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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  • tmanini - Monday, May 13, 2019 - link

    I agree, the user experience is definitely improved in those ways. Granted, many of us think our time is a bit more important than it likely really is. (does waiting 3 seconds really ruin my day?) Reply
  • ochadd - Monday, May 13, 2019 - link

    Enjoyed the article very much. Reply
  • Magnus101 - Monday, May 13, 2019 - link

    You get about 3Xperformance when going from an upclocked 2600k@4.5GHz to a 8700k@4.5GHz when working in DAW:s (Digital Audio Workstation), i.e running dozens and dozens of virtual instruments and plugins when making music.
    The thing is that it is a combination of applications that:
    1. Use all the SSE/AVX or whatever all the streaming extensions that makes parallell flotaing point calculations go much faster. DAW is all about floating point calculations.
    2. Are extremely real-time dependent to get ultra low latency (milliseconds in single digits).

    This makes even the 7700 k about double in performance in some scenarios when compared to an equally clocked 2600k.
    Reply
  • mikato - Monday, May 13, 2019 - link

    "and Intel’s final quad-core with HyperThreading chip for desktop, the 7700K"
    "the Core i7-7700K, Intel’s final quad-core with HyperThreading processor"

    Did I miss some big news?
    Reply
  • mapesdhs - Monday, May 13, 2019 - link

    "... the best chips managed 5.0 GHz or 5.1 GHz in a daily system."

    Worth noting that with the refined 2700K, *all* of them run fine at 5GHz in a daily system, sensible temps, a TRUE and one fan is plenty for cooling. Threaded performance is identical to a stock 6700K, IPC is identical to a stock 2700X (880 and 177 for CB R15 Nt/1t resp.)

    Also, various P67/Z68 mbds support NVMe boot via modded BIOS files. The ROG forum has a selection for ASUS, search for "ASUS bolts4breakfast"; he's added support for the M4E and M4EZ, and I think others asked the same for the Pro Gen3, etc. I'm sure there are equivalent BIOS mod threads for GIgabyte, MSI, etc. My 5GHz 2700K on an M4E has a 1TB SM961 and a 1TB 970 EVO Plus (photo/video archive), though the C-drive is still a venerable Vector 256GB which holds up well even today.

    Also, RAM support runs fine with 2133 CL9 on the M4E, which is pretty good (16GB GSkill TridentX, two modules).

    However, after using this for a great many years, I do find myself wanting better performance for processing images & video, so I'll likely be stepping up to a Ryzen 3000 system, at least 8 cores.
    Reply
  • mapesdhs - Monday, May 13, 2019 - link

    Forgot to mention, someting else interesting about SB is the low cost of the sibling SB-E. Would be a laugh to see how all those tests pan with with a 3930K stock/oc'd thrown into the mix. It's a pity good X79 boards are hard to find now given how cheap one can get 3930Ks for these days. If stock performance is ok though, there are some cheap Chinese boards which work pretty well, and some of them do support NVMe boot. Reply
  • tezcan - Monday, May 13, 2019 - link

    I am still running 3930k, prices for it are still very high ~$500. Not much cheaper then what I paid for it in 2011. I am yet to really test my GTX 680's in SLI. Kind of a waste, but they are driving many displays throughout my house. There was an article where some Australian bloke guy runs an 8 core sandy bridge - e (server chip) vs all modern intel 8 core chips. It actually had the lowest latency so was best for pro gamers, lagged a little behind on everything else- but definitely good enough. Reply
  • dad_at - Tuesday, May 14, 2019 - link

    I run 3960X at ~ 4 GHz on X79 ASUS P9X79 and have nvme boot drive with modified BIOS. So it is really interesting to compare 2011/2012 6c/12t to 8700K or 9900K. I guess it's about 7700K stock, so modern 4c/8t is like old 6c/12t. Per core perf is about 20-30% up on average and this includes higher frequency ... So IPC is only about 15% up: not impressive. Of course in some loads like AVX2 heavy apps IPC could be 50% up, but such case is not common. Reply
  • martixy - Monday, May 13, 2019 - link

    Oh man... I just upgraded my 2600K to a 9900K and a couple days later this article drops...
    The timing is impeccable!

    If I ever had a shred of buyer's remorse, the article conclusion eradicated it thoroughly. Give me more FPS.

    I saw a screenshot of StarCraft 2. On a mission which I, again, coincidentally (this is uncanny) played today. I can now report that the 9900K can FINALLY feed my graphics card in SC2 properly. With the 2600K I'd be around 20-60 FPS depending on load and intensity of the action. With the new processors, it barely ever drops below 60 and usually hovers around 90FPS. Ingame cinematics also finally run above the "cinematic" 30 FPS I saw on my trusty old 2600K.
    Reply
  • Ranger90125 - Tuesday, May 14, 2019 - link

    Using a 4790K for years and increasingly disillusioned with Intel's shady practices and lack of progress. Last AMD processor was an Athlon 64 3400 from the glory days of Intel decimated by the competition. Next processor will be 7nm Zen and I look forward to Intel being under the cosh for as long as AMD can manage it. Thanks for a great nostalgic read...I liked the lean and mean Cutress LAN machine :) Reply

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