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Intel Core i7-980X Extreme 6-Core Processor Review
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Date: Mar 11, 2010
Section:Processors
Author: Marco Chiappetta
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Introduction, Specifications, Related Links
Although they are not due to hit store shelves for a few more weeks, Intel is using the always exciting Game Developers Conference currently being held in San Francisco to officially unveil the new Core i7-980X Extreme processor. Intel's Extreme Edition processors have always been targeted at enthusiasts and hardcore-gamers, so what better place to show off the fastest desktop processor for the PC to date?  Unless of course you're catching it here on the pages of HotHardware, that is.

The new Core i7-980X Extreme is an interesting animal, however, that requires a detailed look. Although its branding implies that it may be just a simple speed-bump over the previous flagship Core i7-975 Extreme, the 980X is actually a totally different beast. And what a beast it is. While the Core i7-975 is based on the 45nm Bloomfield core and features quad execution cores, the new Core i7-980X Extreme is based on the 32nm Gulftown core and sports six execution cores.  That's right folks, quad-cores are no longer king of the hill.

There is much more to talk about with regards to Gulftown and the Core i7-980X Extreme specifically, but we're not about to cram it all into a pithy intro. Check out the specs immediately below and perhaps take a few moments to peruse some other recent Intel processor coverage a bit further down the page.  Then strap yourself in as we take the killer Intel Core i7-980X Extreme 6-Core processor for a spin...


Intel Gulftown CPU Die: 50% More Cores, 50% More Cache ~ Same Power Consumption

Intel Core i7-980X Extreme Processor
Specifications & Features

  • Core Frequency: 3.33GHz (Up To 3.6GHz w/ Turbo)
  • QPI Speed - 6.4GT/s
  • TDP (Thermal Design Power) - 130W
  • Stepping - 2
  • Number of CPU Cores - 6 (12 Threads w/ HT)
  • Intel SmarCache - 12MB
  • L2 Cache - 1.5MB (256K x 6)
  • Processor input voltage (VID) - .95v
  • .032-micron manufacturing process
  • Shared Smart Cache Technology
  • PECI Enabled
  • Enhanced Intel SpeedStep Technology (EIST)
  • Extended HALT State (C1E) Enabled
  • Execute Disable Bit (XD) Enabled
  • Intel 64 Technology
  • AES-NI: 12 new processor instructions

 

  • Intel Virtualization Technology (VT)
  • Packaging -  Flip Chip LGA1366
  • Total Die Size: Approximately 248mm2
  • Approximately 1.17B Transistors
  • MSRP - $999


32nm Gulftown 6-Core Wafer


The new Core i7-980X Extreme is based on the 32nm Gulftown core, which is derived from the 45nm Nehalem architecture that debuted with the original Core i7s. We've already posted a number of articles in the past detailing Nehalem in which we cover all its main features and specifications, and have even covered Gulftown a bit here and there. Due to the similarities between Gulftown and Nehalem, the two share many of the same capabilities.  We have written about Nehalem's features in depth in our coverage of the original Core i7 launch, we've posted information on overclocking Nehalem, even under extreme conditions, and have covered other 32nm derivatives as well...

We're going to summarize Gulftown's main features as they relate to the Core i7-980X Extreme again here, but if you'd like to check out our complete coverage of the Core i7 family and the X58 Express chipset which supports it, the list of articles above offers up just about all there is to know.

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Core i7-980X Processor Vital Signs

On the surface, the new Core i7-980X Extreme looks just like its socket 1366-based predecessors, as you can see in the two images below...

   
The Core i7-980X Extreme Edition

The top half of the CPU is outfitted with the same basic heat-spreader design as every other Socket 1366 Core i7 processor and the chips use the same packaging. The surface mounted components on the underside of the chip are different than previous Core i7 processors, however.

