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Computer Upgrades: A Data-Based Perspective

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Final Answer

What we really need to do to answer my co-worker’s question is this: given $350, switch to Intel or just SLI on their current AMD platform? Comparing the ultimate end result isn’t as helpful – SLI on both platforms is definitely an option, but it doesn’t really answer the original question. With $350 to spend, we end up with two scenarios – AMD + SLI, or simply the same GTX 970 on a different (Intel) platform. Which one of those provides a better experience?

Well…whew. Remember how I said this can get complicated? The answer to this question is highly dependent on resolution – you might not want to sacrifice the additional graphics power if you’re trying to power a 4K panel at a decent framerate. The experience won’t be that great on any platform if it’s a “smooth 20 FPS,” for example (I’d argue such thing as a smooth 20 FPS doesn’t exist). Given a resolution of 1920×1080 then, can we make a final conclusion?

Let’s just take the two desktop computer systems tested and compare them one more time. This time, the Intel with one GTX 970 to simulate a platform change and the AMD with SLI GTX 970s.

Ready? This is it. No going back after this…

Intel_970_vs_AMDSLI

Interestingly enough, each metric tells a different story. Unfortunately, only one is in favor of AMD – and even then, only in one case. Let’s take a look at each one in turn to make a conclusion and finally answer our question.

Minimum frame rates across the two games and two platforms aren’t bad. The AMD platform, even with an additional GTX 970, still takes a 10 FPS framerate hit on average to minimums. Remember, this is the worst case scenario – if only one frame out of the entire benchmark drops, it’ll show here.

The Maximum frame rates reflect the additional graphics horsepower available to the AMD platform. Again, this is a comparison between an Intel Core i5 platform and a single GTX 970 against an AMD platform with two of them. When the application allows for it, AMD’s Bulldozer/module architecture can really stretch its legs. A maximum FPS of almost 150 in Crysis 3 shows an ideal improvement that you’d want when doubling up on graphics power (for reference, a single GTX 970 on the same AMD platform in Crysis 3 showed a maximum of 87 FPS). Adding the second GTX 970, if you only play Crysis 3, seemed to be a worthwhile investment if you want FPS bragging rights. The CPU-intensive ARMA3 didn’t do the AMD platform any favors though, with a MAXIMUM framerate 30 FPS below the Intel platform – yes, I’ll say it again, that’s AMD + SLI vs Intel and a single GPU! If the only game you play is ARMA3, take your $350 and save it (or use it for switching platforms); it’ll be wasted on more graphics power.

It’s the Average FPS metric upon which most enthusiasts would base their purchasing decision. Again, the extra graphics power available to the AMD platform shows an advantage of 30 FPS in Crysis 3 over just switching to Intel. That’s significant on its own. If you already have an AMD system, you’ll gain an additional 25 FPS by adding an additional GTX 970 – right around that 30% improvement for a (probably) 30% portion of the total computer cost. That’s only in Crysis 3 though – ARMA3 will actually lose performance (41 FPS avg with a single GPU vs 40 with two and an AMD CPU)! You’ll have to choose carefully with an AMD system to determine if the specific application you use most would benefit, because it is entirely possible you’ll end up paying a lot of money for WORSE performance.

Finally, we arrive at the Frame Time category. Hopefully you have an understanding of how these numbers can affect your gaming experience, along with the possibility that many won’t perceive the difference anyway. However, the fact remains: simply switching to an Intel platform can make some big gains here, even without the doubled-up GPU power.

arma3 2015-10-15 23-42-45-85-Time

Let’s take one last look at the frame times of the Intel + GTX 970 system in ARMA3…

arma3 2015-10-14 20-58-22-11-Time

…vs the AMD system with SLI in the same test. Again, while this is an extreme and cherry-picked example, it’s still a very real result.

To me, even a potential loss in performance is an unacceptable result – especially when dropping more than $300. Besides, it’s not like the Intel platform was a slouch.  54 FPS in the same game (Crysis 3) with less than half the power consumed isn’t anything to shrug off. If you directed your $350 towards a solution based on this metric alone…yeah, you’d get higher frame rates staying with AMD and adding another GTX 970, but unless you’re running a 120 Hz + monitor you’re wasting those frames past 60 FPS anyway – which, by the way, is a target the Intel system essentially achieves on its own across a wider variety of games – with a single GTX 970. If we look at the ARMA3 result, you’ll actually gain 20 FPS by switching to Intel rather than adding another graphics card.

