Is it possible to write code (or complete software, rather than a piece of code) that won't work properly when run on a CPU that has less than N number of cores? Without checking it explicitly and failing on purpose:

IF (noOfCores < 4) THEN don't run properly on purpose

I'm looking at a game's (Dragon Age: Inquisition) minimum system requirements, and it states a minimum of a four-core CPU. Many players say it does NOT run on two-core CPU's and EVEN on Intel Core i3s with two physical and two logical cores. And it's NOT a problem of computing power.

From my understanding, threads are completely isolated from the CPU by the OS since that cannot be done.

Just to clear things out:

I am NOT asking "Can I find out the number of CPU cores from code, and fail on purpose?" ... Such code would be ill-intentioned (forces you to buy a more expensive CPU to run a program - without the need of computational power). I am asking that your code, say, has four threads and fails when two threads are run on the same physical core (without explicitly checking system information and purposely failing).

In short, can there be software that requires multiple cores, without needing additional computing power that comes from multiple cores? It would just require N separate physical cores.

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    If you read my question carefully you will see they are not asking the same thing. – Reek Jan 7 '15 at 12:19
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    Since the number of cores can be retrieved, it can be compared to N, and if that comparison evaluates to true, the code can do whatever the hell it wants, including but not limited to behaving in ways not advertised. What's your question? – user7043 Jan 7 '15 at 12:36
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    Are you sure the problem is really and directly related to the number of cores? Maybe the mentioned game is partially based on a feature only (correctly) provided by CPU with at least 4 cores? – mgoeminne Jan 7 '15 at 12:50
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    Note that "minimum system requirements" are often "minimum system requirements to run with acceptable performance", especially with games. It is very possible that Dragon Age could, in theory, run on a single core box, but if you did so, it would show massive frame drops. So they require this number of cores not to force you to buy hardware, but to avoid quality complaints from users of lower-end hardware. – Steven Burnap Jan 7 '15 at 20:24
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    @Sebb: I think you're onto something: if 4 physical cores does correlate with having more cache then 2 physical/4 logical, then the game could naturally be choking on 2x2 machines without hitting their processing power limits because it's missing cache all the time. The test would be to find a CPU with 2x2 cores and loads of cache, or 4 cores and little cache, and see what happens. – Steve Jessop Jan 8 '15 at 12:38

12 Answers 12

It may be possible to do this "by accident" with careless use of core affinity. Consider the following pseudocode:

  • start a thread
  • in that thread, find out which core it is running on
  • set its CPU affinity to that core
  • start doing something computationally intensive / loop forever

If you start four of those on a two-core CPU, then either something goes wrong with the core affinity setting or you end up with two threads hogging the available cores and two threads that never get scheduled. At no point has it explicitly asked how many cores there are in total.

(If you have long-running threads, setting CPU affinity generally improves throughput)

The idea that game companies are "forcing" people to buy more expensive hardware for no good reason is not very plausible. It can only lose them customers.

Edit: this post has now got 33 upvotes, which is quite a lot given that it's based on educated guesswork!

It seems that people have got DA:I to run, badly, on dual-core systems: http://www.dsogaming.com/pc-performance-analyses/dragon-age-inquisition-pc-performance-analysis/ That analysis mentions that the situation greatly improves if hyperthreading is turned on. Given that HT does not add any more instruction issue units or cache, it merely allows one thread to run while another is in a cache stall, that suggests strongly that it's linked to purely the number of threads.

Another poster claims that changing the graphics drivers works: http://answers.ea.com/t5/Dragon-Age-Inquisition/Working-solution-for-Intel-dual-core-CPUs/td-p/3994141 ; given that graphics drivers tend to be a wretched hive of scum and villany, this isn't surprising. One notorious set of drivers had a "correct&slow" versus "fast&incorrect" mode that was selected if called from QUAKE.EXE. It's entirely possible that the drivers behave differently for different numbers of apparent CPUs. Perhaps (back to speculation) a different synchronisation mechanism is used. Misuse of spinlocks?

"Misuse of locking and synchronisation primitives" is a very, very common source of bugs. (The bug I'm supposed to be looking at at work while writing this is "crash if changing printer settings at same time as print job finishes").

