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Intel Skylake: Core i3 6100 review

The best budget gaming CPU?

Intel's Skylake architecture expands into the budget market, with predictably impressive results.

This review was originally written before locked Intel chips based on the Skylake architecture - like this i3 - could be overclocked. Feeling that our review is a little out of date, we went back to the Core i3 6100 and pushed our particular chip to its limits, and the results are remarkable. In fact, it's possible to match base Core i5 6500 quad-core performance - so we thought we would update this review accordingly with all of our findings. However, do bear in mind that Intel is looking to close down i3 overclocking, so exploiting the current loophole may not be possible on future motherboard purchases.

Having dominated enthusiast gaming with its i5 and i7 line, it's fair to say that the baseline i3 line is often overlooked, but the reality is that in most games, Intel's dual-core, quad-thread processor is still capable of handing in creditable performance, even on the very latest titles that explicitly specify higher-spec CPUs for their recommended settings. Over the last year, our Core i3 4130 has served us well in our budget gaming build, but with the arrival of its new-gen Skylake successor, there are some genuinely impressive gains. Prices still need to settle down (we paid £93 for this chip - typically £10 over the odds for an i3) but the benchmarks and the gameplay performance are fascinating - and there is overclocking potential here that makes a great budget processor even more of a bargain.

We've already reviewed the key Skylake processors aimed at the higher-end enthusiast - the Core i5 6600K and the Core i7 6700K - finding them both to be best-in-class parts with impressive performance improvements over their predecessors in CPU-bound gaming scenarios. The boost to Skylake's raw capabilities comes from a number of factors - firstly that the processor features two generational improvements over its direct predecessor, Haswell (Broadwell only received a limited desktop release) and secondly that the prior DDR3 system RAM is replaced by DDR4, meaning higher levels of memory bandwidth. These factors are just as important for the dual-core Skylake i3, and in the case of the move to DDR4, possibly more so.

On top of that, the i3 also features all of the other architectural improvements enjoyed by the quads, including more internal PCI Express bandwidth, principally allowing for more, faster storage solutions to be attached. However, the chances are that the i3 will be paired with lower-end motherboards with more limited expansion opportunities - but as we'll shortly discover, there are performance benefits from choosing a better board to pair with the new dual-core CPU.

Skylake's other notable enhancement - specifically its more granular overclocking capabilities - is now also available for locked chips like the i3. The K-series quads allow for both tweaking of the base clock and the multiplier when prior generations only really allowed for adjustment of the latter. At launch, base clock was almost completely locked down - we achieved a mere two per cent increase in performance (77MHz) before the system locked up. However, all major motherboard vendors have since released updated BIOSes for their Z170 boards, meaning that while the multiplier is still locked, the base clock is now tweakable. We could increase base clock on our chip to 120MHz, giving us a 4.44GHz overclock. However, even without overclocking the processor itself, pairing the stock i3 with faster DDR4 can produce substantial increases to performance.

Rich presents a video review of the new Skylake Core i3 - can it be overclocked? Well, it couldn't be at the time of launch - and the window of opportunity is rapidly closing - but the surrounding components certainly can, with sometimes dramatic results.

But let's start by taking a quick look at some basic benchmarks, where we'll compare the new i3 with one of its Haswell predecessors - our trusty Core i3 4130 - along with the AMD challenger in this segment, the FX-6300. Additionally, we'll toss in our existing Skylake data from the quad-core end of the market to get an idea of the architecture's scalability across the range. The results are enlightening.

First up, it's worth pointing out that our Core i3 4130 operates with a clock-speed deficit compared to the new i3 6100 - it runs at 3.4GHz up against the 3.7GHz of the Skylake chip - much as we would have liked to run Haswell comparisons on a clock-for-clock basis, that just wasn't possible. Regardless, across our four tests, the new i3 is handing in performance that's around 17-26 per cent faster. The new chip may only have two cores and four threads, but its multi-threading performance is impressive - 3DMark physics is faster than the six-core FX-6300, both CineBench tests are only marginally slower, while only the x264 encoding tests sees the AMD chip command any kind of tangible improvement.

