Intel Core i7-980X

..:: 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.