Edit 2: comments mention OS attempting to avoid thread starvation. Note that the game may have its own internal quasi-scheduler for assigning work to threads, and there will be a similar mechanism in the graphics card itself (which is effectively a multitasking system of its own). Chances of a bug in one of those or the interaction between them are quite high.

www.ecsl.cs.sunysb.edu/tr/ashok.pdf (2008) is a graduate thesis on better scheduling for graphics cards which explicitly mentions that they normally use first-come-first-served scheduling, which is easy to implement in non-preemptive systems. Has the situation improved? Probably not.

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    Yeah there are two parts to answering this question: CPU affinity allows one to code something that would make this a technical requirement in Windows, the alternative answer is realtime systems can very definitely require such things. +1 for being the only person to mention CPU affinity which is really the most likely culprit for what is being asked here. – Jimmy Hoffa Jan 7 '15 at 17:24
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    What can go wrong if you set the affinity to current core? With preemptive multitasking the waiting thread will be scheduled unless current one has maximum possible priority ("realtime" in Windows). I'd see another scenario: each of the 4 threads are assigned statically-defined affinity of 1,2,4,8, in which case the latter two threads will never be scheduled (although I'm not sure if setting affinity to effective zero is going to succeed). – Ruslan Jan 7 '15 at 18:33
  • @Ruslan Maybe trying to set invalid affinity will crash the application in the first place? – Luaan Jan 8 '15 at 16:29
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    @Luaan well that's not that risky operation to lead to crash. Maximum what I'd expect is an error returned by the OS. I've just checked, in Linux I get "Invalid argument" error. Don't know what Windows would say. – Ruslan Jan 8 '15 at 16:37
  • @Ruslan Every major OS for certainly over a decade has included code to avoid thread starvation (usually by boosting the priority of a thread after it hasn't run for long enough). – Voo Jan 8 '15 at 19:05

It could be necessary to have 4 cores because the application runs four tasks in parallel threads and expects them to finish almost simultaneously.

When every thread is executed by a separate core and all threads have the exact same computational workload, they are quite likely (but far from guaranteed) to finish roughly the same time. But when two threads run on one core, the timing will be a lot less predictable because the core will switch context between the two threads all the time.

Bugs which occur because of unexpected thread timing are referred to as "race conditions".

In the context of game development, one plausible architecture with this kind of problem could be one where different features of the game are simulated in real-time by different CPU threads. When each feature runs on an own core, they are all simulated with roughly the same speed. But when two features run on one core, both will only be simulated half as fast as the rest of the game world, which could cause all kinds of weird behaviors.

Note that a software architecture which depends on independent threads running with specific timings is extremely fragile and a sign of very bad understanding of concurrent programming. There are features available in practically all multithreading APIs to synchronize threads explicitly to prevent these kinds of problems.

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    But any game has a fragile dependence on being able to complete all the computation for the next frame in time to render it with reasonable frequency. Even if your 4 threads are synchronized correctly, it may be impossible to render in a timely fashion, and there's no benefit in a game which is computationally correct but unplayable due to lag and stutter. – Useless Jan 7 '15 at 17:52
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    @Useless: That's not really true. You can for example buffer frames or simulation data to hide any stutter, and there are concurrent designs that are more consistent. Getting all your processing done in X time and requring exact synchronization of that processing are different matters. – DeadMG Jan 7 '15 at 18:37
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    "a software architecture which depends on independent threads running with specific timings is extremely fragile" Which is exactly why I can't imagine a game that doesn't run at all with 2 cores, but reliably works with 4 cores. Even with 4 cores, the timing will be unpredictable, so the race condition would occur too, even if less frequently. – svick Jan 7 '15 at 19:50
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    @svick of course. But the question asks "is it possible?" not "is it sane?" – immibis Jan 8 '15 at 3:20
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    Any code with this kind of "race conditions" is flat-out broken, no matter how many cores you run it on. (Especially since there's absolutely no guarantee as to what else is running on the system.) I seriously doubt this to be the cause, given how easily it would trip the game even on a hexacore system... – DevSolar Jan 8 '15 at 16:04

It is unlikely that these "minimum requirements" represent something below which the game will not run. Far more likely is that they represent something below which the game will not run with acceptable performance. No game company wants to deal with lots of customers complaining about crappy performance when they are running it on a single core 1 Ghz box, even if the software could technically run. So they probably deliberately design to fail hard on boxes with fewer cores than would give them acceptable performance.

