Hard Choices: CPUs

By Jeremy Laird on January 20th, 2012 at 11:32 am.

Uncanny resemblance to Jeremy, actually

We asked long-time Friend of RPS and tech know-it-all Jeremy Laird to write us a series of columns that would make hardware-buying the simplest of matters for even the most technophobic of our readers. A mere three months later, he got around to starting. So, here is his breakdown of what’s going on in the world of processors right now, ultimately boiling down to the only three CPUs you need to consider buying if you’re upgrading or building a new PC. Take it away, Lord Laird…

Greetings hallowed RPSers. I’m Jeremy. I’ve been a PC hardware hack for the best part of a decade. And I’m the go-to guy the shameless RPS crew hit up when they’re on the scrounge for a new CPU or simply can’t sort their SSD controllers from their SATA ports. That’s about as friendly as it’s going to get. It’s my job over the next few months to knock the sorry RPS collective into shape when it comes to PC hardware with a gaming slant.

What to buy and why. How much to pay. Maybe even where to buy it from. How you’ve survived this long without even rudimentary hardware coverage is anyone’s guess. But never mind, because the currently parlous state of the PC component market makes this a great time to start. And start I will with CPUs.

Now, the software side of PC gaming is actually in rude health. For proof, look no further than the latest Steam stats and the alleged 40 million lambs to Valve’s cloud-based slaughtering machine Hell, even PC games piracy downticked from catastrophic to merely debilitating in 2011.

Alienware's new X51 brings an i5 processor to a PC pretending to be a console

But the PC as an overall platform is looking a lot less clever. In fact, it’s going through an identity crisis. Until recently, everyone knew what a PC was. It had a processor compatible with the x86 instruction set. It ran a Windows operating system. Let’s leave Linux out of this: we’re talking gaming systems here.

Today, the PC is being attacked from all sides. Consoles set the tone when it comes to hardware requirements for most games. Meanwhile, a swarm of ARM-powered mobile devices is facing off against the PC as we have traditionally known it. The upshot is that improving gaming performance on the PC stopped being the primary concern a long time ago for guys working the coalface at previously PC-centric companies like Intel, AMD and NVIDIA. They’re now embroiled in an undignified scrabble to get their silicon wares into smartphones and tablets.

That’s why, for instance, Intel’s Atom processors exist, why AMD recently announced it didn’t think competing with Intel mattered much any longer and why NVIDIA has looked so unbearably smug since it finally managed to get its Tegra chip inside a tablet or two. Then consider Microsoft’s avowed intention to bring out an ARM-compatible version of Windows 8 and it’s not at all clear what being a PC will mean in future.

Admittedly, it’s going to take at least another five years for all this to play out fully. Today’s PC still looks much as it always has. But when it comes to CPUs, roll up your sleeves and you can already feel the first drops of the gathering storm.

The most immediate issue is performance stagnation and the best recent example is Intel’s new uber chip, the Core i7 3960X. It was a long time coming – nearly two full years – and barely moved the game on for performance. That’s not because Intel has lost its touch. Quite the opposite. Intel intentionally hobbled the 3960X’s performance by turning two cores off and not bothering to max out the clockspeeds. Frankly, Intel no longer cares about pushing PC performance on for its own sake. It just does enough to keep ahead of the competition. Utterly cynical, but you’d do the same thing in Intel’s shoes.

Don't buy this: AMD FX, it's made of fail.

As for that competition, the great hope was that AMD’s all-new Bulldozer CPUs (sold as AMD ‘FX’ branded processors) would force Intel to stop sand bagging. Unfortunately, Bulldozer turned out to be completely awful as a high performance desktop processor. The per-core performance of the fastest eight-core versions of Bulldozer (actually, it doesn’t have eight real cores, but that’s a story for another day) is horrendous. Just as bad, Bulldozer often isn’t even that much faster than AMD’s old six-core Phenoms in highly threaded software. But then AMD’s focus for the Bulldozer architecture was always more server PCs than gaming rigs.

So, the latest high end CPUs from Intel and AMD essentially suck. The only good news is that you probably didn’t need one, anyway. As it happens, I did an interesting experiment recently comparing the subjective gaming performance of two rigs, one built using bargain basement kit the other money-no-object. The core components cost ratio was a factor of 10x – £300 vs £3,000.

I fired up them up side by side and asked a few storied gamers of my acquaintance to compare the likes of Skyrim and one or two other seriously hardware intensive titles. Nobody could correctly identify which system was running an £850 Intel Core i7 3960X and which was making do with £100′s worth of AMD Phenom II X4.

That’s not to say that the 3960X isn’t a quicker CPU. But other factors at play conspire against it having any impact on the actual gaming experience. The stagnating influence of console hardware renders super-fast CPUs somewhat futile for PC gaming, for instance. Likewise, few if any PC games can generate lots of evenly balanced software threads. So, six cores’ worth of HyperThreaded Intel grunt is largely wasted. I knew all that going in, but even I didn’t think the end result would be so completely homogeneous from a subjective gameplay perspective.

Buy this: Intel's Core i5, it's all the CPU you'll ever need. Forever. Seriously.

Anywho, with all that in mind I’m here to tell you there are only three currently available CPUs gamers need to worry about. On the Intel side, it’s the Core i5 2500K. If you can afford the roughly £160 asking price along with the slightly premium-priced LGA1155 socket motherboards it requires, then stop right here, read no further and don’t even sniff at anything from AMD. It’s the only CPU you need.

If you really must know why, it’s because the 2500K sports four cores based on precisely the same architecture as the £850 Core i7 3960X and running at a similar 3.3GHz base clockspeed. And four cores is all you need for gaming, now and for the foreseeable future. Critically, the Core i5 series doesn’t have HyperThreading. For gaming, that’s actually a good thing since today’s software can’t tell the difference between a real core and a virtual core conjured up by HyperThreading. The danger here is that instead of running two intensive threads on separate cores, you end up running both on a single core. And that will kybosh your frame rates.

It’s also worth noting the ‘K’ suffix in 2500K denotes an unlocked multiplier. In simple terms, this makes for childishly easy overclocking up to at least 4.5GHz. I absolutely, positively guarantee a 2500K running at over 4GHz will be good enough to batter any game into submission for at least the next two years. If the next generation of consoles are as conservative on the CPU side as I’m expecting, you can add as many as five more years onto that. The 2500K really is that good.

