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Intel Skulltrail Enthusiast Platform Preview

Date: February 4, 2008
Author(s): Rob Williams

Consisting of two Extreme Quad-Core processors, Intel is looking to redefine what we know as “high-end”. Skulltrail is touted as being the “ultimate” enthusiast platform, offering SLI and Crossfire support, huge overclocking abilities and enough sheer power to make the competition weep.



Introduction

Note: Be sure not to miss our “Building an Affordable Skulltrail” article!

“High-end”. What does that phrase mean to you? To many, the term represents products that are the top of its class, something that bleeds excellence. It doesn’t matter what part of life a product-type represents… there’s always a “high-end” offering somewhere.

Ford, Ferrari. Timex, Rolex. The Gap, Bergdorf Goodman. Cottage, Villa. RC Cola, Coca Cola. QX9650, Skulltrail.

What? Did I just call a 3.0GHz Quad-Core processor a generic product? Of course I exaggerate, but it’s easy to be unreasonable once Skulltrail pollutes the mind.

Yes, where Skulltrail is concerned, great possibilities arise. Up until now, such a platform has been unavailable for the regular enthusiast, whether it be an overclocking or gaming enthsusiast, but Skulltrail promises to feed the insatiable need of those who thrive on having more power. Does it deliver on its promises? It does, as long as you have the means to feed it.

Let’s touch up on what Skulltrail is, exactly. The name likely comes as no surprise to anyone who’ve been visiting the site for a while. During IDF in September, Intel delved a lot more into what Skulltrail was, how it worked, and what we should expect. We covered what we learned in greater detail inside of these two articles.

First and foremost, the “Skulltrail” name doesn’t represent the platform as a whole, per se. Rather, the moniker is a codename for the D5400XS enthusiast motherboard, the “XS” meaning “Extreme Series”. That board is designed to co-exist with two Extreme Quad-Core processors, essentially creating the “platform”.

Once launched, the Skulltrail “platform” will be marketed with the D5400XS motherboard and include dual QX9775 LGA771 processors, which settle in at 3.20GHz, similar to the QX9770 LGA775 chip that we evaluated back in November. Although any LGA771 processors will function in the board (Xeon E5410, E5420, et cetera), the QX9775 is the first-ever LGA771 Extreme product.

One of the big draws to the system is the fact that it supports NVIDIA SLI and AMD Crossfire, but that’s not without certain drawbacks. The D5400XS has four GPU slots, for example, but that doesn’t open up Quad-GPU capabilities by itself (in that they work together). Instead, that’s for the GPU manufacturer to handle, via their drivers.

The fact that NVIDIA SLI is available here is something interesting in itself, since it’s the first time SLI has seen face on a non-NVIDIA-chipset-based motherboard. For this to be possible, Intel uses NVIDIA’s nForce 100 SLI MCP chipsets, which opens up the ability for basic SLI. The downside though, is that 3-Way SLI and Quad-SLI are not immediately possible with that given chipset, so whether or not having anything beyond SLI with two GPUs remains to be seen.

AMD’s Crossfire is a little different, though, because it doesn’t specifically require a special chipset to operate. Because of this, it’s much easier for AMD to release special drivers to enable Quad-Crossfire, which will no doubt happen far before the time we see Quad-SLI supported here.

What’s the point of so much power?

As soon as Intel released information regarding the new platform, many people exclaimed just that. It’s hard to disagree… as many are still figuring out ways to put their single Quad-Cores to good use. So really then, what’s the point of having a machine this powerful?

The fact that the D5400XS motherboard includes support for SLI leads to the theory that it’s a board for extreme gaming, which it is, but that’s far from being Intel’s only target audience. Let’s face it… games have hardly even begun to take proper use of our Dual-Cores, so seeing a title exploit all eight cores and benefit from it is not something that will happen overnight. Game developers are catching up to that, however.

Ultimately, Skulltrail is designed to be a workstation solution that offers so much power, the end-user won’t need to worry about maxing out the capabilities – unless they want to, of course.

When Dual-Core processors first brokethrough, the common point people made was that more than one process could be run without lagging the rest of the system. “Finally! I can encode a video AND play a game at the same time!” As hard as it is to believe, that was only three years ago. How in the world did we survive prior to that?

Once the multi-core scheme of things grew larger, developers all over began to make sure that their applications supported multi-threading. After all, if an application handles its job on more than one core, it gets done faster – and if the power is there, it might as well be used.

Quad-Cores then came into the picture, in late 2006, and the same arguement was brought up again. Since most of our applications, including video encoders, began to use more than one core, our Dual-Cores began to become too overworked, essentially bringing us back to the original problem we ran into. It’s no secret… if you are a big multi-tasker, then Quad-Cores are a blessing.

So, how about effectively doubling the power of a Quad-Core machine, giving the end-user so much room to breath that it becomes a challenge to take full advantage of all the power?

Welcome to Skulltrail.


Putting Eight Cores to Good Use

When Intel launched their V8 platform last year, it was very similar in design to Skulltrail, however it was still more of a server-based platform than anything, whereas Skulltrail is tweaked for the enthusiast. Everything is fast here… faster CPUs, faster RAM and dual-GPU capabilities. It looks to be an ultimate gaming rig / workstation.

We covered the fact that additional cores makes multi-tasking a breeze, but what about applications that have been developed with multi-threading in mind? That’s where Skulltrail will truly shine. Whenever I think about benefits of multi-core, 3D modelers comes to mind first. It might be because I’ve been interested in 3D modeling for a while, or the simple fact that the benefits are blatantly obvious.

Workstation rendering is nothing new, and neither is rendering that splits up the jobs to different CPUs. Before Dual-Cores became commonplace, the lone possibility was hooking two computers together and having them render together. That method of course still exists, but applies to incredibly large projects, where a Quad-Core would still take days or weeks to render the full job.