In fact, even comparisons with the FX-8350 and the Sandy Bridge era Core i5 2500K look surprisingly promising, especially in terms of the 3DMark physics test, which is the closest thing we have to any kind of gaming workload in what are predominantly synthetic and multimedia-orientated benchmarks. Overall, it's a solid start for a budget processor, and as we saw with the Core i5 6600K and the i7 6700K, basic tests like this are no match for putting Intel's technology to task with some challenging gaming content.

i7 6700K i5 6600K i5 3570K i5 2500K FX-8350 FX-6300 i3-4130 i3-6100
CineBench 15 Single Thread 171 158 131 129 98 94 131 156
CineBench 15 Multi Thread 867 618 505 492 640 406 334 391
CineBench 11.5 Single Thread 2.05 1.81 1.56 1.48 1.11 1.05 1.50 1.78
CineBench 11.5 Multi-Thread 10.12 6.96 5.97 5.78 6.74 4.47 3.65 4.41
x264 Video Encoding 20.45 15.03 11.98 10.98 14.97 10.13 7.58 9.23
3DMark Physics 13636 8718 6901 6712 7520 5657 5075 6395

We set about benchmarking the new Core i3 using the same principles we used in assessing the Skylake Core i5 and the i7 - we seek to eliminate the GPU as a bottleneck by pairing the CPU with an overclocked Titan X running at 1080p, but we run the games at max settings (albeit with no multi-sampling anti-aliasing in most cases). The role of the CPU is to run game logic and prepare instructions for the GPU - compromising on quality settings would mean fewer elements to draw in any given scene and would not fully test the processor workload.

Additionally, we benched the i3 6100 twice, first of all using the full 2666MHz bandwidth of our Corsair Vengeance DDR4 modules, and then paring that back to 2133MHz in order to match the memory restrictions on the H170, B150 and H110 motherboards more likely to be utilised for budget builds. And as the benchmarks came in, the results were fascinating - in many CPU-bound scenarios, the i3 6100 is significantly faster with higher-speed RAM. We devised the gaming benchmark set-up to eliminate the GPU as the limiting factor in performance but what is clear is that not only is CPU pushed to the fore, memory bandwidth is too.

In the first set of benchmarks, we compare both of those i3 runs with the Skylake i5 and i7, in order to judge how the lower-end chip compares to its more expensive siblings. It's worth watching the video to get the complete breakdown of performance in context, because averages can be deceptive - on the face of it, as an average aggregate all across nine titles, the i3 6100 offers 80 per cent of the performance of the 6700K and 86 per cent of the raw throughput of the 6600K: not bad for an entry-level i3. However, while a strong argument can be made that an i5 offers a very similar real world experience to an i7, the same is not the case with the i3. Play Crysis 3, Ryse, Project Cars or Grand Theft Auto 5 to name just four titles, and the difference is often night and day. Our benchmark sequences - in common with everyone else's - can only offer one snapshot of any given game.

The new Skylake Core i3 is stacked up against its i5 and i7 fellows, and benchmarked with 2133MHz and 2666MHz RAM. Yes, you can 'overclock' an i3 system by choosing faster RAM and a Z170 motherboard.

1920x1080/Titan X OC (Avg FPS) Core i7 6700K (2666MHz DDR4) Core i5 6600K (2666MHz DDR4) Core i3 6100 (2666MHz DDR4) Core i3 6100 (2133MHz DDR4)
The Witcher 3, Ultra, HairWorks Off, Custom AA 99.8 95.7 72.3 64.8
Assassin's Creed Unity, Ultra High, FXAA 87.1 86.8 79.4 74.3
Battlefield 4, Ultra, 4x MSAA 130.2 127.8 103.1 97.8
Crysis 3, Very High, SMAA 119.5 109.4 100.2 99.5
COD Advanced Warfare, Extra, FSMAA 203.6 192.0 159.2 149.4
Grand Theft Auto 5, Ultra, no MSAA 81.7 70.2 54.7 49.5
Far Cry 4, Ultra, SMAA 115.4 89.9 79.7 71.7
Shadow of Mordor, Ultra, High Textures, FXAA 137.3 132.7 134.6 132.6
Ryse, High, SMAA 116.1 112.9 103.2 58.5

The two i3 runs are probably the more fascinating comparison in the table above. Consider the difference that 2666MHz memory makes to performance. That Ryse figure is no error - performance falls through the floor when running with lower levels of bandwidth, while faster RAM offers 11 per cent more performance on GTA 5 and Far Cry 4. And again, those figures are averages spread out across the benchmark run - it's noticeably higher at any given point during 'in the moment' gameplay. The Skylake platform standardises on 2133MHz RAM, and that's all that's available on cheaper boards - only the Z170 range officially lets you run memory faster, and it's clear that there are good advantages in doing so. Put simply, the memory controller in Skylake isn't saturated at the 2133MHz speed limit of the lower-end boards, meaning that gaming performance drops more than it should when you're in CPU-limited scenarios.

