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

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

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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Chris Angelini
Chris Angelini is an Editor Emeritus at Tom's Hardware US. He edits hardware reviews and covers high-profile CPU and GPU launches.
  • tri force
    "AMD FX-8150 (Zambezi) 3.6 G...Alright, that's just mean"

    I felt really happy for a second :(
  • xyster
    awesome! thx 4 the preview chris. i've been looking forward to this
  • wicko
    Just bought a 2600k, and after reading this I have no regrets.
  • for the price, the 8150 at 250 dollars will smoke intel out the water. IF you really want to go dolla per dollar , a dual socket amd opteron 6220 system will severely outperform the intel i73960 for alot cheaper. Thats 16 x 3.5 ghz turbo bulldozer cores against 6 3.3 ghz sandy bridge cores. hmm
  • jprahman
    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.
  • hmp_goose
    I predict a "meh" from enthusiast … And a far number of LGA1366 drivers looking for a price cut. ;-)
  • Wamphryi
    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.
  • Tamz_msc
    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.
  • raclimja
    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
  • dalauder
    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.