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Core i7-3970X Extreme Review: Can It Stomp An Eight-Core Xeon?

Core i7-3970X Extreme Review: Can It Stomp An Eight-Core Xeon?
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After one year of dominating the enthusiast space, Intel's Core i7-3960X is being replaced. The new Core i7-3970X features higher clock rates, but also imposes a 150 W TDP. Just for kicks, we're putting it up against another 150 W CPU: the Xeon E5-2687W.

Just one week ago, I was putting together some quick thoughts for Win A Custom-Painted Falcon Northwest Tiki! "It’s amazing," I thought, "that you can get such compelling performance from a 77 W Ivy Bridge-based processor." As a result of those manageable thermals, companies like Falcon Northwest are able to cram a Core i7-3770K, overclocked, into a little mini-ITX-based machine.

Of course, it didn't even take a week before Intel set out to show me it could also go the other direction, manufacturing an even faster desktop-oriented CPU capable of sucking down twice as much power as the -3770K. Meet the new Core i7-3970X.

As the new flagship of Intel’s Sandy Bridge-E-based Core i7-3000 family, this chip succeeds the Core i7-3960X, which was launched almost exactly one year ago. It drops into the LGA 2011 processor interface, and it sells for the same $1000.

But whereas the Core i7-3960X is a 130 W CPU, Intel rates its Core i7-3970X for 150 W.

Only one other time in history have we seen a 150 W desktop part, and that was the Core 2 Extreme QX9775. Back in 2008, Intel introduced the LGA 771-based QX9775 to populate its Skulltrail platform—a dual-socket configuration aimed at content creation professionals.

Today’s Core i7-3970X is only intended to operate in single-processor setups. Its higher thermal ceiling comes from a speed bump. The -3960X features a base clock rate of 3.3 GHz. Turbo Boost takes it as high as 3.9 GHz in single-threaded apps, when headroom allows. The -3970X starts at 3.5 GHz, but then accelerates up to 4 GHz via Turbo Boost.

Both processors feature six active cores, plus Hyper-Threading, allowing them to address 12 threads concurrently. They similarly feature 15 MB of shared L3 cache, and are manufactured using the same 32 nm process. Naturally, the two Extreme Edition chips boast unlocked multiplier ratios, too.

Does anything about the Core i7-3970X alter what we’re able to achieve with regard to overclocking? Not particularly. The Core i7-3960X we tested a year ago ran stably at 4.6 GHz with all six of its cores fully utilized. Today’s -3970X rests comfortably at 4.7 GHz using the same closed-loop liquid cooler.

Higher speeds are possible using more aggressive voltages (I was trying to stay under 1.4 V), but then you have to worry about thermals. The Core i7-3970X needs to be kept under 91 degrees Celsius in order to avoid throttling, and this becomes increasingly difficult at higher voltage settings.

You'll want an RTS2011LC (or better) thermal solution to dissipate -3970X's 150 W.You'll want an RTS2011LC (or better) thermal solution to dissipate -3970X's 150 W.

Cooling is a naturally an important consideration, then. Intel says that its RTS2011AC air cooler, which sells for just under $30, is not sufficient for the Core i7-3970X. However, the RTS2011LC closed-loop thermal solution we’ve been using for testing is able to handle 150 W CPUs. Since many vendors don’t get specific about their thermal performance, you’ll need to check with your vendor of choice about compatibility. And because Intel doesn't ship its LGA 2011-based models with coolers, plan on spending $70 to $80 more for something appropriate.

The Competitive Landscape

Wait, what competitive landscape? Core i7-3960X went unmatched for a year. AMD’s fastest chip, the FX-8350, does battle in the middle of Intel's Ivy Bridge family. A Core i7-3770K is a smart choice for high-end gaming PCs. But when it comes to running threaded apps in a professional capacity or setting up a multi-card gaming box, Sandy Bridge-E-based Core i7s remain the best of the best.

We’re including all of the usual suspects in today’s benchmarks, including the Core i7-3960X and Core i7-3930K. But we also want to see how Core i7-3970X fares against the other 150 W processor in Intel’s current portfolio: the Xeon E5-2687W.

