The i5-4670K vs i7-4770K Dilemma

The big debate on Gaming CPUs always circles around to how many cores does a game use, and whether they are sufficiently utilized to matter.  Some users are concerned if a title does not use all the CPU cores, while others would prefer that the CPU is a minimal part of the equation when work can be offloaded onto the GPU. So here is a question:

Do you prefer:
- a game that uses the CPU as much as possible such that the CPU can be a bottleneck, or
- a game that offloads most of the CPU work to the GPU thus making the GPU the primary bottleneck?

I am firmly in the latter camp and like to think that the latter is the result of game optimization, and that some users would focus budgets on GPUs if that is their primary concern for a system.  Of course you can have your cake and eat it too with a hex-core system, as long as the wallet stretches.

No matter how much philosophical mumbo-jumbo you want to throw at ‘the ideal situation’, the reality always answer the question ‘but what should I get today?’.  There are plenty of forum posts regarding processor recommendations, especially when it comes to Intel’s flagship mainstream processor, the i7-4770K, and its modified counterpart, the i5-4670K.  Whether the hyperthreading of the i7-4770K provides a boost in games over the i5-4670K is an answer I wanted to provide, given the price difference between these processors is around $100 at Newegg today and that money might be better spent on a GPU.

Here is a table comparing all our results with both CPUs in an x8/x8 + x4 motherboard, with a ‘win’ going to the side that has a +3.5% FPS advantage:

In direct comparison, only two benchmarks had more than a 3.5% FPS jump with the 4770K in favor, and one actually in favor of the 4670K.

So in terms of answering the question, for our benchmarks, it would seem that the i5-4670K is the more cost effective choice in buying a Haswell processor.

Nehalem Can Still Be Still Strong, But Update Soon

Getting a chance to cover a range of Nehalem CPUs was a goal since the first testing started for Part 1, and it is clear to see why performance platforms have that particular name.  If you invested in an i7-920, like I did, and are lucky enough to run a nice D0 stepping CPU, then some bases are covered on the single and dual GPU front, although there are some holes were Nehalem is clearly not with the leading pack of CPUs.

Of course with socket 1366 CPUs there are some compromises.  The motherboards with these CPUs do not have PCIe 3.0 (which is shown to look important in multi-GPU setups), nor do not have USB 3.0 / SATA 6 Gbps native, meaning you’ll be scrounging around for mid-performing controllers at best.  Features such as Thunderbolt are but a wish unless you are willing to upgrade.

The most direct comparison for us is the i7-950 to the i7-4770K – here we have two processors both quad core with hyperthreading, with the 4770K taking a small MHz lead and a large IPC lead.  Going back through our benchmark scenarios, the 4770K needs a PLX board to support some nice 3- and 4- way GPU setups, but there is a clear CPU advantage on the side of Haswell.  The triple channel memory support of Nehalem was a big plus point when it was launched, but as we can now kit out our dual channel mainstream platforms with 2400 C10 memory with relative ease (or more if you are that way inclined), that memory bandwidth advantage is shorter.

If you were lucky/rich enough to jump on the extreme end of Westmere (i7-980, i7-980X or i7-990X), then having that hex-core system will keep a small advantage in multithreaded tests over the top performing Haswell solution (PovRay on 4770K = 1612.68, on i7-990X = 1636.40).  The IPC advantage that Haswell comes with shows itself to be useful in most multi-GPU setups, whereas for our other single and some dual GPU benchmarks the performance difference between the two processors is almost negligible.  When you hit three-way GPU configurations, it is all about the lane counts.

Investing in the i7-4960X

Plunging in at the high end is always expensive.  These are the high margin parts that the manufacturers want to promote the virtues of such that users might invest lower down the product stack.  When going for more cores, more MHz and a strong IPC contender, the CPU benchmark results are plain to see for anyone needing cores and grunt. 

The downside of the i7-4960X is going to be with the chipset – we still have X79 on hand, even when paired with a motherboard refresh there are some limitations that motherboard manufacturers cannot escape.  Now that Haswell/Z87 offers a full complement of SATA 6 Gbps and native USB 3.0, functionality via X79 has to come via extra controllers.  The big upside in the extreme end is the lane allocation, which has some benefits in gaming.