It's fair to say that there's a hierarchy of potential bottlenecks in any given PC gaming scenario. First of all, there's the graphics hardware, followed by the CPU. Our tests artificially propel the CPU to the fore, and by extension magnify the impact of limited memory bandwidth. The question is whether this extreme testing will be borne out in actual gameplay conditions, where you're more likely to be running with a lower-end GPU. That can be easily answered with this single screenshot. That's Crysis 3 on the i3 running with a relatively meagre GTX 950, and the game isn't even maxed - we're running on high settings, not the top-end very high. The CPU is fully tapped out in both scenarios, but we're also hitting memory bandwidth limits at 2133MHz, resulting in an 'in the moment' performance deficit of 6fps, along with higher degrees of stutter observed in the frame-times. It should be noted that this scene runs close to a locked 60fps with a Core i7 4790K, proof positive that as fast as the i3 is, there will be gaming scenarios where you really need a quad to get the job done.

In short, the Core i3 6100 is a capable processor and almost the certainly the best in the sub-£100 price bracket, but if you're looking to get best performance and to better future-proof the platform, we'd recommend that you consider an entry-level Z170 board as opposed to cheaper alternatives. We are hearing rumours that some H170 boards may unofficially support memory overclocking too, which could save some money if true. On top of that, 2133MHz RAM is the absolute baseline - hunt around for 2666MHz sticks. They can be found at a reasonable price if you search - at the time of writing Ebuyer is selling 8GB of Kingston Hyper 2666MHz DDR4 for less than £45, easy enough to absorb into any budget build.

It's not just Skylake that benefits from faster RAM - the last-gen Haswell i3 does too. It's Skylake vs Haswell here, with some AMD FX-6300 benches added to the mix.

1920x1080/Titan X OC (Avg FPS) Core i3 6100 (2666MHz DDR4) Core i3 6100 (2133MHz DDR4) Core i3 4130 (2133MHz DDR3) Core i3 4130 (1600MHz DDR3) FX-6300 (1600MHz DDR3)
The Witcher 3, Ultra, HairWorks Off, Custom AA 72.3 64.8 56.8 52.9 64.2
Assassin's Creed Unity, Ultra High, FXAA 79.4 74.3 68.8 65.3 67.2
Battlefield 4, Ultra, 4x MSAA 103.1 97.8 84.6 79.3 87.0
Crysis 3, Very High, SMAA 100.2 99.5 67.6 57.9 54.8
COD Advanced Warfare, Extra, FSMAA 159.2 149.4 132.1 128.0 131.7
Grand Theft Auto 5, Ultra, no MSAA 54.7 49.5 43.2 40.3 39.5
Far Cry 4, Ultra, SMAA 79.7 71.7 62.1 61.5 60.8
Shadow of Mordor, Ultra, High Textures, FXAA 134.6 132.6 125.8 122.8 97.4
Ryse, High, SMAA 103.2 58.5 88.7 53.4 38.3

Moving on, the table above shows how the Skylake i3 compares to other budget processors. We're stacking it up primarily against the Core i3 4130, its predecessor from the Haswell launch, albeit running at a 300MHz deficit compared to its successor (ideally we would have had the later Core i3 4170 to test, but alas that was not possible). To make things fairer, we're also using faster RAM on the old Z97 platform, as well as standard 1600MHz sticks usable on the last-gen budget motherboards - in short, the Haswell equivalent to the 2133/2666MHz Skylake test. And finally, we're including AMD's FX-6300, although we could only bench that with 1600MHz memory - our Gigabyte AM3+ motherboard refused to run our 2400MHz DDR3 any faster without overclocking the processor itself.

The results show that the last-gen Haswell also benefits from faster RAM too. Ryse is once again crippled with slower memory and still plays like a dog even with faster memory, a situation that is even more impactful on the FX-6300. On the one had, it may well be the case that the CryEngine games are cache-limited, making their reliance on system RAM much more of an issue, but on the other, we saw similar issues in that game with a Core i5 2500K.

It's worth repeating that clock speeds are not like-for-like, but we are seeing improvements north of 20 per cent between Skylake and Haswell here, and it's actually the case that (CryEngine apart) a Core i3 6100 with 2666MHz DDR4 is generally on par or even a little faster than an older Core i5 2500K with 1333MHz DDR3 when both systems are paired with a GTX 970. The same set-up also sees Skylake beat the AMD FX-8350 (paired with 1600MHz DDR3) in every game we tested bar Crysis 3 and The Witcher 3. Of course, those chips beg to be overclocked in a way that the i3 never can, but the bottom line is that in many gaming scenarios, the new i3 is capable of performance that belies its dual-core status. In short: choose your components carefully - get your board choice right, buy the right RAM, and the Core i3 6100 forms the basis of a great, easily upgradable gaming platform. Choice to GPU is also important - at this performance level, AMD's driver overhead is an issue and we would recommend an Nvidia card.

Is today's dual-core i3 faster than an old-gen i5? Here we compare the Core i3 6100 to the classic Core i5 2500K running at stock settings with some intriguing results.