  

Internally, the new Core i7-980X Extreme is based on an updated core manufactured on a more advanced process than early Core i7 processors, but the individual execution cores are essentially identical. With the exception of support for some new instructions dubbed AES-NI (Advanced Encryption Standard New Instructions), which accelerate AES encryption and decryption algorithms in hardware, the Gulftown core in the Core i7-980X Extreme has the same features as Bloomfield, the core used in previous Core i7 processors. Gulftown, does however, feature a larger shared cache--12MB to be exact. Bloomfield has 8MB.

Other specifics regarding the Core i7-980X Extreme are listed in the CPU-Z screenshots above. The chip sports a 3.33GHz "stock" frequency, that can jump up to 3.6GHz in Turbo mode. The QPI link runs at a full 6.4GT/s (3.2 DDR), and the base clock (listed incorrectly as bus speed by CPU-Z) runs at 133MHz. Not listed in the chip's max TDP, which happens to be 130W--the same as previous Core i7s.

The Gulftown core used in the Core i7-980X Extreme features a monolithic die comprised of all six execution cores. The queue engine and uncore elements reside in the center of the chip, flanked on either side by three execution cores and 1/2 of the shared L3 cache. The memory controller, miscellaneous I/O and QPI links are situated around the edges. In total, the chip is comprised of roughly 1.17B (that's billion) transistors and has a die size of about 248mm2. We should point out that despite having nearly double the number of transistors, because it is produced using Intel's advanced 32nm manufacturing process, the Gulftown die is smaller than Bloomfield's 263mm2.

   

Also debuting with the Core i7-980X Extreme is a new cooler dubbed the DBX-B Thermal Solution. This tower-type cooler will be included with all Core i7-980X Extreme processors sold in retail trim. It features a copper base and aluminum fins with four heat-pipes. A switch in the center acts as a fan speed controller. At the low setting, the fan spins at 800RPM and generates about 20dBa and in the high speed setting the fan spins at 1800RPM and generates about 35dBa. We found the cooler to work really well.  It is a HUGE step up from the older, round coolers previously included with boxed Intel processors.

Overclocking The Core i7-980X Extreme
Pedal To The Metal


Intel Core i7-980X Extreme Overclocked To 3.9GHz

We also spent some time overclocking the new Core i7-980X Extreme Edition to see what kind of frequency headroom it had left lurking under its heatspreader. Using the stock cooler, with a .1v bump in voltage, we raised the chips multiplier until our test system was no longer stable. We were easily able to boot into Windows at 4.1GHz, but could not maintain stability while benchmarking. We had to back things off a bit an ultimately settled on a speedy 3.9GHz. At those speeds, the stock cooler kept the chip humming along at a cool mid-40c temperature while idling and temperatures peaked at right around the 70 degree mark under load. Not bad for a beefy, 1.17B transistor chip with stock cooling.

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Core i7-980X Ready Motherboards

We should be clear from the start that the new Core i7-980X Extreme Edition processor should work in all existing X58-Express based motherboard designs, after a BIOS update. The chip uses the same socket and has the same TDP as current Core i7 processors. That didn't stop a couple of Intel's board partners from shipping some Gulftown-ready motherboards for testing though.

    

      

    
Gigabyte EX58A-UD5

The Gigabyte EX58A-UD5 may be familiar to some of you. It's an updated version of the EX58-UD5 (sans A) that's been a staple around the HH labs since its release. We've used the original UD5 as a testbed for everything from processors, to graphics cards, to solid state drives. The updated EX58A-UD5 builds upon the original by adding support for SATA 6G and USB 3.0, through the use of Marvell and NEC controllers, respectively.

The Gigabyte EX58A-UD5 sports the company's signature blue PCB, with light blue and white accents. The board's slot configuration consists of two PCIe x1 slots, four PCIe x16 slots (2 x 16, 2 x 8), and one PCI slot. A large heatsink and heat-pipe assembly cools the north and southbridge chips, and the board's VRM.

