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Reviewed by: Carl Nelson [11.01.06]
Manufactured by: Intel



By now I'm pretty sure it's clear; processors have far less influence on gaming performance than the video card. At this point, it's a much better idea to spend more money on a high end video card, and get a slower CPU, if your primary purpose is to play video games.

That said, there can be some minor changes in performance, depending on the CPU used. Furthermore, games are coming out with more complex AI, physics, pathfinding, and other effects that will tax the CPU more than ever before. At that point, it will be time for us to redo the way we test video games, because 'canned' benchmarks won't take things like AI and physics into consideration.

In the coming months, several games will be released that are designed with quad CPU directly in mind. These games are expected to push the boundaries of immersion more than you could imagine. The idea is to let the graphics card to its work, and let the CPU do the rest, including AI, pathfinding, physics, etc. If you've seen the Alan Wake IDF demo, you know what I'm talking about.

The one test we have that will push the CPU over anything else is the latest version of 3dMark. Here is what they say in their whitepaper regarding the CPU test:

Both CPU tests use our new game engine, and rely on AI, physics and game logic to generate a multi-threaded workload that can be distributed on multiple processors, cores or even on a single processor. Ageia PhysX library and D* Lite path finding AI algorithm are produce demanding CPU loads. Tests are run in a fixed frame rate of 2FPS for more equal CPU loading. Resolution is locked to 640x480 to decrease GFX influence of performance. The shader profile is locked to 2_0 and no dynamic shadows are used. The D* Lite AI algorithm generates unit path requests in a dynamic path finding grid, where each unit represents a moving obstacle, and paths sync back at 200ms-600ms intervals. The complexity of the path request fulfillment varies; the dynamic re-planning algorithm can re-use the state of previous searches. The Ageia physics uses 87 units and their rigid bodies at 20ms physics steps. Professional reviewers can disable a second CPU or other core of either a virtual or physical dual core system for comparable results regardless of the number of cores or CPUs.

In other words, they attempt to eliminate the video card from influencing the test, and make the CPU work harder than it ever would in a real game. This should give us a better idea of how each CPU would act in future games with more advanced physics (notwithstanding hardware like AGEIA's Phys-X adapter, of course, but it's not like anyone actually bought one of those).

In all our gaming tests, we're using a GeForce 7600 GT 256 MB.

Here are the results from the 3dMark 06 CPU test:

When the CPU is isolated from the video card, you can see exactly how much those extra cores can help with performance. We're almost seeing double the performance compared to dual core chips. Some people criticize these kinds of results, but you'll see how meaningful they are when you want to play Alan Wake or games based on the Unreal 3 engine.

If you're curious how the CPU affects the final results in 3DMark 06:

The difference is subtle, but it's there. 3DMark 07's final score will likely be more heavily influenced by the CPU score.

Real World Gaming

As I mentioned above, there simply aren't any games out that make use of more than 2 processors. While I think quad core will make a huge difference in gaming next year and beyond, the results from today's games might seem underwhelming, as they are far more reliant on video card performance:

As you can see, today's games simply don't rely on the CPU enough to allow it to make much of an impact on performance. Hopefully by our next CPU review, we'll have a bunch of games that do utilize these processors to their fullest.

During the last IDF meeting, Intel asked several game developers for their thoughts on on multi-core computing in terms of gaming. This is what they had to say (quotes were furbished by Intel, but relates to all multi-core processing, including AMD):

"Multi-core computing is the new standard for PC games, and we at Epic are thrilled to see Intel leading the industry forward with Core 2 Extreme.  Its four high-performance CPU cores enable a new level of realism in games, with realistic physics simulation, character animation, and other computationally-intensive systems." -- Tim Sweeney, Epic Games

"The introduction of Quad Core processor based PC’s allows Remedy to create real next generation games as demonstrated by our Alan Wake, a psychological action thriller to be published by Microsoft Game Studios. Dividing complex programming tasks into multiple threads is the way to exploit performance that allows us to create more realistic and dynamically generated environments and thus enjoy fantastic game worlds like never before." -- Markus Maki, Remedy Entertainment

"Gas Powered Games has had the opportunity with our Supreme Commander title to be on the leading edge of working with Intel’s Quad Core.  The performance and experience enhancements we’ve seen implementing our multi-threaded architecture on Intel’s multi-core systems has shown us that these technologies will represent the minimum bar for the future of advanced gaming." -- Kent McNall, Gas Powered Games

"Quad-core will change every aspect of PC gaming.  It will change how we create our games, how we provision our service, and how we design our games.  The scalability we've seen in graphics over the last few years will now extend to physics, AI, animation, and all the systems which are critical to moving beyond the era of pretty but dumb games." -- Gabe Newell, Valve.

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