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ISSUE 229 AUG 2009

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CPU steppings aren’t normally headline news. But as Jeremy Laird discovers, the latest minor makeover of Core i7 is a masterpiece

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What Core i7 needed was either a price cut or a big bump in performance. Joy of joys, it has received both. As you’ll discover in our extensive review and usage guide over the following four pages, the new Core i7 D0 stepping is a masterpiece. You’ll have to turn over the page to find out just how quick it is, but suffice to say we can scarcely remember another occasion when a minor stepping made such a big difference. To put it into context, the launch of a brand new CPU architecture often fails to deliver the kind of performance boost Intel has managed with a mere stepping. As for the pricing part of the equation, the cost of Core i7 chips themselves has dropped

only slightly. But everything else you need is now thankfully much more affordable – 6GB of speedy DDR3 memory can be bagged for just £60, for example, while quality Core i7 motherboards go for less than £150. Core i7, therefore, has finally come of age. It’s now so fast it makes the Core 2 look ancient and relegates AMD’s Phenom II to utter chump status. Make no mistake, we’re talking big numbers here, an advantage of 50 per cent or more over the competition. All of which means we’re upgrading our position on Core i7 to a firm ‘buy’ recommendation. If you care about computing, you need this chip in your life. To find out why, read on…

Illustration: Chris Hedley

ave you been struggling to get really excited about Intel’s Core i7 processor? If so, then you’re in pretty good company. Following the initial buzz of the launch, we too felt the post-party blues kick in. Yes, Core i7 was a masterful technical achievement, but Intel’s existing Core 2 chips were already pretty bloody quick as it was. Once you took overclocking into account, Core i7’s outright advantage simply wasn’t big enough to justify the punitive pricing.

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Core i7

£213/£800 PROCESSORS

INTEL CORE I7 920 D0 INTEL CORE I7 975 EXTREME Core i7 is calling your name… really, really quickly VITAL STATISTICS Intel Core i7 920 D0 Price £213 Manufacturer Intel Web tinyurl.com/a2p5jb Operating frequency 2.66GHz Transistor size 45nm silicon Memory support 1,066MHz tri-channel on-die controller Cache memory 4.8GT/s QPI Price check www.techradar. com/495040 Intel Core i7 975 EE Price £800 Manufacturer Intel Web tinyurl.com/a2p5jb Operating frequency 3.33GHz Transistor size 45nm silicon Memory support 1,066MHz tri-channel on-die controller Cache memory 4.8GT/s QPI Price check www.techradar. com/608481

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ore i7 is the quickest CPU in Christendom. It’s the chip you’d choose if money was no object. Of course, unless you happen to have a Westminster-style expense account, money very much is an object. In that context, the high cost of running Core i7 has hitherto been a deal breaker. The problem isn’t the price of the chip itself. The existing 2.66GHz Core i7 920 C0 stepping is pretty bearable at around £225. However, to that you must add the expense of a compatible motherboard. Currently, only Intel’s pricey X58 chipset will tango with Core i7. Consequently, board prices remain above £150. Meanwhile, AMD has closed the gap considerably with its new 45nm Phenom II processor. As good as Core i7 is, it just hasn’t felt like great value for money – until now. Because the first significant revision of the

Nehalem microarchitecture that underpins all Core i7 CPUs, known as the D0 stepping, has arrived. And it’s an absolute corker. Superficially, the new stepping changes nothing – it’s the same old Core i7. But that’s a bit unfair. The Core i7 is the most advanced PC processor you can buy. It’s a 45nm quad-core chip complete with an integrated triple-channel DDR3 memory controller and support for two software threads per core, courtesy of HyperThreading SMT technology. It’s not exactly short on features. Still, the absence of change is reflected in the fact that the revised Core i7 920 keeps its name and key spec, including the 2.66GHz clockspeed and 8MB of cache memory. Slightly more obvious are the new members of the Core i7 family, which utilise the tweaked core – namely the 950 and 975 Extreme Edition. We had our first

taste of the former last month, courtesy of a PC Specialist rig. It’s a 3.06GHz chip and usurps the old 2.93GHz 940 chip. The latter, meanwhile, is the new flagship of the range, yours for around £800 and rated at 3.33GHz baseline.