Across our benchmark range, the i7-4960X and i7-4770K are similar in results, where single and dual GPU results are on par with each other across the board.  When we start moving into tri-GPU setups, there are several things to consider:

In general:

- the x8/x8 + x4 PCIe allocation on Z87 is bad
- the x8/x4/x4 PCIe allocation on Z87 fares better
- having a PLX chip on a Z87 for x16/x8/x8 is best, but this more expensive
- You don’t have to worry about this with an i7-4960X
- But going Ivy Bridge-E is more expensive to begin with

The i7-4960X takes the top spot on Dirt 3 tri-GPU, Civ5 tri-GPU and Sleeping Dogs tri-GPU, suggesting that if you want the absolute best frame rates with more than two GPUs, then the i7-4960X is your answer.  However the i7-4770K with a PLX-enabled motherboard will give almost as good results (often within 1-2%) of the i7-4960X for the lower CPU cost.

Next Update: Part 3

As mentioned in the early parts of this article, our next update will focus solely on the AMD midrange.  A few of our partners have kindly volunteered processors for testing, as well as a small call to AMD for a few of the major ones and a quick scout on eBay for the less expensive models.  As you can imagine, that is quite a list to choose from, but needs must as the devil desires.  For sure the A10-6800K and similar processors will be included in as many GPU configurations as possible.

Recommendations for the Games Tested at 1440p/Max Settings

A CPU for Single GPU Gaming:

Intel: i5-4430
AMD: A8-5600K + Core Parking updates

If I were gaming today on a single GPU, the A8-5600K (or non-K equivalent) would strike me as a price competitive choice for frame rates, as long as you are not a big Civilization V player and do not mind the single threaded performance.  The A8-5600K scores within a percentage point or two across the board in single GPU frame rates with both a HD7970 and a GTX580, as well as feel the same in the OS as an equivalent Intel CPU.  The A8-5600K will also overclock a little, giving a boost, and comes in at a stout $110, meaning that some of those $$$ can go towards a beefier GPU or an SSD.  The only downside is if you are planning some heavy OS work – if the software is Piledriver-aware, all is well, although most processing is not, and perhaps an i3-3225 or FX-8350 might be worth a look.

It is possible to consider the non-IGP versions of the A8-5600K, such as the FX-4xxx variant or the Athlon X4 750K.  But as we have not had these chips in to test, it would be unethical to suggest them without having data to back them up.  Watch this space, we have processors in the list to test.

A CPU for Dual GPU Gaming:

Intel: i5-4430 / i5-4670K
AMD: FX-8350 + Core Parking Updates

Based on our benchmarks, it again comes down to if you are a Civilization V type gamer, or if the engine your game is based on is similar to Civ5.  If the answer is no, then the i5-4430 performs within low single digit % numbers of our top performers, and the FX-8350 puts up a reasonable showing.  If the answer is yes, then anything short of the i5-4670K means that performance is being lost.

Looking back through the results, moving to a dual GPU setup obviously has some issues.  Various AMD platforms are not certified for dual NVIDIA cards for example, meaning while they may excel for AMD, you cannot recommend them for team Green.  There is also the dilemma that while in certain games you can be fairly GPU limited (Metro 2033, Sleeping Dogs), there are others were having the CPU horsepower can double the frame rate (Civilization V).

After the overview, my recommendation for dual GPU gaming comes in at the feet of the i5-4430 and the i5-4670K, depending on your CPU workloads.  The price difference between these two processors is around $40, and for that extra we do get an overclockable CPU as well. 

A CPU for Tri-GPU Gaming:

i5-4670K with an x8/x4/x4 (AMD) or PLX (NVIDIA) motherboard

By moving up in GPU power we also have to boost the CPU power in order to see the best scaling at 1440p.  The CPUs in our testing that provides the top frame rates at this level are the top line Ivy Bridge and Haswell models.  For a comparison point, the Sandy/Ivy Bridge-E 6-core results were often very similar, but the price jump to such as setup is prohibitive to all but the most sturdy of wallets.  Of course we would suggest Haswell over Ivy Bridge based on Haswell being that newer platform.

As noted in the introduction, using 3-way on NVIDIA with Ivy Bridge will require a PLX motherboard in order to get enough lanes to satisfy the SLI requirement of x8 minimum per CPU.  This also raises the bar in terms of price, as PLX motherboards start around the $280 mark.  For a 3-way AMD setup, an x8/x4/x4 enabled motherboard performs similarly to a PLX enabled one, and ahead of the slightly crippled x8/x8 + x4 variations.  However investing in a PLX board would help moving to a 4-way setup should that be your intended goal.