The layout of the Gigabyte EX58A-UD5 is very good overall, things are clearly labeled, and all headers and connectors are situated around the edges of board. In the box, along with the board itself, Gigabyte includes all of the necessary accessories needed to get the board setup in a case, along with some useful additions like SLI bridge connectors, and a retention bracket for said connectors.

    

     

    
Asus P6X58D Premium

Asus also showed up to the party with the P6X58D Premium. Like Gigabyte's offering, the Asus P6X58D Premium features support for USB 3.0 and SATA 6G, and the board's chipset and VRM are cooled by large heatsinks, linked together via heat-pipes.

The P6X58D Premium is outfitted with three PCIe x16 slots, a single x1 slot, and a pair of legacy PCI slots. The board sports a dark colored PCB with blue, white, grey, and black accents, and as is typical of high-end offerings from Asus, the board is jammed with features. The P6X58D Premium supports Asus' TurboV real-time overclocking, MemOK, and ExpressGate. It also sports a 16+2 phase power design, with low RDS (on) MOSFETs, ferrite core chokes, and 100% Japanese-made polymer caps to ensure clean power delivery.

Overall, the layout of the P6X58D Premium is excellent and working with the board proved to be quick, easy and painless.

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Test Systems and SiSoft SANDRA

Test System Configuration Notes: When configuring our test systems for this article, we first entered their respective system BIOSes and set each board to its "Optimized" or "High performance Defaults". We then saved the settings, re-entered the BIOS and set memory timings for either DDR3-1333 with 8,8,8,24 timings. The hard drives were then formatted, and Windows 7 Ultimate x64 was installed. When the Windows installation was complete, we updated the OS, and installed the drivers necessary for our components. Auto-Updating and Windows Defender were then disabled, finally, we installed all of our benchmarking software, performed a disk clean-up, defragged the hard drives, and ran all of the tests.

 HotHardware's Test Systems
 Intel and AMD - Head To Head
System 1:
Core i7 980X
(3.33GHz - Six-Core)

Gigabyte EX58A-UD5
Asus P6X58D Premium
(X58 Express Chipset)

3x2GB OCZ DDR3-1333
(@ 1333MHz, CAS 8)

GeForce GTX 280
On-Board Ethernet
On-board Audio

WD150 "Raptor" HD
10,000 RPM SATA 

Windows 7 x64 
NVIDIA Forceware v190.62
System 2:
Core i7 Extreme 975
(3.33GHz - Quad-Core)

Gigabyte EX58-UD5
(X58 Express Chipset)

3x2GB OCZ DDR3-1333
(@ 1333MHz, CAS 8)

GeForce GTX 280
On-Board Ethernet
On-board Audio

WD150 "Raptor" HD
10,000 RPM SATA 

Windows 7 x64 
NVIDIA Forceware v190.62
System 3:
Core i7 870
(2.93GHz - Quad-Core)
Core i5 750
(2.66GHz - Quad-Core)

Asus Maximus III Formula
(P55 Express Chipset) 

2x2GB Kingston DDR3-1600
(@ 1333MHz, CAS 8)

GeForce GTX 280
On-Board Ethernet
On-board Audio

WD150 "Raptor" HD
10,000 RPM SATA

Windows 7 x64 
NVIDIA Forceware v190.62
System 4:
AMD Phenom II X4 965
(3.4GHz Quad-Core)

Asus M4A79T Deluxe
(AMD 790FX Chipset) 

2x2GB Kingston DDR3-1600
(@ 1333MHz, CAS 8)


GeForce GTX 280
On-Board Ethernet
On-board Audio

WD150 "Raptor" HD
10,000 RPM SATA 

Windows 7 x64 
NVIDIA Forceware v190.62

 Preliminary Testing with SiSoft SANDRA 2009 SP4
 Synthetic Benchmarks


We began our testing with SiSoftware's SANDRA 2009 SP4, the System ANalyzer, Diagnostic and Reporting Assistant. We ran four of the built-in subsystem tests that partially comprise the SANDRA 2009 SP4 suite with Intel's new Core i7-980X Extreme (CPU Arithmetic, Multimedia, Memory Bandwidth, and Cache and Memory).  All of the scores reported below were taken with the processors running at its default clock speeds of 3.33GHz with 6GB of DDR3-1333 RAM running in triple-channel mode on the Gigabyte EX58A-UD5 motherboard.


