There aren't many pieces of PC hardware that actually qualify as genuine gaming icons, but Intel's vintage 2011 Core i5 2500K is surely one of them. It was the right processor at the right time - providing immense levels of single-core performance (good for old games) along with a quad-core configuration that serviced more modern titles admirably. And it could overclock easily. In fact, it could positively fly. Five years on, many PC gamers refuse to relinquish the classic i5. Our question: is now the time to upgrade. Can the 2500K still cut it?
We've concentrated on the 2500K here, but almost all of the observations we're about to impart could apply to its well-regarded successor - the Core i5 3570K. Our testing is a combination of the theoretical alongside practical reality - our most comprehensive effort yet to discern just how important the CPU is to your PC gaming set-up. And that's actually a lot more difficult than it sounds: the graphics card dominates conventional gameplay benchmarking, providing a ceiling to performance that makes discerning CPU deficiencies quite challenging. But we've noticed that the times are changing.
It's actually fairly easy to hit CPU limits with a Sandy Bridge quad-core processor - born out by this video where Ryse, Crysis 3, Assassin's Creed Unity, The Witcher 3 and Far Cry 4 all exhibit performance issues - and where frame-rates actually lose out in some cases to a modern dual-core i3. Games are becoming more dependent on a certain level of CPU power, and if your processor falls short, the gameplay experience is marred with intrusive stutter. A new GPU will do nothing to address that - in fact, it could well make it worse as the gap between being GPU-limited and CPU-bound grows wider.
So let's tackle theoretical CPU performance first. Our methodology here is pretty straightforward - to eliminate GPU as a bottleneck as much as we can using Nvidia's mammoth Titan X, bringing CPU performance to the fore as we benchmark across a range of fully multi-core aware titles. We have four different 2500K benchmark runs here - stock performance with 1600MHz RAM, overclocking the CPU to 4.6GHz, then re-running the metrics again with 2400MHz Vengeance Pro DDR3 supplied by Corsair (bandwidth is actually limited here to 2133MHz - available bandwidth increased with the arrival of the third-gen Core series).
Adding some spice to the mix, we've also included data from the recently released Core i5 6500 - a chip we've described as the best value Intel quad-core chip on the market (though its value may diminish somewhat once its fearsome overclocking prowess gets 'patched out'). Consider the modern i5 as setting the benchmark we want to hit - but even here, comparisons are tricky. Just like the 2500K, the 6500 can be paired with memory offering more bandwidth, which in turns scales performance without overclocking the processor itself at all. And that's one thing we should stress here - the newer Skylake i5 isn't being overclocked at all in these benchmarks. For more metrics, including overclock performance, check out our full Core i5 6500 review.
|Titan X OC (Average FPS)||i5 2500K/ 1600MHz DDR3||i5 2500K/ 2133MHz DDR3||i5 2500K 4.6GHz/ 1600MHz DDR3||i5 2500K 4.6GHz/ 2133MHz DDR3||i5 6500/ 2666MHz DDR4||i5 6500/ 3200MHz DDR4|
|The Witcher 3, Ultra, HairWorks Off, Custom AA||60.8||70.1||72.8||86.4||87.3||99.8|
|Battlefield 4, Ultra, 4x MSAA||88.9||98.1||104.8||110.2||121.0||123.1|
|Crysis 3, Very High, SMAA||95.2||97.7||105.9||108.3||110.9||111.9|
|Grand Theft Auto 5, Ultra, no MSAA||49.7||55.5||58.1||67.7||68.5||72.6|
|Far Cry 4, Ultra, SMAA||66.4||76.1||84.6||99.9||92.4||98.4|
What we're seeing here is not just an immensely compelling scenario for overclocking your 2500K, but also for swapping in faster RAM (and even just tightening up latency timings can help too - there's more than one way to increase RAM throughput). Once again, The Witcher 3's testing Novigrad City run demonstrates just how some games thrive on higher levels of memory bandwidth, perhaps more so than a processor overclock. And these are the average frame-rates across the duration of our test clips. We aren't going to be CPU-bound all the time during our tested sequences - to a certain extent those figures are still going to be defined by GPU limits too, even using a Titan X. But we can be pretty sure that the minimums in all of our tests are indeed caused by the CPU, and the results there are enlightening - and they paint a quite different outlook to the table above.
