Intel's Core i7-3000 Family: Dominating The High-End
First let’s look at the processors in detail. In Intel Core i7-3960X Review: Sandy Bridge-E And X79 Express and Sandy Bridge-E: Core i7-3960X Is Fast, But Is It Any More Efficient?, we examined Intel's architecture, the X79 Express chipset, and the efficiency in terms of performance per watt. Our conclusion was that the Core i7-3000 family is the fastest you can put in a desktop, though the six-core models burn up notably more power than the familiar Sandy Bridge-based chips launched more than a year ago.
Naturally, in order to get the most out of this platform, you'll need an X79 Express-based motherboard and a four-channel DDR3 memory kit, at the very least. As with past flagships from Intel, it's also probably a good idea to use an SSD with a system this quick; mechanical storage is going to slow down boot-up, app launches, random I/O, and the shut-down process.
Intel currently offers three versions of the Core i7-3000 processor family. The first is its Core i7-3960X Extreme Edition, with 15 MB of shared L3 cache between six cores and a 3.3 GHz base clock rate. With second-gen Turbo Boost enabled, the processor's power control unit can turn the clock rate up to 3.9 GHz in lightly-threaded workloads, and as long as thermal headroom allows for it. Unfortunately, a street price of $1050 is prohibitively expensive for almost everyone. Moreover, Intel doesn't bundle the chip with a cooling solution, adding one more component to your shopping list.
The Core i7-3930K is significantly less expensive. Intel sells that model for $600, also without a cooler. It has a 12 MB instead of 15 MB shared cache, but it's hardly slower. A base frequency of 3.2 GHz jumps up as high as 3.8 GHz in lightly-threaded workloads through Turbo Boost. Although it still costs a lot, we like that the Core i7-3930K includes an unlocked multiplier, which lets you get just as much performance from it through overclocking as the $1000+ flagship. That's one of the reasons we awarded it the very-rare Best of Tom's Hardware award in Intel Core i7-3930K And Core i7-3820: Sandy Bridge-E, Cheaper.
And then there's the Core i7-3820, which only sports four cores, but operates at a base clock rate of 3.6 GHz. Although this less-complex chip could probably hit higher Turbo Boost frequencies, Intel limits it to 3.9 GHz to keep it from outshining the top-end Core i7-3960X in single-threaded tasks. Limited to 10 MB of shared L3 cache, we had expected this chip to be out already, but it seems to be missing in action still.