One important metric in game performance is the frame rate. Typically they run at either 30 or 60 frames per second. This means that the game engine has to render the current view from the game state in a fixed amount of time. To achieve 60 fps, it has just a bit more than 16 msecs to do this. Games with high-end graphics are extremely CPU bound and so there's a huge give-and-take between trying to push higher quality (which takes more time) and the need to stay in this time budget. Thus, the time budget for each frame is extremely tight.

Because the time budget is tight, the developer ideally wants exclusive access to one or more cores. They also likely want to be able to do their rendering stuff in a core, exclusively, as it's what has to get done on that time budget, while other stuff, like calculating the world state, happens on a separate process where it won't intrude.

You could, in theory, cram all this onto a single core, but then everything becomes much harder. Suddenly you have to make sure all that game state stuff happens fast enough, and allows your rendering to happen. You can't just make them two software threads because there's no way to make the OS understand "thread A must complete X amount of work in 16 msecs regardless of what thread B does".

Game developers have zero interest in making you buy new hardware. The reason they have system requirements is that the cost of supporting lower end machines is not worth it.

  • While this is true, it happens that you can buy dual-core hardware that is powerful enough that it can achieve more in a given time frame than the quad core hardware described in the minimum specs. Why would the vendor not list such hardware as acceptable, a decision which can only lose them sales? – Jules Jan 8 '15 at 11:16
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    The thing to compare isn't 2 vs. 4 cores. It's essentially 1 vs. 3 cores, as CPU#0 will be pretty much pegged by the graphics driver and DPCs. There are also significant cache and migration effects if you oversubscribe a CPU with several kinds of tasks in a typical modern game's job system. The requirement is there because Frostbite (DA:I's engine) is designed from the ground up with very careful tuning that requires a particular number of cores. – Lars Viklund Jan 8 '15 at 13:30
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    @LarsViklund It sounds like you know more details than anyone else here. Having you considered putting an answer together? – Steven Burnap Jan 8 '15 at 14:53
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    "It is unlikely that these "minimum requirements" represent something below which the game will not run. Far more likely is that they represent something below which the game will not run with acceptable performance." -- Intel's G3258 is a very powerful dual core processor widely used by gamers that is capable of running games equal or more resource intensive than Dragon Age Inquisition, but many players report the game does not run on it. – Reek Jan 8 '15 at 15:46
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    @Reek I am doubtful that an end user can easily tell how resource intensive a particular game is as compared to another. – Steven Burnap Jan 8 '15 at 20:41

Three realtime threads that never sleep and one other thread. If there are less than four cores, the fourth thread never runs. If the fourth thread needs to communicate with one of the realtime threads for the realtime thread to finish, the code will not finish with less than four cores.

Obviously if realtime threads are waiting on something that doesn't allow them to sleep (such as a spinlock) the program designer screwed up.

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    Arguably, when a user application requests realtime threads in the first place, the designer screwed up :D – Luaan Jan 8 '15 at 16:31
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    I've done it. Half a million lines of code. One case using about 300 lines. Realtime thread spends most of its time waiting for input so it can timestamp the input and hand it to a lesser priority thread. – Joshua Jan 8 '15 at 16:33
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    @Luaan For most applications I'd agree with you, but games are a different beast, as are embedded applications. In both of those cases, concern for playing nice with other concurrent applications mostly goes out the window in favor of performance. – reirab Jan 8 '15 at 16:54
  • While it wouldn't be particularly efficient, this scenario would not lead to any deadlocks - priority inversion would take care of it (assuming any halfway decent scheduler in any major OS of the last decade) – Voo Jan 8 '15 at 19:10
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    @Joshua > Windows doesn't know what priority inversion is. What? support.microsoft.com/kb/96418, msdn.microsoft.com/en-us/library/windows/desktop/ms684831.aspx. Also, priority inversion is the term that describes the issue, not a solution (@Voo). – Bob Jan 9 '15 at 4:54

First of all software threads has nothing to do with hardware threads and is often mixed up. Software threads are pieces of code than can be dispatched and run on it's own within the process context. Hardware threads are mostly managed by the OS and are dispatches to the processor's core when talking about regular programs. These hardware threads are dispatched based on load; the hardware thread dispatcher acts more or less like a load balancer.

