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Core wars: Multicore gaming PC shootout

Roundup of recent midrange multicore gaming desktops.

Gateway's quad-core FX6831-01 offers an excellent balance of fast application and gaming performance, for a reasonable $1,299. Sarah Tew/CNET

Now that AMD and Intel both have six-core desktop CPUs, what will become of still-fast quad-core CPUs? For guidance, we turn to the recent crop of $1,000-to-$2,000 performance desktops.

We've compared five systems in recent desktop reviews, each with either a quad-core or a six-core CPU. The full list is as follows, with links to each respective reviews:

  • Dell Studio XPS SX8100-1986NBC ($1,149): 2.8GHz Intel Core i7 860, ATI Radeon HD 5770
  • Gateway FX6831-01 ($1,299); 2.8GHz Intel Core i7 860, ATI RAdeon HD 5850
  • HP Pavilion Elite 190T ($2,105): 3.36GHz Intel Core i7 980X Extreme, ATI Radeon HD 5770
  • Maingear Vybe ($1,299): 3.2GHz AMD Phenom II X6 (w/overclocked TurboCore), ATI Radeon HD 5830
  • Velocity Micro Edge Z30 ($1,349): 3.2GHz (overclocked) Core i7 860; Nvidia GeForce GTX 860

We included the Velocity Micro from last September, as it was the fastest midrange PC we'd seen until the past few months. And though the HP crosses the $2,000 mark, that's largely because of its optional home entertainment features. The base $1,899 unit still gets you the same core performance, including Intel's top-of-the-line Core i7 980X Extreme chip, a six-core behemoth, and currently the fastest desktop chip available.

We were surprised to find HP offering that $1,000-plus chip at a relatively reasonable price-point, yet the Pavilion Elite 190T actually didn't run away with the performance crown. It was the fastest system on our application tests, but thanks to its slower graphics card, both the Gateway and the Maingear systems posted better gaming scores. We suspect the Maingear, in fact, benefited from its six-core AMD CPU, which helped it hit 77 frames per second on our high-resolution Far Cry 2 test--the highest overall, at least on that benchmark.

The problem for the six-core systems is they aren't very well balanced. The Maingear did well as a gaming system, but came in near the bottom of the group on general application tests. The situation was almost reversed for the HP. Whereas it lead on our application tests, it came in second-to-last (behind the Dell) on gaming. Instead, it took the Gateway FX6831-01, a quad-core system with a fast 3D card, to provide the most balanced computing experience of this group. Even if the gaudy case could be polarizing, its strong showing on both our gaming and application tests make it the best overall value.

Of course, configurability makes this roundup less than definitive, and both Maingear and Velocity Micro offer a variety of options for their respective desktops that could improve performance, while keeping within our $1,000-to-$2,000 (or so) price band. But from what we've seen in this recent batch of systems, though six-core CPUs offer measurable performance benefits, you shouldn't rule out buying or building a quad-core system with a fast 3D card if you're looking for speed on games and productivity apps at a fair price.