D0 you take this chip

But if there are no new features, what is the new D0 stepping all about? Fine tuning the internal layout of Nehalem for speed and efficiency, that’s what. It’s the sort of detailed, under-the-hood revision every CPU architecture is subjected to several times during its life. But in the case of the D0 stepping, the difference between old and new steps up and jabs you right in the chops. With the new stepping, Core i7 has gained a ludicrous thirst for clockspeed. When we first tested the Core i7 920, the one thing that disappointed was its relatively

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Technical analysis To make the most of a modern CPU, overclocking is now essential. It’s safer than ever before, too, so long as you take a few basic precautions and stick to standard voltages. In that context, we ran the latest Core i7 through our suite of application and gaming benchmarks both before and after overclocking. As the results show, the Core i7 is quick at standard settings, but it’s a total freak when you crank up the clocks.

Encoding performance X.246 HD encode

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“HOW DOES 3.95GHz GRAB YOU? THAT’S A MONSTER OVERCLOCK OF 1.3GHz” modest overclocking prowess. Not so the new 920. How does 3.95GHz on stock voltages grab you? That’s a monster overclock of nearly 1.3GHz. Crank up the voltages, bolt on a fat copper cooler and you can add several hundred MHz to that figure. The result is big performance and a total rejig of the performance processor landscape. For starters, the old 3.2GHz Core i7 965 Extreme Edition now looks utterly redundant. After all, it only managed 3.7GHz on stock voltages. Shockingly, pretty much the same argument applies to the overpriced 975 Extreme Edition. We could only squeeze 4GHz out of the 975 without voltage

tweakery, but the more important matchup involves processors further down the price range. Like AMD’s new 3.2GHz Phenom II X4 955 Black Edition. At standard clockspeeds, the Phenom is a plausible competitor. Yes, it’s slower across the board compared to the Core i7 920, but the gap is often as little as 15 per cent. Factor in overclocking, however, and the AMD chip enters a world of hurt. The Phenom II X4 955 only does 3.6GHz using standard voltage settings. So now the 920’s 600MHz disadvantage at stock operating frequencies becomes a 350MHz advantage when overclocked. That’s a turnaround of virtually 1GHz.

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Unsurprisingly, the Phenom simply can’t cope. The Core i7 is over 60 per cent faster in both our HD video encoding and gaming benchmarks. The best case scenario is professional rendering where it lags by around 40 per cent. The upshot of which is that you no longer have to engage in mental gymnastics to justify the Core i7’s much higher overall platform cost. It’s miles quicker and worth every penny, assuming you can afford it. With DDR3 prices rapidly falling of late, kitting out a Core i7 with the optimal 6GB of memory can now be achieved for under £80. Do so and you are buying into a relatively new platform and socket with a long life ahead of it. Just make absolutely sure you are buying the D0 stepping and not the old C0 chip. Anywho, we’ve been patiently waiting for the Core i7 to really come of age. That moment has arrived. ¤

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CORE I7 920 D0 Ridiculous overclocking headroom Preposterous performance Future-proof platform Motherboards and memory are costly With increased overclocking headroom, the D0 stepping makes the 920 a must-have.

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CORE I7 975 EXTREME The fastest CPU known to man Unclocked multiplier for easy overclocking Barely any quicker than the 920 Offensively over priced The quickest chip you can buy, but made to look thoroughly silly by its much cheaper sibling.

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The latest stepping of Intel’s Core i7 processor is something special. That much you’ll know from the review of the new D0 chips you’ve just read. Intel’s finest was already a technically awesome chip, of course. But thanks to a new-found thirst for overclocking, Core i7 920 in D0 trim has become a total speed junkie. It’s now so ridiculously quick, there’s only one conclusion we can draw: if you can afford it, buy it.

board with multiple PCI Express graphics sockets supports AMD’s Crossfire technology. However, in its wisdom, NVIDIA has chosen to charge board makers to allow the use of SLI. This means that SLI-compatible X58 motherboards typically demand a price premium. In the case of our Gigabyte GA-EX58-UD3R example, SLI support is a complicated matter. Officially, it’s not on the specification list. However, the BIOS from the more expensive SLI version of the board can be used to “unlock” the standard UD3R. Reports indicate that BIOS upgrades can unlock SLI compatibility for motherboards from several different manufacturers. But if you’re serious about SLI, we maintain it’s worth paying a little extra for a board with out-of-the-box support in return for absolute peace of mind, as well as long-term technical support.

