Here's the Problem With Intel Corporation's 18-Core Behemoth

Intel's upcoming 18-core Core X processor is an engineering marvel, but it probably won't be the best choice for gamers.

Ashraf Eassa
Ashraf Eassa
Jun 17, 2017 at 11:30AM
Technology and Telecom

Late last month, microprocessor giant Intel (NASDAQ:INTC) unveiled its new Core X lineup of processors targeted at the small, lucrative, and rapidly growing high-end desktop personal computer market. The Core X chips, which are mainly based on the company's Skylake-X processor architecture (which is itself derived from the company's Skylake-SP chips for data center applications), are interesting for several reasons.

One of those reasons is that the chipmaker has dramatically increased the number of processor cores that it offers to its high-end desktop processor customers. Intel's Ivy Bridge-E line of high-end desktop processors, launched in 2013, came with up to six cores, its Haswell-E line of high-end desktop processors packed up to eight cores, and last year's Broadwell-E line of high-end desktop chips came with as many as 10 cores.

The back-side of an Intel Core X chip.

Image source: Intel.

This year's Skylake-X chips come with as many as 18 cores. Moreover, while Intel charged roughly $1,700 for a 10-core Broadwell-E part last year, it's charging $1,999 for the 18-core Skylake-X part -- a dramatic increase in the number of cores that Intel will sell customers per dollar, almost certainly driven by intensifying competition in the high-end desktop processor market.

Now, high-end desktop processors with ultra-high core counts are obviously neat, but there's a fundamental problem with them -- at least when they are marketed toward the gaming/consumer market.

How are you going to keep them cool, again?

The first reviews of Intel's Core i9-7900X -- a 10-core part based on the company's Skylake-X architecture -- have hit the web (though it's worth noting that these reviews weren't based on parts officially supplied to the reviewers by Intel).

The 7900X performs well in applications that make use of just a few cores as well as those applications that can stress all 10 cores sitting there on the chip. The 7900X also proves to be quite "overclockable" -- that is, the reviewers could push the chips quite a bit beyond their rated frequencies for additional performance.

Skylake-X appears to have superior frequency headroom compared to the prior-generation 10-core Broadwell-E part likely due to a superior manufacturing technology (14-nanometer+ versus 14-nanometer) as well as a higher-quality chip implementation.

However, while the 10-core Skylake-X part includes a large helping of cores running at robust frequencies (so per-core performance is quite good), the chip can consume quite a lot of power to deliver that performance (particularly when overclocked).

"Our chip seems to be a good one and had no qualms running at 4.7GHz across all 10 cores. Heck, it only needed 1.25 [volts] to make it happen," wrote in its review of the 7900X chip.

Indeed, the folks at even appear to believe that the 7900X chip itself could have additional frequency headroom, but that the chip runs so hot when pushed to the limits that it's impractical to keep it cool, even with relatively high-end cooling solutions.

"Putting 1.3V through the Core i9-7900X veins resulted in temperature [sic] soaring beyond 100 [degrees, Celsius] and automatic throttling," the review continues.

If high-end cooling solutions can't keep a 10-core chip cool enough to even realize its maximum frequency potential, then what does that tell us about the frequencies at which the 12-, 14-, 16-, and 18-core Core X processors will be able to run?

Those chips will have a lot of cores and for some workloads a lot of cores running at lower frequencies might be preferable to fewer cores running at higher frequencies, but that doesn't really seem to be the case for the bulk of consumer workloads today.

Of course, we should reserve judgment on those ultra-high core count chips until they're actually out and in the hands of reviewers, but my initial suspicion -- based on these preliminary 7900X results -- is that for most potential consumer/prosumer types, the 6-10-core versions of the Skylake-X chips will simply be more suitable than the 12-18-core parts.

But there's little denying that a fully unlocked 18-core processor is a neat piece of technology and I'm sure there are some prosumer types out there who will find the 7980XE an interesting value proposition.