This is a listing of recent and legacy reviews that have been completed for publication on MBReview.com.
..:: Sandy Bridge-E and X79 ::..
Ahh, it’s that time again. Several weeks after a product launch, when the string of products hit the channels and start to make their way into the loving arms of enthusiasts around the world. The Intel X79 chipset is the latest edition of this event, and we’ll be taking a look at it today in Intel’s DX79SI “Siler” motherboard. I can remember back several years when Intel motherboards were consistently written off as stable, but lackluster as best. They were the boring mid-size sedan to others’ high-end sports coupe. This point was hard to argue, but soon things began to change for the better. We started seeing motherboard products that allowed for ever increasing flexibility. Are they at the pinnacle of “tweakability”? No, that post is still reserved for other third party manufacturers. However, with the steady change of pace, we are seeing better and better products for enthusiasts coming out of the Intel labs. Today, we’ll examine the DX79SI “Siler” motherboard with the latest production BIOS and drivers to see just where Intel is headed this time.
I always like to give the manufacturers some time after product launch to work out a few bugs with BIOS updates, driver updates, etc. before conducting a full evaluation, and that holds true today. Both the DX79SI and Core i7-3960X have been on the market for roughly three months now, though during some of that time competing boards were still stocking up in the market. Now that we have several options available, we can use these as a rough comparison in value and features. To give you an idea of the performance of the DX79SI and Core i7-3960X pairing, we will pit these two against our ASUS SABERTOOTH X58 and Core i7-965X. This board and processor combo reached new performance levels when they were tested, and will serve as a baseline for comparison with the X79 platform.
..:: Sandy Bridge Arrives ::..
It’s that time of the year again, CES is happening and naturally we have new products from Intel to toy with. If you’re new to the performance computing world, you may or may not have heard of the “Tick-Tock” philosophy that Intel employs for deploying new processors. The “Tick” events revolve primarily around a process improvement, i.e. Penryn was 45nm and Westmere 32nm, while a “Tock” event means we have a new microarchitecture gracing our presence. Intel’s Sandy Bridge is a “Tock” event, and is an improvement upon the wildly successful Nehalem microarchitecture. When Nehalem debuted, it was a boon for Intel placing them in the performance lead with little competition from AMD. Intel’s Core Series is still the predominant processor, and the most sought after series for MBReview readers. Today, we’ll be evaluating the Sandy Bridge microarchitecture, as well as comparing the new Core i7-2600K and Core i5-2500K against some Gen 1 Core processors. This will only be the first of several reviews over the next few days and weeks covering the new processors, and the new chipsets that come along for the ride.
One of the key weaknesses of the existing Westmere processors is the fact that those with integrated graphics require a specialized packaging technique. These processors use two individual dies, each based off of a different manufacturing process. If you remember back to the initial days of dual core processors, this is also how Intel chose to develop the first products. There was much argument over whether or not these were truly “dual core” processors as they were not one monolithic die. All arguments aside, this dual-die issue is addressed in Sandy Bridge processors. As the 32nm process has matured, Intel is now able to package both the integrated graphics core and processor core into a single monolithic die. Another key weakness, if you can call it that, is that the Nehalem / Westmere products simply can’t be bumped up in frequency much more, if at all. Given all the thermal and manufacturing constraints, the only other way to provide a boost in performance is to either move to a smaller manufacturing process and bump frequency, or improve the microarchitecture of the processor. That improved microarchitecture, and bumped frequency level, is Sandy Bridge.
..:: Sandy Bridge Overview ::..
Perhaps the most annoying buzzword of the past few years has to be “integration” and it’s associated variants, however, this concept has also brought some of the most innovative and popular products to date to the world. We’ve seen a steady progression over time of key functionality that formerly resided in the Northbridge being moved directly onto the processor die. This offers a slew of advantages with both cost and performance, and Sandy Bridge brings this effort to a head. Sandy Bridge processors will finally fully integrate the memory controller, PCI Express controller and now the graphics core. What’s next in the integration train? Only time will tell.
..:: Intel Core i7-980X – Six Cores of Fun ::..