Conclusion

So what have we got? Using those four metrics, and with $350 to spend, it only makes sense to stay with AMD and add graphics power in a single scenario (Crysis 3). Even then, after seeing the frame time capture data, I don’t feel we’ve met our goals for upgrading to the best gaming experience. Even if an AMD user only plays Crysis 3, the fact remains: every other situation benefits by switching to Intel first.

IMG_4923

Sure, the AMD platform with enough tweaking and cooling can churn out similar FPS (in a select few scenarios).  As we’ve seen the experience is still – ultimately and unfortunately – inferior for gaming.

I’m not sure if we can blame AMD. Some developers seem to have mitigated the issue entirely, switching the bottleneck to outright graphics horsepower regardless of CPU. Perhaps it is the fault of developers, failing to account for the modular nature of AMD’s Bulldozer architecture. Perhaps it’s the foundry or physics’ fault, for not allowing the higher clockspeeds required (or originally anticipated) of the Bulldozer-based CPUs to materialize, removing the IPC-deficit. Hopefully, AMD’s new architecture “Zen” or some software solution (DX12/Vulkan) can shift the current bottleneck present on AMD CPUs back to the graphics card for gaming scenarios.

Regardless, the fact remains – an enthusiast can’t do anything about the above scenarios. They have to choose where to place their cash based on the way each computer performs now. Sure, concessions could be made for future prospects, but given the rapid development of technology it’s generally been easier to replace computers entirely rather than plan for a computer upgrade in a few years. With all that considered we can finally answer the question: given $350 and an AMD system, you’ll ultimately achieve a better gaming experience by addressing the real bottleneck and switching to Intel.


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3 comments

  1. Caring1

    So it’s not a data based upgrade discussion, it’s an AMD V’s Intel debate again.
    Can we stick to facts and leave bias out of it please!
    This article implies “enthusiasts” don’t use AMD platforms!
    The true cost of switching platforms should be looked at, there is more than the cost of a Motherboard and Processor for enthusiasts.

    1. Tom Jaskulka

      I take it you haven’t read the complete article? I felt there was more than enough data to form the conclusion that I made, and I stand behind my results (they should be reproducible for anyone, if you’d like to gather more data of your own). I’m not saying enthusiasts don’t use AMD platforms (they do, and I’m one of them), I’m using benchmarking to attempt to analyze where an enthusiast would get the best performance for their money.

      The fact – supported by data – remains: there are games and situations where switching to Intel CPUs will net a greater performance advantage for the same or less money than using an AMD FX CPU. The worst case scenario I’ve stumbled across so far is ARMA3 (see article for examples).

      Analyzing the cost of the platforms would have been a little out of the scope of what I was trying to do, but you have a point – perhaps I should include the total cost of the systems in the article (at the time I had purchased them, as the cost will change from month to month).

      For purposes of discussion, the Intel system was approximately $1000, the AMD (with one GTX 970) was the same ~$1000 (for the components required to generate the performance result – CPU, cooling, etc. – storage wasn’t included, although it should be added to the cost as well). I could add a cost breakdown to the systems if that would help.

      Let me ask this: given that $1000, and the option to buy one of the two platforms shown here to play games on, which one would you buy if you wanted the best gaming experience?

  2. David Gilmore

    Thank you, Tom, for this very interesting article and for your honest conclusions. I understand that you are not anybody’s “fanboy”, just someone who is tired of empty promises, exaggerated claims, and unproved “truisms” (like AMD is best bang for buck). Someone just looking for the best perceived gaming experience, like the rest of us, (even Mr. Caring 1, although his obvious bias towards AMD clouds his perception). It’s just sad that an honest effort for a real answer still somehow brings out the misguided emotions. I also gave AMD platforms a try for various builds, and my first two video cards were AMD. For a while I thought that all discreet GPUs were more trouble than they’re worth, because mine were constantly crashing my PC, or doing weird things while gaming, now I know why that was happening (AMD drivers were either poorly written or not validated with enough different hardware). Since Sandy Bridge I’ve only built with Intel and nVidia, and you know what? It is a more satisfying experience, and this article helps to explain why.

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