Of course, with any new CPU comes the likely requirement of a new motherboard. The Core i5 jives with the LGA1155 socket. Unusually for an Intel platform, it looks like sticking around for a bit so you’ve an outside chance of an upgrade down the road. As for which motherboard model to go for, so much of the modern CPU is now on-die, the choice is now much less critical. So, your main decision points involve features. Ensure your board has USB 3.0 and SATA 6Gbps support or you’ll hate yourself later. Do not concern yourself with SLI or Crossfire multi-GPU support (tune in next time to find out why).

Brand wise, go for Asus if you want quality and decent support or lesser Asrock for better value and interesting feature sets. The chipset choice, meanwhile, essentially boils down to H67 and Z68. The former is tolerable, but the latter is much more flexible in terms of overclocking and access to the Core i5′s integrated video engine (irrelevant for gaming, handy for hardware video encoding).

If your budget genuinely doesn’t quite stretch to the Core i5 and the necessary accoutrements, you have a couple of options. Anything cheaper than the Core i5 from Intel is going to be dual-core. While games haven’t truly entered the multi-threaded era, just two cores really is pushing your luck in terms of future proofing. Instead, AMD’s four and six-core Phenom IIs are where it’s at, offering a decent combination of cores and single-threaded or per-core performance. Do not under any circumstances be tempted by one of the new AMD FX processors. Smooth gaming demands strong per-core performance and that’s the FX’s weakest point.

Paupers should consider this: AMD Phenom II X4, it's better than you might think.

Price wise, your choice is a Phenom II X4 quad-core chip like the 960T for around £100 or the X6 1055T six-core model for £120. I only include the six-core option as it’s just £20 extra and the extra cores might come in handy if you happen to do a bit of video encoding or something similarly thread-intensive on the side. If you only care about gaming, don’t bother.

The motherboard question applies pretty similarly to AMD platforms. You still want to ensure USB 3.0 and SATA 6Gbps is on board and ignore multi-GPU support. Regarding chipsets, it’s all AMD now that NVIDIA has pretty much pulled out of the game. The AMD 7, 8 and 9 Series all shared essentially the same silicon. So, again, buy based on features. Just be sure to go with the AM3+ socket (AMD chips are typically backwards compatible with multiple older sockets) to give yourself the best possible chance of a drop-in CPU upgrade should you fancy it.

Overall, then, factor in generally cheaper AMD motherboard prices and a chip-and-mobo combo based on AMD will be around £100 less than the Intel alternative. The only problem is how long it will keep delivering the goods. Right now, it’s quick enough to be indistinguishable from Intel’s clobber, save for the most extreme gaming conditions. The specifications of the next generation of consoles will probably be the casting vote that determines of how long that remains true.

So there you have it. From the scores of CPUs Intel and AMD offer, just three to choose from. The rest are bunkum. Next time around, I’ll be whittling the ridiculous and largely irrelevant array of current graphics cards down to a manageable few. If you’re sitting there thinking a really fast graphics card makes all the difference, I’ll leave you with a couple of numbers to ponder. 1,920 and 1,080. Until next time, grasshoppers.

Update:
Inevitably enough, the Ivy Bridge question has popped up. Ivy Bridge is Intel’s 22nm shrink of the Sandy Bridge microgubbins that underpin its existing PC processor line up – Core i3, i5, i7. It’s due out around April or so. There are lots of reasons why it’s unlikely to be exciting. Some of them look like this:

1. One it’s a shrink, not a new architecture. So, that’s ‘tick’ rather than ‘tock’ in Intel parlance. Yes, Intel says it’s a more exciting tick than usual. But Intel always says that.
2. Even if it was a tock, Intel has long since picked all the low-hanging fruit – on-die memory controller, fast interconnects, wide issue width etc. It’s incremental improvements for the foreseeable future.
3. Ivy Bridge for the LGA1155 socket looks set to remain quad-core at the most. Meanwhile, LGA 2011 on the desktop is a load of bollocks.
4. Intel is under zero pressure to raise its game. Expect samey clockspeeds.

The bottom line is that the CPU side of Ivy Bridge looks unexciting. The integrated GPU is going to be a big step forward but will remain horrible for proper gaming. What Ivy Bridge will do, however, is give Intel fatter margins. Which is precisely no benefit to you and we.

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142 Comments »

  1. stevendick says:

    General consensus does seem to have settled on the i5 2500K – it’s the processor I’d buy if I was buying one today. Be interesting to see if Ivy Bridge brings anything to the table in April.

    • CilindroX says:

      Another fine choice for those on a budget will be the Core i3 2100 (clocked at 3.1GHz) – this little guy packs almost the same punch as the 2500K at stock speed.

      It’s actually a dual-core with Hyperthreading (ie: has 2 “virtual cores” instead of the “real ones”) and lacks the overclocking capabilities and cache to spare of it’s bigger cousin but, unless a low-res monitor is holding you back, you’ll almost certainly won’t notice the difference.

      Couple this with a GTX 560 or a Radeon 6950 and you should be more than ready for anything down the pipe.

    • Orija says:

      Also, there is the cheaper i5 2500 which is basically the same cpu as 2500k but with no overclocking possible.

    • Dominic White says:

      Scan.co.uk offer i5′s overclocked out of the box, 24-hour stress tested and at no extra cost on top of just the regular hardware, so you can get enormous value for money out of one – your 3.3ghz processor goes straight up to 4.6ghz before you’ve even taken it out of the box.

      Right now, the ideal bang-for-your-buck gaming PC is an i5 2500k with a 560ti/OC. That’ll run everything up to and including Battlefield 3 at maximum detail, maximum res.

    • Premium User Badge

      dangermouse76 says:

      I come in on the i5 760 which at turbo is the bass mark for the 2500k. Currently I am running a nvidia 9600GT with it with 4 gig of RAM and I have to it really does the job on medium to high settings.

      Ofcourse the card is an old one waiting for a new job and an upgrade.

      The guys on the forums over at ArsTechnica really helped in that respect, can be thankful enough as it was my first build.

    • CilindroX says:

      @Orija: yup, the 2500 is an alternative but, ultimately, you end up saving barely 20 quid. That’s why I mentioned the i3. Those savings could go straight to a beefier video card which is right where current games seem to be benefiting the most.

      Just have a look at ME3 requirements – http://goo.gl/aNOXb – as engine optimizations for ports and CPUs get better (and monitor resolutions higher*) the performance bottleneck moves towards the GPU.