Processor Arithmetic
Core i7-980X


Multimedia
Core i7-980X


 Memory Bandwidth
Core i7-980X


Cache and Memory
Core i7-980X

With the exception of the memory bandwidth test, where the new Core i7-980X Extreme was essentially tied with a couple of other Core i7 quad-core-based systems, it simply dominated the rest of the pack according to SiSoft SANDRA. The Core i7-980X Extreme's Processor Arithmetic and Multimedia benchmark scored were well ahead of its closes competition. Finally, the Cache and Memory Bandwidth test showed the Core i7-980X Extreme's additional cache and high frequency offered significantly more bandwidth than any other platform, regardless of the test block size.

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Futuremark PCMark Vantage

Next up, we ran a number of different test systems through Futuremark‚Äôs latest system performance metric built especially for Windows Vista, PCMark Vantage. PCMark Vantage runs through a host of different usage scenarios to simulate different types of workloads including High Definition TV and movie playback and manipulation, gaming, image editing and manipulation, music compression, communications, and productivity.  Most of the tests are multi-threaded as well, so the tests can exploit the additional resources offered by a quad-core CPU.

Futuremark PCMark Vantage
Simulated Application Performance

The new Core i7-980X Extreme finished well ahead of the other systems in terms of overall PCMarks, but in most of the other individual tests it was only marginally faster than the quad-core Core i7 975, with the sole exception being the Communications test. PCMark Vantage's Communications benchmark benefits from the Core i7-980X Extreme's new AES-NI (Advanced Encryption Standard New Instructions) which accelerate encryption and decryption algos in hardware, and as such, it simply blows past the other processors in that test.

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LAME MT and x264 Encoding

In our custom LAME MT MP3 encoding test, we convert a large WAV file to the MP3 format, which is a popular scenario that many end users work with on a day-to-day basis to provide portability and storage of their digital audio content.  LAME is an open-source mid to high bit-rate and VBR (variable bit rate) MP3 audio encoder that is used widely around the world in a multitude of third party applications.

LAME MT
Audio Encoding

In this test, we created our own 223MB WAV file (a hallucinogenically-induced Grateful Dead jam) and converted it to the MP3 format using the multi-thread capable LAME MT application in single and multi-thread modes. Processing times are recorded below, listed in seconds. Shorter times equate to better performance.

   

There is not much to see here. A single instance of the LAME MT benchmark can process only two threads simultaneously, hence, the similarly clocked Core i7-980X Extreme and i7-975 perform right on top of each other here. What this tests does show is that there are no performance-improving core enhancements in the Gulftown core versus Bloomfield, however.

x264 Video Encoding Benchmark
H.264 HD Video Encoding


The x264 benchmark measures how fast a system can encode a short, DVD quality MPEG-2 video clip into a high-quality H.264 HD video clip. The application reports the compression results in frames per second for each pass of the video encoding process, and it is threaded so it can take advantage of the additional resources afforded by multi-core processors.

The Core i7-980X Extreme's additional cores and cache allowed it to pull well ahead of any other processor in the X.264 video encoding benchmark. Here, the Core i7-980X Extreme is between 14% and 48% faster than the Core i7-975 which is already measurably faster than the remaining processors in this test.

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Cinebench R11.5 and POV-Ray

Cinebench R11.5 is an OpenGL 3D rendering performance test based on Cinema 4D from Maxon. Cinema 4D is a 3D rendering and animation tool suite used by 3D animation houses and producers like Sony Animation and many others. It's very demanding of system processor resources and is an excellent gauge of pure computational throughput.

