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World's fastest Intel Xeon 5680 setup benchmarked

Exclusive Review First day preview of 12 cores on EVGA W555 SR2 mainboard
Tue Mar 16 2010, 17:16

Exclusive Preview: World's first overclocked Intel Dual Xeon Westmere benchmarked
Product: Intel Xeon X5680 on EVGA W555 SR2 with Geil Black Dragon DDR3-2000 RAM
Website: Intel 5600 Series Processors announcement

THE WORLD'S BIGGEST CHIPMAKER Intel has now fully rounded out its first 32nm generation of CPUs with today's launch of the 'Westmere-EP' series of six-core Xeon 5600 processors.

You already know about Intel's extreme desktop identical twin to these Xeon chips, the Core i7 980X. Now the dual processor machinery has its six-core fittings as well. These processors have now taken the x86 performance crown in both the desktop and mainstream workstation and server market segments.

These six-core processors are, as our readers already know from our features going way back, supported by 12MB of L3 cache, an improved memory controller and also have the addition of AES cryptographic instructions, all within the same TDP as the previous 45nm quad-core generation. And again, they are fully compatible with almost all existing UP and DP LGA1366 boards, provided that you update the BIOS prior to installing these new CPUs.


The cream of the crop is the Xeon X5680, a 3.33GHz processor with exactly the same specs as the Core i7 980X, plus of course the second QPI link and dual processor support. It shares the coveted title of definitely the fastest x86 general purpose processor as of today, a position that even AMD's dual-die Magny-Cours monster is unlikely to challenge. I guess the only challenger could be an even faster X5690 stepping up, until Intel's next generation 'Sandy Bridge' high end chippery arrives a year from now. By the way, this processor chip doesn't support unlocked multipliers in its current stepping, however that could change soon.


Why bother about whether the multiplier can be unlocked when there are no boards to overclock the dual LGA1366 socket Intel CPUs? Well, that is about to change, too, come mid-April. Those of you who visited the EVGA stand at CeBIT may have seen a well guarded secret, EVGA's upcoming mainboard to support exactly that on top of all possible bells and whistles that an ultra high-end mainboard can support. This is big, long awaited and overdue news. We had hoped for Intel's Skulltrail 2 to arrive, or at the very least, something from Asus or Gigabyte. But EVGA, despite its smaller size, accepted the challenge and stepped up to get this ambitious mainboard out.


Now, fortunately or not, I didn't visit CeBIT this time, but instead went after that for a short hop to the warmer and far more entertaining city of Taipei for my regular monthly inspection, where EVGA's key brain behind the world's most powerful PC mainboard, fellow Singaporean Peter Tan "Shamino", one of the world's leading overclockers, had the Version 0.0 mainboard for me to bring back to the lab after some nasty LN2 oveclock tests on it. Yes, the Version 0.0 prototype a month before the launch in mid-April. Here's the world exclusive preview of the very first Dual Intel 5600 Series Westmere board, the EVGA W555 SR2, fresh from Singapore on the Westmere Xeon launch day.

The truly gigantic mainboard leaves the observer in 'shock and awe' to use the words of some not particularly popular retired politicians. It's larger than any EATX or workstation mainboard I've seen, and the red-and-black colour combination adds to the visual power. Every single feature you could think of is there - up to 96GB of RAM support in 12 DIMM sockets, at speeds up to DDR3-2000 across six channels, native SATA3 and USB3, in addition to the usual spread of SATA and USB connectors, dual Gigabit Ethernet, and of course seven PCIe v2 x16 slots, four of them able to act as true x16 slots in parallel, thanks to a pair of Nvidia Nforce 200 PCIe bridges for a total of 64 PCIe v2 lanes. The Nvidia chippery here can also help warm up your lonely nights in Alaska or Antarctica if required, such is the heat, and they compete against the Tylersburg i5520 chipset and the two CPUs for the hottest chip on the block title. That's one similarity with this mainboard's spiritual predecessor, the Intel Skulltrail board.

