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Intel Core i7-990X Extreme: Crazy Fast Got Faster
Date: Mar 07, 2011
Author: Dave Altavilla
Introduction, Specs and Details
What do you do when you're the fastest thing around?  You just keep on WINNING. It's as if there was tiger blood coursing through your veins. You're so good, you're bi-winning.  Heck, with a six core processor at your disposal, you'd be hexa-winning.  Ol' Charlie needs one of these things to go with his rock-star life style.  As desktop processors go, Intel's Core i7 900 series line-up is pretty much the Charlie of the computing world.  Tiger blood and all, though people might ask what kind of drug you were on and the response would have to be "Core i" of course. It's a little like crack only it doesn't make you lose your voice.  Though you might want to occasionally unplug the bastard because, dude, it fires in a way that, we don't know, might not be from this terrestrial realm. And the ladies.  Well, let's just say that's not going to be a problem.  Ever. And it's not about the money, honest.  Ahh, it's good to be the king.  Yeah. 

But let's move forward, shall we?  Intel decided they would as well and recently they launched a speed bump of their flagship Extreme Edition Core i7 processor, known as the Core i7 990X.  It's unlocked and clocked at 3.45GHz stock speed with a Turbo Boost top-end speed of 3.73GHz.  Intel claims its the fastest desktop chip on the planet; like geek tiger blood for your PC.

Intel Core i7-990X Extreme Edition 6-Core Processor
Specifications & Features

  • Core Frequency: 3.45GHz (Up To 3.73GHz w/ Turbo)
  • QPI Speed - 6.4GT/s
  • TDP (Thermal Design Power) - 130W
  • Stepping - 2
  • Number of CPU Cores - 6 (12 Threads w/ HT)
  • Intel SmartCache - 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 - $999

32nm Gulftown 6-Core Wafer

The new Core i7-990X is also based on the 32nm Gulftown core, which is derived from the 45nm Nehalem architecture that debuted with the original Core i7s. We've 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. We've also posted information on overclocking Nehalem, even under extreme conditions, as well as well as the previous high-end Gulftown-based Core i7 980X Extreme Edition six-core chip.  Here's a list of those related stories if you'd like some additional backdrop.

And this is what Intel's Core i7 900 line-up looks like as of today, though the new Core i7-990X Extreme Edition processor will be supplanting the Core i7-980X moving forward.

CPU Model #
Core Clock Cores / Threads L3 Cache Max Turbo Boost Speed CPU Code Name Process
Intel Core i7-990X 3.45GHz 6 / 12  12MB 3.73GHz Gulftown 32nm
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

So that's the family.  Now let's get a look at the genetics.

Vital Signs and Overclocking
Intel has taken the LGA1366 socket down a long, profitable road from Nehalem to Gulftown.  It's a lot of pins to work with and with the design and manufacturing resources that Intel has at their disposal, it's not surprising this latest LGA1366 derivative offers a ton of headroom too.

Overclocking Intel's Fastest Desktop Chip
Standard Retail Air Cooling but With A Lot of Headroom
CPU-Z shows us what the new 990X is made of.  Seen here at it's top-end Turbo Boost speed of 3.73GHz with a 28X multiplier, you'll also note that voltage is being monitored at a svelte .968V (plus or minus a few tenths of a volt).  Beyond that we have 12MB of shared L3 cache (1.5MB or 256K per core of L2), a stock reference clock speed of 133MHz and a QPI link speed of 3.2GHz, which translates to 6.4GT/sec of bi-directional bandwidth.

And of course we decided to check out the available upside potential of the new chip with a bit of elbow grease and overclocking.  In reality, the elbow grease required was minimal and with the help of Intel's DX58SO2 motherboard (details on the coming pages), we were able to do some rather magical things with our new Extreme Edition friend.

Intel Core i7-990X Overclocked to 4.3GHz, Stock Retail Cooler, 100% Load

With a simple retail Intel cooler at our disposal, we were able to bump the chip's reference clock to 166MHz, leaving the multiplier set to 28X with Turbo Boost disabled.  For good measure we also goosed a few tenths of a volt higher for core voltage to 1.33V. Also, to ensure stability, the QPI link multiplier was dropped, especially since overclocking QPI does nothing for performance. The end result was a peppy 4.3GHz overclock, fully stable under 100% load.  We also booted and ran several loops of Cinebench (seen in the background here) at 4.5GHz (170MHz on the ref clock).  Unfortunately 4.5GHz wasn't fully stable but perhaps with more exotic cooling and a bit more tinkering that speed would have been attainable as well.  Regardless, where we have historically maxed out at 4.1GHz with this sort of basic setup, it appears, over time, that Intel has improved their yield margins significantly with their 6-core Core i7 variant.
Intel's DX58SO2 Motherboard and Test Systems
We actually spent quite a bit of time over the past 12 - 18 months or so, chatting with Intel with respect to their motherboard designs.  The Intel board team has been keen on getting power user feedback on their designs, in an effort to cater more to enthusiasts and compete more with the likes of Asus, MSI, Gigabyte and others that have polished offerings for the discerning end user. As a result, these days, Intel's high-end motherboard products are looking rather decked-out and shall we say "pimped" with all the bells, whistles and bling we've come to appreciate in an enthusiast motherboard.

