With Intel’s 5th Generation Core CPU stalled until the end of 2014 due to technical difficulties, the company has been forced to release a rehashed range of products, with tiny speed bumps hidden behind new product names. Nestled amongst this range of unremarkable, rebadged products is something a little out of the ordinary – the i7-4970K, aka Devil’s Canyon, which has been specifically tweaked to help improve overclocking performance.
The 4970K is the HyperThreaded version of Devil’s Canyon, which breaks the 4GHz barrier for the first time in Intel’s Core range, ramping up to 4.4GHz when the Turbo mode kicks in. There’s also a non-HyperThreaded version of the chip in the i5-4690K, which comes with a lower base speed of 3.5GHz, increasing to 3.9GHz under load.
Intel has positioned this as an overclocker’s delight thanks to a small change in the CPU’s physical packaging. If you look at the photo of the CPU, you’ll see that the top of the package is a flat piece of metal, but this isn’t actually the CPU. It’s called a heat spreader, and the CPU is hidden underneath this protective metal layer, with a coating of thermal interface material attaching the two. Performance hungry overclockers discovered that this thermal material was less than brilliant in the existing 4770K, so replaced it with better thermal goop, dropping temperatures in the process.
Intel has copied the lesson learned by these tweakers, resulting in Devil’s Canyon use of a new type of thermal material between the CPU and the heat spreader, which should lower the operating temperatures. As any overclocker will tell you, lower temps equals higher overclocking potential, and Intel President Renee James was even quoted as saying that the new chip, “…can be overclocked to 5GHz in air-cooled systems”.
Sadly it turns out that James was wrong. We tested the new 4970K CPU with a Corsair H80 water cooling kit, and couldn’t get past the 4.6GHz barrier, even after increasing the CPU’s voltage to a rather steamy 1.325V. We could boot at 4.7GHz, but benchmarks would crash within seconds. This is less than a 5% increase over the default Turbo speed of 4.4GHz, one of the worst overclocking results we’ve seen, and shows that the 4th Gen Core CPU design seems to have hit the frequency wall. As our benchmarks illustrate, the performance difference in games is almost imperceptible with such a small overclock. These disappointing overclock results have been mirrored in nearly every other test of the 4970K that we’ve seen.
Liquid Nitrogen users might fare better than we did, but for mainstream tweakers the new i7-4970K offers little that wasn’t already delivered by the i7-4770K, or even older i7-3770K. Those who don’t overclock will appreciate the new top speed of 4.4GHz, but if you’re running an Intel CPU from the last couple of years, we suggest holding off until the 5th Gen Core CPUs land sometime in the next six months.