Intel Xeon 5300 series review

£490
Price when reviewed

However fast desktop systems become, there’s always an application that demands more computing power. Dual- and quad-core systems were once the preserve of the workstation classes, but dual-core systems will soon be sitting on half the desktops in the land and quad-core won’t be far behind. The solution for the workstation is to up the ante. Enter the newest Intel workstation-class processor, the Xeon 5300 series, formerly codenamed Clovertown.

The processors, while clearly stunning feats of engineering, aren’t a massive shock in a world of consumer-level multicore. Based on a 65nm process, with two dual-core dies per part, 4MB of Level 2 cache per die – for a total of 8MB – and a 1,066MHz or 1,333MHz front side bus, they’re essentially identical to the quad-core Extreme QX6700 CPU launched late last year. What’s interesting is that the 5300s are DP (dual-processor) parts using different sockets, allowing for a traditional dual-processor workstation setup. The big difference when it comes to a dual 5300 system is that in effect you have eight processors to throw at your tasks. We got hold of a dual Xeon E5300-based workstation system for testing, fitted with two Clovertowns running at 2.4GHz in a pre-production Supermicro X7DA8 motherboard.

While Intel’s Core architecture is frugal on power, packing two Core 2 dies into one package increases power consumption to the point where lowering the clock speeds becomes necessary to keep within a sensible power envelope. The E series Xeons are rated for a TDP (thermal design power) of 80W, which limits maximum clock speed to 2.4GHz. The highest-clocked variant – the X5355 at 2.66GHz – has a TDP of 120W, putting it squarely back into old Pentium 4 Extreme Edition territory. As it was, with two of the 80W parts sitting in our testbed, the amount of heat thrown out by the cooling fans was high enough that you could feel the warmth just by sitting near it, and the inevitable noise of cooling fans would put it out of the question for many creative and studio environments.

In an ideal world, the dual quad-core 2.4GHz processors should give you results equivalent to a single quad-core 4.8GHz part. Of course, this won’t be the case in practice, but even starting from the basis that double the number of cores will give an 80-90% boost – as was the case with the move from single- to dual-core – it’s clear that eight cores could have a dramatic impact.

However, it’s still very much the case that everyday applications aren’t written for multiple-core execution. Monitoring processor usage during a run through our benchmark suite shows that, for most of the time, seven of the eight cores on offer are sitting idle. This applies to Office, Photoshop and our video- and audio-encoding tests (which only make use of two cores). While you can’t blame Intel for this, it highlights the fact that the applications the majority of people are still using won’t benefit from multiple cores. If you’re considering upgrading your current workstation, you should factor in the cost of updating your software as and when it becomes fully multicore aware; otherwise, your investment will be wasted.

On the positive side, many serious workstation applications already use fine-grained threading, enabling them to scale to an arbitrary number of cores, as opposed to coarse threading in which a single task is allocated to a single thread. One of these is 3ds Max, and it’s the only application in our benchmark suite that can really hammer a pair of Clovertown processors. With all eight cores almost fully saturated, the test machine tore through the first frame of our standard test in a mind-boggling 24 seconds, against the 40 seconds for the quad-core Hi-Grade Ultis Tachyon.

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