      *Of course, if you still insist on keeping that ol’CRT with it’s amazing 1024*768 res for gaming then you should definitely get an i7 ->

    • jhng says:

      I am on a 2500k with the Asus P8P67 Pro. For what it’s worth, overclocking this combo genuinely is childsplay due to the very accessible Asus bios front-end and the hugely simplified overclocking process as compared with previous processor generations.

      Mine happily runs at 4.6GHz for day to day and has been relatively stable up to 4.8. That’s compared with the unclocked rate of 3.3. For the sake of a relatively small price differential over the 2500 (and some patience and willingness to learn) this more or less closes the gap with the top end of the market as far as gaming performance is concerned.

    • Orija says:

      @jhng what about the temps, you’re using some cooling system?

    • thenagus says:

      A word of support for the i3 2100:

      I put a gaming PC together for my fiancé recently, and decided on a whim to overspend on the GPU ( 560GTX ) and get a lower-end CPU. I went for an Intel system, thinking I could upgrade to an i5 at a later date when I could afford it.

      Anyway, I’ve been amazed with the i3: Everything is smooth as butter at the max possible settings, inc Skyrim and the Witcher 2. (Haven’t managed to try BF3 yet…) Moral of the story: if people tell you that you need a quad-core for today’s games, take it with a pinch of salt! [Although I guess if you want to be prepared for games in a few years time, that might be another matter.]

      I think it goes to show how much games nowadays rely on the GPU over the CPU.

    • DrGonzo says:

      Also another one for the i3. But beware, the Battlefield franchise does seem to eat up dual cores. Both Bad Company 2 and Battlefield 3 were unplayable for me until I upped to a quad core.

      Although I am talking about the previous generation of intels. I still have an old quad core overclocked to hit 3.0ghz. Haven’t encountered any games which stress it out yet, fingers crossed.

    • vecordae says:

      The i3′s are great values right now. I’d recommend the 2130 over the 2100 as you get a respectable increase in clock speed for only a few extra bucks. You can also upgrade to a nicer i5 or i7 down the line without having to buy a new motherboard, which is a bonus.

    • jhng says:

      @Orija — temps aren’t nearly as much of a problem with the sanybridge gen of chips. At 4.6 my cpu sits happily in the mid-60s with nothing more fancy than a Thermaltake Frio (at near minimum speed) and a few case fans.

  2. cwoac says:

    the z68 offers the rather interesting feature to use an ssd as a read (or read/write) cache for a normal hdd. You don’t get full ssd performance, but then you can’t get tb ssds and it does seem to work really rather well (my empirical test tells me its nippy. More nuanced and measured tests by people like toms reckon its about 2x as fast as just the hdd).

    • Orija says:

      Gaming wise that feature doesn’t really do much other than reduce loading times for levels that are being replayed. It seems to me that the Z68 has more fluff than any substantial features for gamers.

      I think it’d be better to go for P67 boards which cost-wise lie inbetween the H67 and Z68 boards and has all the necessary features.

    • Jeremy Laird says:

      Yup, SSD caching is an interesting topic. But, poisonally, I’d favour a small, cheap SSD with a Sandforce controller (along the lines of a Corsair Force series in 60GB trim). SSD caching is all a bit too bothersome and probably not a great deal cheaper overall. A 60GB SSD should be enough for a Win 7 install + modest Steam library of your most critical titles. Stuff everything else on one of those antediluvian spinning platters.

    • willfarb says:

      ‘antediluvian’? I think Mr Laird gets my vote as suitable RPS contributor! :-)

    • CilindroX says:

      @willfarb : +1′ed

    • DickSocrates says:

      SSD means you can’t read the loading screen info in Skyrim as it loads too fast!

    • Premium User Badge

      liquidsoap89 says:

      @DickSocrates

      That already happens on normal HDDs!

  3. CMDBob says:

    I have a Phenom II x4 955, got it when it was fairly new, has served me well, but it isn’t the best and the frankly stupid max temperature of 63 degrees C mean I want to get myself an i5 2500k. But so not doing that till Windows 8 is released (as being a games software dev student, get free MS software, like Windows and stuff, woo). And those mysterious figures are just the screen resolution 1920×1080, heh.

    • brokearseork says:

      I reckon the 63+ degrees could be down to your cooling set up. According to CPUID HW monitor, the max temp mine hits is 52-53 degrees wgich is after a 2-3 hour session of skyrim. Now though skyrim is based on age old console hardware, the cpu rendering of shadows demands a lot from my phenom.

      If the cooler is clean, try getting a new heat sink. Not only are they cheap but frankly, much better at cooling then the stock one which I assume you are using with those types of temps. Oh, and if you don’t have the money for a new heatsink, try fitting a 80MM fan on the side of your case, drops temps 2-3 degrees.

    • alilsneaky says:

      Stock cooler -> better replace my motherboard and CPU.

      WUT?

    • Cael says:

      If gaming is your primary use for the computer then there’s really no point in “upgrading” to a 2500K from that processor, you’re better off waiting for the next generation of CPU’s to come out.

    • DrGonzo says:

      63 degrees really isn’t a problem. It’s a safe temperature for your cpu to be running at. It’s less than ideal yes, but still safe.

      If you do have a stock cooler it’s worth picking up a better one. They don’t cost very much at all. If that’s not the problem then get a case with better cooling. If that doesn’t work, then relocate your computer.

    • step21 says:

      Yeah, get a better heathink/fan combo. I really like my 955, awesome performance for the price. With a 50 € heatsink/fan really quiet and cool. Nobody said it was ‘the best’, but as also mentioned in the article for the price it is quite capable. From my experience there is no game today that really maxes it out, so the i5 will bring you no performance gain, if anything I would invest in a new GPU.

    • Mhorix says:

      What he is saying is that 63 is the max temp the cpu can reach before it reduces the clock speed, and i too think this limit is a bit low… Those few degrees seem a whole lot when you are playing with the clock frequencies. 70 would be nice.

  4. Jockie says:

    Hooray for gamer-centric sensible hardware advice

    • Snargelfargen says:

      Yes, and emphasis on the “sensible” part. Refreshing, even!

      I’m curious what Laird has to say on video cards. I have the peculiar combo of an i5 2500k and a 4 year old 4870 1gb, and I still couldn’t find a good reason to upgrade this christmas when Skyrim played flawlessly on high settings.

