||Intel Core i7-3960X Sandy Bridge-E Performance Review
November 14, 2011
Summary: Today marks the launch date for Intelís Sandy Bridge-E line of processors, a new family of high-end Core i7 products based on the LGA 2011 platform. This new socket is poised to replace the existing LGA 1366 specification used by the more powerful Nehalem and Westmere parts from the past couple years, specifically Bloomfield and Gulftown, the Core i7-9xx+ line of CPUs.
With 6 cores, 15MB of cache, and support for quad-channel DDR3-1600 memory, the Core i7-3960X sounds like quite a catch. Want to know more about it and how it performs? Read on!
| Introduction||Page:: ( 1 / 13 )|
Today marks the launch date for Intelís Sandy Bridge-E line of processors, a new family of high-end Core i7 products based on the LGA 2011 platform. This new socket is poised to replace the existing LGA 1366 specification used by the more powerful Nehalem and Westmere parts from the past couple years, specifically Bloomfield and Gulftown, the Core i7-9xx+ line of CPUs. Thatís not to be confused with the LGA 1156 socket that was also used by some Nehalem Core i7s (Lynnfield), nor its successor, the LGA 1155 socket used for existing Sandy Bridge processors from the Core i7-2x00 series. LGA 1155 will stick around for at least another year to support the upcoming 22 nm Ivy Bridge processors, which should become available in early 2012.
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Indeed, this is all becoming a bit confusing with now three different families of Core i7 processors to keep track of. Luckily, the model names are at least sufficiently dissimilar to help us keep them straight -- the brand new 6-core Sandy Bridge-E CPUs are still considered 2nd-Generation Core processors, but theyíve graduated to the i7-3xx0 designation. What weíre looking at today is the crŤme de la crŤme (for now) of the Sandy Bridge architecture, the Core i7-3960X Extreme Edition processor. Hereís a comparison table to show you how it stacks up to other chips that will also be shipping soon, as well as the existing Sandy Bridge parts and others that you might be more familiar with:
|Intel's Core i7 CPU line-up|
|Available as of the release of Sandy Bridge-E|
|CPU||Process||Code-name||Clock Speed||Max Turbo||Cores / Threads||L3 Cache||Memory||Max TDP||Unlocked?||Graphics?||Price|
|i7-3960X||32-nm||Sandy Bridge-E||3.3GHz||3.9GHz||6/12||15MB||4-channel DDR3-1600||130W||Yes||No||$1050|
|i7-3930K||32-nm||Sandy Bridge-E||3.2GHz||3.8GHz||6/12||12MB||4-channel DDR3-1600||130W||Yes||No||$600|
|i7-3820||32-nm||Sandy Bridge-E||3.6GHz||3.9GHz||4/8||10MB||4-channel DDR3-1600||130W||Partially||No||TBD (Q1 2012)|
|i7-2700K||32-nm||Sandy Bridge||3.5GHz||3.9GHz||4/8||8MB||2-channel DDR3-1333||95W||Yes||Yes||$370|
|i7-2600K||32-nm||Sandy Bridge||3.4GHz||3.8GHz||4/8||8MB||2-channel DDR3-1333||95W||Yes||Yes||$320|
|i7-2600||32-nm||Sandy Bridge||3.4GHz||3.8GHz||4/8||8MB||2-channel DDR3-1333||95W||No||Yes||$300|
|i7-2600S||32-nm||Sandy Bridge||2.8GHz||3.8GHz||4/8||8MB||2-channel DDR3-1333||65W||No||Yes||$310|
|All prices cited from Newegg as of 11/14/11|
As you can see, the new Core i7-3960X carries a similar price tag (slightly inflated over Intelís citation of $990 per 1,000 units) and TDP rating as the i7-990X 6-core Gulftown CPU it is replacing, but brings more aggressive Turbo boosting, a higher cache, and of course the support for quad-channel memory. There will also be a much more attractively-priced 6-core Sandy Bridge-E chip, the i7-3930K, with nearly as much L3 cache and an unlocked multiplier. On the next page, youíll read more about the features of Sandy Bridge-E processors and what the numbers in this chart actually mean.
