Intel Core i7 980X Review

ccokeman - 2010-02-12 22:01:10 in CPU's
Category: CPU's
Reviewed by: ccokeman   
Reviewed on: March 10, 2010
Price: $999


Back in January, Intel let the first 32nm based processor out of the barn door with the introduction of the of the Core i5 6 series processors that featured an on chip integrated graphics processor. Sure it is a bundle of joy and overclocks like stink, but what if you need or want more performance than the current dual or quad core processors can deliver? Well you were pretty much out of luck unless overclocking took care of your performance needs and wants. Fast forward a couple of months and you have some hope on the horizon with the soon to be released Core i7 980X. This computing behemoth is part of the Extreme lineup and comes to the masses with a total of six cores and a clock speed of 3.33GHz mirroring the clock speed of the current top end processor from Intel the Core i7 975.

The Core i7 980X is built upon the 32nm manufacturing process and features six execution cores with hyperthreading supported giving you the power of 12 threads to work with as well as a total of 12MB of shared Smart Cache. Turbo boost technology is supported allowing a dynamic increase of the 980X depending on the processing load. Whats amazing is that Intel has kept the same socket 1366 footprint allowing the Core i7 980X to fit in and work with the existing base of X58 based motherboards with nothing but a BIOS update to get the board up and running with the 980X. With that, lets take a look at this processor to see if it can break new ground when it comes to performance in both real world applications as well as while gaming. Extreme? We shall see.

Closer Look:

The Core i7 980X is the latest offering to come from Intel. It is based on the 32nm Nehalem micro-architecture code named Westmere. The 32nm process is a process technology change or die shrink with the next architecture change coming with Sandy Bridge For this processor Intel has bumped up the amount of physical cores by two to a total of six and upped the shared L3 Smart cache by 50% to 12MB. Both significant jumps that should pay some handsome rewards when it comes to the performance delivered. The Westmere series is a die shrink of the Nehalem architecture from 45nm to 32nm and still uses the High-k second generation manufacturing process. Intel has included a few new instruction sets on this series. AES-NI is a set of 12 new instructions that help boost data encryption and decryption. Also included is the full SSE4 instruction set. This processor supports Turbo Boost technology that allows the processor to dynamically increase the clock speeds from the as delivered 3.33 GHZ up to 3.6 GHz when under a light load and is Overclocking enabled for some additional fun. Hyperthreading is supported and allows you to run a total of 12 threads at one time to significantly increase the amount of work you are able to do in a set time frame. The memory controller still supports triple channel DDR3 memory configurations with all of this coming in the LGA 1366 socket. Looking at the die shot you can get an idea of how the cores and memory are laid out. Its amazing that Intel has been able to squeeze another two cores into the same socket size.









While the Core i7 980X looks to be a great chip on paper, the problem is how to cool down those additional two cores when the solution included for use with the quad core Nehalem processors was marginal at best under load? Even at stock speeds! It looks like Intel has taken cooling the latest Nehalem micro architecture seriously with the inclusion of their DBX-B cooling solution with the 980X. It is a tower design heatsink that uses four large heatpipes and that take the thermal load up to the aluminum fins to be dissipated via airflow from the fan.


Looking closer at the top of the DBX-B you can see a switch assembly that allows you to choose two different fan performance levels. These are labeled Q for Quiet and P for performance. Intes states the Maximum acoustics are 35dBA under load running at 1800 RPM and under 20 dBA at idle running at 800 RPM. A breath of fresh air is that Intel has chosen to design this piece as a bolt on cooling solution verses using push pins and is rated to withstand a 3 foot drop while installed in a system without breaking. The screws used to bolt the DBX-B to the board and backplate can be tightened by hand as a thumb screw or you can use a screwdriver if you need to get into a tight spot. The base is mirror finished for optimum contact with the 980X IHS.


Lets see just how much more performance the Core i7 980X delivers.



