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Intel Sandy Bridge-E Review - Core i7-3960X and X79 Chipset Tested

Author: Ryan Shrout
Subject: Processors
Manufacturer: Intel

Platform Changes - X79 Chipset and Motherboards

As is usually the case with Intel, when you get a new architecture, you get a new processor socket along with it.  I know many users have been complaining about the seemingly frequent socket changes on the Intel CPU platforms.  After all we went from LGA775 (Penryn) to LGA1366 (Nehalem) to LGA1156 (Clarkdale) to LGA1155 (Sandy Bridge) and now are jumping into the LGA2011 socket for Sandy Bridge-E.  Keep in mind though that in terms of enthusiast class high-end components, the X58 lasted for a solid three years on the shelf before today's release of X79.

The X79 chipset is really a chipset in name only as just like the current Sandy Bridge platforms, the majority of the important technology is on the processor itself.  The X79 chipset is nearly identical to the P67/Z68 platforms that are available today.

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Focusing on the lower half of the diagram above, the X79 chipset offers support for 14 USB 2.0 ports (but no USB 3.0 ports), eight lanes of PCI Express 2.0 for additional storage and network connectivity, HD audio support, and 6 SATA ports with two capable of running at 6.0 Gb/s speeds.  For those keeping score at home, that is nearly identical to the specs found on the consumer boards for Sandy Bridge based on the P67 and Z68 chipsets. 

There were initially rumors of things like 8 SATA 6G ports, SAS integration and much more that was going to be included on the Sandy Bridge-E chipset, but obviously those were either false, or (more likely) fell through and were changed towards the end of development.  The lack of expansion there and the missing USB 3.0 integration still confuse me, and I have to ask what Intel's platform division really has planned for consumers going forward.  If the Ivy Bridge chipset doesn't move things forward then we will really have some questions for the company.  However, as it stands now, SNB-E looks very much like SNB from a storage and connectivity perspective.

At one point we had also heard that Intel was doing away with the aging and somewhat slow DMI connection between the processor and chipset, but that hasn't happened either.  Looks like we will be waiting for at least one more platform release before we are ready to move to a faster interface. 

There are some nice changes with the new platform, although they stem from upgrades on the Sandy Bridge-E processor itself.  While CPUs like the Core i7-2600k only have 16 lanes of PCI Express to split between graphics cards and other add-in cards, the Core i7-3960X and other LGA2011 processors will have 40 total lanes of PCIe support.  This allows for a total of 40 GB/s of bi-directional bandwidth between the processor and attached devices and while Intel doesn't want to promote it, the CPU will support the PCIe 3.0 standard when storage controllers and graphics cards that utilize it are made available.  

As far as configuration options, the 40 lanes can be broken up into several different bundles including two x16 and a single x8, one x16 and three x8 or even one x16, two x8 and two x4.  For those interested in high-end gaming and multi-GPU configurations, the 40 lanes provide a great way to ensure you are getting full bandwidth to more GPUs without using PCI Express bridge chips like the popular NVIDIA nForce 200. 

Motherboards based on the X79 chipset and sporting the new LGA2011 socket are plentiful and we have options in house from ASUS, MSI, Gigabyte, ECS, Intel, and more.  We aren't going to have a big motherboard roundup for you here today, but we did spend some time with just about all of them over the past 7 days.  We created a short video here that goes over six motherboards based on this chipset, the main features and layout decisions of each and what you can expect coming up.

As noted in the video, there are some unique features on this new motherboard lineup starting with the "split" memory design that halves the DIMM slots on either side of the processor.  If a motherboard has 4 DIMM slots you'll see two on either side; for boards with 8 DIMM slots there will be four on either side.  The new quad-channel memory controller essentially required this design specification and this has made design decisions for each motherboard manufacturer somewhat limited.  When the top HALF of the board is basically controlled by a specific socket and memory layout, there isn't much more you can do in the standard ATX form factor.  

Below are some photos of the 6 boards we had in before the review went live - expect some reviews and comparisons on them very soon!

