Intel's Core i3 and i5 desktop chips have already demonstrated the clear benefits of the company's new 32nm process. Now the Core i7-980X (codenamed Gulftown) brings that die-shrink to the top-end LGA 1366 platform. The result is a chip so powerful that, reportedly, Intel originally intended to call it Core i9.
With a stock clock frequency of 3.33GHz, the i7-980X matches the 45nm Core i7-975, hitherto the fastest model in the family.
And where previous i7s have been quad-core parts, the new chip incorporates six physical cores. Thanks to Hyper-Threading, that means a single CPU can service 12 processes at once. Shared L3 cache has also grown proportionately to 12MB.
What's more, Gulftown is far less conservative than existing LGA 1366 processors when it comes to Turbo Boost, aggressively clocking individual cores up to 3.6GHz at the drop of a hat, then slashing them down to 1.6GHz when idle. On our test system, based on an Asus P6T Deluxe motherboard, that kept total idle power draw down to a bearable 108W.
It's a trick learnt from Intel's 32nm Westmere platform, and Westmere's new hardware AES encryption and decryption instructions are here too. The integrated graphics haven't been brought across, though, so the LGA 1366 platform still requires a discrete video card.
Need for speed
The real focus of Intel's i7-980X chip is on performance, and in our desktop benchmarks it achieved a creditable 2.23, a nose ahead of the i7-975, which scored 2.19.
Not surprisingly, it fared particularly well in the multitasking test, with a stellar score of 2.75. Even this doesn't reflect the full power of Gulftown: with so many cores on hand, that result was achieved using less than 30% of available processing capacity.
A better indicator of the true potential of the i7-980X is our 3ds Max test, since this application is specifically optimised for multicore processing and able to execute 12 threads at once.
Here, the system achieved a time of 1min 43secs to render our complex 3D scene, representing a score of 3.04 against our reference PC. With all six cores taxed at once, power draw for the whole system hit 217W, versus a peak of 173W in our multi-applications test.
Since the i7-980X is a multiplier-unlocked Extreme Edition, performance can be pushed yet higher by increasing the chip's range of available operating frequencies in the BIOS, and the 32nm design gives plenty of headroom to do so.
With a stock cooler, we were able to raise the maximum Turbo Boost speed to 4.14GHz, yielding a magnificent overall benchmark score of 2.59 (including a rather impressive 3.15 for multitasking). Once again, Intel has broken its own record to produce the fastest CPU we've seen to date.
Such prestige inevitably comes at a price, and in the US, Intel anticipates selling these chips in bulk for $999 each. As an end user in Australia, you're looking at nearly $1500. That's a steep premium when you look at what cheaper processors can achieve.
A 3.4GHz AMD Phenom II, for example, delivers five-sixths of the desktop performance for around one-sixth of the price.
Indeed, for everyday use a six-core processor makes little sense at any price: despite the onward march of hardware, most modern desktop applications simply can't make use of this many threads.
That, along with the cost, destines Gulftown for a specialist workstation role, rather than a general-purpose desktop one.
But while the i7-980X isn't a realistic purchase for most of us, it's still a striking demonstration of processor potential - and a salutary hint at the sort of power that can be expected to trickle down into the mainstream over the next few years.