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We were impressed enough with Intel’s Sandy Bridge architecture that we awarded the Core i5-2500K our coveted Recommended Buy award. Just north of $200, that’s a solid value. But it’s not Intel’s flagship. That honor goes to the new Core i7-990X Extreme.
Editor's Note: We have some extra hardware here in the lab, as you can see from the shot below. To be exact, I'm talking about a pair of Core i7-990X processors, a Core i7-980X, and a Core i7-950, and five Intel DX58SO2 motherboards (one to go with each CPU). We also have 50 cases of Sparkling ICE water. And we're giving it all away. Read through and enjoy today's review and, on the last page, click the link to enter our random drawing.
The Sandy Bridge architecture launch early last month had me scratching my head, wondering if there is still room in Intel’s desktop portfolio for Core i7-900-series processors. After all, why spend up to $1000 on a six-core stunner based on last-generation’s architecture if a quad-core CPU with significant per-clock improvements could come close around the $300 price point?
Had Intel not run into problems with its H67 and P67 chipsets, there’s a fair chance that LGA 1155-based motherboards would already be flying off the shelves. Enthusiasts would be buying Core i5-2500Ks en masse, overclocking them like mad, and seeing serious performance from a modestly-priced platform.
But even then, Intel imposed some ghastly limitations on its Sandy Bridge-based platforms, and I simply don't approve of them. When you buy P67, you lose access to Quick Sync entirely. When you buy H67, you lose the ability to overclock a K-series SKU the way it was meant to be overclocked. Either way you go, you lose some important piece of the Sandy Bridge-based feature set. I hate to get greedy, but that’s enough to make an enthusiast want to wait for Z68, isn’t it?
Core i7-9xx: A Family In Crisis?
Back to the Core i7-900s. Intel recently revamped the lineup, and it now consists of fewer models: Core i7-990X Extreme Edition, Core i7-970, and Core i7-960. Anything lower and you’re treading on Sandy Bridge territory. So, processors like Core i7-950 are going away.
Of course, the company also had to reevaluate its pricing. With Core i7-2600K selling for $330, the value equation got flipped on its head. The quad-core i7-960 dropped to $294 and the six-core i7-970 dropped to $583. Not surprisingly, Core i7-990X remains a $1000 unicorn.
With the motherboard industry ramping production of LGA 1155-based platforms back up, is there still a reason to consider X58 Express and the Core i7-900 family?
We’ve suggested that the chipset’s 36 lanes of second-gen PCI Express connectivity could be a reason for anyone with two, three, or four graphics cards. But then we showed that, using Nvidia’s NF200 bridge chip, even 16 lanes can demonstrate exceptional three-way SLI scaling (ECS P55H-AK: P55/NF200 Versus X58 In 3-Way SLI). So, it sounds like gamers can safely look elsewhere.
Then, in our Sandy Bridge launch coverage (Intel’s Second-Gen Core CPUs: The Sandy Bridge Review), I set up a clock-for-clock performance comparison and found that Intel’s newest CPUs run significantly faster at the same frequency—never mind the fact that they overclock extremely well, given a honed 32 nm manufacturing process. There goes any possible way we could ever recommend a Bloomfield-based Core i7-960, -950, or -930.
What’s left? Core i7-970 and Core i7-990X—both Gulftown-based CPUs with six cores, manufactured at 32 nm. For a very specific, limited, and niche market most generally defined as workstations, there’s potential here for performance in excess of what the fastest Sandy Bridge-based chip (limited to four cores) can serve up.
At $583, the -970 still feels overpriced. At $999, the -990X is even more so. But at least the -990X guarantees the fastest possible frequencies and sports an unlocked clock multiplier—a feature we so dearly coveted until AMD started arming gobs of its chips with the Black Edition moniker and Intel answered back with the K-series.
As one vendor of very expensive motherboards told me recently, there are folks out there who’ll pay to own the fastest of anything, though. Our mission today is to figure out if the Core i7-990X is indeed the fastest processor out there. Or, does the Core i7-2600K oust it using a more efficient architecture?