Turbo Mode: Gimmicky or Useful?

I refuse to make any further references to the Turbo buttons on PCs from the 80s and early 90s in this section :)

Intel's Core 2 processors have historically been quite overclockable, however most users don't overclock and thus they get no benefit from the added headroom in Intel's chips. Enthusiasts obviously benefit and get the performance of the best CPUs at much lower price points thanks to overclocking, but the rest of the world has all of this untapped power sitting under their heatsinks.

Varying clock speed according to system demands and temperature is nothing new, but it's predominantly done in the downward direction. At idle periods CPU clock speeds are dropped, when temperature limits are reached the same also happens, but why not boost clock speed when conditions are ideal?

This is exactly what Intel's Turbo mode does. Originally introduced on mobile Penryn, Turbo mode simply increases the operating frequency of the processor if conditions are cool enough for the CPU to run at the higher frequency. On mobile Penryn we only saw a frequency jump if one core was idle, but with Nehalem's Turbo mode all four cores can overclock themselves if temperatures are cool enough.

Each Nehalem can run its four cores at up to 133MHz higher than the stock frequency (e.g. 3.33GHz in the case of the 3.2GHz 965 model), or if only one core is active then it can run at up to 266MHz higher than stock (3.46GHz up from 3.2GHz).

I measured the impact of Nehalem's Turbo mode on the top bin Core i7-965, which runs at 3.2GHz by default but can ratchet up to 3.33GHz or 3.46GHz depending on whether the workload is single or multi-threaded:

  POV-Ray 3.7 3dsmax 9 SPECapc CPU Rendering Composite x264 HD Benchmark (Pass 1 / Pass 2) iTunes WAV to MP3 Convert iTunes WAV to AAC Convert (Single Threaded)
Intel Core i7-965 (3.2GHz, Turbo OFF) 4017 PPS 17.1 82.7 fps / 30.4 fps 27.1 seconds 34.1 seconds
Intel Core i7-965 (3.2GHz, Turbo ON) 4202 PPS 17.6 85.8 fps / 31.6 fps 26.4 seconds 32.8 seconds
Performance Advantage 4.6% 2.8% 4.6% 4.1% 3.8%

 

At best we should see a 4ish % increase in performance and the fact that POV-Ray shows us something greater than that tells us that Turbo mode works (and we're within the 1 - 2% margin of error of the test). Surprisingly enough, all of the multi-threaded tests had no problems using Turbo mode to their benefit giving us a 3 - 4% increase in performance thanks to the corresponding increase in clock speed. The AAC iTunes test is important as it is single-threaded, but despite the larger increase in clock speed performance didn't seem to improve any more.


Our Turbo testbed

Now these tests were conducted on an open-air testbench with an aftermarket cooler by Thermalright, we wondered what would happen if we used a retail Intel HSF and stuck the Core i7 in a system with a Radeon HD 4870 and a 1200W PSU. The CPU actually ran a lot warmer and Turbo Mode never engaged, pretty much as expected.

With Nehalem it may be worth investing in one of these oversized heatsinks, even if you're not overclocking, you'll get a couple of extra percent in the performance department if you can keep the cores cool.

Is Nehalem Efficient? The Chipset - Meet Intel's X58
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  • sprockkets - Monday, November 03, 2008 - link

    No, USB legacy support is for support during boot up and for the time you need input before an OS takes control of the system. However, as already mentioned, sometimes USB keyboards just don't work in a BIOS at startup for one reason or another, and in my opinion, this means they should NEVER get rid of the old PS/2 port.

    I ran into this problem with a Shuttle XPC with the G33 chipset, which had no ps/2 ports on it. There was a 50/50 chance it would not work.
    Reply
  • Clauzii - Thursday, November 06, 2008 - link

    I still use PS/2. None of the USB keyboards I've borrowed or tried out would work in 'boot'. Also I think a PS/2 keyboard/mouse don't lag so much, maybe because it has it's own non-shared interrupt line.

    But I can see a problem with PS/2 in the future, with keyboards like the Art Lebedev ones. When that technology gets more pocket friendly I'd gladly like to see upgraded but still dedicated keyboard/mouse connectors.
    Reply
  • The0ne - Monday, November 03, 2008 - link

    Yes. I have the PS2 keyboard on-hand in case my USB keyboard can't get in :) Reply
  • Strid - Monday, November 03, 2008 - link

    Ahh, makes sense. Thanks for clarifying! Reply
  • Genx87 - Monday, November 03, 2008 - link

    After living through the hell that were ATI drivers back in 2003-2004 on a 9600 Pro AIW. I didnt learn and I plopped money down on a 4850 and have had terrible driver quality since. More BSOD from the ati driver than I have had in windows in the past 5 years combined from anything. Back to Nvidia for me when I get a chance.

    That said this review is pretty much what I expected after reading the preview article in August. They are really trying to recapture market in the 4 socket space. A place where AMD has been able to do well. This chip is designed for server work. Ill pick one up after my E8400 runs out of steam.
    Reply
  • Griswold - Tuesday, November 04, 2008 - link

    You're just not clever enough to setup your system properly. I have two indentical systems sitting here side by side with the only difference being the video card (HD3870 in one and a 8800GT in the other) and the box with the nvidia cards gives me order of magnitude more headaches due to crashing driver. While that also happens on the 3870 machine now and then, its nowehere nearly as often. But the best part: none of the produces a BSOD. That is why I know you're most likely the culprit (the alternative is faulty hardware or a pathetic overclock). Reply
  • Lord 666 - Monday, November 03, 2008 - link

    The stock speed of a Q9550 is 2.83ghz, not 2.66qhz.

    Why the handicap?
    Reply
  • Anand Lal Shimpi - Monday, November 03, 2008 - link

    My mistake, it was a Q9450 that was used. The Q9550 label was from an earlier version of the spreadsheet that got canned due to time constraints. I wanted a clock-for-clock comparison with the i7-920 which runs at 2.66GHz.

    Take care,
    Anand
    Reply
  • faxon - Monday, November 03, 2008 - link

    toms hardware published an article detailing that there would be a cap on how high you are allowed to clock your part before it would downclock it back to stock. since this is an integrated par of the core, you can only turn it off/up/down if they unlock it. the limit was supposedly a 130watt thermal dissipation mark. what effect did this have in your tests on overclocking the 920? Reply
  • Gary Key - Monday, November 03, 2008 - link

    We have not had any problems clocking our 920 to the 3.6GHz~3.8GHz level with proper cooling. The 920, 940, and 965 will all clock down as core temps increase above the 80C level. We noticed half step decreases above 80C or so and watched our core multipliers throttle down to as low as 5.5 when core temps exceeded 90C and then increase back to normal as temperatures were lowered.

    This occurred with stock voltages or with the VCore set to 1.5V, it was dependent on thermals, not voltages or clock speeds in our tests. That said, I am still running a battery of tests on the 920 right now, but I have not seen an artificial cap yet. That does not mean it might not exist, just that we have not triggered it yet.

    I will try the 920 on the Intel board that Toms used this morning to see if it operates any differently than the ASUS and MSI boards.
    Reply

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