How Many Cores for Gaming

Whenever you’re purchasing computer games, one of the first thing you check is if your gaming computer has the required hardware to run it. Focusing on processors, a quick check of NBA 2k19’s system requirements show that at the minimum, a dual core Intel Core I3 530 is needed to run the game. We all know what minimum means, low frames per second and few eye candies.

Gamers looks to at least have recommended requirements, in this case a quad core Intel Core i5-4430, to maximize gaming experience. Dual core for minimum settings and a quad core for recommended settings. This alone shows the importance of core counts computer gaming.

But games are more GPU intensive unlike some productivity applications that are CPU intensive. It follows that core count is important for these applications. Video encoding for example requires a quad core CPU. But if games are GPU reliant, is CPU core count really important? If so, then how many cores for gaming?

What is a CPU core?

Let's clarify first what is a CPU and what is a core.

A core is the processing unit that receives tasks like instructions and calculations. These tasks are usually software processes that the operating system (e.g. Windows or Linux) schedules.

A central processing unit or CPU is also called the processor is a combination of one or more 'cores'.

A Processor “package” is physical casing in which one or more CPUs are contained. The pinout from the package is what allows the processor to interface with the motherboard and the rest of the system.

A processor can have a single core or multiple cores. A processor with two cores is called a dual-core processor and four cores is called a quad-core processor. In most cases, more processor cores means better computing performance.Some newer processors boast of 32 cores with future iterations promising more core counts.

Dual Core vs Quad Core: Performance 

In simple terms, a dual core processor has two processing units inside, while quad core has two.

cpu core

A dual core processor can run 2 tasks in parallel while a quad core processor can run 4 tasks in parallel. Imagine a two lane highway compared to a 4 lane highway. More cars can travel on a four lane highway compared to a dual lane highway.

With all things equal, more cores usually means better performance due to simultaneous running of applications. But computing power relies on many factors aside from core count. Let’s take a quad core Intel Pentium 4 2.60 Ghz and a dual core Pentium G4560.

The dual core Pentium G4560 is wipes out the Pentium 4 in performance. It’s like having Godzilla fight Japan. Godzilla wins every damn time.

Aside from a higher operating core frequency - 3.5Ghz vs 2.60Ghz. The Pentium G4560 is equipped with Hyper-threading. This means that although the G4560 only has two physical processing cores, it is able to process four threads in parallel by sharing resources between the physical cores. This typically results in a 50% performance improvement over two physical cores alone.

What’s Hyper-threading? Read on.

Logical Cores vs Physical Cores (Hyper-threading)

A Physical core or CPU is the actual hardware computing core component. Each physical core has its own circuitry and can read and execute instructions separately from the other physical cores on the chip.

hyper threading

A logical core is like a virtual physical core, it is not an actual physical entity. It is a processing unit that is capable of executing its own thread in parallel with other logical cores.

Threads are more or less like processes and consists of data groups from a program being processed by a computer. Each application generates its own one or many threads depending upon how it is running. A simple mundane task like opening a web browser generates many threads. One core, be it physical or logical, can only handle one thread at a time.

When there are applications running at the same time, a single physical core processor “multitasks” rapidly switches between the threads to process the data. If the processor is fast enough, the applications seems to be processed all at the same time. It’s like having The Flash do the laundry, cooking, cleaning and lawn mowing when he is not on super hero duty. He can only do one task at a time, but since he is super fast it’s like he’s doing everything at the same time.

Hyper-threading is where the processor pretends to have 2 physical processor cores instead one. A single physical core with hyper-threading appears as two logical cores to an operating system. The processor can now process 2 different threads at the same time thus more work is done at a shorter time. But since these logical cores, they ultimately share a common hardware component like cache memory. So when both needs to use the cache, one logical core ends waits while the other logical core uses the cache memory.

Core Numbers Don’t Mean Everything

Now back to the question, how many cores for gaming? Do get me wrong, core count matters a lot. It is particularly beneficial when you have software that is written to take advantage of multiple cores. and if you have a sufficiently taxing workload.

Modern quad core CPUs with 8 logical processors is a very powerful hardware for an average user. Most of the time, it’s hard utilize its full potential.

The 8 logical cores can process data at blazing fast speeds. Coupled with ultra fast CPU cache memories, the processor can churn out commands so fast that the other system hardware can’t cope up (I’m looking at you RAM). Therefore, CPU couldn't reach 100% utilization in most cases.

Most modern AAA games are made to be GPU intensive although certain game scenarios can get really CPU intensive.

For instance, Massive Multiplayer Online (MMO) games, can be especially taxing on your processor during large battles where multiple characters are present. First person shooters can also maximize the CPU in multiplayer battles where there are a lot of other players.

Be Careful With Bottlenecking

How many cores for gaming. Is 8 cores too much for modern gaming? You can’t have to much, right? But even if you have a blazing fast CPU you should consider looking at the other components.

careful with bottlenecking

As I mentioned, some of the system components can’t cope up with a fast and power so fast that other system components can’t cope up.  Slow Memory Sticks or RAM and hard disks are the common bottlenecks as well as a sub par GPU.

Now let’s flip the script and say you have an old dual core CPU. The CPU would now have trouble keeping up with other hardware during games resulting in low frame rates. Remember those stop motion clay cartoons? No gamer wants to have that kind of gaming experience.

In a scenario where the GPU is the bottleneck, you can improve the frame rates just by lowering game settings.

Removing some eye candies will greatly improve game speed. It’s a bit harder to reduce the effect of a CPU bottleneck since most game settings are graphical in nature. A few settings like viewing distance can help a little in reducing the CPU load.

Wrapping Up

How many cores for gaming is needed for a good and balanced build?

Going back to the Intel Pentium 4 2.60 Ghz and a dual core Pentium G4560 comparison.

The dual core Pentium G4560 aces the Pentium 4 in performance primarily due to a higher operating core frequency - 3.5Ghz vs 2.60Ghz. It is important to note that single thread performance is very critical to gaming performance. A CPU with more but slower core speeds will usually be beaten by a CPU with less but faster cores.

If you have cash to burn, then by all means splurge on everything. But if are on a budget and you want a balanced gaming computer, it would be better to spend more on the CPU rather than the GPU. As previously mentioned, simply turning down graphical settings can alleviate a GPU bottleneck, it’s not so simple for CPU bottlenecks. Also, more is not really better when it comes to core count since faster core speeds trumps core count.

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