Intel Core i7-980X Extreme: Hello, Six-Core Computing

Platform And Overclocking

The good news, of course, is that Core i7-980X employs the same LGA 1366 interface as Bloomfield. In fact, several vendors have already let us know that their year-old X58 boards are already working with Gulftown via updated BIOS files. So, if you’re already X58 and are looking to upgrade, you’ll likely be taken care of in the days to come as motherboard vendors update their older offerings.

No longer is there a clear segmentation, price-wise, between X58 at the high-end and P55 for mid-range folks. X58-based boards sell for as little as $160 online and we’ve seen P55 platforms in excess of $300. If you’re going for an enthusiast-class multi-GPU setup, X58 is the way to go, and a Core i7-900-series processor is your only option.

The new DBX-B thermal solutionThe new DBX-B thermal solution

Kicking Tires, Lighting Fires

When Clarkdale hit, we were super-anxious to try our hand at overclocking the 32nm processor. I hit 4.5 GHz fairly easily in my lab with the Core i5-661. However, both Thomas and Don have since fried retail Clarkdale CPUs with too much voltage. We’re naturally a little more gun-shy about our air-cooled settings nowadays.

But Clarkdale is a bit of an enthusiast’s paradox. On one hand, that tiny dual-core die should ramp up to fairly aggressive frequencies. On the other, there’s also the 45nm graphics/memory/PCIe chip to consider—it’s essentially a waste for performance-oriented gamers who’d rather have no integrated graphics, a true integrated memory controller, and chipset-based PCI Express capable of leveraging at least 32 second-generation lanes.

Conversely, Gulftown is a purely 32nm component with the more elegant memory subsystem and the QPI interface to lots of PCIe 2.0 via X58.

Because the Core i7-980X features an unlocked clock multiplier, we were able to tune it using that ratio. Starting with a 25x default, we eventually settled on 31x, or 4.13 GHz with Enhanced SpeedStep and Turbo Boost enabled (yielding 4.26 GHz most of the time and 4.4 GHz with a single core active). This proved to be a perfectly stable configuration at 1.4V; one speed bin higher put the chip over the edge. Moreover, we achieved this using Intel's new DBX-B thermal solution, which is remarkably quiet given the load we applied to it.

As you can see, there’s quite a bit of extra performance to be had from tuning Gulftown, both in single- and multi-threaded titles. Now, a $1,000 processor might not be the ideal target for overclocking, but as the only hexa-core chip in Intel’s desktop lineup, there’s certainly something to be said for almost 1 GHz of headroom, even at the flagship position.

Then we started messing with Gulftown’s BCLK and memory settings. Bloomfield offered three channels of DDR3-1066 support, officially. Core i7-980X does as well. But a number of the memory vendors are selling these triple-channel kits rated for DDR3-2000 at 1.65V. What’s less apparent is that, when you instantiate an XMP profile for DDR3-2000, you also wind up increasing the uncore voltage from 1.2V as high as 1.7V—uncomfortably aggressive, in our opinion.

Starting with Lynnfield, however, Intel altered the ratio between the uncore and memory from 2:1 to 1.5:1. No longer would DDR-2000 memory force a 4 GHz uncore (thereby requiring those extreme voltages). Instead, you’d be looking at a 3 GHz uncore. I asked Ronak Singhal, the lead architect of Nehalem, why this change was made, and his answer was a total “duh” moment for me.

Basically, Intel dropped the ratio to allow faster memory speeds without running into the need to crank uncore voltage. “Uncore frequency is a function of the silicon bin split (just like core frequency). If we only supported 2:1, that would limit the number of products that could support a given memory frequency. This was especially important with Lynnfield/Clarksfield and getting some of the faster memory speeds to lower frequency parts, especially in mobile.”

As a result, I was able to manually configure the same Kingston kit that previously required 1.7V to run DDR3-2000 at Gulftown’s automatic 1.2V setting. Although this probably won’t make high-speed memory kits any more beneficial for overall performance (even with six cores, Gulftown isn’t hurting for bandwidth), it at least minimizes the effect of one variable in your overclocking efforts.

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  • one-shot
    shuffman37First Comment, I'll be staying up to read this review =)

    I'm guessing you didn't read this.,9855.html
  • tipmen
    Hm, not bad at all more cores at the same price as 975. Games don't seem to scale that much but CAD and transcoding is improved overall. Glad to see AMDs 965 hold its own in the game segment.
  • one-shotI'm guessing you didn't read this. [...] ,9855.html

    Nope, Haven't bothered looking at that. The 980x doesn't really make any difference in gaming but I wasn't expecting anything earth shattering. Does look good against the 965 x4 for mutlimedia applications.
  • beans4you
    glad im going with the right x58! miiiight have to upgrade my cpu choice ;)
  • tipmen
    shuffman37Nope, Haven't bothered looking at that. The 980x doesn't really make any difference in gaming but I wasn't expecting anything earth shattering. Does looks good against the 965 x4 for mutlimedia applications.

