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Intel Core i3-540 'Clarkdale' LGA1156 Processor Review

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MAC

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It has now been four months since the Clarkdale processors have been launched by Intel. During this time, this new processor family has proven very popular among those with smaller computer budgets, those who have casual computing needs, and those who want the most power-efficient processors on the market right now.

Clarkdale's success is no surprise since we lauded its general performance, the solid multimedia capabilities of the GMA HD Graphics IGP, and the very impressive energy efficiency of the platform. We had no qualms highly recommending Clarkdale processors for business computers, Home Theater PCs (HTPC), and even casual gaming systems. Having said that, while we were big proponents of this new platform, we couldn't really throw our full support behind the relatively expensive model that we had reviewed, the Core i5-661, since it had the exact same MSRP as the Core i5-750, a native quad-core processor. We felt that that model's relatively high price point betrayed its budget-oriented roots.

With this in mind, today we are excited to finally be able to bring you a review of what we feel is the best chip in the whole Clarkdale line-up, the Core i3-540. This 32nm dual-core/four-thread model features a 3.07Ghz core clock speed and the only thing that it lacks compared to the Core i5-600 series chips is Turbo Boost. Turbo Boost is a terrific feature to have, but it is certainly not worth the 30%+ price premium that Intel charges for the lowest-end i5-600 series chip.

What really draws us to the i3-540 model is its very affordable $140 price tag and extremely versatile 23X CPU multiplier. Why is this multiplier important? Well most Clarkdale processors can hit around 4.6Ghz with relatively little effort on air cooling. With the aforementioned multiplier all this requires is a 200Mhz base clock (BCLK), which is easily attainable on just about any Intel P55/H55/H57-based motherboard.

As you will see in the coming pages, with the substantial overclocking capabilities of the 32nm core, this little $140 processor can often run roughshod over processors that are significantly more expensive, and at 4.6Ghz it can generally perform neck-and-neck with the $60 more expensive Core i5-750.

 
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MAC

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Clarkdale Recap

Clarkdale Recap


First and foremost, let's talk about the naming scheme since this was arguably the most controversial aspect of the Lynnfield series and it gets <u>much</u> worse with Clarkdale since dual-core/four-thread models have now been added to mix.

Intel have chosen their Core i3/5/7 naming scheme to help highlight the number of threads and specific technologies that each processors series supports. Simply put, Core i7 models are eight-thread processors which feature both Hyper-Threading (HT) and Turbo Boost technology. The Core i5 models are four-thread processors with Turbo Boost. The Core i5 series will now be particularly confusing to consumers though, since it is comprised of the 4-core/4-thread i5-700 series and the brand new 2-core/4-thread i5-600 series. Then we have the Core i3-500 series models, which are 2-core/4-thread processors but without Turbo Boost. Lastly, we have Pentium G6000 series, which will be dual-core processors without Turbo Boost or Hyper-Threading.

Within this mishmash of models there are now different core counts, different thread counts, different clock speeds, different Turbo Boost capabilities, different memory interfaces, different manufacturing processes, different IGPs (or none at all), etc. Goodluck Mr. and Mrs. Consumer, you are going to need it. Thankfully, Clarkdale does share Lynnfield's LGA1156 socket, so that is one area of familiarity.

Still confused? Well the tables below should help provide greater insight about the various Clarkdale variants.

Specifications


At the moment, the only G6000 series that we are aware of is the G6950, although even lower-end models are almost a certainty. The G6950 is really quite different from the other Clarkdale variants since it is the only one that does not feature Hyper-Threading (HT), and thus can only process two threads at a time. Unlike all the other Clarkdale variants, this model is also the only one with a cut-down L3 cache. Furthermore, it also features a slightly slower DDR3-1066 dual-memory memory interface and IGP clock speeds. On the plus side, it should feature a sub-$100 price tag, which would make it a terrific replacement for the $110-120 Core 2 Duo E7400 2.8Ghz dual-core processor, especially when you consider the integrated graphics processor (IGP).