However when it comes to gaming, especially high end gaming, sometimes the hardware threads are managed by the game itself or the game instructs the hardware thread dispatcher what to do. That is because every tasks or group of tasks doesn't have the same priority like in a normal program. Because dragon age comes from an high end game studio using high end game engines I can imagine that it uses "manual" dispatch and then the number of cores becomes a minimal system requirement. Any program would crash when I send a piece of code to the 3rd physical core running on a machine with only 1 or 2 cores.

  • This. Remember that saying "check no of cores" means that a company is making its software product in a specific way to force users to buy more expensive hardware (which would be ill-intended). – Reek Jan 7 '15 at 13:11
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    These problems exists as long as there is PC gaming. In the beginning we had 486dx and 486sx, later the MMX and non-MMX Pentium, core and non-core and today we have n-core requirements. This is one of the reasons why consoles still exists. – dj bazzie wazzie Jan 7 '15 at 14:02
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    Do you have a reference for games taking over CPU scheduling themselves? As far as I was aware, this is not directly possible under Windows, at least not in a way that would fail in the way you suggest. – Jules Jan 8 '15 at 11:13
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    @djbazziewazzie actually windows does provide an api to do just that, I.e. set a thread to always use the same core; this is called thread affinity, and does not allow you to manually select which piece of code runs where and when, and cannot cause a system failure as you suggest (the system will ignore a request to set affinity to a non-existant core, and just keep scheduling the thread to any core when it becomes available. I'm pretty sure this is what id Tech uses, and it doesn't really amount to "managing the hardware threads itself". – Jules Jan 8 '15 at 14:01
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    @djbazziewazzie You also appear to misunderstand the point of Grand Central Dispatch, which does not give developers more control over how their code is scheduled to a core; in fact, its purpose is the precise opposite: taking the choice of how many threads to create and which code should run on which thread out of the hands of applications so that it can be optimized for the available hardware at a system-wide level. Dependency on having a certain number of cores is exactly the kind of problem GCD was designed to prevent. – Jules Jan 8 '15 at 14:13

Since it is possible to use virtualize to have more virtual cores than physical and the software would not know it is running on a virtualize and instead think that it does have that many physical cores, I would say such software is not possible.

That is to say, it is not possible to write software that will always stop on less than N cores.

As others have pointed out, there are software solutions that can potentially check, especially if the OS and code being used has little protection against race conditions when N processes run on <N processors. The real trick is code that will fail when you have less than N processors but won't fail when you do have N processors but have an OS that may assign work to less than N processors.

It could be that there are three threads doing something (generating backgrounds or generating NPC movement) and passing events to a fourth, which is supposed to aggregate/filter the events and update the view model. If the fourth thread doesn't get all the events (because it's not scheduled on a core) then the view model doesn't get updated correctly. This may only happen sporadically, but those cores need to be available at any point. This might explain why you're not seeing high CPU usage all the time, but the game is failing to work properly anyway.

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    In such a scenario the game would also fail randomly when background services were scheduled to run, which is quite frequently on most pcs. – Jules Jan 8 '15 at 11:19

I think Joshua is heading down the right path, just not to it's conclusion.

Suppose you have an architecture where there are three threads that are written to do as much as they can--when they finish what they are doing they do it again. To keep performance up these threads do not release control for anything--they don't want to risk the lag from the Windows task scheduler. So long as there are 4 or more cores this works fine, it fails badly if there aren't.

In general this would be bad programming but games are another matter--when you're faced with a choice between a design that's inferior on all hardware or a design that is superior on sufficiently good hardware or a failure on inferior hardware game developers usually choose to require the hardware.

