Overall Performance

A lot of build-up has occurred around this new processor launch and I don’t know if it was ever possible for Intel to completely live up to the hype that was both self generated and media generated.  There many areas to evaluate in terms of the performance of the Nehalem Core i7 processors starting with our synthetic CPU and memory tests.  All of the Core i7 parts including the lowest cost Core i7-920 were able to best the top of the Core 2 line up easily and the memory scores were simply incomparable to anyone else’s product including AMD’s Phenom X4 processor. 

In applications that can utilize more than four threads, the Core i7 CPU was the definite performance winner.  All of our rendering tests including CineBench, POV-Ray and Blender saw their best results from the new Nehalem core based designs as did multimedia encoding applications like the DivX-powered VirtualDub and the DVD compressor Handbrake.  Euler3D, a new test for us that focuses on fluid dynamics, saw a noticeable gain in being able to access 8 simultaneous threads and the Valve Source particle simulation test also had improved results with the Core i7 processors.

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Intel’s Core i7 processors

There were many times though that the new CPU was unable to best the QX9770 or other Core 2 CPUs.  Single threaded or even dual- and quad-threaded applications might have seen modest gains with the new architecture on Nehalem but without the ability to utilize HyperThreading the performance boosts were lessened.  Applications like WinRAR, LAME MP3 encoder and even Windows Media Encoder x64 really didn’t stand out as being able to show off the advantages of Intel’s new line of CPUs. 

Our initial gaming tests indicate that the Nehalem-based Core i7 CPUs are going to be the best possible options for enthusiasts and gamers alike, though by how much is still in question.  While 3DMark Vantage showed a big gain in CPU scores over Core 2 products, the real-world games like World in Conflict, Crysis and Far Cry 2 showed much less considerable differences between the two platforms.  Differences were there though: Far Cry 2 saw its minimum frame rate go from 81.17 FPS to 95.65 FPS going from the QX9770 to the Core i7-965 EE.  What we need to evaluate further is the ability for the Core i7 processor to make a performance difference at higher resolutions; we’ll be testing SLI and CrossFire configurations this week to report back on exactly that subject.  CPU scaling for games is a topic all gamers and enthusiasts will want to know about.

Clock-for-clock Performance

An interesting area of discussion is to see how much clock-for-clock improvement the Core i7 is over the Core 2 design.  By looking at the QX9770 and the i7-965 EE directly we can see how much improvement the tweaks to the processing cores, the integrated memory controller and the addition of HyperThreading really add.  We basically know what we can expect from HyperThreading based on our discussion above: if the application is capable of taking advantage of more than 4 threads then there will be performance gains on Nehalem ranging from 5-35% on average.

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OCZ’s PC3-10666 three-channel 6GB memory kit

What is more interesting to see is how the single threaded results differ – that will allow us to look at the actual improvements Intel’s engineering team made overall.  Our single threaded CineBench 10 results can help us do just that:
  • Core i7-965 EE (with Turbo Mode turned off) put out a score that was 6.1% faster than that the score of the QX9770. 
  • With the Blender rendering test the QX9770 is actually coming out 1.8% faster. 
  • Single threaded MP3 encoding using the LAME 3.97a software shows the Core i7-965 EE as just 2% faster. 
  • Euler3D gives the Core i7-965 EE a 5.5% advantage.
Obviously the architectural advantages of the Nehalem core are somewhat muted when looked at in this light – a gain of 5% or so seems to be the best case scenario and while the extra performance per clock is good, it’s just not as great as I had expected months ago.  I think to really see the advantages of the architecture, such as the new memory controller, new L3 cache and QPI interface, you really need to fully load the computing cores to NEED those kinds of features.

Platform Performance and the X58 Chipset

The new X58 chipset, while new in that the north bridge has never been released until now, is really not a deciding factor in the performance or viability of the Core i7 processors themselves.  The north bridge is mostly a glorified PCI Express 2.0 hub while the south bridge ICH10/R has been available on other chipsets for quite a few months.  Storage and I/O performance should be identical between P45, X48 and the new X58 chipsets.  With the memory controller moved from the north bridge to the CPU itself, the state of Intel chipset will quickly become like that of the AMD chipset market: difference between the options will be minimal and performance considerations will basically be null.