The i5-500 models are a healthy step-up from the aforementioned G6950. For starters, although they lack Turbo Boost, they do support Hyper-Threading, making them the very first dual-core/four-thread processors on the market. They also come with a full 4MB of L3 cache and dual-channel DDR3-1333 memory interface like the higher-end i5-600 series. Perhaps most importantly though, they have an IGP that is clocked at 733Mhz, which is a full 37% higher than the G6000 series. At $113 and $133 respectively, the i3-530 and i3-540 are priced quite aggressively and will obviously prove to be the dominant sellers in the Clarkdale family. It's clear that Intel is aiming these two models at AMD's very popular budget-oriented Athlon II X4 series. However, can a dual-core/four-thread design really compete with a proper four-core processor? Keep reading to find out.


As you can see, the four initial Core i5-600 series launch models are nearly identical. They all feature Hyper-Threading, Turbo Boost, 4MB of L3 cache, and a dual-channel DDR3-1333 memory interface. However, the i5-661 does distinguish itself from its twin i5-660, and all other Clarkdales, with a higher clocked IGP and proportionally higher TDP. Speaking of thermal design power (TDP), the 73W figure is not too shabby when you consider that this chip consists of both a 32nm CPU die and 45nm GPU die in one package. For comparisons sake, the quad-core Lynnfield and Bloomfield models come in at 95W and 130W respectively.

While the purpose and price points of the Pentium G6950 and Core i3-500 series are easy to understand and explain, things get a little more complicated with the i5-600 series. Not only do these new i5 processors infringe upon a model designation that was previously reserved for a quad-core model -the i5-750- but so do their prices. At $196 USD, the i5-660 and i5-661 models are priced exactly the same as the quad-core Core i5-750. Are the higher clock speeds and integrated graphics processors enough to warrant these relatively high price points? The benchmarks will shed light on that question.

The i5-670's price tag defies logic, but Intel always prices the highest-end model in each family above what most would consider reasonable. The i5-650 could potentially be a sweet spot for your average joe consumer, but that $43/30% price premium over the i3-540 is daunting for a mere 4% higher clock speed (up to 13% with Turbo Boost).
 

MAC

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Core i3-540 - Packaging & Chip

Core i3-540 - Packaging & Chip




Click on image to enlarge

Clarkdale processors ship with roughly the same packaging design that was unveiled with Lynnfield. In the box, there is a new revised Clarkdale stock cooler, a manual, and of course the processor itself in a protective casing. On the back of the manul there is an Intel Core i3 sticker.


Click on image to enlarge

For Clarkdale, Intel has re-used the tiny stock cooler that they had included with Lynnfield, but with a slight revision. While the CPU cooler maintains the aluminium body, integrated center core has been changed from copper to aluminium. Obviously, push-pins remain the mounting system of choice.

As you can see, there is a huge size difference between the Clarkdale/Lynnfield cooler and the one that ships with Core i7-900 'Bloomfield' series processors. We will definitely be testing to see how well this cooler manages to cool our i3-540.


Click on image to enlarge

On the outside, Clarkdale chips look absolutely identical to Lynnfield ones. This is not a big surprise though, as they do both use the same LGA1156 package. As per the LGA1156 socket name, those are 1156 contact points, a decrease from the LGA1366 Core i7 900 series, but still a huge increase from the 775 that are found on all Core 2 models.

On the heatspreader you should be able to spot "939", which signifies that our particular i3-540 was manufactured in the 39th week of 2009.


Click on image to enlarge

As usual, the CPU core speed is derived by a multiplier times bus speed formula. Since the FSB is no longer present, the bus speed in question is the base clock (BCLK), which has a stock frequency of 133MHz.

