Intel Core i7-980X Extreme Edition £800

12th Mar 2010 | 16:00

Intel Core i7-980X Extreme Edition

Six cores, 12MB of cache and a whole lotta money

TechRadar rating:

4.5 stars

The fastest PC processor we've ever tested. But so expensive, nobody can afford it.

Like:

Epic performance by every metric; Money no object, the finest CPU money can buy

Dislike:

Money is an object; LGA1,366 socket is a dead end

Intel Core i7-980X: Introduction

Build it and they will come. That, surely, is the thinking behind the launch of this new six-core monster from Intel. You almost definitely don't need it. You probably couldn't make proper use of it. But here it is all the same: the mighty new Core i7-980X Extreme Edition.

After all, it's not as if your average quad-core PC owner is crying out for more performance. Indeed, a cooking dual-core chip gets the job done for the vast majority of people, the vast majority of the time.

Nevertheless, a small cadre of enthusiasts and power users do demand more. It's this very group that Intel is targeting with this impossibly powerful and pointlessly expensive flagship chip.

Still, we have a feeling they'll be very happy with what Intel is giving them. Six cores is obviously the biggest news, a first for a desktop PC processor. But this is six cores à la Intel and that means two threads per core.

Fire up the Performance tab in Windows Task Manager, therefore, and you'll be greeted with no less than 12 graphs, one for each logical processor. In our best Quake III voice, that's IMPRESSIVE.

Performance monitor

The 980X is also Intel's second chip with fancy new 32nm transistors. As ever, the benefits of this "process shrink" from Intel's existing 45nm node are several.

For starters, it allows Intel to pack in more features. In fact, the six-core 980X and its 1.17 billion transistors is actually smaller than any of Intel's quad-core processors. And that is despite the fact that Intel has upped the chip's shared cache memory to a mammoth 12MB.

Less is more

Smaller chips, of course, are typically cheaper chips. Inevitably, Intel is going to milk the 980X's six-core novelty status for a while. But more affordable models of the new six-core Gulftown core, as the chip is known internally at Intel, are expected later this year. For now, it's just this lone £800 Extreme Edition model.

Anyhow, smaller transistors also tend to use less power and hit higher clockspeeds. We'll come to the former in a moment. But as for the latter, the 980X is officially rated at 3.33GHz with a maximum of 3.6GHz available courtesy of Intel's auto-overclocking Turbo Boost function. Pretty much the same frequencies, in other words, as Intel's speediest quads, but with a couple more cores thrown in.

Nehalem redux

Elsewhere, there isn't all that much to report. Architecturally, Gulftown is pretty much a standard Nehalem class processor, the likes of which have been on sale for about 18 months. Not that this is a bad thing.

On the contrary, the Nehalem architecture remains cutting edge, replete as it is with an integrated triple-channel memory controller and all manner of 64-bit, virtualised and HyperThreaded goodness.

For the record, the 980X is another chip that only works with Intel's high-end LGA 1,366 CPU socket. For now, owners of PCs or motherboards with the LGA 1,156 socket are out of luck when it comes to six-core thrills.

Moreover, what the carry-over architecture does mean is that you shouldn't expect this new chip to do anything more than behave like a six-core Nehalem processor. There's no new magic under the hood.

Indeed, our benchmarks back this up. In single threaded tests, it performs precisely on a par with the identically clocked Core i7-975 Extreme Edition quad-core CPU.

Intel Core i7-980X: Multi-threaded mastery

But that isn't the point of the 980X. The point is multi-threaded mastery. It delivers. In our HD video encoding benchmark, for example, it's very nearly 50 per cent faster than the 975.

Professional rendering is another showcase application for the 980X's multi-threading talents with the 980X shaving fully 50 per cent off the 975's 43 second time-to-complete for CineBench R10.

32nm core structure

Of course, you won't always see performance balloon in line with the core count, even in multi-threaded applications. Not all applications are coded to scale in an efficient and linear fashion as cores are added.

Moreover, some are limited by factors such as data bandwidth, a metric by which the 980X does nothing to move the game on. It supports precisely the same 1,066MHz DDR3 memory in triple-channel configuration as existing high-end Core i7 processors.

Still, just as impressive as the increased performance is the fact that the 980X does it while consuming less power than the old 975 quad-core processor. And not just a little less. Our test system peaks at 275 watts with the 975 installed but just 245 watts courtesy of the new 980X. More performance for less power in other words.

Punitive pricing

Regarding downsides, there are few. As we have come to expect, Turbo Mode disappoints. Whether the workload is single or multi-threaded, the 980X runs at 3.45GHz. Frankly, the whole Turbo Mode thing feels more and more like a gimmick. Note to Intel: decide what speed the thing runs at and stick that on the label, umm-kay.

That said, the real killer is pricing. £800 makes this a luxurious irrelevancy for all but a few well-heeled enthusiasts. In the context of chips like the new Core i7 930, a 2.8GHz quad-core processor that sells for about £220, making a business case for the 980X is basically impossible. It doesn't come close to delivering four times the performance.

Verdict

The PC industry has bet all its chips on multi-core. Hence, the full potential of this new six-core specimen from Intel will surely be unleashed in time. But for now, and at this price point, it doesn't add up for a typical PC user.

However, the knowledge that cheaper versions of Intel's new hexa-core architecture are on the way gives us something to look forward to. Until then, that quad you're currently running will do just fine.

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