GPU vs. CPU Upgrade: Extensive Tests

This is an endless topic of conversation, with everybody you meet having their own pet opinion. What brings better results, purchasing a faster graphics card, or investing your cash in a more powerful processor? In an effort to find out, Tom’s Hardware has taken a good look at the most important chips. In this article, the Geforce 6800 GT, 7950 GT, 8800 GT, 8800 GTS 512, 9600 GT 1024 and 9800 GTX are up for cross-testing in terms of performance comparisons, and pitted against current CPUs like the E2160, E6750, Q6600 and X6800EE.

gpu vs cpu

The results should clarify how much performance is obtained by upgrading the various components, as well as which combinations work best or are cheapest. It will also show us how high the basic performance level of the processor needs to be in order for the new G92 graphics chips from Nvidia to develop their full 3D speed potential. The comprehensive tables and performance analyses show clear results detailing the effects of a CPU upgrade on Geforce 6 and 7, and whether it might just be better to go for the new graphics card generation with DirectX 10.

The test platform used is based on an X38 chipset with DDR3 memory and PCI Express 2.0 interface, and remains identical for all of the individual tests. Generally speaking, only the graphics and CPU performance is changed for each run. In order to ensure that the E2160 and Q6600 are able to keep up with the other processors, two additional test runs have been performed in which the Front Side Bus (FSB) was overclocked by 33-34%. The test results indicate whether simply overclocking the small cache budget CPU is able to compensate for its initial performance deficit, and how much performance the quad core is able to pull from its reserves as a result of the increased frequencies.

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  • david__t
    Shock horror - video cards have a greater impact than CPUs overall on games! Matching your CPU to your GPU has been something that gamers have done for years to make sure that their graphics card was not hampered - since when has this ever been an "endless topic of conversation"? Its like asking whether a better clutch or bigger engine makes a car go faster or not - yes you need a decent clutch to put the power down, but that power comes from the engine. Come on THG - this is not up to your usual standard of asking interesting questions - if you want an endless topic of conversation, try the age old sync / async RAM operation issue.
  • ToTaL SHiT
    The overclock potential of a cpu is far greater then a gpu.
    The entry level cpu in a series have almost as much overclock potetial as a high end one, sometimes even more due to fsb clock.
    The most bang for the buck is to had with a entry level cpu in a current series opverclocked, combined with the best grahics card in your budget (save money on cpu and put it towards gpu)
  • mackayde
    This review is fantastic. It is best for people who want to see difference between their current configuration and performance gains between old and new hardware per buck.
    E.G. If someone has a 8600GT and a low spec CPU, it makes no sense to buy a new graphics card as this review coroborates the relation between GPU AND CPU.
    Great stuff Tom's.
  • david__t
    Why do you mention overclocking? Anyway, entry level CPUs have less cache and a slower bus speed - none of which can be gained back by overclocking - and then you have to spend loads on a good heatsink (for any clock speed increase worth talking about) which means you may as well have bought a better CPU in the first place.
    Also, Mackayde, the fact that you said 'coroborates' makes my point for me - this is ground already covered - we all know that mid range goes with mid range etc... for the best bang for the buck & price/performance ratio.
  • Anonymous
    These test are being made for people who have doubts about cpu/gpu performances, not all people are genius like you david t to know the differences among these 2 chips. Dont take yourself to be too intelligent by trying to contradict thg because I sincerely think you are not that intelligent, you a_sh_le
  • samuraiblade
    good for me to know as i have just upgraded to a dfi x48 board and e8400 , i currently have a 8800gt on it but as its a crossfire board im intending to get the 1gb 4870 when its released at the end of the month , my sons machine is an athlon 64 3ghz with pci-x , so it kills two birds with one stone as he can have my 8800gt and get a very good machine also in the process.
  • AleksandarTokarev
    Great Review :)
  • Anonymous
    "Anyway, entry level CPUs have less cache and a slower bus speed - none of which can be gained back by overclocking"

    Err, of course you can make the bus speed faster by overclocking. What THG is suggesting is that the hit you get from using a cheaper CPU (i.e. less cache, lower bus speeds) can generally be dialled out by overclocking the CPU to death. i.e. run 3DMark on both, I bet you can easily get the same of better results from a lower prices CPU and many of the premium units.
  • Revonize
    Great article. At this moment i got very low spec CPU - P4 HT 3.0, ASUS P5KC mainboard, 4GB of Ram and HD 4850 graphics card. I am not very satisfied with overall performance of my machine. I want to upgrade a CPU but I was not sure what kind of performance boost i got. Now I know :) THX THG
  • g0ldf1sh
    Very useful article for me - in the process of component hunting for a new PC (upgrading from a P4 2.8, 6800GT (AGP) and 1gb of RAM - yep old stuff indeed) For me the fact the CPU needs to be around 3Ghz to get the best out of the Graphics card is the most useful bit of advice i could get right now, thanks THG
  • Anonymous
    Its sad when "know it all" computer nerds stroke their e-peen by slagging off a feature that is almost definatly going to be useful to countless others.

    Its people with david_t's attitude that give other techie types who may already know all this a bad name.
  • Anonymous
    Yes, great article. I have a similar setup to goldfish above and am looking to upgrade now too - glad I searched this out.
  • madox
    looking at this my cpu is much under powered i have A E2160 1.8 will the porformance increase be the same for the 9800 gt ?