As the proverb says, many hands make light work. That’s exactly the case for multi-core processors, and when eight are in a single machine, it can literally cut rendering and other project times in half. To better understand the differences that can be seen though, it’s easier to read results printed out. Here is a sample:

Although times are not exactly half, the differences are still quite impressive. For example, the Quad-Core rendered the project in 55% of the time it took the Quad-Core, and the Octal-Core accomplished the same job in 29.5% of the time. These times obviously represent a small project, but as a project grows larger, it takes far longer to render. Or, if you are like me, you like to preview the work constantly, and on a slower processor, waiting for the project each time would be maddening.

Not everyone is a modeler, but even soccer moms could potentially take advantage of an eight-core machine, which in itself, is impressive. As the multi-threaded era expands, more and more applications support it, so even “simple” applications will benefit. As we will see later, a software title called ProShow Gold, a slideshow creation tool, is multi-threaded, and will actually utilize more than four cores. So instead of being able to take a shower during the process, the project should be done before you can go grab a coffee and get back to the chair.

Video in particular is an area where multi-core processors thrive, although good multi-threaded encoders are still slow to catch on. DivX is one of the most popular that support it, along with the SSE4 instruction set, making it a good choice all around. TMPGEnc Express is another, as we saw in our QX9650 review and will see again later in this review.

Though humorous, even Microsoft Excel benefits from extra cores, especially where large calculations are concerned. Obviously, these calculations would have to be mind-boggling, so the benefits wouldn’t effect many, but it’s interesting nonetheless. It proves that everything is slowly becoming multi-threaded capable… as they should be.

Even folders can benefit from an eight-core machine. It’s no secret that there are a few die hard folders out there… those who believe in their cause so much that they constantly run multiple machines around the clock. Some folders, though, are limited on one PC. With Skulltrail, they could still folder on one CPU and use the other one for themselves. There are numerous possibilities here.

Using such a large machine for folding might seem a bit silly to some, but similar systems have already been used for that purpose for quite some time. If you take a look at the top list for [email protected], you’ll notice that not a single machine on the top page includes less than eight cores – some even include sixteen. One noticeable difference with Skulltrail though is the top-end clock-speed, so such systems should hit the top page rather fast if used for this purpose.

How many cores are too many?

It’s easy to believe that because the core count doubles, then performance in multi-threaded applications will also be doubled, but that’s not necessarily true. In some cases, certain applications and projects can use numerous cores, but most of the smaller projects I’ve dealt with have not benefited at all from all eight cores at once. That’s where things get a little tricky.

Some projects, plain and simple, are unable to take advantage of eight cores due to various circumstances (not a large enough render, more memory-intensive, etc), but most, if not all, will take advantage of more than four. In most of my personal testing, the majority of workstation-type multi-threaded applications would either use five or six, but never more than that.

Even Cinebench, as we will see, will benefit from more than a Quad-Core, but at the top-end, it’s gains are not exactly 100% on an Octal-Core machine. Where vast improvements are seen is with raw frequency. Even if an application doesn’t speed up with eight cores, the fact that the machine is 3.2GHz will make a huge difference when compared to similar machines of 2.33GHz – one of the most common Xeon speeds.

Unless you have specific needs and have the ability to tax out all eight cores with your given workstation application, the main benefits to be seen are with multi-tasking, or as mentioned above, the increased frequency. Instead of a 3DS Max project hogging up the entire computer, for example, it could take six of the eight cores and leave the other two for you to make for smooth multi-tasking.

On the few pages, we will be taking a look at the D5400XS motherboard and its BIOS, followed by a look at the QX9775 processors and FB-DIMM RAM used in testing.


D5400XS Motherboard, 5400 Chipset

Instead of creating a fresh chipset from scratch, Intel opted instead to utilize their top-end server offering, the Intel 5400, which is why the Skulltrail board is called the D5400XS (Desktop 5400 Extreme Series). Given the already favorable specs of the chipset, it made sense to port it over and tweak it to cater more towards the enthusiast, proven by the fact that it supports four PCI-E 16x GPUs.

The most important thing to mention about the board is that it requires a large chassis, one that supports e-ATX. It’s just as tall as a regular motherboard, but much wider… more of a square rather than a rectangle like all common desktop motherboards. The chassis I used during testing was Thermaltake’s Armor, and it worked just fine. SilverStone, Antec, Cooler Master and others provide many compatible cases as well, though.


(Click here to view full-resolution image)

Before we tour the board, let’s first take a look at the official specs as they stand right now:

Specification
Intel D5400XS "Skulltrail"
Form Factor Standard Desktop e-ATX
Dimensions: 13" x 12"
CPU Sockets 2 x LGA771 Sockets
Uses standard LGA775 Heatsink Mounting
ProcessorSupport for 2 x Core 2 Extreme QX9775 or
2 x Xeon LGA771 Processors
ChipsetIntel 5400 Chipset
MemorySupport for up to 8GB FB-DIMM DDR2-800
4 x DIMM Slots, Voltage and Frequency Controllable
Graphics4 x PCI-E 16x 1.1-Gen Slots
AudioIntel HD Audio (7.1Ch Dolby Home Theater Support in Vista only)
5 Stack Audio & S/PDIF Optical
ConnectivityIntel Pro 10/100/1000
BIOSIntel Rapid BIOS
Intel Express BIOS Update
USB and S-ATA Port Disable
SoftwareExpress Installer DVD, XP and Vista Support
Additional Features Windows Vista WHQL Certified
Consumer Infrared Receiver and Emitter (Windows Vista only)

Onboard piezo speaker

Two things might stand out when looking at the specs – the prime suspects being the choice of PCI-E slots and also memory. The reason is simple… the Intel 5400 workstation chipset is used, so all base functionality needed to be left in tact. While it would have been ideal to have a fresh chipset, given the circumstances, it made more sense to port one over.

The good thing is that the downsides are few. First is the fact that the PCI-E slots are gen 1.1, instead of the more recent 2.0. This won’t effect many people, as 2.0-compatible video cards are very few, and all current top-end GPUs are 1.1, so there will be no limiting factor here.


