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

Intel Core i7-3960X (Sandy Bridge-E) And X79 Platform Preview
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It's always interesting to get hands-on time with unreleased hardware. We were recently able to benchmark Intel's upcoming Core i7-3960X CPU, comparing it to Core i7-990X, Core i7-2600K, and AMD's Phenom II X6. Will you be in line for Sandy Bridge-E?

Check out our full review of Intel's Core i7-3960X, along with our follow-up on the Core i7-3930K and Core i7-3820.

There was a lot to like about Intel’s Sandy Bridge launch earlier this year. Single-threaded performance increased significantly at any given frequency. Quick Sync demonstrated commanding dominance over GPU-based transcoding from AMD and Nvidia. And, although I wasn’t over-enthused about paying extra for a K-series SKU, a mature 32 nm process easily facilitated clock rates approaching 5 GHz on air cooling.

Combined, all of those attributes took the spotlight off of Intel’s old (but still flagship) LGA 1366 interface. Even the subsequent Core i7-990X refresh, which threw six cores and a higher clock rate into the ring, wasn’t able to outperform the Core i7-2600K in enough test scenarios to warrant its $1000 price tag. The very fastest (and most expensive) Sandy Bridge-based chip could satisfy 95% of enthusiasts at less than half of the cost.

The Gulftown design’s real redeeming quality was its core count advantage, which shone most brightly in well-threaded workstation apps. But really, that was pretty much it. We even went to great lengths to show the X58’s 36 lanes of PCI Express 2.0 weren’t a real advantage over Sandy Bridge’s 16 lanes in multi-GPU configurations through an exhaustive three-part series.

At the end of the day, we had to scratch our heads and wonder how many folks would be willing to spend almost $700 more on Core i7-990X when Core i7-2600K was already so fast, and priced at $315.

But what if it was possible to cram what originally made Gulftown sexy into the Sandy Bridge mold? That’s exactly the premise behind Sandy Bridge-E, set to become the next enthusiast-oriented platform, replacing Gulftown and its LGA 1366 infrastructure.

The original internal code name logo for Sandy Bridge, before it was renamed The original internal code name logo for Sandy Bridge, before it was renamed

More important than what Sandy Bridge-E is going to do on the desktop is what it’ll become in the server space. Truly, this is a design destined to drive Intel’s Xeon E5 family, comprised of 1P-, 2P-, and 4P-capable parts.

A Naming Convention, Revised

For the time being, Sandy Bridge-E is expected to reach enthusiasts in three different trims: the Core i7-3960X, the Core i7-3930K, and the Core i7-3820.

Second-Gen Core i7 Processor Family
Processor
Base Clock
Max. Turbo Clock
Cores / Threads
L3 Cache
Memory
InterfaceTDP
Core i7-3960X
*Unlocked
3.3 GHz
3.9 GHz
6/12
15 MB
4-channel
DDR3-1600
LGA 2011
130 W
Core i7-3930K
*Unlocked
3.2 GHz
3.8 GHz
6/12
12 MB
4-channel
DDR3-1600
LGA 2011
130 W
Core i7-3820
*Partially Unlocked
3.6 GHz
3.9 GHz
4/8
10 MB
4-channel
DDR3-1600
LGA 2011
130 W
Core i7-2600K
*Unlocked
3.4 GHz
3.8 GHz
4/88 MB
2-channel
DDR3-1333
LGA 1155
95 W
Core i7-2600
3.4 GHz
3.8 GHz
4/88 MB
2-channel
DDR3-1333
LGA 115595 W
Core i7-2600S
2.8 GHz
3.8 GHz
4/88 MB
2-channel
DDR3-1333
LGA 115595 W


Although the model names suggest that Intel might consider this a third iteration of its Core micro-architecture, the press decks I’ve seen clearly list the three new Sandy Bridge-E parts as “second-generation Core i7s.”

By now, we’ve had increasingly-confusing names beaten over our heads by so many companies that the inelegance of “Core i7-3960X” bounces right off. Intel Core i7—OK, that part’s easy enough. The “3” is a generational reference, and the “960” is the actual model number. Incidentally, 960 doesn’t seem to compare favorably to the outgoing Gulftown-based 990. But Intel didn’t really give itself much room to maneuver there.

Even the letter suffixes are familiar by now. The “X” at the end of -3960X represents Intel’s Extreme Edition family—a designation generally reserved for one SKU at any given time at the top of the desktop stack. The “K” at the end of -3930K denotes lower-end, but still multiplier-unlocked models, also geared to enthusiasts. And the fact that the -3820 bears no modifier suggests it’ll follow in the footsteps of Core i7-2600 and i5-2500, offering limited overclockability (a handful of 100 MHz bins over and above the top Turbo Boost frequency, if history is any indication).

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  • 27 Hide
    wicko , September 12, 2011 5:07 AM
    Just bought a 2600k, and after reading this I have no regrets.
  • 26 Hide
    tri force , September 12, 2011 4:51 AM
    "AMD FX-8150 (Zambezi) 3.6 G...Alright, that's just mean"

    I felt really happy for a second :( 
  • 25 Hide
    Tamz_msc , September 12, 2011 5:54 AM
    I hope Bulldozer is more interesting than this. I honestly dont see many enthusiasts investing in this - they're better off waiting for Ivy Bridge.
Other Comments
  • 26 Hide
    tri force , September 12, 2011 4:51 AM
    "AMD FX-8150 (Zambezi) 3.6 G...Alright, that's just mean"

    I felt really happy for a second :( 
  • 10 Hide
    xyster , September 12, 2011 4:54 AM
    awesome! thx 4 the preview chris. i've been looking forward to this
  • 27 Hide
    wicko , September 12, 2011 5:07 AM
    Just bought a 2600k, and after reading this I have no regrets.
  • 23 Hide
    jprahman , September 12, 2011 5:18 AM
    I was really looking forward to Sandy Bridge-E, but it looks like a mixed bag from the review. The lack of USB 3 and especially PCI-E 3 was really disappointing, especially for an enthusiast class processor and chipset. The dearth of SATA ports was pretty surprising too, everything up to this review had indicated far more.

