The bar has been raised. With the launch of a single processor, Intel heralds the age of six-core processors on the desktop scene. The new Core i7-980X Extreme Edition, Intel's first six-core processor ships today, with a hefty price tag of US$999. That's equal to the recommended retail price of Intel's former heavyweight, the quad-core Core i7-975 Extreme Edition.
The Core i7-980X is based on the Nehalem microarchitecture. Following Intel's Tick-Tock product cadence cycle, which mandates a process technology refresh after a new CPU microarchitecture, the 980X represents the 'tick' and is the 32nm die shrink of the Nehalem, known as Westmere. This process technology switch has already debuted with the mainstream, dual-core 32nm Clarkdale processors, which introduced numerous desktop and mobile processors.
Unlike the Clarkdale and Lynnfield processors that required a different LGA1156 socket, the Core i7-980X uses the same LGA1366 socket found on the first Core i7 processors and the supporting X58 chipset. That means those who have bought early into the Core i7 platform can now easily upgrade to this six-core processor; it helps that the Core i7-980X has the same 130W TDP. All X58 motherboards should support the new chip, though they will require a BIOS update. Note that you'll have to flash the BIOS while running with your older, existing Core i7 processor first before swapping to the Core i7-980X.
As the table below illustrates, take a Bloomfield Core i7, shrink it down to 32nm and increment the core count by two, including a corresponding increase in the amount of shared L3 cache and you'll get something like the Core i7-980X. In fact, they both have the same default clock speeds and unlocked multipliers that should appeal to the extreme crowd.
||Clock Speed||Cores/Threads||L3 Cache||QuickPath Interconnect||Max TDP (W)||Retail Price (US$)||Availability|
|Core i7-980X Extreme Edition||3.33GHz||6/12||12MB||6.4QT/s||130||$999 (1k Units)||Now|
|Core i7-975 Extreme Edition||3.33GHz||4/8||8MB||6.4QT/s||130||~$969||Now|
Naturally, the newcomer gets a new codename, Gulftown, to add to the many different names in use for Intel's processors.
While there are many similarities between the two performance heavyweights, the Core i7-980X gets the benefit of being the newer processor. Intel has since added several new instructions to improve AES encryption performance, notably on the Clarkdale processors, and the 980X will have these AES-NI instructions.
Other key features of the Nehalem architecture, like HyperThreading (12 threads!) and Turbo Boost are found on the Core i7-980X. However, unlike the sometimes impressive speed bumps we have seen on Intel's dual-core Clarkdale processors, the Turbo Boost on the Core i7-980X is more reserved due to its already-high TDP. On single-threaded applications, one is likely to find an increase of two speed bins (266MHz) while on multi-threaded applications, it will just be a slight 133MHz increase.
Along with the Core i7-980X processor, Intel has included one of the largest 'stock' coolers we have seen in the retail package. The new Intel DBX-B thermal solution even comes with a switch to toggle between two fan speeds. From our experience, even in its 'Performance' mode, it was not overly loud or intrusive and Intel rates it at less than 35 decibels at its max 1800RPM.
So what does one do with a six-core processor? Well, in our case, we put it to the test and benchmark it to death (okay we exaggerated there, but you get the idea). Intel meanwhile trots out a list of existing and upcoming applications that will require the extra processing power. The examples include rendering or video encoding applications like MAXON CINEMA 4D and Sony Vegas Pro 9.0, with some current and future games thrown into the mix, like Napoleon: Total War and Trinigy's Vision game engine. In our case, we put it to test using our tried and tested set of application to figure out how it fares. We might take our testing further with more optimized applications in a separate article in the near future, but we believe our findings for now should generally be an adequate gauge.