Choosing a new CPU: Intel Core i7-920/930 vs. i7-860/870

This article is part of a series in 2010 on custom-building a high-performance computer with the latest Intel Core i7 processors:

  1. Build or buy a new Core i7 supercomputer?
  2. Choosing a New CPU: Intel Core i7-920/930 vs. i7-860/870
  3. New Core i7 PC: Selecting the Components
  4. New Core i7 PC: The Build

[Update 8/25/2010: the Core i7-870 is now available and has matched the price point of the i7-860. It’s absolutely identical to the i7-860 except that it runs at 2.93 GHz instead of 2.8 GHz. ]

[Update 3/21/2010: the Core i7-930is now available. It’s absolutely identical to the i7-920 except that it runs at 2.8 GHz instead of 2.66 GHz. Where I mention the i7-920 by name, it also applies to the i7-930.]

Overview

imageThe new Intel Core i7-920/i7-930 and i7-860/i7-870 processors are extremely close in most aspects,  but the i7-920/930 offers features that only enterprise users, professional videographers, or heavy gamers will need.   The i7-860/870 matches or betters the i7-920/930 in almost all benchmarks – and uses less power!

So unless you have an extreme need, you can save a few bucks with the i7-870 and plow it back into more memory, a faster/bigger/more reliable hard drive, or a better graphics card.

Note from the future: Don’t forget the CPU cooler!

Quad-core: the current sweet spot

Currently, my choice for a reasonably snappy system with a life expectancy of around five years is an i7-870 or an i7-930.  The higher-performing, extreme versions of these processors cause the price to shoot radically upwards.  Why pay for that performance when overclocking will accomplish the same thing?

In a related blog post,  I made the case for upgrading to the latest and greatest processors instead of taking advantage of fabulous deals on enterprise-class computing hardware on eBay.   In short, the newest Intel Core i7-family processors have much to offer over older processors, including improved power efficiency, general computing power and flexibility, and total cost of ownership (TCO).     Both processors have support for virtualization (VT), allowing you to host a virtual computer within these systems that looks like a real, separate PC.

These processors both have four physical cores, and with Intel’s HyperThreading technology, these four cores appear as eight separate processors to the operating system.  The new Nehalem processor architecture improves memory speed (latency and bandwidth), which can be a major performance bottleneck as improvements in the speed of processors over the last thirty years have far outpaced those in the speed of memory chips.

Why multi-core computing is such a good idea. Somewhere around mid-2004, Intel introduced the first dual-core processors for the desktop, initially in high-end systems and gradually working their way into most computers.  One main reason these multi-core systems (especially a quad-core) are going to be so much more responsive than your old single-core Dell is because there are simply more applications and background processes running on a modern computer.  And they all chew up available processor power.  In particular, big anti-virus suites (Norton, Symantec) are some of the worst offenders: in troubleshooting systems for friends and family, I’ve seen them consuming up to 100% of CPU cycles.  But why get mad?  Get even.  With a properly spec’d quad-core box you’ll have plenty of capacity to run everything.  Chances are, you won’t even notice it’s there.  (Make sure you have enough memory!  At the date of this writing – June 2010 -  you should have no less than 4GB RAM.)

So which processor to get:  the i7-930 or the i7-870? In a nutshell, you could probably quit obsessing over the details, buy either one and get about the business of enjoying your snappy new PC.   For me, being a detail-oriented software architect who specializes in high-performance and high-throughput architectures, I wanted to understand the finer differences between the two and make an informed decision.

Quad-core Nehalem architecture

Quad-core Nehalem architecture

Analysis

First of all, the processors’ names are more or less no help to us. You might think that the “i7-9×0” is a later, more advanced version of whatever the lesser “i7-8×0” might be.   But understanding Intel’s processor nomenclature and numbering system is a reasonably sized effort in itself, and in this case, 930 is not necessarily greater than 870.

After several days of trawling through a ton of web pages, from Intel’s site (very good!) to AnandTech to Tom’s Hardware to discussion forums, these are my conclusions.

The prime differences, with the winner in each category, would seem to be:

  • Clock speed (i7-870).  The i7-930 runs at 2.8 GHz vs.  the i7-870 at 2.93 GHz, giving the i7-860 about a 5% advantage in raw clock speed, plus a more aggressive turbo mode which pushes the i7-870 to a max of 3.6 GHz vs. the 930’s max of 3.06 GHz – almost a 20% increase.
  • Power consumption (i7-870).  The i7-930 has a TDP of 130W, which is about 50% higher than the i7-870 at 95W.   In AnandTech’s benchmark reference systems, the i7-860 system at idle uses 85W and the i7-920 system uses 115W;  see the AnandTech i7-860 review, power consumption page.   At about $1 per watt-year over a computer lifetime of 5 years, 30W could cost you up to $150 more.
  • imageMotherboards (i7-870). Motherboards  for the i7-8×0 Lynnfield processor family (socket LGA 1156) are less expensive and more prevalent than for the i7-9×0 Bloomfields (socket LGA 1366).
  • Overall system throughput (i7-930). The i7-9×0 has a faster bus speed, utilizing a QPI bus with a max bandwidth of 4.8 gigatransfers per second (GT/s).   The i7-8×0 uses a DMI bus with a bandwidth of 2.5 GT/s.  However, this is only an advantage if you’re maxing out the bus… rare unless you’re in an enterprise server setting or doing graphics or other data/compute-intensive work.  According to the Intel specs, the i7-9×0 also has 20% higher memory bandwidth (25.6 GB/s) than the i7-8×0 (21 GB/s), also important for high-performance applications.
  • Extensibility (i7-930). The i7-9×0 enables direct dual PCI-e for crossfire & SLI applications: important to gamers mostly for high-performance graphics setups.