| Core i7-3960X features explained||Page:: ( 2 / 13 )|
The 2nd-generation Intel Core i7 Extreme Edition processor is described as ďsuper-smart, ultra-threaded, and absolutely uncompromisingĒ by its marketing mumbo-jumbo. So what does that really mean? Well, it supports Turbo Boost for dynamically increasing the CPU clock speed when needed, Hyper-Threading to process two tasks per each of its six cores, and it is the first to support quad-channel RAM configurations. It has completely unlocked multipliers for overclocking flexibility, the largest amount of on-board cache memory of any Intel processor, and the companion X79 chipset supports 40 lanes of PCI-express bandwidth for true 2x16 SLI and CrossFire setups. Finally, itís debuting alongside Intelís brand new liquid-cooling solution, consisting of a waterblock, reservoir/pump, and heatsink/fan in closed, pre-assembled system that is simple to install.
If any of those things interest you, weíll be going into more detail on them right now -- otherwise, you might just skip ahead to the benchmarks and conclusion.
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Socket LGA 2011 & X79 Express Chipset
As mentioned on the previous page, these new high-end Core i7 processors (AKA Sandy Bridge-E) are using Intelís latest LGA 2011 specification. Aside from the obvious coincidence with the year itís being released, it also literally means there are 2,011 pins on the motherboard that come in contact with the bottom of the CPU. If you donít believe me, you can count it in the picture on the previous page!
This new socket, along with the accompanying X79 Express chipset, carries with it support for quad-channel DDR3 RAM and up to 40 PCI-Express lanes. This provides for a massive boost in available bandwidth on both fronts, which is good news for everybody, whether youíre concerned with your workstation or gaming rig. Granted, most usersí setups donít even approach the bandwidth limits of existing platforms, but enthusiasts and professionals alike will certainly enjoy the prospect of 16x16x8 Tri-SLI or combined 51.2 GB/s of memory throughput.
Six processor cores on 32-nm process
Like the first generation of high-end Core i7 processors (code-named Gulftown), the i7-3960X and the i7-3930K both have six physical cores on one chip with a TDP rating of 130W. Thatís the same amount of power draw (and thus heat production) as the quad-core Bloomfield chips, but the difference lies in the switch to a 32-nm process from 45-nm. Thatís the beauty of progression in fabrication technology -- you can get more performance for the same costs because everything becomes smaller and [comparatively] cheaper to produce. Weíll be waiting a bit longer on the switch to 22-nm, though, which will be coming with the Ivy Bridge CPUs early next year that will replace the mainstream Sandy Bridge line (and eventually this SNB-E line with IVB-E!).
In not so many words, Turbo Boost is used to dynamically increase the clock speed of the Core i7 processor whenever the workload demands it. Itís basically the opposite of Intelís Speed-Step tech, which will reduce power and lower the clock speed of the CPU whenever itís not being used, to save energy and cut down on heat. Theyíre two sides of the same coin, constantly adjusting the Core i7 processor based on your computing needs at any given time. You can disable them, of course, if youíd prefer more consistent performance at your fingertips.
This bullet point has been around since the Pentium 4 era, when dual-core processors didnít exist and Intel decided to create a second ďvirtualĒ core on their CPUs to promote multi-tasking. Hyper-threading basically allows the CPU to handle twice as many application threads as it has processing cores. So, for example, the i7-3960X can handle 12 threads with its 6 physical cores, the i7-2700K 8 threads with its 4 cores, etc.
It sounds like a great thing in theory, yet unless youíre running half a dozen processor-intensive applications while you play games, itís not going to be of much use. Unfortunately, there still arenít very many individual games and applications that make use of 4 cores simultaneously, let alone 6, so being able to run 8 or 12 threads at once remains more of a curiosity or point of boasting than anything. Hopefully, with most new CPUs these days being quad- or hexa-core ones, we should be seeing more and more programs use them as time goes on. For gaming, Iíll bet we see a huge spike in multi-thread usage once the next generation of consoles comes out, provided they continue to try to push the envelope of hardware efficiency.