For this initial Part 1 preview, I configured the EVGA W555 SR2 board with the simplest devices configuration. The two Xeon X5680 processors, B0 stepping, were supported by a CoolerMaster V8 eight heat-pipe cooler on CPU0, and a Thermaltake four heat-pipe cooler with a Xigmatek silent 1,500 rpm fan on the CPU1. Geil's brand new Black Dragon memory, two 3-channel sets of DDR3-2000 CL9 DIMMs with lovely activity lights and no heat spreaders - giving more benefit from good airflow - provided 12GB of fast RAM. The Thermaltake ToughPower 1000W PSU supplied the juice, and yes, I think I'll need the 2000W unit for the first time once four GPUs are in here. Talking about the GPUs, an Asus AMD Radeon HD5870 was the lonely GPU in the first configuration.

The BIOS settings are one of a kind here, and the pictures speak more than a thousand words.


And more options.


See the "extreme cooling" setting for subzero test environments?

Look at the power connections, by the way. I have connected far more power than usual here, and even that's not all. Together with the usual 24+8+8 pin PSU combo, there are a few more 6-pin GPU type power connectors to go to the mainboard - in addition to the usual GPU ones - as well as even one floppy power connector to feed the extra juice to the CPU1 memory bank. Wow.


Before we go to the benchmarks and liquid nitrogen assisted overclocking, here's the CPU-Z shot of the air-cooled dual Xeon X5680 at 4.17GHz, using a 166MHz BCLK setting without changing the main 25X multiplier. The voltage is still not shown correctly, as it was 1.375V actually. On the other hand, you don't even need to go that high. Take a look at the default speed, 3.33GHz non-Turbo mode Sandra 2010 CPU score versus the usual Opterons and the old Xeon gang. The thing beats four 6-core Istanbul Opteron SE 2.8 GHz chips, a story consistent with the now published SPEC industry standard benchmarks.


Now, how about pushing the pedal to the metal - this isn't a Toyota or Lexus after all, so we should be safe - and going all the way to the top? Here is the board with the same chips, driven to the maximum with 1.84V vCPU, well towards -100 C actual measured Tcase temperature, and using powerful liquid nitrogen (LN2) freeze cooling on both CPUs as well as the Tylersburg chipset.



As you can see from the BIOS and measurement device shots, this is no joke. Interestingly, despite all the kitchen towels sucking up the moisture, the board was wet all the time, and it still worked well most of the time, save for the occasional resets and the requirement of the Tylersburg chipset not to drop its temperature below -50 C or else it wouldn't boot.


Take a look at the CPU-Z screenshot below. Yes, we can do near 6GHz at boot, but what matters is the frequency at which most benchmarks - save Linpack, of course - generally complete in the LN2 config. That right now would be 5.5GHz, not bad at all for a 12-core machine.

The new CineBench 11 is here too. Look at the graph versus the older Xeon as well as the AMD chips.


Back to the normal world. The second part coming soon will focus on the fine tuning of both air and liquid cooling performance - not an easy job considering the gazillion options to work with - as well as more benchmarks using various CPU, memory and graphics options. Look forward to a comparison of this Xeon 5680 chip with the single socket Core i7 980X processor as well.

While there's still a month until the board will be officially launched, it's now clear even from this pre-production sample that the high end crowd - from über gamers to engineers, multimedia content creators and scientists in need of complex simulations - will now have a platform and processor from which they can get the highest speed possible to complete their jobs faster. While most of them will not go to LN2 or other exotic cooling solutions, the expectation is that 4GHz to 4.5GHz stable dual CPU, 12-core operation on a good quality mainboard with matching power and cooling should give a long, 'productive enhanced performance' operation - up to a third more than the default - for quite some time to come.

In Short
EVGA deserves commendation for being the first with the most complex and highest performance PC platform, ever, using the fastest x86 processor chip produced to date, the Intel X5680. Now, let's look for a casing to fit it in.

The Good The fastest PC platform, full stop.

The Bad Size, at 381mm x 345mm and, yes, it won't be cheap.

The Ugly A more compact version with fewer PCIe slots and without Nvidia bridges would be welcome.

Bartender's Score




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