Intel Skulltrail Block Diagram

Another potential downside is the memory, due to it’s top-end frequencies and timings. Fully-buffered DIMMs increase the memory width without increasing the pin count, thanks to the on-PCB buffer. Many FB-DIMMs also offer ECC, or Error Correction. But until now, FB-DIMMs have not been used in an enthusiast platform, due to the overall speeds. Until recently, DDR2-667 was the fastest FB-DIMM speed, but by the time Skulltrail launches, DDR2-800 will be readily available. In a few months, we might also be seeing DDR2-1066 speeds, but that’s likely to top FB-DIMM out in its current implementation.

While the overall frequency may leave a bit to be desired, the upside is the pricing. While DDR3 is still quite expensive, FB-DIMM’s pricing is not far off from standard DDR2, at around $150 for a 2 x 2GB kit of DDR2-667 speeds. Faster modules, such as DDR2-800, are expected to be a little bit more expensive, since it’s being catered to enthusiasts and a workstation platform, and also because they will be in low demand at first.

Specification
Intel 5400 Chipset
Target Segment Workstation
Processors1 or 2 Intel Xeon 5200 and 5400 Processors
1 or 2 Intel Core 2 Extreme QX9775 Processor
System Bus 1067/1333/1600 MHz
MCH5400 MCH
Memory Modules FB-DIMM DDR2-533/667/800
Up to 128GB Installed *
MBit support: 256Mb, 512Mb, 1Gb and 2Gb
* Changed to 8GB for Skulltrail
Serial ATA 6 x S-ATA
IDE2 x Ultra ATA
USB Ports 6 x USB 2.0

The sole difference between the official 5400 chipset above and the final Skulltrail version is the reduction in overall allowed memory, at 8GB. This shouldn’t prove a problem for anyone, and if it does, you might need to consider another workstation machine. In my experience, you need to have very specific needs in order to top out 8GB with any given project.

Closer Look at the D5400XS

Where the D5400XS is unique, is with its four PCI-E 16x slots, supporting Quad-Crossfire and NVIDIA SLI. Though neither of those technologies are perfect right now, the support is there for when they are.

Two PCI slots are included as well, for audio, WiFi, RAID or whatever else you may need. Their locations are a little inconvenient if you plan on using two dual-slot graphic cards, as the coolers will cover them. However, instead of placing the second GPU directly below the first one, you could plug it into the third PCI-E slot, effectively opening up the second PCI slot. It’s a workaround, but would also allow more airflow in between both GPUs.

In the case of Quad-GPU, the ideal method would be using cards that have a single-slot cooler, such as the AMD HD 3870 or NVIDIA 8800GT.

The large heatsink assembly is far from being the best-looking feature on the board, but the retail product could be more visually appealing. It does it’s job well, however, which is the important thing.

There is a lot going on in the bottom-right-hand corner. As you can see, all six S-ATA ports are available here, and so is the IDE connector which is cut off in the photo. The BIOS chip is also found here, directly above the BIOS code readout – a nice touch.

The array of pins beside the two large silver/purple capacitors is for the Infrared Transmitter and Receiver headers, should you require them.

The USB headers are located directly to the right-side of the large cooler and also right below it (black, nine pins).

On the top-half of the board are the two sockets, Intel 5400 chipset (underneath the large heatsink), the DIMM slots, power connectors and voltage regulator heatsinks (black, surrounding each socket).

Due to the “Extreme” nature of the platform and its processors, two 8-Pin EPS12V power connectors are recommended, and required if overclocking is to be considered. At current (no pun) time, I can only find three power supplies available that offer such a configuration, SilverStone’s DA1200 and PC Power & Cooling’s Turbo-Cool 1200 and Turbo-Cool 1KW-SR.

For the utmost in stability, even without overclocking, it’s recommended to purchase one of those, or another that you may find that contains two of the connectors. I will touch a bit more on this on the next page.

The FB-DIMM slots are located in the center of the board – a perfect location. It’s out of the way of the video cards and CPU sockets, so it has little chance of getting in the way of your installation. Because FB-DIMMs can get quite hot, Intel recommends the use of a RAM fan, which is why they included a choice of two fan connectors, surrounding the slots.

Lastly, the back panel includes dual e-SATA ports, 6x USB ports, 1x Firewire, 1x NIC and the 7.1 surround sound Intel HD Audio.

Compared to other motherboards on the market, the back panel might seem a little barren, but everything that’s important is included here. Intel never goes overboard with features, and instead opts to provide a high-quality motherboard that is guaranteed to remain stable at all times.

With the motherboard out of the way, let’s continue on with a look at the QX9775 processor and touch on some installation basics.


D5400XS BIOS

If you’ve used Intel motherboards in the past, the BIOS on the D5400 will be quite familiar to you. However, as with the rest of the board, it’s been tweaked with enthusiasts in mind. Thanks to the Dual-CPU nature of the board, the front-page is a little different, with a listing for each processor installed It’s important to note that the board will function fine without a second CPU.

On the second page, some minor configuration can be tackled, such as setting up the RAID, boot configuration, hardware monitoring and more.

By default, ACHI will be the chosen drive configuration, which means Vista only. For Windows XP, you will need to change back to IDE, or RAID if you have that in mind.

Hardware monitoring on many boards are very lackluster, but here, it’s a different story. Each of the voltages are displayed in real-time, so that you can see if there is a problem. Temperatures are also here, as expected, for the entire CPU, not each individual core.

Overclocking is not necessarily new with Intel motherboards, but to this degree it is. Each CPU can be configured separately for voltages. One example of why this is useful is with overclocking. While one of the CPUs may be stable at 4.0GHz with 1.450v, the other could be stable with 1.500v. The flexibility here allows you to apply only what voltage is needed.

The allowed voltages for each setting is:

The fact that the board allows CPU voltages of up to 1.9v proves that Intel built the board around high overclocks. Although we were unable to tackle overclocking ourselves, due to our power supply, we will touch up on this a little further on the final page.

