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

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Subject: Processors
Manufacturer: Intel

Sandy Bridge-E is just what you expect

Introduction

It has been more than three years since Intel released the first Core i7 processor built around the Nehalem CPU architecture along with the X58 chipset.  It quickly became the platform of choice for the enthusiast market (gamers and overclockers), and remained in that role even as the world of processors evolved around it with the release of Westmere and Sandy Bridge.  Yes, we have been big supporters of the Sandy Bridge Core i7 parts for some time as the "new" platform of choice for gamers, but part of us always fondly remembered the days of Nehalem and X58. 

Well, Intel shared the sentimentl and this holiday they are officially unveiling the Sandy Bridge-E platform and the X79 chipset.  The "E" stands for enthusiast in this case and you'll find that many of the same decisions and patterns apply from the Nehalem release to this one.  Nehalem and X58 was really meant as a workstation design but the performance and features were so good that Intel wanted to offer it to the high-end consumer as well. Sandy Bridge-E is the same thing - this design is clearly built for the high-profit areas of computing including workstation and servers but those that want the best available technology will find it pretty damn attractive as well. 

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But what actually makes a Sandy Bridge-E processor (now going with the Core i7-3xxx model naming scheme) different from the Sandy Bridge CPUs we have come to love since it was released in January of this year?

The Sandy Bridge-E Architecture

The answer might surprise you, but truthfully not a whole lot has changed.  In fact, from a purely architectural stand point (when looking at the x86 processor cores), Sandy Bridge-E looks essentially identical to the cores found in currently available Sandy Bridge CPUs.  You will see the same benefits of the additional AVX instruction set in applications that take advantage of it, a shared L3 cache that exists between all of the cores for data coherency and the ring bus introduced with Sandy Bridge is still there to move data between the cores, cache and uncore sections of the die.

Click here to continue reading our review of the new Sandy Bridge-E processor, the Core i7-3960X!!

Turbo Boost technology makes a return here as well with the updated 2.0 version in full effect - there are more steppings in scalability on this part than on the Nehalem or Westmere CPUs. 

With that said, there are some important changes to take note of, starting with the absence of any and all Sandy Bridge aspects related to graphics and multimedia processing.  The Sandy Bridge-E Core i7-39xx and i7-38xx parts will not have processor graphics of any kind on them, and while this isn't a big deal for the targeted users of high-end hardware like this, there is one drawback.  Along with the GPU portion, the QuickSync technology is also absent from the design as it was dependent on the Intel HD Graphics technology for some of its processing.  If you were a fan, as we were, of the QuickSync media transcoding applications that worked impressively fast, then you should be prepared to live without it again if you buy a SNB-E processor.  Still, with 6-cores and 12-threads of processing, the Core i7-3960X should be able to handle media transcoding fairly well as we demonstrate in our benchmark testing.

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The Sandy Bridge-E Die

A significant portion of the processor die is relegated to communication with the 40 lanes of PCI Express supported by Sandy Bridge-E.  This is a VAST improvement over the current Sandy Bridge parts that only support 16 lanes.  While PCI Express 3.0 support is not yet official on the SNB-E CPUs, all of the motherboard vendors we have talked to are comfortable with saying the combination of the new CPUs and X79 motherboards will run that communication protocol properly when supported cards are released in 2012.  For whatever reason, Intel has decided to not validate the PCIe 3.0 capability of the processor directly and instead claims that it "believes that some PCIe devices may be able to achieve the 8GT/s PCIe transfer rate on X79".  So...uh, there. 

As all of the motherboard designs have shown you over the last several months, Sandy Bridge-E also moves from a dual-channel memory controller to a much higher bandwidth quad-channel memory controller.  Theoretical memory bandwidth moves up to 51.2 GB/s and while some very specific applications will see (and take advantage of) this change, most consumer applications and games won't come close to seeing a 2x increase in performance.  Still, those that complained about moving from a three-channel memory controller on Nehalem to the dual-channel on Sandy Bridge will be pleased to see a move forward in this area. 

This, of course, means a new collection of memory module kits from Corsair and the like are in order. To take full advantage of your processor's performance, you are going to need to populate all four of those memory channels.  We have already seen a few sets from Corsair that target the SNB-E buyer.  Another good side effect of four memory channels is that you will (by default) have more memory in your system overall.  Even if you go down to 2GB modules for each channel we are talking about an 8GB configuration and more likely a 16GB total system memory option for users that go with still very cost efficient 4GB DIMMs.  

One interesting thing to note from looking at the die shot above is that there are two cores disabled on SNB-E.  Those cores will surely be enabled on upcoming Xeon processors but I am still confused as to why Intel chose to keep them disabled completely.  I understand that with 8 cores they weren't likely to be able to run at higher clock speeds than current Sandy Bridge processors, but offering a SKU that was 8-cores/16-threads deep at lower clock speeds could have been for consumers that really use heavily-threaded applications.  As it stands now, Intel only has plans for 6-core and 4-core SNB-E processors.  

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Shared L3 cache size has also been increased up to a staggering 15MB on the Core i7-3960X flagship and 12MB on the Core i7-3930K.  To put that in perspective, the current Core i7-2600K Sandy Bride processor and Core i7 Nehalem parts sport 8MB of L3 cache.  From the die image we can gather that the Core i7-3960X is actually using all of the available cache size and any upcoming Xeons with 8-cores will have the same amount.

The new Sandy Bridge-E processors are larger than previous Nehalem or Sandy Bridge CPUs as inferred from the requirement of the new LGA2011 socket.  The CPU die itself is built on the same 32nm process technology as the current generation Sandy Bridge and consists of 2.27 billion transistors in the form of a nearly square 434.72 mm2 die.

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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