Cinebench R11.5
3D Rendering

This is a multi-threaded, multi-processor aware benchmark that renders a single 3D scene and tracks the length of the entire process. The rate at which each test system was able to render the entire scene is represented by the Cinebench scores in the graph below.

  

The new Core i7-980X Extreme was once again the fastest of the bunch, by far. All else being equal, Cinebench R11.5 scales almost linearly with additional cores, as is evident by the Core i7-980X Extreme's approximate 49% lead over the Core i7-975--6 cores is 50% more than 4, and the processors are clocked the same, hence the almost 50% lead.

POV-Ray Performance
Ray Tracing

POV-Ray , or the Persistence of Vision Ray-Tracer, is a top-notch open source tool for creating realistically lit 3D graphics artwork. We tested with POV-Ray's standard 'all-CPU' benchmarking tool on all of our test machines, and recorded the scores reported for each. Results are measured in pixels-per-second throughput; higher scores equate to better performance.

POV-Ray tells us two things: 1) The additional compute resources of the Core i7-980X Extreme give it a huge boost in the multi-threaded rendering test over the next fastest processor, the Core i7-975. 2) When the shared L3 cache doesn't come into play, the individual cores in Gulftown are no faster than Bloomfield, clock for clock, as is evident by their near identical performance in the single-threaded test.

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WinRAR Compression and Image Processing

In our custom WinRAR x64 benchmark, we take a directory loaded with two hundred, 12.1 megapixel image files and compress them into a single archive using the default WinRAR compression scheme. The length of time it took each system to save the completed archive is represented in the graph below.

WinRAR x64 v3.9 Benchmark
Multi-Threaded File Compression Performance

 

The new Core i7-980X Extreme powered through our custom WinRAR x64 benchmark with the fastest time, but it was only a few percentage points faster than the Core i7-975.

VSO Image Resizer
Batch Image Processing

For this next test, we use the VSO Image Resizer utility to convert two hundred, 12.1 megapixel image files copied directly from a digital SLR camera to compressed, 640x480 JPGs, suitable for the web. We used the Lanczos filtering method available within the application, which is slower, but offers higher quality compression than most other methods.

This test is single-threaded and does not benefit from additional processing cores. Due to this fact, the Core i7-980X Extreme performs right on par with the similarly clocked Core i7-975.

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3DMark06 and Vantage CPU Tests

3DMark06's built-in CPU test is a multi-threaded DirectX gaming metric that's useful for comparing relative performance between similarly equipped systems.  This test consists of two different 3D scenes that are processed with a software renderer that is dependent on the host CPU's performance.  Calculations that are normally reserved for your 3D accelerator are instead sent to the CPU for processing and rendering.  The frame-rate generated in each test is used to determine the final score.

Futuremark 3DMark06
Synthetic DirectX Gaming

  

We saw more of the same with 3DMark06's built-in CPU benchmark. Here, the Core i7-980X Extreme pulled ahead of everything else by a decent margin.

Futuremark 3DMark Vantage
Synthetic DirectX Gaming

3DMark Vantage's CPU Test 2 is a multi-threaded test designed for comparing relative game physics processing performance between systems.  This test consists of a single scene that features an air race of sorts, with a complex configuration of gates. There are aircraft in the test that trail smoke and collide with various cloth and soft-body obstacles, each other, and the ground. The smoke spreads, and reacts to the planes as they pass through it as well and all of this is calculated on the host CPU.

The Core i7-980X Extreme's lead in 3DMark Vantage's CPU Test 2 was much more pronounced than its predecessor. In this benchmark, Intel's new baby is approximately 50% faster than the 975.

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Low-Res Gaming: Crysis and ETQW

For our next set of tests, we moved on to some in-game benchmarking with Crysis and Enemy Territory: Quake Wars. When testing processors with Crysis or ET:QW, we drop the resolution to 800x600, and reduce all of the in-game graphical options to their minimum values to isolate CPU and memory performance as much as possible.  However, the in-game effects, which control the level of detail for the games' physics engines and particle systems, are left at their maximum values, since these actually do place some load on the CPU rather than GPU.

