New Intel Coffee Lake CPUs

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I’ve been reading and watching several reviews and benchmarks covering the new Intel Coffee Lake processors released on October 5th. Here’s my opinion on them.

First of all, congratulations to Intel for providing more competition in the CPU space, which is always good for us consumers. Reviewers have mainly focused on the i7-8700k and the i5-8400 as that’s mainly what Intel provided them. Availability for both in these first months is going to be limited and the only motherboards available will have the Z370 chipset and will be expensive until more limited chipsets and cheaper motherboards are released in 2018. This issue will be present for the whole Coffee Lake lineup, so it has to be taken into account for now.

The i7-8700k is like an i7-7700k with two more cores and four more threads. This means it’s now able to be tied or surpass the Ryzen 7 1700 in some multithreaded tests and be right behind it in others. That’s actually pretty good, and in thread-limited scenarios its single-thread performance is much better thanks to its superior IPC and clock frequencies. Also, its floating point performance and support for AVX-512 makes it a clear winner in isolated video encoding tests using x264 and similar software (i.e. when encoding video without gaming at the same time). It is, however, more expensive, requires paying for a separate cooler and uses more power than the R7 1700. Of course, it’s a clear winner for gaming.

The i5-8400 is a nice answer to the Ryzen 5 1600 in some scenarios. It clearly wins in gaming benchmarks. The two extra cores and threads are a welcome upgrade in the i5 line and pave the way for game developers to focus on using more threads and distribute CPU load better. It features some very interesting turbo clock rates while keeping the global TDP low. The Ryzen 5 1600, however, is more than enough in most 60FPS scenarios and still wins in many multi-threaded benchmarks.

Another i5 in the line, the i5-8600k, basically obsoletes the i7-7700k at a lower price, because apparently 6 cores with 6 real threads are able to perform almost as fast as 4 cores with hyperthreading. To me, however, the i5-8600k is way less interesting because it costs over 70 dollars more than the i5-8400 and needs a separate cooler.

Which CPU would I get?

Tough call. Let’s examine different situations. Take into account I may be very bad at judging these things.

Gaming at 120Hz or more? Intel is your best bet. i7-8700k if you’re streaming or multitasking while gaming and can afford it, or the i5-8400 if just gaming or on a tight budget. Maybe wait to see if Intel will offer any middle ground and if it’s worth it. i5-8500? i5-8600? But, initially, the i5-8400 is a very affordable gaming beast.

Gaming at 60Hz and with production workloads benefiting heavily from CPU multithreading? Let’s say virtual machines or heavily-multithreaded applications. I’d probably stick with the Ryzen 7 1700 thanks to its current price/performance ratio, but the i7-8700k is also very nice if your particular productivity programs show it being superior, and maybe if you want to put more emphasis on the gaming part of the equation. The i7 will definitely cost more and require a separate cooler, but has been shown to perform better in some productivity cases.

Gaming at 60Hz with some multitasking and multithreading? Tough call, but I think I’d stick with the Ryzen 5 1600 for now. That may change in the future as more games are released and cheaper motherboards for Intel become available, showing how the i5-8400 performance evolves. The Ryzen 5 1600 has a better cooler, will cost around the same, and uses the AM4 socket which will probably be around for longer. Again, if you have a specific use case showing the i5-8400 to be better in benchmarks, then buy that.

Strictly gaming at 60Hz? Any of the previous two. This is mostly my situation and I’d still pick the R5 1600 for now, because the multithreaded performance will be there if I ever need it. I may be wrong, though, and maybe the gaming industry will take more time to adapt and some future games will make the R5 1600 struggle for some reason. There are a few games where the R5 1600 struggles a bit now. The i5-8400 is probably the conservative choice as shown by gaming benchmarks, but it really needs cheap motherboards available. Picking the R5 also means going with the market underdog and encouraging competition.

Strictly gaming at 60Hz with specific titles that require good single thread performance or make the R5 1600 struggle and bottleneck the GPU to keep the framerate above 60? i5-8400 with a future cheap motherboard, or a Kaby Lake CPU.

