Examining Intel's Skulltrail platform - and Skulltrail "on the cheap"

Examining Intel's Skulltrail platform - and Skulltrail "on the cheap"

Summary: There's no doubting that Skulltrail is a beast of a platform, but this power comes at a cost. What do you need to put together an eight-core Skulltrail system? How much will it cost? Can you do it cheaper?


On Saturday an old friend got in touch with me.  He's found himself (due to being unexpectedly made redundant) moving from being an amateur video editor into doing this for a living.  He's now finding that he's getting more and more work in but that his current hardware platform is the weak link in the system.

"So, can you suggest something faster than my current dual-core system?" he asked.

"Easy, quad-core - Since you're using professional video editing software that can work with multiple cores you're going to see a huge improvement in going from two to four cores," I replied.

"Anything faster?"

"There are always Core 2 Extreme processors, if you're not allergic to spending money."

"I'm not allergic to spending money if it's going to produce results.  Anything faster?

"Well," I said, "there's always Skulltrail ..."

Intel SkulltrailSkulltrail in the name that Intel gave to its new gaming/enthusiast platform which was released on February 19th, 2008.  At the core of this platform is an Intel D5400XS motherboard and Core 2 Extreme QX9775 processors.  OK, but what's so special about Skulltrail.  Well, if we take a closer look at the motherboard this will become obvious - it's home to two LGA 771 CPU sockets and has four x16 PCI-e 1.1a slots.  This means that a Skulltrail system has two QX9775 "Yorkfield XE" 3.2GHz processors giving the user a total of eight cores, and the space for up to four graphics cards.  To make that even more appealing the motherboard supports both nVIDIA's SLI and ATI's CrossfireX technology (the D5400XS board is the first non-nVIDIA chipset board to support SLI).

Intel SkulltrailNow there's no doubting that Skulltrail is a beast of a platform, but as a gaming platform it's well ahead of its time since most games lack support for four cores let alone eight. 

Skulltrail is also mindbendingly expensive - the motherboard alone will set you back around $600 and a single QX9775 processor costs in the region of $1,600.  So for a motherboard and two processors you're looking at spending $3,800.  All you end up with for that price is a mobo and two CPUs.  To transform these into an enthusiast-level PC you need memory, a PSU, graphics cards, hard drives, coolers ... oh and a case.

Now onto the next set of gotchas.  If you're building a Skulltrail system you have to be careful to choose the right memory, PSU and case.  The memory has to be the "fully-buffered" server sort and 800MHz FB DIMMs are hard to find and almost as pricey as DDR3.  The D5400XS does support 667MHz RAM but that's introducing a compromise right off the bat.

Intel SkulltrailThen there's the PSU.  If you're planning on any sort of overclocking then the D5400XS needs a PSU that features a dual 8-Pin +12V motherboard connections.  These aren't easy to find - in fact I can only thing of a few, the cheapest being the SilverStone's DA1200 1200W PSU which as $380 redefines the word "cheap."  You can get away without having a dual EPS 12V PSU, but that's a compromise.

Then there's the case.  The D5400XS is an E-ATX form factor board, and that means finding a case that's compatible.  Forget midi cases, this board needs a full tower.

Altogether I think that you'd be lucky to get change from $6,000 for a build-your-own Skulltrail system. 

Skulltrail - On the cheap -->

"Skulltrail" - On the cheap ...

Now spending $6,000 on a Skulltrail system shouldn't be done lightly.  My friend didn't seem that phased by the cost but if you're in a position where your PC is earning you money, and remembering that time is money, then it's not too bad.  He's using professional video software which means that he's going to see the benefits from having a system with eight cores. 

But what if you want an eight-core system just for bragging rights and you don't have (or want to spend) $6,000?  This is what I was left thinking about after I sent my friend on his way to think about whether he wants to spend $6K on a system.

Intel SkulltrailBack to basics for a second.  The D5400XS motherboard is an LGA 771 socket board, and LGA 771 processors are the Xeon CPUs and the good news for cheapskates is that this Skulltrail board will take Xeon "Harpertown" quad-core processors.  Armed with this information you can do away with the QX9775 processors and replace them with something a little cheaper - such as a pair of Xeon Xeon E5410s (note that there are two kinds, marked "p" and "a" - the "p" type come with a passive heatsink while the "a" version come with a heatsink and fan).  Two of these will cost a shade under $600 - under half what a single QX9775 costs. 

Sure, there's a performance hit since the E5410 runs at only 2.33GHz compared to the 3.2GHz of the QX9775 but it's not as much as you'd expect.  Eight cores running at 2.33GHz is still a lot of power.

Having made this tweak to the spec you can expect to build a really amazing dual quad-core system for around $3,000.

But this tweak still leaves you with an expensive motherboard and PSU.  If overclocking isn't your thing then you can get rid of the Intel D5400XS motherboard and instead use a standard Xeon board - such as a Tyan - and save more money because you can use a more sensible PSU.  You lose along with overclocking the ability to have SLI/CrossfireX but there are plenty of powerful single-card GPU solutions out there.

It's important to note that these systems aren't actually Skulltrail systems, at best they're "Skulltrailesque" but they do show what's possible if you start to think outside the box.  They also show that dual-quad-core systems are slowly edging closer to being the new quad-core systems for enthusiasts.  Sure, you have to spend a lot of dough, but you get a very good system at the end.


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  • Why not go directly to workstation reseller ?

    You can choose HP, Dell, or Lenovo as soon as thy decide to actually ship their workstation due january ( web site still not updated ).

