Final Words

Expecting a sequel to be a reincarnation of the original is just setting yourself up for disappointment. A good sequel will be able to stand on its own, independent of whatever may have come before it. Nehalem is Intel's Dark Knight, it lacks the reinvention that made Conroe so incredible, but it continues what was started in 2006.

The Core i7's general purpose performance is solid, you're looking at a 5 - 10% increase in general application performance at the same clock speeds as Penryn. Where Nehalem really succeeds however is in anything involving video encoding or 3D rendering, the performance gains there are easily in the 20 - 40% range. Part of the performance boost here is due to Hyper Threading, but the on-die memory controller and architectural tweaks are just as responsible for driving Intel's performance through the roof.

The iTunes results do paint a downside to Nehalem, there are going to be some situations where Intel's new architecture doesn't offer a performance advantage over its predecessor. If you're not doing a lot of 3D rendering or video encoding work and you already have a Core 2 Quad, the upgrade to Nehalem won't be worth it. If you're still stuck on a Pentium 4 or something similarly slow by today's standards, a jump to Nehalem would be warranted.

Gaming performance is actually better than expected for Nehalem, there were enough cases where the new architecture pulled ahead despite its very small L2 cache that I wouldn't mind recommending it for gamers. In most GPU limited situations however you won't see any performance improvement, at least with today's GPUs, over Penryn.

While posting some very impressive performance gains, Nehalem is nearly as much about efficiency. Hyper Threading alone delivers a 0 - 30% increase in performance at a 0 - 15% increase in power consumption; the problem is that Nehalem's efficiency is only as good as its performance and in those areas where Nehalem can't outperform Penryn, its power efficiency suffers.

I can't help but wonder if what we saw with the QX9770 is indicative of a larger Nehalem advantage, if Penryn's power consumption truly does increase dramatically as clock speed goes up, while Nehalem is able to reel it back in. If that is indeed the case, then Nehalem is even more important for the future of the Core microarchitecture than I originally thought. You could consider it the reverse-Prescott in that case, if its design choices are meant to keep power consumption under control as clock speed ramps up.

It seems odd debating over the usefulness of a processor that can easily offer a 20 - 40% increase in performance, the issue is that the advantages are very specific in their nature. While Conroe reset the entire board, Nehalem is very targeted in where it improves performance the most. That is one benefit of the tick-tock model however, if Intel was too aggressive (or conservative?) with this design then it only needs to last two years before it's replaced with something else. I am guessing that once Intel moves to 32nm however, L2 cache sizes will increase once more and perhaps bring greater performance to all applications.

Quite possibly the biggest threat to Nehalem is that, even at the low end, $284 is a good amount for a microprocessor these days. You can now purchase AMD's entire product line for less than $180 and the cost of entry to a Q9550 is going to be lower, at least at the start, than a Core i7 product. There's no denying that the Core i7 is the fastest thing to close out 2008, but you may find that it's not the most efficient use of money. The first X58 motherboards aren't going to be cheap and you're stuck using more expensive DDR3 memory. If you're running applications where Nehalem shines (e.g. video encoding, 3D rendering) then the ticket price is likely worth it, if you're not then the ~10% general performance improvement won't make financial sense.

It also remains to be seen what will happen to the Nehalem market once Intel introduces the LGA-1156 version next year for lower price points. By introducing a $284 part this early Intel appears to be courting the Q6600/Q9450/Q9550 buyers to the LGA-1366 platform, which would mean that the two-channel Nehalems are strictly value parts and perhaps there won't be much fragmentation in the market as a result.

Intel has two thirds of the perfect trifecta here. Nehalem brings the ability to work on more threads at a time, redefining video encoding and 3D rendering performance, its SSDs shook the storage world, that just leaves Larrabee...

Gaming Performance
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  • sprockkets - Monday, November 3, 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 6, 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 3, 2008 - link

    Yes. I have the PS2 keyboard on-hand in case my USB keyboard can't get in :) Reply
  • Strid - Monday, November 3, 2008 - link

    Ahh, makes sense. Thanks for clarifying! Reply
  • Genx87 - Monday, November 3, 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 4, 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 3, 2008 - link

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

    Why the handicap?
    Reply
  • Anand Lal Shimpi - Monday, November 3, 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 3, 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 3, 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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