Gamers have competitive streaks, plain and simple. Doesn’t matter whether you’re a casual or hardcore gamer, by definition you want to compete at some level. Most games are about winning at some level of purpose, and competition tends to bring out the passion in people. Manchester United? New York Yankees? Toronto Maple Leafs? Yes, we have our favourite teams, and competition does indeed bring out the fans.
Passion can be a good thing, when harnessed, and computer gamers certainly have passionate streaks as well. A result of passion, when directed to a particular thing or company, is properly termed brand loyalty. Companies love brand loyalty, and they spend very large sums of money to cultivate and foster brand loyalty. In the tech world, those that have a strong brand loyalty are usually known by another, more common name: fanboys. Ah yes, the ATI vs Nvidia, AMD vs Intel flame wars; nothing quite stirs a tech forum than such lively debates. Today we’re interested in the latter of those: AMD vs Intel. Yes, dear friends, it doesn’t get much more contentious than that.
I’ve decided to tackle the debate head-on, and specifically a hot topic that sets off the passion: is AMD or Intel better for gaming? Specifically, the Phenom II and Core i7 respectively. There are pros and cons to each, and we’ve seen some people attempt to tackle that debate, but to date we believe the comparisons are fundamentally flawed, such as using different graphics cards or dual/quad cores to compare.
That’s about as good as comparing apples to horseshoes. No, today, we’ll attack the big question straight up by using the exact same setups except for the AMD/Intel core components. And we’re going to chart the performance differences in many different scenarios, at stock and overclocked CPU speeds, in single and dual graphics card configurations, and at different resolutions. And as an added bonus, we’re also going to compare prices and evaluate gaming value; does that money on a Core i7 give you better framerates? If so, how much is that extra worth? Will the Phenom II framerates tank in Crysis? Yes, those are exactly the things we’re going to show you.
There’s a ton of ground to cover, so strap on your flak jacket and buckle up. This is about to get very, very interesting.
Before we move to the testing, let’s talk turkey for a few minutes: how to pick parts and compare gaming performance between AMD and Intel?
With the intent to compare the AMD Phenom II to the Intel Core i7 there must obviously be an attempt to keep the test systems as closely matched as possible, either in terms of money spent or performance capabilities. These are not always the same and sometimes there can be a great disparity. So we’ll work to keep things balanced between both criteria and both systems as best as possible. Obviously, there are differences since we’re dealing with AMD vs Intel, and it is impossible to be the same by definition. This, however, is probably the biggest point of contention since there are many variables of choice of processor, motherboard, and memory, the three core components that will differ between the test systems.
I’m not ones to argue semantics and agonize over minutiae, but we still do want to provide a fair comparison. We do know that memory timings will not make a discernible difference in the overall results, for example. We’ve tested many memory modules at various speeds, on various benchmarks, and the end result is it does not make a significant difference in gaming framerates on the whole.
While there are those who would argue otherwise, their objections are based in perception and supposition, not cold, hard facts. Sure, you may have a difference of 0.2 frames per second difference, for example, but that’s not considered significant. A fraction of a percent difference may be detectable, yes, but if you can visually tell the difference between 26.2 fps and 26.4 fps then you’re Superman, plain and simple.
From testing many motherboards, that the performance differences for those components are also negligible, certainly nothing substantial enough to adversely affect gaming performance to the point that results are skewed. Again, empirical testing and facts do not support otherwise, and certainly not to the extent that any “real world” difference would be seen. So we’ll be using two motherboards that represent typical “enthusiast” level purchases, each on the more premium side of products on the market. There is no point in comparing an entry-level Core i7 motherboard against a premium Phenom II board (or vice versa), as that does not provide similar features (including overclockability) to consumers. As a result, we’ll be using motherboards that are comparable in terms of ability and performance levels for each respective platform. That leaves the processor.
This is probably the most controversial part of this exercise, and indeed the entire thrust of this article, so we’ll take a minute to briefly explain the rationale here. We are well aware of the Intel Core i7’s overclocking abilities and hyperthreading performance, and we will not debate nor explore those here, as those are proven facts. If you are heavily into CPU-intensive tasks such as animations, modelling and rendering, mathematical analysis, and so forth, we do recommend Core i7 for sheer CPU performance.
