A lot has been made of the new Intel Sandy Bridge parts. For HTPC’s they are really great CPUs as they offer low power consumption, in line with Clarkdale, and have a slew of new features. Since there has been a lot of discussion regarding the new CPUs already in terms of overclock ability and general performance, I am going to stick to a home server/ HTPC related review of the Core i7-2600K which is the top-of-the-line January 2011 Intel Sandy Bridge part.
This test configuration took me literally hours of thought to put together. Intel released the new 32nm process based Sandy Bridge CPUs alongside two chipsets, the P67 and H67 which map fairly well to the predecessor parts the P55 and H57 chipsets. The main differences between the H67 and P67 are:
|Intel Sandy Bridge Launch Chipsets|
|Allows PCIe x16 split to two x8?||No||Yes|
|Utilizes ondie GPU?||Yes||No|
|Allows for Intel RAID?||Yes||Yes|
After looking at the available launch motherboards, I decided to purchase a H67 based ASUS P8H67-M EVO motherboard for this review, primarily so I could test the onboard GPU and Quick Sync technologies. The final configuration ended up being:
- CPU: Intel Core i7-2600K
- Motherboard: ASUS P8H67-M EVO
- Memory: 4GB 1600MHz CL9 DDR3 (4x2GB)
- Hard Drive: OCZ Agility 2 120GB
- Additional NICs: Intel Gigabit CT PCIe x1 network adapter
- Enclosure: Supermicro SC731i-300B
- Power Supply: PicoPSU 150XT
One word of warning, I would STRONGLY advise against getting an unlocked multiplier CPU (denoted as a “K” series CPU in the model number) for the H67 platform. You cannot utilized the unlocked multiplier with the H67 chipset.
The Qualitative take on the Intel Core i7-2600K
It would have been nice to see Intel match AMD’s affinity towards providing ECC support on consumer platforms. Perhaps when memory sizes on consumer PCs were smaller, ECC was less of an issue, but at what point might a consumer (the primary market for the desktop CPUs) want to start using ECC DRAM in their day-to-day workstations? For all the work Microsoft has put into making Windows 7 stable, it would be nice if we could have this basic level of protection for the hardware. Ask an average user if a few crashes a year could be prevented for the $20 differential for UDIMMs and I bet the answer would be yes. Of course, in short order Intel will be launching the Xeon parts that will have ECC support enabled for a price premium over the desktop counterparts. This is part of Intel’s segmentation strategy which has been successful in the x86 space.
One important thing to note is that the Intel Core i7-2600K does NOT support Intel VT-d, just like the i7-2500K. Although one may be relatively safe in the assumption that the desktop uses for VT-d are limited (since this is primarily for passing through add-in cards to virtual machines) it turns out the non-“K” variants of the Sandy Bridge desktop line do in fact support VT-d. My only guess here is that Intel did not want someone willing to forgo ECC DRAM to also have an overclocked 4GHz+ server CPU for around $330.
|New Core i5 and I7 Sandy Bridge CPUs|
|VT-x||VT-d||AES-NI||Trusted Exec. Tech|
|Intel Core i7-2600K||Yes||No||Yes||No|
|Intel Core i7-2600||Yes||Yes||Yes||Yes|
|Intel Core i5-2500K||Yes||No||Yes||No|
|Intel Core i5-2500||Yes||Yes||Yes||Yes|
|Intel Core i5-2400||Yes||Yes||Yes||Yes|
|Intel Core i5-2300||Yes||No||Yes||No|
The AES-NI inclusion is a great feature for those that utilize compatible encrpytion on their storage. One example would be Oracle Solaris Express 11 where the included ZFS v31 can utilize Intel’s AES-NI accelerator. I was fairly surprised that Intel Trusted Execution Technology (TXT) was left out of the flagship Core i7 part, but TXT and VT-d are fairly closely related so this makes sense.
Finally, the H.264 encoding engine which is a big feature of the new Sandy Bridge CPUs is great… provided you shell out $40 for an application that can use Intel Quick Sync, and you use a H67 motherboard. I will not be using this for the performance numbers since there are plenty of reviews that show it adds 40% or more to encoding speeds. For most users, purchasing something like an i5-2400 for H.264 encoding makes a lot of sense because it is no longer clock speed bound. Personally, I prefer the image quality of the CPU path over the Quick Sync image, but a lot of people may disagree here. As a bonus, the Core i5-2400 supports VT-d making it better for an ESXi or Xen installation once Sandy Bridge is fully supported.
Given it is 2011, I have done a slight tweak to the x264 test from 2010. First, Handbrake 0.9.5 was released, so I will be switching to the new version for future reviews. Also, since DVD quality video is not as exciting as it once was, with 200+ FPS encoding performance of today’s chips, I decided to change the test over to 1080p source video to iPhone 4 presets in Handbrake. Other than that, the WEI component will remain.