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New liquid cooling solution
Starting with the Sandy Bridge-E family of high-end Core i7 processors, Intel is no longer bundling a heatsink/fan combo into the retail package. Perhaps they finally realized that anybody spending anywhere from several hundred to a thousand dollars on a CPU is just going to opt for a higher-quality aftermarket cooler anyway, so they decided not to bother trying to force a stock one on them. Theyíve partnered with Asetek to create a high-quality liquid cooling solution that is compatible with all Sandy Bridge and upcoming Ivy Bridge processors on any of the LGA 2011/1155 or 1366/1156 sockets. Itís a fully-enclosed package with copper waterblock, pump, radiator, and propylene glycol reservoir and comes with a 120mm fan, as pictured above.
Intel estimates that one in particular will cost between $85-100 at retail, but if thatís too much for you, or youíre not interested in overclocking, there will also be a barebones Intel-brand heatsink/fan combo for LGA 2011 that will cost less than $20. Of course, there will also be plenty of other choices across the spectrum from cheap heatsink/fans to more expensive all-in-one liquid-cooling solutions from third parties such as Corsair, Antec, Cool-It, and Cooler Master, among others.
| System Setup||Page:: ( 3 / 13 )|
Intel Core i7-920 (2.66GHz stock)
6GB (3x2GB) OCZ Gold @ DDR3-1333 speeds
EVGA X58 3-Way SLI
Intel Core i7-3960X Extreme Edition (3.3GHz stock)
16GB (4x4GB) Corsair Vengeance @ DDR3-1600 speeds
Intel Extreme DX79SI
2x AMD Radeon HD 6870 in Crossfire
Western Digital Caviar Black 1.5TB/1TB
Windows 7 Ultimate 64-bit Service Pack 1
Sid Meierís Civilization V
Total War: Shogun 2
Cinebench 10 & 11.5
POV-Ray v3.62 & v3.7
| Crysis 2 performance||Page:: ( 4 / 13 )|
Times Square timedemo
| Battlefield 3 performance||Page:: ( 5 / 13 )|
Thunder Run opening
|Battlefield 3 Min/Max FPS|
|720p Low settings||16x10 High settings||1080p Ultra settings|
|Core i7-3960X Stock||Min: 195, Max: 201||Min: 66, Max: 117||Min: 53, Max: 130|
|Core i7-3960X Turbo Off||Min: 121, Max: 201||Min: 107, Max: 201||Min: 52, Max: 132|
|Core i7-3960X @ 4.8GHz||Min: 196, Max: 202||Min: 104, Max: 201||Min: 53, Max: 132|
|Core i7-920 Stock||Min: 176, Max: 201||Min: 102, Max: 201||Min: 27, Max: 67|
|Core i7-920 @ 3.6GHz||Min: 119, Max: 199||Min: 108, Max: 199||Min: 51, Max: 133|
Youíre probably left scratching your head at these results, and believe me, I am, tooÖ However, I repeated these tests several times to ensure consistency (as much of a pain that is, with the BF3 campaign crashing just about every time I tried to change the settings or load a checkpoint), and they remained true to what you see here. Of course, Iím referring to the fact that the i7-3960X at stock settings performing abnormally unwell at 1680x1050 with High settings, coming in with framerates well below those of every other configuration, including the i7-920. Itís also a little bit slower overclocked than with Turbo disabled, which is not how it should go. Then you have both the i7-3960X with Turbo off and the overclocked i7-920 came in well below the mark at 720p with Low settings (Iím assuming 200 FPS is the maximum for the Frostbite engine to output).
I have no explanation as to why this might be, but I suppose anything is possible when dealing with a game engine that causes some people to have better performance when they disable hyper-threading. We ought to just take the results of the first two tests with a grain of salt and mark it down to some obscure glitches or instabilities in Battlefield 3 using certain hardware and software configurations -- thereís certainly no shortage of those with that game! On the bright side, the results from the 1080p Ultra test are comfortably dull, as GPU limitations cause near-identical framerates for all but the stock i7-920.
| Sid Meierís Civilization V Performance||Page:: ( 6 / 13 )|
The first two benchmarks on this page are built-in to the game and accessed by command line argument. The latter one is a measurement of the time it takes between turns of a mature game of Civ V, while the AI playersí actions are being processed. More specifically, this was turn 419 of a 10-player archipelago map, with everyone still in the running. Itís quite interesting to learn exactly how much time you spend waiting in between turns while playing, and how much difference a faster CPU can make.
