Summary: With its brand new microarchitecture, Intel's Core 2 CPU breezed through all our benchmarks, outperforming AMD's latest Athlon 64 FX-62 by a pretty wide margin in the process. But as blazing as Core 2's performance was, what if we told you we could make it run faster without technically overclocking the CPU. Sound interesting? Join us, as we now explore Core 2's performance with faster memory and lower timings. What kind of an impact would running DDR2 modules at 1,066MHz have on performance? Only one way to find out!
In our testing we found that Intel’s new processors had no problem outperforming AMD’s flagship Athlon 64 FX-62, in some cases by percentages as high as 28% at 1600x1200 in gaming, while DivX conversion was almost two minutes faster for the Core 2 Extreme X6800 versus Athlon 64 FX-62. If you didn’t see our Core 2 performance article, you’ll definitely want to check it out if only to see how well single card and dual-GPU CrossFire configurations scale across a variety of resolutions.
But as promising as those performance results were, what if we were to tell you that those numbers were only a baseline, and that with a little bit of tweaking, a Core 2 system can run even faster than the benchmarks we presented you with on Friday? Guess what folks, it’s not only possible, we’re going to show you how and what kind of performance results you can expect as a result in today’s article!
Quest for more performance issue 1: the memory
The number one issue holding back the performance of the Core 2 systems we tested last week was without a doubt the memory subsystem, more particularly, when it comes to system memory.
With DDR2-1066 providing over 6GB/sec of additional bandwidth over DDR2-667, that should be more than enough to keep Core 2 and its 1,066MHz bus fed with data. In order to hit that kind of speed though, you’re going to need the right kind of memory. That’s why we decided to go with Cosair’s TWIN2X2048-6400 memory modules. To the best of our knowledge, these are the only DDR2 modules currently available on the market that provide CAS3 latency and fast memory timings at 800MHz. We wanted to test how latency affects performance, so this made the Corsair modules the perfect choice, plus we’ve heard reports that these modules are pretty good at hitting speeds of 1,066MHz as long as you aren’t too aggressive with the timings.
Now that we’ve got the right memory modules, we need a motherboard that’s going to take us to the right memory speeds. This brings us to issue #2: motherboards.
Quest for more performance issue 2: the motherboard
Already we’ve received high-end motherboards from both ASUS and Gigabyte – the P5W DH Deluxe and P5B Deluxe from ASUS and Gigabyte’s GA-965P-DQ6 – all three motherboards offer a ton of features that are not only going to appeal to those of you that just want to squeeze a little more performance out of your system, but also anyone looking to build a silent or near silent system: neither motherboard requires a chipset fan, instead they utilize heat pipe technology for cooling.
The good part though is that the BIOS for all of these motherboards provide the proper memory multipliers to run the system’s DDR2 memory at 1,066MHz; options of 533MHz, 667MHz, 711MHz, 800MHz, 889MHz, and 1066 are available, and of course asynchronous operation is easy to setup and works perfectly, so you can run the FSB and memory bus at different speeds. Both ASUS and Gigabyte’s motherboards also have special BIOS settings that you can enable to tweak performance even further, but these are their own proprietary techniques to boost performance and go outside the focus of this article, which is focused on boosting the memory bus to improve performance.
With the right motherboard and memory modules in hand, we’ve now got all the ingredients we need to start testing Core 2 at higher memory speeds. Let’s get started!
LAME MT MP3 Encoding (MS Compiler)
Over the course of the following pages, you’re going to see lots of different system configurations covering a wide range of benchmarks. The graphs are going to look a little crowded because we tested 11 different CPU/memory speed and timing combinations. Here’s what it all means:
Microsoft Windows Media Encoder 9
LAME MT MP3 Encoding
Going from DDR2-667 CAS5 to DDR2-1066 CAS5 slashed eight seconds off our encode time for both Core 2 Duo and Core 2 Extreme. Adjusting memory timings also played tangible dividends, going from CAS 5 DDR2-800 to CAS3 modules cut encode time by six seconds for the Core 2 Duo, while DDR2-800’s performance improved by four seconds for Core 2 Extreme. In fact, the lower latency DDR2-800 modules were faster at encoding than the higher latency DDR2-1066 modules. We saw nice improvements in DivX conversion as well, although MP3 encoding is probably close enough to be within the margin of error.
While we see slight gains in 3DMark 06, the results are really nothing to write home about. This isn’t too surprising though considering the nature of 3DMark.
In F.E.A.R. we see very slight gains when upgrading from the default DDR2-667 to faster DDR2 modules, each speed grade bump bought us about 1% in performance on average.
