Saturday, November 22, 2008

How good is the Intel i7 CPU?

I have been testing all three i7 chips for the past week on an Intel-provided DX58SO Express Chipset motherboard.

For enthusiasts, I used 3GB of QIMONDA 3 x 1GB DDR3 1067 RAM and a Thermalright Ultra-120 eXtreme RT CPU cooling fan. I used my previous Windows XP and Vista hard drives and the NVIDIA GTX 8800 graphics card and compared my computer's overall performance against Intel's previous hottest CPU, the Core 2 Extreme Processor QX9770, also running at 3.2 GHz like the new i7 Extreme 965. The QX9770, generally not available in stores, was running on a X48-based Asus motherboard.

A few extra features on the X58 motherboard include the ability for it to easily run ATI CrossFire dual graphics cards as well as NVIDIA SLI dual cards. The Extreme CPU's advantage, over the slower 920 and 940 i7 CPUs, besides a 50 per cent faster 6.4 Gigatransfers (billion transfers of data per second), is that it comes  unlocked and can be over-clocked until is simply stops running. Sweet! Overclocking tests were not done here.

Although I ran most my tests on the top new i7 chip, online reviews have verified that the slower and cheaper i7 940 and 920 ran about 8 and 16 per cent slower than the i7 965 CPU, mentioned below.

Which was faster, the now older QX9770 or the new i7 965?

Despite the i7's smaller cache - 8 MB versus 12 MB, slower internal BUS speed - 1066 MHz versus 1,600 MHz and smaller transistor count - 731 million versus 820 million, it averaged 20 per cent faster.  Some applications already tuned for multiple-core processing, ran up to 30 per cent faster - the biggest performance jump in a new Intel chip release. Photoshop users can see a 30  per cent speed improvement, as I did, running an action multi-editing benchmark.

-Computer start-up times were 19 per cent faster across the board and multiple open applications responded noticeably faster, but I can't honestly say I noticed faster computing going online or typing documents.

-Running a graphics-intensive game like Far Cry 2 saw a 14 per cent gain in speed while Apple iTune encoding saw less than 9 per cent improvement.

-Microsoft Flight Simulator X, an unusually CPU-intensive game and known memory hogger, saw a huge frame-rate gain of 27 per cent.

-Multimedia programs saw the largest gain, especially video editing programs and 3D rendering test programs like Cine Bench 10 with speed gains from 20 to 27 per cent.

-Compression programs like Winrar, gained a 17 per cent advantage.

-In most specialty multi-purpose benchmark tests, like Sandra's 2008 processor Arithmetic Dhrystone,  Wheatstone and Multimedia Floating Point, even the lower i7 920 beat out the older Extreme QX9770 by an average of 25 per cent, clearly making the wide price ranging new chips perform better than the best older and still more expensive chips.

Expect to see X58 motherboards from Asus, Gigabyte, MSI, among others, averaging $400 CDN, twice as expensive as consumer motherboards.

One interesting footnote: Intel included a solid state drive which showed noticeable gains on any testing. A challenging Photoshop action file running series of batch instructions ran 55 per cent faster that the same i7 chip running on a better than average conventional Sata spinning platter drive.

Video: See the powerful Intel i7 CPU used in an instant 3D demo which uses 14 video cameras to track a live human subject.

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