Intel Core I7 Review

ccokeman - 2008-10-13 17:34:28 in CPU's
Category: CPU's
Reviewed by: ccokeman   
Reviewed on: November 2, 2008
Price: $284-$999


About this time last year Intel launched what was the fastest 45nm quad core CPU on the planet, the Intel Core 2 Quad QX9770. Well, guess what, Intel has done it again with the latest architectural achievement, the Core I7 Extreme 965. What the two have is common is that they both are based on Penryn cores, they both are 45 nanometer chips and they both run at a clock speed of 3.2GHz. After these things what you have is a whole new animal. Gone from this chip is the twelve megabytes of L2 cache, this is replaced by a third level of cache at 8MB. Slow and inefficient it is not. With the addition of an integrated memory controller, the memory bandwidth is expected to be huge by comparison to today's top of the line processors, somewhere close to two to three times the peak bandwidth. SMT (Simultaneous Multi Threading) has made a return on the Core I7 generation. This will enable the processor to run a total of eight threads at one time. Some other new features are Dynamic Energy Management, new SSE4 instructions, three level cache with a shared 8MB L3 cache and improved branch prediction. Many are interested in the new efficiencies and features, while many think this generation will be the Holy Grail of processors, Let's find out just how it performs. That's the question that is on everyone's mind.









Closer Look:

When you look at the Nehalem CPUs by themselves you have to wonder what makes them so much different than the previous generation. On the left is the I7 965 Extreme Edition that features a non turbo multiplier of 24 and is unlocked both up and down. Couple the 24 multiplier with the 133MHz base clock frequency and you end up at 3.20GHz. The I7 920 is at the other end of the spectrum and has a maximum non turbo clock multiplier of 20 for a base clock speed of 2.66GHz, in turbo mode this will jump as high as 22 for a turbo speed of 2.93GHz, the same base frequency of the I7 940. To accommodate this massive chip the socket pin count is up to 1366 from the Core 2 processors 775 pin count.



In the pictures above the increase in the size of the die is not readily apparent. The die size on the Nehalem processor core has increased to 263mm2 with a total of 731 million transistors. Comparing the size of the I7 965 to a socket 775 processor makes the size increase that much more dramatic.



While both the I7 965 and i7 920 are engineering samples, the I7 920 was shipped with a retail heatsink. The size increase of the processor die necessitated a larger cooling solution as well. The same concept is used to cool the Nehalem chips that was used on the socket 775 processors, just larger. The copper center slug is surrounded by an aluminum fin matrix to shed the heat generated by the processor. Big is good when it comes to cooling!



Processor? Check! Motherboard? Check! It's time to see just what these little bits of silicon will be paired with to generate some performance numbers.


Closer Look:

Since this is new hardware we are talking about there will always be a system that is designed to use it. Intel was nice enough to send out the hardware as an evaluation tool to show what the platform can do. This list of hardware is pretty extensive and is all high end stuff. The package arrived in a nice size box that was way too large to house just a processor. Inside was an assortment of boxes that contained the system that the Nehalem processors will be tested on.

To start the foundation of any system is the motherboard. For this system that will be the DX58SO (Smackover). Many enthusiasts will not buy an Intel board because of the plethora of aftermarket boards that offer an incredible array of options and features. Well, the Smackover is no slouch, it's an ATX motherboard that is based on an eight layer PCB with a six phase power design. The slide below illustrates the features quite well and includes a block diagram detailing the connection speeds through each interface. This review is about the processor but these are the ancillary parts that will be looked at in depth at a later date.








This platform uses DDR3 in a tri channel configuration that feeds this monster enough bandwidth so that it will never be a problem. Qimonda supplied the memory modules. They modules are rated for operation at 1066MHz with latencies of 7-7-7-20 at just a mere 1.5 volts. Intel threw one of its MLC SSD 80 gigabyte drives in to make sure the hard drive would not be a limitation in the testing.



Last, but not least, you gotta have a way to cool down the beasts. One part of the package was the Thermalright Ultra Extreme socket 1366 CPU cooler. If this can't do the job, what can?



Now you have seen all the goodies that are included in the test platform (big thanks to Intel) it's time to see just how they perform as a whole.




