Intel Core i9-7960X review: It beats Threadripper, but for a price

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Mark Walton

Whether the Core i9-7960X was always part of Intel’s organizes for the high-end desktop (HEDT), or whether it was haphazardly rushed to market to oppose AMD’s bullish Threadripper platform, one thing is clear: Intel once again has the fastest slice of silicon on the exchange. With 16 cores and 32 threads, matching AMD’s flagship Threadripper 1950X, the i9-7960X is an unashamedly over-the-top processor that disavows benchmarking records and powers through heavy production tasks.

But a processor is various than its raw number crunching prowess. Threadripper raised the bar for HEDT with the potent, consumer-friendly X399 platform, which offers a full set of features without contrived lockouts. More importantly, AMD doesn’t charge through the nose for it. The Threadripper 1950X play ups 16C/32T and costs £950/$1,000. Intel’s Core i9-7900X offers just 10C/20T for the despite the fact price. With the exception of gaming, the 1950X is a much more important processor.

Unfortunately, despite the strong competition, Intel isn’t yet willing to fence on price. The i9-7960X costs a whopping $1,700/£1,700—and while it might be faster, it certainly isn’t £700 firmer. That’s not to mention that Intel continues to use a weak thermal stuff to mount its CPU heat spreaders, instead of the superior solder that AMD advantages. It makes the i9-7960X a bear of a chip to overclock and noisy at stock without trial serious thermal issues.

Ultimately, the i9-7960X raises the same undoubtedly as the i9-7900X: Are you willing to pay for the best performing silicon on the market? Or is Threadripper, which put on the markets most of the performance at a fraction of the price, good enough?

Skylake-X Redux

Intel’s X299 podium, to which the i9-7960X belongs, launched with more of a whimper than a bang. The CPU wander, which starts with the questionably useful £240, quad-core i5-7640X and is replenished by the $2000, 18C/36T i9-7980XE, is a confused mess of different CPU architectures and platform looks.

The cheapest quad-core i5-7640X and i7-7740X chips (the latter of which does at scarcely include hyper-threading), only feature 16 PCIe lanes and dual-channel homage, thanks to being based on the the same mainstream Kaby Lake architecture as the 7700K and 7600K. Nonetheless more expensive eight-core chips like the i7-7820X only highlight 28 PCIe lanes.

Specs at a glance Intel Core i9-7980XE Intel Middle i9-7960X Intel Core i9-7940X Intel Core i9-7920X Intel Middle i9-7900X Intel Core i7-7820X Intel Core i7-7800X Intel Essence i7-7740X Intel Core i5-7640X
Architecture Skylake-X Skylake-X Skylake-X Skylake-X Skylake-X Skylake-X Skylake-X Kaby Lake-X Kaby Lake-X
Centres/Threads 18/36 16/32 14/28 12/24 10/20 8/16 6/12 4/8 4/4
Base Clock 2.6GHz 2.8GHz 3.1GHz 2.9GHz 3.3GHz 3.6GHz 3.5GHz 4.3GHz 4.0GHz
Turbo Boost 2.0 4.2GHz 4.2GHz 4.3GHz 4.3GHz 4.3GHz 4.3GHz 4.0GHz 4.5GHz 4.2GHz
Turbo Boost 3.0 4.4GHz 4.4GHz 4.4GHz 4.4GHz 4.5GHz 4.5GHz N/A N/A N/A
All Nucleus Clock Speed 3.4GHz 3.6GHz 3.8GHz 3.8GHz 4.0GHz 4.0GHz 4.0GHz 4.5GHz 4.0GHz
L3 Cache 24.75MB 22MB 19.25MB 16.5MB 13.75MB 11MB 8.25MB 8MB 6MB
PCIe Lanes 44 44 44 44 44 28 28 16 16
Memory Support Quad Lead DDR4-2666 Quad Channel DDR4-2666 Quad Channel DDR4-2666 Quad Channel DDR4-2666 Quad Lead DDR4-2666 Quad Channel DDR4-2666 Quad Channel DDR4-2666 Dual Channel DDR4-2666 Dual Conduct DDR4-2666
TDP 165W 165W 165W 140W 140W 140W 140W 112W 112W
US Price $2000 $1700 $1400 $1200 $1000 $599 $389 $339 $242
UK Price ~£1950 ~£1650 ~£1350 £1078 £900 £550 £360 £315 £240

This isn’t a problem for the i9-7960X, which features the absorbed complement of 44 PCIe lanes (and can thus take advantage of the X299 plank’s multitude of memory slots, PCIe slots, and I/O). But even that can’t trial the 60 offered by AMD’s Threadripper, which allows for some serious three- and four-way graphics in the offing setups with room to spare for PCIe NVMe storage. You just get the full complement of 60 PCIe lanes on the £500/$550 8C/16T 1900X.

