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

Author: Ryan Shrout
Subject: Processors
Manufacturer: Intel

The Processor Lineup, Memory Kits and Cooling Considerations

For the initial release, there will only be a pair of Sandy Bridge-E processors available for sale; a third will be coming early in 2012 according to Intel's schedule.

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The Core i7-3960X is the new top-of-the-line Extreme Edition processor coming in at that classic $990 price point.  It has a base clock speed of 3.3 GHz with a maximum Turbo speed of 3.9 GHz when utilizing only 1 or 2 of the processing cores.  The CPU has 6 cores and supports HyperThreading for a total of 12 addressable threads along with the full 15MB of shared L3 cache.  

Just under it is the Core i7-3930K will be priced at $555 and run just about 100 MHz slower than the i7-3960X across the board.  It will still have 6 cores and 12 threads of processing but lowers the L3 cache to 12MB.  Both of these CPUs have the quad-channel memory controller with support for DDR3-1600 memory and have 130 watt TDPs. 

Missing in action today but due in Q1 of 2012 is the Core i7-3820 that runs at a base clock of 3.6 GHz and the top Turbo speed of 3.9 GHz.  This part is a quad-core / 8 thread processor with 10MB of L3 cache and the same 130 watt TDP.  While the price isn't known yet, I would hazard a guess of a ~$300 MSRP.  What is interesting here is that I really believe that THIS Sandy Bridge-E CPU would have easily been the best selling day one - most gamers can't afford the $990 item and will hesitate to upgrade even at the $555 level.  The Core i7-3820 could be the new Core i7-920, the most popular processor of its generation.

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Left: Core i7-2600k (Sandy Bridge)  Center: Core i7-975 (Nehalem)  Right: Core i7-3960X (Sandy Bridge-E)

Let's compare the Core i7-2700K- the fastest Sandy Bridge processor using the LGA1155 socket, to the Sandy Bridge-E SKUs we see above.  With a price at just $332, a base clock speed of 3.5 GHz and a top Turbo frequency of 3.9 GHz, the quad-core Hyper Threaded processor looks like it might be very competitive with the Core i7-3820 in most applications.  Intel is likely thinking that the i7-3820 would cannibalize the sales of the i7-2600 and i7-2700 parts and wants to give them as much time as possible on the market (alone). 

And, as we might see in our benchmarks, the benchmarks and software that only utilize a single thread (or are lightly threaded), could run just as fast on the higher priced Sandy Bridge-E CPUs.

With the retail release of the new Core i7-3960X, there are some other changes to the plan from Intel.  For one, the processor will no longer come with a heatsink in the box of any kind.  Instead, Intel has been teasing an Asetek-built self contained water cooler that will be available for use with LGA2011 CPUs as well as LGA1366 and LGA1156/1155.

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This is the cooler we used in our processor testing over the last couple of weeks and have been pretty impressed with both the performance and the sound levels that the cooler generates.  With 130 watt TDP processors (even higher when overclocked) having these improved coolers is a big plus though I can't shake the feeling that Intel is screwing people here by not including SOMETHING in the box with the processor.  Now, if you want that $555 processor you should expect to spend another $80-120 on a water cooler from either Intel, Corsair or someone else.  

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Even more odd, is that Intel has built and is going to sell an OEM cooler that looks very similar to previous designs that works on the LGA2011 socket, seen above.  Priced at around $20 this cooler will likely not be a big seller except in workstation and server markets.  This slide also mentioned Ivy Bridge-E for the first time - ready to get excited for that yet??

Along with the changes in the retail configuration of the processors, memory packaged for Sandy Bridge-E also gets revamped as companies like Corsair, Kingston, G.Skill and everyone else start to offer quad-channel memory kits with four DIMMs. 

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Memory is dirt cheap and we love it - we are going to start seeing 16GB of memory as the norm!

Testing Configuration

For our testing we did the majority of the benchmarking on Intel's DX79SI and the board was very impressive in terms of its stability and flexibility.  Because of the new platform and memory configurations our hardware setup does differ a bit from previous reviews.  For example, we are using 8GB of memory on our Core i7-3960X CPU (4 x 2GB modules) to keep the capacity close to the 6GB used with Nehalem (3 x 2GB) and 4GB on Sandy Bridge and others (2 x 2GB).  

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  • Intel Core i7-3960X (Sandy Bridge-E)
  • Intel DX79SI X79 Motherboard
  • Intel water cooler
  • 4 x 2GB DDR-1866 Corsair Vengeance (running at DDR3-1333)
  • Intel X25-M G2 160 GB SSD
  • GeForce GTX 285 Graphics card
  • PC Power and Cooling 1200 watt PSU
  • Windows 7 SP1 64-bit

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There are few key comparison we will be keeping an eye on with all of our benchmark data.

  • Core i7-3960X vs Core i7-990X - These are the competing "world's fastest CPUs" and we are interested to see how the 6-cores of Sandy Bridge-E compare to the 6-cores of Nehalem.
  • Core i7-3960X vs Core i-2600k - Both are based on the same CPU architecture but the new Core i7-3960X has 50% more cores with 100% more memory channels and we want to know how much performance you get with all those changes. 
  • Core i7-3960X vs AMD FX-8150 - The best from Intel against the best from AMD; we pretty much know how this is going to pan out but many of you will want to see it for yourself. 

I did want to let everyone know that we had intended to test the performance levels of the much lower priced Core i7-3930K processor today but ran into a bug with our normal way of accomplishing it.  Intel only sent along the Core i7-3960X but we planned on utilizing the multiplier adjustments in the BIOS to run at the lower clock speeds.  The problem lied in the inability for the BIOS on either the Intel DX79SI or other retail options to properly set the 6-core and 5-core Turbo multipliers to 35x.  Instead, they continued to run at 36x and thus at an incorrect speed based on the steppings the i7-3930K retail will run at.

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If you are reading other reviews that claim to have Core i7-3930K results, be sure they had an actual sample of that CPU as we think performance will be skewed without it.  We are planning on getting a retail version of the Core i7-3930K this week to update you!!

November 14, 2011 | 03:35 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 | 03:40 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 | 08:12 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 | 10:31 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 | 03:53 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 | 07:49 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 | 08:28 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 | 09:26 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 | 12:48 PM - Posted by Ryan Shrout

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

November 14, 2011 | 11:26 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 | 12:49 PM - Posted by Ryan Shrout

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

November 14, 2011 | 12:48 PM - 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 | 04:57 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 | 02:08 PM - 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 | 02:38 PM - 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 | 04:57 PM - Posted by Ryan Shrout

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

November 14, 2011 | 04:51 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 | 05:01 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 | 04:56 PM - Posted by Anonymous (not verified)

$1000 Intel CPU FAIL

hardocp link

November 16, 2011 | 04:22 PM - Posted by AParsh335i (not verified)

Troll...

November 14, 2011 | 05:37 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 | 07:05 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 | 08:22 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 | 05:44 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 | 06:33 PM - Posted by mtrush (not verified)

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

November 14, 2011 | 09:58 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 15, 2011 | 12:56 AM - 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 | 09:24 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 | 07:31 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 | 08:12 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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