Minimizing CPU cost as much as possible for a cheap gaming rig? The i3-8100 looks nice on paper, but I’d wait for more desktop CPUs to be announced and released. We’ll see what the new Pentium-class processors have to offer. As things stand right now, I wouldn’t bother with the Ryzen 3 line. Maybe go down to the Pentium G4560 and spend more on the GPU?

Office desktop with no gaming? Go with an Intel Pentium, either Kaby Lake (the Pentium G4560 is awesome) or wait for Coffee Lake Pentiums with cheap motherboards and Raven Ridge APUs. The integrated GPU is essential to save costs, and Intel’s provided cooler is more than adequate for Pentiums. Don’t consider Ryzen unless you have a very specific use case for a separate low-power GPU like the GeForce GT 1030 or RX 550. Keep an eye on motherboard and power supply costs.

CPU upgraded to i7-4770k

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This past weekend I upgraded my CPU from an i5-4690s to a secondhand i7-4770k. It was one of the cheapest routes I could take to enter the thread-count race and I’m pretty satisfied with my decision.

The main driving force behind this and most of my past computer upgrades is gaming. In more mundane tasks, I barely noticed any difference when I upgraded from a Core 2 Quad to the i5 I had, and I definitely don’t see any changes at all after jumping to an i7. Other tasks like compiling large software packages should be much shorter, but I don’t run them frequently enough to make a noticeable difference (it’s been several years since I built my last custom kernel). Something similar happens to movie encoding. The i7 is faster but I only do that once in a blue moon and the new CPU won’t make it instantaneous.

When gaming, it’s a different story. For example, I’m playing the Doom reboot now and the initial load time, which is very high for this particular game, is noticeably lower. I’ve monitored CPU usage while the game loads and all cores are being used, with total usage peaking at 91%. My wild guess is the SSD is serving compressed data very fast to the CPU and the game is decompressing assets as fast as possible using all CPU cores. In general, games have started using more cores in recent years and I believe the trend is unstoppable. AMD, years ago, made the mistake of creating CPUs with a high core count but mediocre IPC and floating point performance before the market demanded them. With Ryzen, however, the landscape has changed. Ryzen has very decent IPC and floating point performance, and the market is now ready to accept that we’re not getting significantly higher single-thread performance in the future, so if your game needs more CPU power, multi-threading is the only path forward.

I bought the i7 for 200 euros off Wallapop (the Spanish equivalent to Craiglist regarding computer parts). I think it’s a bit overpriced and would have gladly paid 170 or 180 euros instead (or even for free, duh!), but the way I see the current market, it still made a lot of sense. Right now, in my humble opinion, if you game at 60 frames per second (be it 1080p, 1440p or 4k), the ideal CPU you should get is the Ryzen 5 1600. It has the right amount of cores and threads to make it the sweet spot of the Ryzen lineup. Its IPC and clocks are high enough for anything. It may limit you in a handful of situations that depend heavily on single-core performance, like some emulators and, I believe, specific games like Arma 3. If you don’t play any of those and you don’t own a 120+Hz monitor, there’s no need to get anything else. As you can read in most reviews, the 1600 is powerful enough to push your graphics card beyond 100 FPS, so you’re likely to be GPU-bound before being CPU-bound. The extra cores and threads are also useful if you plan on multi-tasking while gaming, and help in future-proofing the CPU choice, as futile as that may be.

Naturally, every consumer is free to get whatever they want and nothing stops you from buying anything you want and can afford. If you’re a developer and your build times are very long, if you run many programs and virtual machines simultaneously, or if you use a productivity tool that can take advantage of more CPU threads, by all means buy something like the Ryzen 7 1700 or even a more powerful CPU. The Ryzen 7 1700 is also a good option if you want to stream while gaming, because encoding video is a demanding task that always likes more cores and threads. But I’m talking strictly about gaming. If your computer budget is limited somehow, chances are your gaming rig will serve you better if you stick with the Ryzen 5 1600 and spend the extra money somewhere else, like a better graphics card, or getting rid of HDDs and buying a large SSD instead, or replacing your gaming monitor.