On Bloomfield and Lynnfield, the integrated memory controller (IMC) and the L3 cache operate on a seperate frequency called the Uncore clock (NB frequency in CPU-Z), which is derived by the uncore multiplier times the BCLK. However, the IMC is not part of the the CPU die on Clarkdale, it is integrated into the GPU die. The L3 cache remains part of the CPU though. On our i3-540 sample the default integrated memory controller was running at 1600Mhz (12X), the L3 cache was operating 2133Mhz (16X), and the QPI frequency was set to 5884Mhz (44X). By the way, i5-600 series chips have a 2400Mhz L3 cache and 6384Mhz QPI frequency.

If you want more information about the Clarkdale microarchitecture, click here to check out our original Clarkdale article.
 

MAC

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Intel HD Graphics Integrated GPU

Intel HD Graphics Integrated GPU


As we have already established, Clarkdale processors feature an integrated graphics processor (IGP) built right on the CPU package; the brand new Intel HD Graphics. These are the very first processors to feature the fusion CPU + GPU design concept that AMD first talked about oh so many years ago. The graphics unit is not integrated into the CPU core itself though. It is part of a seperate 45nm die called the Ironlake Graphics Memory Controller Hub (GMCH), which is displayed below.


As you can see, the graphics core, memory memory controller, and the PCI-E controller are all tightly integrated into one package. This was designed to give the GMA HD integrated graphics processor optimal access to the system memory and a low latency link the the PCI-Express bus.



As detailed previously, the Pentium G6950 has a 533Mhz IGP, the Core i3-500 series and Core i5-6x0 series have a 733Mhz IGP, and the Core i5-661 has a 900Mhz IGP. This is not a huge increase from the 800Mhz GMA X4500HD found on the G45 chipset, nor are the two extra 'executions units' a particularly notable change. However, the fact that the IGP has been relocated to the CPU package and given better access to the system resources should help distinguish itself from its not-so-well-received predecessors.



On the multimedia front this a very promising IGP though. It supports full hardawre decode acceleration for H.264/AVC, VC-1 and MPEG-2 formats. It can decode two Blu-ray streams at once. It can upscale DVD and enhance the image quality via post processing. It supports lossless Dolby True HD and DTS-HD Master Audio formats. And when you want to output, you have a choice of DisplayPort, DVI, dual HDMI, and VGA.
 

MAC

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Test Setups & Methodology

Test Setups & Methodology


For this review, we have prepared four different test setups, representing all the popular platforms at the moment, as well as most of the best-selling processors. As much as possible, the four test setups feature identical components, memory timings, drivers, etc. Aside from manually selecting memory frequencies and timings, every option in the BIOS was at its default setting.

Intel Core i3/i5/i7 LGA1156 Test Setup​

In this review we have included overclocked results from the Core i3-540. These results were accomplished using the exact system frequencies and settings as you will find in Highest Stable CPU Overclock screenshot in the Overcloking Results section.

Intel Core i7 LGA1366 Test Setup​


AMD Phenom II AM3 Test Setup​


Intel Core 2 LGA775 Test Setup​



For all of the benchmarks, appropriate lengths are taken to ensure an equal comparison through methodical setup, installation, and testing. The following outlines our testing methodology:

A) Windows is installed using a full format.

B) Chipset drivers and accessory hardware drivers (audio, network, GPU) are installed followed by a defragment and a reboot.

C)To ensure consistent results, a few tweaks were applied to Windows Vista and the NVIDIA control panel:
  • Sidebar – Disabled
  • UAC – Disabled
  • System Protection/Restore – Disabled
  • Problem & Error Reporting – Disabled
  • Remote Desktop/Assistance - Disabled
  • Windows Security Center Alerts – Disabled
  • Windows Defender – Disabled
  • Screensaver – Disabled
  • Power Plan - High Performance
  • NVIDIA PhysX – Disabled
  • V-Sync – Off

D) Programs and games are then installed & updated followed by another defragment.

E) Windows updates are then completed installing all available updates followed by a defragment.

F) Benchmarks are each run three times after a clean reboot for every iteration of the benchmark unless otherwise stated, the results are then averaged. If they were any clearly anomalous results, the 3-loop run was repeated. If they remained, we mentioned it in the individual benchmark write-up.

