With the release of the Core i5 Clarkdale based processors (650/660/661/670) Intel is making a bit of an unusual move. See, we all know that the 'system on a chip' concept is something which in the future we will see more and more. But after testing it I got a bit of an underbelly feeling which I just can't make sense of. Here's the deal, the Core i5 600 series processors are targeted at the upper segment of the mainstream market priced at 176 to 284 USD.
Now when you purchase a processor at that price, you fall within a certain demographic and profile. Within that price range (we think) each and everyone of you will already have a dedicated graphics card in your PC one way or the other, making the integration of the IGP into the processor die a little controversial and obsolete.
Why would Intel integrate a GPU into it's higher segmented and fastest dual-core processors? My personal and completely subjective theory is quite simple -- you in the end will pay for them extra transistors inside that package. Intel is removing a choice that normally you guys make in the store yourself, the option whether or not to go for a motherboard chipset with integrated graphics.
With that in mind, let's think things through: this is a dual-core processor (Core i5 661) that will cost you nearly 200 USD. But for 200 USD I could also pickup a faster quad-core Core i7 750 or faster Phenom II X4 965 BE. So what I am trying to say is that Intel is trying to sell processors with an IGP which many of you will very likely never use, but sure... you will pay more money for it.
Now obviously it is not per se a negative thing, no Sir. There's also a flipside of the coin to this story. For the lower segment of mainstream market the CPU+IGP products can make a lot of sense. HTPC users will really like the Clarkdale environment as it offers an all in one package for accelerating, decoding and enhancing high-definition 1080P content with software like PowerDVD. And as little as it is, a big plus is that Intel allows Image Sharpening, something that I've been pleading to NVIDIA and ATI for years now -- yet something that is bluntly ignored. So HTPC wise things are looking incredibly good which is a massive plus for Clarkdale. And hey, do not forget about power consumption which in both idle and stress remains really low for say a H55 motherboard with Core i5 660 processor.
Another good market for Clarkdale will be generic PC users, for people with everyday tasks and workload the combo of the processor series with IGP can be a viable solution. In the end though all things boil down to money and your readiness to spend it. The H55 PCH motherboard chipset alone will cost manufacturers 40 bucks, then they still have to design a motherboard around it. A Core i5 660 processor is nearly 200 USD. So let's say that a motherboard will cost you 80 maybe 90 USD, then add 200 USD for the Core i5 661 and boom, then you are already closing in on 300 USD my man.
Now let's talk performance. Intel did that part certainly well. Despite the world is massively moving onwards to quad-core processors, for a dual-core processor the performance is as expected really nice. We love hyper-threading, the memory controller is plenty fast and the overall performance is downright good. The fastest Phenom II X2 processor from AMD has no chance of coming even remotely close to the Core i5 600 series. So without doubt, these are the fastest dual-core processor your money can get you.
The Intel processors benefit greatly from the Turbo design. If an application uses just one processor thread/core the chip will automatically run faster at 3.6 GHz opposed to 3.33 GHz. There are several steps this way. Two cores/threads used equal 3.4 GHz and so on. The design works really well and offers a little extra kick straight out of the box.
Overclocking then -- the sky is the limit. Now as stated in the article, we achieved very little with the reference H55 motherboard overclocking wise as the BIOS is too limited and the board design simply does not cater for it. So I called up a contact at eVGA R&D who happily provided us the beta BIOS on P55 Classified for Clarkdale processor support. Now that motherboard is made for overclocking, and within seconds we had the 661 processor running at 4.2 GHz already, on the stock Intel air cooler. So the sky is the limit with the processors' overclockability. Keep in mind though, should you opt for something similar, the P55 chipset does not support the IGP, it will simply ignore it and use the processor for what it needs to be, a processor.
Concluding, in the end the integration of an IGP into high-end dual-core processors for me is a bit of a trivial one. For the lower end Core i3 series it makes total sense as you can quickly build a net PC, generic PC or HTPC. For mainstream however I find it a little frivolous as there's 90% chance that you won't use the IGP ever, yet you are paying for it. Now also understand _very well_ that this editor works at Guru3D, we cater to the mainstream, enthusiast and gaming community -- and as such that has an effect on how we look at things, we totally understand that a lot of people will look at Clarkdale series 600 in an entirely different way than we do. But personally -- this editor would just go for the similarly priced Core i5 750.
Bottom line: overall the Core i5 660/661 is a very good product with a lot of tweakability and potential. By releasing them Intel puts the fastest dual-core processors on the market we have seen to date, that is a very strong implementation in the new year alright! We do hope to see the price come down a little more as that's probably its biggest disadvantage right now. But sure -- we can wholeheartedly recommend Core i5 600 series processors, they are certainly plenty fast and versatile alright.
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