Intel Core i7: Nehalem Launched

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There was never any doubt that the Core i7 would be the new fastest processor family for the desktop. With all the changes in the new architecture, it's somewhat surprising that the increase in performance is evolutionary, not revolutionary. For more extensive performance benchmarks, check out the reviews at The Tech Report, Anandtech, and X-bit Labs. They concur that Core i7 is the new king of desktops, garnering about 20% more performance than equivalently clocked Core 2's (Turbo mode aside). However, the best gains are experienced with professional level applications written to take advantage of the Core i7's new feature and instruction set.

The improvements to the core, namely the integrated memory controller and QPI, will allow Nehalem processors to scale very well as more cores are added and clock speed increased, and reduce overhead in multi-processor environments like servers. For the average desktop user, Core i7 isn't going to provided dramatic improvements. Part of the problem may be that Core 2 was such a huge improvement over Pentium 4 and Pentium D, that we are somewhat spoiled — we expect a leap in performance with every a new generation of processors, and Core 2 is pretty darn fast to begin with. The changes made were necessary, however, for a base from which Intel can improve further.

In terms of power efficiency, Core i7 is at least equal to its predecessor for typical desktop applications. The extra performance it delivers more or less justifies the increased power usage. The new power management system however may not work exactly as intended — it's hard to tell exactly what is going on with each core. There's little question that Core i7's idle power consumption is equal to Core 2, regardless of how that's achieveed.

The higher peak power consumption is probably what prompted Intel to increase the size of the heatsink mounting pattern, to accommodate larger coolers. The default installation method still involves push-pins. This is too bad — the last thing we need is bigger, heavier heatsinks that mount with push-pins. The inclusion of a metal back plate for the CPU is welcome, however, somewhat mitigating the push-pins: You won't have to worry about the PCB bending, only the push-pins completely failing and popping off.

Bloomfield delivers better performance than Yorkfield, but it is not enough to offset the additional costs involved in a platform change for most desktop users. DDR3 memory is twice the price of DDR2 and X58 is the only compatible chipset. The DX58SO will debut at around $300, and even the cheapest of the i7s, the 920, will probably retail for at least $300. Until memory prices drop and cheaper, mainstream chipsets are released, it's a lot to pay unless the absolute highest level of performance is required and/or money is no object. As usual early adopters will pay a heavy tax for the latest and greatest — especially for the $1,000 3.2Ghz version.

For silent computing enthusiasts, the Core i7 isn't really a step forward, what with the promise of higher performance at the price of higher thermals, which may cost a decibel or two. But it's not a step back, either, as the lessons learned by silencers during the era of overheating P4s remain, and the thermal design of the new platform appears good enough to allow quiet cooling as with today's top socket 775 systems. In short, the increased socket size and heatsink area are mostly benefits, especially for lower TDP Core i7 processors that will surely come down the pipeline. Most of us will wait for the technology to flow down to those ranks — or be content with Core 2, which will likely remain in production for some time to come.

Our thanks to Intel, QiMonda, and Thermalright for the various samples.

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Articles of Related Interest
Core i7 News
Intel Developers Forum, Fall 2008
Desktop CPU Power Survey, April 2006

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