Product on Review: Intel Core i7 990x Processor Extreme Edition
Manufacturer and Sponsor: Intel
Street Price: £763.40/$999.99
We are currently living in very interesting times when it comes to the sheer amount of hardware and choice that is available to us. Looking at the CPU front, we are greeted with a wide variety of platforms, chipsets and processors aimed at slightly different markets and price points. It’s therefore not surprising for consumers to be overwhelmed when considering a new PC. Do they opt for the cheap and cheerful AMD option that promises them a hexcore for under £150 or do they go for the slightly more expensive Intel route? This is where matters get somewhat more complicated because the processor we are reviewing today isn’t exactly affordable by common standards, nor is it even the latest generation microarchitecture from Intel so where exactly does the Intel Core i7 990x Extreme Edition fit in this hugely populated/saturated market?
Let’s go back three years when Intel reached the “Tock” in their architectural cycle and Nehalem was born alongside the X58 chipset it was coupled with. The platform was completely new and designed from the ground up to replace all previous processor microarchitectures and chipsets, the biggest change being the replacement of the ageing LGA775 socket. Based on the 45nm manufacturing process, Nehalem in the form of Bloomfield and mainstream Lynnfield processors immediately proved to highly successful performance wise, paving the way for the established Core iX series of processors we are familiar with today. In early 2010, Nehalem was succeeded by Westmere, a 32nm die-shrunk of the same architecture. A number of new processors were based off the Westmere shrink, namely the mainstream Arrandale and Clarkdale processors packaged for LGA1156, and the six core Gulftown processors destined for the high-end market on the X58 chipset that used LGA1366 instead. As well as the extra two cores/4M Cache and smaller transistors, a number of other benefits were brought along such as higher clock speeds and the introduction of new instruction sets including Advanced Encryption Standard (AES). The first Gulftown processor was the hexcore Core i7 980x Extreme Edition available at a pricey $990 and promising up to 50% more performance than the quad core i7 975x it was replacing. Unfortunately for consumers, hexcore Gulftown processors never reached mainstream pricing. The Core i7 980x was succeeded by the 990x Extreme Edition a year later at the same price point, and a non-unlocked variant (i7 980 non-X) was introduced in its place at the $583 price point. A mere 133MHz differentiates the two processors despite the $419 price difference. In essence then, the i7 990x doesn’t represent a major step-up to what we saw back in early 2010 but this is no reason to completely disregard it. Clocked at 3.46GHz with a peak Turbo speed of 3.73GHz across 6 cores or 12 threads, it remains the highest clocked Intel processor available to consumers. Armed with 12MB of L3 Cache, tri-channel DDR3 memory support, a QPI speed of 6.4GT/s and an unlocked multiplier, it has the making for the ultimate CPU and yet its crown was already up for challenge since its birth…
Come in Sandy Bridge. Intel couldn’t have timed the release of its i7 990x any worse even if they had tried. Sure, it might have specifications to have enthusiasts drooling but when a new platform based on new microarchitecture and chipset is released that has promise to be future proof for the next few years, the drama is lost somewhat. The most powerful Sandy Bridge processor out currently is the quad core, eight threaded i7-2600K delivering better performance clock for clock than the previous generation Nehalem and Westmere based processors in a smaller package on LGA1155. The Sandy Bridge platform suffers from a few limitations, the most notable ones being that the P67/Z68 chipsets do not support 2x PCIe2.0 x16 slots at full bandwidth without additional chips, and the lack of six core processors. On the other hand, the new architecture not only promises better performance but it also supports a range of new instruction sets and features. More importantly, Sandy Bridge processors occupy more affordable price points so the question is whether Intel releasing the i7 990x on the older generation microarchitecture makes sense.
In our review today, we will focus on the merits of the Core i7 990x on the X58 chipset and have a look at the evolution of the architecture. How different is it really to the old faithful i7 920?