Everywhere you look, it's Skyrim. On Steam, Bethesda's RPG dominates the active player numbers, recently clocking in at 210,000 users and sitting around 270,000 as I write this. If you've yet to join this growing army of screaming, barrel-wielding adventure-mongers because you fear your PC isn't up to the task, yet refuse to go down the console path, then you might find the answer to your quandary here.
Tom's Hardware has put a range of gaming setups through Skyrim's rendering engine and it turns out the game isn't as torturous as the trailers would have you believe. Even so, some pieces of hardware performed better than others.
Through all of the benchmarks, AMD's Radeon chips handled Skyrim the best, clocking 80-100fps between the mid and high-end at medium graphics settings, while NVIDIA's GTX 550 Ti managed 70fps using the same configuration. Given the result were all above 60fps, there's no need for concern as they're all extremely playable frame rates.
In the budget and mid-range segments, however, it's all about the Radeon 6850 and 5770 — the latter remaining surprisingly competitive despite retailing at $130 or so and being two years old, an eternity in graphics hardware terms. At higher detail levels, the 5770 gave a performance of 73fps at its best, with 64fps being its lowest score. The 550 Ti, unfortunately, topped out at 60fps.
Again, hardly shameful results for NVIDIA. What it shows is that you don't need a beastly system to run Skyrim, though it doesn't hurt to have something slightly above the mid-range.
It would have been nice to see some figures for the 560 Ti, which currently occupies the enthusiast sweet spot for price versus performance if NVIDIA is your favourite flavour of GPU vendor. It also happens to be my current graphics card.
On the CPU front, Intel's Sandy Bridge processors top the benchmarks, with AMD's Phenoms handing in noticeably slower results. This difference was mostly prevalent at "ultra" detail, so no one should be bagging on AMD just yet. What was more surprising is that Skyrim does not appear to be optimised for anything greater than dual-core. Tri and quad-core chips are nowhere near as rare as they once were, and will very much be the norm for gaming PCs within a year or so.
If you've picked up Skyrim for PC, how's your rig handling the workload? I doubt it'll drive anyone to upgrade like Morrowind did — I think NVIDIA must have sold out of Ti4200s when that one hit — but I'm sure a few of you are eyeing off a new graphics card, CPU or even just more RAM now that the game has landed.
Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim: PC Performance, Benchmarked [Tom's Hardware]