  • It's usually not possible to write a thread that will not relinquish control to other threads. All modern non-RTOS operating systems use preemptive multitasking, which intentionally makes it impossible for a (user mode) thread to not release control of a given core. Kernel threads, of course, are a different matter. – reirab Jan 8 '15 at 17:05
  • @reirab Boost it's priority. – Loren Pechtel Jan 9 '15 at 2:27
  • @Loren Doesn't change the fact that the scheduler still dies its work meaning you have to share time with other threads of the same priority and the scheduler boosting priority of starved threads. You can't do that on normal OSes and even if you could, games certainly wouldn't be an acceptable application of doing so either. – Voo Jan 9 '15 at 15:24

Is it possible to write code (or complete software, rather than a piece of code) that won't work properly when run on a CPU that has less than N number of cores?

Absolutely. The use of real-time threads would be a good example of a situation in which this is, not only possible, but the desired way (and often, the only correct way) to get the job done. However, real-time threads are usually limited to the OS kernel, usually for drivers which need to be able to guarantee that a hardware event of some sort is handled within some defined period of time. You should not have real-time threads in normal user applications and I'm not sure that it's even possible to have one in a Windows user-mode application. Generally, operating systems make it intentionally impossible to do this from user land precisely because it does allow a given application to take over control of the system.

Regarding user-land applications: Your assumption that checking for a given number of threads in order to run is necessarily malicious in intent is not correct. For instance, you could have 2 long-running, performance-intensive tasks that need a core to themselves. Regardless of CPU core speed, sharing a core with other threads could be a serious and unacceptable performance degradation due to cache thrashing along with the normal penalties incurred by thread switching (which are pretty substantial.) In this case, it would be perfectly reasonable, especially for a game, to set each of these threads to have an affinity only on one particular core for each of them and then set all of your other threads to not have affinity on those 2 cores. In order to do this, though, you'd have to add a check that the system has more than 2 cores and fail if it doesn't.

  • Umm... Would the 2-year-later downvoter care to explain? If there's a problem with my answer, I'll try to fix it. – reirab Jan 9 '17 at 21:13

Any code using spinlocks with any noticeable amount of lock contention will perform terribly (to an extent where -- for an application like a game -- you can say "doesn't work") if the number of threads exceeds the number of cores.

Imagine for example a producer thread submitting tasks to a queue which serves 4 consumer threads. There are only two cores:

The producer tries to obtain the spinlock, but it is held by a consumer running on the other core. The two cores are running lockstep while the producer is spinning, waiting on the lock to be released. This is already bad, but not as bad as it will get.
Unluckily, the consumer thread is at the end of its time quantum, so it is preempted, and another consumer thread is scheduled. It tries to get hold of the lock, but of course the lock is taken, so now two cores are spinning and waiting for something that cannot possibly happen.
The producer thread reaches the end of its time slice and is preempted, another consumer wakes up. Again, two consumers are waiting for a lock to be released, and it just won't happen before two more time quantums have passed.
[...] Finally the consumer that was holding the spinlock has released the lock. It is immediately taken by whoever is spinning on the other core. There is a 75% chance (3 to 1) that it's another consumer thread. In other words, it's 75% likely that the producer is still being stalled. Of course this means that the consumers stall, too. Without the producer sumbitting tasks, they have nothing to do.

Note that this works in principle with any kind of lock, not just spinlocks -- but the devastating effect is much more prominent with spinlocks because the CPU keeps burning cycles while it achieves nothing.

Now imagine that in addition to the above some programmer had the brilliant idea to use a dedicated thread with affinity set to the first core, so RDTSC will give reliable results on all processors (it won't anyway, but some people think so).

  • That is why good spinlocks downgrade to other lock types after a small time, and even better ones do so very quicker if past usages of the same lock have had to downgrade. – Ian Jan 10 '15 at 18:03

If I understand what you're asking, it's possible, but it's a very, very bad thing.