However, the vast majority of consumers (and particularly gamers) do not engage in much workstation-type tasks, if any at all, and certainly not enough to justify their purchase, otherwise you’d be using a workstation at the office and not a gaming rig at home. Simply put, a Core i7 will not let you browse faster, play your MP3’s better, make Facebook run better, Twitter any faster, or type your school reports any quicker. Both a Quad Core i7 and AMD Phenom II will each easily handle those tasks, plus others as well, in a daily use environment. That is a basic premise that is first accepted so we can move onto the real guts of today’s exploration: gaming.
So the question then becomes, “Which Intel and AMD CPU to compare?” Since we’re looking at gaming value and not CPU benchmarking, we must also accept that “affordable” is important, but even more so is “performance for dollar”. Further, we are also trying to compare similarly-capable systems, including overclocking to an extent. Therefore, we decided to use an Intel Core i7 920, which is by far the most popular Core i7 chip, as well as the most affordable, not to mention it’s a great overclocker. On the AMD side of things, we have a Phenom II X4 955 Black Edition. Now before we hear the guffaws, yes, we acknowledge there are cheaper options out there that also overclock to the level of a 955.
However, there are two considerations: first, we mentioned “similar” values, and the Phenom II X4 955 most closely approximates the Core i7 920 in terms of price, so we went with the 955 in order to keep the value approximately equal in terms of price and performance. Second, in order to address the “fanboys” out there, we anticipated some outcry that AMD parts would be cheaper which would somehow translated to an unfair comparison. So, we want tackle it head-on and keep things as closely matched as possible and avoid any perception of an unfair comparison.
As a result, the X4 955 Black Edition was used for this article, and we want to ensure there isn’t whiff of any sort of perception of bias. We’re performance nuts, but we’re also real-world consumers with our own budgets as well, so we are very mindful of cost, especially during tough economic times. As a result, we’re going to pit AMD’s flagship against Intel’s mainstream (even though they are closely priced on the whole), do some stock speed and overclocked testing, as well as single GPU and Crossfire configurations. Simply put, we’re going to test each major configuration combination and see what happens in a gaming scenario, and make some (hopefully) clear observations and blunt conclusions. Plain and simple.
Lastly, keep in mind this is not an article about overclocking per se, though overclocking is involved; it is a discussion of the value offered for gaming systems between AMD and Intel. We are well aware of both the Phenom II and Core i7’s overclocking abilities, and you will see that the tests are not being run at their top overclocking limit. Again, this goes back to the value point and trying to “match” these competitors in a reasonably realistic set of scenarios. There is no point in pushing either CPU past 4.0GHz when that’s not necessary for gaming nor analysis, nor is it realistic for what most gamers would do anyways.
No need to overly complicate things. People often want the bottom line, so we’ll take every opportunity to test the reasonable variables here, look at the raw performance numbers side-by-side, examine the cost differences, and explore a few options that may appear as a result.
With that, let’s look at the test systems and get this show on the road.
Test Systems & Setup
In order to adequately explore the gaming value and performance differences between the Phenom II and Core i7, we decided to run 4 basic configurations for each game, and each of those at 3 different resolutions. That equals 24 individual scenarios for each game, a more than sufficient sample size to address our major questions and gamer’s situations, and certainly enough to provide the basis for some observations and conclusions.
As a result, we’ll be running each CPU at stock speed with a single Radeon 4890, stock speed in Crossfire, and then each CPU overclocked again in single configuration and Crossfire, with all of these done at 1280, 1680, and 1920 resolutions. That should cover enough scenarios to see if any bottlenecks or performance jumps (or drops) are evident. Further, when we examine the gaming value, it will be interesting to compare what gaming results may be achieved by improving the graphics subsystem with money saved during system selection. We’ll see if that’s possible during analysis.
Our test system is designed to approximate what a both a mainstream and more hardcore gamer might use (or similar level) for their setup. Sure, the sky’s the limit but we need to be “reasonable” for testing purposes. The point here is not to assemble the most elite gaming system on the planet, because that is neither common nor provides “value” by any stretch of the imagination. And since we’re looking at CPU performance as it relates to gaming (and its resulting value), our test systems include the same system components except the core CPU, motherboard, and memory as previously discussed.
