Tom's Hardware's 2010 Gift Guide: Part 1, For System Builders

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.

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    Top Comments
  • alexttlyrocks
    I'm only reading this article to look at the chicks
  • LuckyDucky7
    Alternative title:
    Gift Guide Part 1, for Deep Pockets :)
  • Other Comments
  • alexttlyrocks
    I'm only reading this article to look at the chicks
  • rohitbaran
    ^ Keep reading!
  • dogman_1234
    Wait until SB and BD.
  • Anonymous
    Radeon 6870 girl ... someone forgot to photoshop her ^^
  • LuckyDucky7
    Alternative title:
    Gift Guide Part 1, for Deep Pockets :)
  • squanto
  • cangelini
    LuckyDucky7Alternative title:Gift Guide Part 1, for Deep Pockets

    Phenom II for under $100? You must have those pockets that are sewn shut at the top, for decoration! =)
  • Bluescreendeath
    girls > computer parts that we already know about
  • Silmarunya
    Nice review, but I'd have liked to see advice for different budgets. For example, you could recommend a budget, mid range and high end product. For example, I'm currently in the market for a discrete sound card, but don't such an expensive one. On the other hand, I wouldn't be satisfied with a Phenom II X2. It's still a great article, mind you, but it'd have been nice to see some love for every end of the market.
  • Onus
    ntrRadeon 6870 girl ... someone forgot to photoshop her ^^

    No, it's the taint that a Diamond product radiates. They're #2 on my personal "Do not buy" list, right after Belkin.
  • garyshome
    The ps costs as much as the cpu and mb? So much for the budget.
  • sandmanwn
    Ed: You'll have to pardon this little gem missing out on the gift guide photo shoot.

    Off with his head!!!
  • nevertell
    The phenom II x2 555 is some of the BEST bang for the buck. I dropped it in my build, got a quad core running at 3,6 ghz for about 25 $ per core, and I didn't even have to disable any of the powersaving features or anything actually to get it working like this.
  • mi1ez
    Why the hell does the US site work fine and the UK site have it'ss CSS in a twist?
  • tony singh
    Some one gift me please....:)
  • cknobman
    I have no clue what products Toms is actually recommending here, too busy looking and the beautiful product modelers and not the actual products!!!
  • fausto
    Toms needs to spend more money on the holiday Models department. seen much better chicks at Quakecon 2008. No offense to the ladies but some of you are not booth babe material
  • ta152h
    Bluescreendeathgirls > computer parts that we already know about

    If you're that desperate to see pictures of girls, you're probably right; you must know computer parts better than girls.

    It's pretty sad when pictures of girls gets so much of a reaction. I swear if you get out of the house, you'll actually see them in real life. I'm not lying. You can even say "Hi" to them, and they'll probably even give you a response. I know it sounds far fetched, but I'm really confident about this, so just trust me.
  • ta152h
    faustoToms needs to spend more money on the holiday Models department. seen much better chicks at Quakecon 2008. No offense to the ladies but some of you are not booth babe material

    The pathetic part is, how it's still getting these desperate guys worked up.

    Some of the pictures are just bad too, like the one with the Radeon.
  • accolite
    TA152H, I'm not desperate... I'm married, but I enjoy a good looking woman more than looking at some hardware components after all we are guys! If you don't your probably a woman yourself or a homo!