Intel let a variety of tech enthusiast sites run wild with benchmarks today showing off its forthcoming eight-core desktop platform, code-named Skulltrail. You can get eight-core computing already in the form of Apple's Mac Pro or a pair of Intel Xeon 5400 processors, but Skulltrail marks the first eight-core platform we've seen aimed at high-end workstation computing and PC gaming. The Skulltrail motherboard not only supports two CPUs, but it also supports both Nvidia's SLI and ATI's Crossfire multigraphics card standards. The problem is that for all of Skulltrail's power, PC gaming isn't quite ready for it. Also, a better eight-core solution could be right around the corner.
Like all current eight-core machines, Skulltrail relies on two quad-core CPUs plugged into the same motherboard to achieve eight-way computing. The actual Intel D5400XS motherboard and pair of 3.2GHz Intel Core 2 Extreme QX9775 quad-core CPUs required to build a Skulltrail system aren't due to market until "later in Q1," and we have no specific prices or ship dates. Intel has acknowledged that the QX9775 CPU will be more expensive than its current highest-end chip, the $1,100 Core 2 Extreme QX9650.
As a workstation platform, Skulltrail probably makes sense. Some applications will benefit from eight cores of processing power, which should entice production houses and designers that need brute CPU strength. For gamers, Skulltrail is massive overkill, for a few reasons.
The first is that only one game right now supports eight independent processing threads: Microsoft Flight Simulator X (A demo version of Lost Planet: Extreme Conditions supports eight threads as well, but it's only a demo, and not a full game). To be sure, the flight simulator crowd is passionate, but it's not a large enough niche to justify an entire new CPU platform. The hard-core shooter fans and other PC gamers that make up the bulk of the enthusiast market have no titles out now that will put all eight Skulltrail cores to work. You might see some games that will benefit from the 3.2GHz core CPU speed and Skulltrail's wide 1,600MHz memory bandwidth, but you'll find those same statistics on the quad-core Core 2 Extreme QX9770 chips and the single CPU X48 enthusiast motherboard, both due out from Intel later this quarter as well.
Before we sound like hypocrites, we will readily admit to our support of quad-core CPUs in mainstream desktops, but quad-core doesn't necessarily have broad software support right now. Still, we like it because it's relatively seamless to go from dual-core to quad-core in terms of performance, and increasingly in price and form factor. You can't say the same about eight-core computing when it requires two CPUs, twice the cooling and power, and a larger motherboard and system case.
Finally, consider that Nehalem, Intel's next CPU architecture, due out at the end of this year, has been reported to support eight cores on one distinct CPU. We don't expect a major influx of octo-threaded gaming software between now and then. Even if you're an adamant future-proofer, you wouldn't lose anything by waiting ten or eleven months for a self-contained eight-core CPU, rather than rely on a cumbersome dual-chip monster.
Intel makes the argument that Skulltrail is upgradeable, and thus if you don't need eight cores now, you can always just populate a single CPU slot and leave the other empty until you need it. Further, Intel also hinted to us at CES that the Skulltrail board could support an eight-core chip in a single slot, meaning 16-core processing might be possible. If Skulltrail really will be that flexible, power gamers might reasonably consider it as a growth platform. But game developers are loathe to add extra, potentially unused support for even quad-core CPUs to their titles. By the time eight-core gaming truly does go mainstream, we have a feeling the technical specifications of even this forward-looking platform might need updating.