If the processor market was a game of King of the Hill…no, that’s too easy.
The fact of the matter is that Intel currently sells the fastest CPUs. Its quad-core Core i5 and Core i7s are unmatched in the desktop space—and that’s precisely the reason you pay more for them than the dual-core, Clarkdale-based Core i3 and Core i5 processors (not to mention AMD’s entire Phenom II lineup, including its flagship X4 965 Black Edition).
Of course, "being the fastest" assumes that you’re looking at the right benchmarks. Intel’s dominance is most evident in video encoding apps, threaded compression/decompression workloads, and content creation tools like 3ds Max. If you’re gaming, AMD is perfectly capable of standing right up to Intel.
Now, sure, you’ll see those folks who run their benchmarks at 640x480 in an effort to demonstrate the differences between one processor and another. Truth be told, even as high as 1920x1200, there are measurable performance gaps between CPUs. But at the end of the day, your graphics card, more than anything, determines how well your games run.
Why the rambling sidebar on gaming? Because Intel sees its brand new Core i7-980X Extreme Edition—previously referred to as Gulftown—as a sweet gaming processor. And it will become the fastest processor you can buy (it's technically not available yet), so it’d naturally be great in a gaming box. However, at $1,000, you’re spending an extra $800 or so that’d be better invested into a pair of Radeon HD 5870s. As a result, before we show you any benchmarks, I’ll say that this probably isn’t the processor you need for a solid gaming experience. A Phenom II X4 or Core i7-920 is still plenty potent there. With that said, if money is no object and you want a six-core CPU and a pair of high-end graphics cards, you certainly can’t go wrong.
Six Cores Of Fury
The real reason to give Core i7-980X a long, hard look is that it’s a beast in the applications truly able to lean on its scaled-up architecture—and there are many. It leverages technologies first introduced on the Bloomfield generation of Core i7-900-series chips, like Turbo Boost and Hyper-Threading. But a recent shift to 32nm manufacturing results in transistors with decreased oxide thickness, reduced gate length, and, ultimately, less leakage current.
Consequently, Intel was able to increase complexity without pushing its design over the 130W TDP established by Bloomfield, giving us a six-core CPU featuring 12MB of shared L3 cache and capable of dropping into the same LGA 1366 interface you already know. The real question is whether the Core i7-980X is as Extreme as its price.