While venturing through the BIOS on my brand spanking new EX58-UD5 based testbed, I stumbled across an option that gives one the ability to set the amount of cores they want running on the system.
So, while I was there pondering around with the options, I wondered what would happen if we started disabling cores. How would that affect 3D performance? What I really wanted to know is how many cores we really need; one, two, three or four? - Sure, there have been articles that compare a dual core based Core 2 processor to a quad core one, but what happens if the only difference between every CPU configuration is the amount of cores while FSB, speed and memory settings are all the same?
With that in mind, cores started dropping quicker than flies on a 40c day in Australia and the benchmarks came a'flowing. I can tell you right now, the results were very interesting. So without further ado, let's get straight into the benchmarks to find out how many cores we really need for today's games.
Test System Setup and 3DMark Vantage
Test System Setup
Processor(s): Intel Core i7 920 @ 3.8GHz (190MHz x 20)
Cooling: Noctua NH-U12P (Supplied by Noctua)
Motherboard(s): GIGABYTE EX58-UD5 (Supplied by GIGABYTE)
Memory: 3 X 2GB OCZ Technology PC-12800 DDR-3 8-8-8-24 (OCZ3G1600LV6GK)
Hard Disk(s): Western Digital 300GB Velicorapter (Supplied by Western Digital)
Operating System: Windows Vista SP1 64-Bit
Drivers: Catalyst 8.11
Graphics card power comes today in the form of the HD 4870 X2. We test the i7 920 in single core to quad core configurations at 1680 x 1050, 1920 x 1200 and 2560 x 1600.
Hyper threading was enabled at all times and the CPU remained at 3.8GHz in all tests. Let's check out Vantage before we get into some real world games to see just what disabling the cores does for performance.
Version and / or Patch Used: 1.0.1
Developer Homepage: http://www.futuremark.com
Product Homepage: http://www.futuremark.com/products/3dmarkvantage/
Buy It Here
3DMark Vantage is the new industry standard PC gaming performance benchmark from Futuremark, newly designed for Windows Vista and DirectX10. It includes two new graphics tests, two new CPU tests, several new feature tests, and support for the latest hardware.
3DMark Vantage is based on a completely new rendering engine, developed specifically to take full advantage of DirectX10, the new graphics API from Microsoft.
It's clear that Vantage takes full advantage of the extra cores, but the best gains are seen in the performance setting. We can also see the difference between three cores and four cores being quite minimal when compared to some of the other setups.
Benchmarks - World in Conflict
World in Conflict
Version and / or Patch Used: 220.127.116.11
Timedemo or Level Used: Built-in Test
Developer Homepage: http://www.massive.se
Product Homepage: http://www.worldinconflict.com
World in Conflict is a real-time strategy video game by Massive Entertainment and to be published by Sierra Entertainment for Windows (DX9 and DX10) and the Xbox 360.
The game is set in 1989 where economic troubles cripple the Soviet Union and threaten to dissolve it. However, the title pursues a "what if" scenario where, in this case, the Soviet Union does not collapse and instead pursues a course of war to remain in power. It is an intensive new game is sure to put plenty of stress on even the latest graphics cards and we use the built-in benchmarking for our testing.
As with Vantage, we can see that WIC is able to make use of the extra cores on hand. Again we see that one to two show some very impressive gains, while two to three also give us some pretty good gains. Three to four, however, show very little difference.
Benchmarks - Crysis Warhead
Version and / or Patch Used: unpatched
Timedemo or Level Used: Airfield
Developer Homepage: http://www.crytek.com
Product Homepage: http://crysiswarhead.ea.com/
Buy It Here
Crysis Warhead updates and refines the gameplay of the original game through a sidestory plot involving Psycho, one of previous protagonist Nomad's allies. The game is a parallel story that follows Sergeant Michael "Psycho" Sykes, a character from the original Crysis, as he faces his own trials and challenges on the other side of the island during the time period of the first game.
It also showcases a new, enhanced and optimized version of CryEngine 2 using full DX10 extensions and is the first game developed by Crytek's Budapest studio.
Crysis Warhead also manages to make use of the extra cores on hand, especially in the minimum department. However, it doesn't really see much extra performance when moving from two to four cores.
Benchmarks - FarCry 2
Version and / or Patch Used: 1.01
Timedemo or Level Used: Ranch Long
Developer Homepage: http://www.ubi.com/
Product Homepage: http://www.farcry2.com/
Buy It Here
The Dunia Engine was built specifically for Far Cry 2 by the award-winning Ubisoft Montreal development team. It delivers the most realistic destructible environments, amazing special effects such as dynamic fire propagation and storm effects, real-time night-and-day cycle, dynamic music system, non-scripted enemy A.I. and so much more.
Across the board we can see that one to four cores doesn't show too much of a difference in Far Cry 2. It's interesting to see that one of the newest games we test here doesn't benefit as much from a quad core CPU as something like Crysis Warhead.
Benchmarks - Left 4 Dead
Left 4 Dead
Version and / or Patch Used: Latest Steam Update
Timedemo or Level Used: Custom Timedemo
Developer Homepage: http://www.valvesoftware.com/
Product Homepage: http://www.l4d.com/
Buy It Here
Left 4 Dead uses the latest version of Valve's Source engine, with improvements such as multi-core processor support and physics-based animation to more realistically portray hair and clothing, and to improve physics interaction with enemies when shot or shoved in different body parts. Animation was also improved to allow characters to lean realistically when moving in curved paths.
Rendering and artificial intelligence were scaled up to allow for greater number of enemies who can navigate the world in better ways, such as climbing, jumping or breaking obstacles. Lighting has been enhanced with new self-shadowing normal mapping and advanced shadow rendering that is important to convey information about the environment and player actions.
We again see massive gains from the single core setup to the two. Moving to three and four does show an increase, but really only up to 1920 x 1200.
Benchmarks - High Quality AA and AF
High Quality AA and AF
Our high quality tests let us separate the men from the boys and the ladies from the girls. If the cards weren't struggling before they will start to now.
Even with AA and AF on FarCry 2 performance between the different setups are very similar.
World In Conflict
WIC again sees good gains when we move up in cores, but performance is best in three and four core configurations.
Left 4 Dead
With AA and AF on, we can see the performance difference between the different setups is minimal.
As you can see, a lot of today's games are able to make use of the multi-core technology on offer from the i7 920. The question is exactly how many cores do we really need to get the most performance out of our games? Well, to be completely honest three cores seem to be the sweet spot, but this would depend on how much extra it costs for the fourth core to be added.
If dropping a core from a quad core CPU resulted in a 25% price drop, then a tri-core i7 processor could be the goods for most games. If dropping the core only dropped 5% off the price, though, it simply wouldn't be worth it.
While in the past a higher speed dual core would be the better choice for people over a lower clocked quad core, that doesn't hold as much truth these days. Quad core CPUs really overclock extremely well these days and games are able to make use of more than two cores, meaning that you're going to get better performance out of a quad core based CPU.
I really wonder if this was a similar conclusion to what AMD came to when they decided to release tri-core CPUs. It was just unfortunate that their technology wasn't up to the standard that we had become accustomed to, or they could have become a real winner in the value for money department.
Just one more note before I sign off; one thing that I thought would be interesting was power usage. Dropping off cores didn't drop power usage in any way that would make a difference. So if you thought about dropping a core off to save some dollars on your power bill, don't bother.
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