Drawbacks

Neither of these processors supports ECC memory.  This is not a huge issue for most folks, but for the more critical and most stable systems (servers and scientific computing installs), ECC memory protects against data corruption caused by – believe it or not – cosmic rays.

Conclusions

While again you could probably go out and buy either the Core i7-870 or the i7-930 and be happy, I found little to justify the i7-930 over the i7-870 in general, with the exception of the truly hard-core crowd.


How to Buy

My first choice for PC hardware is NewEgg.com, which has an excellent online store, good prices, and fantastic customer service.

Naturally, you can also find pre-built Core i7-based systems at Dell and other vendors;  for example, the Studio XPS systems.

  • Also: Xeon X3440 on NewEgg.com ($240).  As mentioned above, the X3440 is the rough equivalent of the i7-860 (Lynnfield core), but supports ECC RAM.

References

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21 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Ryan on February 15, 2010 at 9:42 am

    Thank you for taking the time to make this. It was quite helpful!

    Reply

  2. Posted by Jason on February 19, 2010 at 8:10 pm

    Thanks for the research, Keith. Was looking for insight on exactly this topic

    Reply

  3. Posted by david on March 12, 2010 at 2:25 pm

    This question should be combined with the motherboard P55 LGA 1156 vs X58 LGA 1366. also the i7-930 is available. I am also looking to build a machine for video editing so can’t wait to see what your conclusion is.

    Reply

    • Right — I touched on LGA 1156 vs.LGA 1366 briefly, but didn’t go into detail. If you’re doing truly high-end video editing, then the i7-920/930 might be a better choice. Either way, you’ll probably want to overclock the CPU for maximum performance (get an aftermarket CPU cooler). But I doubt you would notice the difference between the i7-860 and the i7-920/930. You should make sure you have a fast hard drive — or drives in a RAID-0 or RAID-10 configuration — you will definitely notice the difference in system performance over a slow/stock drive (e.g. 7200 RPM).

      FYI, I just posted an update on the system I’m building and how/why I selected each component. Hope it helps,

      Keith

      http://computingkeith.wordpress.com/2010/03/06/new-core-i7-pc-selecting-the-components/

      Reply

  4. [...] The Core i7-860 is an all-around top performer that bests its close competitor the i7-920 in most benchmarks and uses less energy.  For a summary of the differences and why I chose the i7-860, read this article. [...]

    Reply

  5. Posted by Danny on March 27, 2010 at 10:37 am

    Also, Thank you for the research and useful information. Off to your components article.

    Danny

    Reply

  6. Posted by Filip on April 17, 2010 at 2:40 am

    Hello Friend.

    I’ve just read your post. Because I’m going to choose 8xx or 9xx series for me, I did analyze some literature that might be helpful for you with your knowledge as well. However, I have to say that there are few major misunderstandings in the way you speak of 8xx and 9xx processors:

    Please refer to:

    http://ark.intel.com/Compare.aspx?ids=41315,41316,37148,41447,

    1) First of all, you should have compared 860 with 930 (and NOT 920) since they are both 2.80ghz (870 with 940 – both 2.93 ghz) etc.

    2) The second thing is that 9xx series support only ddr3 800 and 1066 rams, while 8xx series support ddr 1066 and 1333. And this makes a huge difference.

    3) Also, please note that max turbo frequency with 8xx processors is much bigger than with their 9xx equivalent. 860 (2.8-3.46 gHz) vs 930 (2.8-3.06gHz) and 870 (2.93-3.6 gHz) vs 940 (2.93-3.2gHz). This is HUGE difference too.

    4) 8xx series have more advanced virtualization technologies than 9xx (virtualization for directed I/O and trusted execution technology which for some folks make sense).

    That’s all! :)

    BTW, You might also check this website for processors testing with multiple different applications (it is polish, but you can easily google-translate it):

    http://www.benchmark.pl/testy_i_recenzje/Core_i7_980X_-_krol_wydajnosci_juz_jest-2733/strona/8608.html

    Regards,
    Filip.

    Reply

  7. Posted by Gideon D. on April 29, 2010 at 9:23 am

    Thanks a lot, I was trawling the web for info on new PCs and this helped a bunch!

    Reply

  8. Great Forum thread which help me a lot about CI7-860 versus CI7-920 delta, as I’m going to built a new speedy PC (ASUS RAMPAGE III X58, HD5870,..) in order to replace my old ATHLON 3500+ PC ;-)
    Now I know why I should choose the 860 !

