Today’s modern games run on our machines differently than those of yesteryear, being birthed (kind of) in 1991 for new “hi-res” games.
Games today are usually what’s called “GPU-bound.” That means that the GPU is what handles the upper threshold of performance of the game on the device (more on that later). So then, what does a CPU do for gaming if the GPU handles the heavier load of gaming needs?
Does it matter if you have an i3 or i9? The short answer is “yes, it does.”
Keep reading to find out why!
What’s In a CPU Anyway?
There are two main CPU players in all computing space for laptops and desktops. The reason you can’t run the same apps in macOS 11 as in iOS, or PC games on an Android phone, is because of the CPU architectures being different.
Smaller devices generally use ARM CPUs, while larger devices that are more of a workhorse use x86 architecture. CPUs (Central Processing Units) in most laptops and all desktops use the x86 ISA (Instruction Set Architecture) to handle and execute instructions from the operating system and software.
The x86 standard basically was adopted because Intel cornered the market in the mid to late 70s. AMD adopted the standard because otherwise, the industry would have to have a different operating system for each ISA or maybe even CPU. There would be little interchangeability between devices, and the ecosystem would suffer for it.
A CPU is meant for handling logical instructions, not visually specific data. This is where a GPU, a specially designed version of a CPU comes in. A GPU’s architecture is designed to handle visual data delegated to it by the CPU.
That means both are necessary for gaming.
What Makes a GPU Different?
If you have a dedicated graphics card then you have a mini-computer designed specifically to support your GPU, complete with all the goodies.
GPUs are really good at doing specific kinds of math, like visual, physics, and algorithms, but aren’t very general-purpose. That’s why physicists make supercomputers from them and cryptocurrency miners (at first) used graphics cards to mine Bitcoin and Ethereum.
Because rendering 3D objects require geometrical mathematics that is very specific and very hard to do they’re more “powerful,” in that sense, than CPUs. However, what they gain in power they lose in flexibility.
AMD has integrated graphics on their CPU chips for laptops, but not for desktops. That means one core on a CPU is actually made as a GPU and the CPU sends the graphics data to the GPU for rendering the display.
Intel, on the other hand, supplies integrated graphics with all their chips except for the high-end Xeon and i9 chips, for example. They assume that if you’re buying a high-end chip like that, you’re going to have a high-end system to match, including graphics.
Your monitor is plugged directly into the GPU to receive information, which is processed by the GPU, which receives its orders from the CPU. Easy enough, right? It’s a little more complicated than that, but let’s get to which is more important for gaming.
CPU vs GPU: Which Is More Important For Gaming?
Today’s modern games are usually what is called “GPU-bound.” The basic point of something being GPU-bound is that the GPU is the bottleneck for increased performance in a game. It sounds like a bad thing, but that means that your CPU is not too slow in sending information to your GPU.
What it does mean, though, is that your game could run better, if the GPU was better. For a laptop, you’re pretty much locked in unless you’re confident at doing surgery on your laptop (not recommended for the faint of heart).
In the case of desktop computers, having a CPU with low load on your system during gameplay means that as more powerful GPUs come out you don’t need a new system. You only need a more powerful GPU.
Since motherboards are designed for specific sockets every year for new lines of CPU chipsets and GPUs all use a standard connection on the motherboard, it’s a much cheaper fix to upgrade your GPU.
How They Work Together
Generally, when you are running at lower settings on a high-end system and on AAA modern games, you are taxing your CPU more. If your computer’s fans are blasting, your CPU is getting hot, and the computer, in general, is feeling sluggish, your bottleneck is the CPU.
It can’t keep up with the GPU’s ability to spit out frames. Your GPU is asking and asking the CPU for more data faster than the CPU can deliver (note: this is if the GPU is not under equal load as the CPU).
If, on the other hand, your computer is not working overtime, but you’re getting trash framerates, your GPU is the problem. You’ll see this happening if you are running the game at its highest possible settings. Your CPU takes less of the load at this point because the GPU can’t handle the information it’s already been given.
