Intel has demonstrated its first six-core processor for desktops, the Core i7-980X Extreme Edition, which will go into workstations and enthusiast PCs targeted at gamers.

The company said that the new chip will be faster and more power-efficient compared to its past gaming processors. Based on a new architecture, the processor includes more cores and will be capable of running 12 threads simultaneously for faster processing, the company said. Intel previously sold primarily quad-core chips for gaming PCs.

An Intel spokesman said the chip will run at 3.33GHz, but declined to comment on when the chip will reach systems. The processor, code-named Gulftown, is on display at the Game Developers Conference being held in San Francisco.

However, online retailers are already taking orders for the processor, indicating its release could be close. Late last month European retailer Alternate started selling the processor at a price of €1,099. The retailer also listed the chip as having 12MB of L3 cache with the capability to scale the clock speed to 3.6GHz.

The Core-i7 980X "is an absolute beast", said Kelt Reeves, CEO of Falcon Northwest, a PC maker. The processor will benefit users that need serious processing power, including gamers, 3D artists and video content creators. "It's so fast it's actually pushing the new graphics cards to process 3D graphics even faster," Reeves said. "It's the best CPU I've ever seen."

The Gulftown processor are based on the Westmere architecture and will be made using the 32-nm process, which will be an upgrade over existing Nehalem chips made using the 45-nm process that it ships for gaming desktops. The chips will work faster and draw less power. The company is also expected to launch six-core Westmere processors for servers later this month. Intel will compete with rival AMD, which will soon launch the six-core chips under the Phenom II X6 brand, which will also be targeted at gamers.

The Core i7-980X will essentially replace Intel's current performance king, the 45nm Core i7-975 Extreme Edition.

At a glance, the Core i7-975 and the Core i7-980X are identical. Both sport a base clock speed of 3.33GHz, report a TDP rated at 130W, and support three channels of DDR3-1066 memory. But two additional cores means that the processor has 12 threads for an application to work with, versus four cores and 8 threads in the i7-975.

For our tests, Intel provided a pair of DX58SO motherboards. Serial upgraders should be pleased to note that the Core i7-980X is compatible with existing X58 chipsets. Just drop it into your existing motherboard, and you're (almost) ready to go; we had to perform a required, but painless, BIOS update. Our second test bed was equipped with the aforementioned Core i7-975 Extreme Edition processor. Both test beds also carried 6GB of RAM, 1TB hard drives, ATI Radeon HD 5870 graphics cards, and optical drives for loading software. We ran all of our tests on Windows 7 Ultimate Edition (64-bit).

Intel is pitching the Core i7-980X as the the premier part for the enthusiast gaming crowd. In our tests, we did see some improvements over the Core i7-975, but they were marginal. In Unreal Tournament 3 (1920-by-1200 resolution, high settings), the Core i7-980X cranked out 159.9 frames per second as compared to the Core i7-975's 155.4 fps, a 2.8 percent improvement. In Dirt 2, the Core i7-980X offered 73.3 fps, against the Core i7-975's 71.7 fps--a 2.2 percent increase.

Those results are hardly surprising. Despite the proliferation of multicore processors, many modern video games have yet to take full advantage of multithreading. Sega's recently released Napoleon: Total War and Ubisoft's upcoming R.U.S.E. have both touted their Core i7-980X optimization, claiming greater detail and realism thanks to simply having more physical cores to work with.

Other games boasting optimisation for more than four processor threads include Ubisoft's Far Cry 2, Capcom's Resident Evil 5, and Activision's Ghostbusters. That being said, if you recently sprang for a Core i7-975 and are strictly a gamer, there's no need to curse your poor timing - at least, not until more developers fully commit to the multithreaded bandwagon.

If, on the other hand, you spend much of your time working with multithreaded applications - including Blender, Adobe Photoshop, and Sony Vegas Pro - spending a fortune for your workstation's processor might not necessarily be a bad idea.

The most tangible results will be apparent in applications designed to sprawl across as many cores as possible. Take Maxon's Cinema 4D, 3D animation software used by professionals in numerous industries. In Maxon's Cinebench CPU benchmark - which can use up to 64 processor threads - the six-core i7-980X saw a 40 percent improvement in performance over the quad-core i7-975.

When considering a processor with a 130W TDP, there's a good chance that saving a few pounds on your energy bill isn't your chief concern. Nevertheless, the Core i7-980X does offer perceptible gains over the i7-975. With all power-saving features disabled, power utilisation at peak levels for the i7-980X was 210 watts, versus the i7-975's 231 watts. That's a 10 percent difference in what seems like the wrong direction, indicative of the potential power savings of the smaller 32nm process.

There's a lot to like here, but that's to be expected - this is an expensive piece of silicon, after all. As far as gamers are concerned, the i7-980X may not blow the i7-975 out of the water currently, but in this case the performance bottleneck lies in the lack of available multithreaded offerings - a trend that's already begun to change. If this chip is in your price bracket, it's well worth the cost of entry provided that you haven't plunked down for an Extreme Edition processor too recently. And as multicore processors and multicore-optimised applications become increasingly common, you'll be able to put all six of those cores to good use - for work and play.