Intel has long established itself as the maker of the fastest processors for desktop PCs. But while there can be arguments as to what CPU models are optimal today in the mainstream and low-end categories, there is no competition in the top price range. Intel’s Core i7 series has no alternatives in AMD’s product line-up. At least, this is true when I’m writing this and there are still a few weeks till the arrival of AMD’s six-core Phenom II processors codenamed Thuban. As a matter of fact, the already available 4-core Phenom II processors may even be more appealing as they are but a few dozen percent slower than the Core i7 series while being many times cheaper, but anyway. PC enthusiasts are ready to pay for the maximum performance they can get, therefore the Core i7 series enjoys high popularity.
Even without direct market competition, this consumer interest towards high-performance and expensive CPUs makes Intel keep on developing its top-end products by increasing their clock rates, introducing microarchitectural improvements, and endowing them with more and more cores. The hero of this review is the recently announced model of the Core i7 series which is the first desktop CPU with as many as six cores!
It must be noted that the arrival of the six-core Core i7 does not mark a beginning of a six-core revolution. Right now, Intel only offers one such CPU, the Core i7-980X Extreme Edition. It is a kind of a demo sample that is targeted as wealthy enthusiasts who are ready to shell out a thousand bucks for the processor alone! That’s how things will stand until this fall when one more, less expensive, six-core model is scheduled for release. And there will still be a long way till the mass arrival of CPUs with more than four cores to the market. I mean Intel’s CPUs, of course. AMD has its own vision and is going to start selling midrange six-core CPUs in near future, but we don’t yet have the opportunity to play with such products in our test labs.
The Core i7-980X is based on the new semiconductor die Gulftown that incorporates six processing cores and a 12-megabyte L3 cache. The implementation of all these units in a monolithic silicon die was made possible by 32nm tech process. The same manufacturing process is partially used for the Clarkdale series but the Core i7-980X is the first product to apply it all the way from top to bottom. Thus, it is the Core i7-980X that is going to best illustrate the evolution of the Nehalem microarchitecture. The recently announced Core i5 and Core i3 processors are a poor illustration because the distribution of CPU subunits in two semiconductor dies one of which is manufactured on 45nm tech process resulted in bottlenecks that had a negative effect on the consumer properties of the end products.
In other words, the Core i7-980X is the best Intel’s engineers can do at the moment by applying their progressive tech process to their most advanced microarchitecture. This makes the Gulftown interesting from a theoretical point of view. Practically, such CPUs will be limited to luxurious PC configurations and will not make it to the mass market this year. Intel has no plans to offer cheaper versions of the Gulftown in 2011, either, because the company is going to move on right to the next microarchitecture generation codenamed Sandy Bridge.