Intel i9-7980XE & i9-7960X Performance Review

by Michael "SKYMTL" Hoenig     |     September 24, 2017

So here we are on the eve of yet another ultra high end Intel processor launch and while thereís been the usual stress and navel gazing at results, one thing is certain: the rapid fire pace of recent CPU introductions has injected some much-needed excitement into a somewhat stale segment. While the sundering of Mooreís Law led to developmental stagnation, things have started to pick up pace once again. From Skylake-E, to AMDís Ryzen, Threadripper and the upcoming Coffee Lake S chips the last few months have certainly been interesting ones. And now we are finally being treated to the best Intel has to offer the High End Desktop market: their 18 core i9-7980XE and 16 core i9-7960X.

Now before you start spewing hate in the comment thread of this review, letís understand one salient fact: the i9-series are meant to appeal to creative professionals or mega taskers who run multiple programs in parallel. They are priced higher than most sane people would pay for a whole gaming system but for the right buyer the extreme amount of money invested will pay dividends. Processors with mega core counts such as these are ponderous, slow behemoths that can chew through multi threaded workloads like no oneís business but theyíre universally poor gaming companions. I said the same thing about gaming in the Threadripper review and what was true then is just as true now.

While thereís a saying which states competition breeds excellence, Intel had precious little wiggle room when it came to aligning with AMDís Threadripper. In an effort to head AMDís own HEDT plans off at the pass, they announced pricing for their full lineup of HEDT X-series chips despite not revealing all of their specifications. It was an interesting play that may have done little to quell the fires of interest for Threadripper. Essentially Intel took a chance by setting their table before knowing what was going to be served as a main course.

Regardless of how things played out, the Skylake-X lineup now has some serious technological muscle behind it, headlined by the i9-7980XE and an eye-watering price of two grand. This monster 18 core, 36 thread processor offers four more threads than AMDís Ryzen Threadripper 1950X while boasting a theoretical TDP thatís a good 15W lower. Note however that 165W TDP isnít directly translatable to true power consumption but more on that later on. Letís just say for now this is one power hungry CPU.

Due to the fact that Intel had to carefully manage power consumption and thermals on such a massive die, frequencies suffer when all the cores are fully engaged. This has led to an extremely low Base clock of just 2.6GHz while the two Turbo modes Ėwhich are enabled when the chip isnít operating under full load- are more respectable and range from 4.2GHz to 4.4GHz. Meanwhile, the cache partitioning remains constant on a per-core basis with 24.75MB being accessible. While this may not seem like all that much cache compared to previous generations, Intelís updated hierarchy and internal access speeds means these partitions are accessed quicker and more efficiently than before.

Move about $300 down-market and the next processor on Intelís HEDT stepladder we come to is the i9-7960X. Like its sibling this also happens to be one of the most expensive CPUís ever released and boy does it have big shoes to fill. Whereas the 7980XE lives in some Never Never Land with its 36ís threads, the 32 thread 7960X finds itself competing directly against the identically endowed Ryzen Threadripper 1950X. This will be a battle to watch here since Intel is asking buyers to pay a hefty $600 premium Ėor roughly the cost of a GTX 1080 Ti- for a processor that could be no faster than what the competition is offering. Considering respective platform costs are almost identical, that may be a bitter pill to swallow unless Intel brings something phenomenal to the table.

Another challenge that Intel may eventually have to deal with is how their highest end processors compare to AMDís when it comes to native PCIe lane allocation. Threadripper processors have a total of 48 3.0 lanes available for graphics and another dozen set aside for high speed NVMe storage solutions. This gives connected devices unfettered access to the processor which should Ėin theory at least- lower latencies and boost overall performance.

Meanwhile Intel has 44 lanes available which are typically split with 40 being dedicated to graphics solutions while another four can be utilized for NVMe or other types of high bandwidth storage. The balance of PCIe ports are housed on the X299 PCH which communicates with the CPU via a comparatively slow DMI 3.0 connection. This isnít to say that X299 motherboards will play second fiddle to X399 in terms of storage bandwidth since thatís another conversation for another day. However, with many of Intelís connectivity capabilities requiring third party controllers communicate through the PCH, we wouldnít be surprised to see AMD edge ahead.

While there will be a lot of discussion about the benchmarks in the coming pages, thereís no doubt in my mind that the first thing many will question is Intelís pricing structure. Just how can they charge so much for a 16 core i9-7960X when AMDís 1950X boasts similar specifications? And that $2000 i9-7980XE? It is ripe for criticism from nearly every angle. Perhaps the answers lie in our charts, or maybe not.

I know I sound like a broken record but perspective and intent count for lot, especially in the HEDT space. Neither Intel nor AMD are targeting their $1000+ processors at gamers who can buy a complete mid to high end gaming system for the cost of a single 16 or 18 core CPU. You need to have a very specific set of needs to benefit from the absolute gobs of horsepower these things bring to the table. Even then, without properly setting native core affinity for programs, a lot of the potential will go to waste unless constant highly threaded tasks like rendering are being run on a full time basis.

With all of that being said, it is important to approach this review from the perspective of a technology lover rather than an outright critic. Like Threadripper, the high end Skylake-X processors are a technological tour de force which will command respect while also attracting detractors like moths to a flame. If anything that will make for one hell of an interesting article since this is the first time in recent memory that Intel may find their HEDT lineup facing some serious headwinds.

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