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Sandy Bridge-E: More Speed On The Desktop, But A Bigger Deal To Servers

Intel Core i7-3960X (Sandy Bridge-E) And X79 Platform Preview

Although we don’t yet have a die shot or block diagram of Sandy Bridge-E, it’s pretty clearly an amalgam of Sandy Bridge’s architecture and scalable cache structure with the same core count that previously gave Gulftown an advantage in well-threaded applications.

Of course, in the segment it was designed to address, Intel moves PCI Express control from X58 to the Sandy Bridge-E die itself, adding a fourth 64-bit memory channel able to run at higher data rates. The result is a simpler two-chip platform than X58 better able to service the server apps dependent on memory bandwidth. Decidedly, consumer apps see little, if any, benefit from the more complex memory controller.

Cumulatively, the impact of Sandy Bridge-E over Core i7-990X is felt in both single- and multi-threaded apps, topping out in the 30% range in a benchmark like Blender. If you count yourself amongst the workstation users justified in spending $1000 on a six-core processor due to the productivity gains it provides, Core i7-3960X looks to be a substantial upgrade as a result of its Sandy Bridge roots.

We can’t ignore the value still so apparent in the mainstream Sandy Bridge-based chips, though. Core i7-2600K holds its own against our pre-production Sandy Bridge-E sample, tying it in single-threaded apps, and trailing it in more threaded titles. That chip, along with the cheaper Core i5-2500K, remains a winner for budget-conscious power users and gamers alike.

Of the three Sandy Bridge-E-based CPUs expected to launch later this year, the Core i7-3930K is perhaps the most interesting. An unlocked multiplier, 2 MB/core of L3 cache, and a hexa-core configuration could be a powerful combination, overclocked. The -3960X will of course be too expensive for most enthusiasts, while the quad-core -3820 may have a tough time proving its worth against existing Sandy Bridge platforms.

At least in the shape we’re previewing today, the X79 platform won’t last as long as X58 did, if only because appears to have given up the features that were expected to set it apart. Without official PCI Express 3.0, USB 3.0, or its more advanced storage connectivity, X79 ends up looking a lot like P67 or Z68.

Update: Again, the PCI Express support in Sandy Bridge-E is said to be 8 GT/s-capable, but not yet validated to work with the third-gen standard. An official blessing could be forthcoming, but it's not yet a sure thing.

Looking Forward

We’re at least a month or two away from Sandy Bridge-E’s launch, and a lot is expected to happen in that time. There’s AMD’s anticipated Bulldozer architecture, to start.

Also, by the time you read this, we’ll be on the way to IDF in San Francisco, where we’re scheduled to sit in on several briefings about Ivy Bridge, its 22 nm tri-gate transistors, improvements to the architecture’s media functionality, and Windows 8.

Though Sandy Bridge-E promises notable gains in the server world, it’s destined to be less influential on the desktop, if only because the number of folks willing to pay a steep premium for two additional cores and an otherwise-similar platform is small. Sandy Bridge spoiled us, so a high-end part just doesn't have the impact on enthusiasts that Bloomfield had back in 2008.

Ivy Bridge is sure to make a bigger splash, so stay tuned for more information from Intel as it flows out of IDF.

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