CPU: Intel Core i7-980X Extreme
By: Tony Celeste
When you absolutely, positively have to have the fastest stock desktop CPU money can buy, Intel's Core i7-980X is it. The CPU costs $100 more than the more recently-released Core i7-970, but it also boasts an unlocked multiplier. And if you're going to spend serious cash on a six-core CPU like this one, multiplier-based overclocking is a good way to go.
If you're familiar with Intel's Xeon lineup, then you'll recognize the -980X's internals. The Gulftown core looks like a lot like the company's Westmere-EP chips. It takes the core design, cache structure, and LGA interface from the Nehalem generation processors (Bloomfield and Nehalem-EP), and adds two additional execution cores and 4 MB of shared L3 cache. Operating at 3.33 GHz base, the beast becomes Intel's desktop flagship.
Most enthusiasts are probably already quite familiar with the Core i7-980X. If not, check out our launch article covering the hexa-core beast. Beyond its 3.33 GHz base clock rate, the Gulftown core boasts 32 KB of L1 instruction cache per core, 32 KB of L1 data cache per core, 256 KB of L2 cache per core, and that aforementioned 12 MB shared L3 repository. Despite the fact that the cache is divided up between execution cores, the processor is smart enough to allocate it dynamically. Thus, if you’re running an application that can only take advantage of a single core, the entire cache can be made available to it, enabling significant performance increases in cache-dependent programs.
Enabling the extra cores and larger cache in the same 130 W power envelope as previous LGA-1366-based CPUs took some fancy footwork from Intel. The Core i7-980X was the first flagship desktop processor to center on the company's 32 nm manufacturing node. All other LGA-1366 CPUs up until March were etched at 45 nm. The smaller lithography translates to less electrical resistance between internal processor components, cutting power consumption significantly. Just how big of a difference is there between preceding Bloomfield chips and the Gulftown monster? Intel jumped from 731 million transistors in its quad-core design to 1.17 billion transistors in the Core i7-980X. That might sound paltry next to Nvidia's massive 3 billion transistor GPUs, but bear in mind that much of a graphics processor is the same logic copied over and over. There's a lot of complexity going on in that die, even if much of it is composed of cache.
The Core i7-980X naturally boasts the now-familiar integrated DDR3 memory controller that made its debut with Bloomfield, enabling three 64-bit channels. Officially, the controller's max data rate is 1066 MT/s, but enthusiasts regularly push this to more extreme levels, even exceeding 2000 MT/s. Intel’s Turbo Boost technology is included in the package, dynamically increasing processor speed without the need for manual overclocking, as is Hyper-Threading technology, which allows each physical core to appear to the OS as a pair of logical cores, enabling more efficient use of available execution resources.
Perhaps the best news for enthusiasts is that the Core i7-980X is designed for Intel's LGA 1366 interface. So, if you already own an X58-based motherboard, a simple BIOS update is all it takes to add support for the latest six-core CPUs.
We always hear that it's better to give than to receive during the holidays. With a price tag hovering around $1000, we hope you have relatives who really buy into that cliche, because it's going to take a generous heart to get this flagship CPU in your stocking. We know that spending this much money on a CPU isn’t for everyone. But if you have the cash available, and your work or play involves using threaded applications capable of really benefiting from 12 logical processors, then it doesn't get any faster than this.