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Intel challenges AMD 'Black' chips with new K-Series

Intel unveils its first mainstream CPUs with unlocked clock multipliers


Despite trailing Intel in chip-for-chip performance over the past few years, AMD has still kept a measure enthusiasts love with its "Black Edition" desktop chips. Unlike Intel's generally stand-offish stance toward overclocking, the Black Edition Athlon and Phenom chips have provided the DIY and boutique PC crowd with a cost-effective, user-friendly means to increased PC performance. Intel's new K-Series CPUs, announced today, show that Intel sees value in that same market, and wants a piece of the action.

The K-Series launches with just two desktop CPUs, the $342 2.93GHz Core i7-875K, and the $216 3.2GHz Core i5-655K. The 875-K CPU is a four-core/eight-thread chip (via HyperThreading), and the 655K is a dual-core/four-thread chip. Both fall under the Lynnfield class of Intel's Nehalem architecture, and as such work on the LGA1566 CPU socket, found on Intel's P55, H55, and H57 motherboard chipsets.

Falcon Northwest's Talon features a liquid-cooled Core i7 875-K overclocked to 4GHz. Sarah Tew/CNET

What the K-Series brings to these new CPUs is the ability to overclock the individual CPU cores and memory frequencies. This method allows for more granular control than the bus-overclocking method commonly used with older Intel CPUs, such as the previous overclocker's favorite, the Core i7 920. With bus clocking, you end up applying one change that affects all of your components. With unlocked core multipliers, you have far more control, and can build your system accordingly.

Intel isn't specifying exactly what clock speeds you should expect to hit with the new unlocked chips. As always, overclocking also voids the warranty, so tweak at your own risk. Given the auto-overclocking TurboBoost feature (which you can also overclock in the K-Series) already built into most Core i7, Core i5, and Core i3 CPUs, though, it's safe to assume they all have a decent amount of headroom. Top-end speeds will vary from chip to chip, but one indicator we have is a Falcon Northwest Talon we tested. Its Core i7 875-K came overclocked from 2.93GHz to just over 4GHz.

We certainly applaud Intel for finally embracing the overclocker market outside of its $1,000 Extreme Edition CPUs (the only other unlocked Intel CPU). We expect that the DIY crowd will embrace this news with enthusiasm, since Intel's CPUs tend to be faster out of the box than those from AMD of a similar price. It also puts a damper on one of the features AMD could point to that enthusiasts still appreciated. In our Talon review we found that though the overclocking was effective and stable, it didn't surpass the performance of PCs with older Intel CPUs overclocked via the old bus-clocking method. Even if overclocking doesn't provide dramatic performance gains to the boutique system builders, they, and their customers, will still appreciate the improved simplicity and stability gained from being able to manage the voltages, memory frequencies, and CPU clock speeds independently.

Falcon Northwest Talon