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Intel's 1600MHz FSB Platform: Tried, Tested, Judged

Intel's 1600MHz FSB Platform: Tried, Tested, Judged

The Path to Sixteen Hundred

The Path to Sixteen Hundred

It was 2006 when Intel launched their Core 2 processor overhaul and year on year since then, they've pushed the boundaries of their platform as well as keeping industry standards at an all time high. It actually seems that they are a little scared of slacking, no doubt haunted by the past where AMD managed to sneak up from behind and stole their thunder.

As a history recap, Intel introduced the Core 2 with 1066MHz FSB in 2006, which was the beginning of the storm. 2007 was an incredible year for the Intel desktop platform with the entry of quad-core processors, 1333MHz FSB, DDR3 and 45nm technologies. In 2008, Intel will officially set the next standard in platform performance, bringing 1600MHz FSB mainstream. This is realized with the Intel Core 2 Extreme QX9770 processor and the Intel X48 chipset. In truth, this is old news as these two products have already been launched over five months back in November 2007 (didn't we tell you that 2007 was a great year for the Intel platform?).

However, Intel jumped the gun with launches that were arguably too close to each other, which prompted the delay of the X48 chipset till OEMs could get rid of their X38 stocks. This is the reason you haven't really seen X48 motherboards and even we have trouble getting in samples. The only board we've managed to test is the Gigabyte GA-X48-DQ6, and even that was a DDR2-only board, which really defeats the purpose of the upgrade.

So now that we stand at the juncture where both the QX9770 and X48 products are imminent, what real benefits are there to the 1600MHz FSB bump? We explored the performance potential of a 1333MHz FSB back in 2006, and now, we're graduating to 1600MHz.

The Processor

The Intel QX9770 processor was launched almost too quietly, right on the heels of the QX9650, which was Intel's flagship Extreme Edition processor with the new 45nm Penryn core back in October 2007. The technology behind it is exactly the same and since we've covered the Intel Penryn launch in a previous article, we will not go into any specific details here. The only real difference that the QX9770 brings to the table is its 'official' 1600MHz FSB support. That, and a faster operating speed naturally. The QX9770 runs natively at 3.2GHz with a 400MHz base FSB and an 8x multiplier.

In the larger scheme of things, it looks like Intel will keep with their US$999 pricing for their flagship Extreme Edition, which still happens to be the QX9650 for now. The QX9770 sits on its own special throne priced at US$1399. Needless to say, not many people will be rocking these, but if you've got too much cash to spend and no time for overclocking, the QX9770 is for you.

The Core Logic Chipset

The second part of the equation is the motherboard and chipset. Intel's X48 was supposed to complement the QX9770 as the first processor and chipset with 1600MHz FSB support. However, this doesn't really mean that Intel's older chipsets are unable to support this speed or the new processor. In fact, ever since the P965 Express and the original Core 2 came out two years ago, we've already gotten past the 1600MHz FSB mark through overclocking. The only concern is the power requirements and features of new processors. To this end, the Intel X48 is just an X38 with Intel's official stamp of approval for 1600MHz operation. The X38 already has everything you need to fully take advantage of the 1600MHz FSB platform. DDR3 support, XMP memory support, and with a new BIOS, it will properly detect the QX9770 as well. From experience, X38 boards will also support 0.5x multiplier with the QX9770 too (subject to motherboard manufacturers and BIOS update availability).

The Memory

DDR3 memory is the logical successor to DDR2, but as with all new memory, it needs time to mature in terms of performance as well as availability. With DDR3, this has been an uphill battle, not only with price and performance, but also manufacturer reluctance to do away with cheap DDR2 just yet. This is still evident today as even the supposedly DDR3-only enthusiast X48 chipset has shown up sporting a DDR2 configuration (see our Gigabyte GA-X48-DQ6 review). Still, with the amount of bandwidth DDR3 is capable of, the industry has seen an incredible growth rate in terms of speed for DDR3 products. If you've read our NVIDIA nForce 790i Ultra SLI article, DDR3-2000 is already on the table, but latency is still a huge issue. From what we've seen, most improvements to DDR3 speed is countered by an increase in latency, the net effect being little real life performance changes.

With Intel's push to 1600MHz FSB, the sweet spot is now set for manufacturers to aim for. DDR3 begins to pull itself away from DDR2 at the 1333MHz mark with low latencies CAS 7.0 and below. And now, there are DDR3-1600 modules available that are capable of CAS 7.0 as well. This is the ideal setup that we will be testing.