Westmere 6-core designs begin

Tired of those lousy quad-core processors from Intel that can ONLY process a total of 8 threads at the same time? If so, then you need to take a look at the new Core i7-980X processor that combines 6 Westmere 32nm processing cores on a single chip capable of handling 12 threads at a time. Need more power and have some spare cash???

Thanks to Intel’s policy of sharing their road maps years in advance, we have known about the upcoming 6-core (or hexa-core) Gulftown processor for quite a while though exact release dates are always held closer to the vest by the chip giant.  Initial reports from back in 2008 and early 2009 were ambiguous as to whether or not we would see this computing powerhouse on Intel’s 45nm or its 32nm technology, but a speed-up in the process transition (and likely some technical and development considerations) has now made that distinction for us. 

Gulftown, now known as the Intel Core i7-980X Extreme Edition processor, will be available immediately for power users that want the top level performance available in a consumer product.  Let’s dive into the details.

Making the case for 6-core processors

When it comes processors, the more cores the better, all else being equal.  HOW MUCH better is a matter of application usage, personally preference and in many case, personal opinions, but I think we can all agree that having more computing power is a good thing.  For power users that currently are using quad-core processors with HyperThreading (from either Intel’s Bloomfield or Lynnfield lineup) you are already a witness to this.  While not all applications can take advantage of multiple threads for computing, all modern operating systems today can at least apply multi-threading to entire system.   So how does a 50% increase in core count and thread count sound?

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The Gulftown CPU is built on the 32nm Westmere architecture that we first saw make a debut with the Clarkdale CPU.  These two parts share a common architecture but couldn’t be much further apart in terms of market.  The Clarkdale-based Core i3 and Core i5 processors for the desktop market run on the LGA1156 socket and are dual-core, quad-threaded CPUs with integrated PCI Express and Intel HD Graphics.  Gulftown uses that same 32nm core design but gets rid of the PCI Express and graphics and triples the core count.

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Click to Enlarge

Here is a die shot of Gulftown – feel free to click on it for a larger unlabeled version.  You can see the 6 unique cores, 12MB of L3 cache, triple-channel memory controller and the same IO controls that have been around since the first days of Nehalem and Bloomfield.

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To many, making the case for an expensive 6-core CPU will be difficult though Intel is hoping you’ll see their view on things.  In the press presentation they presented this slide here that indicates performance improvements over the current high-end king, the Core i7-975 quad-core CPU.  If you do work in Adobe After Effects or in Cinema 4D, then you will likely drool over the results here.  The 3DMark Vantage CPU score improvement is also nice but this is one of the synthetic “best case” offerings.

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You can see the major features of the new Core i7-980X here: 6 cores, 12 threads and what I think is most important: drop-in ready for existing X58 motherboards (as long as they have an updated BIOS). 

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While the Core i7-980X Gulftown processor does still support Turbo Mode, which is the ability to scale the core clock frequency based on threaded compute load, the effects are going to be nearly as impressive now that we have seen Lynnfield at work.  Gulftown will see only 266 MHz at most of pre-defined overclocking for single-threaded workloads and only 133 MHz in threaded computing.  In contrast, the Lynnfield line of processors saw as much as 667 MHz of scaling with Turbo Mode.  This is likely lower on Gulftown because the CPUs are already closer to their TDP limits out of the gate.

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Pricing on the Core i7-980X will still be considered very high at $999 but compared to the price on the Core i7-975 that is quad-core offering, I see no reason for someone to NOT get the 6-core option instead.  They even operate at the same frequency so I am not exactly sure how Intel is justifying this on their end…

One thing to keep in mind about the pricing here: a lot of times we complain about the cost of the top end CPU offering from Intel and then recommend that users find the middle ground and overclock accordingly to reach or beat the performance of the high cost part.  That isn’t really an option for us here as you can overclock a quad-core to a hexa-core CPU.  As the only 6-core part for the consumer as of today, that difference will demand a premium.

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Intel did discuss with us some of the gaming benefits of the Core i7-980X processor and plan to have demonstrations during the Game Developers Conference this week in San Francisco. 

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Finally, as we’ll show you on the next page, Intel is going to be offering a higher-end cooler with the Core i7-980X processor in its retail packaging.  We did test out this option and found it to be a great solution for standard users and overclockers and it was nice to see Intel integrate a cooling solution with a back plate.  While that does make it harder to install and remove (especially while in the case) it prevents a lot of the motherboard warpage we have seen with standard coolers.

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