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Intel Core i9-7980XE Extreme Edition

Introduction, Chip Background CPU Testing

We haven’t been counting (we haven’t had the time!), but we’re convinced that 2017 has seen more PC-platform/product launches for desktop processors than the last few years combined. While that may make for some frazzled reviewers and analysts, it also means you’re not suffering for choice if you’re in the market for a new high-end processor these days. Indeed, you’re drowning in choices.

We started off 2017 with the launch of Intel’s 7th Generation “Kaby Lake” Core i7-7700KRyzen 7 1800XCore X-Series on the Intel side, and the competing Ryzen Threadripper chips on Team Red’s side of the test bench. Think of us as Lucille Ball on the assembly line, but with CPUs instead of candies.

So much has been going on in the realm of CPUs this year that it’s really beyond the scope of any one review. You can get a decent sense of where we’re at from our recent reviews of the Intel Core i9-7900XAMD Ryzen Threadripper 1920Xour components info center, click the “Reviews” button in the top navigation bar, and skim through the 17 processors we’ve tested and reviewed so far this year. (Go ahead. We’ll wait.)

Intel Core i9-7980XE (On Bench)

Welcome back! Now that you’re all caught up, we’re ready to dig into Intel’s new über-CPU. The Core i9-7980XE Extreme Edition is, without argument, a stunning performer for tasks that consume as many cores and threads as you can throw at them, such as video editing. We would expect that, to be sure, given its staggering $1,999 asking price.

Now, $2,000 is undeniably a ton of bucks to spend on a CPU, for any non-server PC. (The price of last year’s “mere” $1,799 Core i7-6950X Extreme Edition gave us the shakes back then.) But you don’t have to burn 20 Benjamins to get some righteous power out of the Core X-Series platform. With Core X, Intel is offering more chips than ever for its power-user platform, including lesser-priced Core X-Series processors with 16, 14, 12, 10, eight, six, and even four cores. So while the entry price for the traditional chart-topper Extreme Edition CPU is higher in 2017 than for any that came before, the chip giant is offering up plenty of more-reasonable alternatives. (Indeed, today’s least-expensive Core X-Series CPU comes in at under $300.)

The real question will be how Intel’s top-end chip stacks up to renewed and aggressive competition from AMD. Team Red’s best of the moment, the Ryzen Threadripper 1950XIntel Core i5-7640X. The Core i9-7980XE Extreme Edition has a 2.6GHz base clock and the ability for two of the 18 cores to ramp as high as 4.4GHz using Intel’s Turbo Boost Max 3.0 feature. The Turbo Boost speed isn’t quite as high as the 4.5GHz ceiling that the Core i9-7900XCore i7-7820X top out at, but it’s close enough to bea marginal difference, especially when you consider this chip’s audacious 18 physical cores.

Currently, nine chips make up the Core X-Series lineup, spanning two architecture generations: 6th Generation Core (dubbed “Skylake X” in their iterations for the Core X platform) and 7th Generation Core (“Kaby Lake X”). Rather than rattle off the full list of chips and their basic specs, here’s a chart, direct from Intel…

Intel Core i7-7820X (Core X Specs)

The two 112-watt chips on the bottom of the list are based on Kaby Lake architecture, while everything above the Core i7-7740X is based on the older Skylake silicon. In some ways, that’s not a huge deal, since the two generations are very similar. The primary difference is that the Kaby Lake X chips have hardware that makes them compatible with protected video-stream content in 4K/HDR for current and upcoming services from the likes of Netflix, Amazon, and others. The lesser Kaby Lake X chips also rely on dual-channel DDR4 memory, while the Skylake X parts support quad-channel setups.

For the record (and in case you didn’t go read one of the previous Core X-Series reviews for more context, tsk tsk), all of these chips use the same LGA 2066 socket, and they are compatible solely with the X299 chipset. We aren’t going to detail the chipset, memory, and other considerations here, but instead point you to earlier reviews, notably the 10-core Intel Core i9-7900X, for that.

