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Intel Skylake: Core i3 6100 review

Having dominated enthusiast gaming with its i5 and i7 line, it’s fair to say that the baseline i3 line is often overlooked, but the reality is that in most games, Intel’s dual-core, quad-thread processor is still capable of handing in creditable performance, even on the very latest titles that explicitly specify higher-spec CPUs for their recommended settings. Over the last year, our Core i3 4130 has served us well in our budget gaming build, but with the arrival of its new-gen Skylake successor, there are some genuinely impressive gains. Prices still need to settle down (we paid £93 for this chip – typically £10 over the odds for an i3) but the benchmarks and the gameplay performance are fascinating – and there is some overclock potential, just not quite where you might expect to find it.

We’ve already reviewed the key Skylake processors aimed at the higher-end enthusiast – the Core i5 6600K and the Core i7 6700K – finding them both to be best-in-class parts with impressive performance improvements over their predecessors in CPU-bound gaming scenarios. The boost to Skylake’s raw capabilities comes from a number of factors – firstly that the processor features two generational improvements over its direct predecessor, Haswell (Broadwell only received a limited desktop release) and secondly that the standard DDR3 system RAM is replaced by DDR4, meaning higher levels of memory bandwidth. These factors are just as important for the dual-core Skylake i3, and in the case of the move to DDR4, possibly more so.

On top of that, the i3 also features all of the other architectural improvements enjoyed by the quads, including more internal PCI Express bandwidth, principally allowing for more, faster storage solutions to be attached. However, the chances are that the i3 will be paired with lower-end motherboards with more limited expansion opportunities – but as we’ll shortly discover, there are performance benefits from choosing a better board to pair with the new dual-core CPU.

Unfortunately, Skylake’s other notable enhancement – specifically its more granular overclocking capabilities – are not relevant here with the Core i3 product. The K-series quads allow for both tweaking of the base clock and the multiplier when prior generations only really allowed for adjustment of the latter. We were really hoping that the Skylake i3 would allow for base clock tweaking, but it’s not to be – we extracted a mere 77MHz overclock (BCLK at 102) before the chip refused to function. That’s a shame, but bearing in mind the gaming performance we do get, the chances are that a properly overclockable i3 would present a serious challenge to Intel’s more lucrative i5 market. That said, as things stand, there is an overclocking route forward for i3 owners that offers tangible results, but it’s all about pairing the chip with faster DDR4 as opposed to making the chip itself operate at higher clocks.

But let’s start by taking a quick look at some basic benchmarks, where we’ll compare the new i3 with one of its Haswell predecessors – our trusty Core i3 4130 – along with the AMD challenger in this segment, the FX-6300. Additionally, we’ll toss in our existing Skylake data from the quad-core end of the market to get an idea of the architecture’s scalability across the range. The results are enlightening.

First up, it’s worth pointing out that our Core i3 4130 operates with a clock-speed deficit compared to the new i3 6100 – it runs at 3.4GHz up against the 3.7GHz of the Skylake chip – much as we would have liked to run Haswell comparisons on a clock-for-clock basis, that just wasn’t possible. Regardless, across our four tests, the new i3 is handing in performance that’s around 17-26 per cent faster. The new chip may only have two cores and four threads, but its multi-threading performance is impressive – 3DMark physics is faster than the six-core FX-6300, both CineBench tests are only marginally slower, while only the x264 encoding tests sees the AMD chip command any kind of tangible improvement.

In fact, even comparisons with the FX-8350 and the Sandy Bridge era Core i5 2500K look surprisingly promising, especially in terms of the 3DMark physics test, which is the closest thing we have to any kind of gaming workload in what are predominantly synthetic and multimedia-orientated benchmarks. Overall, it’s a solid start for a budget processor, and as we saw with the Core i5 6600K and the i7 6700K, basic tests like this are no match for putting Intel’s technology to task with some challenging gaming content.

i7 6700K i5 6600K i5 3570K i5 2500K FX-8350 FX-6300 i3-4130 i3-6100
CineBench 15 Single Thread 171 158 131 129 98 94 131 156
CineBench 15 Multi Thread 867 618 505 492 640 406 334 391
CineBench 11.5 Single Thread 2.05 1.81 1.56 1.48 1.11 1.05 1.50 1.78
CineBench 11.5 Multi-Thread 10.12 6.96 5.97 5.78 6.74 4.47 3.65 4.41
x264 Video Encoding 20.45 15.03 11.98 10.98 14.97 10.13 7.58 9.23
3DMark Physics 13636 8718 6901 6712 7520 5657 5075 6395

We set about benchmarking the new Core i3 using the same principles we used in assessing the Skylake Core i5 and the i7 – we seek to eliminate the GPU as a bottleneck by pairing the CPU with an overclocked Titan X running at 1080p, but we run the games at max settings (albeit with no multi-sampling anti-aliasing in most cases). The role of the CPU is to run game logic and prepare instructions for the GPU – compromising on quality settings would mean fewer elements to draw in any given scene and would not fully test the processor workload.

Additionally, we benched the i3 6100 twice, first of all using the full 2666MHz bandwidth of our Corsair Vengeance DDR4 modules, and then paring that back to 2133MHz in order to match the memory restrictions on the H170, B150 and H110 motherboards more likely to be utilised for budget builds. And as the benchmarks came in, the results were fascinating – in many CPU-bound scenarios, the i3 6100 is significantly faster with higher-speed RAM. We devised the gaming benchmark set-up to eliminate the GPU as the limiting factor in performance but what is clear is that not only is CPU pushed to the fore, memory bandwidth is too.

In the first set of benchmarks, we compare both of those i3 runs with the Skylake i5 and i7, in order to judge how the lower-end chip compares to its more expensive siblings. It’s worth watching the video to get the complete breakdown of performance in context, because averages can be deceptive – on the face of it, as an average aggregate all across nine titles, the i3 6100 offers 80 per cent of the performance of the 6700K and 86 per cent of the raw throughput of the 6600K: not bad for an entry-level i3. However, while a strong argument can be made that an i5 offers a very similar real world experience to an i7, the same is not the case with the i3. Play Crysis 3, Ryse, Project Cars or Grand Theft Auto 5 to name just four titles, and the difference is often night and day. Our benchmark sequences – in common with everyone else’s – can only offer one snapshot of any given game.