A mere two months ago, we had our first experience with a 32nm processor based off of the “Westmere” process, “Clarkdale”. At the time, we examined performance of the LGA1156 based Core i5-661, featuring the new AES-NI instruction set along with an integrated graphics die. We were impressed with the performance of the processor, especially the AES capabilities thanks to the new instruction set. The one thing we were left wondering was, how will the new instructions and die shrink effect the upcoming hexacore processors based off of the “Westmere” process. Today, we can finally reveal our take on the performance of the hexacore Core i7-980X processor, codenamed “Gulftown”.
..:: Intel Core i7-980X – A Closer Look ::..
The Core i7-980X processor is, of course, based off of the 32nm “Westmere” process technology, using high-k + metal gate transistors. The die boasts a massive 1.17 billion transistors, and yet comes in at a mere 248mm2. To put this into perspective, the “Bloomfield” processors that currently sit atop Intel’s high performance product line featured 731 million transistors in a die size of 263mm2. Thanks to the die shrink from 45nm down to 32nm, Intel has managed to squeeze in the extra transistors into a chip that’s actually smaller than “Bloomfield”, an impressive feat.
The Core i7-980X also boasts the same feature set as the “Clarkdale” processor, sans the integrated graphics die. The Core i7-980X sports Turbo Boost, Hyper-Threading, Triple-Channel DDR3, Extreme Memory Profiles, QPI, 12MB of Smart Cache and the new AES-NI instruction set. The Core i7-980X is also drop-in compatible with virtually all existing X58 based motherboards. All that should be needed for most is a BIOS update to add support for the i7-980X.
The Core i7-980X shares several similarities with the i7-975. The Turbo Boost settings for the i7-980X allow for a maximum frequency of 3.6GHz, the same as the i7-975, however the i7-980X is limited to 3.46GHz when running in multicore Turbo. Both processors are specified to have a 130W TDP, and a default frequency of 3.33GHz. Surprisingly, the 1ku pricing for each is also $999. Many were speculating initially that the i7-980X would have a much higher quantity price, but Intel has chosen to offer it at the same price as the existing i7-975. This isn’t to say you’ll see identical prices at the retail level. We’ve already heard of initial reports well in excess of $1,000 USD.
..:: Intel Core i7-980X – A Performance Heatsink…From Intel? ::..
The retail boxed versions of the i7-980X will also feature a new thermal solution from Intel, dubbed the DBX-B. Unlike previous thermal solutions from Intel, this new heatsink resembles numerous other heatpipe based solutions in the commercial market. Intel’s previous thermal solutions all featured similar circular designs and were controlled by the motherboard. This new heatsink allows for two settings, quiet and performance. This setting is controlled by a switch on the unit. Currently, Intel has no plans to market this heatsink as a separate product, but if the feedback is good enough, they are open to different options. We’ll be examining the performance of this new heatsink in comparison to a Thermalright Ultra 120 in our upcoming article, “Intel Core i7-980X Overclocking”.
..:: Intel Core i7-980X – Summary ::..
As you will see in the subsequent pages of benchmark results, Intel has a real winner with the Core i7-980X. Not only are we seeing performance gains of 25%, 35% and 50%+ from this new six core behemoth, we are getting it at the same price (in 1ku quantities) as the existing Core i7-975. This essentially renders the i7-975 obsolete as long as the retail market value of the i7-980X is the same, or competitive. This would also justify keeping the i7 namesake, as this will essentially replace the i7-975 at the top of the performance spectrum. We’ll have to wait a short while to see just how much of a price premium this new chip goes for, but if you were considering an i7-975, wait and see what happens because picking up an i7-975 now could prove foolish.
It’s extremely rare to see such a substantial performance boost that does not result in a price boost over the previous product. Especially when you’re talking 25-50% performance gains in multi-core, multi-threaded applications. Now, is the Core i7-980X for everyone? Of course not. Not many of us can readily drop $1,000 USD and up on a new processor. If you’re in the commercial market, or specialize in computationally intensive applications such as CAD / CAM / CAE, photo editing, video editing, etc. then this may be a valuable investment to increase productivity. For the average user, it really doesn’t add much to the current mix. Under normal user circumstances, you would be hard pressed to see a noticeable difference between the i7-980X and something far cheaper like the i7-920.
