Summary: Which CPU's perform best with S.T.A.L.K.E.R. and is the game more CPU-dependant or GPU-bound? Does quad-core matter? These are the types of questions we set out to answer in this article. We've used a combination of high-end and mainstream GPUs to see which processors perform best in this game with a given GPU. Read which CPUs deliver the best bang for the buck inside!
We’ll primarily be testing two configurations: a GeForce 7900 GTX SLI config, and a single GeForce 7900 GS. We’re still waiting on NVIDIA’s S.T.A.L.K.E.R. driver for the GeForce 8800 cards, which we’ve been told will bring improved GeForce 8800 GTX performance as well as adding GeForce 8 SLI support for S.T.A.L.K.E.R.. As it stands right now, a pair of 7900 GTX cards is slightly faster than a single GeForce 8800 GTX in our testing, although we expect that to change once NVIDIA’s new driver is ready.
By testing the GeForce 7900 GS and 7900 GTX SLI cards with CPUs ranging from the Athlon 64 X2 3600+ all the way up to the Core 2 Extreme, we should get a better idea of which CPU’s perform best with a high-end graphics setup, as well as a more conventional mainstream graphics config. That’s the goal at least.
Before we look into that though, we first want to examine the game’s multi-threading performance. According to the game’s readme, S.T.A.L.K.E.R. has been built with multi-threading in mind:
This came as a bit of a surprise to us, as none of our discussions with AMD or Intel had indicated that S.T.A.L.K.E.R. took advantage of multi-threading, and normally these guys like to keep up to date with which games and software applications are taking advantage of their quad-core processors. To test this out we ran a quad-core Core 2 Extreme QX6700 CPU at 2.93GHz with EVGA’s nForce 680i SLI motherboard. This motherboard’s BIOS supports the ability to enable or disable the processing cores, so we can simulate the performance of single-core, dual-core, and quad-core all from the same platform. Let’s see how well S.T.A.L.K.E.R. scales shall we?
First we’re going to test multi-core performance in a single GPU environment. We took a single GeForce 7900 GTX and hooked it up to the overclocked Core 2 Extreme processor, running with 1, 2, and 4 processing cores enabled:
Performance was indistinguishable between all three configs in S.T.A.L.K.E.R. with the single GeForce 7900 GTX card. Even at lower resolutions where the CPU is pushed harder we saw no performance change. You’d likely have to drop down to 800x600 to see any real benefits. What happens when two GeForce 7900 GTX cards are paired together for SLI though?
As you can see, we saw a slight performance boost when going from one processing core to two, 4% at 1280x1024 and 1600x1200 on the 7900 GTX SLI setup, The single-core Core 2 CPU just can’t keep the 7900 GTX SLI setup fed with data, although a 4% difference isn’t all that dramatic honestly. When moving from 2 cores to 4, performance was unchanged.
In other words, if you’ve got a single graphics card, chances are you won’t see much of a performance difference going from a single processing core to dual-core or quad-core. Faster graphics cards like the SLI setups and GeForce 8800 cards will show the best performance improvements.
Intel Core 2 Extreme X6800 (2.93GHz)
S.T.A.L.K.E.R. – Direc3D
As you can see, performance is the same across all CPUs tested with NVIDIA’s GeForce 7900 GS GPU at all resolutions. With dynamic lighting turned on, the burden clearly shifts so heavily on the GPU (in this case the 7900 GS) that CPU performance doesn’t play a large role in frame rate. But what happens when you drop in a faster graphics setup?
S.T.A.L.K.E.R. – Direc3D
At lower resolutions, the Core 2 CPUs definitely pull away from the Athlon 64 X2s. However, with AMD’s recent price cuts, the X2 CPUs are much more attractive. Whereas the Athlon 64 X2 6000+ previously was priced between the Core 2 E6600 and E6700, it’s now going squarely against the Core 2 Duo E6400, and here the X2 6000+ comes out on top, running 8% faster than the Core 2 E6600. The rest of the Athlon 64 CPUs equally come out ahead of the nearest-priced Core 2 processors.
With a faster GPU setup CPU performance becomes more important. The GeForce 7900 GTX SLI config clearly ran best with the Core 2 processors, with the Core 2 Extreme X6800 delivering the best overall performance in S.T.A.L.K.E.R. thanks to its 2.93GHz clock speed. The nearest Athlon 64 X2 processor, the X2 6000+, trails the Core 2 Extreme by 8%. Clearly this isn’t a huge difference, but it\\s plausible this gap would increase with a faster setup like a pair of GeForce 8800 cards running in SLI. Of course, you can’t do this until NVIDIA releases their updated S.T.A.L.K.E.R. driver for GeForce 8 cards. Hopefully that should occur any day now.
Another factor to keep in mind is AMD’s latest X2 pricing. In light of AMD’s recent price cuts, the X2 CPUs really become excellent bargains, with CPUs starting right below $80. And when you compare the performance of AMD’s X2 CPUs to the nearest priced Intel equivalent, the AMD CPU always comes out ahead. Intel is expected to cut Core 2 prices later this month though, so the advantage AMD enjoys now may not last much longer.
Clearly our results today have shown which component is more important for delivering good performance in S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: the graphics card. You’ll probably still want a fast processor for your other tasks and games, but clearly you don’t need the latest Athlon 64 FX or Core 2 Extreme for S.T.A.L.K.E.R.. The game doesn’t appear to take advantage of multi-threading yet, so quad-core CPUs will perform similarly to their dual-core equivalent, and of course, as you crank up the screen resolution you increase the burden on the GPU anyway.
So there you have it, our take on which system component is more important for S.T.A.L.K.E.R.. Up next we’ll be testing S.T.A.L.K.E.R. with the latest high-end cards. How much faster are the GeForce 8800’s in comparison to the GeForce 7 and Radeon X1900 cards? These are the types of questions we hope to answer in this article!
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