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

Sandy Bridge-E And X79 Are Almost Ready

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But what if it was possible to cram what originally made Gulftown sexy into the Sandy Bridge mold?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

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.

Swipe to scroll horizontally
Second-Gen Core i7 Processor Family
ProcessorBase ClockMax. Turbo ClockCores / ThreadsL3 CacheMemoryInterfaceTDP
Core i7-3960X*Unlocked3.3 GHz3.9 GHz6/1215 MB4-channelDDR3-1600LGA 2011130 W
Core i7-3930K*Unlocked3.2 GHz3.8 GHz6/1212 MB4-channel DDR3-1600LGA 2011130 W
Core i7-3820*Partially Unlocked3.6 GHz3.9 GHz4/810 MB4-channel DDR3-1600LGA 2011130 W
Core i7-2600K*Unlocked3.4 GHz3.8 GHz4/88 MB2-channelDDR3-1333LGA 115595 W
Core i7-26003.4 GHz3.8 GHz4/88 MB2-channel DDR3-1333LGA 115595 W
Core i7-2600S2.8 GHz3.8 GHz4/88 MB2-channel DDR3-1333LGA 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).

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.