The big differentiator between these chips, aside from the numbers of cores and threads, is the number of PCI Express lanes connected to the chip, which is important for installing bandwidth-hungry components such as graphics cards and PCI Express-bus solid-state drives (SSDs). The pair of four-core chips in the Core X-Series lineup (the two Kaby Lake X chips at the bottom of the chart above) have just 16 lanes, which is the same as what you’ll find on mainstream CPU offerings like the Core i7-7700K. The five Core i9 Skylake X chips that have 10 or more cores (including the 18-core Core i9-7980XE we’re looking at here) have 44 PCI Express lanes, while the Core X “middle chips” (the Core i7-7820X and the lesser Core i7-7800X) have 28 lanes available from the CPU.

Intel Core X Family Badges

Now, for most users, 28 lanes should more than suffice. That includes gamers and enthusiasts who may want to install a couple of high-end graphics cards in an SLI or CrossFireX configuration, plus, maybe, a pair of fast PCI Express-based SSDs. Keep in mind that the X299 chipset provides up to 24 lanes of its own for storage, USB ports, and other bandwidth-hungry features. AMD’s competing Ryzen Threadripper platform, however, delivers 64 lanes of PCI Express on all of its processors, including the recently announced, lower-end ($549) Threadripper 1900X eight-core chip.

We’re honestly not sure how all but the most extreme (and the wealthiest) of users could actually make use of all those lanes. You have to try hard to come up with scenarios that max out 64 or even “just” 44 lanes. But if you have your reasons, you may want to go the AMD route. Just know that Threadripper motherboards (which run on the new X399 chipset, specific to Threadripper) are expensive, even as enthusiast boards go, starting at $340 when we wrote this. Core X-Series motherboards (running the X299 chipset) started at a comparatively modest $210.

Really, though, if a bargain power chip is what you’re after, and you don’t need more than eight cores and 20 available PCI Express lanes from the CPU, neither of these families is the best answer. The vanilla Ryzens are where is it at, and the AMD Ryzen 7 1800X is going to be tough to beat. That chip sells for about $429 (we’ve seen it as low as $399 via some in-store retail specials), with decent, compatible motherboards based on the AMD B350 chipset selling for as little as $69 when we wrote this. Many of these boards even include an M.2 connector for speedy storage, plus some LED bling.

But then, if you’re even considering the $1,999 Core i9-7980X Extreme Edition and its 18 cores, “bargain” can’t be on your shopping-priorities list at all, at least when it comes to PC components. Either you need this much computing performance for your professional workloads, or you’re an enthusiast who wants the best there is, and is willing and able to pay for it. Tally up this chip, about $300 for a suitable motherboard (because if you want the best chip, you won’t want to pair it with a low-rent motherboard), at least $300 for 32GB of DDR4 quad-channel memory, and about $700 for storage, a decent case, a mainstream ($150-ish) video card, an appropriate power supply, and an operating system—and you’re looking at about a $3,300 outlay. (That assumes you aren’t carrying over any bits from a previous PC.)

Intel Core i9-7980XE (Open Box)

Any way you slice it, a PC built around this Extreme Edition chip is going to come at an extreme price. That’s fine, in some sense, because that’s always been the case for Intel’s Extreme Edition offerings, although Intel has increased the price with the number of cores. Extreme Edition chips (like the eight-core Core i7-5960X Extreme EditionCore i7-6950X Extreme EditionRyzen Threadripper 1920X for $799, and its top-end Ryzen Threadripper 1950X, with just two fewer cores than Intel’s 18-core chip, for half its price ($999). Admittedly, the cheapest of AMD’s X399 Threadripper-compatible motherboards start at about $130 more than Intel’s Core X X299 boards. But even when you consider the added platform cost for AMD, the Threadripper 1950X still looks like a bargain on paper next to the Core i9-7980XE Extreme Edition and its two extra cores. Let’s see how this all shakes out in our benchmark tests.



