Intel’s Skylake-X platform launched this week, with support for Kaby Lake and Skylake HEDT CPUs ranging from 10-core chips available on June 26 to an 18-core processor that’ll be available in October. We’re still working on our review, but the overall performance level of the new CPUs looks fairly solid. There’s one important thing to keep in mind, however: High core count CPUs, generally speaking, are not the best gaming chips you can buy.
That’s the conclusion PC Gamer came to during their work testing the new Skylake-X, and it’s a conclusion we’d generally agree with based on our tests of previous Intel CPUs. It’s not that you can’t game on HEDT chips — in fact, we’ve seen great results from both Ryzen 7 and the Core i7-6900K so far this year. But these cores are fundamentally designed to be workstation products and aren’t solely focused on gaming.
Here’s the basic issue: Jump back 10 years, and you’ll find plenty of multi-threaded software. But most of it was confined to professional markets rather than focusing on the consumer space. Consumer software that was multithreaded, meanwhile, tended to be dual-threaded or quad-threaded at most. If professional applications like Maya, 3ds Max, HPC software, and video rendering workloads have tended to be at the forefront of adopting multi-core support, games have lagged behind by a significant margin.
Many titles now support quad cores readily enough, but scaling above that point has been anemic, for several reasons. First, game developers tend to optimize for the most common usage scenarios, and most laptops are still dual-core systems. In fact, the split on Steam shows that while quad-core chips have a small advantage overall, a huge chunk of the market is still on two physical CPUs (some of these will be Hyper-Threading-capable Core i3s, but not all of them).
It’s long been known that game developers optimize software for a wide range of GPUs, to ensure that games can run properly on the largest amount of hardware possible. But optimizing for CPUs is important, too. With AMD now offering six-core / 12-thread chips far below Intel’s price points and quad-core / eight-thread chips for ~$ 169, we should start to see more support for these additional threads, but it’s going to be a slow ramp.
That’s not to say there aren’t benefits to running more CPU cores that aren’t necessarily picked up in gaming benchmarks. I recently moved and spent several weeks using a dual-core + HT laptop as my daily driver rather than my six-core desktop. While it’s true that the laptop handled almost everything with aplomb, there were definitely times when I had to alt-tab out of a game or intensive program to kill apps that were stealing CPU cycles and slowing the machine down in ways that simply weren’t a problem on my more powerful desktop. There can be a benefit to running higher core counts, even if you aren’t using them all for gaming — they help you juggle other tasks simultaneously.
But that said, we’d still recommend striking a balance between higher clock speeds and thread counts if you want to game, as opposed to leaping for the most expensive HCC processors on the market. Don’t assume that more cores always equals faster performance — and given the relatively slow rate at which games have added additional core support, don’t count on this suddenly changing in the next few years. DirectX 12 does offer some unique options for taking advantage of additional CPU resources, but it’s still going to be a few years before we see games targeting that API (and its capabilities) as a primary focus. DX11 and DX9 support have a large market presence and that’ll take time to replace.