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Our new favorite gaming system?

What is most interesting about the X58 chipset is fact that it will be the first to support both SLI and CrossFire multi-GPU configurations as long as the motherboard manufacturer themselves are willing to shell out the dough to have their motherboard licensed by NVIDIA.  AMD’s CrossFire technology is still free and open to just about every motherboard with multiple x16 PCIe slots but NVIDIA is still clinging to the old days of trying to milk the market for money in any way they can.  Not trying to rant though: getting SLI and CrossFire on a single board using the top processor option of the day will finally make for the perfect enthusiast platform. 

One more note: this is the first time that DDR3 memory is REQUIRED for a platform since there is no DDR2 option on the Nehalem core processors as there was with X48 and P45 chipset motherboards.  That means costs will go up initially for those of you building systems though it should also mean costs will go down for DDR3 memory in general.  Also be prepared to buy memory in threes rather than twos now thanks to the triple channel memory controller.

Pricing and Availability

Today’s processor and platform review is technically not the product launch: Core i7 CPUs and the X58 motherboards will start selling later in November, sometime around mid-month.  As I have already discussed, estimated prices will be as follows:
  • Core i7-965 EE @ 3.20 GHz – $999
  • Core i7-940 @ 2.93 GHz – $562
  • Core i7-920 @ 2.66 GHz – $284
Actual pricing will depend on product availability and the popularity of them as they become available.  As we saw with other new Intel CPU releases in the past years, initial availability will likely be low, prices with be high because of it but they should level out I think even before the end of the year.  I really hope we don’t see price gouging from Newegg and other online retailers for the new parts, but that is all part of the game I guess.

Another important note about pricing comes with the motherboards.  Of the motherboards I have here including the Intel X58 “Smackover” and a pair of ASUS boards, the lowest priced X58 according to what I am told is going to be $309 for the P6T Deluxe.  The Rampage 2 Extreme will retail for $399 or so and the Intel X58 should go for somewhere in the mid $300s.

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A wafer of Nehalem cores

Obviously if you were hoping to pick up the Core i7-920 and a new motherboard for fewer than five US C-notes you might struggle to do so until cheaper motherboards start to be released.  I will update this section of the review throughout the day and week with price updates if any occur.

Final Thoughts

Intel’s new Core i7 series of processors is a modern marvel of technology that brings previously inaccessible performance to the consumer.  In areas where multi-threaded applications are dominant, heavy multi-tasking is the norm or multimedia encoding is the primary function, the move to a HyperThreaded Core i7 part is a no brainer.  But Intel’s biggest problem might not have anything to do with AMD or another outside source: the fact is that the Core 2 Quad processors are still fantastic performers, widely available and pretty damn cheap.  Anyone that has a quad-core system will likely not find a compelling performance benefit to upgrade from it to a Core i7 unless they subscribe to one of the usage models mentioned above.  Intel has definitely attempted to curb this dilemma with the introduction of the $284 Core i7-920 and I think that this CPU will find its way into many of our reader’s machines.  Once motherboard and memory prices come down and more variety is on the market, I think the move to Nehalem-based Core i7 processors should be automatic for anyone looking to upgrade or build new. 

It is almost sad to realize that we hardly mentioned AMD in this discussion even though we included its top performing Phenom X4 9950 Black Edition processor in our entire collection of tests.  We can only hope that the move to 45nm presents with it some surprises and performance boosts were are otherwise not expecting.

Overall, the Intel Core i7 processor launch is a huge success.  I can remember vividly questioning Intel’s ability to nail its first attempt at a CPU with an integrated memory controller, a QPI interface and dramatic power efficiency improvements.  Intel executed on its roadmap to near perfection and the Core i7 is everything they promised it would be. 

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Be sure to use our pricing engine to find the best prices on Intel Core i7 CPUs, motherboards and anything else you might need:

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