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.

Thread It Like Its Hot Turbo Mode: Gimmicky or Useful?
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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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