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A Symbolic King In A Crowd Full Of Value

Intel Core i7-3960X Review: Sandy Bridge-E And X79 Express

When I first learned about the three processors Intel planned to launch, I petitioned the company at its own Developer Forum in San Francisco to sample the Core i7-3930K either in addition to or instead of the Core i7-3960X. “There is no way,” I argued, “that the thousand-dollar model can come close to the value of a $550 SKU during a serious buying decision.”

That didn’t happen, though, and as such, I can’t see any reason to recommend paying $990, plus the price of a cooling solution, plus a new motherboard, plus a quad-channel memory kit for Intel’s Core i7-3960X. Stepping down to the $555 Core i7-3930K really only costs you 3 MB of shared L3 cache—at a savings that’d cover a really nice motherboard and water cooler. That’s the processor enthusiasts with money (and an SSD full of threaded workloads) should be lusting over.

What about the Core i7-3820? I wouldn’t hold my breath. Expected in the first quarter of next year, Intel won’t yet comment on its price, though we assume it’ll be high $200s/low $300s. The savings is nice, but it involves losing 2 MB of shared L3 cache, two cores, and the unlocked multiplier. Although six additional 100 MHz bins, plus some BCLK flexibility, will be available, you also have to remember that Ivy Bridge won’t be far off at that point.

Also slated to sell in quad-core configurations, Ivy Bridge-based CPUs will work in existing LGA 1155-equipped motherboards, they won’t necessitate new memory kits or coolers, and, depending on the IPC improvements Intel’s engineers extract, could wind up being faster than Sandy Bridge-E in software limited to eight threads or less.

If it’s value you seek, Sandy Bridge-E isn’t the platform for you. Ivy Bridge stands a much better chance of satisfying that niche. However, for the folks who bought into Bloomfield/Gulftown and skipped Sandy Bridge altogether in anticipation of today’s introduction, a marriage of the Sandy Bridge design, more cores, more cache, and more bandwidth yields impressive double-digit performance gains, on average.

Should we see PCI Express 3.0-capable hardware in the next couple of months, Sandy Bridge-E will have yet another opportunity to set itself apart. No other chipset includes this feature, and we expect graphics cards and RAID controllers to exploit it within the first half of 2012.

Just don’t feel compelled to splurge on the $1000 Core i7-3960X. We’re trying to get our hands on a Core i7-3930K—there’s a good chance that’s the Sandy Bridge-E-based chip for savvy enthusiasts looking to overclock.

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