CPU-Specific Performance Testing

For our test setup, we dropped the Core i9-7980XE into the Asus Prime X299-Deluxe motherboard of our Core X-Series testbed PC, along with 32GB of Corsair memory running in a quad-channel setup. An Nvidia GeForce GTX 1080 Founders EditionKingston HyperX Savage was our SATA-interface boot drive.

Intel Core-i9-7980XE Testbed

We stuck all those components into the Deepcool GamerStorm Genome ROG Certified case, which includes a self-contained liquid cooler with a large three-fan radiator. Incidentally, at the same time we tested this chip, we also tested Intel’s one-step-down Core i9-7960X, which was rolling out the same day. It has 16 cores, and it is expected to sell for about $1,700—that’s $700 more than the also-16-core Ryzen Threadripper 1950X.

So, what to compare with a monster like the Core i9-7980XE Extreme Edition? It sits at the top of today’s consumer CPU heap, well above mainstream chips such as the four-core Core i7-7700K and AMD’s eight-core Ryzen 7 1800XIntel Core i7-7820XAMD Ryzen Threadripper 1920X and the 10-core Intel Core i9-7900X. But we’ll map them all out below to show how they stack up.

To round out our charts, we also included (of course!) numbers for the 16-core AMD Ryzen Threadripper 1950XIntel Core i7-6950X Extreme Edition. The last chip should show how far we’ve come from a price-to-performance standpoint in just the last year or so—at least when it comes to tasks that like lots of cores and threads.

Cinebench R15

First up in our testing regimen: Maxon’s CPU-crunching Cinebench R15 test, which is fully threaded to make use of all available processor cores and threads, using the CPU rather than the GPU to render a complex image. The result is a proprietary score indicating a PC’s suitability for processor-intensive workloads.

Along with the usual test that makes use of all available cores, we’ve added the single-core results here to get a sense of how Intel’s 18-core chip fares in lightly threaded workloads.

Intel Core i9-7980XE (Cinebench)

As we expected, the Core i9-7980XE Extreme Edition landed on top on the multi-core test here, with its 18 cores besting the 16-core AMD Ryzen Threadripper 1950X by about 12 percent. That definitely makes the Core i9-7980XE the fastest consumer processor you can buy at this writing. But the performance gap between Intel’s top chip and the Threadripper 1950X is narrow—at least on this test—while the price difference is wide enough to navigate a container ship through.

The Threadripper 1950X lagged a little more, about 16 percent, behind the Core i9-7980XE Extreme Edition on the single-core Cinebench test. But honestly, when was the last time you found yourself waiting around for a single-threaded computing task to finish? Either chip option is plenty speedy for lightly threaded tasks, at this point.

In one way, the Core i9-7980XE is undoubtedly impressive: On the multi-core Cinebench test, Intel’s new top-end chip is almost 90 percent faster than the CPU it’s effectively replacing, 2016’s 10-core Core i7-6950X Extreme Edition. But even if you’re a die-hard Intel loyalist, you really have to thank AMD for pushing its CPU rival to release a consumer chip this much more powerful from one generation to the next. 

iTunes 10.6 Conversion Test

We then switched over to our venerable iTunes Encoding Test, using version 10.6 of iTunes. This test taxes only a single CPU core, as much legacy software still does.

Intel Core i9-7980XE (iTunes)

Music encoding doesn’t exactly push a modern CPU to its limits, and certainly not extreme slices of silicon like these. But this is precisely the kind of test that shows Intel’s chips to their best advantage. Intel’s recent Skylake and Kaby Lake architectures do better than AMD’s Zen on single-threaded or lightly threaded tasks. That said, unless you’re hanging on to some very old programs, most software that can take good advantage of multiple cores and threads has been updated to do so at this point. (And it would be bonkers to buy an Extreme Edition or Threadripper CPU and limit it to this kind of stuff.)