Here is a full list of the applications that we utilized in our benchmarking suite:
  • 3DMark06 Professional v1.2.0
  • 3DMark Vantage Professional Edition v1.0.2
  • Cinebench R10 64-bit
  • Cinebench R11.5 64-bit
  • Crysis v1.21
  • Far Cry 1.02
  • HyperPi 0.99b
  • wPRIME 2.03
  • Lame Front-End 1.0
  • Lavalys Everest Ultimate v5.50.2109 Beta
  • Left 4 Dead
  • PCMark Vantage Advanced 64-Bit Edition (1.0.1)
  • Photoshop CS4 Extended (64-bit)
  • ScienceMark 2.0 Build 21MAR05
  • Street Fighter 4 Demo
  • Valve Particle Simulation Benchmark
  • WinRAR 3.8.0
  • World in Conflict v1.010
  • x264 HD Benchmark v1.0

That is about all you need to know methodology wise, so let's get to the good stuff!
 

MAC

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Feature Test: Hyper-Threading (HT)

Feature Test: Hyper-Threading (HT)



How two becomes four.

The Nehalem microarchitecture brought forth the return of Hyper-Threading (HT), which is a feature that was first implemented on the Pentium 4 "Northwood" processors with mediocre results. Thankfully, as we first demonstrated in our original Core i7 'Bloomfield' review, this new microarchitecture has really been designed to take advantage of HT's multi-threading performance benefits.

Aside from the lower-end Pentium G6950, all six Clarkdale models feature Hyper-Threading, and Intel is really betting that this a feature that will distinguish these chips from traditional dual-core processors. So is Hyper-Threading's increased multi-threading performance really apparent on Clarkdale? Let's find out with a small selection of multi-threaded applications:



Admittedly our sample size is small, but the results speak for themselves. In highly multi-threaded applications, HT can make a significant difference, speeding up a real-life workloads by 13% to 33%.

As you can see in Far Cry 2, World in Conflict, Street Fighter 4, there are benefits to be had in games since most game engines now recognize at least up to four-threads. Valve Particle Simulation Benchmark is a synthetic game engine, since that partially explains the disproportionally high performance gain. Multi-threaded games have definitely become more prominent, and we are approaching the point were a simple dual-core processor simply won't cut it anymore.
 

MAC

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Synthetic Benchmarks: Everest CPU & Memory

Synthetic Benchmarks: Everest CPU & Memory



Lavalys Everest Ultimate

Everest Ultimate is the most useful tool for any and all benchmarkers or overclockers. With the ability to pick up most voltage, temperature, and fan sensors on almost every motherboard available, Everest provides the ability to customize the outputs in a number of forms on your desktop. We selected two of Everest's seven CPU benchmarks: CPU Queen and FPU Mandel. According to Lavalys, CPU Queen simple integer benchmark focuses on the branch prediction capabilities and the misprediction penalties of the CPU. It finds the solutions for the classic "Queens problem" on a 10 by 10 sized chessboard. At the same clock speed theoretically the processor with the shorter pipeline and smaller misprediction penalties will attain higher benchmark scores. The FPU Mandel benchmark measures the double precision (also known as 64-bit) floating-point performance through the computation of several frames of the popular "Mandelbrot" fractal. Both tests consume less than 1 MB system memory, and are HyperThreading, multi-processor (SMP) and multi-core (CMP) aware.




Lavalys Everest Ultimate

Everest Ultimate is the most useful tool for any and all benchmarkers or overclockers. With the ability to pick up most voltage, temperature, and fan sensors on almost every motherboard available, Everest provides the ability to customize the outputs in a number of forms on your desktop. In addition to this, the memory benchmarking utility provides a useful tool of measuring the changes to your memory sub-system.







Will ScienceMark 2.0 paint a different picture? Let's find out.


