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Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Real Gaming Challenge Rematch: Intel vs. AMD


No $1000 CPUs. No dual $500 graphics cards. No insanely high or ridiculously low graphics settings. No timedemos. This time we take a typical mass-market system and play games normally to find the fastest processor.

About a year ago, we ran a feature called the Real Gaming Challenge. In it, we built a couple PCs using processors that typical PC users can afford, and measured their performance in games using a different methodology—real gameplay, instead of canned, recorded demo playbacks. Now, with the availability of new dual-core Athlon 64 CPUs and Core 2 Duo processors from Intel—both with very aggressive pricing—it's time for a rematch.

The New Winner: Core 2 Duo

When we ran our first Real Gaming Challenge almost a year ago, we used CPUs that were about $80 cheaper, and single-core. Though the price of the tested CPUs has gone up, they're still quite affordable, and they're a lot faster. It has quickly become a dual-core world, and Intel's introduction of a whole new processor architecture has made a huge difference. Though the games are more demanding this year, tables have turned completely, with the Core 2 Duo now winning every single test against the comparable Athlon 64 X2—the exact reverse of last year.

When you consider all six games, the winner becomes abundantly clear. There's not a single game where the Core 2 Duo didn't deliver a higher average frame rate. Across all games, Intel's new CPU delivered a 16% higher frame rate. What is more important is that it spent a significantly smaller amount of time beneath our arbitrary thresholds for a really smooth and enjoyable gameplay experience. In fact, there are three games—half of our sample group!—where the Core 2 Duo essentially never dipped below the minimum threshold at all.

The real winner here is the consumer. You don't need to spend several thousand dollars on hardware to make a great gaming system. At 1280x1024—the most common LCD resolution and 40% higher-res than 720p high definition—you can have a really awesome time gaming with a single sub-$300 graphics card and a CPU just over $300. And you don't need to reduce the game's detail levels to do it; we ran all these tests using each game's "high" setting. With such high-performance dual-core CPUs priced so aggressively, and with Vista coming out in the next year with a strong focus on improving PC gaming, the signs look good for PC game fans.

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