Modern CPUs & Gaming Performance

Wednesday, February 16th, 2011

I recently upgraded my main PC with part of last year’s tax return, mainly because I was finally starting to notice its age. I’ve had the machine in its base form since the end of 2006 I think, only upgrading the video card since then. It had an 8800GT 512MB video card, 2GB DDR2 800 RAM, and an AMD Athlon 64 X2 4600+ 2.4GHz CPU (AM2) running Windows 7 Ultimate 32-bit. A totally competent system back in 2006, but a few years later and it’s growing a white beard, calling me “Suzanne” while eating porridge.

I had no real problems with it running anything (other than Crysis, heh) until about a year or so ago when I played Cryostasis. That was the first time I saw the thing start to chug on something that wasn’t Crysis. I then got GTA IV and man, the slide shows were rampant. Especially once I modded the game with custom cars with higher poly counts. Then Call of Duty Black Ops and holy crap, the thing didn’t even run it! I surpassed the specs on that game, but it turns out the game is just poorly optimized on lower-end CPUs even with the latest patches. Then NFS: Hot Pursuit and Test Drive Unlimited 2 came out and dang it, a racing cannot be played with a low or unsteady frame rate. I’m talking anywhere from 10-25 fps at 1680×1050 with medium graphical settings and no AA or AF.

Between the games and the slow rendering and editing times since I switched to making HD videos, I figured “it is time” and dropped the cash on a new AMD build: a GTX 580 Ti 1GB overclocked video card, 8GB DDR3 1333 RAM, and an AMD Phenom II X6 1090T 3.2GHz CPU (AM3) running Windows 7 Ultimate x64 (along with upgrades to the motherboard and PSU, of course, but they’re not really the focus of this entry). Quite easy on the wallet and quite a hefty upgrade from my last machine.

But I got to wondering… how much of a bottleneck was my old CPU (and RAM)? I knew it was the problem with Black Ops, but what about GTA IV and TDU2? So I decided to install the new mobo/RAM/CPU but leave everything else the same to test my theories: GPU, Windows 32-bit install, etc. The results were quite impressive.

Using the same old video card each game was like night and day. TDU2 and NFS:HP ran well over 80fps on medium settings, and at around 40fps on highest settings (very high textures/effects, 8xAA, 16xAF). Call of Duty Black Ops ran smooth as butter, no lag, highest settings, all good (as it should have anyway, but whatever that’s a port for ya). And GTA IV? Even with all my mods installed and the graphics cranked up, it runs at 35-60fps depending on the action. Dropping down to that mid-thirties area when I’ve got like 40 cars on screen and am plowing into them with a bus… that used to be about 5 fps, no joke. And that’s using the old 512MB 8800GT so I can imagine the results when I get the new GTX 560 Ti installed, which is a multi-generation leap from the 8800GT.

So the moral of the story is: don’t underestimate the power of a decent CPU when you’re wanting to get the most out of your GPU. You hear so much emphasis put onto the GPU and while that’s very important to gaming, the CPU can be a huge bottleneck for these high-bandwidth GPUs nowadays. I’m sure the new RAM helped a bit as well, but it’s only seeing 3.5GB until I install 64-bit Windows. Not quite to that “magic” 60fps yet, but that’s expected. The new GPU should get me there soon.

I know this is kind of obvious stuff, but you know, whatever, I’m bored at work. Just found it very amusing and a much bigger leap than I expected.

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6 comments on “Modern CPUs & Gaming Performance

  1. xaromir says:

    I remember when i got mine, i was thinking about getting a cheaper CPU, and a more expansive graphics card, i’m glad everyone started shouting at me that i shouldn’t. But congratulations on your new system. I will get something later this year too. Currently having a intel core 2quad q9300, radeon 4870, 2gigs of ram, and that thing is really suffering now. It isn’t only the cpu / graphics combination, it depends a lot on the game, world of warcraft for example can profit from more ram, and if i switch back to the desktop it takes forever. Not pleasant. But it got much problems with new games too, especially in my monitors native resolution (1920×1200) so i will mainly upgrade for tes – skyrim later this year. Congrats again! πŸ™‚ It’s pure joy putting together a new system, maybe you could do a video. πŸ˜‰

  2. TheManko says:

    I had a Core 2 Quad Q6600 for a couple of years and then when I helped a friend put together a machine with a Core i5 750 I was frankly chocked at the difference the CPU made since we both had similar GPUs. It annoyed me how much faster even Windows ran and reacted, so I upgraded promtly as well.

    It varies a lot how much emphasis games put on the CPU or GPU, but since it’s pretty much all over the place depending on the game how much either is used it’s very nice if you have a somewhat balanced system.

  3. mazamoz says:

    Ive always sed this… if ya keep up with the shading pixels. 1.1 2.0. 3.0 then ya gpu will boot up the program its running… but its all about ya motherboard an its bus speed.. no point havin a motherboard that carnt keep up with ya high end graphic card is there? thats were the stable bit comes into it

  4. Foxhack says:

    I’ve had this rig since 2008, and the specs are similar to yours; and it’s in need of an upgrade too.

    Wish I could afford one. 😐

  5. LORD MJ says:

    And here I was thinking that CPU is not that a big deal when it comes to gaming. I thought that this new games can’t use the full power of those high-end CPUs.

    Darn, now I fell like a complete idiot. Thanks for the share Clint, and you should really do a video of you putting together a new system it will be fun.

  6. shaurz says:

    That’s very interesting… I guess the moral to take from this is don’t believe the “common sense” knowledge and try things yourself. I haven’t found any limitations with my Core 2 Quad Q9550 yet, but I wonder how much faster a newer CPU would be (it doesn’t seem like I’ve had it long, but it must be 2 years already).

    The motherboard might have had an influence on performance of the GPU too, due to bus speed and bandwidth. Also the RAM speed will have an impact too, since a game will need to transfer a lot of data from system RAM to GPU RAM.

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