It is safe to say that the single-core processor is on life support, if not in the casket waiting for an official burial. Dual core is now the entry-level and quad core is the new mainstream performance solution. The Phenom 9500 and 9600 are very inexpensive options, and once Intel gets their 45nm release schedule in gear, the number of reasonably-priced quad core processors will increase significantly. But this begs the question of where a true enthusiast is supposed go when everyone and their dog will be running a quad core system.
If this is your particular quandary, then Intel has a potential solution, in the form of the ultra high-end Skulltrail dual-CPU, multi-GPU platform. Although the Skulltrail platform itself will not be officially launched until later in the first quarter of 2008, we're taking an early peek at its performance, and offering our opinion on how it stacks up against the best from Intel and AMD.
We have to admit that the Skulltrail brand name is a kick-ass choice, especially coming from the usually conservative Intel. If the name got our attention, the hardware configuration kept it - the Skulltrail offers true 8-core processing on a high-end workstation-level motherboard, up to 8GB of system memory, and support for any multi-GPU technology you can throw at it.
This is serious business, and it starts with the Intel D5400XS motherboard. This is based off the Intel 5400 Express workstation chipset, and supports two LGA771 sockets at 1066/1333/1600 bus speeds, for up to 8-core processing. The standard Skulltrail configuration is a pair of Core 2 Extreme QX9775 processors, but for future upgrades, the Intel D5400XS supports both Core 2 and Xeon LGA771 processors. The Intel D5400XS uses the EATX format, so a larger, compatible case will be a requirement, and while the chipset has a passive heatsink, there is a substantial heatsink-fan below it for extra component cooling.
Since it is based on a workstation chipset, the Intel D5400XS uses up to four slots of FB-DIMM dual-channel memory at either DDR2-667 or -800 speeds. This does add to the overall cost, while limiting enthusiast memory choices and speeds. Although fully stable, note that 800 MHz FB-DIMMS can become extremely hot with extended use. Another major feature of the Intel D5400XS and Skulltrail platform is support for both ATI CrossFire and NVIDIA SLI, the last of which is the first for an Intel board. SLI is realized not through chipset support, but by using a pair of nForce 100 MCP chips between the PCI Express slots and the Intel 5400 chipset.
Other board features include 4 PCI Express x16 (1.1) slots, 2 PCI slots, Intel High Definition Audio, Intel Matrix Storage Technology (RAID 0,1,5,10), Intel PRO 10/100/1000 LAN, 10 USB 2.0 ports, 8 SATA 3.0 Gb/s ports (including 2 eSATA), and a Parallel ATA (2 devices) connector. The only glaring flaw is the lack of PCI Express 2.0 support. The board has an enthusiast design, and includes onboard Start/Reset buttons and LED POST reporter for easy configuration and trouble-shooting, as well as a 24-pin main power connector and dual ATX12V CPU power connectors. Intel recommends a 1000W power supply, but we used an 850W unit for our main testing, and fired it up with 550W and 600W units with no problems.
The CPU portion of the Skulltrail platform consists of dual Core 2 Extreme QX9775 processors, which are based on the LGA771 Xeon (Harpertown) architecture. Although descended from the Xeon branch, this 45nm processor features specifications on par with the Core 2 Extreme QX9770, including a 3.2 GHz core speed, 4 individual cores, a 1600 MHz FSB, and 2x6MB of L2 cache. The 150W TDP is a bit higher than the 136W of the QX9770, but otherwise, these are virtually equivalent processors. As with all Core 2 Extreme models, the QX9775 is unlocked and allows excellent overclocking control.
True to its workstation lineage, the Intel D5400XS features a Dual Independent Bus, which provides independent, high-speed point-to-point interconnects between each of the Core 2 Extreme QX9775 processors and the chipset. The two buses can deliver a total throughput of up to 17 GB/second at 1066 MHz, 21 GB/second at 1333 MHz and a blazing 25 GB/second at the 1600 MHz FSB. Intel has also tried to make the Skulltrail more enthusiast-friendly, by offering a System BIOS complete with voltage and clock speed tweaks for the processor, memory, chipset, and PCI Express slots.