    It is a good reminder how to act on toms you should read it when you get the chance.
  • gkay09
    Lolz...The Crysis benchmark and the Chris's starting line...Am sure he would have been forced to post that so that no one start with the infamous tag line "But can it play Crysis ?" :P
  • gkay09
    And Chris it would be nice if you could post some benchmarks of games that are CPU taxing like the GTA IV/ FSX...Most of the games used in the above benchmarks dont tax the CPU as much as these...
  • cangelini
    I hear you there gkay...I used to do more with GTA IV (not sure how prolific FS X still is), but it just depends on how many folks still want to see it. As a *general* rule, $1,000 CPUs aren't going to do much for your high-res gaming. However, it's a good point that there are a couple of titles notorious for hitting graphics far less than host processing power!
  • footsoldier
    wow wow..6 cores already!! Truly is the fastest now. AMD, do keep up!!
  • pinkfloydminnesota
    NO GTA IV? Should get great gains as it's notoriously CPU limited by the best quad cores. Unforgivable.
  • I wonder how much AMD's Phenom II X6 will be and how it will compare to 980X...
  • frozenlead
    Why do we bother with iTunes anymore..just get rid of it. I did I don't even know how many years ago.
  • curnel_D
    TheCapuletFSX would be a perfect gaming title for the CPU benchies. The thing is, it's not a gaming crowd title, but there are still a ton of people who still use it.Another really good title for CPU benchmarks is Lost planet. From what I remember, it is one of the best cpu scaling games, even today.

    Wholly agreed.
  • touchdowntexas13
    Alright, so just a bit of speculation, but how does everyone expect these new six-core cpu's to affect prices of the mid-high grade cpus?

    Obviously this Intel won't be forcing down any reasonable prices, but I am hoping that AMD's six core will bring down the price of either the i5-750 or the i7-930.

    I guess one can always hope...
  • Zinosys
    Well, from a gaming standpoint, there is not much difference between the chips. But in a corporate environment (workstations/servers), the 6-core processors are going to make a HUGE difference, and to say that you can run 2 extra cores with almost the same power consumption, that's priceless.

    Great article! :)
  • avericia
    "What’d really be cool for the enthusiast crowd would be a line of quad-core CPUs manufactured at 32nm. Almost certainly scalable to even higher clock rates"

    This is exact same thing I've been dreaming of, a high clocked 32nm quad at a reasonable price, maybe even with an unlocked multiplier :P

    Hopefully we don't have to wait until Q1 2011 to be able to buy one.
  • shin0bi272
    To be honest the main reason I got an x58 mobo when they came out was the rumor that there was going to be an 8 core version with HT and turbo mode within 2 years of the original launch date. It would seem those reports were right (they were intel's original claims after all) but might be a little late depending on how fast the 6 cores sell. But hopefully by the time the 8 core versions come out I'll have the money to buy one lol.

    Great article though I really enjoyed flipping through all the pages of benchies... sort of wish you could have used dual 5970's for the gaming test though since the 5850 seems to have been your bottleneck with all the game tests.
  • doomtomb
    This thing is real and it's FAST. I'm impressed but gamers, you don't need it. Benchmark breakers and Pixar need it though.
  • noob2222
    This is definatly aimed at business use only. Gamers would be wasting thier money on something like this.

    Without seeing numbers, I'd guess AMD will counter with 2/3 of the performance, (possibly more depending on how aggressive they take thier speed boost), but it will be at 1/3 of the price. We may find out as early as April.
  • magicandy
    How can you run game benchmarks for a CPU without testing THE most CPU-taxing genre, RTS? Seriously, I was at least expecting World in Conflict or SupCom 2....I mean those games will really show you CPU differences.
  • agnickolov
    Can we please get compilation benchmarks? Please?
    This is a purely productivity processor as the gaming analysis clearly showed, but you are missing an important productivity category - software development...
  • JonnyDough
    When it comes to power consumption only one number really matters and that's "near idle". Background tasks mean that one core has to stay on at all times, but rarely will anyone be using six cores at once. It'll be a an overall rarity that you're actually using all six cores for anything like encoding, your PC is more likely to sit idle, run a game that doesn't require all the processor's power, or be surfing the net. For "full load" I could care less if it's double that of the competition's CPU if I pay a good bit less the rest of the time.
  • Gandalf
    I've only got the 975.
  • dco
    Wouldn't mind seeing a couple older CPU's in there (Core2 Quad/Duo). Seeing as someone owning a i7-975/920 is gonna be less likely to be looking to upgrade any time soon.