Intel 980x Hex-Core Gulftown
Bringing us more codenames than MI-6 and the Kremlin combined another new year brings another Intel line-up of processors. We have codenames for the process involved, Nehalem being the 45nm, Westmere is 32nm. We have codenames for the chips involved, Lynnfield, Clarkdale, Bloomfield etc.
So although we love to delve deep into the technological side of things here at OC3D, if this is all new you you, don't worry we'll try and make it as clear as possible in the introduction and then leave the codenames where they belong, on this page.
Tick Tock Tick Tock
Intels future releases always follow their "tick tock" methodology of releasing with the Tock being a change of socket or architecture, and the Tick being a refinement of that process.
Unless you've been living in a cave for the couple of years it wont have escaped your notice that Intel released their LGA1366 socket with three Core i7 processors codenamed Bloomfield, to replace the ageing Yorktown 775 platform.
With a complete shift over to a 45nm process, integrating the memory controller onto the chip, bringing back the hyper-threading that had been absent for a couple of generations and replacing the Front Side Bus with a Quick Path Interconnect, it was a huge leap forwards in technology from what had come before and quickly found favour amongst every sector of the PC community. Such a comprehensive list of changes brought forth the largest Tock upgrade arguably in Intels history.
As sure as the hands on a clock endlessly count the marching time, so we have reached the Tick part of Intels schedule, namely a refinement of the original i7 processors we all know and love.
This town, is coming like a Gulftown
As befits the endless codenames that we have to keep track of, the update to the i7 Bloomfield is Gulftown and if you've been following the drips of information as eagerly as we have it's time to wipe that drool off because the product is finally in our hands. So what has the Tick refinement brought to our table?
The primary two changes that are sure to make the hardware nuts amongst us (I think that's everyone then) reach for the Kleenex are a reduction from 45nm "Nehalem" process to the 32nm "Westmere" process that we've recently seen in the i3 range, and in the case of todays CPU, a 33% increase in cores and cache.
Yes this 980x processor has six individual hyper-threaded cores providing 12 threads of goodness and 12mb of L3 Cache. It retains the 130TDP from the Bloomfield processors so, even though it has two extra cores to keep cool, the reduction to 32nm should ensure similar overclocking levels.
If you are the secretive type or perhaps work for the CIA then encryption is something that will play a big part in your life. The Intel Westmere 32nm processors now include hardware AES data encryption. This probably wont mean much right now, but wait until you get to page four to see what a difference it can make.
With so much of last year dedicated to the 1156 P55 boards and chips, those of us who'd early adopted the LGA1366 X58 motherboards were starting to feel a little left out, especially as the 1156 series of CPUs provided such immense overclocking prowess. So has the wait been worthwhile? Read on.
Normally this is the part of CPU reviews that we dread. We all love a great picture of some sexy hardware but unlike every other hardware item, except perhaps storage, CPUs are as photogenic as Courtney Love? Thankfully in surprising twist we actually do have something great to show you because Intel have finally dispensed with the useless stock cooler that we've all been plagued with for years and moved into the Heatpipe Tower style of cooling that we all use anyway.
The CPU itself is a CPU. Very little to say. Externally it's identical to any other of the i7 family.
The New Cooler
Fortunately the new stock heatsink is vastly different. Although tower designs are very similar we were put in mind of the Arctic Cooling Freezer 7, which was a great little cooler so hopefully this one will perform well. I'm sure most of us who've brought a retail CPU have a box with an untouched stock cooler in it, so having one we'd actually consider using is a vast improvement.
The fan placement is slightly strange. Most, if not all, of the coolers we come across tunnel the air through the fins. Intel have decided to leave the fan exposed and have some of it pumping air across the heatpipes themselves. So it's a start, but not perfect.
On the left we can see a fairly robust mounting bracket which should provide more pressure than the standard push-pin style of former coolers.
On the right you can see the toggle switch that changes the fan from quiet to performance.
One thing that hugely impressed us was the quality of the finish on the copper base. Very shiny indeed and it's not a fake "plated to look good" shine either but rather a very good smoothness. Without an electron microscope of course it's difficult to be precise, but we've seen many in our time and this is one of the finer ones.