Still, coming back to my case, if I wanted to get a new Ryzen 5 1600, that means I would have paid more for the CPU itself (around 210 euros) and I would have needed a new motherboard (70 to 80 euros) and new DDR4 memory (16GB DDR4 retails now for more than 150 euros here). So while the 4770k was a bit overpriced, I didn’t need to spend more money. It was a simple CPU switch. Its big brother, the i7-4790k, usually sells for more than 250 or 300 euros on eBay. By the way, Intel will reveal its new Coffee Lake microarchitecture processors 12 hours after this post goes live. We’ll see what they have to offer.

Game Review: Limbo and Inside

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Following Ori, I played Limbo and Inside. Both games were developed by the same company, Playdead, and both are essentially 2D puzzle platformer games. Limbo was the first one to be released, back in 2010, while Inside is considered the spiritual successor to Limbo and was released in 2016.

Both are very nice games, but Inside is definitely a couple of steps ahead of Limbo, in my opinion. By being puzzle games, their replay value is not very high. Once you know the solution to every puzzle, there’s barely any mystery left to discover. Other puzzle games, like Portal, give the player some more flexibility in the game mechanics and freedom when solving each puzzle, and use this to their advantage to propose new challenges even after the player has finished the game. In contrast, the puzzles in Limbo and Inside usually have one solution.

Limbo lets you control a boy in his journey through a surreal world full of dangers. The story is, more or less, open to interpretation. Controls are very simple: moving left, right, jumping and interacting with world objects. Artistically, the game is very focused. Its aesthetics are well-defined featuring black and white, noisy art, mixing marked black and white contrasts with soft gradients; blurry objects and borders with in-focus, sharp objects.

Its puzzles are quite interesting and somewhat challenging at times. As with many puzzle games, it’s possible you’ll find some puzzles to be easy while other people find them challenging and vice-versa. Overall, they’re balanced and fair, and make you work with geometry, gravity, momentum and timing.

While Limbo, like Ori, is a simple game that played flawlessly in my system, without crashes, bugs or any noticeable glitch, it’s somewhat limited by its self-imposed visual aesthetics, and its animations, sound effects and music are really simple.

Inside, on the other hand, shows much more effort, or perhaps a bigger team or budget. You, again, control a boy journeying through an unknown world. But this journey is even more surreal, dangerous, open to interpretation, larger and more varied. While its visuals are simple like in Limbo, they are way more refined.

Your character travels in 2D, yet the environments are clearly deep and three-dimensional. The game toys with camera angles and distances to strengthen this perception and show you what’s ahead, above or below. Its use of a simple color palette, volumetric lights and shadows no longer feels like a self-imposed limit or restriction, but like a powerful tool to emphasize objects and the environment. Animations are detailed, sounds effects are more varied and play an important role in telling the story and creating the game’s atmosphere. Its soundtrack is an integral part of the game experience.

Controls are still very simple, but interactions with the environment are more complex and Inside’s puzzles are larger, better designed, more varied, original and feature more elements in play. They rely more on geometry and timing. While they integrate and require you to use gravity and momentum on several occasions, they usually relate those two elements to objects and the geometry of the surrounding environment instead of your own character. Like Ori and Limbo, Inside also played flawlessly in my system.

Both games can be explored completely in under 10 hours and probably under 5 too. As for scores, I’d say Limbo is a nice 7.5 to 8 game, while Inside is easily an 8.5 to 9 game. If you plan to play both, which I highly recommend, play Limbo first. If you only plan to get one of them, grab Inside.

Game Review: Ori and the Blind Forest (Definitive Edition)

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After playing several very long games I took a break and focused on three shorter and simpler games I had pending. The first one was Ori and the Blind Forest. I followed with Limbo and Inside, which I’ll review jointly in the following days.

Ori and the Blind Forest is a platformer game that plays much better when using a controller. I’d say it almost requires a controller to be experienced properly. In the platformer genre it belongs to the “Metroidvania” family. If you’ve never heard the term, it refers to platformer games in which there is a large interconnected world that can be explored by the player nonlinearly, unlocking paths, doors and new parts of the map as the player progresses and gains new abilities. The term originates from the classic Metroid and Castlevania series, which started in 1986. The way Ori plays also reminded me slightly of other games like Super Meat Boy, but with a slower pace.