The Core i9-7980XE Extreme Edition wasn’t the fastest chip here. That distinction went to its Core X-Series counterpart, the Core i7-7820X. But the top-end Core i9 did manage to best AMD’s top showing by, again, about 15 percent. But if you care primarily about lightly threaded performance, the Core i7-7700K is a much better value on that front, at under $350.

Handbrake 0.9.9

This is a time-consuming test of video-crunching capabilities. Handbrake, a tool commonly used for converting videos from one format to another, benefits from having lots of cores and threads at your disposal. In this test, we use a nice, big hunk of 4K video to see how the chips perform with a sustained job of this kind. We tasked the CPUs to convert a 12-minute-and-14-second 4K .MOV file (the 4K showcase short film Tears of Steel) into a 1080p MPEG-4 video.

Intel Core i9-7980XE (Handbrake)

On this first real-world test that takes advantage of lots of cores and threads, we again saw the Core i9-7980XE Extreme Edition finish first. But the difference here between it and the the 16-core Core i9-7960X was almost nil. Also, the Ryzen Threadripper 1950X was only 7 seconds behind Intel’s 18-core chip, while costing half as much. We may be seeing here than even video encoding sees diminishing performance returns with more cores and threads, at a certain point.

We have taken a huge leap in core counts over the last year or so. Perhaps software will need to be rewritten, or at least optimized, to unlock the full potential of these high-core-count beasts. Given the pace of hardware advancements, that would be understandable, though hardly a consolation for consumers investing in a $2,000 chip today.

POV-Ray 3.7

Next up, using the “All CPUs” setting, we ran the POV-Ray benchmark. It challenges all available cores to render a complex photo-realistic image using ray tracing. After that, again to get a sense of how the Core i9 handles single-core performance, we ran the same benchmark using the “One CPU” setting.

Intel Core i9-7980XE (POVRay)

Once again here, the Core i9-7980XE landed on top on the “All CPUs” test, but it was only 2 seconds ahead of its 16-core Core i9 counterpart, and 6 seconds ahead of the Ryzen Threadripper 1950X. On the single-core test, some of the lesser Core X-Series chips actually pulled ahead, but the Core i9-7980XE Extreme Edition did manage to best the top Threadripper chip, by about 9 percent.

Blender 2.77a

Blender is an open-source 3D content-creation program that can be used to design and create visual effects, animation, and 3D models for use in video games or 3D printing. We open a standard test file (it’s of a flying squirrel) and time how long the test processor takes to finish the render.

Intel Core i9-7980XE (Blender)

The results here were all fairly close, with the Ryzen 7 1800X the only real outlier. (It’s also, by far, the least-expensive AMD chip on our charts.) The Core i9-7980XE Extreme Edition did again manage to outpace AMD’s best Ryzen Threadripper chip, but by just a couple of seconds. And the lesser Ryzen Threadripper 1920X (the $799 Threadripper chip) managed to tie Intel’s $1,999 Extreme Edition part.

7-Zip File Compression

Last, we fired up the popular 7-Zip file-compression software and ran its built-in compression/decompression benchmark, which is another useful test of a CPU’s multi-core abilities.

Intel Core i9-7980XE (7Zip)

This last test showed Intel’s 18-core chip once again besting the AMD Ryzen Threadripper 1950X, and again by about 15 percent. The 16-core Core i9-7960X was between the two, about 5 percent behind its 18-core sibling. That difference is surprisingly small, given there’s a 12.5 percent difference in cores, and both chips share the same architecture.

This test typically shows CPUs with lots of cores and threads in their best light, but at around $2,000, the Core i9-7980XE Extreme Edition is pretty hard to argue for here given how close it is to CPUs that cost hundreds of dollars less (or even as much as a thousand dollars less).

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