In an ideal world, we would want our processor to be able to sustain 60fps at all times and clearly this isn't happening - some of those figures are distressingly low, but both sets of numbers give us a picture of how a fully maxed-out Core i5 2500K bears up against Intel's modern processors - in terms of the average reported frame-rates, 4.6GHz of Sandy Bridge quad-core power combined with 2133MHz DDR3 is a fairly close match for a stock 3.2GHz Core i5 6500 paired with 2666MHz DDR4, while lowest reported frame-rates sit just a little higher. Intel often gets a lot of criticism for its iterative year-on-year improvements to CPU power, but the reality is that they do stack up over time and Skylake's migration to DDR4 with a wider range of memory bandwidth options also clearly counts for something. Pair the i5 6500 with 3200MHz DDR4 and it moves ahead of a maxed 2500K - no overclocking required. The other thing to remember is that the i5 6500 is a 65W processor - we can safely assume that overclocking the 2500K (a 95W part even before we up processor speed) - will be a lot more energy intensive. Those extra five years of hardware improvement produce tangible boost in terms of both performance and efficiency.
As you can see in the video above, we also tested out the 2500K with a more realistic GPU pairing - we used Nvidia's GTX 970 (overclocked, of course) and AMD's R9 390 instead of Titan X, which does make the GPU much more of a limiting factor in general gameplay. It's at this point where minimum frame-rates and the momentary stutter caused by the CPU should be the focus. Our gameplay tests in preparation for this article were more extensive that the benchmarks and pinpointed areas where CPU limitations can kill gameplay - The Village section in Rise of the Tomb Raider, for example, or (once again) The Witcher 3's Novigrad City. The lush foliage in the Welcome to the Jungle Stage in Crysis 3 is clearly CPU-bound, as is a Project Cars race with the amount of available CPU cars ramped up to the max. The tricked-out 2500K copes admirably for the most part, but in many cases it does take an overclocked Skylake to reduce stutter and keep frame-rates stable above 60fps. It may well be isolated scenarios that cause the 2500K to trip up, but it can happen - and there are scenarios where AMD's higher driver overhead can have an impact too. Generally speaking, an overclocked Skylake quad-core chip can power you past those issues.
So in that scenario, is there any alternative to buying a whole new PC set-up? Well, the Sandy Bridge Intel architecture runs on socket 1155 motherboards, and there is an upgrade path there to its successor, Ivy Bridge. You won't see much of a boost by swapping a 2500K for a 3570K, but the Core i7 3770K is an intriguing option. You'll get the benefit of an incremental leap in CPU power along with hyper-threading, giving eight available threads to games compared to the four available with an i5. Virtually every triple-A title released these days uses all every thread of an i7 - and that makes the 3770K potentially very interesting.
|Titan X OC (Average FPS)||i5 2500K OC/ 2133MHz DDR3||i7 3770K/ 1600MHz DDR3||i7 3770K 4.4GHz/ 1600MHz DDR3||i7 3770K 4.4GHz/ 2133MHz DDR3||i7 3770K 4.4GHz/ 2400MHz DDR3||i5 6500 4.5GHz/ 3200MHz DDR4|
|The Witcher 3, Ultra, HairWorks Off, Custom AA||86.4||91.9||94.6||99.1||101.0||110.3|
|Battlefield 4, Ultra, 4x MSAA||110.2||120.0||126.7||123.7||125.0||128.9|
|Crysis 3, Very High, SMAA||108.3||112.0||116.7||117.2||117.5||120.9|
|Grand Theft Auto 5, Ultra, no MSAA||67.7||60.9||66.7||71.2||74.2||84.6|
|Far Cry 4, Ultra, SMAA||99.9||82.6||91.9||100.2||104.6||121.2|
We could only overclock our Core i7 3770K to 4.4GHz - to push further required a big boost to voltage and some frankly immense temperatures - something we couldn't accommodate with our chosen heatsink and fan, the Cooler Master Hyper 212 Evo. It's well known that Intel used a lower grade thermal interface in Ivy Bridge, limiting overclocks, which may well be the causal factor here. But regardless, the results in moving to the Core i7 3770K can be startling in certain cases. In three out of five games, the Core i7 3770K manages to beat our fully maxed 2500K - even at stock frequencies and with slower 1600MHz DDR3. These results won't be achieved with pure architectural improvements alone, it's almost certain that it is the Core i7's eight hardware threads that are making a genuine difference here. Once we scale up processor speed and memory bandwidth, the i7 truly begins to flex its power.