Equipped with eight cores and 20 MB of shared L3 cache, the Xeon is what Sandy Bridge-E really could be if Intel didn't disable parts of it. But because more of the die’s resources are enabled on the Xeon, generating heat, Intel has to be more conservative about its clock rates. A base 3.1 GHz frequency is comparatively slower than the Core i7 in heavily-threaded apps. But we’re guessing that, in those same workloads, having more cores helps compensate. In single-threaded benchmarks, the E5-2687W spins up to 3.8 GHz via Turbo Boost.

The comparison isn’t anywhere close to fair, of course. Because the Xeon is designed to drop into dual-socket motherboards, Intel charges more for it. A lot more. Newegg has the processor listed for $1900, or almost twice as much as the new Core i7 Extreme—which brings up another point. The Xeon doesn’t have an unlocked multiplier, so you can’t overclock it.

But hey, two Xeon E5-2687Ws together are simply unbeatable. Don’t believe me? Check out Intel Xeon E5-2600: Doing Damage With Two Eight-Core CPUs.

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Top Comments
  • 31 Hide
    tumetsu , November 10, 2012 7:26 PM
    I've recently started facepalming every time I see BF3 in CPU benchmarks. "Boy oh boy, this hasn't been confirmed like a hundred times already but the single player is decidedly graphics-bound, so here, have these charts with identical results anyway."
  • 28 Hide
    jaquith , November 10, 2012 6:59 PM
    Boo on Intel for not enabling all 8-cores especially at that price!
  • 26 Hide
    amuffin , November 10, 2012 6:45 PM
    100mhz faster than the 3960X, not worth the extra premium.

    Same thing goes for the 3960X compared to the 3930K....not worth the extra 100mhz for $400....
Other Comments
  • 26 Hide
    amuffin , November 10, 2012 6:45 PM
    100mhz faster than the 3960X, not worth the extra premium.

    Same thing goes for the 3960X compared to the 3930K....not worth the extra 100mhz for $400....
  • 28 Hide
    jaquith , November 10, 2012 6:59 PM
    Boo on Intel for not enabling all 8-cores especially at that price!
  • 31 Hide
    tumetsu , November 10, 2012 7:26 PM
    I've recently started facepalming every time I see BF3 in CPU benchmarks. "Boy oh boy, this hasn't been confirmed like a hundred times already but the single player is decidedly graphics-bound, so here, have these charts with identical results anyway."
  • 15 Hide
    dragonsqrrl , November 10, 2012 7:29 PM
    jaquithBoo on Intel for not enabling all 8-cores especially at that price!

    They don't have much of a choice when it comes to the i7's. With the 32nm Sandy Bridge-E Intel has to make a choice between prioritizing clocks or core count within a 150W TDP, based on the target workload for a particular processor. For Xeon's the choice is easy, more cores. For desktop applications the choice isn't as clear, but I think most users would still benefit more from a higher clocked 6-core than a lower claocked 8-core. That's slowly changing though.

    Intel also doesn't want a situation where their LGA 1155 processors outperform their $1000 extreme edition in lightly threaded workloads, which is yet another reason to favor 6-core for now.

    I'd personally like to see an 8-core i7, even if it means lower clocks, but I don't think that'll happen until Ivy Bridge-E. At 22nm Intel probably won't have to make a choice, we'll get the best of both worlds.
  • 19 Hide
    samuelspark , November 10, 2012 7:36 PM
    So much money...
  • -7 Hide
    nebun , November 10, 2012 7:56 PM
    jaquithBoo on Intel for not enabling all 8-cores especially at that price!

    why would they....they don't need to do it at this time....amd's top cpu is still very slow when compared with even intels mid rannge cpus
  • 9 Hide
    unknown9122 , November 10, 2012 8:15 PM
    Why do people still benchmark on itunes 10.4? 10.7 is out... as for the 8 cores as said above^, there is no need to have more than 6. Because if it had 8, then xeons would not sell to pros.
  • 0 Hide
    dark_wizzie , November 10, 2012 8:17 PM
    Why are we not manually overclocking this expensive CPU? Why do we do benchmarks against stock ig 2500k?
  • 12 Hide
    A Bad Day , November 10, 2012 8:19 PM
    You also forgot something when comparing against Xeon:

    Stability test.

