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Intel Core i9 7980XE & Core i9 7960X Review

Price: Core i9 7980XE $1999, Core i9 7960X $1699

Intel Core i9 7980XE & Core i9 7960X Introduction:

Just three months ago we got a look at the latest HEDT processors from Intel starting with the Skylake X Core i9 7900X, the first in the Core i9 series, followed by the Kaby Lake X Core i7 7740X. What I saw was that the Skylake X i9 7900X delivered performance that was better than last year's high-end desktop (HEDT) champ the Core i7 6950X while the Core i7 7740X pretty much matched up with its socket 1151-based contemporary the Core i7 7700K. These processors were part of the opening retort to the salvo AMD fired with the Ryzen processor lineup that hit at all the price and performance points Intel was sitting unchallenged at in a big way.

At this point, Intel started the Skylake X lineup launch with just a few of the processors in the lineup ready to go at that time. Presumably to let AMD get another roll started to see just how much that Intel would have to bring to the table in this ever-evolving display of brinksmanship. AMD continued its disruptive roll and delivered the Threadripper processors to mostly positive reviews. Ryzen proved to be more than anyone imagined, save for those plowing away in AMD's skunkworks. Threadripper is here, and now again Intel is firing back with the rest of the Core i9 lineup, including the 12 core i9 7920X, the 14 core i9 7940X, and the two processors I will be looking at today: the 16 core i9 7960X and the top-of-the-food-chain i9 7980XE 18 core / 36 thread processor.

Taking a look at this chart, we see that this launch fleshes out the Skylake X and Kaby Lake X processors for use on X299 Basin Falls-based motherboards. What we get is a total of nine processors from this family with SKU's that match up core for core with the best that AMD has brought to the table with 8, 12, and 16 core SKU's, as well as the beast of the bunch, the 18 core i9 7980XE. Whereas the 16 core from AMD is going to cost you right around $1000, the same core count is going to cost you about $700 more for an Intel processor. If you want to move up even further to the 18 core / 36 thread beast it will cost you a cool $2000.

Surely there is a price to pay for performance. The key is whether AMD has done enough to rein in the pricing Intel has enjoyed over the past few years without any competition of note.  Let's dig into the specifications on these processors before we see just what they can do.



Intel Core i9 7980XE & Core i9 7960X Closer Look:

Without looking at the designations etched onto the lid of the heat spreader, you would not be able to tell one from the other. However similar they appear, it's under the hood where you will find the differences. To be clear, the processor on the left is the Core i9 7980XE, while the one to the right is the Core i9 7960X. The front of each integrated heat spreader has the SKU number and base core clock speed listed. The components are on the back side of these two behemoths. The back side of each processor is identical as far as I can tell from these images and a deeper look at the processors. 

These new processors are designed and built to be used in Intel's latest X299 High-End Desktop socket 2066 platform. The Core i9 7980XE and Core i9 7960X are both built using the 14nm Skylake architecture. The Core i9 7080XE is the highest core count consumer desktop processor that the company has released, with 18 cores supporting Hyper-Threading for 36 threads. The baseline core clock speed is a low 2.6GHz with a Turbo Boost 2.0 clock speed of 4.2GHz using the two best cores  Turbo Boost 3.0 technology increases the boost clock speed to 4.4GHz for lightly threaded or single thread applications. Memory support sees a boost in the supported memory speeds from a dual-channel DDR4 2400MHz to a quad-channel DDR4 2666MHz rating using up to 128GB of DDR4 memory. The TDP rating of this processor is 165 watts, although overclocking surely crushes that number when overvolting and boosting clock speeds well in excess of the 2.6GHz base core speed.  

The Skylake X-based Core i9 7960X comes with two fewer cores than the Core i9 7980X and matches the AMD Threadripper 1950X core count of 16 cores to address 32 threads via Hyper-Threading. With two fewer cores to power, Intel was able to bump the core clock speed up from 2.60GHz to 2.80GHz. However, the Turbo Boost 2.0 clock speed of 4.2GHz and Turbo Boost 3.0 core clock speed of 4.4GHz stay unchanged.

Intel made some changes to the architecture. Internally, we see that Intel has gone from a traditional ring bus layout to connect the physical cores and cache to Intel's 2D mesh architecture that improves inter-core performance. Another of the big changes to the processor is Intel's Smart Cache re-balancing that delivers a four-fold increase in L2 cache from 256KB per core to 1MB per core, with the L3 cache at 22MB for the i9 7960X and 24.75MB on the 18 core i9 7980XE. PCIe lane count on the X299 platform is dependant on the processor you choose and ranges from 16 lanes on the i5 and i7 Kaby Lake processors to 28 on the i7 78xx SKU's and the Core i9 79xx SKU's get a total of 44 PCIe lanes. Compared to the 60+4 arrangement on AMD's Threadripper and X399 platform, some would say that we are getting sold a little short on PCIe bandwidth.  



To use these latest Core i9 processors, you will need to step up and purchase a socket 2066 motherboard based on Intel's X299 Basin Falls Chipset. For this review, we will be using a motherboard out of MSI's product stack to showcase the performance of the Core i9 7980XE and the Core i9 7960X processors. MSI's X299 XPOWER Gaming AC sits at the top of the product stack as its most capable motherboard for this platform. Built on an overclocking ready PCB, this board comes with a host of overclocking features, including MSI's Turbo Socket, an all-digital 12+1+1 power delivery circuit, and more. Look for an upcoming review on this board. 



Needless to say, I am excited to see where the performance path of these two processors goes and, more importantly, where can they be overclocked to without hitting a massive thermal wall. Out of the box, these chips carry the lowest clock speeds of any processor in my comparison list, but come with the highest overall core counts. It should be interesting to see what kind of impact the lower core speed has on performance, even in heavily threaded benchmarks. Let's see what happens.

  1. Intel Core i9 7980XE & Core i9 7960X: Introduction & Closer Look
  2. Intel Core i9 7980XE & Core i9 7960X: Specifications & Features
  3. Intel Core i9 7980XE & Core i9 7960X Testing: Setup & Overclocking
  4. Intel Core i9 7980XE & Core i9 7960X Testing: Apophysis, WinRAR, Bibble 5, Geekbench 4
  5. Intel Core i9 7980XE & Core i9 7960X Testing: Office 2016, POV Ray, Proshow Gold, Handbrake
  6. Intel Core i9 7980XE & Core i9 7960X Testing: SiSoft Sandra, AIDA 64
  7. Intel Core i9 7980XE & Core i9 7960X Testing: Cinebench R15, HW Bot X.265 Benchmark, PCMark 8.2
  8. Intel Core i9 7980XE & Core i9 7960X Testing: Gaming, Threadripper 1950X Quick Compare
  9. Intel Core i9 7980XE & Core i9 7960X: Conclusion
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