    • Premium User Badge

      WombatDeath says:

      Thirded! This is excellent: someone who can blast away all of the nonsense and say “just shut up and buy that, that and that” is exactly what I need from a hardware columnist. Well done RPS; I award you three WombatCredits each.

    • MiniMatt says:

      I’m not sure how gamer centric my position is – but personally, recognising the relativey minor excercise CPUs are getting running modern games, as noted well in the article, I find myself looking more to other distinguishing factors – the primary one of these being power draw. Not because I’m a tree hugging hippy – well, I kinda am a little bit, but that’s beside the point – but because low power means low heat means quiet fans.

      And god does gaming benefit from a quiet PC, and I mean *really* quiet here, not just whatever Zalman will sell with the word “quiet” prefixed to last year’s model. A quiet PC firstly detracts less from the increasingly impressive audio in games, and secondly it allows the PC to enter it’s natural place as entertainment and procrastination hub of the home rather than the infernal cacophony, it’s powering up heralded by evils from anyone within earshot (that’s a quarter mile then) and the mechanical thrashing of a hundred helicopters re-enacting Apocalpyse Now scenes.

      A few articles sorta like SilentPC Review but with Queens English and scones. And tea.

    • Premium User Badge

      Rikard Peterson says:

      Yes, I agree with MiniMatt, and hope you’ll factor in noise levels in future additions to this series!

      My Windows PC is showing its age in some games (Intel Core 2 @ 1.87GHz + ATI Radeon 4550) so I have been thinking about getting a new one, but when I do that, I’ll certainly want something that’s more quiet. Ideally something as silent as my Mac. One of the main reasons why the Windows box is mostly turned off is the noise it makes, so I’ll use my Mac for basically everything except gaming. (The other main reason is of course that I like OS X, but that’s going off topic.)

    • DrGonzo says:

      Um, pcs have been silent for about 5 or so years now. Just pick up a decent power supply. Nothing else in your case should be making any noise except under heavy load in a game.

    • Premium User Badge

      Rikard Peterson says:

      They have? Mine is maybe around five years old, so if what you say is true, that would make it one of the last noise-makers. Good news!

      However, I’m not sure I believe you. There certainly are computers at work that are newer than that, but still makes more noise than I’d like. I’m not convinced that all are silent – maybe if you know what to buy, but not if you just go and buy a HP or whatever.

    • Novack says:

      Agreed on the noise problem!

      Jeez, Im 31, have been gaming for 20 years now. Also Im a programmer, so I work with the pc too.

      Some days I think I can’t handle one more minute of the infernal sound.

      Honestly, I havent put much effort on improving the situation, but I totally reject the “computers are silent now”. My motherboard and cpu have so many heat pipes that the thing looks like a car engine, and still, sounds like one. To make it better I’d have to spend good money on silent cooling tech.

      +1 To options for silent PC gaming reviewed in the series.

      Actually, +1 to options for silent PC gaming, using all the components proposed on this article series.

  5. DeFiBkIlLeR says:

    Excellent guide tells you all you need to know.

    2500k: Where its at.
    Bulldozer: Sucks Donkey Balls.

    BTW, i know you know this, but for obvious reasons of not making the article too complicated for the Noobs, the AMD Phenom II 960T you recommended is basically a 6 core CPU with 2 cores disabled by AMD.

    If you have the right MOBO with core unlocking, you can get a 6 core CPU….i know this because that’s exactly what i did. The success rate for getting two stable cores for free is very high thesedays with such a mature CPU design.

    Not guaranteed, but almost. Good overclocker as well, got mine running @4Ghz.

    • Jeremy Laird says:

      DeFiBkIlLeR, my good fellow, core unlocking is indeed always an intriguing subject and a very valid point to raise. I’m usually reluctant to recommend based on that particular prospect as mileages inevitably vary. Essentially, my view is that you need to be happy with the chip as is and treat the possibility of unlocking as an added bonus you may or may not get. That’s especially true if you are going the whole hog with a full platform upgrade and the investment that goes with it.

      In the past, I believe some of the more progressive online retailers have sold guaranteed unlockable chips for a small premium. May be worth getting in touch with the likes of, say, overclockers.co.uk or yoyotech.co.uk to see if they’re willing. However, the premium will have to be jolly tiny given the small price differential to a factory six-core item, albeit slightly slower clocked.

    • tremulant says:

      I took this route when i put my new machine together, got a Phenom II 555 x2 BE, successfully unlockable to x4 with a bios tweak on the right motherboard, made me feel very smug at the time, and it works quite nicely, but, to be honest, unless you like cleaning your heatsink semi-regularly or have a particularly dust-free house, you’ll probably want to get an aftermarket cooler too, dual core chips come with pretty puny offerings compared to the quads and a good layer of dust can tip an unlocked chip into unreasonably hot teritory, factor in the cost of getting a decent one and the slight premium on the motherboard and your saving over just buying the quad version starts to evaporate somewhat(along with your smugness).
      Of course they don’t appear to sell the 555 any more, so this is all a bit of a non issue, how do the various AMD stock coolers compare on the new lines?

      Oh, and i’ve seen people talk of unlocking the disabled core on the sempron 145, that really does look like false economy, unless the capable motherboards are a bit cheaper thesedays.

  6. Casimir's Blake says:

    Last year I upgraded from a Q6600-based workstation, to one with a Thuban Phenom X6, specifically the T1055 95W model which – apparently – is somewhat rare now.

    On the AMD side of things, they are still a good option not only for gaming, but any content creation you can imagine. It screams through Blender renders, and Ableton Live sets. Coupled with a 5750 Radeon it hardly breaks a sweat with Skyrim. Trouble is, again, they’re hard to find.

    Bulldozer is currently not a recommendable option. AMD need to refine the architecture before it becomes a valid purchase IMHO.

    • DrGonzo says:

      A Q6600 wouldn’t break a sweat in Skyrim though. If you overclocked it it probably wouldn’t break a sweat in Battlefield 3. I’m running a Q8300 overclocked which is an arguably worse cpu and it doesn’t struggle with any games.

  7. Premium User Badge

    The Sombrero Kid says:

    Great article, bang on the money, my only 2 points of contention are that windows 7 can tell the difference between real and virtual cores and schedules appropriately and that intel motherboard chipsets are universally flimsy and so should encourage you to avoid their cpu’s as you’ll be locked into a terrible motherboard.

