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

Cooling And Overclocking Core i7-3960X

Intel isn’t bundling its Sandy Bridge-E-based Core i7s with a cooling solution of any sort. Perhaps the company surmised that few power users willing to drop 10 bills on a flagship processor stick with boxed heat sinks. Instead, it’s selling a closed-loop water cooler and cost-optimized heat sink/fan combination separately, allowing enthusiasts to pick between two options from Intel or a host of other third-party products. 

Intel expects the liquid propylene glycol-based cooler, sourced from Asetek, to sell for somewhere between $85 and $100. That part is compatible with Sandy Bridge-, Ivy Bridge-, Sandy Bridge-E-, and future Ivy Bridge-E-based processors. Several other third-party liquid coolers are expected to accommodate motherboards with the LGA 2011 interface, too.

Intel’s heat sink and fan combo should go for less than $20, though that part is aimed at government and business customers who might look to Sandy Bridge-E for an entry-level workstation. That’s not to say there won’t be plenty of high-end air coolers for LGA 2011, though. Noctua sent us its NH-D14 SE2011 for our upcoming holiday gift guide, and we were able to get all six cores stable at 4.6 GHz running Prime95 for an hour  with it on the Intel DX79SI board.

Now, I don’t put much stock in overclocking results from processors sent out to reviewers. But I spent some time polling system builders who were preparing to sell overclocked Sandy Bridge-E machines at launch, and it seems like 4.5 or 4.6 GHz is a realistic target for enthusiast-oriented PCs that (hopefully) won’t fizzle out and die within a month.

Overclocking Sandy Bridge-E

There are only three Sandy Bridge-E-based processors at launch, and only two of them are expected to be available. That pair of chips is multiplier-unlocked, making overclocking a fairly simple matter of setting a ratio and fine-tuning with BCLK settings.

The third model, Core i7-3820, isn’t unlocked, though. Instead, it’s “partially unlocked.” Intel lets you set a multiplier six bins higher than the highest Turbo Boost clock rate: 3.9 GHz. The result is a maximum of 4.5 GHz using ratios exclusively.

Unlike the Sandy Bridge/Cougar Point combination, however, the clock generator for this platform is external, which makes it easier for you to make BCLK modifications without running afoul of buses more sensitive to deviation. In order to facilitate this, you get a handful of strap ratios that increase the BCLK without pushing subsystems like PCI Express out of spec. In short, though Core i7-3820 overclocking is technically not unlocked, a combination of extra multiplier settings and PCIe/DMI ratios should make it possible to find the quad-core chip’s limit fairly freely, too.

Asus' 100, 125, 166, and 250 MHz strap settingsAsus' 100, 125, 166, and 250 MHz strap settings

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  • 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?

  • Yargnit
    The 3930k certainly appears to be the chip to watch for out of this bunch. The 3820 is basically a 2600k/2700k on a more expensive platform, and the 3960x needed to be the full 8c/16t version of the processor to sell for $1000. (If you are dropping that much A dual socket EVGA SR2 setup still makes more since)

    The only use for the 3820 really seems to be a cheap placeholder processor if you need a new PC now, but want to wait for a likely full 8c/16t version to come out around the time Ivy Bridge is released. The 3930k should prove to be a very good high end gaming/ mid range workstation part though for people who invest close to $1k in graphics cards.
  • LuckyDucky7
    So, are we getting any overclocked measurements in the near future?

    The funny thing is that cores don't scale well. They do, but it's far from ideal as the percentages from the 2600K show (and the FX-8150 but that's a different story).

    But the takeaway:

    -If you're playing games the i5-2500K is the best purchase you can make and it's enough for Tri-580 SLI. Only WoW shows any difference, but most games ignore it.

    -X79 is Intel being just plain lazy. No matter how you slice it- the X79 should have been called X67 and left like that. It's also a wildcat platform that will only support at most 6 CPUs that aren't terribly crippled.

    -A Phenom II 955BE (or unlocked 960T, or a 1090T/1100T) is still a fine CPU to have unless you're gaming with dual graphics cards or doing time-intensive tasks.
  • halcyon
    Irrevocably thorough review Chris. Excellent work, as usual. Oh, and I and do want a 3960X. Don't need it. Can't justify it. Just want it.
  • cangelini
    JeanLucHi 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?JeanLuc

    Yessir! Working on it now!
  • rahulkadukar
    If this is coming out now, when is Ivy Bridge scheduled to come out
  • undead_assault
    hmmm, nice review, Chris! Can you do some overclocking review on these chips?
  • iam2thecrowe
    everyone saying its too expensive, no sh%t!!! Top end cpus have and will always be expensive. Lets go back to 2006 - amd FX-62 - over $1000 at launch. and back to 1999 - AMD athlon 700mhz - near $900 . pentium III $700+. Has everyone lost their memory???
  • machvelocy
    any chances to unlock the disabled core?
  • halcyon
    388413 said:
    everyone saying its too expensive, no sh%t!!! Top end cpus have and will always be expensive. Lets go back to 2006 - amd FX-62 - over $1000 at launch. and back to 1999 - AMD athlon 700mhz - near $900 . pentium III $700+. Has everyone lost their memory???

    Yes. Its expensive. In other news the Earth orbits the Sun. I wish I had enough $$$ that the costs of this CPU was inconsequential to me.
  • srgess
    I heard when windows 8 come out this processor will get more benefit lawl
  • tipoo
    Considering how CPU-limited Skyrim is, it would be a nice addition in future reviews, even if it doesn't scale much past two cores.

    Anywho...Overkill, thy name is this thing. The days of a $600 let alone $1000 dollar CPU being even close to a value proposal are long over, something a fifth the price of the lower is easily adequate for most people, and if you're really using six hyperthreaded cores you probably want a workstation class CPU anyways.
  • I really do believe that Intel does not disable cores because of "suit it's need", but because of malfunction of that cores when they test particular die. After they decide how many cores are working they pack and label processor as one of the known (and yet unknown) version of CPU.

    It would be no economical sense to have perfect "core-extreme" capable pieces and sell them as Celerons. They lock variable frequencies and cut off cores and or cache to make as mush as possible CPUs out of a die. To lower costs and to sell those not perfect ones as well. As far as I know, they sell the lovest quality parts first, than after life cycle they put out the best ones at the end of cycle as X editions. Of course for the premium price some of the best parts are sold at first too, to grab atention.
  • de5_Roy
    great article. awesome work. i've been waiting for this review for a while.
    not that i am gonna buy a $500+ cpu, this review does a great job comparing different flagship cpus from different price points, and brands.
    i am impressed by sb-e's power draw. after fx 8150 i was skeptical about how a 130w tdp enthusiast class cpu($1000) would perform on idle and on load. this thing takes less power on idle and less power on load considering it has higher tdp, clock speed, components, more cores(than 2600k) etc. and it has good single thread performance. sb-e is proof how an enthusiast class cpu should behave (despite the price T_T).
    i wonder if 3960x's performance percentage would go up if power consumption was taken into account.
  • theuniquegamer
    It has 2 cores and 5mb cache disabled. Does it mean that it can be unlocked by any new MB