When overclocking, we decided to keep things “reasonable”, with clocks that would approximate what is easily achievable with an air cooler. We know higher speeds are possible but that’s not the thrust of this article. As a result, the overclock settings were kept proportionately similar, with the Phenom II being moderately clocked up to 3.8GHz and the Core i7 clocked to 3.4GHz. This represents almost a 20% increase for the Phenom and a 30% increase for the i7.
The reason these are not kept the same is for proportionality and fairness: the Phenom has a higher clock speed to begin with, so we actually gave it less of an overclock to attempt to balance the setups. We could have pushed the Phenom to 4.0GHz to approximate equal overclock ratios but we don’t think that would have been fair as a result. Again, this should also address any cries that the AMD setup is cheaper and may disproportionately skew any results. So in effect, we’ve stacked the deck slightly against AMD for the overclocking tests.
In order to calculate gaming value, we also need to price out system components. So the three core components of CPU, motherboard, and memory we calculated for both AMD and Intel from a major online retailer. We are aware that prices may fall and there may be minor differences due to sale prices or promotions and such, but the pricing was taken for both system setups on the same day from the same popular online retailer in order to be as fair and accurate as possible.
ATI Catalyst 9.7 was used for testing, and settings were left at the installed defaults for drivers, with the exception of Vertical Sync (v-sync) which was forced off/disabled in the Catalyst Control Panel. Gaming tests were run at 1280×1024, 1680×1050, and 1920×1200 resolutions, which reflect the most popular gaming resolutions used today. They also represent approximately one, two, and three megapixels, which will give a good indication of performance scaling as we move up, both in terms of CPU and GPU performance.
Now let’s get onto the test results, shall we?
A synthetic benchmark that doesn’t necessarily translate to real world gaming results, 3DMark Vantage is the successor to 3DMark06. It can only be used exclusively in DX10, so Windows Vista must be the Operating System of choice in order to include this benchmark. Not as widely popular as its predecessor, Vantage does push any system farther than before and even the most advanced system can struggle to produce high framerates in some of the tests. In this test, the presets for Performance, High, and Extreme were used.
Here we see that the Core i7 system is ahead by a few percent at stock speed and a single GPU, but increases its lead slightly when overclocked. There is a considerable difference, however, when Crossfire is enabled, as the i7 stretches the gap.
Let’s look at one more synthetic test before we move into the actual gaming results.
FurMark is a very intensive OpenGL benchmark that uses fur rendering algorithms to measure the performance of the graphics card. Fur rendering is especially adapted to overheat the GPU and that’s why FurMark is also a perfect stability and stress test tool (also called GPU burner) for the graphics card. It scales excellently with Crossfire and is primarily affected by GPU performance but we’ve included because we want to see if there is a signficant difference between CPU performance in affecting framerates.
In FurMark, we see the Phenom II pull ahead ever so slightly at stock speeds with one graphics card, and in fact a dead heat when Crossfire is enabled. When overclocked, the Phenom maintains a lead in both single and dual card configurations, though the difference is very minor.
Let’s move onto the gaming results now.
ArmA 2 (often incorrectly referred to as Armed Assault 2) is a tactical shooter video game for the PC developed by Bohemia Interactive Studio. More precisely, it is a combat simulator that features highly tactical and detailed environments and scenarios, in what some call the ultimate realism shooter. ARMA 2 uses the third-generation Real Virtuality game engine which has been in development for over 10 years and is also used in training simulators used by militaries around the world. ARMA 2 supports both DirectX 9 and DirectX 10 graphics cards. It features realistic day-night cycles, changing weather, fog and visibility, and a view distance of up to 10 kilometres. It is extremely taxing on graphics cards and can cripple even the most hardcore systems at higher resolutions when all the visual effects are enabled, as we’ve done in our testing.
ArmA 2 does not appear to be optimized well for Crossfire yet, with the 9.7 Catalysts drivers being the first set that enable Crossfire support for the game. We suspect improvements will come over time. Nonetheless, the results here are consistent with the Core i7 posting better framerates across the testing spectrum. The difference is minor, within a couple of frames, but that can translate into double digit percentages on the whole.
Left 4 Dead
Left 4 Dead is a co-operative, survival-based, first person shooter with a horror genre as the backdrop, leaving you to fight off the seemingly endless zombie hordes. There isn’t much of a storyline but the action is non-stop and intense. Based on the latest version of Valve’s Source engine, additional improvements have been added such as physics-based animation and multi-core processor suport. Atmospheric lighting, self-casting shadows, and volumetric smoke and fog effects have drastically improved the look of the Source engine. Antialiasing is set to 8x, anisotropic filtering to 16x, and all lighting and texture settings are set to the highest level possible. A custom timedemo is used to record framerates.