The cooler actually performed very well especially considering it is still a stock cooler and only 92mm in size. As you can see below on the high settings it takes the edge nicely off the temperatures. However the primary difference does seem to be noise. WOW this thing is loud on high settings. Insanely so. Anyone who thinks the original 4870 or 8800 cooler was loud hasn't seen anything yet.
A tweak to the design to a shrouded fan that fully blows across the fins and not underneath will allow much lower RPM and hopefully noise.
So the old stock coolers used to be loud and useless. This is a good cooler and still loud. Slowly but surely we're getting there. Unfortunately at the price point of this CPU I'd want Mr Otellini himself to install an all copper cooler personally so it's not without fault.
I'm sure you're all as eager as we are to put this through its paces, so let's get down to some testing.
Test Setup and Overclocking
Test Set Up
When testing a CPU like this the hardware has to do it justice so we pulled out the old faithful ASUS Rampage 2 Extreme, and after a quick flash to the latest BIOS she was ready for some 6 core abuse! At the same time its no good testing a 980X with a 3850, so the GPU of choice was a 5870, these have been tested many times on OC3D so we have many results to compare to see if the extra cores do indeed make a difference.
ASUS Rampage II Extreme
6GB Corsair Platinum @1333mhz
ATI 5870 1GB
OCZ 1000w Gold PSU
1TB Samsung Spinpoint F1
Samsung 2433 24" @ 1920x1200
Windows 7 Ultimate 64
Before we get on to how this Gulftown 980 overclocks let's show you the default CPUz so you can compare.
First port of call here is the base clock, but its really quite a simple affair, you drop the multiplier down low and gradually increase the base clock to see what the maximum the CPU has to offer. At a 16x multiplier our CPU managed a 220 BLCK at stock 1.25v volts, surprisingly increasing the Vcore up to 1.325v and also increasing the QPI made no difference to what the CPU was willing to relinquish.
The next port of call was to try and find the CPU's maximum MHZ overclock, 4.4ghz (22x200) came about relatively quickly but with a little more tweaking and a 1.325vcore we managed to coax out 4.5ghz (180x25).
Overclocking is a great past time to see what you can achieve from your system, but to many its no good unless its as stable as it would have been at stock. Finding the sweet spot here is a timely affair and requires the patience of a saint, and plenty of free time...... Normally. After an hour of playing around with settings tweaking this and trying that we found the sweet spot on our CPU was 4.2ghz (210x22) with a Vcore of just 1.3v and the QPI set to 1.375v the chip was happily sat playing with Prime95 like they were the best of friends.
Not quite believing that 6 individual cores on 1 die were all running stable at 4.2GHZ I decided to leave prime running overnight. 14 hours later I came back and it was still happily running at 100% across all 6 cores and 12 threads, so I was happy enough to call it stable and started our benchmark testing.
For todays testing we will be using the 980 at stock speeds, the 980 at our stable overclock, and because the 980 is a hexcore and the latest iteration of the premium i7 Intel CPU, we'll also be running against the i7 965 to see not only whether the 2 extra cores and 4mb extra L3 cache make a difference in certain applications and tests, but also if the 32nm shrink has given us performance in those applications that don't utilise all cores.
With a new breed of CPUs, it's time for a new test. Today we're going to be using wPrime. I can't begin to describe it as well as the creator, and so I'll leave it up to him to explain what it does. "wPrime tests your processor performance by calculating square roots with a recursive call of Newton's method for estimating functions, with f(x)=x2-k, where k is the number we're sqrting, until Sgn(f(x)/f'(x)) does not equal that of the previous iteration, starting with an estimation of k/2. It then uses an iterative calling of the estimation method a set amount of times to increase the accuracy of the results. It then confirms that n(k)2=k to ensure the calculation was correct. It repeats this for all numbers from 1 to the requested maximum". I hope you're all nodding at home.
Demonstrating the quality of this benchmark and how well it scales with the amount of cores and clockspeed available we can see the extra 2 cores of the 980 give us around 33% extra performance. This moves up to an incredible 50% when the 980 is overclocked.
Sandra is a great test of a CPUs performance and so we'll be using the CPU Arithmetic tests to see how much horsepower we have here. The pure and simple answer is, plenty. Easily breaking the 100 GFLOPS mark with the overclocked 980 again proving twice as fast as the previously speedy 965.
