First Look: Intel's Nehalem Smashes Performance Thresholds

The Test Center has reviewed evaluation units of the chip giant's latest processors and motherboards over the past several weeks. Early results show nearly historic levels of improvement over previous generations of processors.

Intel, Santa Clara, Calif., made the evaluation units available to reviewers ahead of the platform's official launch, which is expected to happen later this month. ("Nehalem" is actually the former code-name of the platform, which includes its new Core i7 CPUs and X58 motherboards.)

Considered by some to have the most significant new architectural changes since the Pentium Pro, the microarchitecture will include future variants for server and mobile applications.

The Test Center took a first look at the Core i7-965 Extreme Edition, installed in Intel's "SmackOver" motherboard, the DX58SO Extreme Series.

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Along with the DX58SO, our test kit included three Qimonda 1 GB memory modules, and a Thermalright Ultra-120 eXtreme cooling solution. An 80 GB, Intel High Performance SATA SSD was also supplied. After assembling the system, reviewers updated the BIOS to the latest version and installed Windows Vista Ultimate on the drive, followed by all drivers and updates.

From the moment the power was turned on, it was obvious that this was a fast machine. A complete boot of Vista took only 43 seconds from the time the power button was pressed and most of this time (27 seconds) was actually in the POST phase of the boot. From the moment Windows started loading, the OS was completely booted in just 16 seconds. Power draw was elevated from what we are used to seeing on our typical testbeds, averaging about 90 watts while idle and fluctuating between 130 and 180 watts when placed under load. This didn't come as much of a surprise since the three processors are spec'd at 130W TDP.

But this system wasn't designed to conserve energy, although the increase in consumption was not drastic. Using our standard benchmarking tool, Primate Labs' GeekBench2, our Extreme system, with everything still at the default settings, scored an incredibly high 7998. (With some modest overclocking - - we didn't want to overdo it - - the score was pushed higher to 8524, and we have no doubt that if we were even more aggressive, the bar would be elevated even more.)

How does that compare to other computing solutions?

This CPU and configuration scored the highest marks the Test Center has ever recorded on Geekbench; the next-highest score, 7429, came from an IBM eServer BladeCenter system that ran dual Xeons.

In addition to the Extreme version, under the Core i7 umbrella Intel has a Performance version, and a Mainstream version (respectively, the Core i7-940, and the Core i7-920). The extreme Core i7-965 version has an unlocked clock multiplier and runs, out of the box, at 3.20 Ghz. The i7-940 has a 2.93 Ghz clock, while the i7-920 is a 2.66 Ghz processor. All three are Quad-Core devices capable of eight threads (two threads per core). Future iterations will include six and eight cores, also each with two threads per core.

A potential issue for some VARs and system builders with Intel inventory: the Core i7 ushers in yet another socket profile, this time called Socket B (aka LGA1366). In conjunction with the Core i7, Intel is also releasing the new X58 chipset. Among other things, since Nehalem processors have integrated memory controllers, the X58 does not have a memory interface. The integrated memory controllers have support for three channels of DDR3 1066 memory, but can only handle memory rated up to 1.6 V. As Intel warns, memory rated above 1.6 V can damage the processor.

The X58 also incorporates QuickPath Interconnect (QPI), Intel's latest system interconnect design, which increases bandwidth and lowers latency. Some additional features include High Definition audio, Matrix Storage Technology with support for RAID 0, 1, 5, and 10, and a PCI Express Interface with support for dual x16 and up to quad x8 graphic card configurations, or any combinations in between.

First impressions of the Nehalem microarchitecture after early testing: very positive. Many component manufacturers are waiting in the wings, ready to whip out their latest and greatest products based on the new chips, and we're excited at the possibilities the near future will bring. Additionally, although no official launch dates have been announced, server processors built on Nehalem are expected early in 2009, with mobile versions to follow some time in the second half of next year.

In thousand unit quantities, per-pricing for the latest CPUs is $999 for the Core i7-965 Extreme Edition, $562 for the Core i7-940, and $284 for Core i7-920.