Intel Core 2 Extreme QX9770 £952

19th Nov 2007 | 00:00

Intel Core 2 Extreme QX9770

The fastest PC processor on the planet

TechRadar rating:

4 stars

Despite some amazing sounding specs, this is just too expensive

Like:

Stunning performance; Very fast

Dislike:

Similarly powerful Q9550 is a third of the price

When Intel wheels out a minor speed bump of its incumbent Extreme edition PC processor, it's not normally a cause for much rejoicing.

Typically, it's a case of a few hundred additional MHz of operating frequency, a fat $1,000 price tag and conspicuously poor value for money. However, the new Core 2 Extreme QX9770 is a bit different.

Yes, its clockspeed has only edged up by 200MHz to 3.2GHz. Likewise, the $1,000 sticker is all too familiar. But crucially, the QX9770 delivers on the immense promise of Intel's latest 45nm silicon production process.

World's fastest processor

This not just the world's fastest PC processor at standard frequencies. It also boasts enormous overclocking headroom. To understand why, let's wind back the clock a few months to the launch of the first 45nm chip from Intel, the Core 2 Extreme QX9650.

Intel announced that it was configured with precisely the same 3.0GHz core clockspeed and 1,333MHz bus frequency as Intel's outgoing 65nm quad-core CPU, the QX6850. In the context of the bullish noises Intel had been making about the spectacular success of its transition to 45nm manufacturing technology, it was hard not to be a little disappointed.

After all, thanks to the use of revolutionary High-K dielectric and metal gate materials technology, Intel claimed, transistor gate leakage had been reduced by as much as as a factor of 10.

The recent trend for spiralling power leakage and therefore ballooning power consumption had been stopped stone dead. Moore's Law was back on track and all was well in Intel's universe. But where was the benefit of the new process in terms of operating frequencies?

Then we tested the QX9650 and discovered that Intel's 45nm technology was indeed as spectacular as it had claimed. Despite matching its 65nm predecessor for clockspeed and outperforming it by as much as 10 per cent, the QX9650 consumes just half as much power. Courtesy of the new 45nm process, in other words, Intel has achieved a doubling in performance per Watt.

Is Intel sandbagging?

All of which left us suspecting a certain amount of sandbagging. The QX9650's miserly power consumption surely leaves plenty of headroom for faster chips. With Intel's chief rival AMD struggling to launch its competing quad-core Phenom processor at competitive frequencies, there isn't much incentive for Intel to push to the edge of the envelope, either.

You might think that hasn't changed with the unveiling of the QX9770. But don't be fooled by its conservative 3.2GHz stock operating frequency. It's in the fine details that this chip betrays its high performance credentials.

Most obvious is the bump in front side bus frequency to 1,600MHz, the first Intel desktop chip to be so specified. With four extremely powerful and data hungry execution cores on board, that's an important enhancement. Very likely, it contributes as much as the boosted core clockspeed to the QX9770's occasionally impressive benchmark results.

The extra bus bandwidth no doubt explains, for example, the 10 per cent or so improvement it cranks out compared with the QX9650 in game titles such as Crysis and rendering workloads like Cinebench. The eight per cent boost in video encoding is likewise slightly more than can be accounted for terms of the core clockspeed alone.

Even more significant, for enthusiasts at least, is the tweaked core voltage, up from around 1.2v to 1.35v. Consider it, if you like, as Intel's way of preconfiguring the chip for much higher overclocked frequencies.

Where the QX9650 runs out of steam at around 3.5GHz running at its standard 1.2v setting, the QX9770 will hit in excess of 4GHz, all using a conventional air-based cooling solution. Granted, overclocking enthusiasts are a very small market. But then this chip's asking price places it in an extremely exclusive niche.

Ultimately, the new QX9770 isn't hugely exciting at standard operating frequencies. It certainly won't provide a noticeably better end user experience. Moreover, it remains poor value for money. The less exotic members of Intel's new 45nm Core quad-core range due in early 2008 will deliver 90 per cent of the fun for a small fraction of the price.

Nevertheless, with the changes Intel has made with overclocking in mind, this must be the new undisputed weapon of choice for enthusiasts. The massive overclocking headroom certainly makes it perhaps the most desirable Extreme edition Intel processor ever. It also clearly proves the promise of Intel's 45nm silicon process.

There's a final twist in the QX9770's tale. It's only expected on the market in the new year, and it's unusual for Intel to get involved in this kind of paper launch of a new product.

Most likely, it's intended to distract attention from the unveiling of AMD's Phenom quad-core processor. If so, it's a rather unnecessary move given the lowly 2.2-2.3GHz launch frequencies of Phenom. But at least it shows that Intel is still willing, for now, to keep piling on the pressure.

Intel Computing
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