Although FB-DIMM is clocked far lower than standard DDR2, it’s still quite overclockable, and even more so thanks to the options Intel provides in the BIOS. FB-DIMM is touchy, so overclocking too far can be a bad idea. It also gets far hotter than standard DDR2, so a RAM fan is an absolute must.

Also under the tweaking section is PCI Express configuration and also reference voltages for the CPU and FSB.

When compared to other enthusiast boards on the market, the BIOS here seems lackluster, which it is to some degree, but the bases are covered. Who expected Intel to allow up to 1.9v CPU voltage on a motherboard, ever?

Next up we will take a look at the new QX9775 and what it brings to the table, along with a look at the FB-DIMM modules used during testing.


QX9775 Quad-Core, Installation Notes

Skulltrail will be marketed with the upcoming Core 2 Extreme QX9775 Quad-Core. It’s clocked at 3.2GHz, includes a 1600MHz front-side-bus, 12MB total L2 cache, along with a TDP of 150W. These processors will require a Skulltrail motherboard to run, as they require an LGA771 socket. They may run in a standard 5400-based server board as well, but I’ve been unable to test this out. Theoretically, they should.

The server equivalent is the Xeon X5482, which notes an operating voltage of 0.975v – 1.212v. Stock voltages with the QX9775 on Skulltrail, as we will see later, hover around 1.25v when all settings are kept to stock.

Specification
C2E QX9775
C2E QX9770
C2E QX9650
Socket LGA771LGA775LGA775
Frequency3.20GHz3.20GHz3.0GHz
Front-Side-Bus1600MHz1600MHz1333MHz
L2 Cache 2 x 6MB 2 x 6MB2 x 6MB
TDP150W136W130W
1Ku Price (Est) $1,499$1,399$999
AvailabilityQ1 2008 Q1 2008 Now

Pair 300W worth of CPUs and 400W worth of GPUs together, and the need for a 1000W+ power supply becomes ever clearer.



Dual QX9775 LGA771 Processors

Taking a look at the back of the processors, not much differs. On the QX9775, filter caps are rotated clockwise 90°, but the count remain the same. The primary difference is the location of the notches, to make sure one is not incorrectly installed into an inappropriate motherboard.


Left: QX9775, Right: QX9650

The FB-DIMM modules Intel sent along with Skulltrail came straight from Micron. This is a 2x2GB DDR2-800 kit with 5-5-5 timings, operation with 1.8v and includes Error Correction. You can read more on these specific chips on Micron’s site, if curiosity strikes.


Micron DDR2-800 FB-DIMM

Production DDR2-800 FB-DIMM will be sold by Crucial, Kingston, Transcend and many others, so there should be no shortage once available. “Overclocking” kits might be sold as well, though kits of the same frequency with a CAS latency of 4 would be appreciated the most.

Installation Notes

Installing a Skulltrail platform is not much more difficult than a regular setup, but extra precaution must be taken with the parts you choose and airflow scheme.

You will need a large chassis that supports Extended ATX motherboards, which many full-towers on the market do, including SilverStone’s TJ series, Cooler Master’s Stacker, Thermaltake’s Armor/Kandalf, and so on. It’s important to purchase one that will allow you to set up the perfect airflow scheme, since two Quad-Cores can heat up the inside of a system very quickly, not surprisingly.

Ideally, a well-thought-out water-cooling setup would be the best choice, with fans strategically placed to exhaust warm air as fast as possible. In my test case, the Thermaltake Armor, there is a small 80mm on the top of the inside of the case to exhaust air, one large 120mm in the back, and I also have one “ghetto-modded” in the front inside, which sucks in air and blows it through to the back.

To have superb airflow, a power supply with modular connections might be a good bet, although depending on personal skepticism, you may want to avoid units that offer modular PCI-E cables. GPUs are an expensive investment, and you don’t want to risk anything.

Intel’s PSU recommendations are generous, so you might be able to get away with a slightly smaller model than what’s mentioned below, but you don’t want to get too carried away.

Depending on the GPUs you plan to use, the PSU size could vary. Two HD 3870 X2’s will suck a lot more power than two 8800GT’s, for example.

Cooling is the final thing to consider. Air might be the most common choice given the fact that many custom-made dual-CPU water-cooling kits do not exist, but the latter will still be the best choice, especially with overclocking. Overclocking on air with such beefy processors is not a good idea and shouldn’t be considered, unless they push incredible air, and even then, the overclock should be minor.

Intel sent along two Zalman 9700 CPU coolers to use in our rigs, which you can see in use above, and in a warm room (78°F), the CPU temperatures didn’t go above 88°C during full load over a seven-hour period. Though still high, it’s common of high-clocked Quad-Cores, and considering it was in a room with higher-than-normal room temperature, it shows that such a rig would be fine on air.

I think we’ve covered all our bases here, so we can continue on to our testing methodology, then see how Skulltrail compares to all of our recent processors. Following that, we will have specific Skulltrail tests to see how eight-cores can be fully taken advantage of.


Testing Methodology

Regardless of the OS we are running or product being reviewed, there are a few conditions that are met to assure accurate, repeatable results.

Below are the two systems used in today’s testing:

Testing Machine

Compared Machine

Please note that due to unforeseen occurrences, certain tests will not be completed in todays article. That includes SLI comparisons between Skulltrail and another machine, and also overclocking.

Shipping complications prevented our SilverStone DA1200 power supply from arriving on time, so overclocking was unable to be performed, since our Antec Quattro 1000W does not include dual 8-Pin EPS motherboard connections. Our SLI testing could not be completed either, due to issues that the Antec Quattro 1000W has with certain 8800 GPUs. More information can be seen in this thread.

This will not be our only Skulltrail-related article, however, and testing for both SLI and overclocking will be tackled once the required power supply arrives. Apologies for not being able to include both pieces of testing in todays article.

Operating Systems

For our processor reviews, we use three different operating systems: Windows XP, Windows Vista and Gentoo Linux. Although Vista has been out for close to a year, we’ve encountered numerous issues with our benchmarking, so we use it only where necessary, which at this time is only for PCMark Vantage. Skulltrail-specific comparisons will be performed in Vista as well, but that will be explained further in the article.

