Let's analyze results of each test.
3DMark06 and 3DMark Vantage
Futuremark 3DMark06 has been the universal benchmark of graphics cards' performance for several years. It's an objective test, even though it has some drawbacks. In other words, a faster graphics card in games will usually get a higher 3DMark score - that's what a benchmark needs, if it aspires to replace game tests. But as DirectX 10 games gain ground, we expected some update - that's what 3DMark Vantage actually is. We've already published an article about features and technologies of the new benchmark. So we'll just comment on test results.
In case of 3DMark 06, the result of 4000-5000 points (with AA and AF) shows that a computer can cope with most modern games. You will have to reduce graphics quality only in the most voracious games and content yourself with 1280x1024. What concerns 3DMark Vantage, the minimal level for modern conditions is 3000 points.
Graphics cards contribute most to the total score, although both benchmarks contain special CPU tests. Even though test scenarios are seriously overhauled, CPU-dependence both in the old and new versions of 3DMark becomes noticeable only with the most powerful graphics cards. In the first part of the article we registered noticeable performance difference only with the 3870 X2 and 3870-based CrossFire (about 1000 points in 3DMark 06) when we changed processors. But now the same happens with Radeon HD 4870.
What concerns Radeon HD 4850, both 3DMark versions rate this card between the overclocked Radeon HD 3870 and the 3870 X2 (its performance is actually closer to the latter).
Even though we use maximum graphics quality settings in this test, you can play in 1280x1024 mode with the cheapest card from our selection - Radeon HD3650. And Radeon HD3850 with 512 MB of video memory will be sufficient to play in 1680x1050. But we cannot say that the game has low hardware requirements. In particular, there is a noticeable performance difference between graphics cards with 256 MB and 512 MB of on-board video memory in high resolutions (for example, with various HD 3850 modifications). Thus, 512 MB is currently a mandatory memory size even for inexpensive cards. Further upgrade of a graphics card in this game is not quite expedient, because average fps growth above 60 has little effect on gameplay. Nevertheless, it must be noted that performance grows steadily as GPU clock rate is increased. CrossFire also yields an excellent performance gain. But raising memory clock rate (upgrading DDR3 to DDR4 in Radeon HD 3870) does not have such a good effect in this case.
What concerns processors, the effect of upgrading a CPU appears only with a dual-GPU Radeon HD 3870 graphics card or with a single Radeon HD 4870, only in 1280x1024.
Call of Juarez
This resource-consuming game will run in both resolutions only with HD 3870 X2. Besides, 30 fps is not enough for a dynamic shooter. What about our new cards? Radeon HD 4850 surprisingly outperforms all representatives of the previous generation. And the HD 4870 shoots forward in both resolutions, demonstrating a comfortable frame rate for a dynamic game.
However, even in this case this game fails to depend on CPU performance, there is only a ghost of a difference between processors with the HD 4870.
Company of Heroes
This game with maximum graphics quality settings generates a tad higher GPU load than S.T.A.L.K.E.R. However, Radeon HD3850 with 256 MB of memory copes with this game in both resolutions. CPU dependence appears already with Radeon HD3850 in 1280x1024. Starting from Radeon HD 3870, it appears in 1680x1050. A more powerful processor helps reveal potential of the graphics card a tad better. But if we take into account that even the "weak" processor provides the framerate of 60-70 fps, there is no practical reason to upgrade.
This game is notorious for its very high GPU load. But it does not leave a CPU without load either. So upgrading a CPU yields a noticeable performance gain already with Radeon HD 3870. What concerns more powerful cards, the difference grows logically. In case of Radeon HD 4870, to all appearances it's a CPU that limits performance. In order to reveal potential of this card in this game, you need a more powerful processor than what we use here (preferably quad-cores, as game developers recommend). Otherwise, the 4870 card performs practically on a par with Radeon HD 4850.
However, what we've written does not mean that further upgrade of a graphics card in this game makes no sense and that you should focus on a CPU only. It does make sense! Especially for high resolutions, where the frame rate is still far from the comfortable level (so you will have to reduce graphics quality with any card). We'll see whether Radeon HD 4870 X2 can satisfy hardcore gamers. We'd like it to happen very much, because GeForce 280 GTX actually failed this task, and there are no other top cards to be seen in the nearest future.
World in Conflict
It's another game with high GPU requirements, which also loads CPUs. But it's a strategy game, so 30 fps is a comfortable performance level.
What concerns CPU dependence, the situation repeats the previous game. So performance differences between the most powerful graphics cards are leveled down. However, if you have a look at the instant fps graph during the standard built-in benchmark, we get low average results because of performance slumps in several episodes with active fighting, where the GPU load is just as great as the CPU load. As in the previous case, it will be interesting to see what will come of upgrading both components.
Knights of the Sea
This game is a naval simulator, so the frame rate of 30 fps is also quite sufficient. As more expensive cards provide up to 37 fps, we managed to play the game with high graphics quality. CPU dependence in this test expectedly reaches maximum. so results of the most powerful cards are practically identical.
Radeon HD 4870 again fails to reveal its full potential and to demonstrate new performance heights, a more powerful processor is needed. What concerns the weaker Radeon HD 4850, Athlon X2 6000+ seems to be sufficient here, and the card reveals its excellent potential (on a par with a dual-GPU card from the previous generation).
Unreal Tournament 3
This game was tested in 1280x1024 only, but in two modes: flyby and botmatch. In the first case the entire load will fall on a graphics card. In the second case, a CPU will be tested as well. In real life, botmatch heavily loads a graphics card as well, because explosions, special effects, and bots themselves need to be rendered, while the relative difference between CPUs in flyby mode is actually big as well. Our conclusion about this game is apparent - any graphics card / CPU combo will do to play this game in both resolutions. Owners of powerful graphics cards can gain advantage by using higher antialiasing and texture filtering levels. It's impossible to load a powerful CPU to maximum in this game, even in intense combat scenes, because the engine is quite democratic. However, if you don't want the minimal frame rate to drop below the comfortable level, a dual-core processor for $150-200 will be the most adequate choice (that's the general advice for most popular games of this genre, except for Crysis).
First of all, it must be noted that Radeon HD 4850 and 4870 are indeed extraordinary cards as far as their performance is concerned. These cards gain maximum advantage over the prev-gen solutions right in those games, where performance gains were expected the most. In particular, even the HD 4850 sometimes outperforms dual-GPU modifications of the HD 3870. At the same time, Athlon X2 4800+ is apparently insufficient to reveal full potential of the HD 4850, the 6000+ processor will be most likely the best choice. That's probably the best news for those who want a powerful computer for games for a limited budget.
What concerns Radeon HD 4870, even a more powerful processor is required here. Otherwise, such resource-intensive games as Crysis and World in Conflict will just demonstrate no gains. Besides, the card won't reveal its true potential in other games either.
In our next article we plan to add tests in 1920x1280, to expand the list of CrossFire cards with Radeon HD 4850, 4870 and 4870 X2, and, of course, to upgrade the platform to sate the appetites of CPU-dependent games with the most powerful graphics cards. But even now we can say that there will be no need in the extremely expensive processors to reach supreme test results, even if you are ready to pay dearly for the best results.
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