Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Intel Core i7, Part 1 : First look

Core i7 Logo
Core i7 Extreme Logo

After a lots of thinking about what might be the best subject for the first real review, I decided to take suggestions from people I know and they asked : "Talk about the new i7!". But this is hell of a subject with a lots of things and data to put out on the blackboard. So, I decided that the best way to talk about that subject is to make a series of blog post about it. Fortunately, You don't have to overlock your computer to take a look at those review; even if they describe in every little detail, the spectacular and brand new Intel Core i7 processors series.

Intel did a strange choice this time by releasing low end processors before the high end one. Or not? Those CPUs are, in reality, the high end ones and they are impressively cheap! The thing is that this time, Intel put the accent on desktop chips instead of the higher and more pricy Xeons. You have to take a look at the socket to realize that those are monsters, and not smalls one. They use the same socket than their Xeon counter-parts and they are nearly identical to the Bloomfield's Xeons batch of processor. Even more; they have the same price! Only the processor model and release date are different. Officially, there is only 5 desktop computer class chips and 13 server class. Some of them are not even on the market yet and some of them are just the same. This post will concentrate on the desktop class processors since they might be of interest for more people. I will give more details about the Xeons and how they compare the the Core i7 in a later part.

The series
The Core i7 brand consist of 3 available CPUs and 2 ones that will not hit the store before Q2 2009. The 920, 940 and 9501 are the standard processor that about every OEM will put in their PCs. The 965 and 9751 are part of the Extreme series and will be reserved for high-end computers. They all use the new LGA-1366 socket that provide extended functionality and more bandwidth over it's older brother, the LGA-775.

Some numbers
General specs :
  • Quad-Core design
  • 64bit, 45nm architecture
  • 8MiB L3 shared cache
  • A TPD of 130 watt
  • Support for Intel Hyper-Threading Technology
  • Support for SSE 4.2 instruction set
  • Support for Intel Turbo Boost Technology
  • Support for Intel Virtualization Technology
Intel Core i7 920 :
  • 2.66 gHz
  • 1x 4.8 GT/s QPI
  • 3 way DDR3 1066mHz memory support
Intel Core i7 940 :
  • 2.93 gHz
  • 1x 4.8 GT/s QPI
  • 3 way DDR3 1066mHz memory support
Intel Core i7 965 :
  • 3.2 gHz
  • 1x 6.4 GT/s QPI
  • 3 way DDR3 1600mHz memory support

Nice! Now, what does that mean?
Basically, it means that the only difference between every processors in the series is clock speed except for the Extreme one which has a faster QPI and a better memory bus to push more data in the processor. They all have the exact same core with the same stepping, caches and technologies.

What difference them is quality. When Intel design a processor, they design the higher end first. After some test on those, they can find a way to produce lower quality chip for lower price. Here, lower quality doesn't mean that they will break faster. It means that the 920 didn't passed the heat, stability and power usage tests to run at 2.93 gHz like the 940. That's the primary reason why over-clocking is a bad idea with low end CPUs. They will get very hot faster and might not be as stable as a higher end processor.

All the benchmarks that I post on hardware that I do not own is publicly available on the internet and I will try to give links to them but most of the time, they come from PassMark software.
CPU Mark (11th March 2009 average)
Model no.Absolute MarkRelative MarkAbsolute Price2Relative Price 
i7-9205 410+ 0%$ 284+ 0%
i7-9406 071+ 12.22%$ 562+ 197.89%
i7-9656 562+ 21.29%$ 999+ 351.76%

For those of you who have a good computer and who use benchmarking software like 3D/PC Mark those scores might seem very low. Don't worry, those are in fact very good. For those of you who lasyness is taking over and who don't want to check on the original web site. Here's the score of some processor in comparison (11th of March 2009 average)
  1. [Quad CPU] Dual-Core AMD Opteron 8218 - 5 082
  2. [Dual CPU] Intel Xeon E5335 - 5 103
  3. [Dual CPU] Intel Xeon X5272 - 5 879
  4. [Dual CPU] Intel Xeon X5355 - 6 315
  5. [Dual CPU] Quad-Core AMD Opteron 2380 - 6 531
As you might have notice, there is no AMD Phenom II X4 nor Intel Core 2 Quad processors in this list. Those are all server class, multi-socket, quad-core and dual-core processors.

Part 1 : Conclusion
Those are not little toys that you can carry around like your credit card and you might need more than one if you choose to get a system with the i7-965. They are Monsters and deserve to be respected as such. The Core i7 line is a very powerful and impressive series of CPUs which will blow away any kind of computer might have in the same category ($2 000 and less).

On the other side, don't expect that much from the i7-940 or i7-965 if the price is a prime directive for you. They cost up to 350% more than the i7-920 but offer only 21.3% more performance. And since other components that handle those beast cost a LOT, you will destroy your budget in a flash. Instead, you should consider getting an older and cheaper workstation class computer. I never tough I'd said that but a computer like the 2008 Mac Pro which has two Penryn Xeons processors is, of course, faster but cost less than a single socket i7-965 machine.

In the end, the i7-920 is without a doubt the best processor you can get today in the $250-350 price range on the market. Do not let you deceived by the fact that he is the slower of it's line. This guy will still deliver awesome performances in everyday computing, games, video and photo editing, 3d modeling and digitally assisted music creation.

1 Release date : Q2 2009
2 Official release price

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