Upgrading from an Intel Core i7-2600K: Yes

Back in 2010-2011, life was simple. We were relishing in benchmarks like CineBench R10, SuperPI, and no-one had even thought of trying to transcode video on any sort of scale. In 2019, the landscape has changed: gamers gonna stream, designers gonna design, scientists gonna simulate, and emulators gonna emulate. The way that software is designed has changed substantially as well, with more care taken for memory allocations, multiple cores and threads, and with fast storage in mind. Compilers are smarter too, and all the optimizations for the older platforms are in those code bases.

We regularly speak to CPU architects that describe how they build new processors for the next generation: by analyzing modern workload requirements. In a future of machine learning, for example, we’re now seeing hardware on mobile processors dedicated to accelerating neural networks for things like smartphone photography. (It’s interesting that smartphone SoCs today, in day-to-day use, are arguably more diverse than desktops in that regard.)

Ultimately, benchmarks have changed too. What we tested back in 2011 in our Core i7-2600K review was indicative of the way people were using their computers then, and in 2019 we are testing how people are using their computers today. On some level, one expects that what would have been the balance of compute/storage/resources back then might have adjusted, and as a result, older parts may perform better or worse than expected.

For this review, I wanted to compare an eternal idol for enthusiast desktop computing with its more modern counterparts. The Sandy Bridge Core i7-2600K that was released in 2011 was an enthusiasts dream: significantly faster than the previous generation, priced right, and offered a substantial performance boost when overclocked. The fact that it overclocked well was the crux of its staying power: if users were seeing 20-40%+ performance from an overclock and some fast memory, then the several years of Intel offering baseline 3-8% performance increases were scoffed at, and users did not upgrade.


It's a Core i7 Family Photo

The Core i7-2600K was a quad core processor with hyperthreading. Intel launched five more families of Core i7 that were also quad core with hyperthreading: the Core i7-3770K, i7-4770K, i7-5775C, 6700K, and 7700K, before it moved up to six cores (HT) with the 8700K and eight cores (no HT) with the 9700K. Each of those generations of quad cores offered slightly more frequency, sometimes new instructions, sometimes better transistor density, sometimes better graphics, and sometimes a better platform.

Features like new instructions, better integrated graphics, or the platform are valid reasons to push an upgrade, even if the raw performance gain in most tasks is minor. Moving to PCIe 3.0 for graphics, or moving to DDR4 to access higher capacity memory modules, or shifting to NVMe storage with more diverse chipset support all helped users that bypassed the popular 2600K.

In this review, we tested the Core i7-2600K at Intel’s recommended release settings (known as ‘stock’), and an overclocked Core i7-2600K, pushing up from 3.5 GHz all-core to 4.7 GHz all-core, and with faster memory. For comparison to newer CPUs, we chose the Core i7-7700K, Intel’s final Core i7 quad-core for the desktop, representing the best Intel has offered in a quad-core with HT package, and the Core i7-9700K, the latest high-end Core i7 processor.

The results from our testing paint an interesting picture, and as a result so do our conclusions. Our CPU testing was quite clear – in almost every test, the overclock on the 2600K was only able to half the deficit between the 7700K and the 2600K when both were run at stock. Whenever the overclock gave 20% extra performance, the 7700K was another 20% ahead. The only benchmarks that differed were the benchmarks that were AVX2 capable, where the 7700K had a massive lead due to the fact that it supports AVX2. In all our CPU tests, the Core i7-9700K by comparison blew them all out of the water.

For anyone still using a Core i7-2600K for CPU testing, even when overclocked, it’s time to feel the benefits of an upgrade.

 

The GPU testing had a different result. From 2011 to 2019, enthusiast gamers have moved from 1080p in one of two directions: higher resolutions or higher framerates. The direction moved depends on the type of game played, and modern game engines are geared up to cater for both, and have been optimized for the latest hardware with the latest APIs.

For users going up in resolution, to 4K and beyond, the i7-2600K when overclocked performs just as well as the latest Core i7-9700K. The stock 2600K is a little behind, but not overly noticeable unless you drill down into specific titles. But the overclocked Core i7-2600K is still a great chip for high resolution 60 FPS gaming.

