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Intel Core i7-970 Processor Review, Lower Cost 6-Core
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Date: Aug 12, 2010
Section:Processors
Author: Dave Altavilla
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Introduction, Specs and Details
There's little question, like the sun rising and setting each day, that when Intel launches their latest top-of-the-line processor, a stinging four-figure price point awaits.  It seems like forever that Intel's latest flagship desktop chips drop into the market at anywhere from $999 - $1100 or so at their time of launch.  Obviously, for many mainstream users, that's the price of an entire system and monitor and they just don't need all that much CPU horsepower.  But for others, the need for speed is insatiable. Either that or their productivity and ultimately profitability, is directly proportional to processor throughput; as is often times the case with folks in the video production or professional design and animation business, for example.  Either way you slice it, it's hard to argue, when you've got the fastest desktop chip on the planet, you get to command a hefty premium. 

And to play devil's advocate for just a moment, how else should we expect Intel to recoup the R&D expenditures they put forth to design a killer chip like the Core i7, to say nothing of having to pay for the billion dollar fab plants they have to build in order to manufacturer these things?  Okay, we'll stop there, for fear that we'll incite a riot on the subject, but you get the drift.  Bleeding-edge semiconductors are a high stakes game. And when the stakes are high, so are the price pain points. 

That said, Intel decided they'd ease your pain just a little bit today, if you've got an interest for one of their new 32nm six-core Core i7 processors.  The Core i7-980X Extreme 6-core processor that debuted in March of this year, still currently retails for anywhere from $1,000 - $1200.  Until now, if you wanted something in a six-core from Intel, the 980X was the only flavor of the day.  However, we just got in a sample of a new 32nm Gulftown-based Core i7 six-core that is slotted for a somewhat more palatable price point of $885.  Clocked at 3.2GHz, the new Core i7 970 will afford you a bit more financial breathing room, if you're hankering for that step up to what is arguably (or perhaps not arguably) the fastest X86 desktop chip architecture around currently.  We've got the rest of the speeds, feeds and performance details laid out for you here on the following pages.  You want Core i7 six-core goodness?  Intel is sweetening the pot just a little more for you.


Intel Gulftown CPU 6-Core Die - The Heart of The Core i7-970

Intel Core i7-970 6-Core Processor
Specifications & Features

  • Core Frequency: 3.2GHz (Up To 3.46GHz w/ Turbo)
  • QPI Speed - 4.8GT/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
  • Price - $885  (1K quantities)


32nm Gulftown 6-Core Wafer


The new Core i7-970, as we noted quickly above, 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 also posted information on overclocking Nehalem, even under extreme conditions, and have covered other 32nm derivatives, as well as well as the new Core i7 980X Extreme Edition six-core chip.  Here's a list of those related stories if you'd like some additional backdrop.

And just to complete the picture in a little more detail for you, here's a current list of all Intel Core i7 9-series chips, of both six-core and quad-core variants.

CPU Model #
Core Clock Cores / Threads L3 Cache Max Turbo Boost Speed CPU Code Name Process
Intel Core i7 980X 3.33GHz 6 / 12 12MB 3.60GHz Gulftown 32nm
Intel Core i7 975 3.33GHz 4 / 8 8MB 3.60GHz Bloomfield 45nm
Intel Core i7 970 3.20GHz 6 / 12 12MB 3.46GHz Gulftown 32nm
Intel Core i7 960 3.20GHz 4 / 8 8MB 3.46GHz Bloomfield 45nm
Intel Core i7 930 2.80GHz 4 / 8 8MB 3.06GHz Bloomfield 45nm

As you can see, from a model numbering standpoint, Intel is branding the new Core i7 970 to drop in just below the Core i7 975,  which might be a little confusing for some consumers, but look more closely.  In real-world, lightly threaded performance, the Core i7 970 should step in just behind the Core i7 975 due to its slightly lower base clock and slightly lower Turbo Boost speed.  However, this shouldn't be the case in heavily threaded applications, where the 970's two extra cores should offer significantly more processing power, as well as perhaps applications that make use of the 970's extra 4MB of shared L3 cache.  We'll look at these theories and prove them out for you shortly in our benchmark test runs.  Stay with us...
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Vital Signs and Overclocking

On the surface, the new Core i7-970 Extreme looks just like its socket 1366-based predecessors, as you can see in the image below.  Ours is an engineering sample however, so the traditional retail model number markings are not listed here.

  
The Core i7-970 6-Core 3.2GHz Processor

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.  Internally, the new Core i7-970 is based on an updated core manufactured on a more advanced 32nm (nanometer) process versus early 45nm Nehalem-based 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 i7-970 has the same features as Intel's Bloomfield (quad-core), the core used in previous Core i7 processors. As we noted earlier however, Gulftown, does feature a larger shared L3 cache--12MB versus Bloomfield's 8MB.

Other specifics regarding the Core i7-970 Extreme are listed in the CPU-Z screenshot below. The chip sports a 3.2GHz stock frequency, that can jump up to 3.46GHz in Turbo mode.

