Is Nehalem Efficient?

At this year's IDF in San Francisco, Intel revealed a little discussed but extremely important aspect of Nehalem's circuit design:

The Nehalem design is Intel's first microprocessor in the past two decades to feature absolutely no domino logic, it's a fully static CMOS design. I've explained the differences between dynamic domino and static CMOS design in the past, but simply put: domino logic is used as a clock speed play. It's incredibly useful in implementing very high speed circuit paths on a chip and hit its all time peak in Intel's usage in the Pentium 4 days. The downside to using such high speed logic is that it requires a lot of power, but in microprocessor design there are always tradeoffs to be made.


There are many other energy efficiency plays within Nehalem

In Nehalem, Intel took the new architecture as an opportunity to revamp its design, went in and removed all remaining domino logic - but without impacting the peak clock speed of the architecture. The tradeoff here is one of die size, by using more parallel logic Intel was able to convert some serial, high speed paths, into larger, slower circuits that removed the need for domino logic. Details are unfortunately light and a bit beyond the scope of this review, but the move to an all static CMOS design is bound to reduce power consumption. Do you smell a comparison coming?

Both Nehalem and Penryn are built on the same 45nm process, available at the same clock speeds and capable of running the very same applications. In theory, Nehalem should be more power efficient, at the same clock speed, across the board thanks to its static CMOS design. To find out I measured average power consumption over the duration of a handful of benchmarks I used in this review.

Performance POV-Ray 3.7 Cinebench XCPU x264 HD Crysis
Intel Core 2 Quad Q9450 (Penryn - 2.66GHz) 2238 PPS 11502 CBMarks 61.5 fps 34.0 fps
Intel Core i7-920 (Nehalem - 2.66GHz) 3528 PPS 16211 CBMarks 74.8 fps 33.2 fps
Nehalem Performance Advantage 57.6% 40.9% 21.6% -2%

 

I picked these four benchmarks because they show us the range of Nehalem's performance, going from no performance improvement all the way up to a gain of nearly 60%. Now let's look at the power consumption in each of these four benchmarks:

Power Consumption POV-Ray 3.7 Cinebench XCPU x264 HD Crysis
Intel Core 2 Quad Q9450 (Penryn - 2.66GHz) 168.1W 175.2W 167.5W 220.8W
Intel Core i7-920 (Nehalem - 2.66GHz) 202.2W 208.6W 176.6W 230.8W
Nehalem Power Disadvantage +34.1W +33.4W +9.1W +10W

 

If you actually go through and do the math you'll find that Nehalem, despite using more power, is more efficient than Penryn. Performance per watt is around 24% better in POV-Ray, 15.5% better in Cinebench and 13% better in the x264 HD test. Crysis, the only benchmark where Nehalem actually falls behind, does require more power and thus Nehalem loses the efficiency battle there.

It seems as if Nehalem is even more polarizing than I had though. Despite the move to a fully static CMOS design, the changes aren't enough to make up for the scenario where Nehalem can't offer more performance; power consumption still goes up, albeit not terribly.

It's also worth noting that the power comparison really depends on the CPU used, here we've got the same comparison but with the Core i7-965 vs. the Core 2 Extreme QX9770, both clocked at 3.2GHz:

Performance POV-Ray 3.7 Cinebench R10 - XCPU x264 HD Crysis
Intel Core 2 Extreme QX9770 (Penryn - 3.2GHz) 2641 PPS 14065 CBMarks 73.2 fps 41.7 fps
Intel Core i7-965 (Nehalem - 3.2GHz) 4202 PPS 18810 CBMarks 85.8 fps 40.5 fps

 

Power Consumption POV-Ray 3.7 Cinebench R10 - XCPU x264 HD Crysis
Intel Core 2 Extreme QX9770 (Penryn - 3.2GHz) 230.7W 227.6W 230.3W 293.6W
Intel Core i7-965 (Nehalem - 3.2GHz) 233.7W 230.7W 196.2W 248.5W

 

It's tough to draw any conclusions based on two CPUs, but it is possible that at higher clock speeds Nehalem's efficiency advantage kicks in. The QX9770 has always been a bit high on the power consumption side, whereas the i7-965, even in situations where it is slower than the QX9770, offers better power efficiency here.

