It's a "tick" year for Intel. If you follow processors, you'll know that means any new Intel chips in 2007 will lay the foundation for major advances to come, but won't introduce any game-changing leaps in performance like those you see in a "tock" year. Intel's new Core 2 Extreme QX9650 quad-core CPU represents that "tick." It's the first of what's sure to be a flood of Intel chips manufactured with a more power-efficient method. The result actually does bring some performance gains over Intel's previous flagship processor, making the very high-end QX9650 the performance CPU of choice when it hits the street on November 12, with an expected price of $999. You would still be reasonable to wait for Intel's 2008 "tock" chips, or even AMD's forthcoming quad-core chips, due out in a few months. But if you need a new PC now for gaming, digital-media creation, or other processor-intensive purposes, this is the CPU we'd choose to anchor that system.
The general implication of a "tick" is that it signals a move to a new manufacturing process. Intel built all of its previous Core 2 Duo, Core 2 Quad, and Core 2 Extreme chips with a 65-nanometer (nm) design, nanometers referring to the size of an individual transistor on each chip. The QX9650 is the first consumer CPU built with a 45nm design, which allows room for more transistors and thus more processing capability than a 65nm chip. The smaller process also means less space between the transistors, so the electrical current that flows between them doesn't need to travel as far, which makes the 45nm chips more power efficient. They also generate less heat, since it doesn't need as much energy to do the same amount of work as a 65nm chip.
With the generally more-efficient design, Intel has made the QX9650 an improved chip over this summer's 65nm Core 2 Extreme QX6850. Here's a rundown of their basic specs:
|Intel Core 2 Extreme QX9650||Intel Core 2 Extreme QX6850|
|L2 cache||2 x 6MB||2 x 4MB|
The more-efficient design of the QX9650 let Intel give its new chip a larger pool of L2 cache to draw from. The cache is basically a way station for data to be processed. The more each chip can bite off at once, the less time it has to spend acquiring the date in the first place. The results are immediate performance gains for the newer CPU across all of CNET Labs benchmark tests.
|Rendering multiple CPUs||Rendering a single CPU|
|1,024x768, low-quality, no AA/AF|
In addition to the faster raw performance right now, the Core 2 Extreme QX9650 also has a few new features on it that really won't make a difference until the software catches up with them. Intel's long-standing Streaming SIMD instructions, which aid in audio, video and 3D processing, get an update to version 4.0. Intel has also added special, application-specific tweaks for improving pattern recognition and confirming the integrity of data transfers between a PC and networked storage devices. However interesting these features might be, they're impossible for us to test as we currently have no software to put them to use.
You can expect to see mainstream Core 2 Duo and Core 2 Quad chips with the 45nm design hit the market in the next few months, likely around the time of CES 2008. AMD is also scheduled to unveil its next-generation Phenom dual- and quad-core chips over the next few months. That means it shouldn't be too long before Intel's new design trickles down to everyday PCs, and also that the processor market is due for a fresh jolt of competitive energy. We expect that Apple is paying very close attention to these new chips as well.
Editor's note: Thanks to Asus who provided with two of its new Maximus Formula Special Edition X38 motherboards for testing.
Test bed configuration:
Windows Vista Ultimate; Asus Maximus Formula motherboard using the Intel X38 chipset; 2GB Crucial Ballistix 1,066MHz DDR2 SDRAM; 512MB ATI Radeon HD 2900 XT graphics card; 74GB Western Digital Raptor 10,000 Serial ATA hard drive