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

A Symbolic King In A Crowd Full Of Value

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.

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.
  • Maziar
    Wow,lots of details and benchies.Great review as always Chris !
  • SpadeM
    So no SAS/Full Sata 3 ports but u do get PCIe 3 ... no Quicksync but u do get 2 more cores and the added cache ... no USB 3.0 but u get quad channel memory which in real life every day computing is a minimal gain at best. Feels an awful lot like a weak trade if you ask me. I'm basically asked to buy the P67 chipset with sprinkles on top. And for 1000$ it feels like it falls short. For heavy workloads it's cheaper and faster to make yourself 2 systems based on 1155 or bulldozer and render, fold, chew numbers that way. X79 should have launched with an ivy bridge based cpu inside and a better chipset to live to it's name.
    What we have today is simply a platform for bragging rights not a serious contender to the X38, X48, X58 family.
  • nikorr
    Enjoyed the review Chris ! WoW.
  • illfindu
    Not to take the review to much off topic but its worth bringing up because this review was so complete , as in covering a vast array of situations and programs. Its truly embarrassing for AMD that the FX-8XXX series is beaten not only bye chips with half the cores but half the cores that are a generation behind. In fact as of this moment the FX set is almost inspiring it its lack of any value at first glance at some of these marks one could say that AMD's most expensive chip at over 200$ is one of its slowest being beaten bye both the x4 and x6 phenoms.
  • redsunrises
    Illfindu, you are beating a dead horse... Old news, lets move on (sorry, just tired of the same thing being said over and over, which will end in an amd fanboy fight). Great review though!
  • ohim
    This article tells me 2 things , either our current software is a total piece of crap since it has absolutely no clue of multi core cpus, or the future without AMD is so grim that intel makes you pay 1000 bucks for a cpu that doesn`t perform really that fast ... but for sure the software industry needs to take a better look at those multicore optimisations.
  • stonedatheist
    I think Intel would be raking in the dough if they left all 8 cores enabled for the 3960X. I doubt that a later revision will enable them. 8c/16t will probably hit the desktop with IB-E (can't wait) :)
  • joytech22
    :| Well AMD is fighting a losing battle.. (In High-End CPU's, which I actually use for rendering etc..)
    I would LOVE to see them pick up their game and provide me with a worthy upgrade over my 4GHz i7 2600 (Non-K). I would swoop it up.

    Look, BD had 4 modules with two "cores" each, each module is equivalent to a Sandy Bridge core.
    They should just combine both of those cores or make them a single core, so we get 4 threads.

    Then create 4-6-8 core versions of those CPU's..
    Think about it.. the FX8150 is more of a 4-core CPU where the resources are halved pretty much so you get two threads per core, it would have been MUCH MUCH better if they just kept 4 strong cores.

    Not sure why either but I always seem to start an AMD related comment :\
  • sudeshc
    great but too expensive....
  • JeanLuc
    Hi Chris,

    The labels are wrong on the graphs on this page the last ones should read DDR2-2133 on the last two shouldn't it?