A CPU for Quad-GPU Gaming:

i5-4670K with a PLX motherboard

While our fourth GPU for this update was unfortunately in need of repair, by extension of the tri-GPU results we should say at this point that as long as the game title scales, we need at least the CPU recommendation for the tri-GPU setups in order to make sure the frame rates are in the top echelons.  There are a couple of Haswell Z87 motherboards that offer an odd x8/x4/x4 + x4 PCIe lane allocation, although given our tri-GPU results using that PCIe 2.0 x4 from the PCH, I would not be too confident in seeing anything spectacular from those results.  We see in our tri-GPU testing that the PLX chip has a positive effect which will only ever be boosted by adding GPUs.  For the wallets that open wider than most, the socket 2011 processors are also at your beck and call.

But even still, a four-way GPU configuration is for those few users that have both the money and the physical requirement for pixel power.  We are all aware of the law of diminishing returns, and more often than not adding that fourth GPU is taking the biscuit for most resolutions.  Despite this, even at 1440p, we see awesome scaling in games like Sleeping Dogs (+73% of a single card moving from three to four cards) and more recently I have seen that four-way GTX680s help give BF3 in Ultra settings a healthy 35 FPS minimum on a 4K monitor.  So while four-way setups are insane, there is clearly a usage scenario where it matters to have card number four.

Next on the Horizon: AMD, Dual Core Haswell, 2014 Updates

By the end of the year, it would make sense to cycle back around to the AMD platforms we have not tested in their entirety, including CPUs like the A10-6800K and the non-IGP oriented Athlon X4 750K.  The stack of CPUs under $150 is larger than I originally thought, varying in CPU speed, cores and cache levels.  We have a number in for testing which should provide a few interesting data points.

At the beginning of September, Intel formally put on sale the dual core Haswell CPUs that are now populating e-tailers.  I would like to get a few in to bolster the area around the i3-3225 which is looking a little forlorn.  Samples and prices dependent, I would also like to take a few of these in due course – either this year or beginning of next. 

Leading on to next year, I am planning an update to our testing following recommendations from our readers.  This includes a driver update (to the latest WHQL), hopefully an update on our NVIDIA GPU side to something around the GTX 760+, and also a game update to coincide with more relevant titles.  At present we are looking at Company of Heroes 2, Bioshock Infinite, F1 2012/2013, Tomb Raider, and Sleeping Dogs again.  We will stick at 1440p for 2014, as well as aim to report minimum frame rates as well.

If you have any suggestions for our Gaming CPU 2014 update, please forward them on to!

GPU Benchmarks: Sleeping Dogs
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  • BOMBOVA - Sunday, October 6, 2013 - link

    a low cost raid controller yes, 64kb, 128kb, show the merit of raid 0, at 6 Gbs each, i was doubtful myself, but took the test of the device, for i need better video editing performance, at least it works :) now we have to watch out for the 12Gbs devices coming soon, imo for games, not much notice of improvement to be seen, but in big data transfers, sata 3 improvements, can be had for low costs. gl, trying it out, borrow a card to try, if you can, Cheers.
  • BOMBOVA - Saturday, October 26, 2013 - link

    fact is you can set to 32 K blocks, or 64K, 'only" , but is a true Marvel controller chip, in the Syba, and is on the PCI e buss. , Control M, sets the chipset, works rite off, is quick, but, there is a hint, that the lanes are only 5 Gbit second, still is a fine patch upgrade, on low cost 6Gbit second ssd's i am in for 2x120 ssd's and controller for 250,
  • R-Type - Friday, October 4, 2013 - link

    Results are typical for a variety of games where the resolution is set to 1920 x 1200. Games include Dirt 3, Civilization V, Guild Wars 2, Mechwarrior Living Legends, Diablo 3, Starcraft 2, etc.
  • augiem - Friday, October 4, 2013 - link

    I'm really kind of shocked to see how well Nehalem stands up still in many benchmarks. If you adjust the i7 920 benchmarks to make up for the difference in frequency between it and the 4770K, it's not half bad. I used the difference between the i7-920 and i7-950 to determine how the benchmark scaled on Nehalem. If it was close enough to linearly (+/- 1%), I considered it. I saw a 6% - 40% performance advantage for Haswell across the CPU tests, which is actually smaller than I expected for an almost 6 year old chip. (Obviously this includes differences in the platforms too.) Striking that even in 6 years the speed hasn't even doubled.

    I'm still on an i7-920@3.6, so this was very relevant to me. If it were 40% across the board, it might be more compelling, but quite a few were more like 15%, 20%, etc. Now I understand Haswell is going to OC a lot further than this one, so in that way you could get the performance diff up there.

    I'm just dumbfounded that this Nehalem has lasted me 4.5 years already and it still doesn't feel slow. On the one hand its great value for the money, but on the other hand its a little disappointing to see performance curve drop off like it has over the past 6 years.

