A while back, we benchmarked the entire range of Haswell processors to come up with some recommendations on the best CPUs for serious gamers. As the year 2015 comes to a close, and Intel's Haswell line is slowly replaced by its Skylake line, we thought it would be fun to take another look at Intel's processors, this time with a focus on the casual gamer, specifically those using ultra-compact mini-ITX cases. Do Intel's inexpensive Haswell-based Pentium G3258 and Core i3-4170, or its new Skylake-based Core i3-6100, cut it for gaming using just their built-in video chips? At around $70 for the Pentium and $120-$130 for the Core i3 models, these chips represent the very best bargains in the entire Intel lineup, and actually make great CPUs for general-purpose home office PCs. Since so many people have this class of hardware sitting at their desk, there's a large segment of the market that might benefit from their gaming capabilities.
By the way, we know that AMD markets some serious challengers to Intel at the low-end in the form of their APUs, but given that we didn't have an AMD platform to test with, we couldn't include them in this test. Furthermore, due to the very low-wattage power supply used in our pint-sized test system, they likely would have exceeded the power limits anyway.
The system we used for our Haswell benchmarking had the following specs:
- CPU #1: Intel Pentium G3258 3.2GHZ Dual-Core Processor
- CPU #2: Intel Core i3-4170 3.7GHz Dual-Core Processor
- Motherboard: MSI H81I ITX Motherboard
- RAM: Crucial Low-Profile Ballistix Sport 2x4GB DDR3-1600
- SSD: Crucial BX 100 120GB Solid-State Drive
- Case: Antec ISK110-VESA, using included 90W power supply
- Operating System: Windows 10
To learn more about this system, check out our Guide to Assembling a Mini-ITX Bookshelf PC. As most enthusiasts probably already know, the Pentium G3258 isn't your average Pentium. To celebrate the 20th Anniversary of the Pentium sub-brand, Intel released the G3258 as an unlocked processor, meaning that it could be overclocked, just like the Pentium from the days of yore. Well, we couldn't pass up the opportunity to put the pedal to the metal, so we tested the G3258 both at its stock speed of 3.2GHz as well as an overclocked speed of 4.2GHz. The Core i3, however, cannot be overclocked, so it ran at 3.7GHz throughout our tests.
Now, there are a couple of other things to keep in mind with regard to the Pentium G3258's limitations. First, it uses a first-gen "Intel HD" graphics chip from the Sandy Bridge line of CPUs, whereas the Core i3 uses the Haswell HD 4400 chip. Second, the Pentium doesn't support DDR3-1600 memory. That's just one of the somewhat artificial limitations that Intel puts in place to differentiate its product lines. Therefore, we ran our memory at the maximum supported speed, 1400MHz, with timings of 8-8-8-24. Our Core i3, on the other hand, does support DDR3-1600 (but no higher), so we tested it at 1600MHz, also with timings of 8-8-8-24. To keep our CPUs fed with data, we ran two sticks of RAM, which enables dual-channel mode. Attempting to run built-in graphics on a single stick of RAM would be asking for trouble!
Here are the specs of our Skylake system:
- CPU: Intel Core i3-6100
- Motherboard: Asus Z170I Pro Gamer
- RAM: G.Skill 2x4GB RipJaws DDR4-3000
- Solid State Drive: Samsung 850 Evo M.2 500GB
- Case: Silverstone Raven RVZ02B-W
- Power Supply: Silverstone SX500-LG
- Optical Drive: Samsung Internal Slim DVD Burner
- Operating System: Windows 10
This system was very different from the Haswell build, but the components that truly matter in this test are comparable. You can read more about the case, power supply, SSD, and motherboard in our Guide to Assembling a High-End Mini-ITX Gaming PC. For this article, we installed a Core i3-6100 and 8GB of RAM to match our Haswell system. While we used high-end DDR4-3000 RAM, we tested it at two different settings: 3000MHz, as well as 2133MHz, the highest speed supported by the H110 and H170 chipsets comparable to the H81 we used for our Haswell CPUs. Boards using these chipsets are a better match price-wise to the Core i3-6100, and builders of budget gaming systems shouldn't have to spend big money on high-end Z170 motherboards, but as we found, they might want to. And to be clear, you could drop this system right into the tiny Antec case we used for our Haswell CPUs - in fact, this build used a little less power than the Core i3-4170 build, as we'll discuss later on.
One thing to keep in mind is that Intel has been working hard to improve its built-in graphics capabilities, even as its CPU performance has been stagnating. While each generation of Intel processors has seen CPU speed increase by 5-10%, graphics speed has typically jumped anywhere from 25% to 50% between generations. Now that's the kind of improvement enthusiasts can get excited about! Of course, Intel's graphics chips are still far behind discrete video cards based on Nvidia or AMD GPUs, so it will be interesting to see whether Intel's HD 530 graphics built into the Core i3-6100 actually provides playable performance.
We put together benchmarks in the following applications:
- 3DMark Sky Diver Benchmark
- 3DMark Fire Strike Benchmark
- Tomb Raider (2013)
- Grid AutoSport
Yes, this is a pretty limited set of tests, but we wanted to focus on games that could actually run on our test CPUs, so brand-new games were out of the question. We picked a few games that might be popular choices for gaming from the couch. And because just about everyone has a 1080p monitor at this point, whether on their desk or on their AV stand (i.e., an HDTV), we used that resolution in our tests. We'd say this might have been too much of a challenge for a couple of our little contenders...