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The High-End Desktop Heats Up: Intel i9 and AMD Threadripper

The race for desktop CPU dominance has proceeded in fits and starts for three decades, with improvements in architecture, manufacturing process, and clock speed ratcheting up performance. Intel’s current “Core” architecture has been unbeatable in mainstream desktops and laptops, with AMD struggling to match Intel’s processors even when breaking the four-core ceiling with FX and Ryzen. Many wondered if Intel would drop prices or increase core count in response, but the company had ignored their rivals. But now Intel is announcing high-end desktop CPU’s with many, many cores, including the long-awaited Core i9 series.

The High-End Desktop Market

This picture is quite different in the high-end desktop market, where Intel has long shipped 6- and even 8-core CPU’s with extreme performance and price tags. These “Extreme” CPU’s are the processor of choice where money is no object, since the chips sell for $600 to $1,000 each. They’re typically based on the mid-range “low-core-count” Xeon E5 server design, sometimes with cores, cache, or features disabled. The other side of the high-end desktop market uses Xeon chips directly, though these motherboards are often not designed to include desktop-friendly features.

Intel created the high-end desktop CPU market with 6-core processors like the Core i7-990X

Intel opened this market in 2010 with the 6-core “Gulftown” Core i7-970, 980, and 990 processors, which were essentially “Westmere” Xeon server CPU’s for the desktop market. When Intel transitioned to the “Sandy Bridge” generation, another high-end desktop line appeared: The “Sandy Bridge-E” Core i7-39xx once again featured six cores and shared its design with the Xeon E5 range. Things looked the same with “Ivy Bridge-E”, but “Haswell-E” added an 8-core desktop chip for the first time, the Core-i7-5960X.

The high-end desktop market exploded last year when Intel introduced the 10-core “Broadwell-E” Core i7-6950X at a whopping $1,723. Although still technically a “low-core-count” Xeon design, this was the first time no cores were disabled. Many suspected that the eye-watering price tag was intended to keep from undermining the market for the similar Xeon E5 v4 processors, though there was no identical SKU in that line. Despite the high cost, reports indicate solid demand for 8- and 10-core Broadwell-E desktop CPU’s.

AMD was never able to compete in this market. The Phenom II “Thuban” six-core processor might have been intended as a competitor but couldn’t compete with Gulftown, turning in only 60% of the performance in Geekbench. The same is true of the 8-core “Bulldozer” and “Piledriver” processors, which were essentially single-threaded and were never serious high-end chips. Perhaps this is the real reason for Intel’s high pricing: There was no real competition except their own Xeon CPU’s.

AMD Ryzen and Threadripper

Intel has historically limited mainstream desktop and laptop processors to four cores, but AMD broke free this year, releasing mainstream 6- and 8-core Ryzen CPU’s in the mainstream $220 to $500 price range. Although not quite as fast per-core as Intel’s latest offerings, the Ryzen 5 and 7 processors impress by offering such high core and thread counts in a desktop-oriented chip. Intel has nothing comparable; their mainstream desktop processors simply cannot go beyond four cores without a major redesign.

This scalable AMD architecture suggested AMD would enter the high-end desktop market as well, and the company confirmed this with the announcement of the 16-core “Threadripper” CPU. Although details are scarce, it is likely that this is a direct competitor for Intel’s “LCC Xeon” high-end desktop chips, with a similar design. At the very least, we’re looking at an up-to-16-core CPU based on AMD’s forthcoming “Epyc” server CPU design.

Intel Skylake-X Core i9

Not to be outdone, Intel recently took the wraps off their Threadripper-ripper and the long-awaited “Core i9” nomenclature. “Skylake-X” not only continues the use of the LCC Xeon core in a high-end desktop CPU, it brings high core count (HCC) to the party for the first time. The Core i9-7940X, 7960X, and 7980X blow past Threadripper with 14, 16, and a whopping 18 cores, respectively. It’s amazing to have this number of cores available in a uni-processor desktop environment!

Intel finally unveiled a “Core i9” family, bringing LCC and HCC Xeons to the high-end desktop

The Core i7 parts look quite like past offerings, with 6 cores for the Core i7-7800X and 8 in the Core i7-7820X. But the pricing is more in line with AMD’s Ryzen, at $389 and $599, respectively. Then there’s the new Core i9 family, with the 10-core 7900X and 12-core 7920X priced at $999 and 1199, respectively. The HCC Skylake-X is priced to knock out Broadwell-E, starting at $1399 for a 14-core CPU, then going to $1699 for 16 cores and $1999 for the top-of-the-line 18-core i9-7980X. This will put real pressure on AMD, which has to come in lower at each core count level with the Threadripper.

Although AMD Threadripper won’t match Intel’s 18-core HCC part, they will dramatically exceed Intel when it comes to PCIe lanes: The Core i7 parts have just 28 and the Core i9 is expected to top out at 44, while AMD says all Threadripper parts will have a full 64 lanes! Intel could surprise us with more PCIe connectivity in the HCC parts, but this would have to have been decided months before AMD’s announcement. And since AMD has lagged on PCIe connectivity to date, it’s unlikely Intel saw this coming.

A High-End World

It has been more than a decade since AMD could boast having the fastest high-end desktop CPU, and Intel wasn’t about to take this lying down. With the rise of Ryzen, Intel is responding punch-for-punch with high-end desktop CPUs that meet or exceed AMD’s offering in core count, if not in I/O capability. And this is no “Emergency Edition” (the nickname given to the Pentium 4 EE that Intel released in response to AMD’s “Clawhammer” Athlon 64 back in 2004): The new LCC and HCC Core i7 and Core i9 are well-developed parts ready for high-end desktop and workstation use.

About the author

Stephen Foskett

Stephen Foskett is an active participant in the world of enterprise information technology, currently focusing on enterprise storage, server virtualization, networking, and cloud computing. He organizes the popular Tech Field Day event series for Gestalt IT and runs Foskett Services. A long-time voice in the storage industry, Stephen has authored numerous articles for industry publications, and is a popular presenter at industry events. He can be found online at TechFieldDay.com, blog.FoskettS.net, and on Twitter at @SFoskett.

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