The Intel Core i7-990X Extreme Edition Processor Review

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 Extre...

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.

Introduction

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.

Retail Core i7-990X up frontRetail Core i7-990X up front

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.

LGA 1366 interface around backLGA 1366 interface around back

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?

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116 comments
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  • kikireeki
    Chris, I think your first conclusion still valid.
    2
  • binoyski
    Darn, the contest should be open to all Tom's Hardware registered users even from a different country!
    9
  • Saljen
    My friend just built a new gaming rig with the 980x as the processor... He plays Age of Conan. I busted up laughing when he said he spent $1k on a processor that he'll only use to 1/10th of its potential. Told him he should have gotten an i5, now I'll send him this article as further proof.
    5
  • HansVonOhain
    This is just a ripoff by intel on those who are not knowledgeable enough that more expensive does not always mean better.
    -2
  • cangelini
    kikireekiChris, I think your first conclusion still valid.


    Which one was that? :)
    3
  • adamboy64
    Well, some people just want the best when they buy a PC, regardless of cost efficiency, can't blame 'em. There'll always be that market.
    3
  • cangelini
    binoyskiDarn, the contest should be open to all Tom's Hardware registered users even from a different country!


    Really wish it could be binoyski. We have specific tax laws, unfortunately, that prevent it. Same reason the folks in RI can't enter :-/
    4
  • joytech22
    Wow AMD's CPU is just getting plain-ol decimated in this review.

    Still, it does hold it's ground even though the architecture is like 4 years old, using the same technology that was around back when the C2Q's we're the high-end (the same as the original phenoms on a die shrink).

    Because of this, I can almost guarantee AMD's success with their future CPU's, just like I predicted the 2600K would be faster in most cases than the 980X.

    That doesn't mean I'm saying that Bulldozer will outperform the i7's or upcoming 8-core Intel CPU's I'm just saying that there's going to be some serious decisions for upgraders this year.

    I mean look at Magny corus 12 core (2.2GHz) vs i7 980x, it's almost as fast and 1GHz slower (but 12 physical cores) and cost's the same.
    4
  • iam2thecrowe
    joytech22Wow AMD's CPU is just getting plain-ol decimated in this review.

    i wouldnt say decimated, and its cheaper also. That benchmark of metro 2033 is interesting, particularly the better lowfps the AMD chip managed. But i agree they have flogged this horse as far as it will go and they need bulldozer ASAP to be competitive.
    5
  • haplo602
    HansVonOhainThis is just a ripoff by intel on those who are not knowledgeable enough that more expensive does not always mean better.


    I thought that's what Intel is doing with all of their CPUs :-)
    1
  • curtis_87
    binoyskiDarn, the contest should be open to all Tom's Hardware registered users even from a different country!


    I agree, an think of the publicity Toms, spotty 17yr old kid in africa wins 2 x Combo Intel Core i7-990X and Intel DX58SO2 Motherboard: Value of $1261...

    In this age of globalisation and almost non-existent boundaries on the net to your customers...I think you could afford to encompass anyone any where..
    -4
  • Travis Beane
    I have a reason to stay with a LGA 1336 chip instead of upgrading.
    My feature rich motherboard cost me $300. :)

    I know it's the nature for electronics to evolve, but going from my 2.66GHz i7 quadcore to looking at a 3.46 sexacore at the same TDP, I find it impressive.

    I'm waiting for LGA 2011 to upgrade again, thank you.
    2
  • kashifme21
    I purchased the I7 920 at launch, 2 years on in 2010 i was looking for a upgrade even though it wasnt really needed. So it was either waiting for sandy bridge getting a new motherboard and CPU or going for the I7 980x.

    New mother board and CPU would end up costing me 700usd anyways, so i decided to go for the I7 980x. Oced it to 4.5ghz, i think i will stick with this setup until a game actually comes up and needs more, i dont see that happening for the next few years atleast or atleast until next consoles turn up.
    0
  • silky salamandr
    AMD gettin the business like always.

    I check probably 10 times a day hoping that the egg gets 1155 back online. They activated the procs last week so they should be getting the mobos back in soon I hope!
    0
  • kikireeki
    cangeliniWhich one was that?


    Two months ago, when I finished testing Intel’s Core i5-2500K and Core i7-2600K, I came to the conclusion that you’d have to be battier than Charlie Sheen with a suitcase of blow to spend $1000 on a Core i7-980X Extreme Edition in the face of Sandy Bridge-based CPUs. I was so convinced, in fact, that I didn’t bother benchmarking the super-exclusive chip, and instead focused on drilling deep into Quick Sync and Intel’s HD Graphics engines.
    1
  • JohnnyLucky
    YIPES! The cpu costs more than the pc's I build.
    1
  • killerclick
    I'll get the 990x just because I can and I'll use it for web browsing and e-mail.
    4
  • dww
    So 6 cores are sometimes better than 4, and Intel might still be able to sell their stock of i7-9x0X's, especially where people already have LGA 1366 motherboards.

    I do database work which DOES benefit from extra cores, but I think I'll wait until they bring out 6 or 8 core Sandy Bridge chips.
    1
  • jimishtar
    cangeliniReally wish it could be binoyski. We have specific tax laws, unfortunately, that prevent it. Same reason the folks in RI can't enter :-/

    What tax? U get all hardware for free, right? Anyway, I am more than willing to pay for all the tax + delivery expenses, you just send the combo, np. Or don't giveaway at all, cause this is just pure discrimination.
    -3
  • lostandwandering
    Good performance numbers for the 990x in certain situations. Though the 2600K was never far enough behind to make the 990x all that relevant. Especially, not to someone upgrading from an older Core2 or Athlon X2 system. Sure wouldn't mind getting one for free though....
    0