  

The QPI link for the Core i7-970 however, runs at 4.8GT/s (2.8GHz DDR).  This is one notch down from the Core i7-980X Extreme process which runs a 6.4GT/s QPI (Intel Quick Path Interconnect) link.  This speed difference quite frankly shouldn't amount to much variance in terms of performance clock-for-clock, however.  The 970's base clock (listed incorrectly as bus speed by CPU-Z) runs at 133MHz. Not listed is the chip's max TDP, which happens to be 130W--the same as previous Core i7s and the Core i7-980X Extreme as well.

Overclocking The Core i7-970
Pedal To The Metal

We also spent some time overclocking the new Core i7-970, as we do with virtually all new processors that come into our lab, in order to see what kind of frequency headroom it has available beyond just what Intel offers in its Turbo Boost settings. Using Intel's stock, retail cooler and with only the motherboard's Vdroop (CPU load line calibration) set to "enabled", we raised the chips reference frequency until our test system was no longer stable and then backed it down until we reached stability.  Overclocking with the reference frequency, versus the chip's multiplier, for Intel non-Extreme Edition CPUs, is more of a real-world scenario that end users will have to attempt, since the Core i7 970 is multiplier locked above its stock 24X multiplier.


Intel Core i7-970 Overclocked To 4.1GHz and Stable - Stock Retail Intel Cooler

We were easily able to boot into Windows at 4.1GHz and could maintain stability while benchmarking.  We achieved this at a 171MHz base reference frequency with the chip's stock multiplier.  As always, depending on both the specific CPU you get as well as your motherboard, you may achieve decidedly different results.

 
Left: Core i7 970 At Idle 4.1GHz  -  Right: Core i7 970 Full Load 4.1GHz.

At those speeds, the stock Intel cooler kept the chip humming along at a cool low-40ºc temperature while idling, though temperatures peaked into the high 80ºC mark under load.  Frankly, this is a little on the warm side for our comfort zone but then again, we were heavily overclocking this chip with standard air cooling.  If you're the more exotic type when it comes to cooling, 4.1GHz should be easily achieved with water or certainly with some sort of refrigerant, should you go that route.

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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 970
(3.2GHz - Six-Core)
Core i7 980X
(3.33GHz - Six-Core)

Gigabyte GA-EX58 Extreme
(X58 Express Chipset)

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

GeForce GTX 280
On-Board Ethernet
On-board Audio

WD150 "Raptor" HD
10,000 RPM SATA 

Windows 7 x64
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
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
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



On the bench and ready for action...

 Preliminary Testing with SiSoft SANDRA
 Synthetic Benchmarks

We began our testing with SiSoftware's SANDRA 2010, the System ANalyzer, Diagnostic and Reporting Assistant. We ran three of the built-in subsystem tests that partially comprise the SANDRA 2010 suite with Intel's new Core i7-970  (CPU Arithmetic, Multimedia, and Memory Bandwidth).  All of the scores reported below were taken with the processors running at its default clock speeds of 3.2GHz with 6GB of DDR3-1333 RAM running in triple-channel mode on the Gigabyte GA-EX58-Extreme motherboard with Intel Turbo Boost technology enabled on in the BIOS.


Processor Arithmetic
Core i7-970


Multimedia
Core i7-970


 Memory Bandwidth
Core i7-970

With the exception of the memory bandwidth test, where our test system's stock 1333MHz, fell somewhat short of some of the overclocked memory kits in SANDRA's database, the new Core i7 970 fell in right where we expected it to, just under the Core i7 980X score but dominating the rest of the pack in both the CPU Arithmatic and Multimedia benchmarks.

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Futuremark PCMark Vantage

Next up, we ran a number of different test systems through Futuremark’s 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 i7-970 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 and just shy of it in the Productivity test. I the Communications test however, the Core i7 970 flies past the Core i7 975 and keeps close pace with the Core i7 980X Extreme. PCMark Vantage's Communications benchmark benefits from the Core i7-970's new AES-NI (Advanced Encryption Standard New Instructions) which accelerate encryption and decryption algos in hardware, and as such, it's decidedly fastest than the previous generation 45nm quad-core Core i7 processors.

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LAME Audio Conversion and x264 Video 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 long, droning 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.

  

A single instance of the LAME MT benchmark can process only two threads simultaneously, hence, the similarly clocked Core i7-970 and i7-975 perform right on top of each other here in multithread mode but the 970, as expected, is a little slower in single thread mode due to it's lower core clock and Turbo Boost speed. Another thing this test shows is that there are no performance-improving core enhancements in the Gulftown core versus Bloomfield, with clock-for-clock dual-threaded performance shaking out exactly the same between generations.

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 i7-970 additional cores and cache allowed it to pull well ahead of any other processor in the X.264 video encoding benchmark, with the exception of its big brother, the 3.3GHz 980X Extreme. Here, the Core i7-970 is between 10% and 43% faster than the Core i7-975 which is measurably faster than the remaining processors in this test.  AMD's chips, as is painfully obvious in the graph, bring up the rear but a significant margin.