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Intel DX79SI

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ASUS Rampage IV Extreme

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ASUS Sabertooth X79

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ASUS P9X79 Pro

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MSI X79A-GD65 8D

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Gigabyte X79-UD3

November 14, 2011 | 12:35 AM - Posted by Anonymous (not verified)

Main and only reason for disabling cores in design is that in production process of chips(for example Xeon processors) they may encounter defects that with this mechanism tolerates these situations.

November 14, 2011 | 12:40 AM - Posted by Ryan Shrout

Defects might be the wrong word here. But they usually do it to allow the other cores to clock higher, important on a consumer product. Less important on a server environment.

November 14, 2011 | 05:12 AM - Posted by Anonymous (not verified)

The main reason i understood what that they wanted to stay within the 130W TDP envelop, plus less cores means less heat, means more OC, means more FPS.

Unless you fall in the small group of users that do programs like video encoding.

November 14, 2011 | 07:31 AM - Posted by Anonymous (not verified)

They could use this transistors for other matters,for example for cache modules, but they don't use these space for anything.With one difference This architecture is similar to Celeron processors in previous Intel designs. In this arrangement cores are deactivated instead of caches modules.Cores is disabled instead of CPU When any of them defected in production process in the factory.

November 14, 2011 | 12:53 AM - Posted by Dave Bruce (not verified)

When will we get some costs and build specs? Also what are the supply lines like will we have to wait awhile before wholesalers have stocks? Great Review well done.

November 14, 2011 | 04:49 AM - Posted by Imperfectlink

Fell a little flat with the render tests. Could you please include something a little more contemporary eg. Cinebench 11.5 please? After all, this is going to be one of the target demographics for the processor.

Edit: Especially need an overclocked CB score. That's what people will be doing with them.

November 14, 2011 | 05:28 AM - Posted by Ryan Shrout

CB 11.5 scales VERY well, much like POV-Ray, and we provided an overclocked POV-Ray result, so you should be able to use that one.

November 14, 2011 | 06:26 AM - Posted by perfectshot (not verified)

Awesome review Ryan! The performance per $ still makes the i7 2600K seem like the best choice if on a budget.

Can't wait to see what the leader board looks like in Q1 2012.

;-)

November 14, 2011 | 09:48 AM - Posted by Ryan Shrout

Yeah, I definitely wouldn't consider this a budget part at all, even the Core i7-3930K...

November 14, 2011 | 08:26 AM - Posted by Mt2e

I just feel that if you were to have the workloads that sb-e provides benifits for wouldn't you just get a Xeon based system.

November 14, 2011 | 09:49 AM - Posted by Ryan Shrout

Not if you are a small biz or pro-sumer looking to save money.

November 14, 2011 | 09:48 AM - Posted by Sihastru

I realize that this 3960X is top dog when it comes to desktop CPUs, but I can't help it to feel a bit sad when I know there's two extra cores with an extra 5MB of cache disabled, just sitting there, doing nothing.

And it's not like it's just a certain feature that's disabled, it's two fully hyperthreaded cores! That's like a really good extra dual core CPU that's gone dark, something like an unlocked Sandy Bridge 2100K (non existant, but you get the point). It takes "dark silicon" to the next level.

Is this to preserve a certain clockspeed - power envelope ratio or is this just because there's virtually no competition in this segment anymore? Is it that much cheaper to have just one die for desktop/worstation/server?

Do I get to blame AMD for ruining my life all over again? (hint: it's a joke)

November 16, 2011 | 01:57 PM - Posted by Ryan Shrout

"Is this to preserve a certain clockspeed - power envelope ratio.."

You are correct right here - those two cores aren't doing "nothing"; what they are doing is allowing the Core i7-3960X to clock as high as it is.

I still agree with you though - I wish Intel had released an 8-core version with a lower top speed so we had two options at this insane price point.

November 14, 2011 | 11:08 AM - Posted by Mt2e

Yer right Ryan about the cost when u think about it.