Everest provides four very good CPU tests that we'll be using today. CPU Queen is the standard chess solving benchmark, PhotoWorxx gives a synthetic reproduction of photo editing and Zlib tests compression. There is also a test for AES Encryption, but we'll discuss that below.
For the Gulftown upgrade from the current i7s Intel have implemented hardware accelerated AES encryption. The benefits of this might not be immediately apparent until you look at the graph below. If you're not impressed you're dead from the neck up.
With Intels shift to 32nm Hex Core today, and the AMD six core processors on the horizon it's time for us to move to the latest version of CineBench. In this case it's R11.5 which provides a big speed boost to the results rendering compared to the R10 we've used up to now.
Words cannot do justice to either the results we obtained today, or quite how visually impressive it is. When all 12 threads are at full chat the render occurs at speeds almost incomprehensible. So impressive is the i7 980x it makes the i7 965 look positively lethargic.
POV-Ray, the Persistence Of Vision raytracer is freeware and regularly updated. The latest 3.7 beta provides support for as many threads as you can throw at it, and similarly to CineBench the latest in-built benchmark is vastly quicker to the old one. We also get a render window so we've something to watch too. Once again the English language is incapable of adequately describing the simple joy to be found from seeing a render so complex that it used to take all night, take a minute.
PassMark, from PassMark software, is a comprehensive benchmarking suite that tests all aspects of your computer to give you a great feel for how your system as a whole will perform. The rigorous nature of the testing means that, unlike some comparable products, only an immense step up in performance will give a significantly larger final score.
Therefore the extra 200 points from the stock clock and 600 points that the overclocked 980x gives truly demonstrate that the latest Intel revision has the power of the Hoover Dam.
PC Mark Vantage
Futuremarks PC Mark Vantage suite uses a plethora of in-built applications and utilities to give results that should translate well to actual performance. Our testing makes it appear that PC Mark Vantage doesn't take advantage of all six cores as the results are mainly a result of clockspeed and architectural changes rather than the increase we'd expect to see from a 33% increase in potential performance.
WinRAR is most definitely something that will take advantage of every last ounce of processing performance you can give it and this is borne out in our results. Stunning.
3D and Gaming Benchmarks
3D Mark Vantage
The ever popular 3D Mark Vantage is very dependant upon the GPU and so shouldn't show much gain, although the available CPU power should ensure that the Physx result doesn't get hindered too much by our ATI card. As you can see the immense gain in CPU score only results in a 2000 point increase in the P-Score. However a 20000 P-Score from a single 5870 is mightily impressive.
Need for Speed Shift
EA's Need For Speed Shift is a curious game that began with some performance issues with a ATI cards that are still not greatly resolved on 4 series cards. But if our testing today proved anything it's that it simply adores brute horsepower, something the i7 980x has in spades. The overclocked 980 giving very nearly twice the framerate across the board that we obtained with the 965. We're beginning to run out of superlatives for this processor, so it's lucky that we only have one test left.
Ah Crysis Warhead. For ages it's been the game that no hardware could tame. To paraphrase Commando, it eats CPUs for breakfast. Finally though we have a CPU that can give a single card solution an average framerate of over the magic 60 mark. Truly outstanding. With a minimum framerate in its overclocked state that many CPUs would like to see as an average, the i7 980 truly bludgeons Crysis Warhead into a pulp.
Let's move on to easily the least surprising conclusion ever.
The performance of the i7 980x leaves us breathless. It doesn't matter what we threw in its direction, it just gobbled it up begged for more.
We often need to tie our testing results up into a handy bundle and try and give a clear overall impression of the product and the areas in which it is good and bad. Here that is entirely unnecessary.
If you want incredible overclocking performance, we have that.
Incredible stock performance? In spades.
A CPU that doesn't require water-cooling to achieve it's performance threshold? Check.
An upgrade that will slot into your current motherboard? Yes, yes and yes again. Although BIOS upgrades are needed.
To be perfectly honest we can ramble on for pages about how stunning this is. Yes, it's hideously expensive. But it goes like an Essex girl on a Free WKD night.
Without question the best CPU on the planet and an easy winner of our prestigious, very rarely awarded, OC3D Best In Class.
We would like to thank Intel for the review sample, you can discuss our findings in the forums.