    Merci_____________Lucku_Luke

    Reply

  9. Posted by Bdubs on August 6, 2010 at 12:39 pm

    from two posts above: “2) The second thing is that 9xx series support only ddr3 800 and 1066 rams, while 8xx series support ddr 1066 and 1333. And this makes a huge difference.” – Nope thats very insignificant.
    Google say http://www.google.com/search?q=core+i+860+what+memory+speed+should+i+buy%3F&rls=com.microsoft:en-us&ie=UTF-8&oe=UTF-8&startIndex=&startPage=1
    and look at the Toms hardware (three + articles putting DDR3 head to head and the difference between DDR3 800 & DDR3 1600 is insignificant…. I’ll let you read the rest.


    Keith “Intel introduced the first dual-core processors for the desktop” no AMD did it slightly before them and at the time there offering was a better performer. That changed when Intel released the Core 2 Duo series however.

    – Also i wrote more about this on page one but Hyperthreading doesn’t effectively double the cores that’s Intel hype. Real world its 5-15% in a multithreaded application. That amounts to something but more like 1/2 of an effective core. Makes a hot i7 8– or i7 9– “effectively” a 4.5 core machine at best.

    Reply

  10. Posted by david hill on December 29, 2010 at 1:38 am

    Thanks for your help. I used my old case and got

    Intel Core i7-875K Processor, 2.93 GHz $304.99
    MB ASUS|P7P55D DELUXE P55 1366 RT $179.99
    VGA XFX PVT98GYDLH 9800GT 512M $99.99
    PSU ANTEC|BP550 PLUS RT $59.99
    MEM 2Gx2|GSKILL F3-12800CL9D-4GBRL $99.99
    DVD BURNER LITE-ON | IHAS424-98 R $23.99
    Cooler Master RR-B10-212P-… $29.99
    ADAP VANTEC|CB-ISATAU2 $19.99
    KEYBOARD MICROSOFT | NATURAL ELITE $37.99
    CARD READER KOUTECH| IO-RCM621 RT $19.99

    Reply

  11. Posted by Louis E. on January 9, 2011 at 5:33 pm

    Price-checking…the i7-930 is now out of stock at NewEgg and up to $350 at MicroCenter (NewEgg offers the i7-950 [3.06 Ghz] at $290 but the i7-960[3.2 GHz] for $580…when the bleeding-edge premium starts distorting the price-performance curve it’s time to say no!).At Amazon,the 870 is down to $280 and the 930 up to $326.

    Reply

    • That’s funny… and on Amazon the i7-950 is $290, while — as you say — the i7-930 on Amazon is up to $325. I imagine, because NewEgg is also out of stock, the i7-930 is being phased out and the price hike is due to Amazon’s playing the supply-demand curve.

      Here’s a link to the Core i7 desktop processors on Amazon.

      Reply

      • Posted by Louis E. on January 10, 2011 at 7:02 pm

        Looking at NewEgg,the new i7-2600K (3.4 GHz) is $330,at one per customer.HP still treats the i7-960 as a $300 (was $330) upgrade over the i7-930 with the 950 not an option…the model on which the 930 is standard used to have the 920 as standard.Finding the best bang-per-buck CPU/motherboard combination is something where no answer stays right for long!

  12. Posted by Louis E. on May 19, 2011 at 9:31 pm

    Now the 960 is the standard model on the latest HP product line refresh,and Amazon is selling the i7-950 for $270 and i7-930 for $341.The 870 appears on the way out.I’m still thinking of waiting until Ivy Bridge knocks Sandy Bridge prices down…the lower power consumption is a factor…I note that Intel plans a 480GB SATA-6GB SSD for 4Q 2011.

    Reply

    • Seeing that the major difference between the Sandy Bridge Core i7 and i5 lines is primarily hyperthreading — which has been shown to yield only 15-30% improvement in the *best* of cases — I built a new server around a Core i5-2500K. Maybe I’ll blog about it.

      Personally, I think a 480 GB SSD is pure folly, unless you’re in an enterprise server environment, or you won the lottery. The most important thing is to have all your apps and the OS on the boot drive. If you have “heavier” data needs — think of MP3’s and JPG’s — they’ll load just fine off a RAID-1 mirror of cheap spinning hard drives. $0.02

      Reply

      • Posted by P.Ch.Roy on April 28, 2012 at 6:37 am

        I’ll love to read your i5-2500 experience. Please share your wisdom as soon as possible since I intend to build my next rig on i5-2500.

  13. Posted by Louis E. on October 18, 2011 at 9:05 pm

    Today it’s leaked that the Ivy Bridge Core i7-37xx will be 77 watts,pretty much kills any reason to use a 130-watt,if not 95-watt,CPU!(The Radeon HD 7670 will have 768 processing units at 60 watts compared to the 6670’s 480 at 66…lower power consumption seems a priority even as the kilowatt-plus PSUs are touted for the flaming-gaming rigs).My mother’s Pentium 4 had a scare lately but is back up for what I intend to be its final year before a 2012-2022 computer is procured.

    Reply

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