CPU socket. At the very least it puts an insurmountable barrier across the upgrade path of Core i5 owners. The great thing about the Core i7 920, therefore, is that it’s on the bottom rung of the high-end ladder. It drops into the LGA 1,366 socket. That forms the basis of Intel’s performance platforms for the foreseeable future, so it’s a socket with legs. The next thing to do is completely ignore the other members of the Core i7 family. It’s not worth paying a single penny more than the typical £213 asking price for a 920 D0 chip. As our testing demonstrates, even the brand spanking 975 Extreme Edition, an £800 processor, is effectively no quicker when both chips have been overclocked. Now that you’ve committed to the 920, you’ll need a motherboard to match. The good news is that choosing

“Forget much of what you know about the old Intel Core 2 architecture. It simply doesn’t apply to Core i7” Incredibly simple advice for happy computing. Reality, sadly, is never quite so straightforward. Like any processor, Core i7 comes with its own little shopping list of foibles. It’s still a relatively novel architecture, so there’s a new overclocking rule book and unfamiliar BIOS options to get to grips with, not to mention a socket and chipset to befriend. Then there’s the funky triple-channel memory controller and overhauled platform partitioning to consider. In other words, forget much of what you know about the old Intel Core 2 architecture. It simply doesn’t apply to Core i7. As a bare minimum, you’re going to need a new motherboard, memory and CPU cooler. With that in mind, read on to find out everything you need to know about buying, configuring and generally making the most out of Intel’s cracking Core i7.

Low five

The first thing we recommend you do when buying into Core i7 is forget about the upcoming Core i5 processor, due out in September. It’s aimed squarely at the mainstream, uses a different socket and will do nothing in terms of performance to worry the Core i7. As it happens, we’re moderately peeved that Intel has chosen to split the desktop into two distinct platforms, each with its own 62

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a suitable chipset is simple. With NVIDIA unwilling or unable to license the Core i7 bus, the only compatible chipset is Intel’s own X58. The bad news is that it’s not cheap and, with no alternatives on offer, Intel isn’t under any pressure to lower prices. Nevertheless, while it’s still possible to pay more than £250 for an X58 board, prices have been edging ever lower in recent months. A decent X58 board can be now be secured for under £150, though you’ll have to make compromises in some areas. Gigabyte’s GA-EX58-UD3R is a good example. For starters, it has only four memory slots, which restricts your options for populating the Core i7’s three memory channels. You can’t go for two smaller, cheaper memory DIMMs per channel. In practice, you’re almost always better off with a single, larger DIMM per channel, so that’s not a major drawback. For the record, four slots also limit you to a 16GB maximum rather than the 24GB of six-slot boards. Again, no biggie. Similarly, the UD3R is short on PCI Express 16-lane slots. It makes do with a pair while pricier boards often have three. But then the odds you’ll want to install three graphics cards are slim to none. Two graphics cards, frankly, are plenty. Where things get a little more complicated is support for the two major multi-GPU platforms. Any X58

Below Overclocking a Core i7 doesn’t occur in isolation to the rest of the system

BIOS fear

Whatever your attitude to multi-GPU might be, however, one thing you definitely mustn’t skimp on when selecting a motherboard is BIOS configurability. That’s because successfully clocking the twangers off a Core i7 processor doesn’t just depend on the chip itself – it has a very real knock-on effect on the rest of the system that you need to be aware of. Firstly, the immediate effect of any increase in clockspeed will be a bump

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Core i7

in the frequency of the QPI bus and, in turn, the northbridge features, sometimes known as the “uncore” in a Core i7, on the chip itself. Fortunately, the 920 has a modest 4.8GT/s frequency compared with the 6.4GT/s specification of the Extreme Edition chips, so there’s plenty of headroom. Even so, clocking a 920 to around 4GHz results in a QPI rate of 7.2GT/s and a northbridge frequency of 3.8GHz, either of which can potentially cause stability problems. The solution is adjustments made to the QPI link speed and uncore frequency in the BIOS. As a good rule of thumb, if you’re having difficulties hitting your target overclock, knock these down a couple of notches and try again. It’s a similar scenario with system memory. All other things left unchanged, memory frequencies go up in line with the CPU base speed when overclocking. Using our 4GHz CPU clockspeed example, the standard 1,066MHz memory frequency jumps to 1,600MHz. Fine if you have high-end DIMMs tuned for such frequencies, not so great if you’ve dropped in the cheapest DDR3 sticks you could find. Once again, it’s the BIOS that comes to the rescue in the form of memory divider or ratio settings. Specific implementations vary, but you should be able to get within 150MHz of the optimal frequency of your DIMMs and therefore take memory out of the equation as a limiting factor. In that