What we’ll be waiting for in the future is the debut of quad core processors based off of the “Westmere” 32nm process. These chips will bring all of the performance benefits such as the new AES-NI instructions, but should come in at a more reasonable price. Intel will not be creating a special four core die, rather using the same six core die with two permanently disabled. This should allow for a fairly quick roll out of quad core processors, and at a reasonable price considering how the i7-980X is positioned. If all else holds true to the past, within a year we should begin to see the roll out of cost effective six core processors as well. That is the day we will all be awaiting. Until then, keep the dream alive.
Now that you’re familiar with the Core i7-980X and our thoughts,continue on with the benchmark results and see just what this new chip has to offer. As a baseline, we’ll be comparing it against the current performance champs from Intel, the i7-965 and i7-975, along with the popular i7-920.
..:: Introduction ::..
With the recent launch of Intel’s Clarkdale processor with Intel HD Graphics integrated into the package, Intel has provided an innovative solution for the needs of the budget end consumer, and the multimedia crowd. Thanks to the capable integrated graphics, Clarkdale offers an excellent solution for a home theater system, or any multimedia system for that matter. To harness the power of these new chips, Intel has developed their media series motherboards with the varying chipset options geared towards the Core i3 / i5 / i7 solutions. Today, we’ll be taking a look at the DH55TC “Tom Cove” motherboard. This board offers a wealth of features, but with a market price in the $99 range, is it a better solution than competing boards? We’ll take a look at the performance of three processors on the DH55TC platform, and examine other market options in a price / feature comparison to find out. Before we delve into the board, let’s rewind back and take a quick look at the H55 Express features, and a quick refresher of Intel HD Graphics.
..:: H55 Express Chipset Features ::..
The Intel H55 Express Chipset has several features that are common amongst all of the i5 and i7 supporting chipsets. The H55 features the Direct Media Interface (DMI) between the processor and the PCH, as well as the Flexible Display Interface (FDI) for processors like the Core i5-661 The processor and FDI support both legacy analog VGA as well as all modern digital connections like HDMI and DVI. The H55 Express Chipset also adds support for an additional 6 PCI Express x1 (or other configuration like 3 x2, 1 x4 and 1 x2, etc.) lanes. It also supports Intel HD Audio, 6 Serial ATA ports, eSATA, a SPI bus for the Intel Management Engine, 10/100/1000 and/or GbE and the customary array of USB 2.0 ports. The block diagram above shows each of these in more detail.
..:: Intel HD Graphics Features ::..
With the new Intel HD Graphics enabled processors, we now have the graphics die on the processor package, greatly increasing the potential performance versus a discrete (G)MCH solution. The Intel HD Graphics solution is by no means meant for what we in the enthusiast community would call gaming. Sure it can handle many of the basics and older DX9 games, but anything beyond that and you’ll be needing a discrete solution. What Intel HD Graphics is meant for is the average Joe looking for support of the Aero features of Windows Vista / 7, Blu-Ray playback support, HD streaming media and movies, etc.
In comparison to the prior GMA 4500 Series, the new Intel HD Graphics processors offer Blu-Ray playback with premium audio and dual decode functionality, Deep Color and x.v.Color, 8×8 polyphase DVD upscaling versus 6×6, HD video sharpness, dynamic frequency adjustment for mobile processors and OpenGL 2.1 support. These newly added features offer a substantial upgrade over what is currently offered in desktop and mobile (G)MCHs and over what you will find in Atom based solutions. Intel HD Graphics offers all features needed to create a true home theater or media PC. Now that we’re familiar with the H55 Express and Intel HD Graphics, let’s take a better look at the DH55TC.
..:: Introduction ::..
Today, I have a stellar new product up for review from Crucial, their recently announced 4GB DDR3-1333MHz UDIMMs. Crucial has always been a well known and trusted name in the world of consumer and, more recently, performance DRAM. Throughout their history, Crucial has been able to pride itself on quality products for countless platforms. For those who may not be familiar with Crucial, here’s a snippet from their website.
