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Intel's Core i7 Value: To Buy or Not to Buy?

written by: M.S. Smith•edited by: J. F. Amprimoz•updated: 5/22/2011

With the release of the Core i7, geeks everywhere are celebrating the release of one of the most interesting processors to come from Intel since the first dual-cores hit the market. But are these power new chips worth the premium?

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    Core i7: What's New?

    The release of the Core i7 has long been anticipated by hardware gurus across the globe. Intel has firmly established itself as the leader of the desktop processor industry, and their lead over its primary competitor, AMD, has shown no sign of shrinking. When Intel announced it's new architecture, code-named Nehalem, the world took notice. Not only because Intel's newest offerings tend to represent the fastest processors that money can buy, but also because Intel was significantly changing the way the processor works.

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    So what has changed?

    Perhaps the most important change was the integration of the memory controller onto the processor. The memory controller is, as you might expect, in charge of deciding how your computer uses it available memory. Putting it onto the processor reduces latency, or the amount of time it takes for data to get from one place to another. This means that the Core i7 processor is particularly fast at tasks that require a great deal of memory bandwidth.

    Another important change is the re-introduction of Hyperthreading. Hyperthreading essentially causes your computer to treat one core as two. So if you have a four-core processor - and all current Core i7 processors have four cores - then your computer will act as if it has eight cores. Now, since most day-to-day programs don't use more than a single core, the advantage of Hyper-threading isn't going to be obvious when searching the web, or even when playing games. However, professional applications such as 3D rendering software can use it to great effect.

    Core i7 also supports only DDR3 SDRAM, the newest RAM standard to come along. DDR3 offers more memory bandwidth than DDR2, which means that more data can be transferred at a time. Again, this doesn't matter greatly in day-to-day applications, but when doing heavier lifting, like image processing, it can be quite helpful. Also, Core i7 so far uses triple-channel memory, which means you'll be typically wanting to install RAM in sets of three, not two. This again increases memory bandwidth. Core i7 processors and motherboards using dual-channel memory will debut in the second half of 2009.

    And that isn't all. The list of changes which Intel has crammed into their new architecture it too small to fit into this article, but other Brighthub articles provide a more in-depth discussion of scalability and the new cache design.

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    Performance: What Do You Really Need?

    The result of these major changes, as well as the many smaller modifications, is a significant boost in performance in some applications. In fact, the Core i7 can be up to 50% faster than previous Core 2 based processors. That is a massive gain in performance.

    But there is a problem; the words up to. The Core i7 has incredible potential, but the truth is many users may never tap into even half of its maximum potential. This is a piece of wisdom that we've heard since the days of the Core architecture, which is now considered a dinosaur. But its never been as relevant as now. As one of our earlier Core i7 articles argued, and as benchmarks from review website the Tech Report show, performance in professional-grade programs such as Cinebench can be improved by as much as 30-40%. However, some other programs, such as video games, do not typically use more than two cores, and also aren't restricted by memory bandwidth. As a result, Core i7 does not offer as great of a performance increase.

    What this means is the anwser to the question "Should I buy A Core i7 Processor?" depends heavily on what you use your computer for. The more you use programs that can take advantage of multiple cores or increased memory bandwidth, the more often you'll be getting the most out of your Core i7 processor.

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    Of Mobos and Memory

    Looking at benchmarks of the Core i7 processor may have made you decide that you're okay forking out the premium required to purchase a cutting-edge processor. After all, the slowest Core i7 920 can, in some situations, best the fastest Core 2 processors, and it only costs $300 dollars. That isn't cheap, but for a cutting-edge microprocessor, its a bargain. Afterall, an Intel Core 2 Quad with a similar clock speed is only thirty dollars less!

    Considering the performance increase you may see from a Core i7 processor, the decision may seem like a no-brainer even if you don't often use software that will maximize the Core i7's performance. Not only will you receive a faster processor for your money, but you also get the bragging rights that come along with buying the latest and greatest hardware.

    Ah, but wait - there is more to this story. As I said earlier, the Core i7 processor is only compatible with DDR3 RAM, and while DDR3 is the future, it still hasn't seen wide-spread adoption. This is because up until now, DDR3 RAM hasn't been widely supported by motherboard manufactures, and processors have worked fine using slower, cheaper DDR2 RAM. As a result, DDR3 RAM is still a premium product, and is very expensive to buy.

    And there is more bad news for the value shopper. Not only does Core i7 adopt a new, more expensive memory standard, but it also adopts a new socket with 1366 pins, unlike the old Core 2 chips which used 775 pins. So far the new socket is only available on one motherboard chipset, the X58. The X58 is a premium chipset, aimed at power-users and hardcore enthusiasts with no concern for cost.

    In summary, buying a Core i7 means paying for not only a premium, cutting-edge processor, but for a cutting edge motherboard and RAM kit. The problem with this is that while the Core i7 offers enough performance to justify its price, the motherboard and RAM do not.

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    The Verdict: To Buy or Not To Buy?

    If you're a value shopper, its hard to suggest a new Core i7 processor. While the processor itself is not a bad value, and is often a better value than high-end Core 2 Quad processors, the Core i7 comes tied down to an extremely expensive chipset and RAM standard. For your average user, neither the chipset or the RAM are necessities, and they won't provide any additional performance increase. In other words, your paying a lot of money and getting nothing in return. Value shoppers looking for high performance at a reasonable price will be better served by purchasing a fast Core 2 Dual-Core processor, like an E8400. The E8400 will perform just as well as any Core i7 in many applications, and you can put together an entire Core 2 based system, monitor and all, for the cost of a Core i7, an X58 motherboard, and a kit of DDR3 RAM.

    The only exception to the rule applies to true power users and professionals. The Core i7 may be expensive, but in some cases it is 40% quicker than a Core 2 Quad. If you or your company uses advanced software like Cinebench for work, then time saved means increased productivity. In those situations, the Core i7 can be a smart investment.

    Intel says that it will be releasing new, cheaper chipsets in the middle of 2009, along with less expensive Core i7 products. Its also a fair bet that DDR3 prices will decrease, as manufactures finally begin to ramp up production. Unless you're a professional who needs every second, the smart money is on patience - but if you want to know more before making a decision, visit this series which covers every detail of the Nehalem architecture.

Intel Core i5 and i7 Performance Review

How do Intel's Core i5 and i7 processors stand up in performance? These articles explore their performance in gaming, productivity, and workstation applications.
  1. Core i5: Early Performance Results
  2. Nehalem Xeons And The Future of Core i7,i5, and i3
  3. Intel's Core i7 Value: To Buy or Not to Buy?