Low-Resolution Gaming: Crysis and ET: Quake Wars
Taking the GPU out of the Equation



In both the Crysis CPU benchmark and our custom Enemy Territory: Quake Wars test, the new Core i7-980X Extreme finishes well ahead of the competition. The additional cache will help in many game engines and the additional cores in many others.

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Total System Power Consumption

We'd like to cover a few final data points before bringing this article to a close. Throughout all of our benchmarking and testing, we monitored how much power our test systems consumed using a power meter. Our goal was to give you all an idea as to how much power each configuration used while idling and while under a heavy workload. Please keep in mind that we were testing total system power consumption at the outlet here, not just the power being drawn by the processors alone.

Total System Power Consumption
Tested at the Outlet

Admittedly, this graph may look kinda boring, with relatively small deltas separating the high-end parts.  But when you consider the Core i7-980X Extreme has 50% more cores and cache than the Core i7-975 and that it can be 50% faster (or more) with many workloads, the 980X's power consumption appears rather impressive. You get far more performance per watt with the new Core i7-980X Extreme in multi-threaded workloads versus any other CPU.

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Performance Summary and Conclusion

Performance Summary: First the quick and dirty performance summary... The Core i7-980X Extreme Edition is the fastest desktop processor we have ever tested, bar none. We could end the story there, but as always, there are some caveats.

The Core i7-980X Extreme Edition is sort of a jack-of-all-trades. The processor's stock frequency is 3.33GHz, which is tied for the fastest clock of any Core i7 CPU. That means even while processing single-threaded workloads, it's going to be as fast or faster than any other current desktop CPU. That said, the Core i7-980X Extreme Edition is also outfitted with six-cores, 50% more than Bloomfield-based Core i7s, which means it's going to tear though multi-threaded workloads that much easier too. Factor in support for AES-NI, HyperThreading, and bump the shared L3 cache up to a cool 12MB, and you've got the makings of one seriously fast CPU. Of course, our benchmark testing showed the Core i7-980X Extreme Edition to be the best performing desktop processor we've ever tested, reaffirming that quick-and-dirty assessment above.

The release of a six-core processor like the Core i7-980X Extreme Edition is bound to spur numerous debates on the need to continually scale core counts moving forward. When dual-core processors first shipped, some said they weren't necessary, at least at the time. The same was said when quad-cores arrived. And we're certain the very same talking points will be repeated ad nauseam now that a six-core processor is almost upon us. While there is still a long way to go before the majority of applications can truly take advantage of the resources afforded by a six-core chip capable of processing up to 12 threads, the fact remains there are usage models and many situations where the power of a CPU like the Core i7-980X Extreme Edition can be put to very good use.

Regardless of whether you believe a six-core processor is overkill or not, we must all step back and assess what Intel plans to do with the Core i7-980X Extreme Edition. This new processor offers 50% more cores and 50% more cache than the previous generation, which equates to vastly improved performance in some situations. Also, Intel has achieved this within the same power envelope, using the same platform. The Core i7-980X Extreme Edition will also retail for the same $999 as previous Extreme Edition processors and include a much better stock cooler. While $999 is an enormous price to pay for a CPU, at least now prospective Extreme Edition buyers will get much more for the money. Cheap? No. Powerful? You bet.

As hardware enthusiasts, we can't help but be impressed by the new Core i7-980X Extreme Edition. It is quite simply the most powerful, highest-performing desktop CPU money can almost buy. If Gulftown is the tick, to Nehalem's tock, we can't wait to see what Sandy Bridge has in store. Bring on IDF 2010.

 

  • Extreme Performance
  • Great Overclocker
  • 6-Cores!
  • Compatible With Existing Mobos
  • Ultra Expensive
  • Resources Will Be Wasted With Some Workloads



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