I7 Extreme 965

I7 940

I7 920

CPU Clock speed


Transistor count

731 Million

Maximum Non Turbo Multiplier


Base Clock Frequency


Die Size


L3 Cache size


Package type

1366 LGA

Manufacturing technology


Code Name


QPI  Bandwidth

6.4 GT/s
4.8 GT/s
4.8 GT/s




The Intel I7 965 and 920 will be put through our series of benchmarks to see just what advantages they have over the current technology. Current being a relative term, what was current is last year's top of the line. Out with the old and in with the new. By downclocking the I7 965 I can show performance numbers for the I7 940 so these numbers will be included in this review for a comparison. The OverclockersClub series of benchmarks include both system tests and gaming benchmarks to verify the performance of this product. Testing will include a direct comparison of several processors, including stock speed benchmarking. CPU clock speed will be kept at the manufacturer specified clock speed and multiplier for the baseline testing. All motherboard and video card settings were left at setup defaults, again to eliminate any variables. To eliminate the effects of the turbo mode I will manually configure the BIOS to turn off the dynamic overclocking features of the I7 and DX58SO motherboard. This will allow for a true representation of the processor at a set clock speed. What you can take from this is that the numbers shown in the testing section will be at the specific clock speeds that the processor is shipped with. This also lets you know that there is some performance above and beyond the level of performance shown in the benchmarks by using the dynamic overclocking features. The overclocking phase of the testing will be accomplished by using all of the available settings on the motherboard to gain the maximum clock speed and performance from the Core I7 processors. I will be comparing performance against processors that run at similar clock speeds to the Nehalem processors as well as a dual core CPU to show how a popular option for the gaming community fares against the latest and greatest from Intel.


Testing Setup I7:


Testing Setup Core2:


Comparison CPUs:



Overclocked settings:

Whenever there is a new technology on the block there are always the people that want to push the technology to its limits. Usually these are the early adopters so they are in essence the trailblazers when it comes to gaining the knowledge to maximize the technology. In the case of overclocking the Core I7 processors things are a little different, well a lot different, but some of the same old processes still prove fruitful. Overclocking the Intel Core I7 processors can be accomplished two ways, increasing the base clock from 133MHz or in the case of the unlocked core I7 965 you can combine both the base clock increase along with a clock multiplier increase. Additionally, the platform has what is called Turbo Boost technology. How this works is the CPU will upclock by increasing the base clock multiplier by one or two steps based on the computing load. So with a stock base clock frequency of 133MHz and multiplier of 20 the I7 920 runs at 2.66GHz, with the dynamic overclocking enabled (Turbo Boost) the base clock multiplier will increase to 22 for a nice clock speed increase of 266MHz to 2.93 GHz. The I7 965 can do this as well but the base clock multiplier can be increased much higher for a subsequent increase in clock speed. Pretty neat stuff when you think about it.

On the I7 965 Extreme the processor is unlocked so the multiplier can be increased substantially to increase the CPU speed without touching the base clock frequency while the I7 920 clock multiplier is locked at 20 so to really push the CPU you will need to push the base clock frequency to see an increase in performance. On the 965 I tried both increasing the base clock multiplier as well as the baseclock frequency to end up with a final stable speed of 3.970 GHz for my benchmark testing. This was accomplished by setting the base clock frequency to 147MHz with a clock multiplier of 27. Rather than using the voltage offset in the BIOS I set the voltage manually. To keep the CPU from throttling under load you can increase the "current limit" override as well as the "power limit" override in the DX58 Smackover motherboard BIOS. To increase the base clock frequency you can only go so far until you will need to add a little voltage to the IOH core voltage override and QPI voltage override in the bus override section of the BIOS. It's just a matter of learning the ins and outs of the BIOS and what the processor likes, 3.970GHZ and 3.100GHZ are what the two processors liked on air without cooking parts. Of course, no two chips are alike so your mileage may vary.






  1. Apophysis
  2. WinRAR
  3. SpecviewPerf 10
  4. PCMark Vantage Professional
  5. Sandra XII
  6. ScienceMark 2.02
  7. Cinebench 10
  8. HD Tune 2.55
  1. Crysis
  2. Knights of the Sea
  3. Bioshock
  4. Call of Duty 4
  5. World in Conflict
  6. Far Cry 2
  7. Company of Heros-Opposing Fronts
  8. 3DMark 06 Professional
  9. 3DMark Vantage



The first part of our testing regimen 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 10MB, 100MB and 500MB files and test the time needed to compress these files. Time will be measured in seconds.










In Apophysis, the Nehalem triplets just cleaned house over the previous generation Core2 processors. When the QX9770 and I7 965 are compared, there is a six minute difference in time to render the flame image. In the WinRAR testing there is not a whole lot to be seen at the 10MB level, When it comes to the 100MB and 500MB compression tests the Core I7 processors take less time to complete the required compression. The difference in performance is greater as the size of the file increases.