Number of Processor Cores  
Number of Simultaneous Threads
with Intel® Hyper-Threading
Intel® Smart Cache
12 MB
Processor Base Frequency
3.33 GHz
Integrated Memory Controller
Intel® Turbo Boost Technology
Number of DDR3 Memory Channels
Intel® Express Chipset
Overclocking Enabled




The only way to know how a processor performs is to run it through a series of benchmarks, using both synthetic and real tasks to make a comparison as to how the processor performs against architectures from the same manufacturer as well as competing manufacturers. Really, this leaves Intel and AMD at this point. To test the Core i7 980X 3.33GHz six core processor, all of the energy saving features as well as performance boosting technologies have been disabled on the motherboard in order to gain repeatable results. Otherwise, the results would not be a valid form of comparison. Intel's Turbo Boost technology provides a serious clock increase on this CPU that allow it to deliver performance in excess of what is available when the technology is disabled. A comparison will be made against both AMD processors and both the Intel socket 1366 and socket 1156 processors. Once the stock testing is completed, I will overclock the Core i7 980X to see if it delivers any overclocking headroom. Both stock and overclocked testing will be accomplished on the test platforms listed below.


Testing Setup: Intel Core i7 Socket 1366


Testing Setup: Intel Core i5 Clarksdale Socket 1156


Testing Setup: Intel Core i5/i7 Socket 1156


Testing Setup AMD AM3 CPU's:


Comparison CPUs:



Overclocked settings:

With six cores and 12 threads, I was not taking any chances on temperatures limiting the overclock even though the Intel solution is a gem. So for this round of of overclocking, I went straight for water cooling. What I found was that even with big volts, this chip did not really get as warm as the C0 stepping Core i7 965 I have, with a maximum temperature on one core of 72°C (Even with what was probably a bit to much vcore). To reach the 4.3 GHz clock speed I was initially a bit gentle with the voltages and found the system hitting a bclock wall at about 180MHz regardless of multiplier. At that point gentle went out the window and I started pushing voltages like I had with the Core i7 920 and 965 and found that the 980X responded well to these adjustments. 4.1GHz took about 1.375v set in the BIOS for stability but to move the bar higher meant a large increase in voltage to reach stability at 4.3GHz. I needed 1.435v set in BIOS to get this 980X stable. While that may seem like a lot, I have seen worse and better on other Nehalem architecture-based chips. Its really the luck of the draw. However the higher voltage is not worth the additional 200MHz for daily use. The bclock wall that finally stopped me cold was at 213Mhz on this chip. The unlocked multiplier can make for an interesting side to the whole bclock overclocking since you dont have to really lean on much other than the vcore. All in all, six cores of 4.3GHz madness is a sight I welcomed and am proud to show off. Of course your mileage may vary depending on your CPU.


So you say you are not an overclocker and do not want to risk burning up your nice new $1000, six core Extreme processor but want more performance. Well you bought the top of the line processor so what else is there? Intel incorporates Turbo Boost Technology in its Core series processors including the i3,i5 and i7 lineups. What this does is dynamically boost the clock speed to a higher level in situations where the load on the processor is light enough that it will not exceed the thermal or current limits set for the processor, in this case 130 watts. While testing this technology I witnessed clock speeds ranging from just over 3.6GHz during light loads such as surfing the net and a bump to almost 3.5Ghz during CPU intensive tasks. is there a clock speed bonus hence a performance increase with this technology is use? Most definitely but you need to leave all of the settings in BIOS at defaults to use it.


If the screen shots do not illustrate the concept, here is the slide from the Intel press deck that shows just how Turbo Boost technology works and under what circumstances it is employed.



  1. Apophysis
  2. WinRAR
  3. Bibble 5
  4. Office 2007 Excel Number Crunch
  5. POV Ray 3.7
  6. PCMark Vantage Professional
  7. Sandra XII
  8. ScienceMark 2.02
  9. Cinebench 10 & 11.5
  10. HD Tune 3.50
  1. Far Cry 2
  2. Crysis Warhead
  3. BioShock
  4. Call of Duty World At War
  5. Dead Space 
  6. Fallout 3
  7. Left 4 Dead
  8. 3DMark 06 Professional
  9. 3DMark Vantage


The first part of our testing will be the system specific benchmarks.


Let's get started with Apophysis. This program is used primarily to render and generate fractal flame images. We will run this benchmark with the following settings:



The measurement used is time to render, in minutes, to complete.










Lower is Better


WinRAR is a tool to archive and compress large files to a manageable size. We will use 100MB and 500MB files to test the time needed to compress these files. Time will be measured in seconds. Additionally, I will use the built in benchmark as a comparison.