The story follows the adventures of Ori, a child of the Spirit Tree in the forest of Nibel, trying to restore the balance to the forest. It’s a quite interesting fable, masterfully told as the game advances. The gameplay is completely addictive. The controls feel really nice and I was always eager to advance and gain new abilities in order to explore new parts of the map and visit new secret areas, getting items that had been previously out of reach.

Artistically, the game is impeccable, with detailed and well cared for 2D-drawing style graphics that, under the hood, are powered by 3D polygons. Sound and music have a main role in the game experience and are also remarkable. With so many things right in a game, it’s no wonder it was so well received. In contrast to more complex “AAA” games, the lack of any single bug, glitch or crash in my playthrough is worth mentioning and contributed to an overall charming experience.

Yes, it’s not a long game. It can easily be finished and experienced almost completely in under 20 hours. Most people will finish it in less than 10, and its hours of entertainment to money rate is smaller than what I’m used to, but I can’t stop recommending it. It offers some, not much, replay value thanks to well-selected achievements that set up some interesting challenges, and its only noticeable flaw is that the two new map areas present in the Definitive Edition are not integrated in the normal game story, which forces you to visit every other area. They have to be explored under your own initiative whenever you decide to do so.

I give Ori a technical, gameplay and overall score of 9. Superb game and totally recommended. Stay tuned for the future release of Ori and the Will of the Wisps.

Game Review: Fallout 4

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Time for another game review. This time I went to play Fallout 4, a game I had in my backlog almost since it came out, as my wife gifted it to me in December 2015. We’re both big fans of Fallout 3 and New Vegas, so here’s my review.

The first thing to say is that I agree with other reviews I’ve read and watched after finishing the game when they say Fallout 4 is a great game that happens to be a not-so-great Fallout game. Bethesda made a lot of substantial changes to the core gameplay. Some of those changes were real improvements and some others set the game so much apart from the previous titles that many hardcore fans don’t like them.

The Good

Compared to previous games, Fallout 4 is graphically impressive, but not as impressive as many other games in the market that were released before or after it, around the same time. In any case, the improved graphics make it even more immersive and help satiate our ever-growing thirst for better graphics as gamers.

Combat has also been improved and works much better than in previous Fallout titles, both in direct action mode and while using VATS, the latter now slowing down time during the whole action sequence instead of pausing it while aiming and resuming while shooting. The improvements are noticeable both in the feel of the combat as well as the reaction and behavior of enemies while in combat. It’s a bit of a shame that Fallout favors stealth so much, giving stealth critical hits a high damage multiplier that can even be increased through in-game perks, because I tend to use stealth and VADS, missing out part of the fun.

But, to me, the biggest improvement Fallout 4 brings to the table is an impressive level design. Some people have complained that the map is actually smaller in virtual measures compared to Fallout 3 or New Vegas (I haven’t checked), but it’s packed with many varied locations (small mistake: not providing an Explorer perk that would reveal all undiscovered locations like in the previous titles). These locations expand the world not only horizontally but also vertically. This verticality could be occasionally found in some previous titles. From memory, I recall the different heights of Megaton in Fallout 3 or the whole Lonesome Road expansion to Fallout New Vegas. But Fallout 4 takes it to a whole different level, both in indoor areas as well as outdoor areas and, many times, in the way both types of areas connect together. You can enter some building in Boston at the street level, go up some floors, exit through the roof, find a bridge to a multi-level and elevated highway, continue traveling, exiting the highway later using an improvised elevator or another bridge, etc.

Some reviewers have mentioned how Fallout 4 is game that is, simply put, fun to explore, and I think it really is. Even if you expected something slightly different from a Fallout game, you could just forget it’s Fallout and explore the wasteland around Boston, and it’s incredibly fun.

The Bad

It all comes down to opinion, but I’d say the worst part about Fallout 4 are the repetitive missions helping settlements (or settlers in general), dispatching Institute coursers, etc. A few of them are OK but it gets tiring and, after spending many dozens of hours in the game, the “Help defend <location>” sign was irritating when it came up.