Specview 10 is a benchmark designed to test OpenGL performance. I will be using the multi-threaded tests to measure the performance when run in this mode. The tests used for comparison are listed below. The default multi-threaded tests were chosen to be able to compare across platforms. In these tests, higher scores equate to better performance. Since the E8400 is a Dual core CPU results will only be shown in the 2 thread test.















Higher is Better


Higher is Better




Higher is Better


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


The QX9770 is closest to the performance ofe the Core I7 processors. In Specview the newest architecture outperforms the old in almost every test with even the 2.66GHz 920 taking on the QX9770 and exceeding its performance. I'm sure the SSD drive helped in PCMark Vantage, but this would not account for the large margin in and of itself. So far the new technology is proving superior to the old.



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 areas of the motherboards.

















Processor Arithmetic


Multi-Core Efficiency


Memory Bandwidth


Memory Latency


Cache and Memory


File System


Physical Disks


Power Management Efficiency


Just having a fast Quad core processor is not enough when it comes time to compete with this new platform from Intel. Across the board the scores overwhelmingly favor the Core I7 processors. The drive scores show just what the benefits are for using the newest SSD drives in the way of speed.



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 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


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


Higher is Better



Lower is Better


The results in Sciencemark show that given identical clock speeds the I7 does more "work," resulting in a higher score. Cinebench has the X1 CPU scores following the clock speed scale, when running the multi thread test the Nehalem CPUs just pull away. Even the I7 920 is faster than the QX9770 here. The HDTune results show that the upside to having an SSD drive for your OS results in higher average read speeds and a reduced access time . This is at the cost of higher CPU usage. The access time for the Intel SSD drive was .1 seconds in outr testing and does not show accurately so it is mentioned here.



Crysis has been out for quite some time now. In that time, there's yet to be a single or multi-GPU setup that can fully showcase the graphics performance of the game.  The Crysis single player demo includes both CPU and GPU benchmarks to test the performance of your processor and video card.






















The I7s seem to hold a slight advantage in Crysis. Not much of a difference but a difference all the same. The massive performance gains seen on the system benchmarks have not appeared yet. But being that the I7 processors are based on the Core 2 Penryn processors there is not that much improvement to be had. But let's see how the gaming tests shake out.



PT Boats: Knights of the Sea is a new DX10 title that features its own proprietary graphics engine currently in development. The game is a combination of real time strategy and simulation. You have the ability to control the entire crew or just a single member. Play as the German, Russian or Allied navies and prove your mettle on the open seas.


The settings we will use are below:

















Again, this test shows the I7 Processors are right on target with the old technology. The only resolution that shows a significant advantage for the Nehalem chips is at 1024x768



BioShock is one of the creepier games out in the wild, chronicling the building of a perfect Utopian society undersea gone horribly wrong, with its inhabitants driven mad by 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 storyline, will wrap you up for hours on end.




















The QX9770 and Q9450 share the highest scores in Bioshock. Even overclocked the I7 CPUs only mange to compete against the stock Core 2 offerings. So far it's a toss up on the gaming performance on the Core I7 CPUs.



Call of Duty 4 : Modern Warfare is the successor to the Call of Duty crown. This iteration of the game is fought in many of the world's hot spots with modern armaments and firepower. You can play as either a U.S. Marine or British S.A.S. trooper. SInce this game does not feature an in-game test, I will run through a section of the game and measure average FPS using Fraps 2.9.3.


The settings used are listed below:

















The performance of the I7 CPUs is following along a predictable path here. Performance in this game is slightly behind the QX9770 and Q9450. The differential is not so great that it would be noticed in game. Overclocking closes the gap but not entirely.



World in Conflict: Released last year, World in Conflict is a Real Time Strategy game that simulates the all-out war the world hopes never comes. The difference in this RTS game is that it is not the typical "generate wealth and build" type of game. Instead, you advance by conquering your foe with limited opportunities to replenish your troops.


The settings we will use are listed below:


















Performance is pretty similar between the new and old processors in World in Conflict. This just means the new generation does not lose anything in the gaming arena.



Far Cry 2:

"Far Cry 2 has been on the horizon for a while now and is finally here. Featuring a new game engine named Dunia, this game looks to be another one to stress your video card. Built specially 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 fulfil 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 50km2 of the vast African continent to explore while in pursuit of your goals. This quick preview is meant as a first look and performance evaluation, so let's take a look at the game."








Again, performance is close when comparing the performance of the Core I7 with that of the Core 2 processors. Not having a loss in performance to the Core 2 CPUs is pretty amazing.