Lower is Better




Lower is Better


Bibble 5:


In Apophysis, the 980X delivers a result two minutes faster than the similarly clocked i5 661 and a minute faster than the Core i7 965. The WinRar testing shows the advantage of another two cores over the i7 965 by knocking of a third of the time it took the 965 to complete the tasks. The Bibble 5 results show that the additional two cores and 4mb of cache show a more than substantial advantage for the Corei7 980X. When overclocked it is nearly twice as fast as the Core i7 965!


Office 2007 Excel Big Number Crunch: This test takes a 6.2MB MIcrosoft Excel speadsheet and performs about 28,000 sets of calculations that many of the most commonly used calculations in Excel. The measure of this test is how long it takes to refresh the sheet.
















Lower Is Better


POV Ray 3.7: This program features a built in benchmark that renders an image using Ray Tracing. The latest versions offer support for SMP (Symetric MultiProcessing) enabling the workload to be spread across the cores for a quicker completion.

Higher Is Better


PCMark Vantage x64 is used to measure complete system performance. We will be running a series of tests to gauge performance of each individual CPU to see which CPU, if any, rises above the others.


In these benchmarks there is not a single test where the six cored Core i7 980X is out performed. The Excel testing shows that it is almost 1.5 seconds faster in the calculations than the Core i7 965. In POV Ray and PCMark Vantage the performance advantage is overwhelmingly in favor of the Core i7 980X.



SiSoft Sandra is a diagnostic utility and synthetic benchmarking program. Sandra allows you to view your hardware at a higher level to be more helpful. For this benchmark, I will be running a broad spectrum of tests to gauge the performance of key functions of the CPUs.















Processor Arithmetic


Multi-Core Efficiency


Memory Bandwidth


Memory Latency


Cache and Memory


File System


Physical Disks


Power Management Efficiency


In the tests that measure the perormance of the processor the Core i7 980X is far and away the higher performing processor with distinct advantages in the CPU Arithmetic, Multi Core Efficiency and Cache and Memory tests.


ScienceMark tests real world performance instead of using synthetic benchmarks. For this test, we ran the benchmark suite and will use the overall score for comparison.

















Higher is Better


CineBench 10 is useful for testing your system, CPU, and OpenGL capabilities using the software program CINEMA 4D. We will be using the default tests for this benchmark.


Higher is Better


CineBench 11.5 is the latest iteration of this popular benchmark that features a new look to the interface. This test now has a simple GPU and CPU test built in.

Higher is Better


HD Tune measures disk performance to make comparisons between drives or disk controllers.


Higher is Better



Lower is Better


In the Sciencemark testing the Core i7 980X delivers performance that is about what the clock speed will deliver. The overclocked results are a large step above what the stock CPU's deliver. The Cinebench single CPU test shows clock speed is a determining factor in performance while the multi core test shows the advantage of having more cores in multi threaded applications. Maxon's Cinebench 11.5 is an update for this popular benchmark that shows off the abilities of the 980X.


Far Cry 2:

Featuring a new game engine named Dunia, this game looks to be another one to stress your video card. Built especially for Far Cry 2, this engine allows for real time effects and damage. This next generation First Person Shooter comes to us from Ubisoft surprisingly - not from Crytek. The game is set in a war-torn region of Africa where there is a non-existent central government and the chaos that surrounds this type of social environment. If you have seen the movie Blood Diamond, you know the setting. Ubisoft puts the main storyline of the game into focus with these statements: "Caught between two rival factions in war-torn Africa, you are sent to take out "The Jackal," a mysterious character who has rekindled the conflict between the warlords, jeopardizing thousands of lives. In order to fulfill your mission you will have to play the factions against each other, identify and exploit their weaknesses, and neutralize their superior numbers and firepower with surprise, subversion, cunning and, of course, brute force." In this version of the game, you don't have the beautiful water, but instead the beauty and harshness of the African continent to contend with. Most games give you a set area that can be played through, while Ubisoft has given the gamer the equivalent of 50km squared of the vast African continent to explore while in pursuit of your goals. The settings used are just a few steps below the maximum in-game settings and offer a good blend of performance vs. visual quality.














The performance of the Core i7 980X is similar to that of the Core i7 965 in two out of three tests.


