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The Core i7 980X - Six Cores of Bliss
Traditionally the Intel Extreme Edition processors have simply been the highest clocked versions of their currently available processors. However, there are a few instances where the Extreme Edition brand has been used to really push the cutting edge of technology made available by Intel. Intel did this with dual core processors when they released the Intel Pentium 4 840 Extreme Edition, the company's first dual core. And now they are doing it again with the Core i7 980X, the company's - and the world's - first consumer six core part.
That's pretty extreme. But does the Core i7 980X result in a tangible performance increase, or is it just for show? Let's find out.
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By and large there are few general productivity applications which will see much of an improvement from an extremely fast processor. The basic task of typing a document in Microsoft Office can be accomplished by the least powerful processors sold today. There are some common usages, however - such as compressing and encrypting files - which benefit from faster processors.
In these situations the Core i7 980X can result in a tangible performance benefit. The most striking benchmark is the Truecrypt performance test. In this test the Core i7 980X dominates all other options achieving scores 50% higher than the older quad-core Core i7 975 Extreme Edition. The performance gaps are much smaller in file compression tests - typically ten percent or below - but still favor the Core i7 980X.
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Games are typically not too processor dependent, but modern games are getting better at taking advantage of multiple cores. The Core i7 980X also features a very aggressive usage of Turbo Boost which should help it in games that only really task a single core.
The combination of Turbo Boost and the multiple cores seems to have done its job, because there is nary a gaming test where the Core i7 980X doesn't dominate. However, it should also be said that gaming performance of the Core i7 980X isn't much better than the gaming performance of even a Core i5 750 or a Phenom II 965. The fact is that gaming is at this point in time even less demanding on a processor than unzipping a file or running an encryption program. The difference between a mid-range processor and the Core i7 980X often comes down to two or three frames per second.
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3D Rendering/Media Editing Performance
This is where things get interesting. 3D rendering, high-definition video encoding and image processing are processor dependent tasks and the programs used to perform them are optimized for multiple cores.
The results are staggering. Remember, the Core i7 980X has hyper-threading, so it appears as a 12 core processor to applications. In image processing benchmarks such as Panorama Factory the Core i7 980X typically has a 20% performance lead over the Core i7 975. That lead opens up to between 20% and 40% when encoding x264 high-definition video and jumps to a staggering 50% or more in Cinebench 3D rendering benchmarks.
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The implications of this processor can't be overstated. The level of performance the Core i7 980X is capable of when used with programs that can use a processor with six cores and twelve threads is staggering. This is also not as theoretical of a performance gap as you find in gaming and in productivity software. The ability to unzip a file 10% or 20% faster may mean the process happens 5 seconds quickly. In gaming the difference of a few frames per second between one processor and the next isn't even noticeable with out a framerate counter active.
But increasing performance by up to 50% in a 3D rendering program can literally take an hour of the completion of a project. Even a 20% increase can shave fifteen minutes there or half an hour there. This benefit is magnified by the fact that the people and companies using these sorts of programs are generally in a business. Decreasing the time it takes to render a complex 3D scene means money saved.
The Core i7 980X is an amazing piece of hardware. With that said, you don't really need one unless Cinebench benchmarks turn you on. The Core i7 980X is faster in productivity applications and in games, but the difference between it and a Core i7 750 is so slim that you'd probably never notice in a blind test. Until the average program becomes better at taking advantage of multiple threads this will remain the case.