Benchmark: Company of Heroes (Opposing Fronts)

Company of Heroes (Opposing Fronts) is the latest chapter in the Company of Heroes series. The scene is WWII. The mission is Operation Market Garden, the first Allied attempt to break into the Third Reich. Play as the British or Germans. This real time strategy game is brought to us by Relic Entertainment.



















The maximum difference in performance between the two Extreme processors is four frames per second at 1920x1200. Other than that the difference is around two frames per second. Something that is unnoticeable in games.



3DMark06 is one of the benchmarks that always comes up when a bragging contest is begun. 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.




















In a head to head between the Extreme CPUs the I7 965 comes out on top in 3DMark06. The I7 920 is very competitive with the Q9450 across all four resolutions.



Just added to the OverclockersClub suite of benchmarks is the newest from Futuremark, 3DMark Vantage. 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.












In the entry test the I7 CPUs are the highest scoring. This test weighs the CPU heavier than the rest of the tests in this benchmark. Even so, the I7 965 comes out on top in all four presets.


In real world applications the Nehalem processors are a major step forward from the last generation processors from Intel. In applications that can use the additional memory bandwidth and cores the increase in performance is staggering. In the WinRAR testing it took the I7 965 30% less time to compress our 500MB reference file than the QX9770, this without the aid of the Turbo Boost feature. When comparing the I7 920 to the Q9450, the reduction in time to compress the same file was almost 27% less than the Q9450. Just gaining 10 or 15% worth of increase is huge without an increase to the clock speed of the processor. More work at the same speed equals a win in my book. The Cinebench scores were another area where using eight threads shows a nice bump in performance. Again, real world apps are where the performance increase will be. Now, if more work needs to be done the Turbo Boost technology, when enabled, will give your processor a nice boost, without touching a thing in the BIOS. This is accomplished by boosting the clock speed of multiple cores to accomplish the work. If more work needs to be done more cores come online to help out. Add this to the increase in bandwidth of almost three times that of the Core 2 processors and X48 based motherboards. Yes, three time the bandwidth. All of the base performance numbers can be increased above the level allowed with the Turbo Boost technology by overclocking. Yes, contrary to some rumors the Nehalem can be overclocked, even the lowly I7 920. With the I7 965 I was able to touch just above 4.0GHz but not stable enough to run my benchmarks that came at 3.97GHz. Temperatures were just a bit on the hot side at this level, even with the TRUE. Now the I7 920 was able to push the DX58SO to the baseclock limit on this board at 155MHz for a top speed of 3.1GHz. When dynamic overclocking was enabled this would result in a speed of 3.4GHZ but was subject to some throttling of the processor. Overclocking? Yes it does! I can't wait to see the performance on the major motherboard manufacturers' boards.

Many of the gamers in the world were expecting massive performance increases with this generation of processor. Well, sorry to disappoint. The good news is that it does not lose much in terms of performance when compared to the Core 2 processors. Why is this, you ask? Well, how many games are there that are multi-threaded and can actually use the additional CPU cores as a way to increase performance? How many times have you seen similarly clocked dual core vs. quad core comparisons where there is no real performance increase from the additional cores? Once the games are coded to make use of this CPU then there really will be something to talk about when it comes to game performance. But for the time being, multi-threaded applications will be where the biggest bang for the buck is. So where does that come into use for the home user? Well, how many times have you sat for an hour or more waiting for that DVD you made of your summer vacation to be encoded? Working with high definition content in this increasingly visual world we live in will be easier with programs that already utilize multiple threads. For those of you who run distributed computing projects, the additional four threads will allow more work to be done in a given time. Why is this something of value? Well, the project that OCC participates in is Folding @ Home, a project that helps search for cures for diseases such as Cancer, Alzheimer's, Mad Cow (BSE), Parkinson's, ALS and others. More work done in a set amount of time means that more results are compiled, hopefully finding some relief so that no one has to experience any of these dreadful diseases. With any new processor the pricing can seem to get out of hand. When the 45nm Q9450 was introduced the price was just under $400 for a 2.66GHz clock speed quad core CPU. The I7 920 goes for less than $300 at $284 bucks, with the I7 940 at $562 and the Extreme I7 965 at $999. The Extreme editions will always go for a premium but the 920 and 940 seem to be priced in the reasonable range, making them affordable for the Christmas buying season.

Offering massive performance increases for people who need their computers to "work" and not play, the Nehalem is just what the doctor ordered. Gaining time and productivity are the aim of a processor of this caliber. Making it a little greener always helps as well. Getting the work done faster for less energy consumed is where the future is headed. Welcome to the future.