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Meltdown and Spectre: does patching your PC impact game performance?

It’s been described as one of the most serious PC security issues we’ve ever seen. Headlines have been dominated by the news that there’s a serious flaw in the hardware design of Intel microprocessors, going back over 20 years and covering millions upon millions of CPUs still in use today. If your gaming PC is based around an Intel processor, it’s vulnerable to the recently revealed ‘Meltdown’ exploit. Side by side with Meltdown is another serious security problem, dubbed ‘Spectre’ – which has the potential to affect your PC, smartphone or tablet, regardless of whether or not it has Intel technology at its core.

So at the very basic level, what’s at risk here? Essentially, Meltdown allows malware to gain access to protected memory within your CPU, areas within your processor that should be impossible to access. Sensitive data of just about any description is potentially accessible. Spectre offers another vector in acquiring sensitive data, to the extent that, although more difficult to deploy, it may well be causing headaches months or even years from now.

In the short term, fixes are being rolled out – and more may yet follow – and the concern is that performance may be significantly impacted. Epic Games recently revealed the extent of the hit for its Fortnite gaming servers, with a revealing graph showing a huge spike in CPU utilisation once the Meltdown patches were installed. The question is to what extent the patches – such as they are now – will impact the average gaming PC.

Covering off both of the security issues requires separate updates. First of all, Windows Update patches Microsoft’s OS by offering protection for Intel CPUs vulnerable to Meltdown, shunting the CPU kernel into a separate virtual address space. Secondly, a BIOS update for your motherboard aims to make the CPU’s branch prediction a little less aggressive, making it more difficult for Spectre to be effective. Both of these updates have the potential to slow your PC down, but the good news here is that the overall impact measured so far in many benchmarks is in the two to three per cent range, with only storage IO on very fast devices (like NVMe solid state drives) showing noticeable performance degradation. It’s a different ballgame in the enterprise sector, with CPU virtualisation clearly being affected significantly – as seen on Epic’s Fortnight servers.