In my New Intel i9 X Series 18 Core 36 Thread Processors - Will This Be In Your Next Pro Tools System? article I took a look at the promised specifications of the new Intel i9 family of processors and asked if this was the tipping point where Native processing far exceeds the capabilities of DSP. Indeed in part three of my review of the Scan 3XS FWX99 PowerDAW Windows PC, I demonstrated just how much power a previous generation i7 processor had against the Avid HDX system.
The new i9 family, with its promised 18 cores and 36 threads, could blow this already incredible performance clean out of the water. In this article, Pete Gardner of Scan Computers gives us a detailed first look at this new processor family.
Long Technical Article Alert!
If you're of the mind that you can't be bothered with technical details and just want to get on with being creative on a system "that just works", then it's probably not worth you reading on. However, if you care about what forms the ingredients of your next DAW or NLE host computer then this is for you. People often overlook the nuts and bolts of what's going on inside their DAW host and in a lot of ways it's very much like caring about what components are inside your mic preamp or outboard. This technology is not exclusive to Windows - Apple branded and Linux systems can easily exploit the opportunities this tech presents. Now, over to Pete...
Tech Advances Are Like London Busses
Intel's i9 announcement this year felt like it pretty much came out of nowhere, and whilst everyone was fully expecting Intel to refresh it’s enthusiast range this year, few suspected quite the spread of chips that have been announced over the recent months.
So here we are looking at the first entry to Intel’s new high-end range - the i9 7900X. There has been a sizable amount of press about this chip already as it was the first one to make it out into the wild along with the 4 core Kabylake X chips that have also appeared on this refresh, although those are likely to be of far less interest to those of us looking to build new DAW or NLE solutions.
A Tale Of Two Microarchitectures
Kabylake X and Skylake X have both launched at the same time and certainly raised eyebrows in confusion from a number of quarters. Intel's own cycle of advancement and process refinement has gone askew in recent years, where the “high-end desktop” (HEDT) models just as the midrange CPU’s at the start of this year, have gained a third generation at the same manufacturing process level in the shape of Kabylake.
Kabylake, with the mid-range release eeked out some minor gains through platform refinement. Some of the biggest changes to be found were in the improved onboard GPU found inside of it rather than the raw CPU performance itself, which as always is one of the key things missing in the HEDT edition. All this means that whilst we have a release where it’s technically two different chip ranges, there isn’t a whole lot left to differentiate between them. In fact given how the new chip ranges continue to steam ahead in the mid-range, this looks like an attempt to help bring the high-end options back up to parity with the current mid-range again quickly, which I think will ultimately help make things less confusing in future versions, even if right now it has managed to confuse things within the range quite a bit.
Kabylake has taken a sizable amount of flak prior to launch and certainly appears to raise a lot of questions on an initial glance. The whole selling point of the HEDT chip up until this point has been largely more cores and more raw performance, so an announcement of what is essentially a mid-range i5/i7 grade 4 core CPU solution appearing on this chipset was somewhat of a surprise to a lot of people.
As with the other models on this chipset range, the 4 cores are being marketed as enthusiast solutions, although in this instance we see them looking to capture a gaming enthusiast segment and possibly also lower end DAW applications. There have been some early reports of high overclocks being seen, but so far these look to be largely cherry-picked as the gains seen in early competition benchmarking have been hard to achieve with the early retail models currently appearing.
Touch The Sky(lake)
So at the other end of the spectrum from the Kabylake chips is the new current flagship for the time being in the shape of the Skylake 7900X. 10 physical cores with hyper-threading gives us a total of 20 logical cores to play with here. This is the first chip announced from the i9 range and larger 12, 14, 16 and 18 core editions are all pencilled in for the coming year or so, however, details are scarce on them at this time.
At first glance, it's a little confusing as to why they would even make this chip the first of its class when the rest of the range isn’t fully unveiled at this point. Looking through the rest of range specifications alongside it, it becomes clear that they seem to be reserving the i9’s for CPU’s that can handle a full 44+ PCIe lane configuration. These lanes are used for offering bandwidth to the connected cards and high-speed storage devices and needless to say this has proven a fairly controversial move as well.
The 7900X offers up the full complement of 44 lanes although the 7820X and 7800X chips. For most audio users this is unlikely to make any real difference, with the key use for all those lanes often being for GPU usage where X16 cards are the standard and anyone wanting to fit more than one is going to appreciate more lanes for the bandwidth. With the previous generation we even tended to advise going with the entry level 6800K for audio over the 6850K above it, which cost 50% more but offered very little of benefit in the performance stakes.
Summer of 79(00X)
So what’s new? Much like AMD and their infinity fabric design which was implemented to improve cross-core communication within the chip itself, Intel arrived with its own “Mesh” technology.