The canonical example of what you're describing would be maintaining a counter which is incremented by multiple threads. This requires almost nothing in therms of computing power but requires careful coordination among the threads. As long as only one thread at a time does an increment (which is actually a read followed by an addition followed by a write), its value will always be correct. This is because one thread will always read the correct "previous" value, add one and write the correct "next" value. Get two threads into the action at the same time and both will read the same "previous" value, get the same result from the increment and write the same "next" value. The counter will effectively have been incremented only once even though two threads think they each did it.

This dependency between timing and correctness is what computer science calls a race condition.

Race conditions are often avoided by using synchronization mechanisms to make sure threads wanting to operate on a piece of shared data have to get in line for access. The counter described above might use a read-write lock for this.

Without access to the internal design of Dragon Age: Inquisition, all anyone can do is speculate about why it behaves the way it does. But I'll have a go based on some things I've seen done in my own experience:

It might be that the program is based around four threads that have been tuned so everything works when the threads run mostly-uninterrupted on their own physical cores. The "tuning" could come in the form of rearranging code or inserting sleeps in strategic places to mitigate race-condition-induced bugs that cropped up during development. Again, this is all conjecture, but I've seen race conditions "resolved" that way more times than I care to count.

Running a program like that way on anything less capable than the environment for which it was tuned introduces timing changes that are a result of the code not running as quickly or, more likely, context switches. Context switches happen in physical (i.e., the CPU's physical cores are switching between the work its logical cores are holding) and logical (i.e., the OS on the CPU is assigning work to the cores) ways, but either is a significant divergence from what would be the "expected" execution timing. That can bring out bad behavior.

If Dragon Age: Inquisition doesn't take the simple step of making sure there are enough physical cores available before proceeding, that's EA's fault. They're probably spending a small fortune fielding support calls and emails from people who tried to run the game on too little hardware.

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    Some players say its caused by DRM running on 2 cores and the actual game runs on 2 too. When DRM and game threads run on same core it gets messed up. But this doesn't sound correct to me, it may be a little story made up by a player that does not know much about sw or hw architecture. – Reek Jan 7 '15 at 16:43
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    race conditions really haven't much to do with core count, -1... a single core machine with multiple virtual threads can have race conditions totally dependent on the runtime's time slicing technique, or a many core system could avoid all race conditions dependent on how strict it is with membar operations... – Jimmy Hoffa Jan 7 '15 at 17:27
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    @Reek: Without intimate knowledge of how the program works, anything's a guess. Two cores to do just the DRM seems a little excessive to me. – Blrfl Jan 7 '15 at 17:35
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    @JimmyHoffa: I disagree. A race condition is still a race condition even when it's not causing undesired behavior. Core count can influence whether or not that behavior happens, which is what the questioner asked, but I didn't cite it as the sole variable. – Blrfl Jan 7 '15 at 17:51

Windows has built-in functionality for this: the function GetLogicalProcessorInformation is in the Windows API. You can call it from your program to get information about cores, virtual cores, and hyperthreading.

So the answer to your question would be: Yes.

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    I am not asking "Can I find out no of cores from code?" ... Such a code will be ill-intended (forces you to buy a more expensive CPU to run a program - without the need of computational power). – Reek Jan 7 '15 at 12:28
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    This function gives much more information then just a raw "number of cores". With this information you can deduct physical cores, logical cores and more. If you can deduct that, then you can write software to use this information. In a good or bad way (crash program when you see 4 cores but less then 4 physical cores). – Pieter B Jan 7 '15 at 12:32
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    This may work in Windows, but what about OSX/Linux/iOS/Android/etc.? While it is referencing a game as an instance where this behavior is seen (and the natural correlation would be Windows = Gaming), it doesn't seem to be a game specific request. – Robert Jan 7 '15 at 15:50
  • For a game like Dragon Age, the systems in question are Windows/XBox/PS4. – Steven Burnap Jan 7 '15 at 22:30
  • Linux has /proc/cpuinfo and sysconf(_SC_NPROCESSORS_ONLN) (the latter being mentioned in POSIX). Using the info to enforce a minimum performance threshold is still pretty bad form, though. – cHao Jan 8 '15 at 14:05

protected by gnat Jan 8 '15 at 20:31

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