Summary: Is the world ready for 6-core computing? With the Core i7-980X Extreme Edition, Intel says yes. The CPU features a 3.33GHz clock speed and 12MB of cache, yet delivers power consumption similar to the 975 EE. See how it performs and overclocks in today's article!
The state of multi-threaded games
Unfortunately, first-person shooters aren't quite as far along on the multi-threaded track. While Crysis was coded with multiple threads in mind, the game just doesn't seem to take advantage of quad-core CPUs. We'll see if Crysis 2 changes things when it ships later this year. Epic's Unreal Engine 3 is also supposed to be multithreaded, but we can't think of a single game out there that uses the UE3 engine that's scaled well beyond two cores.
UE3 is a big deal because it's the game engine that's used in most first-person shooters, and based on comments from Epic's Mark Rein, "Unreal Engine 4 is designed for the day we get massively multi-core processors", and UE4 is "still a long ways off", so clearly UE3 isn't going away any time soon.
Intel provides the following list of games that are coded for multi-core (note: the list is not meant to be 100% comprehensive):
In addition to the games listed above, Intel says over three dozen apps have been released with multi-core support including Adobe Photoshop/Premiere, 3D Studio Max/Maya, Cyberlink Power Director/Power Producer, Windows Live Movie Maker, Excel, WinRAR, and Sonic Roxio Creator.
Fortunately, unlike the QX6700, even if your favorite game or app doesn't take advantage of multi-core, the Core i7-980X can deliver tangible performance improvements with software that isn't multi-threaded. This is due in part thanks to its Turbo Mode feature, but more importantly, its larger L3 cache. 12MB. The QX6700 merely grafted two Core 2 Duo E6700 chips onto one package, so if your app wasn't multi-threaded, it performed just like an E6700.
Unlike Intel's very first quad-core processor, their first 6-core chip has been designed to give up nothing to prior EE CPUs; the Core i7-980X runs at the same 3.33GHz clock speed as the Core i7-975 EE, and as we mentioned earlier, it boasts more L3 cache (which is shared amongst all cores) than the 975 also. Therefore at the very worst, it should perform pretty comparably to Intel's flagship 975 EE CPU.
The extra cache isn't the only perk you'll find with the Core i7-980X Extreme Edition though. This is also the first Intel CPU to ship with a cooler we actually respect, but more on that later. Let's look at the CPU's specs:
So how is Intel able to charge the same price for the Core i7-980X as the 975 EE? Simple, 32-nm. Thanks to the smaller manufacturing process, Intel is able to cram 1.17 billion transistors into a 248 square millimeter die. That's actually smaller than Lynnfield, which features a 296mm2 die. Thanks to its 32-nm process, the Core i7-980X also features the same 130W TDP as previous Bloomfield Core i7 CPUs.
In terms of motherboard compatibility, the Core i7-980X Extreme Edition is a drop-in replacement for previous Bloomfield Core i7 CPUs. Simply update the BIOS on your existing X58 motherboard, and you're good to go. Most motherboard manufacturers have quietly offered Gulftown-ready BIOS' for a month or so now, so upgrading to six-core shouldn't be a problem.
New CPU Cooler
While they make great processors, one area Intel has historically neglected is CPU cooling. We've half joked in the past that their heatsink/fan units are nothing more than glorified paper weights that should be tossed away in favor of a real CPU cooler.
The joking stops with the Core i7-980X Extreme Edition though. This is the first Intel cooler that we'd actually keep.
Previous Intel coolers have relied on push pins to mount the heatsink to the CPU socket. This is great for inexperienced users who haven't built their own PC before, as it makes installation super simple, but as a result the heatsink doesn't make as good of contact with the surface of the CPU, hampering the cooler's performance.
In addition, Intel's stock coolers have historically been pretty wimpy. They've traditionally been made entirely from aluminum, with the hottest P4s and fastest Core CPUs getting a copper base (slug) to enhance heat transfer off the CPU. The heatsink itself hasn't been very large either.
Intel's stepped up their game for the Core i7-980X Extreme Edition. Retail boxed CPUs ship with Intel's DBX-B cooler.
Like the latest high-end CPU coolers, DBX-B features a tower design, and it's equipped with eight copper heatpipes, with an all-copper base. (Previous Intel coolers have used a copper slug surrounded by aluminum.) An aluminum heatsink then cools the heatpipe array.
DBX-B is also the first Intel cooler to utilize a retention mechanism that must be screwed down: push pins are a thing of the past. This makes installation tougher, but it's a tradeoff we'd gladly make for a CPU cooler that's actually pretty potent. The screws are large enough that you could even skip the screwdriver if you wanted, but because Intel's heatsink is so large, they can be incredibly tough to reach once everything's mounted inside your case, so we suggest you install your CPU and cooling beforehand.
