridge?
Having tested and analyzed data for processors launched five years apart, what exactly did we learn?
In the little-league battle for dual-core supremacy, the entry-level Ivy Bridge-based Celeron G1610 stands toe-to-toe with the infamous Core 2 Duo E8500 and E8600, in both games and applications. The Pentium G2020 is a solid step up from either, making it a rough equivalent (in games, at least) to a 3.8 or even 3.9 GHz Wolfdale-based chip. If you are using an older Conroe-based Core 2 Duo, which didn’t overclock as well and couldn't match the Wolfdale design on a per-clock basis, then you’ll be lucky to squeeze out the performance of an entry-level Celeron G1610. At the top of Intel’s current Pentium line-up, the G2130 should game almost as well as any Wolfdale-based processor on air cooling. We suspect our 4.5 GHz E8400 may have a slight edge, but it might not matter in the long run. All of these dual-core chips share the same weakness: they're limited to two threads at a time.
Can we still recommend dual-core processors for gaming? At the most, we'd do so with reservations, and only after considering the prominence of gaming in your life, build goals, and the availability of other options. Locked ratio multipliers and the ability to execute two threads concurrently are both major strikes against Ivy Bridge-based Pentiums. For this story, I purposely picked a brutal batch of games to expose any weaknesses these budget-oriented chips might have, today and moving forward. Games are increasingly optimized for quad-core processors, and the trend is towards needing more than two cores. However, it’s rare that an Ivy Bridge-based Pentium falls short of playability. Plus, they have low prices, little heat, and modest power consumption in their favor, not to mention solid per-clock performance and a respectable upgrade path.
Given the right purpose and budget, I could argue that there is no better gaming CPU than a G1610 or G2020. Perhaps your funds are limited, and a dual-core CPU can tide you over until you can afford a Core i5 or i7. Maybe you're building a mini-ITX HTPC for gaming, where power consumption and cooling are equally important. A dual-core Ivy Bridge-based CPU is also smart in a pure gaming machine, though mostly if your combined CPU and GPU budget is in the $130-$230 range. Below that, a Trinity-based APU might be a better choice. Above, and you start leaving too much performance on the table, risking unplayable performance in some titles, no matter how much money you sink into graphics.
The final hurdle for dual-core Ivy Bridge-based processors to overcome is competition from AMD’s aging architectures. Athlon II X4 and Phenom II X4 offerings are available at or below $100, pack four physical cores and can be overclocked to overcome limitations at stock clock rates. At 3 GHz, is an Athlon II X4 640 better suited to gaming than a lower-priced Pentium? Or would it fall short in exactly the same areas as a stock Core 2 Quad Q9550? We plan to put quad-core Athlon II, Phenom II, and FX processors, stock and overclocked, against this crop of Intel processors soon.
In the end, we're impressed by the staying power of Intel's Core 2 architecture, especially the 45 nm CPUs tested today. But we’re also saddened that Intel no longer sells budget-friendly processors to enthusiasts, like so many Celerons and Pentiums from the past. While the company clearly made big improvements to threaded performance, memory bandwidth, efficiency, and value-added features, it's a little disappointing that an overclocked Core 2 Duo from four or five years ago can match or beat today's best dual-core offerings. Of course, we're keeping in mind that the E8400 original sold for almost three times as much. But still, it would be fun to disable two of Core i5-3570K's cores and see how a K-series Pentium might have performed.
Finally, we found that an overclocked Core 2 Quad (Yorkfield) easily outmaneuvers the latest Core i3 in many video encoding and productivity applications. Once it's clocked high enough, it even matches the i3 in threaded games.
The real winner today has to be Intel's Core i5-3570K control processor. Out of the box, it's pretty much unrivaled by any of these lower-priced chips. And, sporting the unlocked multiplier enthusiasts covet, it'd let us tap into even greater levels of performance, if that were the point of this story.