In Quake 4 we see an improvement of 3% going from your typical stock DDR2-667 CAS5 setup to DDR2-800 CAS5 for the Core 2 Duo, and 4% for Core 2 Extreme. Going from DDR2-667 to DDR2-1066 bought us an additional 8% for the Extreme CPU and 6% for the Core 2 Duo. We also saw a nice speedup when moving from CAS 5 DDR2-667 to CAS 3 memory, 3% in the case of the Core 2 Duo while the Core 2 Extreme’s performance improved by 2% with the use of DDR2-800.
Lock On: Modern Air Combat
After seeing our results in Pacific Fighters in the original Core 2 performance article, we decided to substitute Call of Duty 2 for a second flight sim, in this case, LOMAC. LOMAC is a pretty graphically-intensive game on top of being CPU-dependent, as you can see by the lower frame rates.
Like Quake 4 we see some gains from the faster memory subsystem in Pacific Fighters. Going from DDR2-667 to DDR2-800 bought us an additional 2% in performance for both Core 2 Duo, and Core 2 Extreme. Transitioning up to DDR2-1066 from DDR2-800 also improved performance by 2% for both processors. Surprisingly, we even see slight gains at 1600x1200 for both CPUs as well.
Oblivion doesn’t seem to benefit from the faster DDR2-800 or even DDR2-1066 memory. The results are pretty similar regardless of the memory settings used, whether we’re in the city filled with NPCs or out in the mountains checking out the countryside.
Valve’s Half-Life 2 Lost Coast is another app that takes advantage of the faster DDR2 memory. Performance is up 3% for Core 2 Duo when going from DDR2-667 CAS5 to DDR2-800 CAS5, while the Extreme’s performance is up by 4%. The Core 2 Extreme and Core 2 Duo’s performance improves by another 4% when transitioning from DDR2-800 CAS5 to DDR2-1066 CAS5. The cumulative effect is an 8% improvement in performance from DDR2-667 to DDR2-1066 for Core 2 Extreme and 6% for Core 2 Duo (with its higher clock speed, it shouldn’t be too surprising to see the margin greater for Core 2 Extreme).
Not surprisingly the only SiSoft Sandra test that shows a clear performance benefit from the faster DDR2 memory are the memory bandwidth tests. Sandra’s memory tests actually show double-digit gains when going from DDR2-667 to DDR2-1066.
When running two Radeon X1900 cards in CrossFire mode, Oblivion’s performance still doesn’t scale as you add faster memory based on our results.
When running CrossFire at 1600x1200 with 4xAA/8xAF, we saw no real tangible gains from the faster memory modules with the first-person shooters we typically test with.
We saw nice gains in our video encoding and DivX conversion tests; and we’re only dealing with a 165MB 720p video, the time saved would be even greater for a larger file.
In our gaming tests, the results were a little more mixed. In games like Quake 4, Pacific Fighters, and Half-Life 2 Lost Coast we saw gains ranging anywhere from 2-4% when going from DDR2-667 to DDR2-800, with the cumulative effect of going from DDR2-667 to DDR2-1066 in the high single-digits. In F.E.A.R. the DDR2-800 barely registered more than a 1% increase over DDR2-667, while Oblivion and Lock On: Modern Air Combat saw no performance improvement at all.
Based on the data provided in this article you can hopefully plan your upgrade accordingly if you’re tempted to pick up a Core 2 processor when they go on sale later this month. If you’re into video encoding/conversion the faster memory could definitely come in handy, especially if you’re dealing with larger files. Our tests also revealed that lower memory timings can also reap significant performance dividends.
For gamers who are into overclocking, picking up faster memory modules would probably be a good idea if you can afford it. While you won’t see performance gains at 1600x1200 with the image quality settings cranked up and the AA/AF turned on (with the exception of Pacific Fighters), buying faster memory should come in handy when you’re overclocking. Typically the premium memory modules scale to higher clock frequencies than the generic modules, and with lower timings as well. In theory, as you hit higher clock speeds with your overclock, memory bandwidth is going to be increasingly important as well. And besides, clearly the third-party 975X motherboards can handle the higher memory speeds (even though technically it is considered overclocking) and there’s a wealth of DDR2-800 and DDR2-1066 modules out there from high-end memory manufacturers like Corsair and OCZ, and they’re selling for lower prices everyday.
If you’re a more casual gamer and you don’t plan to overclock your system, clearly you should stick to regular DDR2-667, as the performance benefits we mentioned above won’t apply to you once you crank up the graphics settings in your games, and you can save a little money in the process that you can put towards something else.
Taking Core 2 to new performance heights isn’t tough if you’ve got the right components. In fact, based on the overclocking reports that are out there so far, Core 2 seems like Intel was a little conservative on more than just the memory speeds. We’ll be exploring that next…
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