Your CPU is tapping its foot and looking at its watch.
All you need then is more speed, right?!
CPU For Gaming: A Need For Speed?
As with everything in life, balance is key to success. You can probably find a good price on great rigs with awesome dedicated graphics and look at the processor before slumping over.
Well, don’t get disappointed so soon. Makers like Lenovo and others have fine-tuned their devices, knowing what the GPU/CPU combination should be for maximum effect. Sometimes makers do misstep a bit, but it’s rarer than you might imagine.
RAM, CPU clock speed, CPU core count, and dedicated graphics all work together to bring you the seamless experience you’re hoping for. Yes, clock speed is very important, but consistent speed across cores is perhaps more so.
More and more games are using multi-core processing than before. There was a time when multi-core processing wasn’t as important because the developers didn’t know how to effectively implement it, so they didn’t implement it at all.
AMD is beginning to master the art of lower power consumption with consistent clock rates across high numbers of cores. Intel is hedging its bets with higher and higher clock rates, but on fewer cores for their AMD counterpart’s tier level.
The Core Difference
For example, we can see this trend in the Intel i9 and AMD Ryzen 9 from last year, Q4 2019.
The i9-9900K base frequency was 3.6GHz and topped out at 5GHz. The Ryzen 9 3900X started at 3.8GHz, ending up at a maximum of 4.6GHz if the stars aligned. Both cost about $500 at the time and represented the top-level of each manufacturer.
The Ryzen 9 had 12 cores to the i9’s eight, meaning the Ryzen 9 has a 50% increase on cores from the i9. How did it match up, practically? Keep in mind, each core will be at those clock rates mentioned before.
They both handle multithreading support and can handle two threads of instruction from software at the same time. That means the Ryzen can handle 24 instruction threads and the i9 only 16 in comparison.
At this point, it depends on the software’s use of threads. For graphics applications like Adobe After Effects and Premiere, this is a huge bonus. It allows you to use the software to its fullest potential and still run other programs at the same time.
This is crucial to the graphics-heavy industry use cases many people have. In fact, the Ryzen came out about 25% ahead, on average, of the Intel i9.
What About the Games?
Using the best video card at the time, the RTX 2080 Ti from NVidia, the difference was actually quite small in the upper end at 4k graphics. The AMD Ryzen technology with higher cores gave the GPU all the information it could and it kept up to the upper limits of the GPU’s ability. This meant it was fairly balanced.
The Intel i9, however, because it had fewer cores, had to make up for it with its higher max clock speed. It did better on the 1080p resolution side of things, but still not by much.
The fact that the top-tier flagship products could go toe-to-toe is not significant. The fact that you can only see Intel’s solution gaining ground on low graphics settings is.
It’s significant because, at the 4k level of graphics, there was a difference of five frames, from 76 to 81 frames in Intel’s favor on Rise of the Tomb Raider, between the Ryzen 9 and i9 (a 7.2% difference). But the Ryzen 7, the next tier down from the Ryzen 9, actually got 80 frames.
Only one frame less than the i9, and a 1.24% difference in the favor of i9. However, the Ryzen 7 consumes 31.6% less power than the i9, at 65W (compared to 95W for the i9).
What Does It Mean?
If you’re feeling a bit confused at this point about whether you should focus so much on the CPU or not, don’t fear.
Focusing on the GPU more than the CPU is going to give you more peace of mind. You can go with a midrange Intel i5 or i7 (or AMD Ryzen 5 or 7) and expect a similar difference. Where the meatier top-shelf CPU power can be used is in industry work.
The only time you’ll feel the difference is going on low settings for games a few years down the road. Even with a mid-level CPU, you shouldn’t feel a significant quality of life problem for at least three years on AAA games, as long as you have today’s top-shelf GPU in your system.
So, What Does a CPU Do for Gaming?
What does a CPU do for gaming? A lot.
We hope you now have a greater understanding of just how multithreading, more cores, dedicated graphics, and integrated graphics all work together. Not only that but what the difference is between CPUs and GPUs in general and for gaming.
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