sense, we don’t see any need for really high-end memory for a Core i7 system. So long as you have all three channels populated, you’re laughing. However, we would recommend you stick to the bigger memory brands and thereby reduce possible compatibility problems. Oh, and we reckon that 6GB is the sweet spot for Core i7 configs. 3GB doesn’t quite cut it.

Feel the power

The final pieces of the puzzle are power supplies and coolers. While there are no hard and fast rules here, we wouldn’t be comfortable with anything less than a quality 650W power supply. Admittedly, Core i7 is a relatively power-efficient architecture. And we’ve found the latest stepping clocks up nicely without the need to boost voltages. In our testing, there was little or no increase in power draw when we ramped up the clockspeed from 2.66GHz to nearly 4GHz. But what appears to run smoothly may actually be putting terminal strain on your power supply. It’s a similar story with CPU coolers. You may not have any problems getting a Core i7 chip running quickly with a cheapo heatsink and fan. But why risk long-term problems by running your precious chip at uncomfortably high

Getting within 150MHz of the optimal frequency of your DIMMs should be possible Below Invest in a quality copper cooler, like this Zalman, to protect your chip

temperatures for the sake of £20 or so? Core i7 is the world’s finest processor and it deserves a decent cooler, preferably one hewn from cool-running copper. All of which just leaves space for a quick recap. Firstly, stick with the 920 chip; the more expensive models cost more but give you nothing. Don’t take risks with exotic or unknown motherboards. An entry-level board from one of the big brands will have all the important BIOS options. Likewise, don’t overspend on memory. Running exotic DDR3 at monsters has very little impact on performance. And don’t forget to strap on a quality copper cooler. But most of all, do yourself a favour, sod the recession and give yourself the gift of the world’s finest and fastest processor. ¤

Price of performance What’ll Core i7 cost you? You’ve read the reviews. You’ve heard the pitch. But what you want is a simple number. How much will Core i7 cost you? The answer is at least £450. Yes, we realise that’s a pretty hefty sum and we certainly don’t make this recommendation lightly – especially with the UK in economic meltdown. But trust us, it really is worth it. Not only does Core i7 blow away everything else on the market, but if you buy one today you’ll be setting yourself up for several years. The LGA 1,366 socket is brand new and the X58 chipset with its triple-channel memory support has epic headroom. Anywho, the breakdown for that £450 figure goes something like this… First up is the motherboard. Gigabyte’s GA-EX58-UD3R is a safe choice with proven overclocking chops – it’s yours for around £140. Then you’ll need some memory. The OCZ Gold 6GB is a nice little 3x2GB kit that’s specifically

optimised for Core i7. It’s a snip at £63. A quality cooler such as the Zalman CNPS7500CU, will set you back a mere £30 (plus £6 for the LGA1366 bracket). Finally, you’ll need that all-important Core i7 920 D0 chip for £213. Of course, all this assumes you already have a decent 650W power supply, some kind of case, a hard drive and a decent video card to hand. As for operating systems, the purchase of some Core i7 kit is as good an excuse as any to upgrade to Windows 7. The new release candidate is super stable, freely available from Microsoft and is good until March 1st 2010. Plenty of time to save up for a full licence, in other words. Finally, it’s worth noting that some online retailers are doing some interesting deals on Core i7 bundles. Overclockers.co.uk does a preconfigured 4GHz overclocked solution, complete with a high-end X58

motherboard, 6GB of 1,600MHz DDR3, a decent cooler and a squirt of thermal paste for £584. Not cheap by any means, but possibly worth it for guaranteed 4GHz performance.

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Core i7 comes of age  

Have you been struggling to get really excited about Intel’s Core i7 processor? If so, then you’re in pretty good company. Following the ini...

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