Game Benchmarks

Because of our inability to test out SLI in todays article, we are going to stick to the same four game titles that we’ve used in our past few processor reviews, which include Call of Duty 4, Crysis, Half-Life 2: Episode Two and also F.E.A.R.

For our processor and GPU reviews, we do not use any time demos. All levels are played through manually, twice over, with the results averaged. Frames-per-second are recorded with FRAPS 2.9.4, with each play-through lasting between four and six minutes.

It’s important to note that because no time demos are used, the average FPS will vary in between runs, even on the same CPU, due to changing circumstances in the game. It’s for this reason that we play on each setting twice, then average the two. To cover the bases, both 1280×1024 and 2560×1600 resolutions are used, to see if benefits can be seen at either the low-end or high-end.

Below, you can view all of the games we will be using, as well as the settings used.

Specification
1280×1024
2560×1600
Call of Duty 4

Crysis

F.E.A.R.

Half-Life 2: Episode Two

All other non-game benchmarks will be explained along the way.


SYSmark 2007, PCMark Vantage

There is no better way to evaluate a system and its components than to run a suite of real-world benchmarks. To begin our testing, we will use two popular benchmarking suites that emulate real-world scenarios and stress the machine the way it should be… by emulating tasks that people actually perform on a day to day basis.

Both SYSmark and PCMark are hands-free, using scripts to execute all of the real-world scenarios, such as video editing and image manipulation. Each one of these suites output easy-to-understand scores once the tests are completed, giving us a no-nonsense measure of seeing which areas our computer excels in.

SYSmark 2007 Preview

SYSmark, from Bapco, is a comprehensive benchmarking application that emulates real-world scenarios by installing popular applications that many people use every day, such as Microsoft Office, Adobe Photoshop, Sony Vegas and many others.

SYSmark grades the overall performance of your system based off of different criteria, but mostly it will depend on how fast it could complete certain tasks. Once the suite is completed, five scores are delivered, one as an overall average and the others for each of the four categories. We perform this test in Windows XP due to frequent errors caused within Windows Vista.

Throwing a second CPU in the machine didn’t make much of a difference, when compared to our QX9770. Not surprisingly, SYSmark was not designed with an eight-core machine in mind, which is why differences are not seen. If it were the frequency that was doubled and not the cores, then scores would be a totally different story.

Surprisingly, the QX9775 scored slightly lower than the comparable QX9770, which may be due to the slower memory.

PCMark Vantage

The most recent recruit to our testing suite is PCMark Vantage, an application that proves to be far more than a simple upgrade from a previous version. Vantage is a completely overhauled application, and this was evidenced by the fact that it took more than two full years to produce. Rather than having a PCMark that could complete in 15 minutes, Vantage’s entire run will take around 90 minutes, testing seven primary areas, such as high-definition video, image manipulation, music conversion, et cetera.

Like SYSmark, PCMark delivers simple scores once completed, one for each of the seven main categories and an overall “PCMark Suite” score, which is what most folks will use for comparisons. I left out two suites due to irrelevancy and to keep the graph a modest size.

Like SYSmark, PCMark is also not designed to handle such a large system, proven by the fact that both the QX9770 and dual QX9775 machine scored almost identical overall PCMark Suite scores. Of course, canned benchmarks don’t matter much in the grand scheme of things. Rather, real-world benchmarks do, which we are going to tackle next.


Multi-Media: DivX 6.7, Nero Recode

DivX 6.7

One area where Intel’s 45nm processors excel is with multi-media encoders that utilize the SSE4 instruction set. Beginning with DivX 6.6.0, the set is fully supported and will make a huge difference when using the “Experimental Full Search” algorithm to encode.

When using DivX 6.6.0+, you will notice that the “Experimental Full Search” is left at Disabled by default. This, as we found out, is a good thing since it does indeed take longer overall. If you are a media enthusiast who cares a lot about quality and doesn’t mind the extra wait, then this might be the route to take. The end result may vary depending on certain factors, such as original video codec, original video quality and video length.

For our testing, we are using a 0.99GB high-quality DivX .AVI of Half-Life 2: Episode Two gameplay. The video is just under 4 minutes in length and is in 720p resolution, which equates to a video bit rate of ~45Mbps, not dissimilar to standard 720p movies. We converted the video two different ways.

First, we encoded the video at the same resolution but a lower quality, so as to achieve a far more acceptable file size (~150MB). The second method is encoding of the same video, but to a 480×272 resolution, similar to what some mobile devices use. This last method is not entirely realistic as it’s unlikely the exported video would work on such a device, but the test is to see the benefits of SSE4 in general.

There isn’t a huge benefit here to speak of, but there is a small one. Nothing that would warrant a complete dual-CPU setup, however. With more comprehensive projects, the CPU usage may increase.

Nero Recode

Where video conversion is concerned, one of the applications I’ve grown to enjoy over the years is Nero Recode. Though it’s export options are extremely limited, they offer high image quality and decent file weight. Nero 8 was released a few months ago, but still lacks support for SSE4.

In a meeting with Nero in September, we questioned whether or not we would see SSE4 support in a future update, but we were told that there is no immediate plans to implement it, although the “guys in the lab” are taking a look at it. Nero exhibits confidence that their application is optimized enough as is, and SSE4 is not needed.

For this test, we’ve first ripped our copy of our concert DVD, Killadelphia, by Lamb of God. The original DVD rip weighs in at 7.7GB, but we are using Nero to reconvert it to 4.5GB so that it will fit on a normal-sized DVD to use as a backup. Our “mobile” test consists of converting the main concert footage to the same resolution a Sony PSP uses (480×272) which results in a 700MB file.

While Recode won’t take advantage of eight-cores (at least in my personal tests), it does take advantage of more than four, evidenced by the mobile recode which was cut down by a full minute.