    • Heliocentric says:

      I am not sure if I follow. What’s so bad about intel mobo? please use a term more descriptive than flimsy.

      Edit:insane typo

    • LintMan says:

      Yes, I believe that Win7 is smart enough to spread threads across multiple cores before bunching them on the same core. This was a actually a problem for the AMD Bulldozer architecture, because that processor clocks faster when some cores are left idle. Microsoft had to come out with a patch to optimize the scheduler for Bulldozers.

      As for Intel chipsets, I don’t think they’re that bad. Kind of behind the times in terms of USB 3.0 support and whiz-bang features, but performance is good. On the other hand, not to get into a CPU debate, but getting an AMD motherboard locks you into an AMD CPU, which are uncompetitive if you want to do anything CPU intensive. (ie: video encoding, folding, etc).

    • Premium User Badge

      The Sombrero Kid says:

      In my experience the choice is between the fast, performant and unstable intel or the slow & stable amd, i prefer the latter personally, although i didn’t mean to imply you shouldn’t buy intel chips, you should if you don’t mind the shorter life span and instability, but it’s all based on personal experience and might just’ve been bad luck although, i’d built maybe 10 intel systems and maybe 60-70% of them with the intel chipsets failed in 1-2 years & it didn’t happen at all with intel cpu’s on nvidia boards before nvidia stopped making chipsets.

  8. Premium User Badge

    corbain says:

    Excellent article. Most handy as i’m thinking of doing a cheap upgrade for my mum’s PC. She uses my old rig – an AMD Athalon 3800+ (i think) and a Radeon 1950XTX (absolutely fantastic card)

    She used to like a bit of Morrowind, for which it was ample, but now she’s moved on to Skyrim, it’s showing it’s age a bit. (she couldn’t stand Oblivion)

    A low cost AMD upgrade appears to be the best path for her.

  9. alice says:

    This is petty, but you could you maybe embolden the names of the recommendations the first time they appear, or summarize them in a list at the end of the article?

  10. oliwarner says:

    Let’s leave Linux out of this: we’re talking gaming systems here.

    Hey I run Linux and play games! Don’t you tell me to leave Linux out of this! You’re not my real dad!

    *sulks*

    • sneetch says:

      He really is your dad, I’m sorry you had to find out like this but it’s about time you know.

  11. SquareWheel says:

    I enjoyed that.

  12. Premium User Badge

    Makariel says:

    Being proud owner of an i5 2500K-powered computer I approve this message.

    • grundus says:

      I must say, I feel incredibly smug right now, having built a PC in November based almost entirely on the RPS ‘help people build a PC’ article & comments from a while back; I went for the i5 2500K on an Asus Z68-V Pro board.

      I hope the upcoming GPU article, which I’m guessing will rule in favour of the GTX 580 (just a guess, based on nothing), will go into a bit of detail about the multitude of versions of each card that are out there. i.e. should we buy the MSI Twin Frozr II or is there in fact a better card out there for the same price? There better bloody not be or my smugness shall be heavily dented.

  13. Premium User Badge

    Carra says:

    I’m waiting to upgrade until the next generation cpu’s and graphical cards.

    I don’t like the idea of putting my money in a >1 year old CPU (2500K) and >1 year old graphical card.

    • Premium User Badge

      Harlander says:

      As things stand, you can get away with that. As mentioned, the hardware grind has really slowed down.

      Heck, I’m running a 6-year-old CPU and a 3-year old graphics card, and it’s still keeping up with new releases, even without overclocking.

    • kemryl says:

      Really, you do not for a second have to worry about a current mid-to-high-end CPU becoming insufficient anytime soon, probably not even with the next generation of consoles. The PS3′s cell thingy was an exercise in redundancy when it came out, and it still is. It even has a core specifically for redundancy!

      If you must have the latest and greatest though, AMD recently released their first 7000 series graphics card, and it appears to be quite the thing.
      http://www.guru3d.com/article/amd-radeon-hd-7970-review/1

      edit: why does html hate me so

  14. Draycen says:

    Really great article and welcome Jeremy! Nice to see so many of the key factors for buying a gaming rig, boiled down into a concise and well written article. Another tick in the RPS box. This time against ‘hardware advice’.

    Cheers

  15. The Tupper says:

    Great article – the largesse of our RPS hosts knows no bounds.

    Over the last several years I’ve completely lost track of PC tech stuff, so this is perfect – and (importantly for a luddite such as myself), easy to read and comprehend.

  16. Toberoth says:

    Very helpful article! I’m looking forward to next week’s :-)

    • Toberoth says:

      Or next time, rather. Next week might be a little optimistic!

    • Pani says:

      Yes, I’d second this motion.

      This is all very interesting if we’re planning on keeping up with the technology available or if we’re going to upgrade/buy new in the near future. If however, like me, I’m 12 months off a new rig, it’d be nice to have this set of articles repeated every 6-12 months.

  17. Skeleton Key says:

    Thank you, RPS and Jeremy. A bit of hardware coverage is very welcome.

  18. Chris Evans says:

    I was never going to delve into overclocking territory, so I went for a 2500 without a K, bit cheaper and as I wasn’t going to overclock it is doing me fine.

    Haven’t even bothered to look at AMD in recent years for my upgrades, it seems like Intel have the market cornered at the moment.

  19. Premium User Badge

    kregg says:

    That’s good and all, but it hasn’t got anything on the Z80.

  20. Bayonnaise says:

    Yep, I write for PC Pro and we’ve had the i5-2500K on our A-List since it came out. Wouldn’t surprise me if it’s still there after Ivy Bridge arrives. Excellent CPU.

  21. Premium User Badge

    Revisor says:

    Good article. I feel obliged to post the great Falcon Guide to Buying a PC here
    http://4changboard.wikia.com/wiki/Falcon_Guide

    That’s what I used to buy a new gaming PC and I feel I really got great value for my money.
    Also bought i5-2500, because that’s where the consensus lies.

  22. poohbear says:

    ive been a hardware geek for 13 years, and this guy pretty much summed up the current situation for all of you. With some humor to boot! Good job jeremy, u know ur sh*t.:)

    2500k is all u really need if ure building new. Just buy it, & forget about it!