For users staying at 1080p (or 1440p) but looking at high frame rates to drive higher refresh rate displays, there is more of a tangible benefit here. Newer games on modern APIs can use more threads, and the higher number of draw calls required per frame (and for more frames) can be driven better with the latest Core i7 hardware. The Core i7-7700K gives a good boost, which can be bettered with the full eight cores of the Core i7-9700K. Both of these chips can be overclocked too, which we’ve not covered here.

The Bottom Line

Back during 2011 and 2012, I was a competitive overclocker, and my results were focused around using the Core i7-2600K as the base for pushing my CPU and GPUs to the limits. The day-to-day performance gains for any of my CPU or GPU tests were tangible, not only for work but also for gaming at 1080p.

Fast forward to 2019, and there is only one or two reasons to stick to that old system, even when overclocked. The obvious reason is cost: if you can’t afford an upgrade, then that’s a very legitimate reason not to, and I hope you’re still having fun with it. The second reason to not upgrade is that the only thing you do, as an enthusiast gamer with a modern day graphics card, is game at 4K.

There are a million other reasons to upgrade, even to the Core i7-7700K: anything CPU related, memory support (capacity and speed), storage support, newer chipsets, newer connectivity standards, AVX2, PCIe 3.0, multi-tasking, gaming and streaming, NVMe. Or if you’re that way inclined, the RGB LED fad of modern components.

Back in my day, we installed games from DVDs and used cold cathodes for RGB.


Picture from 2006? – Battlefield 2 on a CRT.
Running an ATI X1900XTX on an AMD Athlon 3400+

Analyzing the Results: Impressive and Depressing?
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  • Death666Angel - Sunday, May 12, 2019 - link

    Well, laptops and desktops (with monitors) are in a different category anyway, at least that's how I see it. :-)
    I work with a 13.3" laptop with a 1440p resolution and 150% scaling. It's not fun, but it does the job. The advantage of the larger screen real estate with a 15" or 17" laptop is outweight by the size and weight increase. I've also done work on 1024x768 monitors and it does the job in a pinch. But I've tried to upgrade as soon as the new technology was established, cheap and good enough to make it worth it without having to pay the early adopter fee or fiddle around to get it to work. Even before Win7 made it a breeze to have multiple windows in an orderly grid, I took full advantage of a multi window and multi program workflow for research, paper/presentation writing, editing and media consumption. So it is a bit surprising to see someone like Ian, a tech enthusiast with a university doctorate be so late to great tech that can really make life easier. :D
    Reply
  • Showtime - Saturday, May 11, 2019 - link

    Great article. Was hoping to see all the CPU's tested (my 4770k), but I think it shows enough. This isn't the 1st article showing that lesser CPU's can run close to the best CPU's when it come to 4k gaming. Does that look to change any time soon? I was thinking I should upgrade this year, but would like to know if I should be shooting for an 8 core, or if a 6 will be a decent enough upgrade.
    Consoles run slower 8 core proc's that are utilized more efficiently. At some point won't pc games do the same?
    Reply
  • Targon - Tuesday, May 14, 2019 - link

    There is always the question about what you do on your computer, but I wouldn't go less than 8 cores(since 4-core has become the base on the desktop, and even laptops should never be sold with only 2 cores IMO). If you look at the history, when AMD wasn't competitive and Intel stopped trying to actually innovate, quad-core was all you saw on the desktop, so game developers didn't see a reason to support more threads(even though it would have made sense). Once Ryzen came out with 8 cores, and Intel finally responded, you have to expect that every game developer will design with the potential that players will have 8+ core processors, so why not design with that in mind?