| Total War: Shogun 2 Performance||Page:: ( 7 / 13 )|
| Metro 2033 Performance||Page:: ( 8 / 13 )|
|Metro 2033 Min/Max FPS|
|720p Low settings||16x10 High settings||1080p Very High settings|
|Core i7-3960X Stock||Min: 75, Max: 176||Min: 43, Max: 152||Min: 26, Max: 88|
|Core i7-3960X Turbo Off||Min: 64, Max: 175||Min: 38, Max: 152||Min: 28, Max: 87|
|Core i7-3960X @ 4.8GHz||Min: 88, Max: 192||Min: 51, Max: 160||Min: 26, Max: 99|
|Core i7-920 Stock||Min: 46, Max: 148||Min: 32, Max: 130||Min: 22, Max: 87|
|Core i7-920 @ 3.6GHz||Min: 65, Max: 152||Min: 40, Max: 152||Min: 24, Max: 103|
| 3DMark Vantage||Page:: ( 9 / 13 )|
| 3DMark 11||Page:: ( 10 / 13 )|
| 3D Image Rendering Performance||Page:: ( 11 / 13 )|
Persistence of Vision Ray-tracer
| Video Encoding & Data Compression Performance||Page:: ( 12 / 13 )|
| Conclusion||Page:: ( 13 / 13 )|
While I regret not having access to more CPUs to be able to compare it to, thereís no questioning that Intelís new Core i7-3960X is nothing less than a beast. It performed exceptionally well in every benchmark even at stock settings (which actually means up to 3.9GHz) and is an incredible overclocker, offering instant access to even more power, especially if you opt for the liquid cooling.
Using the Intel DX79SI motherboardís overclocking assistant that is built in to the BIOS, it was a breeze to reach the 4.6GHz I tested with. Considering they claim it can easily reach 4.8GHz, I have no doubt a proficient overclocker could tweak it all the way up to 5GHz, if not higher. Thereís even a very nifty Windows app called Intel Extreme Tuning Utility that offers in-depth options for overclocking the CPU and memory, as well as a full monitoring suite, to rival anything you can see and do from within the BIOS itself.
However, even though the 6 cores and 12 threads make mincemeat of the rendering/encoding/compression benchmarks that are specifically designed to make use of them, the game and 3DMark tests show that most people will invariably be limited by the GPU(s) when you crank up the graphics settings (which everyone would do, of course). The power of the i7-3960X is wasted on dual-Radeon HD 6870s in CrossFire (about the equivalent of a single GeForce GTX 580), as evidenced by my older, Core i7-920 keeping pace in many of the tests when overclocked to a competitive 3.6GHz.
Although, considering the i7-3960X represents the highest of high end in CPUs, it stands to reason that it should be paired with similar GPU horsepower, perhaps dual-GTX 580s or triple-GTX 560s, at least. Even still, you probably wouldnít be missing much if you went with a much-cheaper quad-core Sandy Bridge instead, at least in terms of actual in-game performance.
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There is no doubt that the Core i7-3960X is the best consumer-grade CPU money can buy. Its 15MB of cache and 6 cores running in excess of 4GHz will lay waste to anything you can throw at it, whether on the gaming or productivity side of things. However, at $1000 plus the cost of a cooler, X79 mobo, and quad-channel RAM, the i7-3960X is simply out of reach for the vast majority of people, including most of those PC gamers on this site.
If you really want to get your hands on the raw, unbridled power of Sandy Bridge-E, a much better choice would be to go with the i7-3930K. For about 60% of the cost, you still get the six cores, unlocked multiplier, and quad-channel DDR3 support, with 80% of the L3 cache, to boot. I can easily see that becoming the processor of choice for enthusiasts that skipped over Sandy Bridge and are looking to replace their high-end CPUs from a generation or two ago with something hexa-core.
If youíre content with sticking to quad-core, you could wait a bit longer for the i7-3820, which still carries with it a partially unlocked multiplier (though what that means exactly is yet to be seen) and support for quad-channel DDR3 memory for even less than the i7-3930K. For that matter, you could also hold off to see how Ivy Bridge shakes out, but letís face it, waiting on the next big thing in technology is a game that never ends; youíve got to finally jump on something some time. Just keep in mind that Intelís continued insistence on having two different sockets co-exist means youíll have to plan ahead if upgradability is a concern.