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Upgrading for StarCraft II? These video card benchmarks could redefine everything you think you know

Most people do not find Excel sheets sexy. The reason for this is simple: Excel sheets aren't sexy. However, if you happen to be that unique kind of person who spends hours updating drivers, overclocking your CPU, and adjusting the liquid cooling system of your monster gaming chassis, this particular chart is the kind of material we should keep behind the counter in a plastic wrapper. It’s an extensive series of StarCraft II benchmark tests conducted by graphics card maker Nvidia, and the more you know about PC performance, the more shocking these numbers are likely to seem to you.

Take a good look. Then scroll down and we’ll explain what we’re looking at and why we’re so riled up about it.


Above: Yeah baby. Right there

Basically, the brainiacs over at Nvidia wanted to see how various graphics card/CPU combinations performed running a medium-complexity StarCraft II replay.

Let’s look first at the left-most section. You’ll see “1280x1024” – that’s the resolution of the test. Then you’ll see a “1”. That means single-pass anti-aliasing was turned on.

And if you’ve ever visited a Best Buy or read an issue of Maximum PC, you’ll realize that last set of numbers, 9800 GT, GTGX480 and so on, are the model numbers of various nvidia graphics cards.

Finally, you’ll notice the same four colors reappearing over and over in the vertical bars. Each color corresponds to the performance of a specific CPU, as listed in the upper right corner of the chart. In fact, those colored bars are the key to this chart.

Check out the very first column on the left – the 9800 GT. Notice anything strange? It delivers 60 frames per second – a very smooth performance threshold – using all four CPUs. That’s straight up bizarre.

Why? Because you can buy the blue line CPU for a mere $67 on Amazon right now, but the purple one will run you more than $650. For nearly 600 extra bones, shouldn’t you see a performance increase? You’d think so, but you don’t. At least, not to the degree you’d imagine.

This phenomenon – which really isn’t, as we’ll soon explain – is replicated across the entire chart. And it only gets more pronounced as you move into higher resolutions and 4x anti-aliasing (that’s the “4” that replaces the “1” in the third and fifth sections). The reason is apparently simple if you’re a programmer: StarCraft II developer Blizzard offloaded as much of the work as possible onto the graphics card, leaving the CPU load somewhat light. This was probably done to ensure the game would run, albeit less optimally, on as many low-end PCs as possible.

The bottom line? If you want to increase your StarCraft II performance, forget about upgrading your CPU. It almost doesn’t matter. But upgrading your video card could have a tremendous impact. That’s what makes this the chart that CPU makers like Intel and AMD don’t want you to see. It’s music to graphics card manufacturers' ears, obviously – and what a surprise, that’s who gave us the chart to begin with – but it’s hard to argue with the data.

That said, if you still really want to argue with the data, go for it. It’s a free country, and we’ve got a comment box below just waiting for you.

Aug 18, 2010

22 comments

  • Lionzest7 - August 24, 2010 6:44 p.m.

    lol people don't read the article, this was an nvidia in house test.. Also replays aren't a video, they are just the play inputs saved.
  • TheSilentPenguin - August 19, 2010 2:57 p.m.

    Do you guys think starcraft 2 will run with an Intel® GMA X4500HD graphics card?
  • Tispower - August 19, 2010 12:08 p.m.

    Agree with FriendlyFire, AMD owns ATi, so they're not gonna care, especially as many ATi cards are superior to the equivalent nVidia one nowadays. Might pick this up at some point, looks as if as long as the anti-aliasing settings are kept to a minimum my £500 2 year old custom PC will be able to cope :P cheapskate FTW!
  • lozarian - August 19, 2010 9:47 a.m.

    I built my pc two years ago for £800 - and it runs starcraft on max setting absolutely fine. I get some slowdown for about a minute after saves/reloads - but haven't noticed anything in a flowing game. Also find it kinda ironic that the pros with stupid good pcs play it on low settings. I put mine onto low once, it offended me. Still, less stupid graphical clutter than heroes of newerth - that truly is unplayable on high settings. I don't find SC2 cluttered at all.
  • Memph - August 19, 2010 7:31 a.m.

    can't edit :/ so double post, oops i'd love to see one of these charts for BC2, or another game that loads most of the strain onto the CPU tbh these days buying anything under a quad-core for gaming is a no-no. and it's an RTS. noone on earth would upgrade a rig for a game where framerate hardly matters a jot, unless it's running like a crab on crutches.
  • Memph - August 19, 2010 7:25 a.m.

    not so much when it's a game replay, not 'video replay' it's the game engine running
  • Ultima - August 19, 2010 5:23 a.m.