ScienceMark v2.0

Although last updated almost 3 years ago, and despite its rudimentary interface, ScienceMark v2.0 remains a favorite for accurately calculating bandwidth on even the newest chipsets.







These are just synthetic numbers though, real-life applications and games are what count. Let's check those out next.
 

MAC

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System Benchmarks: SuperPI 32M / wPRIME 1024M

System Benchmarks: SuperPI 32M / wPRIME 1024M




SuperPi Mod v1.5

When running the SuperPI 32MB benchmark, we are calculating Pi to 32 million digits and timing the process. Obviously more CPU power helps in this intense calculation, but the memory sub-system also plays an important role, as does the operating system. We are running one instance of SuperPi via the HyperPi 0.99b interface. This is therefore a single-thread workload.




wPRIME 2.03

wPrime is a leading multithreaded benchmark for x86 processors that tests your processor performance by calculating square roots with a recursive call of Newton's method for estimating functions, with f(x)=x2-k, where k is the number we're sqrting, until Sgn(f(x)/f'(x)) does not equal that of the previous iteration, starting with an estimation of k/2. It then uses an iterative calling of the estimation method a set amount of times to increase the accuracy of the results. It then confirms that n(k)2=k to ensure the calculation was correct. It repeats this for all numbers from 1 to the requested maximum. This is a highly multi-threaded workload.

 

MAC

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System Benchmarks: Cinebench R10 / Cinebench R11.5

System Benchmarks: Cinebench R10 / Cinebench R11.5



Cinebench R10


Cinebench R10 64-bit
Test1: Single CPU Image Render
Test2: Multi CPU Image Render
Comparison: Generated Score


Developed by MAXON, creators of Cinema 4D, Cinebench 10 is designed using the popular Cinema software and created to compare system performance in 3D Animation and Photo applications. There are two parts to the test; the first stresses only the primary CPU or Core, the second, makes use of up to 16 CPUs/Cores. Both are done rendering a realistic photo while utilizing various CPU-intensive features such as reflection, ambient occlusion, area lights and procedural shaders




Cinebench R11.5


Cinebench R11.5 64-bit
Test1: CPU Image Render
Comparison: Generated Score


The latest benchmark from MAXON, Cinebench R11.5 makes use of all your system's processing power to render a photorealistic 3D scene using various different algorithms to stress all available processor cores. The test scene contains approximately 2,000 objects containing more than 300,000 total polygons and uses sharp and blurred reflections, area lights and shadows, procedural shaders, antialiasing, and much more. This particular benchmarking can measure systems with up to 64 processor threads. The result is given in points (pts). The higher the number, the faster your processor.

 

MAC

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System Benchmarks: PCMark Vantage / Photoshop CS4

System Benchmarks: PCMark Vantage / Photoshop CS4



PCMark Vantage x64


PCMark Vantage Advanced 64-bit Edition (1.0.1.0)
PCMark Suite / Default Settings
Comparison: Generated Score

The main focus of our General Tasks category lies with the most recent installment of the PCMark series, Vantage. While still classified under the description of a Synthetic benchmark, PCMark Vantage uses many of Vista's (Note - Vantage is Vista-only) built-in programs and features along with its own tests, so it is "real-world" applicable in regards to CPU performance. The following is a general list of the tests in the PCMark suite, very much in line with tasks of an average user: Data encryption, Data compression, CPU image manipulation (compression/decompression/resize), Audio transcoding, Video transcoding, Text editing, Web page rendering, Windows Mail, Windows Contacts, and CPU game test.





Photoshop CS4

For the image editing portion of this review, we will use Photoshop CS4 in coordination with Driver Heaven’s Photoshop Benchmark V3, which is an excellent test of CPU power and memory bandwidth. This is a scripted benchmark that individually applies 15 different filters to a 109MB JPEG, and uses Photoshop’s built-in timing feature to provide a result at each test stage. Then it’s simply a matter of adding up the 15 results to reach the final figure.

 
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