Windows Experience Index
This is a quick Windows 7 benchmark that allows a user to get a decent gauge of how fast a CPU is from the built-in benchmarking functionality. It should be noted that WEI is not linear in scoring so the difference between a 3.0 and a 4.0 is not equivalent to a 6.5 to 7.5 jump. Two notes here. First, the CPU score is nothing to balk at. Even at stock clocks the Core i7-2600K is really fast.
Frankly, Intel’s integrated GPU, hailed by many a review site is in this weird state of limbo. On one hand, it is a nice integrated GPU that can sip power. On the other hand, it is not fast enough to game one with any decent display (1920×1080 or better or 1680×1050 really.) One can drop the texture detail but let’s face it, one of the main reason to play a game on the PC versus a console is better graphics. The new Intel GPU does not deliver on this. Furthermore, the P67, which allows for multiplier based overclocking does not support video outputs and the Z68 chipset (which I am excited for) is not here. 6.4 does seem awesome, but I would argue that the performance is still nowhere where Intel needs to be to replace the need for a discreet GPU for gaming, and is overkill for 2D and Windows Aero interface applications. With that being said, kudos to Intel for finally getting back into the game.
Handbrake 0.9.4 and 0.9.5 Performance
This is a favorite of readers, but may eventually be replaced by technology like Quick Sync. For the below tests the Blu-Ray Quality to iPhone 4 Handbrake presets were done on Handbrake 0.9.5 while the legacy DVD quality tests were done on Handbrake 0.9.4. Unfortunately I was unable to tests every CPU under the new scenario, but one should get the idea from the below graph.
|x264 Handbrake Encodes (0.9.4 and 0.9.5)
|DVD Quality||Blu-Ray to iPhone 4 Quality|
|Athlon II X2 260||62||9|
|Athlon II X3 445||93|
|Athlon II X4 640||126||18|
|Phenom II X4 955 BE||151||23|
|Phenom II X4 965 BE||160|
|Core i7 920||179||28|
|Core i7 940||212||33|
As one can see, the Core i7-2600K is fast, really fast. With that being said, I actually do not think the i7-920 is an outdated part at this point, especially given the X58’s ability to accept six DDR3 DIMMs and the additional X58 PCIe lanes. On the other hand, the Q6600 really shows its age. As perhaps the defining Core 2 65nm quad core part, the Q6600 is quite far behind the curve now. With all of this being said, processors based on Bloomfield, Clarkdale, and Lynnfield are probably not worth upgrading, and the same holds true for the quad core AMD parts when looking at raw CPU performance. AES-NI and Quick Sync may be game changers for a lot of people though.
With all of the ASUS motherboard’s power saving technologies like the EPU turned on and only a SSD installed, the max power consumption I saw from the platform was 122w. That means it can be powered by a PicoPSU 150XT if one uses a 150w power brick, not anything smaller.
In most home server environments though, a new quad core Sandy Bridge CPU will spend most of its time at idle. Here is a snap of the setup without the Intel NIC (not used in any of the power consumption figures) and using the PicoPSU.
Just for reference, the max power consumption of the H67 motherboard and CPU are very close to the PicoPSU 150XT’s max output. Using the 300w PSU in the Supermicro SC731i-300B led to a 2w greater figure which is negligible.
This was not too bad, and this is out of the box idle power consumption at the Windows 7 desktop after the desktop loaded on a fresh Windows 7 installation including patches and drivers from the ASUS driver DVD. Odds are one could get a bit better with some tuning. This makes power consumption very similar to Clarkdale and a bit better than Lynnfield. Then again, with the higher cost of the newer chips, and the difference of a few watts, I am not sure that the idle power savings would warrant a re-build of an existing machine unless super-fast H.264 encoding was needed.
Overall, if LGA 775 was not already dead (and it was last year for all intents and purposes), it is now. Sandy Bridge and the H67 chipset do provide a compelling case for new builds only sipping a few idle watts more than an Atom D510 platform while having the ability to scale to be one of Intel’s fastest desktop CPUs to date. The big negative is that the H67 chipset boards and Sandy Bridge CPUs cost a lot at the moment. Minimum combined entry costs are in the $300 range for a Core i5-2400 and a decent mATX H67 board. Compare this to the $125 to $150 range for a Athlon II X4 640, or about $230 for a Core i3-530/ i3-540 and a LGA 1156 board and one must justify the extra expenditures on the added performance and features not the power savings. For LGA 1366 users, if one does not need AES-NI acceleration and Quick Sync, there is little reason to make a switch to Sandy Bridge, except for power consumption savings. At the end of the day, Sandy Bridge and the Intel Core i7-2600K represent a solid move forward for video transcoding home servers. One may wish to wait for the Z68 and Q67 consumer boards to come out for home servers, or wait for Sandy Bridge Xeons to roll out before planning new systems.