Multi-Media: Adobe Lightroom, 3DS Max 9

Adobe Lightroom 1.2

Years ago, you’d have to fork over many Benjamins in order to get a piece of great technology, but that’s not the case anymore. For a modest fee, you can set yourself up with some absolutely killer hardware. Luckily, one area where that’s definitely the case is with digital cameras. It’s cheaper than ever to own a Digital-SLR, which is the reason why they are growing in popularity so quickly. As a result, RAW photo editing is also becoming more popular, hence the topic of our next benchmark.

Adobe Lightroom is an excellent RAW photo editor/organizer that’s easy to use and looks fantastic. For our test, we take 100 RAW files (Nikon .NEF) which are 10 Megapixel in resolution and then export them as JPEGs in 1000×669 resolution… a result that could be easily passed around online or saved elsewhere on your machine as a low-resolution backup.

With normal Lightroom batch jobs, the dual CPUs won’t effect much, except for giving you a smoother multi-tasking machine while the application takes one CPU for itself.

3DS Max 9

As an industry-leading 3D graphics application, Autodesk’s 3DS Max is one of our more important benchmarks. If there are people who will benefit from faster CPUs with lots of cores, it’s designers of 3D models and environments and animators. Some of these projects are so comprehensive that they can take days to render. At this time, the application does not support SSE4 and will likely not in the future due to irrelevant instructions.

For our test, we are taking a dragon model which is included with the application, Dragon_Character_Rig.max, and rendering it to 1080p resolution (1920×1080). For a second test, we render the same model, but all 60 frames, to a 490×270 resolution .AVI.

In total, 3DS Max used only 6/8 cores, which was a 50% speed increase when compared to our single QX9770. Depending on the project at hand, these times will vary. Even though the application is designed to handle numerous cores, certain jobs may not require more than four, so the scores will differ. A 50% speed increase is still nothing to scoff at, though, and with larger projects, the differences would be even more appreciated.


Multi-Media: Cinebench 10, 7-Zip Archiving

Cinebench R10

Like 3DS Max, Cinema 4D is another popular cross-platform 3D graphics application that’s used by new users and experts alike. Its creators, Maxon, are well aware that their users are interested in huge computers to speed up rendering times, which is one reason why they released Cinebench to the public.

Cinebench R10 is based on the Cinema 4D engine the test consists of rendering a high-resolution model of a motorcycle and gives a score at the end. Like most other 3D applications on the market, Cinebench will take advantage of as many cores as you can throw at it.

Like our 3DS Max tests, Cinebench also doesn’t take advantage of all eight cores at the same time, presumably due to the project not requiring that many. Overall frequency will make a huge difference here, not doubling the cores. A combination of the two would provide the ultimate performance boost. While 3DS had a 50% speed increase, Cinebench had enjoyed a 59% boost. Depending on the project, results could vary greatly.

7-Zip Archiving

If you are a power-user and love free software (such as myself), then you no doubt have heard of 7-Zip. Although the application is similar to other compression applications on the market, such as WinZip and WinRAR, 7-Zip is completely free and lacks nothing that you need to effectively archive your documents.

For our test, we take a 4GB folder that’s complete with pictures, music, documents and other random files and compress it to a .7z file using both the LZMA and Bzip2 algorithms.

Bzip2 is my preferred algorithm as it’s faster thanks to multi-threadedness, but the drawback is that the resulting filesize is ~1% larger than what LZMA will export. Of course, whether or not that extra 1% is worth your extra time or not is a personal decision. We are using both algorithms in our tests since both are widely used.

Big gains were not seen here, as the program didn’t seem to want to take advantage of more than five cores at a time, resulting in a 7% increase using Bzip2 and a more noticeable 14% with the much slower LZMA algorithm.


Gaming: Call of Duty 4, Crysis

The newest additions our gaming arsenal is Call of Duty 4 and Crysis, two titles that are absolutely mind-blowing in both graphics and gameplay. It’s not too often that gorgeous games play well, but Infinity Ward and Crytek really know what they are doing. For precise settings used throughout testing, please refer to our testing methodology page.

Call of Duty 4

We have used Call of Duty 2 in our testing since its release, so it’s great to finally change the scenery a bit now that the fourth installment is available. I admit that I am not terribly fascinated with war-based games, but CoD4 does well to excite during benchmarking. It might be one title I will actually go back and play through, and that says a lot!

The level chosen for testing is The Bog, which begins you out among friends on a destroyed bridge in the heat of battle. This is a level to use in order to push your computer to the limits. The level is one of the most visually appealing I’ve seen (though dark), but has intense action that will stress both the processor and GPU.

These results don’t come as much of a surprise. Though CoD4 is capable of handling more than one core, I am sure the developers didn’t create the game with eight in mind.

Crysis

Do games this hyped really need an introduction? Crysis is one of the first games we’ve seen in a while that actually does a great job of pushing the highest-end computers to their breaking point. This is far from a joke. I would love to see a $10,000 e-peen PC run this game like butter at 2560×1600. Maybe next year, but I’d be hard-pressed to see that happen right now.

Because we just added the game to our fleet, the level used is the first one in the game. Instead of beginning right at the beginning when you jump out of a plane, we crated a save on the beach, where is where we begin each time. The manual playthrough ends after about four minutes, after the second area that requires the super-jump.

Crysis is a title that could truly care less what CPU you have installed, as long as it’s modest. Even a computer with eight cores and top-end GPUs isn’t enough to run this game at max settings with desirable framerates. Kudos Crytek, kudos.


Gaming: HL2: Episode 2, F.E.A.R.

Half-Life 2: Episode Two

Yet another game that needs no introduction, Half-Life 2: Episode Two was a proper sequel to Episode One, although the duration in which people had to wait between the two was a little questionable. Luckily for fans though, Episode Two proved to be more of what we love. It was a win/win. Introduced with this version were achievements as well, which let you know how much of a fan you really are.

We are using the Silo level for our testing, which is a level most people who haven’t even played the game know about, thanks to Valves inclusion of it in their Episode Two trailers over the past year. During our gameplay, we shoot down a total of three striders (their locations are identical with each run, since we are running a saved game file) and a barn is blown to smithereens.

