iXBT Labs - Computer Hardware in Detail

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Graphics Card + Processor

Choosing the right solution within $300.

June 11, 2008



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Let's analyze results of each test.

PCMark06

We've chosen this test to evaluate average performance in CPU-intensive applications as a compromise. Tests in real applications provide more objective and useful data. On the other hand, such tests take much time. And it's incorrect to remove some applications from our test procedure for processors (that is to decide for users which applications are more important). On the other hand, PCMark Vantage is an industrially recognized benchmark. It's not completely synthetic, that is it imitates algorithms used in real applications instead of measuring maximum performance of a processor, memory, and other components (like previous versions of this benchmark). This program contains four categories of tests (Music, Communication, Productivity, and Game), so its results may depend on a graphics processor to some degree, although the effect of a processor will be overpowering.

Test results support our assumptions, a more expensive processor provides the 16-20% performance gain, while the CPU cost grows by 70%. When a graphics card is improved, a maximum performance gain reaches 11% only when you upgrade from integrated graphics to the cheapest graphics card. In other cases, performance gains do not exceed 7%. So if you replace the 8400GS with the 8800GT (the cost of a card grows by 500%), you will gain only 14%. However, we should take into account that neighboring dual-core processors in our list differ by $75 (and approximately by 500 points in PCMark results), while the upgrade of the GeForce 8400 GS to the 8600 GT will cost only $55 (results will grow by 250 points). In other words, a CPU upgrade is more expedient according to this test. But if it's done to the detriment of a graphics processor, performance gains may be decreased.

What concerns an upgrade of the dual-core E6750 to the quad-core Q6600, additional $80 will yield 200 points, so it's not an optimal investment. The same concerns upgrading the GeForce 8600 GT to the 8800 GT. So, in order to get maximum performance per dollar in this test, you should keep to average dual-core processors and inexpensive graphics cards.

3DMark06

Like in case of PCMark, a computer is tested in semi-synthetic conditions. But the score in this test is respected by many users. We must admit that it really helps classify a computer. As we run our tests with enabled antialiasing and anisotropic filtering at 1280x1024, 3500-4000 points usually indicate that a computer can cope with most modern games, although you will have to choose low settings in the most voracious games. If the score is 7000-8000, there will be just a few games that will require to reduce some settings a little without spoiling the image quality much.

The score depends much on graphics processor's performance. So a computer with a more powerful card gets a higher total score. As you can see, in case of graphics cards up to GeForce 8600 GTS, results of a more powerful graphics card with the weakest CPU are higher than those of a weaker card with the most powerful processor. However, results of GeForce 9600 GT and 8800 GT do not reveal such an illustrative difference, because these cards offer similar performance (within 10% according to 3DMark06). And upgrading a CPU yields a 20-25% performance gain for both cards. It explains why enthusiasts install the fastest CPUs for their powerful graphics cards in order to break records in 3DMark (it has become a sport). However, this pastime is far from the objective to obtain an efficient inexpensive computer for games.

Cinebench R10

It's probably the most synthetic test of all. It's not just that its code is not taken from real applications, but because of its specialization (3D rendering is a narrow application, which interests a limited group of users). Its subtest for OpenGL performance is rather primitive for modern graphics processors. It will also be limited by a CPU in most cases. However, it helps determine minimal requirements to graphics cards for such applications. Render tests depend completely on computing capacity of a processor.

It's the only test here that economically justifies an upgrade of a dual-core processor to a quad-core product. Rendering (Multiple CPU) test can actually be used only to show advantages of such processors. Shading (OpenGL Standard) test is affected by a graphics card, so it significantly improves results of expensive cards. Nevertheless, inexpensive cards also show "positive dynamics". The GeForce 8400 GS tripled the results of the integrated graphics, an upgrade to the GeForce 8500 GT adds another 60%. The OpenGL Standard test also depends on a processor. But unlike the Multiple GPU Rendering test, the best result is demonstrated with the most expensive dual-core processor.

S.T.A.L.K.E.R.

We proceed to games. Get ready that a graphics processor will gain more influence than in the previous tests. A higher result corresponds to a more powerful graphics card. Results depend on a CPU only in low resolutions and only with the most powerful graphics cards.

From the point of view of S.T.A.L.K.E.R., you can save on a processor in all cases. When you upgrade a graphics card (one step), performance is at least doubled. GeForce 8600 GT (with any processor) is a minimum requirement for this game. In case of GeForce 9600 GT or 8800 GT, the frame rate is always excessive, CPU-dependence disappears with Core 2 Duo E4500.

Call of Juarez

Comments to all games will be brief. Modern games with even average hardware requirements need a good graphics processor. And this game depends much on a graphics card. So a CPU effect is not noticeable in any mode, even with the 8800 GT. Performance in this game does not depend on a CPU, it needs a powerful card, preferably better than the 8800 GT (to provide acceptable frame rates, or you will have to sacrifice graphics quality).

Company of Heroes

Just like in S.T.A.L.K.E.R., high results always correspond to a more powerful graphics card. But in case of 9600GT and 8800GT (in both resolutions), CPU dependence is quite apparent. The optimal choice here is Athlon 64 X2 6000+ (performance gains of more expensive products do not compare with higher costs, less expensive products are noticeably weaker).

F.E.A.R.

The same conclusion here - higher results always correspond to a more powerful graphics card. A CPU matters only with 9600GT (our leader in this test) and 8800GT in a low resolution, even though this game was released some time ago. The first place in performance among processors in this game is shared by Core 2 Duo 8200 and Athlon 64 X2 6000+.

We can say that CPU dependence is shown only with two powerful graphics cards in our tests. In case of 8600 GTS and weaker cards, the bottleneck is always in a graphics card. However, even inexpensive graphics cards reveal interesting tendencies. Some "CPU + graphics card" combos fall out of the general line. For example, 8600 GT shouldn't be used with Pentium E2160, and vice versa, 8600 GTS works perfectly with Athlon 64 X2 6000+. You may even notice the visual difference in Company of Heroes. These differences are not big, of course (the main bottleneck is still a graphics card), but they cannot be explained by measurement errors, because they appear on the average in several games.

Vista Mark

Built-in Windows Vista test is responsive to graphics cards, while all processors get 4.8-5.9 points. However, 8600 GTS gets the maximum score in both tests (Game and Aero). The most noticeable effect is produced with the cheapest cards, when GeForce 8400 GS is upgraded to GeForce 8500 GT and GeForce 8500 GT is upgraded to GeForce 8600 GT.


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