Building an Intel Core i7 based computer - CPU

What to look for in a CPU? For me, I look for a good performance before anything else, yet it shouldn’t be too expensive. You have always watch for a performance bottleneck in a computer – it doesn’t help to have a fastest CPU on the world if other components are slower. In other words, I am looking for a sweet spot. I look for a technology that will last for few years.  I’d like to see a solution with a passive heat sink but those don’t exist anymore even for a relatively slow CPUs.

First step is to pick a manufacturer. It is either Intel or AMD. I’ve been a fan of AMD (before Intel come out with Core 2 line of processors) as AMD Athlons at the time were more advanced, faster and they run much cooler (passive heat sinks were an option then) than Intel’s Pentiums. Unfortunately for AMD, due to problem in their manufacturing of newer CPUs,  this is no more true. Intel wiped out the competition first with Core 2 and now with Core i7. So, Intel is my choice.

I will chose between two Intel’s models: Core 2 and Core i7.

Core 2

  • is cheaper
  • uses cheaper DDR2 or more expensive DDR3 RAM
  • motherboards are cheaper
  • plenty of different motherboard chipsets
  • 2 or 4 cores
  • might consume less power (TDP), depends on a model (ranges from 65W to 150W)
  • 65nm (older) to 45nm (newer)

Core i7

  • more expensive
  • it uses more expensive DDR3 RAM only
  • motherboards are more expensive
  • there is only one chipset – X58
  • 4 cores only
  • consumes more power than slower Core 2  but less than the top Core 2 (130W)
  • faster than Core 2
  • 45nm technology

If I want a system that will last for some time then I should stick with a faster and newer Core i7 platform and DDR3 memory. Furthermore the slowest Core i7 920 is more or less faster than the fastest Core 2 model even though it runs on a slower frequency (at least judging from the online reviews) and it comes at lower price. There are various technology improvements for Core i7 line as well.

One can’t pick between 2 or 4 cores when it comes to Core i7. It might surprise you but having less cores at same performance rating is better. The reason: multi core CPUs exist only because manufacturers can’t raise the CPU frequency easily and it is more convenient (cheaper) for them to stuff more cores at lower frequencies into the CPU. IOW a single core CPU operating at 3GHz is a better choice than a dual core operating at 1.5GHz performance wise. The multi core technology has other side effects such as forcing developers to program for multi core CPUs which means somewhat more demanding development. Due to manufactures and physics laws the CPUs are heading into more and more cores stuffed on the same chip instead of the higher frequencies (as before, at the time of single cores) and we have to adapt to the situation.

The power consumption for Core i7 920 is rated at 130W max but I think it should consume less power because all three Core i7 models (920, 940 and the faster 965) have the same max. rating. So, the slower model should consume less. I am not happy with such high power consumption but this isn’t a decisive factor for me at this time, because I don’t have choice once I’ve decided for Core i7 (or better, at this performance one don’t have a choice anyway). Note, that more power consumption means more heat and more heat means more cooling which means more noise. I hope that my Sycthe Mugen 2will still run quiet nevertheless (that’s why I’ve chosen a good CPU cooler). The best way to keep down power consumption at same performance is to enhance the building process to use “smaller” technology which is 45nm for Core i7 but that’s something I can’t change.

Upgrades, such as adding more memory or changing the CPU, will be easier in the future because the Core i7 line will be mainstream (and faster) while Core 2 line will be slowly abandoned. The same goes for DDR3 vs DDR2 RAM. Just look at your DDR memory (I won’t even mention SDRAM) if you still have it – it is pretty useless except if you have very old computers.

I’ll pick the slowest of the Core i7 line: 920. The faster 940 is almost twice as expensive yet it won’t give me significant increase of speed (nor any other advantage – but it will me higher power consumption) for my daily work.

There are two SKUs on the market: a boxed version and a non-boxed version. The first comes with bundled stock CPU cooler while the other is a bit cheaper and it comes without the cooler. I’d buy the non-boxed because I don’t need the stock CPU cooler but it is almost impossible to find it (and the price difference is really a minimal one).

Here is couple of photos of the 920 and its stock CPU cooler compared to Sycthe Mugen 2(CD case is there for size comparison):

I bought an Intel Core i7 920 (boxed) at for 280 Euros .

See other relevant posts:

CPU cooler
The goal
Power Supply Unit