    That would be a fun project. Make a graph showing average CPU performance increases over the last 30 years.
  • Genericuser1234 - Saturday, October 5, 2013 - link

    As interesting these chips are for getting maximum performance from the high w parts. Will you do an article about the low TDP parts that are the true masterpieces Intel makes. I live in Denmark and energy cost more and more. My PC is running almost nonstop and I am curious how well these chips perform in a gaming environment. How far behind are they on performance and what kind of power cost on a year based on an average workload / idle time are we talking about you could save. I find the low power chips to be Intel's true stars. Do more with less. Maybe even throw in a power house chip from 2 years ago for comparison. That would be an interesting article
  • agent_x007 - Saturday, October 5, 2013 - link

    Congrats to those who did testing part.
    Can't wait to see AMD added.

    Too bad Pentium XE 955/965 (ie. Presler B1/C1 @ 3,46/3,73GHz) didn't "cut it" for this comparson :(
    Hyper Threading and "Last of Netburst" legacy could be interesting in comparison with low end, fully-intergated setups, like VIA Nano or AMD Fusion.
    + There is also a possibility that todays multithreaded programs would better utilize the 4 threads of this kind of CPU, maybe to the point of matching Core 2 Duo's...

    Either way, to sum it up in two words : GREAT WORK.
  • khanov - Saturday, October 5, 2013 - link

    A good article, and nice to see an update now that new CPU's are out.

    Wouldn't it be nice if you could have all the benefits of X79 for multi GPU configurations, but without the added cost over Z87? Well actually you can, if you take in to account the quad-core LGA2011 CPUs.

    The i7-4820K is no more expensive than the i7-4770K, and motherboard costs are very similar too. So people seriously considering 3 or 4 GPUs might be very interested in this option, to gain the benefits of extra PCIe lane allocation without the extra cost of a hex core CPU.

    Ian, would you please consider adding i7-3820 and/or i7-4820K to the next update? It would be nice to see how well, or how badly, they fare against the competition.
  • MarcHFR - Sunday, October 6, 2013 - link

    Hi all,

    Sorry but i don't understand this review. What's the point of recommanding different CPU on the only basis of single/dual/tri/quad GPU ?

    First, the GPU power is not related to the number of GPU only, with 2x660 you get lower performance than 1x780, but if i read the conclusion for 2x660 you recommand FX-8350 but A8-5600K for 1x780 ?

    Second, for example with only a 7970 with a small CPU or a big CPU you get exactly the same performance on Sleeping Dogs 2560*1440 max settings. But what kind of player will keep a setting that offer 28 fps on such a carde ? None ! They will lower the graphic settings related to the GPU only to a point that they will get a higher framerate, like the 80 fps you get with three card.

    Whatever the number/power of the GPU, as soon as it's not a lower-end card, the CPU needed to get playable framerate is the same with a GTX 660 or 2xGTX 780 as soon as you don't use graphics settings related to the GPU that lower the framerate that can be sustained by the GPU under the framerate that can be sustained by the CPU.

    You can recommand different CPU to get more than 40/60/80/120 fps in some games (but good luck since integrated benchmark are generally not using the most CPU bound scene), but recommand different CPU for single/dual/tri/quad GPU seems a non-sense for me.
  • Majesticii - Sunday, October 6, 2013 - link

    Damn. How can you call this a CPU comparisson with data like this. The games are run at such extreme values that in no way they represent the impact of a CPU. Sleeping dogs is just 4 graphs with 28fps, how can any respected researcher show this data without severe shame. To add insult to injury, the vast majority seems to think this is how CPU tests are done and call it a nice review. Literally my heart sank as i read through these comments. Noone (except a few ignored), not even the reviewers has a clue what they're on about. This way of CPU-reviewing in games needs to stop. This isn't just uninformative, it's worse; It's completely misleading. Test games at 800x600 low settings, and pay no mind to those people calling for "real-world benchmarks". Stay true to what's real, instead of appealing to the community.
  • 3Ball - Monday, October 7, 2013 - link

    Forgive me if this is pointed out in the article and I have missed it, but it is worth pointing out. Battlefield 4 will use up to 8 cores/threads. My i7-860 @ 4.0ghz with hyperthreading is outperforming a friends Ivy bridge (3570k) at 4.4ghz without hyperthreading, so much so that my frames are better using a GTX680 against his GTX780.

    This could be the product of the "beta", but I do believe it is a sign of things to come. The new consoles are most likely going to influence multithreaded performance greatly considering the lower sinlge thread performance present in the systems.

    I have been planning on rebuilding with haswell early next year and was planning on getting a 4670k, but have now changed that decision to going with a 4770k due to this experience. Just my two cents. Cheers!

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