Crysis Warhead is a standalone expansion pack situated in time with the story line of the original Crysis. As Sergeant "Psycho" Sykes, you have a secret mission to accomplish on the far side of the island. Along the way, there are EMP blasts and aliens to contend with, as you hunt down the KPA chief. This game uses an enhanced version of the CryEngine 2.

















This game is severely limited by the graphics card you use and shows that the processor speed nor the amount of cores is providing a bottleneck as the Core i7 980X delivered the same performance at both 3.33GHz as well as at 4.3GHz.


BioShock is one of the creepier games you can play. The building of a perfect Utopian society undersea gone horribly wrong. Its inhabitants driven mad with the introduction of tonics and genetic modifications. Now Rapture is just a shadow of its former glory with little girls looting the dead of what little they have left while being shadowed by guardians known as "Big Daddies". It is a demanding game that will make your hardware scream for mercy. This first person shooter allows for an infinite number of weapons and modifications to provide a unique experience each time it is played. The environment, as well as the story line, will wrap you up for hours on end.


Video Settings:















When compared to the Core i7 965, the 980X delivers similar performance in this game. Overclocking provides a small benefit that will not get noticed in game.


Activision's Call Of Duty World at War goes right back to the bread and butter of the franchise - WWII FPS action. In this rendition, you start off in the South Pacific and move through a series of missions that flip back and forth between the Russian front and the island hopping advance toward the Imperial Japanese homeland. Included is a mission on Peliliu Island, arguably one of the more difficult and costly battles in the Pacific theater. The gameplay in the single player mode is rather short, but the game makes up for this shortcoming in online gameplay. If you thought COD4 looked nice, this game is amazing with the graphics maxed out playing at a large resolution. This game just may be my reason to move to a 30-inch monitor. I will use Fraps to measure a section of gameplay in the Semper Fi map on Makin Island to compare performance of these video cards.

















The additional clock speed of the 980X helps out here more so than the additional cores.


In Dead Space, as part of the crew of the USG Kellion, you are headed on a repair mission to repair a ship in distress. Things go from bad to worse as starting with the crash landing and seemingly silent and "Dead" ship, the USG Ishimuru. Offering a non-traditional over the shoulder viewing angle, the game gets right into the action as soon as the ventilation systems are activated. From there things get worse with the appearance of the Necromorphs. Survival now becomes a primary concern for the primary character Isaac Clarke. Survive and you may find the loved one that was aboard the Ishimuru.


















The additional CPU cores did not create an advantage in the Dead Space testing. Clock speed had a similar lack of ability to enhance the FPS averages delivered.


Fallout 3 takes place after the nuclear holocaust that nearly wipes out civilization and leaves the world an irradiated mess. The vault, or fallout shelter, you are born in is Vault 101, situated in the Washington DC, Maryland and Virginia area. The premise of the game is that the vault has been sealed for 200 years and now your father has opened the vault and escaped without a trace. The Overseer believes you are involved, so you must escape as well into the wasteland that was once our nation's capital. I find myself looking for landmarks, since I am familiar with the streets of Washington DC.

















The Core i7 980X delivers performance close to that of the Core i7 965 in this game.


Left 4 Dead is a new release from Valve that leaves you as part of a group of survivors in a world where an infection has rapidly turned the populace into a zombie horde. You goal is to make it to a rescue point, all the while fighting what seems like overwhelming odds. Along the way there are safe houses where you can replenish your weapons and health. The movie 'I Am Legend' comes to mind to set the stage for this game. But unlike the movie, there are four characters, and not just a lone gun and his faithful companion. The horde is not at all like the typical slow walking, foot shuffling zombie. These zombies are quick and work with the pack mentality. Your job: survival!


















The only resolution that shows any bias towards the 980X when compared to the quad core CPU's is 1280x1024. However there is a boost even at 1920x1200 over the dual core CPU's in this comparison.


3DMark06 is one of the benchmarks that always comes up when a bragging contest is started. 3DMark06 presents a severe test for many of today's hardware components. Let's see how this setup fares. The settings we will use are listed below.


















The additional cores embedded in the Core i7 980X help boost scores by quite a large margin. Overclocking pays dividends in all three resolutions.


Featuring all-new game tests, this benchmark is for use with Vista based systems. "There are two all-new CPU tests that have been designed around a new 'Physics and Artificial Intelligence-related computation.' CPU test two offers support for physics related hardware." There are four preset levels that correspond to specific resolutions. 'Entry' is 1024x768 progressing to 'Extreme' at 1920x1200. Of course, each preset can be modified to arrange any number of user designed testing. For our testing, I will use the four presets at all default settings.


















