Intel Core 2 Processor Hands-On Game Performance

Is the Intel "Conroe" Core 2 processor really an Athlon 64 killer? Find out if the Core 2 lives up to the hype in our game performance report!

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By James Yu and Sarju Shah - posted July 13, 2006

It's been a tough couple of years for the world's top processor manufacturer, but the chipmaker's new Core 2 microarchitecture and a renewed sense of paranoia promises to make Intel processors relevant to PC gaming enthusiasts again. Intel struggled through several product delays and outright cancellations over the past two years. At the same time, rival manufacturer AMD has taken advantage of Intel's missteps by taking the performance crown away from its longtime bully with new Athlon 64 and Opteron processor designs. AMD has pressed its performance advantage to take market share away from Intel, but all the noise coming out of Camp Athlon has also succeeded in awakening the sleeping giant.

The 291-million transistor Intel Core 2 Duo has two processing cores and 2-4MB of on-die cache.
The 291-million transistor Intel Core 2 Duo has two processing cores and 2-4MB of on-die cache.

In April Intel CEO Paul Otellini announced that the company would "restructure, resize, and repurpose Intel to adjust to the business realities of today and tomorrow." Otellini also revealed that since 2002 Intel has ramped up its processor development cycle with the goal of releasing a new CPU microarchitecture every two years. NetBurst, the company's last microarchitecture, stuck around for six years, an eternity in silicon time. Intel's revitalized release schedule will speed up the pace of processor innovation and we're seeing the first fruits of that decision in the new "Conroe" Core 2 processors shipping this July.

Heat and power consumption problems in Intel's previous NetBurst microarchitecture made it very difficult for the company to introduce faster Pentium 4 CPU models late in the product cycle. NetBurst CPUs required extremely fast clock speeds to maintain high performance, but, despite significant advances in manufacturing, Intel couldn't get the final Pentium 4 chips to manage heat well enough to allow for clock speeds higher than 4GHz. However, by the time Intel had hit the gigahertz wall, AMD had already proven that its slower processors could perform better than Intel's chips.

Welcome the Intel Core 2

Intel addressed the NetBurst performance issues in the Core 2 microarchitecture. Intel shortened the pipeline from the 31-stage pipeline in the Pentium 4 to a 14-stage pipeline in the new chip design. The NetBurst microarchitecture actually started out at 22 stages but bloated out to 31 stages in its final iteration. The shortened Core 2 pipeline requires less power and can run cooler while providing the same amount of performance. The Core 2 also makes up for the lower frequencies by increasing the number of instructions it can handle per clock and optimizing cache designs and memory management algorithms to increase pipeline efficiency.

The Intel Core 2 Duo and Intel Core 2 Extreme processors will replace the top end of Intel's desktop line, and we'll see five new processors next week ranging in price from $999 for the flagship Intel Core 2 Extreme X6800 and $530 for the Core 2 Duo E6700 to under $200 for the Intel Core 2 Duo E6300. Intel differentiated its "Extreme" processor variants in the past with extra cache or additional features such as HyperThreading, but the Core 2 Extreme E6800 is very similar to the Core 2 Duo E6700 in that they share the same cache size and basic feature set. The Core 2 Extreme will have a faster clock speed, 2.93GHz compared with 2.67GHz for the fastest Core 2 Duo. The Core 2 Extreme will also be unlocked for easy overclocking. Both processor types will require a LGA775 socket motherboard based on the P965 or 975X Express chipset. Nvidia and ATI should also have chipsets ready in time for the Core 2's official July 27th launch.

All the processors will feature two processing cores with 64-bit support and operate on the 1066MHz FSB. The high-end Core 2 CPUs will have 4MB of on-die L2 cache shared by both processing cores. The midrange Intel Core 2 Duo E6600 processor looks to be particularly promising with its 4MB cache and $316 price. The more affordable Core 2 Duo E6400 and E6300 processors only have 2MB of cache, but they're also the least expensive at $224 and $183, respectively.

Performance Testing

We brought in an Intel Core 2 Duo E6700, an Intel Core 2 Extreme X6800, and a 975X Express-based motherboard for some hands-on game-performance testing. We didn't have an AMD Athlon FX-62 in our labs to test against, but we overclocked an existing Athlon 64 FX-60 up to FX-62 speed to function as a fill-in. The 939-pin Athlon 64 FX-60 processor didn't allow us to use the new AM2 platform, but both platforms perform similarly enough at this time to make the substitution reasonable. We also threw in an Intel Pentium Extreme Edition 955 to see how it compares with the Intel Core 2 Extreme. We stuck with a single GeForce 7900 GTX on the video card side to offer a realistic graphics performance balance to show how easily games can move the bottleneck between the CPU and video card with a few changes in the graphics settings.

3DMark06

3DMark06 isn't really a game, but we couldn't resist running our processors through the benchmark--especially now that the application incorporates CPU performance in the overall 3DMark score. All four systems used the same Nvidia GeForce 7900 GTX video card, but the Intel Core 2 Extreme still contributed enough on the processing side to beat out our overclocked AMD Athlon FX-60. The Intel Core 2 Duo E6700 also had a strong showing, squeaking by the overclocked Athlon FX-60. The Intel Pentium Extreme Edition 955's lackluster performance shows us why Intel was so anxious to get the Core 2 Extreme out this summer.

CPUs: Intel Core 2 Extreme X6800, Intel Core 2 Duo E6700, AMD Athlon 64 FX-60 CPU(overclocked to 2.8GHz), Intel Pentium 955 Extreme Edition Systems: Asus A8N32 SLI Deluxe, Intel D975XBX, 1GB (512MB x 2) Corsair XMS DDR Memory, 1GB (512MB x 2) Corsair XMS DDR2 Memory, 160GB Seagate 7200.7 SATA Hard Disk Drive, Windows XP Professional SP2. Graphics Card: Nvidia GeForce 7900 GTX 512MB. Graphics Drivers: Nvidia ForceWare 91.31.