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  • npp - Tuesday, November 04, 2008 - link

    Well, the funny thing is THG got it all messed up, again - they posted a large "CRIPPLED OVERCKLOCKING" article yesterday, and today I saw a kind of apology from them - they seem to have overlooked a simple BIOS switch that prevents the load through the CPU from rising above 100A. Having a month to prepare the launch article, they didn't even bother to tweak the BIOS a bit. That's why I'm not taking their articles seriously, not because they are biased towards Intel ot AMD - they are simply not up to the standars (especially those here @anandtech). Reply
  • gvaley - Tuesday, November 04, 2008 - link

    Now give us those 64-bit benchmarks. We already knew that Core i7 will be faster than Core 2, we even knew how much faster.
    Now, it was expected that 64-bit performance will be better on Core i7 that on Core 2. Is that true? Draw a parallel between the following:

    Performance jump from 32- to 64-bit on Core 2
    vs.
    Performance jump from 32- to 64-bit on Core i7
    vs.
    Performance jump from 32- to 64-bit on Phenom
    Reply
  • badboy4dee - Tuesday, November 04, 2008 - link

    and what's those numbers on the charts there? Are they frames per second? high is better then if thats what they are. Charts need more detail or explanation to them dude!

    TSM
    Reply
  • MarchTheMonth - Tuesday, November 04, 2008 - link

    I don't believe I saw this anywhere else, but the spots for the cooler on the Mobo, they the same as like the LGA 775, i.e. can we use (non-Intel) coolers that exist now for the new socket? Reply
  • marc1000 - Tuesday, November 04, 2008 - link

    no, the new socket is different. the holes are 80mm far from each other, on socket 775 it was 72mm away. Reply
  • Agitated - Tuesday, November 04, 2008 - link

    Any info on whether these parts provide an improvement on virtualized workloads or maybe what the various vm companies have planned for optimizing their current software for nehalem? Reply
  • yyrkoon - Tuesday, November 04, 2008 - link

    Either I am not reading things correctly, or the 130W TDP does not look promising for the end user such as myself that requires/wants a low powered high performance CPU.

    The future in my book is using less power, not more, and Intel does not right now seem to be going in this direction. To top things off, the performance increase does not seem to be enough to justify this power increase.

    Being completely off grid(100% solar / wind power), there seem to be very few options . . . I would like to see this change. Right now as it stands, sticking with the older architecture seems to make more sense.
    Reply
  • 3DoubleD - Tuesday, November 04, 2008 - link

    130W TDP isn't much worse for previous generations of quad core processors which were ~100W TDP. Also, TDP isn't a measure of power usage, but of the required thermal dissipation of a system to maintain an operating temperature below an set value (eg. Tjmax). So if Tjmax is lower for i7 processors than it is for past quad cores, it may use the same amount of power, but have a higher TDP requirement. The article indicates that power draw has increased, but usually with a large increase in performance. Page 9 of the article has determined that this chip has a greater performance/watt than its predecessors by a significant margin.

    If you are looking for something that is extremely low power, you shouldn't be looking at a quad core processor. Go buy a laptop (or an EeePC-type laptop with an Atom processor). Intel has kept true to its promise of 2% performance increase for every 1% power increase (eg. a higher performance per watt value).

    Also, you would probably save more power overall if you just hibernate your computer when you aren't using it.
    Reply
  • Comdrpopnfresh - Monday, November 03, 2008 - link

    Do differing cores have access to another's L2? Is it directly, through QPI, or through L3?
    Also, is the L2 inclusive in the L3; does the L3 contain the L2 data?
    Reply
  • xipo - Monday, November 03, 2008 - link

    I know games are not the strong area of nehalem, but there are 2 games i'd like to see tested. Unreal T. 3 and Half Life 2 E2.. just to know how does nehalem handles those 2 engines ;D Reply

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