  23. Voxel lens says:

    Any advice for those of us who are stuck with an LG 755 socket?
    (and please don’t tell me to get a new mobo- it will come eventually :))

    • Premium User Badge

      Llewyn says:

      That probably will be the best advice, unfortunately, depending on what processor you currently have. I looked into options for my LGA775 a little while ago but because they’re not current models any remaining stock is ridiculously overpriced. It would be no more expensive for me to move to an i5-2500 as to a Q9650.

  24. Riotpoll says:

    I’m still chugging along on my old Q6600 (OC’ed to 3Ghz), still runs pretty much everything I play to a decent standard.

    • Premium User Badge

      Malibu Stacey says:

      Same although I did have to put a shiny new GeForce GTX 550 Ti in it last Easter as the 8800 GTX I was using was slowly dying.
      The rest of my system is about 3 & 1/2 years old & I can’t see myself upgrading any time soon but then I could care less about games like “Angryman Faceshooting 2012 part 1″ so it’s more than adequate for the time being.

  25. Tori says:

    I’m very close to build a brand new system. I’m considering the i7 2600K, will this be a waste, or should I go for it if I can afford it?

    (also a geforce 570 if you’re curious.)

    • DeFiBkIlLeR says:

      Only go 2600k if you need the (small) boost you will get from Hyperthreading, useful for 2d/3d rendering packages, Photoshop manipulation.

      For gaming its a waste of time…spend the £100 you save on a better Gfx card, you’ll see far bigger results than having a 2600k.

    • Tori says:

      Well, I do both – rendering using Blender and I use Photoshop almost daily.

      But HT aside – will the bigger cache, and faster base clock be an impact in gaming? And also overclocking?

    • Arclight says:

      Not noticeably, no. As stated in the article, you don’t need a top-of-the-line CPU to get the best gaming performance, and Hyperthreading might actually end up hurting it.

      If strictly for gaming, look no further than the i5. If you really need the extra features of the i7, then go for that. You’ll have to set the priority yourself.

  26. mod the world says:

    Try again when my Q6600 isn’t good enough for gaming anymore. But looking forward to the graphics card guide, i must grudgingly admit that a Radeon 5750 doesn’t cut it anymore. I guess the 7950 will lower the prices for all current mid-range cards?

  27. Premium User Badge

    samsharp99 says:

    It might be worth pointing out, since your article highlighted that Intel aren’t that bothered about pushing the performance of their hardware, that Intel now offer a guarantee against failures due to overclocking (for a small fee – about £20-30) that allows you to overclock your CPU and if you blow it up they will replace it (once) free of charge (in addition to their standard warranty).

    At least it’s something of a nod towards the enthusiast/gaming market.

  28. fitzroy_doll says:

    I’ve been happy for several years with a Phenom II x4 955e +Asus 7 series board, but the best thing in my box is the silent Noctua cooler. I look forward to more articles in this series.

    • Premium User Badge

      Llewyn says:

      I’m with you there, Noctua make some wonderful stuff.

    • Tams80 says:

      I’d say on a cheapish build it may even be worth getting an AMD CPU and using some the money saved on buy a good cooler like that.

  29. Advanced Assault Hippo says:

    This is a superb article.

    Something like this on a fairly regular basis will be great. It really adds something useful – and relevant.

  30. Premium User Badge

    AtkinsSJ says:

    Great article! Unfortunately, I really want to upgrade now, and don’t really have the money… not sure that’ll stop me though. :)

  31. Milky1985 says:

    Hum good read, am literally about to start buying new bits for my gaming machine upgrade (current machine is a core 2 duo 2.1 Ghz, 2 gigs ram, GTS 250 , sounds like peanuts but its run literally everything except BF3 , and thats only because i have XP still :P )

    So basically you are saying avoid i7 for gaming on a reasonable budget cause its not needed, i was looking at a i7 but if people here are saying its no point (i always knew it wasn’t 4 extra actual cores, but assumed there was enough of the cores in there for hyperthreading to avoid congestion) then might save money there and up the planned GFX card one (from a nvidia 560 to a 570) instead.

  32. Metonymy says:

    Nice article, colorful, and very thoughtful, but I’m always a little surprised when I notice no reference whatsoever to emulators. Emulators are generally the software type that is most likely to be throttled by the CPU, and the difference between being able to handle a particular emu, and not handle it, is really the whole story. Am I really in the minority here? I would say fully 50% of the reason I use a PC is to run emulators, and the other 50% is the internet. PC gaming has been indistinguishable from consoles since PS2.

    The advice that CPUs don’t matter at all (single player gaming) seems a little behind the times, because as far as I can tell this has been true for a decade. In fact, for truly core gaming, (multiplayer) players will happily turn off graphical fluff just to hit the 60/90/120 fps they require. This has always been true for me, and I’ve concentrated solely on buying the best graphics card and memory for as long as I can remember.

    Anyway, thanks for adding this feature, but in the future I’d like for the writer to be familiar with the capabilities of the more recent and popular emulators, specifically the current handheld and console generation.

    • DeFiBkIlLeR says:

      I run alot of emulators, MAME,PCSX2 and Dolphin all show up the limitations of my Phenom II 960, even @4Ghz…

      That’s why i was so disappointed with the new AMD Derpdozers, i was hoping they would at least match the 2500k when it comes to emulators, and then turning out to be slower than Phenom II was an unbelievable kick in the nuts.

      To think, that i would need to run my 960 @ 6-7Ghz to get the same performance as a 2500k @ 4.5Ghz….every time i get dropped frames in Mame , i despair.

      Would love to move over to a 2500k rig, but i cant justify spending £300-400 (CPU,Mobo,DDR3,CPU Cooler) just for emulation purposes.

    • The Tupper says:

      MAME! Gawd I used to love MAME. The regular updates (that would make many of my older ROMs stop working) and increasing difficulty in finding ROMs made it fall off my radar for (eek!) about ten years. I’ll have a look on the RPS forums to see if anyone’s posted stuff about it, if not I’ll post my own plea for up-to-date info.

  33. dubyabyeats says:

    For anyone whos creating a new build and using an ssd this tool is handy for moving your steam library games around. Put the ones you want accessed fast on the ssd and the others onto non ssd storage.

    SteamTool Library Manager 1.1
    http://www.stefanjones.ca/steam/

    • Walter Heisenberg says:

      Is it really too much to ask for Steam to add this? Not having the option to install games to specific folders and drivers is laughable this day and age. Has Value ever said about this?