I hold a similar opinion about the (very quirky) building capabilities in settlements and trying to make settlers happy. Mostly because I like Fallout but I don’t like The Sims that much. A recent comment I read in Reddit a few weeks ago by a self-described gaming center employee explained that kids nowadays, due to distractions or a lack of time or dedication, are mostly interested in multiplayer-only games like Overwatch, Counter Strike or Rocket League; or open sandbox games like Minecraft. Games they can play for any amount of time at any moment without side quests or main quests. I personally believe the settlement management mechanisms introduced in Fallout 4 could be designed to cater to that specific audience, and also to give a more meaningful way out to all these usually-meaningless miscellaneous items you can find in the Fallout universe. Then, again, I prefer to play the role of a solitary survivor, exploring the world and doing quests, instead of wasting time managing settlements. If I ever replay Fallout 4, I’ll mostly ignore that part.

I didn’t welcome the simplification or merge of S.P.E.C.I.A.L. attributes, skills and perks. I prefer the original mechanisms were S.P.E.C.I.A.L. attributes are harder to change and provide a base to your character, but do not prevent you from maximizing any in-game skill and, in addition, you could choose and gain interesting perks from time to time. Fallout 4 simplifies all of this too much, in my opinion, and is also missing the part in which attributes and skills played a important factor in the way you could solve many different quests, either through specific dialogue options that were only available if you had the needed skills or through specific actions that could be performed with in-game elements.

This last part has been the source of many complaints from users and has almost become a meme, apparently reminding Bethesda to have New Vegas in mind instead of Fallout 4 for the next Fallout game. I don’t think that’s entirely fair. Bethesda did try to have a good story in Fallout 4 like it had in New Vegas. At least, it compares favorably to Fallout 3, in my opinion. And the game did have different endings and factions like New Vegas had. It’s true, however, almost the only skill that affects dialogue options is Charisma, giving the player a higher chance of persuasion in selected dialogue options, but the game allows saving mid-dialogue, so you can always retry if the dice roll doesn’t turn out as you expected.

The Ugly

Bugs, bugs, bugs. Technical bugs have been ever present in past Bethesda games. This, together with Bethesda’s typical reliance on modders to fix many of the game issues, are memes nowadays. In Fallout 4, this goes way too far. It’s not fun to find the dialogue system glitching in the first 30 minutes of gameplay, putting up with some extremely long load times (in my case they were noticeably longer when the loading screen was blank, but even with non-blank screens they were long and I’m using an SSD that works flawlessly so far), looking to the ground were some corpses rest and see the framerate tank from solid 60fps to 40fps (why?), having godrays produce weird framerate issues and graphical glitches, or experiencing a few game crashes here and there.

These bugs have reached a level in which they’re hard to ignore and are starting to impact the game experience noticeably for me, and it’s obvious the technology behind Fallout 4 is a bit obsolete and has been pushed too far into territory it was never meant to be. Without having knowledge on the game engine internals or its source code, but as a software developer, I get the impression it’s time to re-architect the game engine or write a new one for the next game.

The weapon and armor crafting systems reminded me of the ones present Dead Space 3 and I find them fun to use, but they come with a few drawbacks too. I prefer items and armor to wear out and needing repairs, because that emphasizes the survival aspect of the game. However, I can see how that’s hard to manage when the weapon you’re using has different parts that have been crafted and assembled together.

Conclusion

The gameplay in Fallout 4 is actually very fun, in my opinion, and lets the player choose from a wide selection of activities and approaches, but it lacks a bit of focus compared to previous games, in my opinion. It’s still a solid 8.5, to give it a specific score, and if you focus on playing just the way you want to play, it can be a 9. I’ve spent more hours in Fallout 4 than in Fallout New Vegas, so that should mean something.

Technically, the game is a 7 or 7.5 and this time the technical aspects cannot be ignored, dragging the overall score down to somewhere close to an 8 or 8.25, in my opinion.

I cannot compare Fallout 4 to Fallout 1 and 2. Isometric RPG games are almost always out of my interest, but I can compare it to Fallout 3 and New Vegas and, in that comparison, I’ve joined the hordes of people who think the best game in the series so far is Fallout New Vegas. But I insist: Fallout 4 is not a bad game at all, and will probably give you over a hundred hours of very fun gameplay and wasteland exploration, so do not hesitate to give it a shot, unless you want to boycott Bethesda for any number of reasons.