Intel Core i7 980X review - The fastest desktop processor for consumers
The six-core Intel Core i7 980X processor is manufactured on a 32nm fabrication process, runs at a frequency of 3.33GHz with a TurboBoost speed of 3.6 GHz, and has 12MB of L2 cache. It is rated at a TDP of 130W (power consumption on average).
As with all their current processors, the Intel Core i7 980X supports TurboBoost, to run at a higher speed by disabling half the number of cores. HyperThreading, where each core simultaneously runs two threads, is also present, thus presenting itself to the operating system as being capable of running 12 threads.
Intel deserves credit for making the top-end Intel Core i7 980X processor compatible with the X58 motherboards that are already widely available. You might have to wait for your motherboard manufacturer to release a new BIOS, to support six-core processors. Notably, unlike Intel's recent spree of releasing mainstream 32nm processors with graphics integrated onto the processor itself, this top-end unit steers clear of graphics.
Seeing the Windows task manager was a joy indeed, when we ran a number of processor intensive applications all at once, yet all of them were running just fine and could not bring the system to its knees. Such stress tests did raise its maximum temperature at load to higher levels than the non-six-core processors (from 65C to 70C), atleast with normal cooling.
Precisely for this reason, a much better CPU cooler than usual is bundled with the Intel Core i7 980X branded the Intel DBX-B Thermal Solution. We did not have to resort to using a high-end cooler from CoolerMaster or ThermalTake, and managed to overclock to a stable 3.96 GHz (22x180MHz). Going beyond that may need liquid cooling to hold back the heat, but that speed was enough to turbocharge benchmarks considering its number of cores. However, all performance numbers we mention here onwards are what we saw at stock speeds only.
To prevent bottlenecks, we tested the Intel Core i7 980X processor on a test rig with the most high-end components we could put together. It consisted of an Intel DX58SO motherboard, Intel's DBX-B cooler, 3GB of Kingston DDR3-2000MHz RAM in triple-channel mode, Radeon 4870X2 graphics card, Intel X25-M 80GB SSD, Tagan BZ-1300W PSU and Windows 7 Ultimate Edition. We shall use the quad-core Core i7 965 (which used to be the top Core i7 processor at 3.2GHz) as a reference point while interpreting the performance of the 980X, in order to understand where the two processors stand relatively.
In tests, storage input/output and USB speeds were on par with expectations (when compared with a Core i7 965 + X58 motherboard combo). However, memory tests showed the L3 cache and RAM read/write speeds to be a bit lower than seen on the older quad-core i7-965 processor. On CineBench, we saw a CPU benchmark of 21296 CB which is about 25 percent higher than the i7-965. On PC Mark Vantage, we saw a score of 13369 marks which is again 25 per cent higher than the i7-965.
Most encouraging was what we saw on 3D Mark Vantage - in Performance mode, the 980X garnered a CPU score of 29848, as against the i7-965's 15246. One of the most hardware-intensive games, Crysis did not benefit much - the 980X managed 65 fps (frames per second) as against 61 fps managed by the i7-965. The above benchmark of Crysis was seen with a screen resolution of 1024x768 at Ultra High graphics and anti-aliasing disabled. You can view the results of more synthetic benchmarks and real-world tests on the "Performance" tab of this review.
After seeing the numbers above, the takeaway is that the increased number of cores does have a positive impact on performance. However, the performance improvement is not in line with what you might have expected. After all, this processor offers 50 percent more cores/threads, and is priced a fair bit more than the i7-965. Simply put, applications just are not (yet) capable of taking advantage of what this processor brings to the table. For now, it is useful if you'd like to run multiple stressful applications at once, or if you run multiple virtual machines for testing. Those whose line-of-business professional applications support massive parallel processing will benefit as well.
The Intel Core i7 980X is simply the fastest processor available to consumers. It is the unchallenged performance king, on just about any test. However, the margin of difference in performance, between this six-core and the older four-core processors is the sticking point. It is understandably positioned at the top commanding flagship prices, targeted at those who will build the rest of their desktop using similarly top-end components to prevent bottlenecks. But until software catches up with being able to utilise that much computing power, only the extreme desktop computing enthusiasts would be able to justify purchasing this processor.