Ryan do you think SB-E will minimize multi-GPU microstutter? because its basically sb+2 I dont think it will but I dont know how the increased system bandwidth will minimize "jitter"

November 14, 2011 | 11:38 AM - Posted by Anonymous (not verified)

How are the single core on Blender better?? The new sb-e is the fastest single thread on the chart with 76.13 sec. Were you looking at it backwards. You may also look into using the new cycles render instead of the old Blender, as it will be the new standard in Blender 2.62 comming December.

-Sonic

November 14, 2011 | 01:57 PM - Posted by Ryan Shrout

You are correct, I was reading those results backwards. Thanks, fixed!

November 14, 2011 | 01:51 PM - Posted by Anonymous (not verified)

this CPU is a BIG FAIL!!!

$1000 and its single core performance is slower than 2600K !

Why are Review websites not slamming this CPU?

November 14, 2011 | 02:01 PM - Posted by Ryan Shrout

The same reason we didn't "slam" $1000 CPUs for the decade they have continued to be released. They aren't meant for single core workloads and excel really only in the outlier cases of heavy threaded workloads and the like.

No, this CPU isn't for most, it isn't even likely for MANY people, but the fact that it is there is good for the market to be pushed forward.

I don't remember anyone complaining when the Core i7-980X launched...?

November 14, 2011 | 01:56 PM - Posted by Anonymous (not verified)

$1000 Intel CPU FAIL

hardocp link

November 16, 2011 | 01:22 PM - Posted by AParsh335i (not verified)

Troll...

November 14, 2011 | 02:37 PM - Posted by Anonymous (not verified)

Why in the world would anyone praise this cpu. It's a mediocre step forward from the 2600k, and with Ivy on the way in the first half of next year, a complete waste of money.

November 14, 2011 | 04:05 PM - Posted by Ryan Shrout

I am afraid you are going to be more disappointed in the CPU performance of Ivy Bridge than Sandy Bridge-E...

November 15, 2011 | 05:22 PM - Posted by mtrush (not verified)

why? ivy bridge will be more cost effective for intel and us.
possibly less power and more cores. god forbid faster cores.

November 16, 2011 | 02:44 PM - Posted by Ryan Shrout

Because the CPU portions of Ivy Bridge compared Sandy Bridge are likely only going to be about 5-10% better.

November 14, 2011 | 03:33 PM - Posted by mtrush (not verified)

ya i'd wait for ivy-bridge and ddr4 2012

November 14, 2011 | 06:58 PM - Posted by drbaltazar (not verified)

wrong amd cpu to put against the i7 e3960x,you should be revisiting just the e3960x vs the opteron 6282se,that is the same priced cpu to go against the 3960,price for price the
3820 will be a better counter part to the 8150 or the

November 14, 2011 | 09:56 PM - Posted by DJBRUCE

If I want a top end gaming pc should I go for the SBE 3960 with the ASUS extreme IV m/b with twin 580 in SLI or am I just wasting my money:(

November 26, 2011 | 06:24 PM - Posted by Kaosuonline (not verified)

The twin 580's sound awesome. I'd stick with a Sandy Bridge 2500K and an ASUS P867WS Revolution MoBo. You are sure not going to bottleneck with that (if you are going with just one card then go with the P8P67 PRO. Two 580's are going to draw a lot of power. 850W plus (preferably plus).

November 15, 2011 | 04:31 AM - Posted by Anonymous (not verified)

I think Ryan did a good job explaining the subtle differences between the SB and SB-E. Moreover, with AMD's lackluster Bulldozer turnout and SB-Original not offering more than 4 cores, this CPU is now the premier CPU on the consumer planet. Look, if you want TOP-end power for a while- you're not going to find it anywhere else ...

... and they're going to charge it- because they can.

November 15, 2011 | 05:12 AM - Posted by t3ngu (not verified)

Another crappy comparison.
You compare CPU's reaching 1000 euros in price (intel) vs a mere 200 euros of the bulldozer (amd).

Compare two same priced cpu's and its more of a test than this complete waste of time

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