    AlmightyFuzz has made a very good point
  • AlmightyFuzz - August 18, 2010 10:39 p.m.

    Wait a minute, if this is a video replay then obviously upgrading the GPU will increase performance!! You're just watching a video in effect. However if the replay involves recreating the exact moves of the various units, basically a reconstruction of the events using the units, then upgrading the CPU should in theory help more as the game has to deal with a lot of AI etc.
  • Camoxide - August 18, 2010 10:27 p.m.

    Why didn't you do ATI cards? That's where the party's at now a days.
  • GamesRadarJuniorWildlifeEditor - August 18, 2010 10:22 p.m.

    This may be rather a moot point: it seems as if most serious to pro- level Starcraft players recommend playing the game on the minimum graphics level, just to reduce visual clutter.
  • Hellhog - August 18, 2010 9:44 p.m.

    Just to add, I have a 1440x900 resolution monitor but one of the biggest things to increase frames per second was to run at 1280x800 which really bugs me.
  • Hellhog - August 18, 2010 9:42 p.m.

    I wish I could upgrade my laptop. StarCraft is the only PC game I like but my laptop had trouble running the StarCraft II Beta. I had to really toy with the settings. I could run on High with other items on low. I could run everything on medium but more on screen units (especially zerg) really slowed down my computer. I hate running on Low Shaders because there are no shadows or terrible lighting. My laptop has the following: Core 2 Duo 2.1GHz CPU ATI Radeon Mobility HD 3450 Pretty much the best GPU & CPU that were available when I made my custom order from dell for my Studio 15 laptop. Of course for the same cost of what my laptop cost me, I could get a laptop with the ATI Radeon Mobility HD 5800 series and Dual Core 2.4GHz CPU and run at much better settings.
  • smellslikefish - August 18, 2010 8:39 p.m.

    Runs amazing at ultra settings with an ati radeon hd 5870.
  • Spybreak8 - August 18, 2010 7:54 p.m.

    "For nearly 600 extra bones, shouldn’t you see a performance increase? You’d think so, but you don’t. At least, not to the degree you’d imagine" Usually it doesn't matter if you pay for the best stuff on earth, no no not Snapple, if the game's code doesn't recognize it. That's like having a quad core when Supreme Commander just came out. I believe they patched it to take advantage if you have that but at the start nope no performance increase. My main pc is a laptop so not many options for graphics upgrades.
  • JohnnyMaverik - August 18, 2010 7:44 p.m.

    Seems like a weird choice considering they made the game for Mac as well which have shitty cards but good to very good processors.
  • FriendlyFire - August 18, 2010 7:35 p.m.

    AMD doesn't give a damn, it sells both GPUs and CPUs. That graph doesn't explain much, either, as bottlenecking is a very real issue. Plus, some of those stats feel a little too close to exactly 60fps. V-Sync?
  • CH3BURASHKA - August 18, 2010 7:08 p.m.

    This is a shitty graph. The CPU's seem fairly well spread out in terms of power, but the graphics cards chosen have a shitty range: the 9800 GT is now the absolute minimum for any kind of gaming PC, and the GTX 480 is the absolute maximum (without SLI, etc, though I'm not sure how well that'd do). It'd like to see some GT 200's in there, as well as a comparsion to similar ATI cards.
  • DavidELDiablo - August 18, 2010 6:58 p.m.

    I'm running a 1 year old MacBook Pro, it can handle the game perfectly on Low graphics settings, and medium a bit, but I guess there aren't to many upgrading options for a MacBook's GPU/graphic's card are there?
  • ihitthedrum - August 18, 2010 6:57 p.m.

    The 9800GT is bottlenecking that monster CPU (i7-965).
  • infernox - August 18, 2010 6:51 p.m.

    the simple way to work it out is that for low resolutions, it will use the processor more and for high resolutions the gpu will be used more. all i did was buy a £60 gfx card and use the dual core that came with my dell.

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