Simply mount the included motherboard backplate on the underside of your board, drop in your EE CPU and cooler, and use the screw down retention mechanism to ensure a tight fit. Then mount everything inside your case. Intel says the cooler has been tested to “a 50x gravity shock force, equivalent to more than a 3 foot drop while integrated into a system", so the cooler shouldn't accidentally come loose once everything's installed properly.
Finally, Intel's DBX-B cooler ships with an adjustable fan. The fan can be run in two modes, a quiet mode, which Intel says spins at 800 RPM and generates less than 20dB of noise, and a performance mode which cranks up to 1800 RPM and generates no more than 35dB. Simply flip a switch at the top of the fan to switch fan modes.
Unfortunately, Intel says the DBX-B cooler will only be offered exclusively with the Core i7-980X Extreme Edition. In other words, the cooler won't be offered with any other Intel CPU, Extreme or not, and Intel has no plans to offer it as a standalone product you can buy at Newegg or anywhere else.
Considering its new 32-nm process, we were eager to see how far we could push Intel's latest Extreme Edition CPU. Would the extra cores hamper our OC, or would the new process usher in new clock speeds?
We could even boot into Windows 7 and run many apps at speeds as high as 4.5GHz, but couldn't get everything to run stable. Even with 1.4V of juice. We didn't want to go any higher with a 32-nm CPU, especially since upping the voltage wasn't getting us anywhere closer to full stability.
Intel Core 2 Duo E8600
Intel Core 2 Quad Q6700
ASUS P5E3 Premium
AMD Athlon II X4 635
AMD Phenom II X 965 Black Edition
Intel Core i7-870
Intel Core i5-750
ASUS P7P55D Deluxe
4GB (2x2GB) OCZ Platinum @ DDR3-1333 Speeds
Intel Core i7-980X Extreme Edition
Intel Core i7-975 Extreme Edition
Intel Core i7-920
6GB (2x3GB) OCZ Reaper HPC @DDR3-1066 Speeds
ATI Radeon 5870
2TB Seagate Barracuda XT
Windows 7 Ultimate 64-bit
Resident Evil 5
Valve Particle Simulation Benchmark
Far Cry 2 – Direct3D
Crysis – Direct3D
Tom Clancy's HAWX – Direct3D
Lost Planet – Direct3D
You can make a real case for the Core i7-980X Extreme Edition though, particularly if you're into 3D rendering with 3D Studio Max or Maya (among others). Thanks to its extra cores, the Core i7-980X EE was over 25% faster than the 975 EE in our 3D rendering tests with Cinebench, while Valve's particle simulation benchmark nearly ran 1.5 times faster with the 980X!
Clearly if you're shopping between the two CPUs, the Core i7-980X Extreme is easily the better buy. For the same amount of money you get two more cores and 50% more cache than the Core i7-975. And don't forget that you get a much better cooler inside the box too.
Upgrading to a 980X is still a tough call for gamers though. Sure, we did find multiple cases at 800x600 where the 980X's extra cores bought it tangible performance benefits. The 980X ran 21% faster than the 975 EE in Lost Planet at 800x600, and the 980X outperformed the 975 by 10% in HAWX and Far Cry 2; even in Crysis, a game which doesn't scale all that well with multiple cores, Intel's Core i7-980X managed to cross the finish line 7% faster than the Core i7-975 Extreme Edition thanks to its larger L3 cache in our testing.
But keep in mind that as you crank up the screen resolution and turn on the AA -- things you're definitely going to want to do when gaming -- the Core i7-980X performs similarly to the other quad-core CPUs we tested. Even with our Radeon 5870. This is because the burden shifts from the CPU to the GPU under these conditions.
Because of this, it's pretty tough for us to justify spending $1,000 on the 980X for our core audience, who are gamers. There are simply more cost effective ways you could spend that money: you could buy two Radeon 5850's, a Core i7-860, and P55 motherboard for the same amount of money. Unless you're the type who simply must have the best of the best, the 980X is just too expensive.
If you can afford it though, it doesn't get any better than the Core i7-980X Extreme. This is the best processor money can buy, and will be for the remainder of 2010. Intel won't be making any more major moves until Sandy Bridge arrives next year. At best, we may get a quad-core Gulftown derivative that's had two of its cores disabled (don't hold your breath though), and the latest rumors suggest a slower 6-core Gulftown part will be coming later this year, but nothing's going to top the 980X in Intel's upcoming lineup.
Intel says the first 980X CPUs should be hitting shelves in a few weeks time, so if you've got the cash, you won't have to wait much longer to experience 6-core computing on the desktop.
AMD's going to be unleashing their own 6-core Phenom II CPU shortly. The latest rumors suggest a late April launch. It will be interesting to see how AMD's fastest Phenom II X6 will fare against the 980X. While we don't expect it to outrun Intel, that's not going to stop us from testing the two CPUs head-to-head…
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