Overclocking only helps in the Entry, Performance and high tests as the Xtreme preset is all about the graphics card. At stock speeds the additional cores don't seem to really help out the scoring.


When it comes down to raw computing power the Core i7 980X is the hands down winner. But really is there any other expectation with its six cores, 12 threads and 12mb of shared L3 cache when compared to the four cores, 8 threads and 8MB of cache on the Core i7 965 and the best AMD currently has to offer in the form of the PII 965? In the multi threaded benchmarks such as WinRar, Bibble 5, POV Ray and Cinebench there really is no doubting the performance advantage of having two additional processor cores as the performance just scales upwards. This means that any program you use that is highly threaded, you are going to see a massive increase in performance via a speedup of the workload. From a productivity standpoint, this means you can get more work done in the allotted time you have. As a cut and dry example you can look at the WinRar, Bibble 5 and the Excel testing where the 980X completed the work in a third less time or better. What could you do with at least 30% more time? When it came to gaming I did not see a real gain in performance but there are games that do allow the 980X to take advantage of the additional cores it carries with more coming down the pike. Current titles include Resident Evil 5, GRID and Company of Heroes. Software titles have been optimized for use with the i7 980X as well and the list is continuously growing, but some current titles include Sony Vegas, Autodesk Maya, Adobe Photoshop and Lightroom as well as Maxon's Cinema 4D. Overclocking the 980X opened up a whole new level of performance. I was able to gain almost a 1GHz improvement in clock speed over the 3.33GHz factory speed by overclocking the 980X to 4.3GHz using the same overclocking techniques used to overclock its quad core family members. I was able to reach a bclock of 213 and run 205MHz stable for my testing. A stout clock for what is a new player in the game, even though they have been out in the hands of the Extreme overclocking set for months. The potential is there with better cooling!

One thing I found surprising was the fact that this processor ran relatively cool for having six processing cores when air cooled and even more so when put under water. The DBX-B cooling solution from Intel is a radical step away from what has been done in the past when it comes to OEM solutions. Its copper/aluminum construction is similar to many higher end tower style heatsinks on the market and performs quite well by comparison. With four heatpipes there is no shortage of thermal capacity. Even when pushing up to 4.05GHz the temperatures stayed for the most part in the high 60°C range. However I did notice some throttling of the core clock speed once temperatures reached 70°C. At stock speeds the DBX-B kept the temperatures at a chilly (Ok in relative terms) 60°C using the Q setting and a massive 54°C when the P or performance setting is enabled. Either way you get great cooling. On the other hand the cooler does get a bit noisy when you hit the performance switch. Intel states a "Less than 35 dBA" all out sound level and it is most likely close to that when compared to the noise from some of the fans I have tested with the same dBA rating. The cooling solution takes a step away from the norm in another way, how it mounts to the motherboard. In the past you had push pin mounting from Intel and not much in the way of putting something better together. With the DBX-B you no longer have to worry about making sure the pins lock in place. Oh no, Intel has something better. The DBX-B is a bolt on solution that is easy to install with four thumbscrews as well as the ability to use a screwdriver to tighten the screws into the back plate. This one's a winner!

While pricing may be at the high end of the scale for the majority, the price for this Extreme series processor comes in at the same price point as the Core i7 975 at $999. Sure its a steep price tag, but you are guaranteed a certain level of performance for this price. On the other hand you are getting an additional two cores for the price of four when you look at it so there is at least a silver lining to this cloud. I think Intel did the right thing with CPU by not introducing another chipset with the 980X. What this allows you to do is have and upgrade path without the expense of a new set of memory or the cost of another motherboard dropping your overall cost down to a respectable level if you are currently running an X58 based system. That alone is $500 you don't have to spend. To use the 980X on any of the X58 motherboards on the market including Intels own DX58SO you will need to flash the BIOS before installing the 980X but thats a small price to pay for the performance trade off you recieve. When it comes down to it Intel has a great product in the six Core i7 980X. Intel kept the same power profile, increased the amount of cores and L3 cache, and upped the performance factor substantially. Wins all the way around! This CPU will not be for sale right away, but expect it to hit shelves over the next month or so.