Functioning much like AMD’s design, it removes the ring based communication path between cores and RAM and implements a multi-point mesh design, brought in to enable shorter paths between them. Doing tests on the Ryzen platform, I noted some poor performance scaling at lower buffer settings which seemed to smooth itself out once you went over a 192 buffer setting. In the run up to this, I’ve retested a number of CPU’s and boards on the AMD side and it does appear that even after a number of tweaks and improvements at the BIOS level the scaling is still the same. On the plus side, as it’s constant and always manifests in the same manner, I feel a lot more comfortable working with them now we’re aware that this is a known constant.
In Intel's case, I had some apprehension given it’s the company's first attempt at this in a consumer grade solution and that perhaps we’d be seeing the same sort of performance limitations that we saw on the AMD’s, but so far at least with the 7900X the internal chip latency has been superb. Even running at a 64 buffer we’ve been seeing 100% CPU load prior to the audio breaking up in playback, making this one of the most efficient chips I think I’ve possibly had on the desk.
So certainly a plus point there as the load capability seems to scale perfectly across the various buffer settings tested. RAW performance wise I’ve run it through both CPU-Z and Geekbench.
The multi-core result in Geekbench looks modest, although it’s worth noting the single core gains going on here compared with the previous generation 10 core the 6950X. On the basic DAWBench 4 test this doesn’t really show us up any great gains, rather it returns the sort of minor bump in performance that we’d kind of expect.
However whilst more cores can help spread the load, a lot of firms have always driven home the importance of raw clock speeds as well and once we start to look at more complex chains this becomes a little clearer. A VSTi channel with effects or additional processing on it needs to be sent to the CPU as a whole chain as it proves rather inefficient to chop up a channel signal chain for parallel processing.
A good single core score can mean slipping in just enough time to be able to squeeze in another full channel and effects chain and once you multiply that over the number of cores here, it’s easy to see how the combination of both a large number of cores and a high single core score can really translate into a higher total track count and is something we see manifest in the Kontakt based DAWBench VI test.
In this instance the performance gains over the previous generation seems quite sizable and whilst there is no doubt gains have been had from the change in architecture and that high-efficiency CPU usage we’ve already seen it should be noted here that this is close to a 20% increase in clock speed in play here too.
Go For Turbo, But Don't Burn Out
When we test we aim to do so around the all core turbo level. Modern Intel CPU’s have two turbo ratings, one is the “all core” level to which we can auto boost all the cores if the temperatures are safe and the other is the “Turbo 3.0” mode where it boosts a single core or it did in previous generations, but now we see it boosting the two strongest cores where the system permits.
The 7900X has a 4.5GHz 2 core turbo ability of 4.5GHz but we’ve chosen to lock it off at the all core turbo point in the testing. Running at stock clock levels we saw it boost the two cores correctly a number of times, but even under stress testing the 2 core maximum couldn’t be hit constantly without overheating on the low-noise cooling solution we were using. The best we managed was a constant 4.45GHz at a temperature we were happy with, so we dialled it back to all core turbo clock speed of 4.3GHz across all cores and locked it in place for the testing, with it behaving well around this level.
In isolation, it looks fine from a performance point of view and gives the average sort of generation on generation gains that we would expect from an Intel range refresh, maybe pumped up a little as they’ve chosen to release them to market with raised base clocks. This leaves little room for overclocking, but it does give the buyer who simply wants the fastest model they can get out of the box and run it at stock. The problem is that this isn’t in isolation and whilst we’ve got used to Intel’s 10% year on year gains over recent generations, the has to be many a user who longs for the sort of gains we saw when the X58 generation arrived or even when AMD dropped the Athlon 64 range on us all those years ago.
Ryzen made that sort of gain upon release, although they were so far behind that it didn’t do much more than bring them level. This refresh puts Intel in a stronger place performance wise and it has to be noted that this chip has been incoming for a while. Certainly since long before Ryzen reignited the CPU war and it feels like they may have simply squeezed it a bit harder than normal to make it look more competitive.
This isn’t a game changer response to AMD. I doubt we’ll be seeing that for a year or two at this point and it will give AMD continued opportunities to apply pressure. What it has done however is what a lot of us hoped for initially and that it’s forced Intel to readdress its pricing scheme to some degree. What we have here is a 10 core CPU for a third cheaper than the last 10 core CPU they released. Coming in around the £900 it rebalances the performance to price metrics to some degree and will no doubt help make the “i” series CPU’s attractive again to more than a few users after a number of months of it being very much up for debate in many usage segments.
You can see the full range of Scan 3XS audio tuned computers, including the very latest tech as mentioned in this article, here. A very big thank you to Pete Gardner of Scan Computers, for having the time and resources to give us this insight.