Intel Core i7 3960X Sandy Bridge-E Review

Author: Chris Ledenican
Editor: Howard Ha
Publish Date: Monday, November 14th, 2011
Originally Published on Neoseeker (http://www.neoseeker.com)
Article Link: http://www.neoseeker.com/Articles/Hardware/Reviews/Intel_Core_i7_3960X/
Copyright Neo Era Media, Inc. - please do not redistribute or use for commercial purposes.

Over the past year the consumer processor market has been extremely busy with the release of not one, or two, but four new architectures. The first new processors to hit the scene were the Intel second generation core architecture, dubbed Sandy Bridge. This new line of processors was designed to be a replacement for socket LGA-1156, which was Intel's mainstream platform at the time. The advancements in the architecture allowed Sandy Bridge to outperform even Nehalem-based processors clock for clock, thus making the Sandy Bridge platform the best choice in the consumer market.

AMD also released a few new architectures of their own which included the Llano, Bobcat and Bulldozer. Out of the three, Bulldozer is the high-end offering more comparable to what Neoseeker is reviewing today.

The Bulldozer architecture was built from the ground up to support improved resource sharing, prefetching and multi-threaded performance. In addition, the Bulldozer architecture also introduced the Turbo and Max Turbo mode, allowing the processor to increase the maximum frequency while running applications. When Turbo is active, the processors dynamically adjust the multiplier to give an extra performance boost when needed. AMD's Turbo mode works similarly to Intel's Turbo Boost 2.0 Technology, which also dynamically increases the processors clock speed during load.

In today's review we are continuing our examination of the latest consumer based processors with the new second generation Intel Core i7 LGA-2011 processor family. The chips in the series are dubbed "Sandy Bridge-E". The series includes three new SKUs that vary in core count, L3 shared cache and Turbo thresholds. The chip examined today is the flagship processor in the series, the Intel Core i7 3960X.

What sets the 3960X apart from the mainstream Sandy Bridge processors is that it runs six independent cores in one physical package, includes twelve threads via Hyper-Threading and has a maximum Turbo mode frequency of 3.9GHz. There is also no IGP integrated into the die, so unlike Sandy Bridge, SB-E processors require a discrete graphics card, but the trade off is more die space for additional cores. All of these features ensure the 3960X is going to be one hell of a processor, and according to Intel the 3960X is on average 52% and 42% faster than the 2600K at editing videos and running in-game physics, respectively.

Another benefit of the Sandy Bridge Extreme processor is its support for quad-channel memory architecture. The additional memory channels boost the total memory bandwidth and in comparison to Intel's previous generation processors, we are looking at over a 100% performance increase in memory bandwidth. Additionally, the 3960X and all processors in the series include a massive 40 PCI-E lanes through the processor. This is going to give the SB-E platform a boost when it comes to gaming, as it doesn't have the 16-lane limitation of the original Sandy Bridge processors.

Specifications
 Cores 6
Threads 12
Intel® Smart Cache 15MB
Processor Base Frequency 3.3 GHz
Memory Frequency 1600 MHz
Number of DDR3 Memory Channels 4
Overclocking Enabled YES
Memory Controller Speed Up to 2.2GHz with Dual Dynamic Power Management
Intel® Express Chipset X79
Socket LGA2011

All in all there are three new processors hitting the market, but as of this review only the Core i7 3960X and 3930K are being launched, while the 3820 will be held off until Q1 2012. As you can see from the table below, the SB-E processors don't come cheap. In fact, the 3960X that we are examining has an MSRP of $990 dollars, and that is the price without a heatsink.

Model CPU Base Turbo Core TDP Cores/Threads L2 Cache MSRP
Core i7 3960X 3.3GHz 3.9GHz 130W 6/12 15MB $990
Core i7 3930K 3.1GHz 3.4GHz 130W 12MB $555
Core i7 3820 3.3GHz 3.6GHz 130W 4/8 10MB TBD

The Sandy Bridge processor we were sent did not come in any retail packaging, but Intel did send us an image of how the 3960X should look on store shelves. First off we can see that the packaging is similar to Sandy bridge processors, as it includes a strip of the micro-architecture across the center with the logo at the top and model information toward the bottom. One aspect that is noticeably different is the packaging dimensions, which are actually quite narrow because no reference cooling solution will be included with the processor.