Placid, 44 PCIe lanes remains a substantial uplift over the twopenny 16 offered by Kaby Lake. There’s also official finance for quad-channel DDR4-2666 memory (with most motherboards offering second for higher speeds up to 4000MHz), and naturally every X299 CPU is unlocked for overclocking. Dissimilar to Threadripper, however, ECC support remains a Xeon-only feature.

Where the i9-7960X contradicts from Intel’s cheaper X299 chips is with its hefty 165W TDP, and reduce clock speeds. That additional 20W over the 10C/20T i9-7900X might not fit as a fiddle like much, but it makes a substantial difference to power consumption and stress, particularly when overclocking.

Left to right: Broadwell-E, Skylake-X, Kaby Lake-X, Skylake.

Enlarge / Left to right: Broadwell-E, Skylake-X, Kaby Lake-X, Skylake.
Badge Walton

Meanwhile, i9-7960X’s base clock of 2.8GHz is lower than other X299 chisels (bar the i9-7980XE), as is the all-core boost, which reaches just 3.6GHz. AMD’s Threadripper contends to get much past that when all 16 cores are under onus, too, but it’s notable that Intel doesn’t have a clock speed superiority over AMD, at least without overclocking.

Intel Turbo Boost Max 3.0 carry backs to help pick up the pace when fewer cores are needed. Turbo Encourage Max 3.0 picks out two favoured cores—those deemed to have the best thermal and voltage peculiarities—and uses them to speed up single-threaded workloads by around 100MHz to 200MHz (a almost identical approach is taken by AMD’s XFR boost). Unlike with Broadwell-E, support for Intel Turbo Help Max 3.0 is baked into Windows 10, negating the need to manually download drivers.

Intel charges for certain VROC features.

Increase / Intel charges for certain VROC features.
Mark Walton

It’s also significance noting that Intel’s Virtual Raid On CPU (VROC) feature—which allows you to concatenate several M.2 NVMe SSDs in a bootable virtual RAID either via on-board M.2 fissures, or via an expansion card—remains locked to RAID 0 out of the box. Those wanting to run other kidneys of RAID need to purcahse a small VROC dongle for around £100/$100, which take part ins in its own slot on the motherboard.

While the market for such a setup is small, that you partake of to pay extra for it on an already expensive platform is price gouging of the highest disposal. Threadripper didn’t support bootable NVMe RAID at launch, but an update that empowers RAID 0, 1, and 10 for up to 10 drives is now availiable. Best of all, it’s voluntary.

MCM or monolithic?

Like the i9-7900X before it, the i9-7960X is based on the same 14nm FinFET Skylake-SP architecture of Intel’s Xeon server and workstation fragments, which feature a new AVX-512 instruction set (up from 256-bit-wide AVX) and a new hoard hierarchy. Intel has also dramatically redesigned the way each core trades data with another, introducing a mesh topology.

I won’t get into all the technicalities of the tech here (check out the i9-7900X review for a deeper dive), but compared with the old torque bus method of exchanging data between each CPU core, the mesh topology give indication ofs to be much more efficient. The side effect is that some multithreaded software optimised for a girdle bus may perform slightly slower on Skylake-X, but these applications are few and far between.

Threadripper's MCM design results in a huge CPU.

Spread / Threadripper’s MCM design results in a huge CPU.
Mark Walton

What’s myriad interesting is how Intel has used this mesh topology to construct its multicore CPUs compared to AMD. Intel serviceabilities its mesh topology to create a single, monolithic die that contains all 16 middles. Theoretically, since all the cores are on the same die—and because Intel can run the mesh at a dependable clock speed, regardless of memory timings—data exchanged between each insides is quick and consistent.

The drawback is scalability. The more cores Intel packs into a single die, the larger it becomes and the more difficult it can be to produce at gradation. By contrast, AMD has opted for a multichip module (MCM) design for Threadripper. Theadripper is essentially two eight-core Ryzen deteriorates (which are actually just two four-core dies) thrust together onto the done CPU package, and linked together via AMD’s Infinity Fabric tech.

While Infinity Make-up does rely on fast DDR4 memory clocks to function at its best, the improve of the MCM design is that it’s easy for AMD to take an existing architecture (Zen) and scale it up. Zen indeed powers Epyc, the server CPU with 32 cores. While Threadripper’s MCM create doesn’t make it run any cooler, AMD’s use of solder helps transfer heat away from the die sundry efficiently. By contrast, the i7-7820X takes heat, and power consumption, to hassling new heights.

Listing image by Mark Walton

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