We thoroughly study the impact of Meltdown and Specter patches on PC gaming performance
It has been rated as one of the biggest security holes the PC world has ever seen. Last week the headlines were dominated by news of the discovery of a serious flaw in the hardware design of Intel’s microprocessors, which affected millions and millions of CPUs sold in the last twenty years. If your PC has an Intel processor, then it is vulnerable to the Meltdown exploit. And along with Meltdown came another very serious problem, called Specter, which can affect your PC, smartphone or tablet, regardless of whether or not it uses Intel technology.
In very basic terms, what is the risk? Basically, Meltdown allows malware to access the protected memory of your CPU, an area of your processor that should be impossible to access. Important data of any kind, starting with passwords, becomes potentially accessible. Specter offers another vector when it comes to accessing such data, to the point that, despite being more difficult to exploit, it can cause headaches for security experts for months or even years to come.
In the short term, patches are being released – and more to come – and the general concern is the impact this may have on performance. Epic Games recently revealed the extent to which it affected the Fortnite servers, with an eye-opening graph showing a large spike in CPU usage once patches for Meltdown were installed. The question is to what extent the patches will affect the typical PC we use to play games.
To protect yourself from both security holes, several updates must be installed. To begin with, Windows Update patches Microsoft’s operating system offering protection for the Meltdown vulnerability of Intel CPUs, bypassing the CPU kernel to a separate virtual memory space. Second, an update to your motherboard BIOS makes your CPU prediction less aggressive, making it harder for Specter to be effective. Both updates can potentially slow down your PC, but the good news is that the overall impact we have seen in many benchmarks ranges from 2% to 3%, and only IO operations on very fast storage devices, such as solid drives. NVMe, show obvious performance degradation. In the professional market, however, the situation is radically different, since the virtualization of the CPU is severely affected, as the Fortnite servers have already demonstrated.
Even so, we wanted to check the impact of the patches ourselves, so we chose the Core i5 8400 as a test subject, comparing our benchmarks without patches with the same games running with the Windows Meltdown patch installed, and secondly with the Specific firmware update for Specter. Asus has been very quick to provide microcode updates, and we used a Maximus 10 Hero motherboard with the new Z370 chipset for testing.
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|Win10 No patches||Win10 Meltdown Patch||Win10 Meltdown Patch + Microcode|
|The Witcher 3, Ultra, No HairWorks||139.8fps||128.3fps||126.6fps|
|Rise of the Tomb Raider, Very High, DX12||121.6fps||117.2fps||121.6fps|
|Far Cry Primal, Ultra||128.4fps||127.0fps||126.2fps|
|Crysis 3, Very High||129.3fps||129.2fps||126.8fps|
|Ashes of the Singularity, Test CPU||35.3fps||35.5fps||35.6fps|
|Assassin’s Creed Unity, Ultra High||131.1fps||131.2fps||130.3fps|
The table that you can see above corroborates the generally accepted idea that games are not affected too much in most scenarios. However, we have experimented a lot with how to do CPU benchmarks for gaming performance over the past two years and we are still not entirely happy with the methodology. Discovering areas where a game is limited by the CPU is quite a complex task, even with the method we currently use, which consists of pairing the processor with an overclocked Titan X Pascal, running the game at 1080p resolution. The idea is to force CPU performance and memory bandwidth above the GPU – the factor that mainly limits games. However, even here we have discovered ingame areas and rendering situations that minimize or widen the differential between processors.
The good news is that performance is more or less maintained after patches are installed. The bad news is what Specter implies in terms of security, an issue that we will grapple with for years to come.
That said, five of the six tests we have here can force Intel’s quad-core, quad-thread CPU to 100% usage (the exception being Far Cry Primal, which is heavily reliant on single-core power), but there is a lot of sleeve width for the six-core i5 8400. What we have found is that even with the two patches installed some games show no real difference – the complex benchmark for Ashes of Singularity CPUs is fully consistent across all three tests, the same as the test at Notre Dame in Assassin’s Creed Unity. , where the difference fades into the margin of error. Crysis 3, another CPU demanding title, tests with the Meltdown patch without a noticeable performance penalty, while the Specter microcode only affects performance by two percent. Far Cry Primal? Simply subtract one frame per second with each installed security update.
The Meltdown patch has a 3.6% impact on our Rise of the Tomb Raider Geothermal Valley test, going up to 4.2% with the BIOS update installed. However, our test with The Witcher 3 – which forces more storage and memory bandwidth – suffers much more, with an 8.2% reduction in performance with microcode for the BIOS aimed at mitigating Specter. . The funny thing is that retesting with a Core i7 4790K (a slower processor) the performance only dropped by three percent (although in this case no update was available for the BIOS of our system based on the Z97 chipset. , which means that only the patch for Meltdown was installed).
Ultimately, what we have at the moment is a small amount of data from what is probably only the first batch of patches, but there is good news and bad news right now.
The good news is that performance is more or less maintained. Our tests artificially force the CPU in a world, that of video games, in which the GPU is the main limiter. And even so, only one game shows a noticeable reduction in performance, and it is also a very well optimized title that we have chosen for its ability to strain the CPU. In general, The Witcher 3 plays much smoother.
The bad news is Specter. For starters, the full scope of this security hole and its potential exploits means it’s an issue we’ll deal with for years to come, but in the short term the question is how long it will take for microcode updates for older systems to arrive, and if all motherboard manufacturers will create patches for older generations of CPUs. In a world where processors like the Core i5 2500K based on the 2011 Sandy Bridge architecture are still in massive use, should users take this opportunity to upgrade their systems? With so many CPUs in use, do Intel and motherboard manufacturers have a duty to ensure that these systems are as secure as possible? We will continue to monitor this situation closely over the next several weeks and months, when we begin to understand the true scope of the problem and the solutions to solve it are published.