All of which places the Core i3 6100 at the top of the table when it comes to sub-£100 processor performance, but the recent ability to overclock the previously locked Skylake CPUs can have an explosive effect on gaming performance - but do note that Intel is intent on closing down this loophole. With a base-clock tweak to 120MHz, and a voltage boost to 1.37v, we were solid at 4.44GHz. In our initial tests with the overclock, we restricted ourselves to the same 2666MHz DDR4, and it's safe to say that we were somewhat bewildered by the fact that some games saw tangible increases, but others saw only smaller increases to performance, not in line with a 20 per cent clock-speed boost.

Our Core i5 6500 review testing - which included overclocking - revealed that getting the most out of an overclock required scaling up RAM bandwidth too, so it was not surprising to see that the same thing is true for the i3 too. We used the same Corsair Vengeance sticks rated at 3000MHz here, and we overclocked to 3200MHz with no effort whatsoever. This produced the kind of scaling in performance we expect, and the big surprise here is a Core i3 6100 at 4.44GHz, paired with 3200MHz RAM can marginally outperform a Core i5 6500 at stock speeds, when combined with base-speed 2133MHz memory. Of course, the i5 can also be overclocked and it can also be combined with faster RAM and obviously it pulls ahead in these scenarios.

However, there is some additional food for thought: we're currently working on a feature that sees just far the classic 2011 Core i5 2500K can be pushed in terms of CPU and RAM overclocking and whether it can still power the latest games effectively, and let's just say that initial results suggest that the near-legendary Sandy Bridge quad-core chip gets pushed very, very hard by our top-end dual-core i3 overclock results. And that's with the i5 running at 4.6GHz with 2133MHz DDR3. Still, for now, here's the Skylake comparison:

Rich and Tom mull over Core i3 6100 overclocking potential, with stock and overclocked performance analysed with varying levels of DDR4 bandwidth.

1920x1080/Titan X OC (Avg FPS) Core i3 6100 (3.7GHz/ 2666MHz DDR4) Core i3 6100 (4.44GHz/ 2560MHz DDR4) Core i3 6100 (4.44GHz/ 3200MHz DDR4) Core i5 6500 (3.2GHz/ 2133MHz DDR4) Core i5 6500 (3.2GHz/ 3200MHz DDR4) Core i5 6500 (4.51GHz/ 3196MHz DDR4)
The Witcher 3, Ultra, HairWorks Off, Custom AA 72.3 71.2 82.9 84.9 99.8 110.3
Assassin's Creed Unity, Ultra High, FXAA 79.4 83.5 86.3 82.5 86.1 86.4
Battlefield 4, Ultra, 4x MSAA 103.1 114.8 118.9 115.1 123.1 128.9
Crysis 3, Very High, SMAA 100.2 108.9 110.1 109.6 111.9 120.9
COD Advanced Warfare, Extra, FSMAA 159.2 169.9 178.0 169.0 185.0 185.7
Grand Theft Auto 5, Ultra, no MSAA 54.7 60.1 63.8 63.4 72.6 84.6
Far Cry 4, Ultra, SMAA 79.7 90.7 97.9 84.9 98.4 121.2
Shadow of Mordor, Ultra, High Textures, FXAA 134.6 135.8 141.8 136.2 137.8 142.7

Intel Skylake: Core i3 6100 - the Digital Foundry verdict

There was some disappointment that we couldn't overclock the Core i3 6100 when we first received it for review, but regardless, even at stock speeds it proves to be a highly capable performer - particularly when paired with faster memory. The only problem here is that a Z170 board is required, and although prices for 'premium' speed RAM are stabilising, you'll still be paying more for higher bandwidth modules. In both cases, we would suggest not skimping on this area of the build. A non-Z170 board can be upgraded to quad cores i5s and i7s, but what's clear is that you'll still be held back in terms of future-proofing without access to higher-speed memory and CPU overclocking.

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In terms of our test results, Skylake's domination is self-evident, but we did make one pleasant surprise - AMD's cheaper FX-6300 managed to put up a decent challenge against the last-gen i3, which isn't bad bearing in mind it's a £78 processor that's just celebrated its third birthday - ancient in technological terms. However, generally speaking, with or without the benefit of faster RAM and overclocking, the Core i3 6100 is considerably faster, the surrounding chipset is light-years ahead in terms of features and upgrade paths, and with DDR4 prices dropping hard, upgrading to new-gen RAM isn't the budget deal-breaker it once was.

The Skylake Core i3 6100 is an accomplished product bearing in mind its price-tag, and in conclusion, it's worth emphasising just how important performance is at this end of the market. High-end games are becoming more CPU-intensive, making it much more likely that the processor will be the bottleneck during any given gaming session - especially so at the budget end of the market. Every cycle matters in the more demanding areas of many modern titles, and in our testing, the Core i3 6100 is best in class - and now it's overclockable, a great chip just got even better.

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