    Run the i7 for one month under Prime95. It will crash. Run the Xeon for one month under Prime95. If it crashes, then you got a defective Xeon because they're not suppose to crash under 24/7 workload.
  • 14 Hide
    anthonyorr , November 10, 2012 8:28 PM
    nebunwhy would they....they don't need to do it at this time....amd's top cpu is still very slow when compared with even intels mid rannge cpus


    Why would you even include the 8350? It is 1/6th the price of this CPU. I couldn't imagine what a modern AMD desktop CPU would consist of at the $1000+ price range.
  • -4 Hide
    A Bad Day , November 10, 2012 8:29 PM
    dragonsqrrlI'd personally like to see an 8-core i7, even if it means lower clocks, but I don't think that'll happen until Ivy Bridge-E. At 22nm Intel probably won't have to make a choice, we'll get the best of both worlds.


    Or set the TDP to 195W and add a warning stating that Intel's stock coolers won't be sufficient for the thermal load.
  • 15 Hide
    merikafyeah , November 10, 2012 9:47 PM
    A Bad DayYou also forgot something when comparing against Xeon:Stability test.Run the i7 for one month under Prime95. It will crash. Run the Xeon for one month under Prime95. If it crashes, then you got a defective Xeon because they're not suppose to crash under 24/7 workload.

    The i7 isn't supposed to crash under 24/7 workloads any more than a Xeon is. The footnote to this statement however has everything to do with thermal envelopes. The primary reason why Intel charges $1000 more for a Xeon is because Xeons can operate stably at higher temperatures. This is very, very important because cooling costs lots and lots of money when you need to cool hundreds of server racks and rendering farms all year round and there can't be any downtime. Ever. Because lost time equals lost money. They say every minute of downtime means a million dollars lost, so you pay extra to ensure a sudden heat wave doesn't wipe out your business. (Though some companies could certainly use better flood protection as to not rape their customers for lost profits, but I digress.)
  • -9 Hide
    nebun , November 10, 2012 9:48 PM
    anthonyorrWhy would you even include the 8350? It is 1/6th the price of this CPU. I couldn't imagine what a modern AMD desktop CPU would consist of at the $1000+ price range.

    lol....here is the answer...a lsow cpu, lol
  • 11 Hide
    apache_lives , November 10, 2012 10:28 PM
    A Bad DayYou also forgot something when comparing against Xeon:Stability test.Run the i7 for one month under Prime95. It will crash. Run the Xeon for one month under Prime95. If it crashes, then you got a defective Xeon because they're not suppose to crash under 24/7 workload.


    Not correct

    Your talking about a processor (i7) vs a platform (Xeon, since the Xeon's usually require ECC memory, server boards, usually server OS etc) -- 99.999% of the time crashes/issues are NOT processor related.

    Crashes are usually from things like non JEDEC standard spec ram, poorly written SSD firmware, bad drivers and so on - not a processors fault.
  • 5 Hide
    A Bad Day , November 10, 2012 10:32 PM
    merikafyeah(Though some companies could certainly use better flood protection as to not rape their customers for lost profits, but I digress.)


    I recall seeing a picture of a tiny server room flooded with raw sewage from a busted pipe. The management of the small business attempted to ignore the laws of physics and told the IT that there will be no shutdowns.

    I'm pretty sure there was a smell of magic smoke accompanying the sewage odor shortly afterwards.
  • 1 Hide
    clonazepam , November 10, 2012 10:51 PM
    Great article.

    "Complete Tom's Hardware Suite" Chart... ugh I hate being color blind, must concentrate harder.

    The 3DMark 11 benchmark was a "Performance" run I'm guessing. Couldn't find that anywhere.
  • 6 Hide
    blazorthon , November 10, 2012 11:07 PM
    A Bad DayYou also forgot something when comparing against Xeon:Stability test.Run the i7 for one month under Prime95. It will crash. Run the Xeon for one month under Prime95. If it crashes, then you got a defective Xeon because they're not suppose to crash under 24/7 workload.


    If the i7 fails, then it's no less faulty than the Xeon. They're the same chips, just with different feature sets.
  • 7 Hide
    TheBigTroll , November 10, 2012 11:21 PM
    nah. xeons are binned for lower power consumption and lower heat output compared to the i7 counterparts
  • 7 Hide
    blazorthon , November 10, 2012 11:34 PM
    TheBigTrollnah. xeons are binned for lower power consumption and lower heat output compared to the i7 counterparts


    Same chips still. Binning doesn't change what they're made of. Similar to how the Tahitis in the 7970 GHz Edition are better binned than those in the regular 7970, but they're still the same chips.
  • 6 Hide
    TheBigTroll , November 10, 2012 11:45 PM
    true. but they are different in their own way
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