“A wholly owned subsidiary of Micron Technology, Inc., Lexar Media, Inc. boasts one of the most comprehensive offerings of memory product lines in the industry. We deliver high-quality, award-winning products in every memory category: USB flash drives, all popular form factors of memory cards and card readers, DRAM computer memory for PCs and Mac systems, and solid state drives (SSD). We back our products with outstanding customer support and industry-leading warranties, and we strive to expand our offerings to meet the ever-changing needs of our customers — customers just like you.“
With 64-bit operating systems such as Windows 7 being utilized by an ever increasing user base, Crucial has begun to offer new solutions that take advantage of the increased DRAM capabilities of a 64-bit operating system. The 4GB UDIMMs we will be looking at today are a step in the direction of providing high reliability, high density DRAMs to the consumer. As modern motherboards can support anywhere from 16GB of DRAM and up, these new 4GB UDIMMs position Crucial to take advantage of this evolving market.
Now, does everyone need 8GB, 12GB or 16GB of DRAM? No, such high densities are really only required for users of memory hogging applications such as video and photo editing, computer aided design and engineering, etc. Can an everyday user still benefit from increased DRAM? The simple answer to this is yes, if only from the fact that it will allow more system critical data to stay in DRAM vs. being stored on the HDD. This will allow for a more responsive system, and one that can handle a far greater beating when it comes to multitasking. Don’t forget, there are also benefits to multi-channel setups with additional DIMMs. Before we crunch some numbers and see how these 4GB UDIMMs perform in different setups, let’s take a quick look at Crucial’s official specifications, as well as the modules themselves.
..:: H55 Chipset – Nehalem Hits the Mainstream ::..
Well, we’ve now entered a new year and we’re starting things off with a bang. Today, Intel has released the NDA on information and performance surrounding their new chipsets and the new Westmere processors. We’ll be waiting a few more months for the six-core version of Westmere targeted at the Extreme user, but with this release Intel has completed the circle bringing the Nehalem architecture to all mainstream users. Westmere doesn’t merely apply a die shrink and move on, not in the least. Intel has added several new instructions for AES encryption that vastly improve the performance and bandwidth of encryption calculations and applications. Did we also mention the option for a multi-chip package with integrated graphics? We’ll be examining Westmere’s performance with the Intel Core i5-661. We’ll see how this compares against the Core i5-750 and Core i7-870 all on the DH55TC “Tom Cove” motherboard. Before we delve into the performance of this new setup, let’s take a quick look at what Westmere has to offer.
..:: Westmere – More than a Die Shrink ::..
The benefits of a die shrink are well known to any enthusiast. The shift to 32nm is no different than what we have seen in the past. An impressive feat of the Westmere design is that we are now seeing TDP’s of 73W for a Westmere only solution, and 87W for a combined Westmere / IGP. This is vastly improved from the prior 45nm designs for the Core i7 and i5’s in then LGA1366 and LGA1156 package. We also see higher clock rates available at these much reduced TDPs. Does it get any better than a faster, cooler processor? I can’t think of anything I love better, so long as we don’t see a punishing performance hit to get there.
A second benefit of Westmere is the continued integration of what formerly consisted of the (G)MCH into the actual processor die. Integration is and has been a buzz word for years now, but with Westmere we can finally do away with the (G)MCH. Due to the integration of PCI-Express, the memory controller, and the option of a multi-chip package with the graphics die, motherboards no longer need a three chip solution. The remains of the (G)MCH and ICH have now been integrated into a single die, known now as the Platform Controller Hub, or PCH. This allows for a substantial space savings on the motherboard, meaning more compact solutions, or even better, boards with more features.
A multi-chip package is not a new development in the industry. You may remember the initial dual core processors consisted of two independent dies. This is the case now with the graphics die and the Westmere die on the Core i5-661. While Westmere is built off the 32nm process, the graphics die utilizes the 45nm process. Using a multi-chip package design allows for a simpler and faster integration of both dies into one package. Will we see a single die solution in the future? I would bet on it.
..:: Introduction ::..