The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion

In Oblivion, our overclocked AMD Athlon 64 FX and both Intel Core 2 processors put up similar frame rates at the higher image quality settings where the bottleneck falls on the video card, but the Intel Core 2 Extreme pulls away when we drop down the resolution and turn off major graphical settings to unleash the CPU performance.

CPUs: Intel Core 2 Extreme X6800, Intel Core 2 Duo E6700, AMD Athlon 64 FX-60 CPU(overclocked to 2.8GHz), Intel Pentium 955 Extreme Edition Systems: Asus A8N32 SLI Deluxe, Intel D975XBX, 1GB (512MB x 2) Corsair XMS DDR Memory, 1GB (512MB x 2) Corsair XMS DDR2 Memory, 160GB Seagate 7200.7 SATA Hard Disk Drive, Windows XP Professional SP2. Graphics Card: Nvidia GeForce 7900 GTX 512MB. Graphics Drivers: Nvidia ForceWare 91.31.

Quake 4

The processors maintained the same performance rankings in Quake 4, the Doom 3 engine-based shooter. Processor performance had the most impact in our 1024x768 resolution test. If you have a weaker processor, consider increasing your video settings to get the most out of your system.

CPUs: Intel Core 2 Extreme X6800, Intel Core 2 Duo E6700, AMD Athlon 64 FX-60 CPU(overclocked to 2.8GHz), Intel Pentium 955 Extreme Edition Systems: Asus A8N32 SLI Deluxe, Intel D975XBX, 1GB (512MB x 2) Corsair XMS DDR Memory, 1GB (512MB x 2) Corsair XMS DDR2 Memory, 160GB Seagate 7200.7 SATA Hard Disk Drive, Windows XP Professional SP2. Graphics Card: Nvidia GeForce 7900 GTX 512MB. Graphics Drivers: Nvidia ForceWare 91.31.

F.E.A.R.

Our Intel Core 2 Extreme X6800, Intel Core 2 Duo E6700, overclocked AMD Athlon FX-60, and Intel Pentium Extreme Edition 955 finish in identical order again in F.E.A.R. It doesn't take much to move the performance bottleneck from the processor to the video card in this shooter. Bumping up the graphics settings narrowed down the performance range very quickly.

CPUs: Intel Core 2 Extreme X6800, Intel Core 2 Duo E6700, AMD Athlon 64 FX-60 CPU(overclocked to 2.8GHz), Intel Pentium 955 Extreme Edition Systems: Asus A8N32 SLI Deluxe, Intel D975XBX, 1GB (512MB x 2) Corsair XMS DDR Memory, 1GB (512MB x 2) Corsair XMS DDR2 Memory, 160GB Seagate 7200.7 SATA Hard Disk Drive, Windows XP Professional SP2. Graphics Card: Nvidia GeForce 7900 GTX 512MB. Graphics Drivers: Nvidia ForceWare 91.31.

Prey

Newly released Prey, another game based on the Doom 3 engine, looks to be processor-friendly in our initial tests, but note that our demo doesn't account for additional onscreen player models. Initial test demos we recorded while playing the single-player campaign broke on playback whenever enemies spawned in through portals. We recorded a demo on a multiplayer map to finish benchmarking in time for the Core 2 processor launch. Hopefully, we'll find a better solution after we spend more time with the game.

CPUs: Intel Core 2 Extreme X6800, Intel Core 2 Duo E6700, AMD Athlon 64 FX-60 CPU(overclocked to 2.8GHz), Intel Pentium 955 Extreme Edition Systems: Asus A8N32 SLI Deluxe, Intel D975XBX, 1GB (512MB x 2) Corsair XMS DDR Memory, 1GB (512MB x 2) Corsair XMS DDR2 Memory, 160GB Seagate 7200.7 SATA Hard Disk Drive, Windows XP Professional SP2. Graphics Card: Nvidia GeForce 7900 GTX 512MB. Graphics Drivers: Nvidia ForceWare 91.31.

Half-Life 2: Episode One

Based on the same Source engine, Half-Life 2: Episode One appears to be just as hardware intensive as the original Half-Life 2. The Intel Core 2 desktop processors dominate the Athlon 64 FX at low resolution, but the performance differences disappear when the video card comes into play at 1600x1200.

CPUs: Intel Core 2 Extreme X6800, Intel Core 2 Duo E6700, AMD Athlon 64 FX-60 CPU(overclocked to 2.8GHz), Intel Pentium 955 Extreme Edition Systems: Asus A8N32 SLI Deluxe, Intel D975XBX, 1GB (512MB x 2) Corsair XMS DDR Memory, 1GB (512MB x 2) Corsair XMS DDR2 Memory, 160GB Seagate 7200.7 SATA Hard Disk Drive, Windows XP Professional SP2. Graphics Card: Nvidia GeForce 7900 GTX 512MB. Graphics Drivers: Nvidia ForceWare 91.31.

Conclusion

Intel's new Core 2 processors deliver the performance gains we expect from a new technology release. The Core 2 is especially noteworthy because it's the first Intel processor release that actually outperforms AMD's powerful Athlon 64 line. The $999 Intel Core 2 Extreme X6800 wasn't the only star, either; the $530 Intel Core 2 Duo E6700 also beat our overclocked Athlon 64 FX-60 in every single game test with processor-focused settings. PC game enthusiasts can proudly display their Intel Inside case badges once again (as long as they say "Core 2" on them).


What do you think of Intel's new Core 2 processors? Is AMD in trouble? Please keep the discussion on topic. We're talking about processors here!


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