Do Intel's new Ivy Bridge processors add performance to desktop systems?
Intel's third-generation Ivy Bridge processors are starting to hit the market and are ready to replace the current Sandy Bridge chips. The new CPUs feature high-efficiency tri-gate transistors and are made with the company's 22-nanometer semiconductor processing technology. On a gigahertz-per-gigahertz basis, Ivy Bridge processors should raise performance by 20% while using less electricity, according to Intel.
Although the Ivy Bridge chips are most anticipated as the basis for a new series of mobile devices -- most prominently, the much-touted ultrabooks -- one of the first Ivy Bridge-equipped review systems available is Gateway's FX6860 desktop system. I ran it through the digital wringer for two weeks to see if it lives up to its advance billing.
The computer is built around the Ivy Bridge Core i7 3770 processor, which runs at a base speed of 3.4GHz; TurboBoost 2.0 technology can raise it to 3.9GHz. Other members of the 3770 family range from 2.5GHz to 3.5GHz.
The processor has 8MB of on-chip data cache for frequently used data and programming code. With four processing cores, it can work through eight simultaneous threads.
A stylish system
The $1,200 Gateway FX6860 full-sized tower system features a stylish angular black case measuring 17.9 x 7.4 x 19.0 in.; its aggressive cutouts make it look like part of a sports car. There are thoughtful design touches, like a tray on top for charging your phone with the system's USB outlets.
The system comes with 12GB of DDR3 RAM (it can handle a maximum 16GB). It is equipped with the AMD Radeon HD 7770 GHz Edition graphics accelerator, making it a good choice for gamers and digital artists. The GPU runs at 1GHz and has 640 independent stream processors. Capable of delivering up to 4,096 x 2,160 resolution video, the Radeon HD 7770 has 2GB of dedicated video RAM and comes with its own fan and heat sink -- which is why it takes up two PCI-e slots. It also includes an integrated high-definition audio controller.
The system has a high-performance 2TB hard drive and a DVD-Writer optical drive, but can't play Blu-ray discs.
There are four available bays inside: three 3.5-in. bays (two of which have pullout trays for mounting hard drives) and one 5.25-in. bay; there's also a slot for a PCI-e card. Unfortunately, the system lacks the hardware and software for setting up a RAID array.
While its 750-watt power supply seems like overkill, it should provide more than enough power, even if you max out its interior. Using a Kill a Watt P4400 power meter, I measured the review unit as using 107 watts, which reveals a reasonably efficient use of power.
As expected of a desktop system of this caliber, the FX6860 has a good assortment of ports, but with a twist. Like other recent gaming or entertainment systems, there's no VGA connector, but, oddly, there's a pair of antiquated PS/2 connectors. It has DisplayPort, DVI and HDMI ports. In addition to four USB 2.0 ports in front, there are another six USB 2.0 ports in the back along with a pair of USB 3.0 ports. The front also has a slot that will fit a variety of flash cards. There are microphone and headphone jacks front and back, along with an S/PDIF audio connection.
The FX6860 comes with Gigabit Ethernet and 802.11n Wi-Fi; to improve reception, the system includes a screw-on stub antenna, which you can replace with a high-gain antenna if you wish. Interestingly, it does not include Bluetooth, which could be a problem for those who like to use wireless headsets and other Bluetooth devices.
It comes with Windows 7 Home Premium installed, and a 90-day subscription to Norton Internet Security. The included one-year warranty can be extended to three years for $70.
In testing the FX6860, I compared it to two other systems: an HP Pavilion HPE h8-1050 desktop system equipped with a Sandy Bridge 3.4GHz Core i7 processor, 10GB of RAM and an AMD Radeon 6850 graphics card with 1GB of video memory; and a Eurocom Panther 4.0 laptop, which contains a Sandy Bridge 3.3GHz desktop Core i7 3960X processor, 12GB of RAM, and a video card that comes with two Nvidia GeForce GTX 580M processors and 2GB of video memory.
Overall, the performance of the FX6860 was good, although it didn't blow away any records. It scored 2,704.4 on the PassMark PerformanceTest 7.0 benchmark, 14% ahead of the HP system's score of 2,378.5, but well behind the Eurocom's 2,943.7 score.
The FX6860's score of 7.43 on Maxon's CineBench 11.5 processor suite was 20% behind the 8.90 that the Panther 4.0 scored. When it came to the CineBench 11.5 graphics tasks, the FX6860 dominated with 62.6fps versus 46.2fps for the Panther.
Along the way, the system was able to keep its cool. With its fans barely running, the system's exhaust never went above 90-degrees Fahrenheit.
At $1,200, the Gateway FX6860 is in the range of other Ivy Bridge systems. For example, it costs about $200 more than a similarly-equipped Asus CM6870 system that has the same processor and 16GB of RAM (4GB more), but fewer USB ports and a much smaller power supply. On the whole, the FX6860 is a powerful and useful machine, with something for those who need an extra graphics kick.
And the processor? In the final analysis, the Ivy Bridge era has not started off with the bang that was expected -- at least, for desktop systems. Powered by a third-generation Core i7 processor, Gateway's FX6860 is only a small step forward in terms of performance.
No doubt, system makers will learn a slew of new tricks and techniques to boost the processor's potential. The real test will come with the Ivy Bridge ultrabooks that are expected in the coming weeks. We'll be there to test them as soon as they become available and tell you how they fit in with the digital landscape.
Brian Nadel is a frequent contributor to Computerworld and the former editor in chief of Mobile Computing & Communications magazine.
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