    The extra performance you can get looks pretty nice for stuff like transcoding, but the performance in the majority of applications doesn't justify the extra cost for the i7-3960. I'd rather get a i7-2600K or i5-2500K... or wait for Bulldozer to see how it performs relative to an i5-2500k or i7-2600k.

    To be honest, this review almost comes off like an attempt to chill any interest high-end enthusiasts might have for Bulldozer.
  • 9 Hide
    hmp_goose , September 12, 2011 5:32 AM
    I predict a "meh" from enthusiast … And a far number of LGA1366 drivers looking for a price cut. ;-)
  • 18 Hide
    Wamphryi , September 12, 2011 5:51 AM
    I just got an i7 2600 K and like a previous writer commented I have no regrets either. The 2600 K is such good bang for buck and lots of people seem to be snapping them up.
  • 25 Hide
    Tamz_msc , September 12, 2011 5:54 AM
    I hope Bulldozer is more interesting than this. I honestly dont see many enthusiasts investing in this - they're better off waiting for Ivy Bridge.
  • 24 Hide
    raclimja , September 12, 2011 6:18 AM
    what a massive disappointment, i was hoping for big performance improvement from intel


    i guess i will just stick with my i5 2500k and upgrade my aging HD 4870 x2 to something like GTX 680 or HD 7900
  • 13 Hide
    dalauder , September 12, 2011 6:54 AM
    You say the i7-3820 will be a tough sell, but maybe, like the i7-2600, it will be an excellent non-overclocked part for OEM machines. For that purpose, I think a machine that can run DDR3 1600MHz at without overclocking is a reasonable upgrade over the i7-2600.

    There is a market for people who want top-end gaming machines but never want to look inside other than to add more graphics. Based off of Cyberpower, IBuyPower, Alienware, etc.--I bet that market is at least as big as enthusiasts that hand pick their parts.
  • 21 Hide
    dalauder , September 12, 2011 7:00 AM
    leeashtonwell said people forget that clock for clock the phenom II out performs the Core i7 but not for brute performance
    I'd like to see where you heard that. Based off of this, it appears that the Phenom II only matches a Core 2 Duo, looses to Nehalem, and gets its butt handed to it by SB: http://www.tomshardware.com/reviews/processor-architecture-benchmark,2974.html

    I love AMD, but the argument can't be made for their performance. They do well at extremely low price points now and Llano on the desktop is great for the extremely light gamers that want some gaming capability (OEM do-it-all machines). But for the enthusiast, or quoting performance, AMD desperately needs Zambezi to do more than I expect is possible.
  • 2 Hide
    compton , September 12, 2011 7:01 AM
    I'm not really surprised at all. I'm interested in how power efficient X79 is compared to the stellar performance per watt of the 2500K/2600K. If the new SB-E parts idle anywhere near as low as SB does, it will be impressive. The platform itself isn't really as impressive if it does end up launching in this configuration -- but plain ol' Sandy Bridge is already pretty impressive. I'm still blown away by my 2500K and a couple of Intel SSDs, so I can't imaging myself benefiting from X79. I know there are many enthusiasts out there running older X58 setups who are going to upgrade to X79 no matter what, but I pick and choose my battles. The value of 1155 K parts and P/Z chipsets is hard to overcome.

    Ivy Bridge could be where it's at.
  • 20 Hide
    iam2thecrowe , September 12, 2011 7:16 AM
    Intel gives us a preview, AMD gives us false BD hope and more delays........... I never had a bad thing to say about AMD until recently, they really are hanging by a thread in my books.
  • -8 Hide
    SteelCity1981 , September 12, 2011 7:21 AM
    So this is it from Intel? Seems like a lot of hype for nothing. The Core Core 17 2600x isn't that far behind in the benchmarks overall thn the Core i7 3960x. not to mention the Core i7 3960x barely edges out the Core i7 990x in the vast majority of the benchmarks that it replaced.
  • 17 Hide
    jasonw223 , September 12, 2011 8:02 AM
    Going to skip X79 most likely!
  • 20 Hide
    tomskent , September 12, 2011 8:07 AM
    i7-3960X is a nice bump in performance for highly threaded apps, that said, 95% of the consumers wont need it. A 2500k is more then enough, especially when overclocked.
    Cant wait to see what Bulldozer can do, what Ivy Bridge can do, what the new gen video cards can do. An exciting next several months!

  • 0 Hide
    Agges , September 12, 2011 8:30 AM
    Fingers crossed that this brings a price drop on the LGA 1366 line..

    Okay, very optimistic of looking at the past but one can dream.
  • -4 Hide
    agnickolov , September 12, 2011 8:37 AM
    The 3.6GHz clock on 3820 is of most interest to me for a software development workstation. That's 200MHz over 2600 at the same price and the clock matters the most for compilation. Of course the platform cost will be higher... The 6 threads of 3930K are interesting as well - 6 files compiling in parallel instead of 4, though that makes no difference for still single-threaded linking. The biggest problem I expect is there will be no business-friendly offerings based on X79 - they will all center on Xeons.
  • 14 Hide
    FunSurfer , September 12, 2011 8:59 AM
    For anyone who wondered what the hell is "Gesher" - it means "Bridge" in hebrew.
  • 15 Hide
    ronch79 , September 12, 2011 9:57 AM
    I really look forward to the day when I see SB-E, IB and BD being pitted against each other.
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