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

X79 Express And Another New Processor Interface

It won’t surprise anyone that Sandy Bridge-E necessitates yet another new socket interface.

That’s four introductions in three years, if you’re keeping count. First, there was LGA 1366 for Bloomfield, and later the Gulftown design. Then, there was LGA 1156 for Lynnfield and Clarkdale. After that we saw Sandy Bridge shift to an LGA 1155 interface. And now we have LGA 2011.

Intel’s strategy is pretty clear-cut. It’s trying to carve out one path for desktop PC users and another for the SMB server and workstation folks using 1P and 2P platforms. The company just so happens to also give desktop enthusiasts a taste of that same high-end functionality, basically re-badging Xeons as Core i7s.

AMD, on the other hand, is doing everything it can to keep the desktop and server/workstation platforms separate, which is why we’ve seen a seemingly-slower progression from Socket AM2 to AM2+ to AM3 and now AM3+. Over time, the result has been superior interoperability between platforms. The thing you have to remember, though, is that realizing the potential of each new interface still requires a motherboard upgrade.

Why LGA 2011?

If you bought into LGA 1366, you didn’t step down when LGA 1156 launched, and you probably even held off on Sandy Bridge, knowing full well Sandy Bridge-E was slated for launch this year, too. In that context, a shift to LGA 2011 three years after we were first introduced to LGA 1366 is actually pretty reasonable.

A number of (obvious) changes make the transition necessary. To begin, Sandy Bridge-E does away with the three-component platform that defined Nehalem, X58, and the ICH10. Instead, northbridge functionality migrates into the CPU, leaving just the Sandy Bridge-E processor and X79 platform controller hub. Then you have a four-channel memory controller and 40 lanes of PCI Express, requiring a lot more power and signal pins.   

X79 Express: Specifications In Flux

Although we’re sure to see multiple versions of the Patsburg platform controller hub, enthusiasts only have to worry about the one that’ll become X79. The rest will be trimmed and tailored to serve the needs of workstation and server customers.

Swipe to scroll horizontally
FeatureX79 Express
Processor InterfaceLGA 2011
Graphics Configurations2 x 16 and 1 x 81 x 16 and 3 x 81 x 16, 2 x 8, and 2 x 4
Overclocking SupportProcessor and Memory Overclocking
USB 2.014
SATA2 x SATA 6 Gb/s, 4 x SATA 3 Gb/s (6 x Total)
Rapid Storage TechnologyRAID 0, 1, 5, 10
PCI Express 2.0 (5 GT/s)8
PCI BusYes
Gigabit EthernetYes

As mentioned, the expectation of X79 has changed fairly dramatically since its existence was first acknowledged. It was supposed to have a dedicated four-lane storage-oriented link to the CPU, it was supposed to have a lot more storage connectivity, and it was supposed to be SAS-capable.

It looks like we’ll instead see a PCH that sports the same storage package as P67 and Z68: six total SATA ports, two of which run at 6 Gb/s data rates. SAS connectivity is no longer a feature; that’ll instead need to come from a mezzanine or add-in card. Intel also makes it clear that the x4 uplink between Patsburg and Sandy Bridge-E will not be enabled when the platform launches. This might become a reality at some point down the line. Upon introduction, X79 will attach to Sandy Bridge-E solely through a four-lane DMI link.

This is our updated rendition of X79 using P67 as a baseline

Patsburg doesn’t support USB 3.0. And now its storage block is looking a little mainstream, too. Consequently, motherboard manufacturers are going to have to use a lot of third-party controllers to get X79-based platforms feature-heavy enough to succeed beefy Z68 boards. Expect at least a handful of the PCH’s eight PCI Express 2.0 lanes to host extras.

The bottom line is that X79 ends up looking a lot like P67 Express. All of the platform’s differentiated functionality comes from the Sandy Bridge-E processor itself.

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.