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Details of Intel Corporation's 18-Core Beast Revealed

On May 30, chip giant Intel (NASDAQ: INTC) announced its Core X-series of chips targeted at a segment of the desktop personal computer market called "high-end desktop," or HEDT for short.

The lineup was quite comprehensive, spanning from a $242 four-core/four-thread Core i5 processor to a $1,999 18-core Core i9-7980XE Extreme Edition part.

Image source: Intel.

Although it was very encouraging to see Intel get aggressive vis-a-vis core counts in its HEDT lineup (the move from 10 cores in the prior generation to 18 cores in the current generation for about the same price was awesome), I did have some concerns about the kinds of frequencies Intel would be able to run the 7980XE at.

Thanks to a new leak that has been making the rounds on the various computer hardware websites, we now know. And it looks good.

Intel gets aggressive

According to the leak, the Core i9-7980XE will run at a base frequency of 2.6GHz. That's low, but considering that Intel is trying to cram 18 fully enabled Skylake Xeon cores into a 165-watt Thermal Design Power (TDP), it's respectable.

What's more interesting, though, is that the leak shows that the Turbo Boost 2.0 frequency on the chip is a full 4.2GHz.

Out of the box, the chip should only reach 4.2GHz when one or two cores are active -- the purpose of Intel's Turbo Boost 2.0 feature is to allow high core count chips to deliver good performance in applications that can't make use of many cores.

However, the nice thing about this feature is that any one of the cores on the chip needs to be ready and able to run at 4.2GHz in such scenarios, which means that Intel must certify that each core on the chip can run at 4.2GHz.

The types of customers that will buy such a chip are likely to pair it with a robust cooling solution and run all the cores on the chip at 4.2GHz (or more, depending on the cooling and chip quality).

This is a much better value proposition than last year's $1723 ten-core Core i7 6950X which came rated at a base clock of 3GHz and a Turbo Boost 2.0 frequency of 3.5GHz.

Sounds good, but it's not perfect

Intel deserves serious kudos for the 7980XE. Intel's product teams took an 18-core chip that was originally designed for the data center market (and to be run at lower frequencies) and did the legwork to make them pretty much as good as they could possibly get for consumer use.

I hope to see Intel continue to deliver its very best in this market.

However, there is a problem for the 7980XE as well as the other Core X parts based on the Skylake X architecture that became evident once independent reviews of the chips were published.

Intel made some significant changes to the Skylake-X chip architecture relative to both the PC-specific Skylake architecture as well as the prior-generation Broadwell-E parts to accommodate the needs of data center customers.

Those changes will, Intel has indicated, improve the performance of these chips in their native land of the data center (obviously the right business decision --- the data center CPU market is much larger than the enthusiast desktop CPU market), but third-party reviews of the Skylake-X parts sold into the consumer market show that those architectural changes may have led to a degradation in gaming performance in some cases.

Here's hardware review site Tom's Hardware on the subject (emphasis mine):

As it stands, aggressive Turbo Boost frequencies and a rebalanced cache hierarchy go a long way to improving on Broadwell-E's minor weaknesses. When the Core i9-7900X does well, it really shines. Often, the chip beats every competitor we throw up against it, including Core i7-6950X. In other workloads, latency imposed by its mesh topology causes Core i9 to stumble. That isn't to say performance falls off completely. But we do see anomalies unfitting of a $1000 CPU. If you're strictly a gamer, Core i9-7900X won't make you want to buy a new CPU, motherboard, and memory kit.

The 7980XE is based on the same fundamental architecture as the 7900X, so I would expect the 7980XE to build on the strengths of the 7900X due to the presence of even more cores, but that the weaknesses in some gaming applications (important to some portion of the buyers of these chips) to remain.

For what it's worth, despite those "anomalies," as Tom's Hardware puts it, the currently available Skylake-X chips (7800X, 7820X, and 7900X) were sold out on both Newegg.com and Amazon.com as of a recent check, so at the very least demand is exceeding current supply -- a positive sign for customer interest in these products.

It'll be interesting to see if customers are equally interested in the higher core count Core X parts as they roll out.

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Ashraf Eassa owns shares of Intel. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Amazon. The Motley Fool recommends Intel. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.