Intel Penryn, Skulltrail performance revealed

— 3:09 PM on September 20, 2007

Intel Developer Forum — Intel revealed a number of details about its upcoming enthusiast products centered around its forthcoming 45nm "Penryn" family of processors today, including a few preliminary benchmark results.

The most intriguing new info, at least in terms of pure spectacle, has to be the details of Intel's enthusiast-oriented dual-socket platform, code-named "Skulltrail." Skulltrail is a follow-up of sorts to Intel's V8 media creation platform, which we reviewed a few months ago. Like the original V8 setup, Skulltrail is based on workstation-class Xeon hardware, but unlike that first effort, it will include a motherboard designed by Intel to cater to the desires of PC enthusiasts. Since workstation boards tend to be rather frumpy—with few provisions in the BIOS for tweaking, let alone overclocking—having a good enthusiast-style mobo available is no small issue.

This should be a pretty nice motherboard, too. The Skulltrail board is based on the Seaburg chipset and Stoakely platform, which we just reviewed. Seaburg is a potent beast, with dual 1600MHz front side-buses connected to dual CPU sockets, the ability to feed four PCIe x16 graphics slots with PCIe 2.0 support, four channels of FB-DIMM memory at 800MHz, and an advanced snoop filter to reduce cache coherency traffic. Intel has adapted Seaburg for enthusiasts by placing it on a motherboard with four full PCIe x16 slots and using Nvidia PCI Express switch chips to route the PCIe lanes to those slots. This arrangement has the disadvantage of confining Skulltrail's PCIe slots to first-generation PCIe bandwidth, since the Nvidia chips don't support PCIe gen 2, but it has the advantage of providing some cover for Nvidia's decision to extend SLI support in its drivers to include the Skulltrail board.

That's right: Skulltrail will support SLI graphics configs using as many as all four of its PCIe x16 slots. As I understand it, the drivers for this new incarnation of quad SLI are still in development, but they are apparently on the way.

The guts of a Skulltrail demo box

The Skulltrail mobo has four FB-DIMM slots, allowing it to host up to 8GB of memory. (We're hearing rumors that memory makers may step up with FB-DIMMs that run at low latencies—as low as CL3—and at clock speeds above 800MHz.) The mobo's two CPU sockets will house a pair of Extreme Edition processors in a Xeon-style LGA771 package. The board itself isn't especially large given everything it can accommodate, but it fits into the EATX form factor, not the smaller standard ATX.

As you may have gathered, Skulltrail systems will not be cheap. In fact, when these systems arrive late this year or early next, Intel expects to charge a premium for Skulltrail hardware beyond what it asks for traditional workstation-class parts. That will put Skulltrail firmly into the domain of high-end botique PC builders and, well, the criminally insane. We'd still like to see an affordable dual-socket solution from Intel or AMD that caters to DIYers with more reasonable budgets.

At least the focus on ultra-high-end hardware will simplify the overclocking situation. Intel says it will offer a truly flexible and tweakable BIOS in its motherboard, but Intel boards have rarely matched the best boards from Taiwan on this front. Since Skulltrail's Extreme Edition processors—Penryn-based quad-core beasts with clock speeds in excess of 3GHz and 12MB of L2 cache—will come with unlocked upper multipliers, hitting record FSB speeds shouldn't be necessary.

Fortunately for the less-than-filthy rich, one should be able to build a Skulltrail box on an installment plan. The board will operate just fine with only one processor installed. So here's the plan: build a box with one CPU and one graphics card. Then add a second CPU later. And then perhaps another graphics card. And another. And maybe one more, when your credit limit will allow.

To give you a sense of what may be in store, one of the Skulltrail demo systems was chilled via a phase-change cooler and overclocked to 4GHz, like so:

Eight cores, 4GHz, no bladder control

This box wasn't quite stable yet, though, due an apparent VRM problem, so Intel was demonstrating performance on a more conventional system with CPUs clocked at 3.4GHz. Here's how it handled a run through 3DMark06 in our presence:

We weren't able to run any benchmarks on this system ourselves, but Intel supplied us with some performance data for both this Skulltrail box and a single-socket system based on the X38 chipset and a 3GHz Penryn-based quad-core CPU. Both systems were configured with GeForce 8800 GTX graphics cards, one in the X38 rig and two in the Skulltrail. Here are Intel's numbers:

System Penryn 3GHz quad-core 45nm CPU
Intel X38 motherboard w/1333MHz FSB
Dual 3.4GHz quad-core 45nm CPU
Intel "Skulltrail" motherboard w/1600MHz FSB
Memory 2 x 1GB Corsair CM3X-1024-1333C9DHX 2 x 2GB DDR2-800 CL5 FB-DIMMs
3DMark06 - CPU 4569 6359
3DMark06 - Overall 11899 17006
Cinebench R10 11810 21521
TMPGEnc 4.0 Express 72 seconds 53 seconds

Not too shabby. If you want a better look at Penryn performance, let me recommend reading our review of the new 45nm Xeons, in which we compare dual quad-core Penryn 3GHz processors to 2.5GHz AMD "Barcelona" Opterons.

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