Should you upgrade to Intel’s new Skylake?

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Skylake

Yesterday saw the official unveiling of Intel’s new Skylake-based processors and the plethora of associated motherboards made for the new chipset. It’s an appealing time to look towards upgrading, because you’re a PC gamer and that’s what PC gamers do. You may want to stay your credit card for a bit.

According to reviews, Skylake hasn’t brought with it a particularly compelling performance boost, even to those still rocking the four-year old Sandy Bridge tech. If you’ve got an i7 2600K, you’re still good (especially if you’ve clocked it up to 4Ghz).

With reviews out in the wild, it’s clear that Skylake hasn’t brought the performance benefits that many were hoping for. While it’s undoubtedly the best processor available if you’re looking to buy a brand new computer, it doesn’t make for a compelling enough reason to upgrade from Haswell (or Broadwall) or even Sandy Bridge if raw computer performance is your main draw card.

Says Andandtech:

Overall, Skylake is not an earth shattering leap in performance. In our IPC testing, with CPUs at 3 GHz, we saw a 5.7% increase in performance over a Haswell processor at the same clockspeed and ~ 25% gains over Sandy Bridge. That 5.7% value masks the fact that between Haswell and Skylake, we have Broadwell, marking a 5.7% increase for a two generation gap.

Where Skylake (and the related Z170 chipste) do offer stark performances increases is in I/O bandwidth, and much faster storage options.

From Techreport:

What should we make of these results? If you’ve been nursing along a system based on a Sandy Bridge processor like the Core i5-2500K or Core i7-2600K, then perhaps Skylake has enough to offer to prompt an upgrade. Cumulatively, Intel has made quite a bit of progress in the past several years—and the Skylake platform with the Z170 chipset is a considerable upgrade in terms of I/O bandwidth, too. Those motherboards bristle with storage options and high-speed USB ports and such. So there’s that.

They conclude though, that if your primary focus is gaming, there’s not a whole lot to make you want to upgrade.

What’s jarring about our gaming results is that the Sandy Bridge-based 2600K remains a very competent processor for running the current PC games we tested. You’ll probably want to avoid thinking about that fact when it comes time to pull out the credit card.

Z170A27

In fact, According to Anandtech you may even see worse gaming performance from Skylake. Marginal, completely negligible drops, but drops nonetheless.

There’s no easy way to write this.
Discrete graphics card performance decreases on Skylake over Haswell.

This doesn’t particularly make much sense at first glance. Here we have a processor with a higher IPC than Haswell but it performs worse in both DDR3 and DDR4 modes. The amount by which it performs worse is actually relatively minor, usually -3% with the odd benchmark (GRID on R7 240) going as low as -5%. Why does this happen at all?

So we passed our results on to Intel, as well as a few respected colleagues in the industry, all of whom were quite surprised. During a benchmark, the CPU performs tasks and directs memory transfers through the PCIe bus and vice versa. Technically, the CPU tasks should complete quicker due to the IPC and the improved threading topology, so that only leaves the PCIe to DRAM via CPU transfers.

Our best guess, until we get to IDF to analyze what has been changed or a direct explanation from Intel, is that part of the FIFO buffer arrangement between the CPU and PCIe might have changed with a hint of additional latency. That being said, a minor increase in PCIe overhead (or a decrease in latency/bandwidth) should be masked by the workload, so there might be something more fundamental at play, such as bus requests being accidentally duplicated or resent due to signal breakdown. There might also be a tertiary answer of an internal bus not running at full speed. To be sure, we rested some benchmarks on a different i7-6700K and a different motherboard, but saw the same effect. We’ll see how this plays out on the full-speed tests.

Where Skylake and the Z170 do offer improvements is in memory scaling, and with the right DDR4 memory, you could see appreciable benefits far beyond what this initial set of reviews shows. Skylake CPU’s also offer far better integrated graphics – and once DirectX 12 starts allowing us to use those in tandem with out discrete graphics cards, Skylake’s gaming benefits should be more pronounced.

In their reviews, Ars Technica sums it up nicely.

Overall, despite not living up to lofty expectations, Skylake is an improvement over Haswell in every way. In some cases it’s only a small difference, in other cases it’s more noticeable.

There’s no doubt that in terms of single and multithreaded and performance, Intel’s Core i7-6700K is the best quad-core chip on the market. In a high-end consumer PC, particularly for gaming, there’s nothing better. If you’re shopping for a new desktop PC, get one with a Skylake chip.

If you are buying a new PC, Skylake is the way to go for now (we await AMD’s Zen with bated breath) – but if you’re planning on upgrading for the purposes of playing video games, you might want to spend that money on a GPU instead. While it’s the best platform available, the initial outlay cost is why it’s not a particularly appealing upgrade path right now. Not only will you need to buy the CPU (uh!), but also a new board, and very likely some new DDR4 memory.

Checking the pricing at our friends at Evetech, the Core i7 6700K will set you back R5499, while the i5600K will cost R3999. It’s worth noting that neither of these new chips come with a cooler, so you’ll have to buy one of those separately. Z170-based boards will cost you anywhere from R2199, all the way up to R6999, while DDR4 memory will set you back R699 for 4GB, and R1299 for 8GB. The minimum cost then, to upgrade, will be R6897 with just 4GB of RAM. That’s one heck of an outlay for what translates to a performance bump of less than 10%.

Last Updated: August 6, 2015

Geoffrey Tim

Editor. I'm old, grumpy and more than just a little cynical. One day, I found myself in possession of a NES, and a copy of Super Mario Bros 3. It was that game that made me realise that games were more than just toys to idly while away time - they were capable of being masterpieces. I'm here now, looking for more of those masterpieces.

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