Broadwell-E, which debuted at Computex in 2016, was the next major CPU milestone. It was the first time Intel managed to deliver a 10-core desktop chip, and even at $1,723, enthusiasts ate it up. Its early success put Intel on the path to developing the 18-core i9 Extreme Edition, by forcing it to open up its roadmap. Without the success of Broadwell-E, Intel would have stuck to its original plan and waited much longer before making the jump to 18 cores.
"I'll be honest, there was a lot of discussion about whether we were putting out cores nobody wanted," Srivatsa said. "We had this expectation that the actual workloads don't typically need as much as we think they would. We thought maybe there wasn't as much of a demand for additional cores and additional performance in this segment."
Turbo Boost Max... to the max
Beyond reaching a new core count milestone, Intel also aimed to fix a longstanding dilemma with its Extreme Series CPUs. Typically, if you wanted one of these chips, you'd have to sacrifice a bit of clock speed in exchange for having more cores. That's why the Haswell-E was 1GHz slower than the older Devil's Canyon CPU, despite costing three times as much.
The problem for consumers: Games rely more heavily on single-threaded performance, so you'd want the highest speed possible. Things like encoding and broadcasting video, meanwhile, take advantage of multi-threaded performance, which means the more cores the better. That left many buyers with a tough choice: Should they buy a system better suited for games, or one that was better for content creation?
Srivatsa notes that tradeoff is "honestly a part of physics." The more cores you cram onto a CPU, the more you have to worry about cooling them all down. But last year, Intel introduced something on the Broadwell-E chip that could help deal with that issue: Turbo Boost Max 3.0. Simply put, it's an evolution of the company's Turbo Boost technology that allows one core to perform much faster than it could before.
Last year at Computex, Intel's Navin Shenoy (now vice president and manager of its data center group), explained it like so: "Let's say you've got 10 cores running ... There's a distribution curve in our manufacturing profile, so one core may run slightly faster than the others. Historically we would just say, we'll run all the cores at the frequency of the weakest link. Now we're able to, on a 10-core processor, say one core is faster than the other nine, and we can dedicate single-threaded workload to that core so you can get faster speeds."
While it was a noble effort, the original incarnation of Turbo Boost Max was difficult to use. You needed a motherboard that supported it, and it was controlled by a driver, which required manually choosing programs to speed up. Or, if you were lazy, you could just have it work on whatever application you had in the foreground.
This time around, with the Core i9 X-series chips, Intel made Turbo Boost Max both more powerful and easier to use. It can now push two cores and four computing threads up to 4.5GHz, instead of just getting a single core to 4GHz. That makes it just as powerful as its fastest single-threaded performer, the Core i7-7700K, which should be a boon for gamers. And Intel also made Turbo Boost Max natively compatible with Windows, so you don't have to worry about managing a driver and any additional software to take advantage of faster speeds. The OS will do all the work for you.
Intel v. AMD, again
If you've been feeling nostalgic for an old-school computing hardware war, we're about to get one. AMD also announced its Threadripper CPUs for high-end desktops a few months ago, and, as usual, they're significantly cheaper than Intel's offerings. The 16-core AMD 1950X will cost $999, with speeds between 3.4GHz and 4GHz .That's the same price as Intel's 10-core i9 X-series processor, while the 16-core model will run you $1,699.
This is a familiar battle. AMD gained a reputation among enthusiasts for delivering CPUs that were a better overall value than Intel's. But while it hasn't innovated much on the desktop front over the past few years, AMD is betting big on its new Ryzen CPU architecture, which could give it more of a fighting chance against Intel. The Threadripper scored 2,876 on Cinebench R15 — but while that's below Intel's 16-core X-series result of 3200, it's also $699 cheaper.
It'll be years before most consumers need a CPU as extravagant as Intel's 18-core powerhouse X-series. And by the time they do, you can bet that an equivalent chip will be much cheaper. But the fact that it exists tells us a lot about Intel's current priorities. The company is finally betting big on enthusiasts. And since plenty of its high-end innovations will eventually trickle down to rest of the market, that's ultimately a good thing for everyone.