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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  • anand4happy - Sunday, February 08, 2009 - link

    saw many thing but this is the thing something dfferent

    sd4us.blogspot.com/2009/01/intel-viivintel-975x-express-955x.html
    Reply
  • nidhoggr - Monday, November 10, 2008 - link

    I cant find that information on the test setup page. Reply
  • nidhoggr - Monday, November 10, 2008 - link

    test not text :) Reply
  • puffpio - Wednesday, November 05, 2008 - link

    would you guys consider rebenchmarking?
    from the x264 changelog since the nehalem specific optimizations:
    "Overall speed improvement with Nehalem vs Penryn at the same clock speed is around 40%."
    Reply
  • anartik - Wednesday, November 05, 2008 - link

    Good review and better than Tom's overall. However Tom's stumbled on something that changed my mind about gaming with Nehalem. While Anand's testing shows minimal performance gains (and came to the not good for games conclusion) Tom's approached it with 1-4 GPU's SLI or Crossfire. All I can say is the performance gains with Nvidia cards in SLI was stunning. Maybe the platform favors SLI or Nvidia had a driver advantage in licensing SLI to Intel. Either way Nehalem and SLI smoked ATI and the current 3.2 extreme quad across the board. Reply
  • dani31 - Wednesday, November 05, 2008 - link

    I know it would't change any conclusion, but since we discuss bleeding edge Intel hardware it would have been nice to see the same in the AMD testbed.

    Using a SB600 mobo (instead of the acclaimed SB750) and an old set of drivers makes it look like the AMD numbers were simply pasted from an old article.
    Reply
  • Casper42 - Tuesday, November 04, 2008 - link

    Something I think you guys missed in your article/conslusion is the fact that we're now able to pair a great CPU with a pretty damn good North/South Bridge AND SLI.

    I found that the 680/780/790 featureset is plainly lacking and that the Intel ICH9R/10R seems to always perform better and has more features. If any doubt, look at Matrix RAID vs nVidia's RAID. Night and day difference, especially with RAID5.

    The problem with the X38/X48 was you got a great board but were effectively locked into ATI for high end Gaming.

    Now we have the best of both worlds. You get ICH10R, a very well performing CPU (even the 920 beats most of the Intel Quad Core lineup) AND you can run 1/2/3 nVidia GPUs on the machine. In my opinion, this is a winning combination.


    The only downside I see is board designs seem to suck more and more.

    With socket 1366 being so massive and 6 DIMM slots on the Enthusiast/Gamer boards, we're seeing not only 6 expansion slots (down from the standard of 7) but in most boards I have seen pics of, the top slot is an x1 so they can wedge it next to the x58 IOH which means your left with only 5 slots for other cards. Using 3 dual slot cards is out of the question without a massive 10 slot case (of which there are only like 3-5 on the market) and even if you can wedge 2 or 3 dual slot cards into the machine, you have almost zero expansion card slots should you ever need them.

    Then we get to all the cooling crap surrounding the CPU. ALL these designs rely on a top down traditional cooler and if you decide to use a highly effective tower cooling solution, all the little heatsink fins on the Northbridge and pwer regulators around the CPU get very little or no airflow. Now your in there adding puny little 40/60mm fans that produce more noise than airflow, not to mention that the DIMMs are hardly ever cooled in today's board designs.
    Call me a cooling purist if you will, but I much prefer traditional front to back airflow and all this side intake top exhaust stuff just makes me cringe. I personally run a Tyan Thunder K8WE with 2 Hyper6+ coolers and the procs and RAM are all cooled front to back. Intake and exhaust are 120mm and I have a bit of an air channel in which that airflow never goes near the expansion card slots below, which by the way have a 92mm fan up front pushing air in across the drives and another 92mm fan clipped onto the expansion slots in the back pulling it back out.

    I dont know how to resolve these issues, but I think someone surely needs to because IMHO its getting out of control.
    Reply
  • lemonadesoda - Tuesday, November 04, 2008 - link

    "Looking at POV-Ray we see a 30% increase in performance for a 12% increase in total system power consumption, that more than exceeds Intel's 2:1 rule for performance improvement vs. increase in power consumption."

    You cant use "total system power", but must make the best estimate of CPU power draw. Why? Because imagine if you had a system with 6 sticks of RAM, 4 HDDs, etc. you would have ever increasing power figures that would make the ratio of increased power consumption (a/b) smaller and smaller!

    If you take your figures and subtract (a guestimate of) 100W for non CPU power draw, then you DONT get the Intel 2:1 ratio at all!

    The figures need revisiting.
    Reply
  • AnnonymousCoward - Thursday, November 06, 2008 - link

    Performance vs power appears to linearly increase with HT. Using the 100W figure for non-CPU draw means a 25% power increase, which is close to the 30% performance.

    Unless we're talking about servers, I think looking at power draw per application is silly. Just do idle power, load power, and maybe some kind of flops/watt benchmark just for fun.
    Reply
  • silversound - Tuesday, November 04, 2008 - link

    great article, tomsharware reviews always pro intel and nvidia, not sure if they got pay $ to suppot them. anandtech is always neutral, thx! Reply

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