Intel's DX58S02 Motherboard
Specifications & Features

Intel's DX58SO2 "SmackOver 2" Motherboard - The kit has it all and then some.



The DX58SO2 is a nicely appointed board with a solid layout. Note the position of the 8-pin ATX-12V power connector, right up against the edge of the board and down a bit from IO panel.  Other smart selections are a generous assortment of 4-pin smart fan power connectors in all the right places around the board.  And from an aesthetics point of view, Intel adorns the DX58SO2 with flashy blue sinks and their trademark robotic skull.  Nice.

There are three full-length PCIe X16 slots on the board, a PCIe X1 slot and a standard PCI slot.  We say do away with that remaining PCI slot and add another X16 or perhaps a X8 PCIe slot.  Other creature comforts include a "Back to BIOS" button on the back IO panel.  It lights up red when it's pushed in and will take you immediately back to the BIOS if you dial up a configuration while tweaking or overclocking, that won't boot. Very nice touch, Intel.  Also, take note of the power-on, reset and "clock bump" buttons (second row, right hand shot) on the board.  If you hit one of the plus or minus buttons, it will bump clock speeds up or down by 1MHz.  Again, Intel obviously has a renewed focus on the enthusiast and it shows.  On a side note, though we're not showing screen shots here, the BIOS of the DX58SO2 is also well designed with copious amounts of tweakability under the hood, enough really for pretty much anything you'd want to configure for performance tuning purposes. 

Finally, here's a quick scan of the rest of our test systems that we'll be comparing versus the new Intel Core i7-990X Extreme Edition processor.

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
 "Firepower" would be an understatement...
System 1:
Core i7-970
(3.2GHz - Six-Core)
Core i7-980X
(3.33GHz - Six-Core)

Core i7-990X
Intel DX58SO2 Motherboard
(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 3:
Core i7-2600K
(3.4GHz - Quad-Core)
Core i5-2500K
(3.3GHz - Quad-Core)

Intel DH67BL, DP67BG
(P67 Express Chipset) 

2x2GB Patriot DDR3-1866
(@ 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 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 4:
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 5:
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 x6

SiSoft SANDRA and 3DMark Vantage CPU Test
We began our testing with SiSoftware's SANDRA 2011, the System ANalyzer, Diagnostic and Reporting Assistant. We ran three of the built-in subsystem tests that partially comprise the SANDRA 2011 suite with Intel's new Core i7-990X  (CPU Arithmetic, Multimedia, and Memory Bandwidth).  

 Preliminary Testing with SiSoft SANDRA
 Synthetic Benchmarks

All of the scores reported below were taken with the processors running at its default clock speeds of 3.45GHz with 6GB of DDR3-1333 RAM running in triple-channel mode on the Intel DX58SO2 motherboard with Intel Turbo Boost technology enabled on in the BIOS.

Processor Arithmetic
Core i7-990X

Core i7-990X

 Memory Bandwidth
Core i7-990X

With the exception of the memory bandwidth test, where our test system's stock 1333MHz settings fell somewhat short of some of  the other test systems in SANDRA's database, the new Core i7 990X fell in right where we expected it to with best-of-class integer, FPU and multimedia results. 

Futuremark 3DMark Vantage CPU Test
Physics Calculated on the CPU

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 i7-990X Extreme's lead in 3DMark Vantage's CPU Test 2 wasn't very pronounced versus its predecessor. In this benchmark, Intel's new baby is only marginally faster but we haven't yet begun to make it sweat.  Let's move on to some heavier lifting.

Futuremark PCMark Vantage

Next up, we ran our various test systems through Futuremark’s latest system performance metric, PCMark Vantage. PCMark Vantage runs through a host of 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, so this benchmark can exploit the additional resources offered by a six-core CPU with Intel HyperThreading.

Futuremark PCMark Vantage
Simulated Application Performance

There's not a lot of rocket science involved in deciphering the numbers here. The Core i7-990X punched up performance slightly beyond that of the Core i7-980X and some of the fastest numbers we've seen yet in this benchmark.  That said, we are talking about only a 3.5% increased in overall clock speed with Intel's new chip, so we need to level-set expectations accordingly.  Sometimes, scores we recorded were within the margin of variance for a given test, as can be seen in the "Music" scores here.

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, mainstream applications.

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.


Editor's Note:  We've updated these graphs with the latest scores from our Core i7-2600K Sandy Bridge testbed.