Left 4 Dead framerates are very high overall, and we see that the i7 manages to squeeze ahead by a few frames on average, but shows the greatest improvement when overclocked in Crossfire configuration. The difference, however, at 1920 resolution is marginal at best, and is really only apparent when gaming at lower resolutions.
Call of Duty: World at War
Call of Duty: World at War is the “successor” to Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, and takes you back to World War II through the Pacific and Russian campaigns. Based on the CoD4 proprietary engine, the game is shader-intensive and features beautiful DX9 graphics, striking lighting and contrasts, dynamic shadows, and fast-paced action. This game has seen some some engine optimizations, but can still push a system when the graphics settings are cranked up. In this game, antialiasing is set to 4x, anisotropic filtering to 16x, and all lighting and texture settings are set to the highest level possible. Here we run a custom timedemo recorded in a packed Deathmatch server and record the results.
With Call of Duty: World at War we see an interesting result: at stock speeds, each system is running virtually identical both in single and dual card configurations. However, when overclocked, the Phenom II pulls ahead, and most signficantly at higher resolutions where the gaps widens. This is opposite from what we’ve seen in the tests so far.
Tom Clancy’s H.A.W.X
Tom Clancy’s H.A.W.X is an aerial combat flight game developed by Ubisoft that puts you in the pilot’s seat, commanding a small squadron to fight international terrorists. More arcade-style than a simulator, the engine runs on DX10 and features very nice ambient lighting, shadows, volumetric fog, god-rays, and ambient occlusion which attempts to replicate how light radiates and bounces against objects in real life. For this test, antialiasing is set to 8x, anisotropic filtering to 16x, and all lighting and texture settings are set to the highest level possible.
Tom Clancy’s H.A.W.X.
H.A.W.X provides a different set of results yet again. At stock CPU speeds, the single card configuration yields almost identical results yet the Crossfire numbers clearly favour the i7 system. However, when overclocked, that gain is lost and the Phenom II catches up, resulting in virtually identical results.
Crysis: Warhead is a standalone game that is not an expansion pack to the original Crysis, but it is inexplicably intertwined, as you now play the game as Psycho, venturing on missions in other parts of the island, apparently working parallel to the missions in the original. An interesting concept, but what is even better here is that Warhead features an updated version of the CryEngine 2 game engine.
Featuring Gamer and Enthusiast settings for high-end systems, the engine has been further optimized and performs better than the original Crysis on hardware, though is it still capable of bringing a graphics card to its knees if you turn up the eye candy and enable antialiasing. Consequently, we’ll be using the Enthusiast settings in DX10 with no antialiasing here to avoid the tests simply becoming a slideshow, which is of no help to anyone trying to learn what the playable framerates can be for particular cards.
Crysis: Warhead is particularly interesting, as the single card configuration results in essentially a tie both at stock and overclocked speeds. But when Crossfire is enabled, the Phenom II lags behind slightly by a couple frames per second.
X3: Terran Conflict
X3: Terran Conflict is an open-ended space combat simulator from developer Egosoft, featuring an expansive universe setting in which to explore worlds and engage in epic space battles, complete with ships, space stations, planets, and the like. With very high polygon counts, the antialiasing and lighting elements are critical to realistic environments and immersive play. X3:TC has stunning visuals and runs on Egosoft’s proprietary engine that has been advanced with the help of some gaming modders. Here we have antialiasing anisotropic filtering set to the highest levels, along with all the additional lighting effects enable
X3: Terran Conflict shows us that the Phenom II system posts better results across the test spectrum, but particularly at stock speeds, both in single and dual GPU setups. Overclocking does help the i7 lessen the gap, in fact allowing it to barely take over at 1280 resolution but losing ground at the high resolution.
Performance Analysis & Value Comparison
That certainly was interesting. The objective results so far show that the Core i7 system tends to post higher raw performance numbers than the Phenom II. Although it does depend on the game you’re playing, the differences are quite minor overall. Further, there are some differences depending if you are running dual cards in Crossfire or not.
