The performance gulf between Intel and AMD (pun intended) just got a little bit bigger.
At a conference for game developers this week, Intel announced its first six-core desktop processor, the Core i7- 980X Extreme Edition (my colleague, Sean Portnoy, wrote about this earlier). Intel discussed the processor--better-known by its code-name Gulftown--at the ISSCC a chip conference in February, but details such as the name, frequency, pricing and availability were previously not confirmed.
The Core i7- 980X Extreme Edition operates at 3.33GHz, supports 12 simultaneous threads (two per core) and has 12MB of cache. By comparison, the current Extreme Edition processor, the Core i7-975, runs at the same clock speed, but it has four cores (eight threads) and 8MB of Level 3 cache. Because Intel manufactures the Core i7- 980X with the 32nm Westmere process, the chip is about the same size as the 45nm quad-core Core i7-975 and draws about the same maximum power.
It's also the same price as its predecessor--a whopping $999 list. Clearly this is a high-end processor intended for a small number of enthusiasts willing to pay a premium for the best possible performance. The Core i7- 980X Extreme Edition will be available in high-end gaming and entertainment desktops (there's speculation it could show up as an option in a refreshed Mac Pro). It will also be sold as a boxed upgrade since it uses the same socket (LGA 1366) as the current Core i7 processors found on high-end motherboards based on Intel's X58 Express chipset, though it does require a BIOS update beforehand. Newegg currently sells the Core i7-975 Extreme Edition for $970.
CNET's Rich Brown has posted a review of the Falcon Northwest Mach V, one of the first systems available with the Core i7-980X. Computer Shopper and PC Magazine also reviewed this gaming desktop. Several hardware enthusiast sites have taken an in-depth look at the processor itself (Engadget links to many of them here). With applications that can take advantage of all of these cores and threads, the performance is very good--as much as 50 percent faster than the Core i7-975--making it the ultimate desktop processor for workloads such as video encoding or complex Excel spreadsheets. The catch is that many consumer applications don't really take advantage of all these cores and threads. And even gamers will generally get more benefit from a fast dual- or quad-core CPU paired with more powerful GPUs, which is why the desktop processor is for only a select audience.
The case for these many-core CPUs is more straightforward with servers. Intel also plans to sell a server version, which is known as Westmere-EP but will be branded the Xeon 5600 series. By the end of this month, it is scheduled to release the eight-core Nehalem-EX as well. AMD already sells a six-core server processor, the Opteron 2400 series, and it recently began shipping a small number of its eight- and 12-core Opteron 6100s, also known as Magny-Cours. Later this year, it will release a desktop version branded logically enough as the Phenom II X6 (code-named Thuban). This will be paired with AMD's just-announced 890GX, a high-end chipset that supports new technologies such as SATA 3.0 and USB 3.0, on high-end desktops.