  34. phenom_x8 says:

    Nice article, Jeremy. Sadly I’m not that affordable with 2500K or 960T . Pondering with $80 phenom II x4 840 a.k.a athlon II x4 645,5 for now after my 3,5 years old athlon 64 x2 4800+ died in november.

    Hey, but thats the beauty of PC gaming, right? CHOICES. Even my old athlon 4800+ played quite well with the Witcher 2 (now I know why it died).

    Anyway, after my processor died, my love with AMD seems much bigger now (thats where I got my nickname, mind you). It’s allows me to upgrade to AM3 processor with my old AM2+ motherboard so that I’m not spend too much for a completely new system at least until next years (in the third world country like mine, my month salary will only get me one 2500K)

    BTW, Jeremy. The given numbers means nothing, because Gaming at 1680*1050 quite enough for me. ;) Thanks for the article, though!

    And welcome to RPS !!

  35. Premium User Badge

    thedosbox says:

    The complaints about Intel’s Intel Core i7 3960X ring hollow when the cheaper processors perform just as well in games. Modern games seem to be more dependent on the graphics card than the CPU, so hopefully this will be mentioned in the next article in the series.

    It’s also worth mentioning that some games (e.g. Shogun 2, Deus Ex Human Rev, Saints Row 3) are crashing on many AMD FX systems and may require a motherboard BIOS update.

    • Tams80 says:

      Do consider that processors are made for more than just gamers. While gamers might complain that the i7 isn’t necessary, there are probably quite few people who are glad to have it.

  36. PyroCat says:

    This is really helpful – I’m at a very low level of tech savviness when it comes to what PC hardware I really need, and this does a great job of explaining what is the best and why.

    Unfortunately I can’t build a desktop as I’m going to be moving around too much and desperately need my gaming to be portable – so please do a column on gaming laptops as well!

  37. InternetBatman says:

    This was a nice, helpful article. I’m still going to wait on the new generation of consoles to upgrade if my periodic clock interrupt errors don’t get worse.

    Personally, I think the most depressing upcoming things about PC gaming are Windows 8 and the rise in gamepad users.

  38. Simon Hawthorne says:

    So http://www.ebuyer.com/261404-asus-p8h61-m-pro-intel-h61-socket-1155-8-channel-hd-audio-matx-p8h61-m-pro-r3-0 as the motherboard with this processor http://www.hardwareking.net/product_info.php?currency=GBP&info=p87956_Intel-Core-i5-2500K–4x-3-30GHz–boxed–BX80623I52500K-.html for a total of around £175?

    Presumably I could then salvage the RAM/HDD/Graphics card I already have and use with those components?

    Interesting…

  39. Bluestar says:

    More of these articles please. Thanks Jeremy.

  40. tgoat says:

    Splash image is filled with LIES!
    http://www.snopes.com/inboxer/hoaxes/computer.asp

    But the accompanying article is great!

  41. The V Man says:

    An excellent read. Being a systems admin with a hardware slant myself, I quite enjoyed it.

    Pretty much everything you’ve mentioned factored into the new system I built in late 2010 based around the Phenom II x4 955 BE – and I’ve got no plans to change that based on the rut that the processor market seems to have dug itself. Hopefully it recovers soon as we can push some speedy new technology out the door again – though I think the gaming sector needs to fully embrace the x64 multi-core 8GB+ RAM that so many of us (and really almost everyone these days…) are toting about these days. We can do so much more, but we’re held back by developers wanting a piece of the console market :P

  42. cjlr says:

    AMD FOREVER.

    If you think Intel is phoning it in now, God help us all if they have even less competition.

  43. KRayner says:

    Very insightful article, thanks. I have always been a value for money kind of guy. I had a slew of AMD systems in the early 00′s however since the C2D’s Intel have simply proven to be the better performance per dollar (in games, which is predominantly what I use my Home PC for). I also don’t care about ‘Future proofing’ (i.e. buying a mobo and replacing the CPU a few months down the line) as I always buy a system that I know will be very good for at least 3 years (CPU, MEM + MB). I tend to upgrade my GFX every 18 months or so (that way I can still get a decent price for the old card).

    Around 8 months ago I upgraded from a C2D E8400 which I had been using for over 3 years. The CPU had served me well (OC’d @ 3.6Ghz) but in a few games the lack of additional cores was often causing problems. Shift 2 was the most noticeable as it was rather choppy at times (no matter which graphical settings/resolutions I tried). Also with 4 cores u have more overhead so background processes etc. do not interfere with your game. I recall also having slight issues with Dragon Age Origins on the C2D. It turned out it was the Aida64 CPU monitoring process causing the prob. I use the Aida64 gadget in Win7 to monitor temps etc. (on the desktop).

    Anyways so I decided to upgrade to the 2500K and holy cow what a difference! Even though the clock speed was lower (OC’d E8400 @ 3.6Ghz vs. stock 2500K @ 3.3Ghz) I noticed huge differences in games like Civ V and Shogun 2 (and the afore mentioned Shift 2). It was still using my trusty old EVGA Nvidia 260 Superclocked GFX card which had served me well. The frame jump in certain games was quite large (which was a little unexpected). About a month later I upgraded to a 560Ti.

    Current PC Specs:
    2500K (@ 4.5Ghz) + Thermalright MUX-120 Cooler
    Asus P8P67
    2x4Gb Corsair XMS3 DDR3 @ 1600Mhz
    MSI 560Ti Twin Frozr II/OC

    About a month ago I finally decided to dabble in OCing and wow, 4.5Ghz with little to no hassles! This base setup will probably last at least another 3-5 years as mentioned in this article. Currently the only game that really stresses my system at 1920×1200 is BF3 which I run at High Settings as this gives me a respectable 45-60 FPS in MP (love me some BF3 MP).

    I look forward to reading your next artilcle.

    • Snargelfargen says:

      I made the same exact change, and it’s funny how noticeable the difference is, even in single threaded applications.

      I’m hanging on to my E8400 though, it’s still more than fast enough for an office/media computer.

    • roryok says:

      I just bought a Q8400 to replace my E8500, but haven’t swapped them yet (the Q8400 literally arrived in work this morning, sitting on my desk). Do you attribute this performance boost to going from 2 to 4 cores, or from the c2d/c2q architecture to the i5 architecture?