Now, it is imperative to remember the point of the article here, that performance differences are fine, but how much do those improvements cost? As we’ve already seen, the Core i7 core components costs considerably more than its Phenom II counterpart, so now we need to put the final puzzle pieces into place to reach some conclusions. To do that, let’s examine the performance differences between the AMD Phenom II and Intel Core i7, and then the corresponding value for each by applying the cost differences between the core system components.
First, let’s look at the absolute gaming results in terms of percentage differences for each system at stock CPU speeds.
Here we see that the Core i7 does indeed post better performance on average overall. At stock speeds in single GPU configuration however, it’s almost a toss-up. The differences are negligible, with a few exceptions where Crossfire really only shows an improvement in Vantage, H.A.W.X., and Crysis: Warhead. ArmA 2 does also tend to favour the Core i7 system across the board. Keep in mind these are total results for all resolutions combined, so check the individual results to find the actual differences for each setup. Even though the chart may show 10% difference overall, for example, this may translate only to less than one frame per second of actual difference.
Now let’s take look when each system is overclocked.
Here we see a distinctly different trend, with the Phenom II system gaining considerable ground overall, with the lone exception being 3DMark Vantage. The Crossfire differences are now reduced, and in single GPU configuration, the Phenom II in fact overtakes the Core i7. This is very interesting because popular opinion in our experience has been that people have tended to believe that an overclocked Core i7 simply thrashes a Phenom II. The facts, though, do not support such claims.
Now, we must look at what is perhaps the most critical indicator of all: gaming value. As we’ve just seen, the Core i7 posts some performance increases over the Phenom II system at stock settings, but loses much ground when each are overclocked. Now let’s chart those results against the cost difference of each system based on the core components that are different and calculate how much that performance increase costs per actual framerate.
What you see above is how much it would cost you per framerate (increase) with a Core i7 system over a Phenom II system. The higher the number above, the worse it is because the more you will be paying for performance increase. What is being shown, for example in Left 4 Dead, is that it will cost you $26.88 extra per frame to buy a Core i7 system for gaming.
Now consider this: for a current difference of $215, you can purchase a second Radeon 4890 to go with a Crossfire setup in a Phenom II system. From a gaming perspective, the Core i7 system simply cannot compete with this.
When I first set out to tackle this article, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. We’ve seen both the Phenom II and Core i7 up close and personal, and have a healthy respect for each platform. However, we are performance junkies around here and pride ourselves as overclocking enthusiasts that try to extract maximum performance from our systems, regardless of platform. And we have been suitably impressed by the overclocking prowess of the Core i7 lineup, as have many other enthusiasts the world over. But we also know that very few people are also able to take advantage of much of those increases in real world tasks that can truly harness that power to a great degree.
I’ve seen the pendulum swing from Intel to AMD, and back and forth, and as gamers, we had assumed that the strengths of the Core i7 platform would prove too much for a Phenom II to overcome in terms of gaming performance. So today’s investigation set about not to prove a certain viewpoint, but to try to illuminate the facts of the unknown differences, not the least of which were our own experiences. And as we must admit, we were rather surprised at the results.
There are a few conclusions we can now definitively draw after today’s exploration, plain and simple. It is fact that a Core i7 gaming rig will give you better overall performance in terms of absolute numbers and framerates; the difference isn’t very much, but it does exist. It is also fact that such a system will cost considerably more money as well for what is essentially almost the same performance. When the results are then applied against those cost differences, it is also fact that the Core i7 system then becomes a very expensive option, costing hundreds of dollars more for little to no performance increase in most games.
Where things get really interesting is when you equalize the costs between the platforms and look at what you get for gaming performance in return. For a current difference of $215, you can purchase a second Radeon 4890 to go with a Crossfire setup in your Phenom II system and it will utterly crush a Core i7 gaming setup that will have only one graphics card.
I must admit, that provides a very compelling reason to consider an AMD gaming system, especially when we remember that a Phenom II X4 can overclock very well and also easily handle just about any regular use application. Unless you’re doing a ton of video encoding or workstation renderings and animations, the cost for performance difference is very difficult to justify, particularly for a gaming setup.
As I said at the outset, passion can be a good thing when harnessed. And in this instance, using the gaming value presented by an AMD Phenom II setup can effectively let gamers harness far more additional graphics horsepower for their hard-earned money.