Closing Thoughts

Performance

On our processor lineup page we wanted to look out for a few performance comparisons as we looked at all the benchmarks with the new Core i7-3960X.  The first was the comparison of this new Sandy Bridge-E 6-core / 12-thread CPU to the previous top end part from Intel, the Core i7-990X based on the Nehalem architecture and the X58 chipset.  Both parts sport the same number of cores but the Sandy Bridge architecture definitely has some architectural improvements over Nehalem thanks to 3+ years of changes and tweaks.  At their core, they are very similar, but the changes, when multiplied out by 6 cores, are quite noticeable in those applications that really take advantage of the multiple threads.  If you happen to be a Core i7-990X user today, I don’t know if those changes are enough to really warrant the additional cost of an upgrade, but the chances are good you are made of money anyway.

Maybe most important for Intel is the comparison of the new Core i7-3960X to the Core i7-2600K/i7-2700K quad-core Sandy Bridge CPUs.  Basically using the same CPU cores but removing the integrated graphics, Sandy Bridge-E performs very similarly in single-threaded applications – as we more or less predicted.  The real benefit to the new SNB-E comes with the use of 6 cores instead of 4 and when combined with software that really pushes the use of multiple threads, like Valve’s particle simulation or POV-Ray, the performance gaps get very close to that theoretical difference of 50%.  But even tests like Handbrake, which we would consider one of most highly threaded consumer applications, only saw a difference of 25% – impressive but not within range of the 50% core count difference. 

Intel’s new Sandy Bridge-E processors are definitely faster than the currently available Sandy Bridge parts like the Core i7-2600K, but you had better have a use for all 6-cores to really take advantage of the computing power available to you.

Finally, the comparison between the Core i7-2960X and AMD’s FX-8150 was a giant bust for AMD, until you consider the cost of each part.  With a $245 AMD CPU going against a $990 Intel Extreme Edition, we expected AMD to get destroyed and it did.  For value though, as our previous page demonstrated, Intel will likely have to have the Core i7-3930K in the battle to be in the same ballpark.  

Missing Features

There are some drawbacks to the move from Sandy Bridge to the newer Sandy Bridge-E, starting with the lack of a stock cooler in the retail packaging.  We know that Intel is selling a sealed loop water cooler of their own built by Asetek but you are going to have to shell out another $70+ for that in addition to the $990 price tag of the Core i7-3960X or the $555 for the Core i7-3930K.  We know that MicroCenter is apparently offering a free Corsair H80 with the purchase of a Sandy Bridge-E CPU, but be sure to compare overall prices before buying.

Also, there are two nice features of the Core i7-2xxx series parts and the Z68 chipset that are missing from today’s release: QuickSync technology and Smart Response Technology.  QuickSync is gone because of the removal of the processor graphics portion of Sandy Bridge so users that loved the boost in speed on video transcoding that it offered will be out of luck here.  And SRT, the SSD caching technology introduced on Z68, is also MIA so users that wanted to use a small SSD to improve the overall response time of their system will be using motherboard-specific implementations from companies like Marvell.

Platform Considerations

While I might have been down on the X79 chipset in terms of the lack of new features and additions (and I stick by that – we should have had integrated USB 3.0 and additional SATA 6G ports by now!), the truth is that with the configurations we have seen and the overclocking capability built into the new CPU, a rig build around an X79 motherboard will probably be the enthusiast platform of choice for quite some time.  Having 40 lanes of PCI Express really gives companies like ASUS and MSI a lot of flexibility in what they can do, how they can lay their boards out, and what features they can add.  Having boards with support for 4-way SLI and CrossFire on the first day of the new Sandy Bridge-E release is a great sign.

Overclocking looks like it will be a big push on the new motherboards as well as we have seen some impressive results and some impressive use of the new UEFI implementations from several board vendors (that we’ll be showcasng soon). 

While we didn’t really see big real-world advantages to having the quad-channel memory controller, the additional memory slots will by default push consumers to get 8GB or likely even 16GB of DDR3 in their systems.  This definitely will add to the overall system performance indirectly and with 8 DIMM slots we could see users getting 32GB and even 64GB configurations for some unique use cases (can anyone say RAM disk??).

Pricing and Availability

The Core i7-3960X is the typical $990 Extreme CPU that we haven’t seen from Intel since the release of the Core i7-990X and as such will likely be a low volume part.  I am most interested in the Core i7-3930K (as I think most of you will be), but we are going to have to wait a bit to see if we can get performance and power results for that part.  Both CPUs and several X79 motherboards from ASUS, MSI, Gigabyte, ECS, Intel and more should be available starting today in retail and e-tail.  

  • Core i7-3960X – $990
  • Core i7-3930K – $555
  • Core i7-2700K – $369
  • Core i7-2600K – $319
  • AMD FX-8150 – $269

Final Thoughts

We have longed for a new series of processors from Intel that would replace the aging X58 chipset and Nehalem combination and the Sandy Bridge-E delivers well on that wish.  Even though the architecture is something we are very familiar with- having been in love with it since its release last year- the new Core i7-3xxx series offers up to 6-cores and 12 threads of processing power with an increase to 15MB of L3 cache.  The additional cores help the new CPUs push past the current generation Sandy Bridge parts in highly-threaded applications while maintaining the power efficiency that has, in part, made Sandy Bridge so popular.  The X79 chipset left us wanting more in terms of feature growth, but with 40 lanes of PCI Express from the processor, this platform will likely remain king for enthusiasts for quite some time. 

The new Core i7-3960X is without question the world’s fastest consumer CPU though I am more excited to get my hands on the Core i7-3930K that runs at only 100 MHz lower clock speed for about half the price.  But for simply getting the best performance of your PC, you can’t beat what Intel has released today.

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