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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  • Th3Eagle - Monday, November 3, 2008 - link

    I wonder how close you came to those temperatures while overclocking these processors.

    The 920 to 3.6/3.8 is a nice overclock but I wonder what you mean by proper cooling and how close you came to crossing the 80C "boundary"?
    Reply
  • Gary Key - Monday, November 3, 2008 - link

    "The 920 to 3.6/3.8 is a nice overclock but I wonder what you mean by proper cooling and how close you came to crossing the 80C "boundary"?"

    It was actually quite easy to do with the retail cooler, in fact in our multi-task test playing back a BD title while encoding a BD title, the core temps hit 98C. Cinebench multi-core test and OCCT both had the core temps hit 100C at various points. Our tests were in a closed case loaded out with a couple of HD4870 cards, two optical drives, three hard drives, and two case fans.

    Proper cooling (something we will cover shortly) consisted of the Thermalright Xtreme120, Vigor Monsoon II, and Cooler Master V8 along with the Freezone Elite. We were able to keep temps under 70C with a full load on air and around 45C with the Freezone unit.
    Reply
  • Th3Eagle - Tuesday, November 4, 2008 - link

    Wow, thats interesting. Can't wait to see the new article. Always nice to see an article about coolers.

    Thanks for the reply.
    Reply
  • Anand Lal Shimpi - Monday, November 3, 2008 - link

    Gary did the i7-920 tests so I'll let him chime in there, we're also working on an overclocking guide that should help address some of these concerns.

    -A
    Reply
  • whatthehey - Monday, November 3, 2008 - link

    Tom's? You might as well reference HardOCP....

    Okay, THG sometimes gets things right, but I've seen far too many "expose" articles where they talk about the end of the world to take them seriously. Ever since the i820 chipset fiasco, they seem to think everything is a big deal that needs a whistle blower.

    Anandtech got 3.8GHz with an i7-920, and I would assume due diligence in performance testing (i.e. it's not just POSTing, but actually running benchmarks and showing a performance improvement). I'm still running an overclocked Q6600, though, and the 3.6GHz I've hit is really far more than I need most of the time. I should probalby run at 3.0GHz and shave 50-100W from my power use instead. But it's winter now, and with snow outside it's nice to have a little space heater by my feet!
    Reply
  • The0ne - Monday, November 3, 2008 - link

    TomHardware and Anandtech were the one websites I visited 13 years ago during my college years. Tom's has since been pushed far down the list of "to visit sites" mainly due to their poor articles and their ad littered, poorly designed website. If you have any type of no-script enable there's quite a bit to enable to have the website working. The video commentary is a joke as they're not professionals to get the job done professionally...visually anyhow.

    Anandtech has stayed true to it's root and although I find some articles a bit confusing I don't mind them at all. Example of this are camera reviews :)
    Reply
  • GaryJohnson - Monday, November 3, 2008 - link

    Geez, calling a core 2 a space heater. How soon we forget prescott... Reply
  • JarredWalton - Monday, November 3, 2008 - link

    I think overclocked Core 2 Quad is still very capable of rating as a space heater. The chips can easily use upwards of 150W when overclocked, which if memory serves is far more than any of the Prescott chips did. After all, we didn't see 1000W PSUs back in the Prescott era, and in fact I had a 350W PSU running a Pentium D 920 at 3.4 GHz without any trouble. :-) Reply
  • Griswold - Tuesday, November 4, 2008 - link

    Funny comparison. If it was just for the space heater arguments sake (well, 150W is by far not enough to qualify as a real space heater to be honest), I could follow you but saying the 150W of a 4 core, more-IPC-than-any-P4-can-ever-dream-of, processor should or could be compared to the wattage of the infamous thermonuclear furnace AKA prescott, is a bit of a long stretch, dont you think? :p Reply
  • Ryan Smith - Monday, November 3, 2008 - link

    Intel can call it supercalifragilisticexpialidocious until they're blue in the face, but take it from a local, it's Neh-Hay-Lem. Just see how it's pronounced in this news segment:

    http://www.katu.com/outdoors/3902731.html?video=YH...">http://www.katu.com/outdoors/3902731.html?video=YH...
    Reply

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