In November 2008, Intel launched the Core i7 processor based on a new microarchitecture codenamed Nehalem. This long-awaited microarchitecture brought dominant performance for the Core i7 900 series, but with that performance came at a steep price relative to Intel’s own Core 2 processors. X58 motherboards with prices in the range of $300-$400 USD are far from uncommon. This was certainly a contributing factor to a core component of the market simply being priced out of Bloomfield and X58. Intel recognized this fact, and after some delay has released the Lynnfield Core i5 and i7 800 series processors, as well as a new mid-range chipset dubbed P55. The real question is, have Lynnfield and the P55 chipset come to the rescue of the mainstream market?
It’s well known now that the Lynnfield core has had some features removed, i.e. QPI Links, however Intel has also added features such as an integrated PCI Express 2.0 controller directly in the die. This feature of Lynnfield should help to negate some of the loss of the QPI. After all, one primary use of QPI was previously to link the processor to the X58 IOH. Now that the IOH has been integrated directly into the die, we’ll benefit from lower latencies.
Another change that comes with Lynnfield is the move to supporting only dual channel DDR3 vs. triple channel DDR3 offered by Bloomfield and the X58 chipset. How much of a difference will this truly make in the end? I would initially suspect that there will not be much performance degradation in the shift from dual channel to triple channel when it comes to real world applications. We’ll soon see if this does indeed turn out to be the case.
An astonishing feat of the Lynnfield core is that it turns out it is larger than Bloomfield, yet we’re still seeing these sell at a discounted rate from the Bloomfield processors.Couple this fact with relatively cheap P55 solutions in comparison to their X58 brethren and you have what could be an excellent and affordable solution.
Today, we’ll be taking our look at Intel’s own P55 motherboard, the DP55KG, codenamed “Kingsberg”. This board boasts some impressive features, and as you’ll soon see have an added extra component or two. It’s always fun to work with board that still have debug ports and all of the engineer leftovers. Before I delve into the performance of the board, let’s take a tour around the PCB to see just what Intel has to offer with the DP55KG.
..:: Introduction ::..
As word of Intel’s “Prescott” core grew, many began to believe that “Northwood” was the end of the road for the Pentium 4, and “Prescott” would bring in the beginning generations of the Pentium V, or next generation processor depending on Intel’s naming scheme. After details of the core enhancements began to become publicly available as time went on, it was seen that “Prescott” would not bring an end to the Pentium 4 line, rather it would be yet another tweaked version of the core, with enhancements made to the microarchitecture, along with several “standard” enhancements such as an increase in the size of the on-die L2 cache. Many, including myself, initially believed that the 3.20GHz mark would be the end of the Pentium 4 “Northwood” core, although today, along with the release of several “Prescott” and “EE” processors, Intel has released a 3.40GHz “Northwood” core processor. In our review of the 3.20GHz “Northwood,” we found that Intel did seem to have enough frequency room to work with to create a 3.40GHz version, although we did not believe that they would do so, and obviously were incorrect. Today, we will be examining the various enhancements that Intel has made to with the “Prescott” core, and bring to rest some of the rumors about performance, microarchitecture changes, and more that have been floating around the internet.
..:: Introduction ::..
The race to have the first dual core processors on the market has come to an end. Both AMD and Intel have launched their respective dual core processors, AMD with the Athlon 64 X2 series, and Intel sporting the Pentium D’s and Extreme Edition. AMD was the first to disclose plans for a dual core processor, and Intel soon followed after the well documented problems of reaching the 4.0GHz barrier with the “Prescott” core due to tremendous power requirements. The debate over who has the first real dual core processor is still going on with AMD throwing the latest punch at Intel’s solution to dual core with the D and Extreme Edition CPU’s.
The Extreme Edition 840 was released to the press in late April for a rather astounding action, an official preview with performance benchmarks. This was an unheard of event from Intel who normally keeps performance under wraps until the very second the NDA’s lift. AMD soon followed with sanctioned previews of their Athlon 64 X2 chips, and the race was on.
With Intel’s dual core processors, there’s one minor difference between the Pentium D’s and the Extreme Edition processor, and that is core support for Hyper-Threading. The Pentium D processors lack support for Hyper-Threading Technology, unlike the Extreme Edition series. Both these processors will operate off of an 800MHz FSB for the time being, though I’d hope to see a move to 1066MHz sometime in the “near” future.