While Intel rules the enthusiast roost with its K-series CPUs in the high-end portion of the market, it’s a different story once you get below £100. We already know that if you’re looking to play games on a low budget then AMD’s APUs, such as the A10-6800K, make compelling cheap CPU and GPU combinations. However, if you’re looking for a little more performance, and want to use a discrete GPU the situation becomes unclear.
Intel has finally released its Pentium and Core i3 Haswell CPUs several months after the likes of the Core i5-4670K. There are also cheap LGA1150 motherboards around too. In fact, these boards are available for less than £50 in some cases – just as cheap as their AMD Socket AM3+ counterparts.
cheap as their AMD Socket AM3+ counterparts. Therefore, the argument that an AMD setup costs less is a moot point, at least at this price – you can use the same memory, cooler, case and PSU after all. The only components that differ are the CPU and motherboard, and both cost the same.
Both CPU sockets also offer an upgrade path – AM3+ looks set to support at least one generation past its current FX-series Vishera CPUs, while Intel’s Haswell chips have only been on shelves this year, so LGA1150 has an equally good measure of future-proofing.
To see which path you should take, we’ve selected two budget CPUs – Intel’s Haswell-based Core i3-4130 which retails for £90, and AMD’s Vishera-based FX-6300, which costs a tad less at £85. In terms of raw clock-for-clock performance, Intel is likely to still win given Haswell’s superior architecture, but the AMD CPU has a couple of tricks up its sleeve, despite its meagre price tag.
It has three Piledriver modules, each with two nteger units, for a total of six, compared to the Intel’s two Hyper-Threaded physical cores. This could well prove a strong advantage in multi-threaded tests. It also sports a Turbo Core speed of up to 4.1GHz, while the Core i3 lacks Turbo Boost and is fixed at 3.4GHz or below. The FX-6300 also has significantly more cache than the Core i3-4130, with more than double the L2 and L3 cache. Finally, the FX-6300 is overclockable, so even if its stock numbers don’t put it in the lead, there’s every chance a healthy overclock could turn the tide.
Conversely, the Core i3-4130 lacks a K-series designation, meaning its multiplier is upwards-locked, leaving you with just a few megahertz of base clock with which to play. In fact, on paper, the only area where the Intel CPU has a clear advantage is power consumption; its TDP of 54W is nearly half that of the FX-6300, which clocks in at 95W. This is partly due to the fact that the FX-6300 uses a 32nm manufacturing process, while the Core i3-4130 is based on a 22nm one, but the extra cores and additional cache also account for higher power consumption.
To start, we headed into the EFI of our Asus Crosshair V Formula motherboard to see how far we could push the FX-6300. We disabled the various C-states and Turbo Core so all six cores (integer units) would run at the same frequency. With the default vcore set at 1.38V, we raised this setting to 1.48V. As AMD CPUs can see additional performance boosts from increasing the reference clock, we also raised this frequency from 100MHz to 200MHz and dropped the multiplier to 23x, resulting in a new CPU clock speed of 4.6GHz. This proved to be stable, but the voltage needed to be increased to get any further, with 1.525V required to reach our maximum clock speed of 4.75GHz, at which the CPU core temperatures were hovering around the 85°C mark when running Prime95.
For the Intel CPU, overclocking is extremely limited though. While Intel has introduced straps with its K-series CPUs, enabling you to increase the base clock without interfering with other system bus speeds, most other CPUs, including our Core i3-4130 don’t support it. As such, raising the base clock too far can quickly result in stability issues and even corrupt your operating system. However, our CPU was happy at 102MHz; given the 34x multiplier, this boosted the frequency from 3.4GHz to 3.468GHz – pathetic compared to our efforts on the AMD system, but it’s better than nothing.
We included a range of tests to see just how the CPUs perform in areas such as single-threaded and multithreaded applications, as well as a range of games, ncluding the often GPU-limited Crysis 3 to The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, which is so easy to run that even a modest graphics card will likely be CPU-limited. Our test setup included Asus Maximus VI Formula and Asus Crosshair V Formula-Z motherboards, with common components being 16GB of Corsair Vengeance 1,866MHz RAM and an Nvidia GeForce GTX 680 2GB graphics card.
