I ran into an old friend of mine who happens to work for Intel at an industry event last month. We were naturally talking about Intel when he pointed out that the company was doing very well. I agreed, but argued that Intel’s progress was being artificially limited by the fact that it wasn’t facing much competition at the high end.

It’s true. AMD’s entire desktop product line exists below $300, and we won’t see a real push for the high end crown until next year with Bulldozer. Until then, the real competition happens at lower (and arguably more interesting) price points where AMD gives you more cores for less, while Intel offers lower power consumption and better single threaded performance.

The ultra high end is still alive and well, despite the lack of competition in the market. Apple just announced its own dual-socket, 12-core monster that will begin shipping next month. Even Intel will tell you that it’s seeing more interest in the Core i7 980X than any previous Extreme Edition part. And the interest isn’t misplaced.

Click to Enlarge

As the first 6-core desktop CPU based on Intel’s 32nm Gulftown core, the Core i7 980X was the first Extreme Edition in years to offer more than just a clock speed advantage. You got more cores, a larger L3 cache and virtually the highest clock speeds Intel has to offer. If you run highly threaded workloads, you can’t do any better on the desktop today. Thanks to its turbo modes, you don’t even give up performance in lightly threaded apps either.

The 980X of course carried an extreme price tag at $999. With more competition at the high end we might’ve seen derivative parts offered at lower clock speeds and lower price points. But until AMD delivers Bulldozer the impetus just isn’t there. Instead what we’re left with is a slow moving waterfall.

Early next year (Q1) Intel will introduce the Core i7 990X, a clock bumped version of the 980X. Presumably the 990X will run at 3.46GHz by default, but have the ability to turbo up even higher. The roadmap calls for another clock bump in Q2 depending on what AMD does.

Below the 980X there’s only a single 6-core desktop part for at least the next 6 months: the Core i7 970.

Its unassuming name implies little more than just a faster Core i7, however its $885 (1000 unit quantities) pricetag says otherwise. While the rest of the desktop Core i7 line is made up of 45nm quad-core Bloomfield and Lynnfield processors, the Core i7 970 is a 32nm 6-core Gulftown.

Processor Core Clock Cores / Threads L3 Cache Max Turbo TDP Price
Intel Core i7 980X 3.33GHz 6 / 12 12MB 3.60GHz 130W $999
Intel Core i7 975 3.33GHz 4 / 8 8MB 3.60GHz 130W $999
Intel Core i7 970 3.20GHz 6 / 12 12MB 3.46GHz 130W $885
Intel Core i7 960 3.20GHz 4 / 8 8MB 3.46GHz 130W $562
Intel Core i7 930 2.80GHz 4 / 8 8MB 3.06GHz 130W $284
Intel Core i7 880 3.06GHz 4 / 8 8MB 3.73GHz 95W $583
Intel Core i7 875K 2.93GHz 4 / 8 8MB 3.60GHz 95W $342
Intel Core i7 870 2.93GHz 4 / 8 8MB 3.60GHz 95W $294
Intel Core i7 860 2.80GHz 4 / 8 8MB 3.46GHz 95W $284
Intel Core i5 760 2.80GHz 4 / 4 8MB 3.33GHz 95W $205
Intel Core i5 750 2.66GHz 4 / 4 8MB 3.20GHz 95W $196
Intel Core i5 670 3.46GHz 2 / 4 4MB 3.73GHz 73W $284
Intel Core i5 661 3.33GHz 2 / 4 4MB 3.60GHz 87W $196
Intel Core i5 660 3.33GHz 2 / 4 4MB 3.60GHz 73W $196
Intel Core i5 650 3.20GHz 2 / 4 4MB 3.46GHz 73W $176
Intel Core i3 540 3.06GHz 2 / 4 4MB N/A 73W $133
Intel Core i3 530 2.93GHz 2 / 4 4MB N/A 73W $113
Intel Pentium G9650 2.80GHz 2 / 2 3MB N/A 73W $87

Like the 980X, the Core i7 970 has a 12MB L3 cache that’s shared by all six cores, all on a single 240mm2 die. The 1.17 billion transistor chip runs at a stock speed of 3.2GHz but can turbo up to 3.46GHz if two or fewer cores are active. With more than two active, and assuming no thermal or current limits are exceeded, the chip can run at 3.33GHz. For around $100 off the price of a 980X you’re not giving up much in terms of clock speed.

The uncore (everything outside of the CPU cores + L2 caches) also remains mostly unchanged. The 970 runs its uncore at 2.66GHz (identical to the 980X) but the QPI bus is stuck at 4.8GT/s vs. 6.4GT/s. The difference isn’t something that will appear in real world performance however.