    There are many advantages to that compared with DIY solution: intel 5400 xeon are difficult to get by, E ATX compatible cases are both uncommon and expensive. If your are willing to buy a 3grand + system to save time, because time is money, you certainly have better things to do than chasing the write material and assemble it. Plus buying a complete system will get you a multi year on site warranty you wouldn't have otherwise.

    Complete system by dell, along with 4Gb RAM ( youcertainly don't want to go 64 bits since video editing software does not support that yet ) dual 2.66GHz Xeon, case, 24" high end screen & OS is a little more than $4.000.

    But you still have question to answer there. Can your video editing software support 8 cores ? I did try commercial video encoding software, of the expensive profesionnal sort, and they certainly do not support multicore. I doubt any video editing software make use of 8 cores as of today.

    For the video editing guy i'm afraid chasing numerous cores is far less cost effective than buying dedicated video encoding hardware by avid canopus or the like.
    • A couple of points ...

      I know that there are quite a few examples of multi-core video editing packages - Adobe Premiere and TMPGenc Plus support multiple cores.

      As for E-ATX cases - there are cheap(er) cases that support this form factor - such as the Thermaltake Armor.
      Adrian Kingsley-Hughes
      • since demo versions are available

        I'll try both premiere CS3 and TMPGenc ( I do have a duwl 5400 ) and let you know; I have a natural tendency to thinks they will not support 8 thread parallelism, but I do hope I'm wrong in this....
        • Let us know how it goes ...

          Adrian Kingsley-Hughes
          • I'm happy to have been wrong

            Having downloaded the trial version of Adobe Premiere Pro CS3, I just installed it on my Dell precision T7400 ( Dual Xeon 5430 / Windows Vista Pro 64 ) and tested it rapidly, just to have a look at the processor activity. As I stated I was dubious about the hability of the software to make use of the 8 cores available, but Adobe did a good job at it and all cores get evenly used during the project rendering.

            TMPGenc on the other hhand ( once again trial version of the commercial edition ) did not use the different cores. In fact, out of the 5 active threads, one used 100% of one of the core, two other used like 50% of two cores ( one each) and the remaining 2 thread were idle. As a result I ended up with 2 1/8th of CPU usage. The product is well suited for a dual core, but not for a dual quad core.

            Once again Adobe did a good job, and TMPGenc was a little more apt than what I expected - these expectation were triggered by a try I had some time ago with Canopus ProCoder which only used one of the eight cores of my configuration which, given the price invested, is quite a disappointment
  • Why not take a page...

    ...from the book of the experts - the animation shops use clusters or grids of inexpensive machines. Commodity parts, not the most bleeding edge, hard to support, hard on the earth pieces!
    • True

      I would like to see an article on building your own cluster, nothing like turning a closet into a pc case. *looks off into distance with glazed eyes*
      • Who can think of spare closet space right now ... ?

        I can!

        Adrian Kingsley-Hughes
    • Yeah ...

      ... he's not at that level ... yet!
      Adrian Kingsley-Hughes
  • Skulltrail overkill

    I think the Xeon workstation would probably be the better fit for your friend. While the Skulltrail is blazing fast (and expensive), he would find better value with the Xeon system. The money he saves can be spent on other components that will improve his setup, such as a pro-level video card and graphics card combo like the Matrox RT.X2 and nVidia Quadro FX, and a quality 64-bit RAID card and a couple 10,000 RPM SAS drives in a RAID 0 config for A/V swap space with a nice SATA 1TB drive for storage.

    Matrox has a good guide on their site for those looking to build a A/V system around the RT.X2 HD.
  • Why not an 8 core Mac Pro?

    Sounds like your friend is the exact audience Apple was targeting with the 8-core Mac Pro. Any reason why you wouldn't recommend it?
    • I mentioned that ...

      ... and the answer was the cost of re-buying software. Boot Camp is an option but that has the downsides of having to hand hold two OSes ...
      Adrian Kingsley-Hughes
      • Boot Camp

        Just load each OS on their own respective drives. Its really not too difficult or complicated.

        And for the price, a Mac Pro is a cheap high clocked quad core system. However, your video card selection is highly limited due to EFI.
      • Only if you use them both

        If your friend decides not to use OS X, he could always just boot into Windows all the time, and then it really wouldn't need much updating on the OS X side.

        But on the other hand, Final Cut Studio 2 is expensive, but not ridiculously so at $1300. Personally, if I was building a rig for video editing, I would buy the base $2800, 2.8ghz 8-core model Mac Pro, then stick in 2x150GB WD Raptors in a RAID 0 (about $340), 2x1TB Seagate 7200.11 drives in a RAID 1 (about $500), and as much additional RAM as needed (probably another 2GB for about $120). Add it all up and that's $3760 for hardware and $1300 for software for a total of $5060. But I think the investment would very quickly pay for itself if you are editing video all day.
  • Apple Mac Pro "affordable" equivilent

    As long as we're playing with the definition of affordable, I think a Apple Mac Pro would be a pretty good bargain for such specs. Sure it comes with Mac OS X but it's just as easy to wipe Mac OS X (or even dualboot) and install Windows XP SP2 (or Vista) with the BootCamp drivers and from there go gaming crazy. You get all the highend gaming hardware one could possible want starting at just $2,700 so IMO a Mac Pro could quite possibly be a better deal then a Intel Skulltrail motherboard ...the beauty of Apple going Intel, the Mac Pro's power is no longer limited to just Apple products. :D

    - John Musbach
    John Musbach