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Cinebench and POV-Ray Rendering

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 Core i7-970 is less than two percent slower than the Core i7 980X in this test, where multi-threaded throughput is more important versus pure clock speed. From there, 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, where its 6 cores offer roughly 50% more processing resources at the same clock speed.  The Core i7-970 also muscles far past the Core i7 975 in this test, underscoring the fact that some potential customers might confuse the processor numbering not realizing how much more multi-threaded performance it has available under its hood.

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 here.  The additional compute resources of the Core i7-970 give it a huge boost in the multi-threaded rendering test over the fastest quad-core that Intel has to offer.   In the single threaded test however, we see that Intel's previous generation core architecture, clock-for-clock is on par with the current six-core designs.  Here the Core i7-970 falls slightly short of the Core i7-975 processor, when only one of its cores is being exercised.

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3DMark Vantage CPU Test

3DMark Vantage's CPU Test 2 is a multi-threaded test designed for comparing relative in-game physics processing performance between system configurations. 

Futuremark 3DMark Vantage
Synthetic DirectX Gaming

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 i7-970 lead in 3DMark Vantage's CPU Test 2 was right in line with expectations, and significantly ahead of its quad-core brethren. In this benchmark, Intel's new, lower-cost six-core is approximately 42% faster than the Core i7-975 but shows to be about 7% slower than the Core i7-980X Extreme 3.33GHz six-core chip.  Incidentally, AMD's CPUs make a little bit better showing here obviously.

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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



There really isn't much more to say here than the graphs don't already tell you.  When a game is CPU bound, as is the case in our low resolution testing here, the Core i7-970 slots itself right in behind the Core i7-980X.  However, if we turned up the eye candy, resolution and pixel processing with anti-aliasing etc., the graphics processors will become the limiting factor and within a certain range, performance won't very much between the CPUs.  On the other hand, if you look at the variance between an AMD six-core and the new Core i7-970, at almost 2X in some cases, the margin of CPU processing horsepower advantage is hard to ignore.

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Performance Summary and Conclusion

Performance Summary: There are generally only a few areas of concern for performance, with respect to virtually any multi-core processor you're considering, no matter what the platform or manufacturer.  There's single-threaded performance, multi-threaded performance and also varying degrees in between, where applications can be considered "lightly threaded."  The last case, these days, for all intents and purposes with desktop processors, should be lumped in with single-threaded workload performance.  At a bare minimum, dual-core processors are now considered entry-level, quad-cores are prevalent and six-cores are coming of age. 

In this respect, the new Core i7-970's performance profile lines up right where you'd expect it to be.  In lightly threaded or single-threaded workloads, it slides in just under the wire behind a quad-core Core i7-975 processor, due to its slightly lower base clock and Turbo Boost overclock.  However, in heavily threaded applications like our Cinebench and POVRay tests, the Core i7-970 sails past its quad-core counterparts (the 975) and keeps pace within 5 - 7% or so of the Core i7-980X.  In other words, looking at things literally, for roughly a 12% discount (the 970's price is $885 in 1Ku quantities), you only take a 5% hit in top-end performance. 

Conversely, if you're the kind that likes to overclock your CPUs, the new Core i7-970 represents a better value and will allow you to pocket some extra green and along with that will likely come much of the extra overclocking headroom that you'd realize by taking a Core i7-980X up a few notches.  There are only two caveats to consider here, however.  First, the Core i7-970 is multiplier locked above its stock 24X and Turbo Boost speed (3.46GHz).  As a result, you'll have to work with turning up its 133MHz base reference frequency, which offers less flexibility and might require you to adjust system memory and QPI multipliers to keep other interface speeds within stability range.  This is the basic advantage of the premium you pay for an "Extreme Edition" processor from Intel.  You'll have to decide for yourself, but we'd offer, with the lofty price point of the 980X, the Core i7-970 is a more attractive option, especially considering you're already working with what is by far and away the fastest desktop X86 six-core CPU architecture on the market currently.  It's all good, as they say.

Just about the only knock against Intel's six-core Core i7 processors currently is pricing.  Let's face it, Intel's 32nm Core i7 six-core, as well as the new Core i7-970, run circles around anything AMD has to offer these days, even their most recent generation of Phenom II X6 chips.  Then again, AMD's 3.2GHz Phenom II X6 1090T is literally one-third of the price of Intel's six-core chips.  That's an amazing price delta actually, but again, when you've got something special, as Intel obviously does, you can command a premium.  How much of that premium is warranted is up for you to decide.  Again, it all depends on your personal need for speed.

The good news is, Intel is obviously tipping its hand that it's willing to limbo a little bit with the price bar and offer end users and system builders more cost-effective options getting into one of their new six-core Core i7 chips.  That's always a good thing and we expect more good things from Intel coming down the pipe in the months ahead, as faster six-core Core i7's are unveiled pushing previous generation high-end chips down the price curve even more.


 

  • Killer Performance
  • Great Overclocker
  • 6-Cores, Yay
  • Compatible With Existing Mobos
  • Still Very Pricey
  • 6-Core Resources Wasted With Some Workloads



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