Even though Half-Life is very CPU sensitive, it clearly doesn’t take advantage of more than one core. No need to be upset at Valve though, considering the game still runs amazing either way.

F.E.A.R.

Like Call of Duty 2, FEAR first hit our PCs in fall of 2005. When it did, it proved to almost everyone just how badly our computers needed upgrading. It was one of the first games to truly benefit from having 2GB of RAM installed, but of course also a massive graphics card. Even today, running a high-resolution FEAR is a visual treat.

The third level is our destination today, which begins us out beside two friends who send me off through various buildings, kicking some ass en route. I am unsure where the final destination is, as I’ve never explored that far, but throughout our five-minute gameplay we encounter four enemies, outdoor and indoor areas and even have a strange horror sequence occur.

Like Half-Life, FEAR appreciates sheer speed, but additional cores does nothing. On the next page, we will take a quick look at two games that ARE multi-threaded, to see if differences in gameplay can be seen when bumping up to an eight core machine.


Gaming on Eight Cores

As we found out on the previous pages, gaming is one area of computing where multi-core processors are not thriving. We’ve been promised multi-threaded games for quite a while, and even touched up on it in last years review of the Q6600 Quad-Core. As it stands today though, multi-core games are not that prevalent, though they are beginning to catch on more rapidly.

Call of Duty 4 and Unreal Tournament III are two games that will take advantage of multi-core processors, but neither of them use more than two cores (in personal tests). This is evidenced on page twelve, where the QX6850 delivered the same average FPS as the Dual-Core E8400. In many cases, extra cores won’t make a difference, but higher overall frequency will. This is especially true in games like Half-Life 2 and FEAR, which are incredibly CPU sensitive.

What multi-core games are on the horizon, then? Alan Wake is to be the first game to truly take advantage of multiple cores, but we’ve been hearing that for a while. The release date is still unknown, though it should be sometime this year.

What it comes down to is the fact that games don’t need multiple cores, at this point in time, unless the developer decides to amp up the in-game physics, which I know many gamers wouldn’t mind seeing. Physics would be the primary reason for multi-threadedness, and I hope to begin seeing titles that push the boundaries soon.

Microsoft’s Flight Simulator X

Despite the fact that the game came out in late 2006, Flight Simulator X is such a beast, that it still can make high-end systems cry. Its system-intensiveness could be compared to the likes of Crysis, even though the latter has far more appealing graphics. Unlike Crysis, Flight Simulator is far more CPU bound than GPU bound.

At last months CES, Intel had a complete Skulltrail system on display, with Flight Simulator loaded up. The level chosen, appropriately, was Las Vegas, so I decided to use the same level throughout my own testing as well. During the example at the show, their machine managed to use all eight cores at once, or at least come very close. I haven’t been able to directly replicate this, however, throughout a few different setting configurations.

The interesting thing with this game, is that even with the lowest graphic settings possible, the game will still eat up a Quad-Core and ask for more. There is so much rendering going on during gameplay that additional CPU power is appreciated.

Similar to Intel’s chosen example, I decided to test out the capabilities of the eight-core machine by loading up the Las Vegas level and choosing to fly with an Airbus A321. I am not a flight sim expert, nor do I even know how to play the game properly, but I do know how to take off and adjust to auto-pilot. The test began with the runway and ended about five and a half minutes after we were airborne.

The takeoff is where the system became most intensive, but it was only for a short burst. It used upwards of 78% of all eight cores at once, proving that the game is indeed able to benefit from greater than Quad-Core. Given the sticky nature of the game itself, I didn’t notice any visible performance increases, however.

Capcom’s Lost Planet

Lost Planet is another game that Intel touts as being able to utilize eight cores, but I haven’t seen the game use quite that many, but rather hover around six. This could be due to chosen settings, I’m unsure.

Comparison wise, though, no performance increases were seen in way of average FPS, but that wasn’t expected. More cores doesn’t necessarily mean faster games, but rather more immersive games. Now we just have to sit back and wait (even longer) for them to arrive.

With gaming out of the way, let’s pit our single QX9770 against Skulltrail’s dual QX9775s with a few specific benchmarks to see what kind of benefits can be seen.


Dual QX9775 vs. QX9770

Because our QX9775 processors are similar to the LGA775 equivalent, the QX9770, I thought it would be interesting to pit the two against each other directly, using specific multi-threaded benchmarks, including a few that Intel recommended for inclusion.

Both processors include a 3.2GHz clock speed, 12MB of L2 cache, a 1600FSB and include SSE4 support. The main differences are the TDP’s, with the QX9770 having one of 136W, while the QX9775 has one of 150W. That difference won’t effect anything performance wise though. Both processors were run with the same 1.3v voltage, just on different motherboards.

First, I ran a variety of multi-threaded benchmarks on each system, to see what differences can be seen. Cinebench was re-run here under Windows Vista 64-Bit (as opposed to Windows XP earlier in the review), TMPGEnc Express, ProShow Gold, Microsoft Excel, 3DMark 2006’s CPU suite and also a DivX encoding.

Benchmark
2 x QX9775
QX9770
Increase %
Cinebench 32-Bit
Cinebench 64-Bit
20198
23598
12285
14278
64.41%
65.27%
TMPGEnc Express 1:141:2413.51%
ProShow Gold 1:031:1726.22%
Excel Calculations
Excel Monte Carlo
2.671s
9.125s
4.930s
17.004s
84.57%
86.34%
3DMark 2006 6416481133.36%
VirtualDub/DivX4:144:389.44%

It’s evidenced quickly that adding a second CPU does make a difference, but not to the extent you might think. Cinebench, for example, saw a 65% speed increase, despite having 100% more cores available. Remarkably, Excel saw the largest increase. Too bad it lasted all of 2.671 seconds!

Sandra is a synthetic benchmark that can show the potential speed increases of a given processor or benefits of extra cores. The results shown below are not too surprising, with results of close to 100% for each of the Arithmetic and Multi-Media runs. As we saw above though, those differences are rarely seen in real-world tests.