CPU Codename Manufacturing Process Cores Transistor Count Die Size
Westmere 6C Gulftown 32nm 6 1.17B 240mm2
Nehalem 4C Bloomfield 45nm 4 731M 263mm2
Nehalem 4C Lynnfield 45nm 4 774M 296mm2
Westmere 2C Clarkdale 32nm 2 384M 81mm2
AMD Phenom II X6 Thuban 45nm 6 904M 346mm2
AMD Phenom II X4 Deneb 45nm 4 758M 258mm2

Overall expect to see very close to 980X performance for $100 less. You lose the unlocked multiplier, which may have some overclocking implications, but that’s about it.

The rest of the Gulftown enhancements still apply. We finally get uncore power gating and AES-NI. The former gives us power consumption equal to 45nm quad-core Bloomfield i7s, while the latter improves encryption performance. Both of which we’ve demonstrated in the past.

BIOS Support and The Test

Any X58 motherboard with Gulftown support should work with the 970. As was the case with the original 980X launch, you’ll almost definitely need an updated BIOS to make this work.

Even Intel’s own DX58SO motherboard using the BIOS that originally enabled 980X support needed an update to work with the Core i7 970. Unfortunately you need to do this update before you install the CPU so make sure your board is up to date.

We’ve added the Core i7 970 results to Bench, our benchmark database. The graphs that follow are a subset of those results to keep the article reasonably sized.

Motherboard: ASUS P7H57DV- EVO (Intel H57)
Intel DP55KG (Intel P55)
Intel DX58SO (Intel X58)
Intel DX48BT2 (Intel X48)
Gigabyte GA-MA790FX-UD5P (AMD 790FX)
MSI 890FXA-GD70 (AMD 890FX)
Chipset Drivers: Intel (Intel)
AMD Catalyst 8.12
Hard Disk: Intel X25-M SSD (80GB)
Memory: Corsair DDR3-1333 4 x 1GB (7-7-7-20)
Corsair DDR3-1333 2 x 2GB (7-7-7-20)
Video Card: eVGA GeForce GTX 280 (Vista 64)
ATI Radeon HD 5870 (Windows 7)
Video Drivers: ATI Catalyst 9.12 (Windows 7)
NVIDIA ForceWare 180.43 (Vista64)
NVIDIA ForceWare 178.24 (Vista32)
Desktop Resolution: 1920 x 1200
OS: Windows Vista Ultimate 32-bit (for SYSMark)
Windows Vista Ultimate 64-bit
Windows 7 x64
General, Imaging & Video Encoding Performance
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  • dragunover - Thursday, July 29, 2010 - link

    This CPU is a joke until it's getting sold for under four hundred dollars....
  • AstroGuardian - Thursday, July 29, 2010 - link

    Why just not take i5-750 and overclock the heck out of it and beat the "crab" out of the i7-970?
  • Taft12 - Thursday, July 29, 2010 - link

    Does overclocking net you additional cores now?

    (Sarcasm aside, you CAN net additional cores on an AMD CPU!)
  • afkrotch - Thursday, July 29, 2010 - link

    Cause then you can overlock the i7-970 and beat the "crab" out of anything else, minus the 980X.
  • medi01 - Friday, July 30, 2010 - link

    Which still won't justify 5 times higher price.
  • afkrotch - Monday, August 2, 2010 - link

    Never said it did. I can't see why anyone would ever pay $500 or more for a processor you'll be using at home. I'd say it's a different story if it's a work related business expense.

    Me, I will never buy a proc that costs more than $350. I always stay within that budget. I find that the sweet spot. You can get a fast processor and you can usually overclock it to match the $1000 ones.
  • swaaye - Friday, August 13, 2010 - link

    Intel's pricing strategy seems to pay off in the end, historically. :)
  • Will Robinson - Thursday, July 29, 2010 - link

    It's pricey but very quick at pretty much everything.
    Thanks for the look anyway.
    Could AT consider an article highlighting the need for software that really shines on this hardware?
    Who's coding 6 core +HT stuff anyway?
    Give them a push Anand :)
  • AstroGuardian - Thursday, July 29, 2010 - link

    "If you're doing a lot of 3D rendering, video encoding or other heavily threaded tasks it makes sense. Otherwise, despite the class leading performance, it's not a good value. "

    Read the review!!! .... damn it
  • Taft12 - Thursday, July 29, 2010 - link

    Server workloads and animation professionals.

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