    Remember, a program that is properly multi-threaded in design will work on lower-core processors, but will scale up well when processors with more cores are being used. So going forward, quad-core would work, but 8 or more threads WILL feel a lot better, even for overall use.
    Reply
  • CaedenV - Saturday, May 11, 2019 - link

    This was a fascinating article! And what I am seeing in the real world seems to reflect this.
    For the most part, the IPC for general use has improved, but not by a whole lot. But if doing anything that hits the on-chip GPU, or requiring any kind of decrypt/encrypt, then the dedicated hardware in newer chips really makes a big difference.
    But at the end of the day, in real-world scenarios, the CPU is simply not the bottle neck for most people. I do a lot of video ripping (all legally purchased, and only for personal use), and the bottleneck is squarely on the Blu-Ray drive. I recently upgraded from a 4x to a 10x drive, and the performance bump was exactly what was expected. Getting a faster CPU or GPU will not help there.
    I do a bit of video editing, and the bottle-neck there is still almost always in storage. The 1gbps connection to the NAS, and the 1GBps connection to my RAID0 of SSDs.
    I do a bit of gaming at 4k, and again the bottleneck there is squarely on the GPU (GTX1080), and as your tests show, at lower resolution my chip will be slower than a new chip... but still faster than the 60-120fps refresh of the monitor.

    The real reason for an upgrade simply isn't the CPU for most people. The upgrade is the chipset. Faster/more RAM, M.2 SSDs, more available throughput for expansion cards, faster USB/USB-C ports, and soon(ish) 10gig Ethernet. These are the things that make life better for the enthusiast and the normal user; and the newer CPUs are simply more capable of taking advantage of all the extra throughput, where Sandy Bridge would perhaps choke when dealing with these newer and faster interfaces that are not available to it.
    All that said; I am still not convinced to upgrade. Every previous computer was simply broken, or could not do something after 2-3 years, so an upgrade was literally necessary. But now... my computer is some 8 years old now, and I am amazed at the fact that it still does it all, and does it relatively quickly. Without it being 'broken' it is hard to justify dropping $1000+ into a new build. I mean... I want to upgrade. But I also want to do some house projects, and replace a car, and do stuff with the kids... *sigh* priorities. Part of me wishes that it would break to give me proper motivation to replace it.
    Reply
  • webdoctors - Saturday, May 11, 2019 - link

    Great timing, I've been using the same chip for 7 or 8 years now and never felt the need to upgrade until this year, but I will upgrade end of this year. DDR4 finally dropped in price and my GTX1070TI I think is getting throttled when the CPU ain't overclocked. Reply
  • atomicWAR - Saturday, May 11, 2019 - link

    Gaming at 4K with a i7 3930K @ 4.2ghz (4.6ghz capable when needed) with 2 GTX 1080s...I was planning a new build this year but after reading this I may hold off even longer. Reply
  • wrkingclass_hero - Sunday, May 12, 2019 - link

    I've got a 3930K as well. I was planning on upgrading to Threadripper 3 when that comes out, but if it gets delayed I may wait a bit longer for a 5mm Threadripper. Reply
  • mofongo7481 - Saturday, May 11, 2019 - link

    I'm still using a sandy bridge i5 2400 overclocked to 3.6Ghz. Still playing modern stuff @ 1080p and pretty enjoyable. Reply
  • Danvelopment - Sunday, May 12, 2019 - link

    I think the conclusion is slightly off for gaming, from what I could see it's not that the newer processors were only better higher resolutions, it's that the newer systems were better able to keep the GPU fed with data, resulting in a higher maximum frame rate.

    So at lower resolutions/quality settings, when the GPUs could let loose they could achieve much higher FPS.

    My conclusion from the results wouldn't be to keep it for higher res gaming, but to keep it for gaming if you're still using a 60Hz display (which I am). I bet if you tuned quality settings for all of the GPUs to run at 60 FPS your results would sit pretty close at any resolution.

    I'm currently running an E5-2670 for my gaming machine with quad channel DDR3 (4x8GB) and a 1070. That's the budget upgrade path I'd probably recommend at 60Hz.
    Reply
  • mr_tawan - Sunday, May 12, 2019 - link

    Just upgraded to Core i7 4790 (from i5 4460) late last year. At first I was thinking about upgrading to the shiny Ryzen 7, but overall cost is pretty high considering I have my H97 mainboard with 16GB of memory. I don't want to shell out that much money and getting stuck at older platform, again.

    It does work ok, with the performance around the current gen Core i5 I guess (with less power efficiency). Consider what I paid, I think it's not too bad.
    Reply

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