Intel has long since run away from chip rival AMD in the field of high-end performance CPUs. The company’s current 6th-Generation Core “Skylake” flagship, the Core i7-6700KAMD FX-9590 and AMD FX-8370Core i5-6600K.
But down toward the other end of the spectrum, where value matters more than absolute performance, things get a bit more complicated—especially for those interested in gaming. Due largely to the fact that modern consoles have multiple addressable cores, we’re seeing a growing number of AAA game titles that prefer, or in some cases even require, four cores (or four addressable threads) to run. Intel’s lowest-price current-generation chips (such as the $65 Pentium G4400) have just two cores, and they lack the company’s Hyper-Threading technology, which allows each core to handle two processing threads. This makes these chips poor choices for gamers, as we expect more high-profile titles to require more than two threads going forward.
AMD, meanwhile, has several fairly affordable chips that have both four cores and integrated on-chip graphics that outperform the HD 530 graphics found on most of Intel’s mainstream desktop processors. These AMD chips (the company calls them “APUs”) include the recent $115 AMD A10-7860K, and the flagship (roughly $180) A10-7890K. (We’re working on reviews of both those chips, and we’ve included them in our benchmarks on the next page.) And for gamers who intend to include a dedicated graphics card, AMD’s Athlon X4 880K is perhaps most appealing, thanks to its four cores, high clock speed, and sub-$100 price. You’ll definitely need dedicated graphics with that chip, however, as it lacks integrated graphics altogether. But that’s what makes it a winner: It doesn’t make you pay for a piece of silicon you won’t use in the form of integrated graphics.
With all those AMD options, we of course wanted to see how Intel’s latest entry-level, gaming-friendly chip stacked up. So we asked the company to send us the Core i3-6100 for testing. It’s an impressively clocked part, running at 3.7GHz, with two cores and Hyper-Threading. So it’s ready and able to run any modern game. And its HD 530 graphics is the same kind found on much pricier “Skylake” Core i5 and i7 parts. But the Core i3-6100 lacks those chips’ variable clock-speed Turbo Boost feature, and it’s not unlocked for overclocking. So you’ll have to be happy running at 3.7GHz.
The Core i3-6100 is a fine and surprisingly powerful chip for general computing and serious gaming (provided you’ll be using a dedicated graphics card), but cash-strapped builders who also need to buy a motherboard may want to opt for an AMD chip instead. The Athlon X4 880K costs about $30 less than the $125 Core i3-6100, and the stepped-down Athlon X4 860K can be found as low as $75. Gamers looking for the smoothest frame rates would be better off investing that $30 to $50 in a graphics card, rather than a CPU.
Features Skylake Basics
We’ve covered in detail the feature advancements of Intel’s now-familiar “Skylake” platform, as well as the Core i3-6100’s LGA 1151 socket, and the various 100-family chipsets (the high-end Z170 in particular), in previous reviews. If you need to catch up, or you just need a refresher, we’d strongly suggest checking out the second page of our Intel Core i7-6700K review.
Rather than rattle off a full list of the Core i3-6100’s specs and how it compares to higher-end Intel Core offerings, here’s a chart direct from Intel that summarizes the line.
As you can see, the Core i3-6100 sits on the current bottom end of Intel’s 6th-Generation “Core” chip stack. There are two slightly higher-clocked Core i3 chips available, as well. But the Core i3-6100 is arguably the best value, with a 3.7GHz clock speed and integrated HD 530 graphics that are just slightly (by 100MHz) down-clocked compared to its much-costlier counterparts.
The other notable detail in the chart above is that Intel’s Core i3 chips are rated at 47 watts, while AMD’s high-end APUs (and the Athlon X4 880K) are rated at 95 watts. While TDP (thermal design power, a measurement of heat output) generally doesn’t translate to exact power consumption numbers, it’s clear that Intel’s CPUs still have a huge advantage when it comes to performance per watt. As we’ll see, the Core i3 chip generally outperforms AMD’s competing chips on most CPU-specific tasks. If electricity is expensive where you live, that may be reason enough to opt for an Intel chip over AMD, though if you’re going to add a high-end graphics card in your system as well, it will consume much more power when gaming than any one of these processors.
Also note that, like the Core i7-6700K, this chip requires a new motherboard with an LGA 1151 socket. You can’t drop it into an existing Z97- or H97-chipset motherboard. And you likely won’t be able to carry over old RAM, either, as most new Intel-based boards require DDR4. We’ve been quite impressed with the new features that have landed on many of the new LGA 1551-equipped Z170 motherboards. Most of the new features have to do with extremely speedy storage via PCI Express x4 M.2 SSD slots and ports for USB 3.1 Gen 2, which doubles the theoretical bandwidth over USB 3.0. (See our comprehensive primer on USB 3.1.) For details about these new features and others, be sure to check out our review of the MSI Z170A Gaming M5, a sub-$200 board that delivers some of the best of what the new Z170 boards have to offer.
But, as we noted in our review of the Athlon X4 880K, some recent AMD-based Socket FM2+-based boards also offer many of these features, among them USB 3.1 and M.2 storage slots. And AMD boards are generally more affordable than Intel-based options. That’s another notch in AMD’s favor if you’re building a system from scratch and price is your first, second, and third concern.
That being said, if you’re planning on building a tricked-out PC with more than two graphics cards and multiple M.2 drives, Intel’s Z170 chipset is definitely more advanced, and it offers more bandwidth (via PCI Express 3.0 lanes) than AMD’s aging high-end FM2+ A88X chipset. So if loads of high-end components are in the cards for your next build, we’d definitely go the Intel route.