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Intel's 'V8' media creation platform

An eight-core monster claws its way onto the desktop

I HAVE DAYDREAMED ABOUT ridiculously fast computers since childhood. Many of those daydreams seem positively puny by today's standards, but at the time, they were outrageous, if not entirely far-fetched. What if they could double the RAM on the Atari 800 all the way to 128K, or even 256K? What if the new Atari STE could show 16 colors at 640x400 resolution? Could they give the new Amiga 16-bit audio with eight channels? That was crazy talk, much of it—until I switched to the PC and started answering some of those questions with concrete results. What if I could overclock this Celeron 300A to 464MHz? And run two of them in SMP? What if they made a chip with 3D graphics abilities on it, just like an SGI workstation? Turns out having those questions answered is really quite nice.

Nowadays, we get incremental improvements in computing power so often, such questions seem almost naive or somehow inappropriate. Yet I'm sure there are some among us who have wondered about what's coming down the road. Most of us have dual-core systems by now, and sitting there enjoying the speed of a Core 2 Duo E6600, one might engage in a little fanciful speculation: What would it be like to have, say, eight of these cores running at 3GHz on dual, independent 1333MHz buses with a torrent of memory bandwidth?

If you're prone to such speculation, you'll be pleased to hear Intel has concocted an answer to that very question in the form of its "V8" media creation platform. V8 is Intel's tentative first response to AMD's dual-socket enthusiast platform, Quad FX. Like Quad FX, V8 draws on workstation/server-class technology to take desktop PCs to new heights. Unlike AMD's effort, though, V8 doesn't involve an enthusiast-class mobo or any sort of processor bundle or discount. If you want to grab a slice of the future now, with eight cores of glory at your disposal, you're going to have to pay a pretty penny for it. Happily, though, we've tested a V8 system against a slew of today's best desktop processors, and we can give you a glimpse of how the future may look, free of charge. Here's a hint: it's ridiculously fast.

I could have had a . . . .
We should establish some things about this V8 setup right up front. First of all, this is not a new branded "platform" like Intel's Centrino or vPro efforts, and in fact, it's not really a new product at all. V8 is mostly just Intel flexing its muscles and showing what it can do with a dual-socket system in response to AMD's Quad FX. (It's probably not coincidence that AMD's dual-socket project code-named "4x4" was met with a project code-named V8.) This demonstration of power involves mostly off-the-shelf parts: Xeon processors and their accompanying motherboards and memory. Intel has simply packaged up these products together and shipped them out to media outlets like us with the suggestion that we test them as the "ultimate media creation workstation."

I say "mostly" off-the-shelf parts because the Xeon X5365 processors Intel threw into this rig are not exactly common. You can buy them today, but only with a Mac Pro workstation wrapped around them. No other PC maker offers them yet, and they're not yet available for purchase by themselves. What's more, Intel rates these Xeons at a TDP of 150W—well above the 120W of the next speed grade down, the Xeon X5355 at 2.66GHz. Intel says it plans to make the Xeon X5365 more widely available via other PC makers and as a boxed processor later this year, but when it does so, those chips will be a new stepping that should fit into current Xeon thermal envelopes. So the version of the Xeon we're testing is a modern-day Jezebel—hot, rare, and power-hungry.

With that said, let's consider what sort of computing power we're talking about here. For the uninitiated, the Xeon X5365 is very much similar to the Core 2 Extreme QX6800 processor; its two dual-core chips on a single package add up to four processor cores. Yet the Xeon X5365 has a higher clock speed, a superior system topology, and can run in pairs. Regular readers may recall that we've already reviewed the current Xeon platform, and we also pitted quad-core Xeons against Opterons late last year. This V8 system is fundamentally the same technology, but with even faster CPUs. As a result, V8 delivers considerable torque to the rear wheels thanks to 16MB of total L2 cache, dual 1333MHz front-side buses, a staggering 21GB/s of memory bandwidth, and eight Core-microarchitecture CPU cores running at 3GHz each.

This gives you a Task Manager readout that looks like so:

Pant, pant.

And that 20% load is while doing a dual-threaded MP3 encode.

The motherboard that makes such feats of strength possible is Intel's workstation-class S5000VXN, a snappy name if ever there was one.

Intel's S5000VXN motherboard

This mobo gains many good things from its workstation-class background, including two CPU sockets, eight DIMM slots with a maximum capacity of 32GB of memory, six SATA ports with support for RAID levels 0/1/10, dual GigE ports, and High Definition Audio.

That background betrays the S5000VXN when it comes to enthusiast bona-fides, though. The board has only one PCIe x16 slot, so multi-GPU support is probably out. The additional expansion slots are odd birds on the desktop: a couple of PCIe x4 slots and a pair of PCI-X slots—you know, for your home Fibre Channel adapter. The HD Audio has only two channels, and the board itself measures 13" by 12", much too large to fit into nearly any common desktop PC enclosure. What's more, the BIOS is bereft of the usual tweaking and overclocking options, although you're in luck if you want to change the date, enable console redirection to the serial port, or use the EFI shell. Also, we found that we had to abandon our trusty OCZ GameXStream 700W PSU for this system, because the S5000VXN requires both an eight-pin auxiliary power connector and a four-pin one at the same time. We had to swap in the 850W CoolerMaster power supply that Intel shipped with the board in order to get the system running.

Say what you will about the Asus L1N64-SLI WS motherboard that anchors AMD's Quad FX platform. We certainly have. It's expensive, draws way too much power, and costs more than it should. But the L1N64-SLI WS is at heart a pretty solid enthusiast-class mobo, which puts it head and shoulders above the S5000VXN in terms of practicality, tweakabilty, and affordability.

That's without considering what may be the V8 platform's greatest weakness: its use of fully buffered DIMMs (or FB-DIMMs) for memory. FB-DIMM is a server-class technology that adds some memory access latency and power draw in return for better signal integrity and potentially more bandwidth. Even in the server world, it's a controversial tradeoff, but on the desktop, FB-DIMMs just don't make sense right now. The additional 5W per module that FB-DIMMs add over DDR2 isn't especially welcome, but the memory latency is an even bigger drawback. I hope I'm not giving away the game too much, but have a look at these results from our synthetic memory access latency test for a sense of the problem.

This memory access handicap won't hurt the V8 system in every application, but many desktop apps are sensitive to access latencies, including games.

Say you weren't put off by any of these drawbacks and wanted to put together a V8 system like the one we've tested. What would it cost? Well, it's tough to know since these Xeon X5365 processors are practically priceless, but we can price out the next rung down the ladder, the X5355. Those cost $1189 each at Newegg and more elsewhere. The S5000VXN motherboard will set you back about 500 bucks, and the four 1GB FB-DIMMs will run you roughly $135 a pop. That tallies up to about $3400 for the CPUs, motherboard, and memory, if you settle for the "slower" CPUs.

That's not bad if you're, say, one of the founders of Google.

Then again, other solutions are just plain slower. Quad FX certainly is, which may explain why a similar config with FX-74 CPUs, motherboard, and DDR2 memory totals just under $1600. If you can settle for just four Intel cores, you can put together a system based on the Core 2 Extreme QX6700, Asus P5B Deluxe, and DDR2 memory for about the same as the Quad FX system. (The Core 2 Extreme QX6800 is about as rare as the Xeon X5365, so don't count on buying one of those.) Neither of these options will tear through our widely multithreaded benchmarks the way the Xeon V8 system does, as we're about to see.