In our Media Benchmarks, the stark differences between the CPUs were immediately clear. The single-threaded performance of the Core i3-4130 saw it power its way to a massive lead in the image editing test, even eclipsing the overclocked FX-6300 by a huge margin. Clearly, in any application that isn’t likely to make real use of more than two physical cores, Intel is the way to go. In our multi-threaded video encoding test, though, the situation was largely reversed although at stock speed, there wasn’t a massive difference between the CPUs. However, with the extra boost of its overclock, the FX-6300 held a significant 800-point lead over the Core i3-4130.
Overall, the overclocked FX-6300 was the fastest option, bolstered by a score roughly equal to that of the Intel CPU in the multi-tasking test, and its prowess in the video encoding test compensating for its poor performance in the image editing test. The meagre overclock we applied to the Intel CPU only resulted in small gains and wasn’t enough to beat the FX-6300 overall, only surpassing it in the multi-tasking test by a few points.
Cinebench was up next and, once again, the AMD CPU’s extra cores helped it to a substantial lead. It managed a score of 4.43 at stock speed compared to the Intel CPU’s paltry 3.65, and it climbed to 6.06 once overclocked – nearly twice as fast as the Intel CPU.
In Battlefield 3, all of the CPUs proved to be more than capable of providing our GeForce GTX 680 2GB with enough work to do and, as such, they returned near-identical results. In Crysis 3, the brute force of the FX-6300 and its ample number of cores saw it draw out a small but noticeable lead over the Intel CPU being around 10 per cent faster.
Skyrim, on the other hand, suffered from CPU limitation. Here the differences were understandably more varied, but the game appears to favour the single-threaded efficiency of the Intel CPU, with its minimum frame rate of 57fps at stock speed eclipsing the 50fps of the overclocked FX-6300. Our Shogun 2 test resulted in similar scores across the board although the stock speed FX6300 was around 10 per cent slower than the Intel CPU.
While we were obviously using different motherboards, we also carried out a power draw test. The efficiency of the Intel CPU put the FX-6300 to shame, with the Core i3-4130 drawing over 40 per cent less power at idle and load and, incredibly, less than a third of the overclocked AMD CPU’s power consumption.
Clearly, if you’re planning on using a small CPU cooler, or are building a compact system, the Intel Core i3’s incredibly low power draw makes it the logical choice -you’ll need a fairly substantial CPU cooler to handle an overclocked AMD FX-6300.
Aside from power, though, the situation isn’t as clear-cut. There’s no overall winner in our benchmarks, with both the 2D and 3D tests offering mixed results, depending on your priorities.
However, it can be boiled down to the fact that the AMD CPU is by far the best option when it comes to multi-threaded applications such as video encoding and rendering. In these workloads, it has a clear advantage over the Intel CPU, both at stock speed and especially when overclocked. On the other hand, the Core i3-4130 was massively faster in the single-threaded image editing test, and will likely hold this lead in any situation that doesn’t make proper use of multiple CPU cores.
There was no clear winner in the game tests either. Battlefield 3 proved to have a bottleneck elsewhere, with all our CPUs returning identical results. However, Crysis 3 and Skyrim each favoured a different corner -Crysis 3 preferred the additional cores of the AMD CPU, while Skyrim’s older technology was happy dealing with fewer, more efficient cores, making it faster on the Intel system.
This means there’s a bigger picture to consider, and you’ll have to weigh up the pros and cons depending on your particular needs. We’re hearing rumblings that many future games, including the imminent Battlefield 4, perform much better with six or more cores, so if Battlefield 4 features heavily on your future games list, the FX-6300 might be the better option (we’ll be investigating Battlefield 4 next month). The higher power draw of the AMD system, though, will mean a higher outlay, as you’ll need a more expensive cooler and a better case, especially if you overclock it. You’ll also be limited by the overclocking prowess of your motherboard, which may or may not perform as well as ours.
While the FX-6300 is slightly faster overall, the upgrade path to a K-series Haswell CPU, can’t be overlooked; combined with the low power consumption and quicker single-threaded performance, this makes the Core i3-4130 a great budget CPU if you’re not bothered about multithreaded speed. However, if you’re looking for decent multi-threading performance on a tight budget, the FX-6300 is the fastest CPU this side of £100.