The frame-rate averages perhaps don't look spectacular, but the minimum recorded frame-rates are well worth a look. Only one title - the obscenely profligate GTA 5 - fails to hit a minimum 60fps, a situation easily remedied by not pushing the advanced distance detail setting to the max. Elsewhere, we see The Witcher 3's minimum performance level gain 17 per cent, Far Cry 4 rises by 20 per cent while Battlefield 4 and Crysis 3 gain 31 per cent and 45 per cent respectively. That's not bad at all considering that we have actually lost 200MHz in raw clock-speed compared our maxed Core i5 2500K.
So that's the theoreticals with the Titan X covered off - but once we move into more practical testing with the overclocked GTX 970 and the Radeon R9 390, there are still noticeable improvements. The most obvious comes from Crysis 3, which in terms of stutter and hitching, sees a vast, night and day improvement over the Core i5. In fact, the 3770K is right up there with an overclocked Skylake i5 at 4.5GHz - remarkable stuff. Stutter in the bizarrely sub-optimal Village scene in Rise of the Tomb Raider is dispatched with the GTX 970, and frame-time spikes we saw with the R9 390 owing to the AMD driver overhead are significantly reduced too. The improvement is somewhat more muted in our Witcher 3 CPU stress test, where the GTX 970 imposes much more of a ceiling on performance compared to Titan X, but the baseline improvement is still there.
It may all look rosy at this point, but there is an outlier or two. Our Project Cars CPU test saw virtually no difference between the maxed 2500K and the tapped out 3770K - it took the overclocked Skylake to offer any kind of meaningful performance boost. Also curious is Assassin's Creed Unity: previously, we've seen how performance degrades by moving from a quad-core i7 to the octo-core 5960X. Well, the overclocked 2500K beats the maxed 3770K here by around eight per cent.
There are some scenarios where an overclocked Core i7 3770K will lag noticeably behind modern Skylake processors (Crysis 3 on the 6700K easily bests the 3770K with a 20fps leap in minimum frame-rate - and that was tested with 2666MHz DDR4, not the "good stuff") but overall it's good to see that there is still a viable upgrade path available to 2500K owners. Crysis 3 aside, you won't see a revelatory boost to general performance in most titles, but in areas where your CPU is truly struggling, there is an appreciable lift that makes for smoother, better gaming.
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Is it finally time to upgrade your Core i5 2500K?
Five years on, the 2500K is indeed still a perfectly viable choice for most triple-A titles if 60fps is your specific target, though to power the likes of the GTX 970 and the R9 390, overclocking is mandatory in order to avoid stutter. We topped out at 4.6GHz on our chip with comfortable temperatures and feel confident that many users can push on to 4.8GHz, depending on how lucky they've been in the so-called 'silicon lottery' (not every chip can overclock to the same degree). Now, the chances are that many of you who own the chip will have already pushed the envelope in terms of overclocking - our best advice here is to consider faster memory as a potential route forward, though do check that your motherboard will actually support it.Can a £300 PC match PlayStation 4 performance? Digital Foundry builds and tests its own budget build.
The raw boost to performance in overclocking a 2500K system is quite remarkable, and it's no mistake that this processor has such a dedicated legion of fans. A stock 2500K paired with slow memory slugs it out with a modern dual-core i3, but once the veteran system has been pushed to its limits, performance is very closely matched to a modern Core i5 6500 - a much more efficient, leaner processor, but still a creditable performer overall that works well with most modern games. And if that level of performance still isn't quite good enough, it's good to know that further options are available: a socket 1155 system can support a Core i7 3770K, and with the vast majority of the latest games using all eight threads, the uplift is palpable where you need it most - in delivering improved minimum in-game frame-rates. Also worth considering is the upcoming arrival of the next-gen DirectX 12 and Vulkan graphics APIs: both of them are designed to scale over multiple threads, again giving an i7 a theoretical advantage.
Of course, there is a ceiling to performance using an older processor - overclock a Skylake i7 and you'll push on to a new tier of CPU power, but we suspect that in many titles, it will require a dual-GPU set-up to make the most of that. But in the meantime, pushing the Core i5 2500K to it limits, or upgrading to a more recent i7 is a perfectly viable option in extending the life of your system - even if it does mean trading away a certain degree of energy efficiency. In an age where consumer technology barely lasts a year or two, the fact that older CPUs can still produce great results when paired with more modern graphics kit can only be a good thing for those looking to get maximum value from their gaming hardware.