    • Snargelfargen says:

      Well more cores is definitely good, but I think the primary difference must have something to do with the architecture. I’ve always had a rather trim windows installation with few background programs, so the difference was surprising. I guess there’s just a lot more to it than clock speed.

      It’s worth noting that I “tested” the performance before and after with a heavily modded installation of Oblivion. Because the engine is crappy, and the program is single threaded, it can still bring any computer out there to it’s knees, but I was able to push it a lot more with the 2500k.

      For what it’s worth, I’m sure you will do fine with any newer games that can do multi-threading.

    • KRayner says:

      RE: Snargelfargen

      Yup, I was very surprised as well. I ended up using my E8400 as a replacement for one of my Dad’s old AMD 3200+ PC’s. Obv a huge upgrade.

      RE: roryok

      It’s definately a mix of both. For instance, my one friend had a Q8300 system. He had the same exact GFX card as me and he could play Shift 2 with no problems. As I mentioned I was having stuttering etc. so this would point to the amount of cores (i.e. background tasks were negatively influencing the game). On the other hand, the clock for clock performance increase is very high (saw an article about it somwhere) so this also plays a major factor. Put it this way, your old E8500 can actually prove to be faster in certain games (where single core performance matters) but in games that max out the usage, you could end up with stuttering like I did in Shift 2 which means the Q8400 would be better. Overall the Q8400 will run games at a slightly lower framerate in general, but the actual fluidity can pretty much be guaranteed (i.e. background processes are less of a factor). If u do have the money I would recommend a new system (as this is much more ‘future proof’ but as a relatively in-expensive upgrade the Q8400 is decentish imo.

    • Moraven says:

      This is the upgrade I am pondering now. E8500 is solid but I tend to multitask heavily and would like to get into more streaming (from the same PC instead of a 2nd PC to broadcast).

      Looking up info if the i7 hyper threading is worth the price for streaming. Seen No, Yes, Maybes. Might just stick to the i5.

    • roryok says:

      well, I picked up my Q8400 for £90, so it was a cheap upgrade. I’m sure I’ll be switching to an i5 eventually, but I’m also trying to afford a new laptop this year

    • KRayner says:

      RE: Moraven

      It depends on what you want the system for. For things like video encoding etc. the i7′s are better but for games HT can actually cause issues. Personally I don’t think the difference in price between the 2600K and the 2500K is worth it considering you get practically no performance increase in games. (if I recall the difference in price is rather large, 40% I believe?) If you plan on overclocking like I did then once again, the 2600K is no better than the 2500K in this regard. As for the newer 3xxx based Intel CPU’s I honestly do not see the point (for games). They are a heck of a lot more expensive and once again provide hardly any performance increase over the 2500K.

  44. RagingLion says:

    Thank you for the article. It’s perfectly written for clarifying things for me as a reader. Unfortunately I bought my new computer in November so I won’t really be needing such information for another 4 years.

    I went for the cheapest quad core (therefore AMD) processor I could get based on instinct – hopefully that stands me in ok stead.

  45. Premium User Badge

    sonofsanta says:

    I don’t think people realise how laughably easy it is to build a PC these days either, and how much more balanced and cost-effective a home build machine is than whatever PC World are peddling. Case in point: just built a machine for a friend based on the i3-2100 and 6850, nice case and PSU, 8GB of RAM, for £400. Took me an hour and a half to clip together, and I was drinking. Phenomenal.

    When asked how much it would have cost to buy from PC World, the closest equivalent was sporting a Core i7 yet only a 6770. It’s shitty market segmentation at its worst and just criminal to build machines that unbalanced.

    • The Tupper says:

      It’s on my bucket list, but I’m still a big shite-bag about doing it. I’ve installed memory chips, PSUs and a billion (yes, a billion, right!?!) graphics cards over the years but something about screwing the motherboard in (and the horror of taking the old one out and not being able to fit it back if I fuck everything up) stops me from DIY. I’m scared to even change a heatsink: that’s how much of a shitebag I am…

  46. roryok says:

    I just bought a second hand Q8400 on ebay, to replace my E8200. I was tempted by the next gen of intel chips (although I would have naively bought the i7 thinking it was better, until reading this guide) but in the end I decided to save the cash and keep my existing motherboard & RAM

    I am looking forward to the GPU guide, but I’d also like to hear some PSU discussion – something often overlooked. For example, that alienware x51 (pictured above) sports a 350W PSU, whereas I’m worrying if my 600W is going to be enough for the new chip. Is it? How can this i5 machine use so little power? Do we really need 700-800+ PSUs for modern PCs? How do we tell?

    • fitzroy_doll says:

      600w will be fine. Search for psu calculator to look into it further, there are many available. Here is one: http://extreme.outervision.com/psucalculatorlite.jsp

    • Snargelfargen says:

      700 watt psus and above are really meant for people who have unusual hardware set-ups. More than one video card, extreme overclocking, a RAID array or something else interesting.

      For a normal gaming computer a 500 or 600 watt psu from a reliable brand is more than enough.

    • sephiroth says:

      600w is plenty for 99% of gamers.

      I run 2 6850 in crossfire 3 massive Hdds and overclocked cpu all on a 600w.

      Its at its safe limits with my clocking and I will be upgrading soon to give myself a bit more flexibility in my clocking but if you want 1 card then 600w is plenty

  47. Buemba says:

    Are there any idiot-proof guides on overclocking a 2500k? Right now I just have it set to “performance” in my P8Z68-V Pro’s BIOS settings (Since my original plan to just bang the processor with a wrench until it caved in and unlocked all that delicious performance just so I’d leave it alone didn’t pan out) but since I splurged for the k model and a nice and huge cooler I’d like to wring as much juice as I can from it.

  48. GetUpKidAK says:

    Very good of you guys to post this about a week after I upgraded my PC for the first time in about 5 years.

    Still, I ended up buying the 6-core AMD option mentioned and it’s handling everything with ease so far, so that’s nice.

  49. Premium User Badge

    PoulWrist says:

    How lovely. Someone saying the actual truth instead of “YOU SHOULD GET UBER CPU” . Mediocre CPU is excellent for gaming in 99% of scenarios.

  50. Tei says:

    My current CPU is a “Intel Core i7 2600K @ 3,4GH”. Windows list 8 cores for the machine.
    My plan buying this CPU is to have enough horsepower to run console-based games fast. Since console-based games are not as optimized as pc-based games, are more heavy on the CPU (think GTA5).