A single instance of the LAME MT benchmark can process only two threads simultaneously, hence, the similarly clocked Core i7-980, 970 and i7-975 perform right on top of each other here in multithread mode.  However, the 990X, as expected, is a little faster due to it's higher base 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. Finally, the Core i7-2600K takes the lead position in this lightly threaded test, due to it's slightly higher Turbo Boost speed of 3.8GHz versus the Core i7-990X's 3.73GHz top end boost speed.

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.


Editor's Note:  We've updated these graphs with the latest scores from our Core i7-2600K Sandy Bridge testbed.

We should note that, although the Core i7-2600K falls within the middle of the pack here, were this test optimized to take advantage of Intel's new Quick Sync video conversion technology, it most definitely would have grabbed top honors. In any event, for this test setup, the Core i7-990X put up better performance than we expected actually in this test, though some quick math says that the chip delivered about 3% more performance versus the slightly slower Core i7-980X.  Tiger blood will do that for ya.

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 Custom Benchmark{Title}
Multi-Threaded File Compression Performance

Since this test makes use of multiple processing threads, the current fastest Sandy Bridge quad-core chip on the market does quite have the muster versus the six-core equipped 990X, 980X and 970 in this tests.  Regardless, here again, the Core i7-990X offers a repeat photo-finish, just breaking the tape before the Core i7-980X and offering the fastest time of the test group.
Cinebench Rendering Test

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 Performance

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.  

Cinebench is typically rather consistent with respect to how it scores compute throughput in its application workload.  That said, here we see roughly a 4.5% gain in performance for the 3.5% boost in clock speed that the Core i7-990X brings to the table. Technically it doesn't quite add up but again the variance is within the margin of error for this test.

Low-Res Gaming: Crysis and ETQW

For our final set of tests, we moved on to some in-game benchmarking with Crysis and Enemy Territory: Quake Wars. For these test configuration, we drop in-game resolution to 800x600, and reduce all graphical image quality options to their minimum values, in order to isolate CPU and memory performance as much as possible.  However, the in-game effects, which control the level of detail for 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

Editor's Note:  We've updated these graphs with the latest scores from our Core i7-2600K Sandy Bridge testbed.

Note that the newer Sandy Bridge-built Core i7-2600K, in the lightly threaded ET: Quake Wars test, actually bests, the Core i7-990X by a little bit, again due to its more aggressive Turbo Boost speed of 3.8Ghz. However, under the heavier workload of Crysis, the 2600K falls back to the middle of the pack.  Beyond that in terms of gaming performance, the picture is pretty clear; the new Core i7-990X is faster than the previous gen 980X by a "little bit."  Not off-the-hook like Charlie but hey, we probably couldn't handle it if was anyway.

Performance Summary and Conclusion

Performance Summary: Unfortunately, or fortunately as the case may be, this portion of our evaluation is going to be rather dry, tasteless or otherwise devoid of flavor.  You see, when you bump a processor's clock speed up by about 3.5% or so, the performance increase usually scales linearly.  So yeah, the new Core i7-990X is pretty much faster across the board by somewhere in the neighborhood of 3% or so.  No rocket science or quantum mechanics is required to understand the numbers.  The Core i7-990X is what it is, just a little bit faster than Intel's previous generation flagship desktop chip.

Faster = goodness so we won't complain but if you were looking for something to get all hot and bothered about, you might want to stick to catching more Charlie-awesomeness on the major news networks. Intel is basically taking their fastest chip at the high-end and dropping in a slightly faster chip that supplants the 980X moving forward.  The good news is pricing doesn't change for the top-shelf Core i7 Extreme Edition processor...

Of course, Intel's fastest chip for the desktop never comes cheap and it weighs-in at the tradition $999 1K unit price point. And of course, street prices don't necessarily require you to purchase a thousand chips to hit that $999 mark.  Regardless, it's a price premium that seemingly only Intel can command these days and we're sure they'll sell a tray or two of these bad boys along the way.

A neat test bench is the sign of a sick mind... no really.

For the average enthusiast or do-it-yourselfer, if you ask our opinion (and that's why you're here, right?), save more than a few pennies and get the new Core i7-970.  That's a $400+ price savings or over 40%, for literally only 8% less clock speed.  If you're the overclocking type, you could easily take a 970 to 3.46/3.73 Turbo but of course, like anything in life, there are no guarantees; though the stretch is almost inconsequential.  Either way, Intel has the fastest 6-core processor going and by a long shot.  The introduction of the new Core i7-990X only widens that gap.  What's going to be interesting is what AMD's Bulldozer looks like against the backdrop of Intel's monster performance lead with their current six-core architecture, or against future generation Sandy Bridge high-end chips.  But hey, we're all about the bi-winning around here.  You know, a little win here, a win there.  It's all good.


  • Killer Performance, Tiger Blood-Infused
  • Most Overclocking Headroom Yet
  • 6-Cores, Yay
  • Compatible with Existing Mobos
  • Crazy Fast Means a Crazy Price Tag
  • Still No Official DDR3-1333 Support For Tri-Channel??

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