Who’s benefiting from CPU core count war?

I want to talk about the issue of number of cores in current laptops’ CPU. Is it helpful for performance and gaming performance in particular?

This is not as much of an issue for desktop environments, when CPUs are well cooled and relatively unlimited in terms of TDP/power consumption. However, in the laptops’ scene, CPUs thermal handling has to be more fine tuned, using the power budget so performance is maximized or getting close to it (usually it’s not really optimized, every reviewer and curious user will tell you).

Let’s start with some numbers here, based on GLJ laptops’ benchmarks (1060 3gb, 1060 6GB and 1050 Ti) and NBC mobile GTX 1060 and 1050 Ti benchmarks (this and this). It’s quite obvious that the I7s have barely any advantage – certainly not in the GTX 1050 Ti case and barely any difference in the GTX 1060 case. Ofcourse, some games not included here might see performance difference – perhaps games like Ashes of singularity or Civilization VI, but information is lacking.

The data contains a comparison with the old I5-6300HQ paired with a GTX 1060 3GB (Asus FX502VM) – remember that this CPU clocks are lower compared to the Skylake I7 or I5/I7 from later generations and still the performance is close or similar.

The games listed here are the Ashes Of Singularity, Deus Ex : Mankind Divided, Battlefield 1, Metro: Last Light and a bit of the new Final Fantasy XV benchmark.


GTX 1060 + I5-6300HQGTX 1060 + I7
Deus EX : MD3031
Metro: LL, Ultra7783
BF17884
The Division5557


GTX 1050 Ti + I5GTX 1050 Ti + I7
Deus EX : MD2120
AoS, high4140
BF15456
Final Fantasy XV2926


GTX 1060 + I5-7300HQGTX 1060 + I7 (KL)
Final Fantasy XV4041

So really, one asks her/himself – why do I need all these cores? Unless you do some kind of big mathematical calculations for long periods, you probably don’t need it. Go for the Intel 7th/8th generation I5 at most, otherwise you’ll pay with higher heat and perhaps lower clocks.

Intel is in a core-count war with AMD. That’s actually not new – AMD did it before with their slow Excavator cores (with CPUs like the FX-81XX that had 8 physical cores). With Ryzen, Intel made their move to show they also have it. Now they all have it, but gamers don’t. Instead of higher clocks, higher power efficiency or at least lower price, gamers get more cores and less performance. The performance gains with Intel’s 8th generation CPUs are from a slightly higher IPC (Instructions per clock) and higher clocks (after all, they’ve improved it a bit) compared to previous generation, but not compared to current generation of lower core count CPUs.

I’ll add a bit of core-count overview from latest years:

  • Up until mid-end 2006, 2-core CPUs were most used for top gaming desktops. AMD was the arguably the gaming CPU queen for several years, providing much more power efficient CPUs like the Athlon 64/X3/FX. Even the top of the last Pentium 4 CPU, the Pentium Extreme 965 couldn’t really compete.
  • 2006: Intel releases the “Core” architecture, smashing AMD offerings in the performance, performance per clock and power consumption scenes. The publicity was very bad and even though AMD did deliver good CPUs like the Phenom II x3 and x4 for low price in the following years, “everybody knew” that AMD was “bad”.
  • Early 2007: Intel releases the very popular “Core” Q6600, a fast quad-core CPU. No need for two CPUs. It was recommended and bought in quantities for gaming purposes, thinking that games will become much more efficient in utilizing this number of cores. However, it didn’t really added and in most cases performance was worse because the 2 core CPUs had higher clocks: check and check. That was even more pronounced with more powerful GPUs, that results in the CPU being more of a bottleneck.
  • 2010: Intel releases the “Core I” CPUs. Based on new architecture and bringing back Hyperthreading in a new form. The regular I3 CPUs now have 4 “logical” cores and 2 “physical” cores. It was useful for some games that needed a bit of help from another thread.
  • Games started efficiently utilizing more than 2 threads, resulting in them running better on a 4 “physical” cores CPUs. Games like Battlefield 4 seen some differences with very powerful GPU setup like Nvidia GTX 770 x2 SLI. However, an I7 had no significant advantage for gaming in tests of Haswell I3 vs I5 vs I7 (link), especially when partnered with a more reasonable GPU.
  • In the laptops scene, GPUs were much more TDP limited anyway, resulting in them being even more choke point compared to the desktop versions. Gaming on a poweful mobile GPUs like the Maxwell II GTX 970M so no to very small advantage when comparing Haswell 2C/4T to 4C/8T (link).
  • 2015: Intel releases the new Skylake architecture and with it, upgrades all mobile I5 CPUs to 4 physical cores, compared to 2C/4T before it. In the desktop scene, this made the I7 almost useless for gaming when paired with typical GPUs (link and link) and in the laptops’ scene, even more so, as the I7 CPUs were more limited by power consumption and heat but providing nothing back, except slightly higher core clocks in some cases.
  • Early 2017: AMD releases its new “Zen” architecture along with its new “Ryzen” CPUs. Not only the new CPUs core is much faster and power efficient compared to previous generation, it’s also a good sports to Intel CPUs and it doubles the core count(!). The top consumer grade Ryzen model 1800X comes with 8 cores and 16 threads, compared to then Intel’s top consumer CPU, the I7-7700K’s 4 cores and 8 threads. AMD blows Intel out of the water. Gaming performance still on Intel side (because remember, cores count don’t really matter from certain point).
  • 2018: Intel releases the Kaby Lake Refresh and Coffee Lake and the mobile I5s become a 4C/8T CPUs, much like previous generation I7s. Intel I7s become 6C/12T CPUs, which is 75% of the core count of AMD CPUs. This adds nothing to gaming performance by itself for the reasonable cases, but it looks much better.
  • That’s where we are. Lots of cores, around 0% benefit for gamers and probably <0% benefit when we talk about gaming laptops up to $1000, because the cooling solution isn’t that great, heat is building quicker and clocks are lower.

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calkapokole

“Who’s benefiting from CPU core count war?” – power users, content creators, photographers, videographers, programmers, scientists – generally speaking, the users who are utilizing their computer for work. Certainly not gamers. High-end PCs/laptops can also be used for much more than gaming, the applications are endless. I’m glad AMD started “core count war”, I’m looking forward to buying Zen 2 powered PC next year. I agree with your conclusion that gaming laptops should stick with 4 cores, more cores are rarely needed for games.