Know which Ivy Bridge is the best value for gaming or video editing? Darren Yates benchmarks Intel’s third-generation Core i-series chips to find out.
The CPU market for desktops has pretty stable and well-signposted demarcation lines these days — Intel chips outclass AMD’s Bulldozer on raw processing while AMD offers noticeably better 3D-ready integrated GPUs. But as always, there isn’t just one choice of Intel chip if you want to go in that direction. At last count, there were around 15 different Ivy Bridge chips for just the desktop alone, with more to come.
Core, clock, cache
It’s a catchcry we’ve used before, but it still holds true: Intel’s various processor offerings are built on simply mucking around with the three Cs: core count, clock speed and cache memory. And given the current point of the Ivy Bridge cycle, the chip giant has yet to release its entry-level offerings. Intel always leads off a new product cycle with its bleeding-edge products (currently, the Core i7 chips), followed by its more affordable performance parts (Core i5s) and finally, its entry-level chips (Core i3s).
In all that, though, the actual differences between the top-of-the-line CPU and the wooden spoon chip is simply how many cores inside the processor are switched on, the clock speed it’s set to and the amount of cache memory inside it. Not every chip represents great value for every buyer — it all depends on what you intend to do with it.
We lined up five current mainstream Ivy Bridge CPUs — the top-drawer Core i7-3770K, the Core i5-3570K, plus the Core i5-3550, i5-3470 and i5-3450 processors — and ran them through our performance tests as well as three gaming benchmarks coupled with an Nvidia GeForce GTX 670 graphics card.
As the five mainstream Ivy Bridge options, we can break down the major differences into just five points.
- The Core i7 has four cores, each hyperthreaded for a notional core count of eight, whereas the Core i5 series has no hyperthreading.
- All four Core i5 chips have the same cache amount (6MB) and the same core count (four).
- Each of the five chips is separated by 100MHz steps in both the standard and Turbo clock speeds.
- The i5-3500 and i5-3700-series chips have a slightly faster Turbo graphics speed (1,150MHz) compared with the i5-3400 series (1,100MHz).
- The two K-series chips have their multipliers unlocked for overclocking.
The final part of the equation is pricing and this is equally as important as overall performance results, especially if you’re working within a budget. If money’s no object, then it’s fine to go straight to the top drawer. By comparing price versus performance, you’ll find out just where the optimum value lies. So let’s take a look at two main application areas: gaming and video editing.
If you’re a serious gamer, the usual temptation is to cough up your credit card and point to the top-of-the-line processor and graphics card. While it’s an expensive way to go, you’re not usually going to go too far wrong. But if the budget isn’t open-ended, then what?
The thing to remember is that gaming speed is a function of both the CPU and the graphics card. The higher up in gaming resolution you aim for, the more the graphics card takes over the workload. The GTX 670 is no slouch — you’re looking at around $450 for one of these on the street and even at 1080p, there isn’t a game this card won’t cut a decent swathe through. But does the GTX 670 really need a Core i7-3770K processor to get it hitting its performance end stops? The answer is within 10% of being ‘no’. Let me explain what I mean.
Look at the results table below for the Crysis and DiRT 2 tests, and you’ll see that for both 1,024 x 768-pixel and 1,920 x 1,080 resolution settings, the difference between the bottom-end Core i5-3450 and the top-drawer Core i7-3770K is, on average, around 10%. If we just look at the 1080p results (what we’re really more interested in), the i5-3450 delivered 81.6fps on Crysis and 167.8fps on DiRT 2, while the i7-3770K returned 89.33fps and 188.16fps, respectively, for the same tests. However, if you look at the Aliens vs Predator results, the frame rates are all but identical. The difference in CPU price is significant — it’s $200 for an i5-3450 and $360 for an i7-3770K.
Which chip for gaming?
If you’ve got a budget of up to $650 to play with for the CPU and graphics card, going for the entry-level quad-core Core i5-3450 processor and coupling it with a GeForce GTX 670 graphics card is still going to net you seriously good 1080p gaming performance.
However, look at the street pricing of the five chips we tested and you can see that only $40 separates the four Core i5 chips, yet there’s $120 to reach the Core i7-3770K. If we’re talking overall value rather than raw performance the Core i5-3570K, with its potential overclocking, is arguably the best option for adding extra future life to your system, provided you’re prepared to overclock the chip to get that extra speed.
In the end, it all comes down to how much money you’ve got to throw at your system build. It’s highly unlikely you’ll get better value spending more than $450 on current-generation graphics cards, so if your budget is up to $650, the Core i5-3450/GeForce GTX 670 CPU and graphics card combo would be my tip. If you can push the budget to $700, up the CPU to a Core i5-3570K processor rather than buying a faster graphics card — the CPU will pay you back on your next graphics card purchase.
Video editing performance
Video editing is a little more complicated to work out because it really depends on the software you plan to use and the video codecs you’re going to work with.
If you’re simply ripping DVD/Blu-ray movies and turning them into .MKV files for your network media player, there’s some (but not a great deal) benefit to using a Core i7-3770K. Don’t be sucked in by the Hyper-Threading extras in the Core i7 processor. If you’re using any freeware app based around the FFmpeg encoding engine, Hyper-Threading doesn’t make as much of a difference as simply having four fast cores going at it hammer and tongs.
Our UserBench Encode HD test is built around FFmpeg, with the main score referenced against a 2GHz Pentium 4 desktop PC as 10. If you compare the i5-3570K and i7-3770K chips at standard clock rates, the i5-3570K scores 102 and the i7-3770K only hits 110. Since the benchmark has multicore support, it shows that once you’ve got those four cores going hard, there’s not much of a difference between the Core i5-3570K and the i7-3770K. The beauty of the i5-3570K is that it’s unlocked, so you can crank up the standard Turbo clock maximum from 3.8GHz to 4.5GHz and get a decent performance gain, as you can see in the results.
Adobe Premiere & CUDA performance
Throw Adobe Premiere CS5, CS5.5 or CS6 into the mix and having an Nvidia graphics card under the bonnet changes things. Premiere supports Nvidia’s CUDA GPU acceleration via its Mercury Playback Engine (MPE), but to make it work, you need a CUDA-ready graphics card with at least 896MB of graphics RAM.
However, MPE doesn’t work on every Premiere feature, so for those features that aren’t MPE-ready, the CPU still has to do the number crunching. Still, if you’re using Adobe Premiere for serious video editing, using an Nvidia CUDA card would have to be a worthwhile option.
Which chip for video encoding?
For raw CPU performance, obviously the Core i7-3770K is currently as fast as you’ll get, no question. But if you want the best-value option, that’s going to be the Core i5-3570K. Its video encoding performance levels are slap bang in between the i5-3450 and i7-3770K; however, in terms of price, it’s only $40 more expensive than the i5-3450 and $120 cheaper than the i7-3770K. If you’re prepared to overclock it, you’ll get much closer to the i7-3770K without spending the money.
If you’re prepared to bash the daylights out of your credit card, it’s pretty easy to get great overall performance levels. But by comparing application-targeted performance test results with price, you’ll often find that the best-value CPUs rarely come straight out of the top drawer.