SiSoftware Sandra
2 x QX9775
QX9770
Increase %
Memory Bandwidth 5215 Int
5484 Float
7756 Int
7760 Float
-48.72%
-41.50%
CPU Arithmetic 117944 MIPS
85419 MFLOPS
59391 MIPS
42719 MFLOPS
98.58%
99.95%
CPU Multi-Media 849669 Int it/s
535807 Float it/s
424337 Int it/s
272432 Float it/s
100.00%
96.68%

Memory bandwidth was hit hard, although the loss is unlikely to effect anything but the most memory-intensive workstation applications.

Lastly, to test multi-tasking ability, I ran Nero Recode once by itself, and then again while playing Microsoft’s Flight Simulator X. Nero Recode can use upwards of four cores, while FSX can use two and more throughout our gameplay run.

Benchmark
2 x QX9775
QX9770
Increase %
Nero Recode 10:2010:042.64%
Flight Sim + Nero11:2212:4011.44%

Compared to the single QX9770, our Skulltrail system managed to recode the video 11.44% faster. With a more system intensive game, or another application that utilizes more cores, larger gains would be seen. But the above example is the most realistic scenario.


Overclocking and Power, Final Thoughts

In taking a look at Skulltrail, we essentially reviewed three different products – the D5400XS motherboard, the QX9775 processor and the platform as a whole. Let’s begin with the first of the three.

Being a workstation-targeted motherboard, I was unsure of what to expect, but in the end I am quite pleased. Although I didn’t get to delve into overclocking personally, the board remained rock-solid-stable throughout all of the testing without as much as a single boot gone awry.

Feature-wise, the board doesn’t offer much more than it needs to. The on-board audio will suffice, and since it has Dolby’s blessing, you can be sure that it’s not going to disappoint overall. For higher-end audio though, Intel left two PCI slots readily available. You will just need to make your GPU purchases carefully, given the somewhat odd locations of the two.

The fact that the board includes an NVIDIA chipset with support for SLI is a huge draw in itself. NVIDIA’s own chipsets haven’t proven to be a spectacular choice, while Intel have been delivering superb offerings for a few years now, especially since P35’s launch last May. The 5400 chipset used here proved to offer great performance as well, with little latency when carrying data between the two processors.

The processors themselves are extremely fast, but there was no doubt of that before installing them. Considering that the Core 2 Extreme QX9770 offers identical speeds and similar specs gives away the fact that both would perform comparably, which they did. Although the Xeon X5482, out since November, delivers on near-identical specifications as the QX9775, the latter will be the first LGA771-based “desktop” enthusiast offering.

Overclocking-wise, the chips deliver as well. As explained earlier, I was unable to perform this testing due to a shipping issue with the required PSU, but from what I’ve seen personally, the skies the limit. On good air-cooling, 3.6GHz – 3.8GHz can be reached stable, although airflow should be amazing for that to be a 24/7 rig.

On water-cooling or anything higher, 4.0GHz and beyond is a definite reality. For the extreme overclocker with an incredible cooling setup, speeds as high as 5.0GHz can be reached. One friend of the site had his Skulltrail on sub-zero cooling and had it operating at 4.8GHz stable, so the speed potential is remarkable and goes to show just how efficient Intel’s 45nm architecture is.

I also didn’t touch on the power consumption too much, but overall it’s also quite impressive, and much better than you’d imagine. On the QX9770 machine, topping out the processor would result in a a PC that eats 312W on average. On the Skulltrail side, while topping out a single processor, the result was 320W… slightly higher.

However, when both processors were being fully utilized, the wattage only jumped up another 55W, to sit at 375W. That is not fantastic, but we are dealing with two high-end Quad-Cores here. With the 8800GTX also churning, the power cap jumped to 460W, still quite reasonable.

Final Thoughts

As mentioned in the intro, Skulltrail is designed for a few different crowds – the main being the ultimate multi-tasker. It’s true, equipped with such a rig is guaranteed to offer the absolute best multi-tasking experience on the market, there’s no arguing that. Having eight fast cores at your disposal allows a whack of flexibility and helps you get the job done fast in the process.

Though touted as a gaming platform as well, the fact that the system contains eight cores won’t mean much, unless you are a massive Flight Simulator X buff, as that’s the only game right now to actually take advantage of something larger than a Quad-Core.

However, even though games will not take advantage of all eight cores, Skulltrail opens up the ability to have processes running in the background while you get your geek on. Folding while playing the latest FPS game is one scenario, or burning a DVD while re-encoding a movie while gaming is another. There is a lot of breathing room, and that will be the main draw for most people. For the best overall multi-tasking though, 8GB of RAM (4x2GB) and a 64-Bit OS would be a smart choice.

Skulltrail also takes care of the workstation niche, allowing incredible render times with applications that take advantage of multi-threaded processes. In our tests, we rarely found an application to use more than six, but again, that leaves two open for regular computer use on the side. That’s not to say that such applications can’t use all eight cores, because they definitely can. We were unable to make it happen with our specific workloads, however.

The fact of the matter is: Skulltrail is the ultimate high-end enthusiasts platform. For those who want a machine with power bursting out the seams, Skulltrail is the true solution. It offers a total of eight cores, allows for extreme overclocking, supports NVIDIA SLI and AMD CrossFire and can handle up to 8GB of RAM. It’s an absolute beast, and one that many people are going to have a difficult time in trying to fully exploit.

Intel is not releasing pricing information at current time, but the QX9775 processors will cost more than the QX9650, which currently sell for $999 in quantities of 1,000. The D5400XS’s price is also being kept under wraps, but is expected to hover around the $499 mark.

As for a launch time frame, “within 30 days” is what we are told. Skulltrail as a platform will be launched two ways, via high-end PC boutiques (no names have been officially mentioned yet) and also via the retail channel. At launch, you will be able to pick up the board, FB-DIMM modules and two LGA771 processors and build your very own Skulltrail system. Tempting, isn’t it?

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