Even while Sandy Bridge processors are faster clock-for-clock than Nehalem and Gulftown, they are still designed for the mainstream market. So, up to this point we have not seen an enthusiast grade replacement for the X58 platform. This is changing today though, as the Sandy Bridge-E processors are the first high-end desktop platform designed with the Sandy Bridge micro-architecture. Overall, Sandy Bridge-E is not entirely different than its Sandy Bridge counterpart, as architecturally the largest changes are found in the memory controller and core count as opposed to the micro-architecture. Essentially this means the SB-E includes most of the features that made Sandy Bridge a successful chip, such as Turbo Boost 2.0, an more efficient front-end, a 256-bit/cycle ring bus interconnect and improve prefetching. Where SB-E does differ is its lack of a built-in IGP, which makes way for an increased core count and a new integrated quad-channel DDR3 memory controller.

In addition, the processors in the Sandy Bridge Extreme series are still built on a 32nm node, but the die size has been increased to 20.8mm to facilitate up to 2.27B transistors and six physical cores. That's right, this chips has a transistor count of over 2 billion. That is over double the amount of transistors built into the original Sandy Bridge processors, and is also nearly double the amount of transistors in Gulftown. Still, Intel has managed to keep the TDP at their current maximum of 130W, which along with the 32nm die allows the 3960X to have a base clock speed of 3.3GHz, and a Turbo Boost frequency of 3.9GHz. It should also facilitate overclocking headroom that is similar to the 2600K, which is also a 32nm processor.

As you can see from the block diagrams above, the overall layout of the SB-E architecture is not entirely different than that of the original Sandy Bridge, but the IGP has been removed and the core layout has also been adjusted. At the top of the chip is the Queue, Uncore and I/O controller, which handles the functions of the microprocessor that are not in the Core, but are essential for Core performance. The Uncore replaces the System Agent found in Sandy Bridge processors, and one of the features found in the Uncore is the PCI-E lanes. The SB-E includes 40 PCI-E lanes, instead of the measly 16 lanes integrated into Sandy Bridge. Below the Uncore are the six physical cores, Shared L3 Cache and the memory controller. Interestingly there are additional areas for two more cores on the die and support for up to 20MB of L3 cache. It looks like Intel dropped us a little teaser for what could be coming next, but as for now the cores are disabled to keep the TDP down!

                                                   (Sandy Bridge)                                                                                                  (Sandy Bridge-E)

The Turbo Boost technology is the same 2.0 version built into Sandy Bridge, so on this front there are no changes. What Turbo Boost does is dynamically adjust the multiplier when the operating system requests the additional power for a certain period of time. The default non-Turbo clock speed for the 3960X is 3.3GHz, but once Turbo kicks in, the frequency is increased to 3.9GHz. Of course stating that the processor can jump up to 3.9GHz under load would be misleading, as there are many variables involved. For instance, the maximum Turbo frequency is dependent on the number of active cores. In other words, if all of the cores are active the frequency will not increase as much as it would if only one core was active. Also, Turbo boost throttles when the processor hits a certain temperature or power consumption rating. So, while Turbo Boost 2.0 will increase the overall performance, but the boost will vary on any given workload.

One of the more interesting features of the SB-E architecture is the quad-channel memory controller. An integrated memory controller with four channels of DDR3 1600 MHz offers memory bandwidth up to 51.2 GB/s. Combined with the processor’s efficient prefetching algorithms, the memory controller’s lower latency and higher memory bandwidth delivers amazing performance for data-intensive applications. In benchmarking, the memory bandwidth results are impressive, as you will see later in the review. However, the performance boost offered to any given program is going to vary greatly, with some programs seeing a boost due to the additional memory bandwidth and others seeing no increase at all.

           

Along with all the aforementioned features, the Intel 3960X features 6 cores and 12 threads clocked at a default frequency of 3.3Ghz, and 3.9Ghz with Turbo Boost. The processor also includes a large 15MB (2.5MB Per-Core) L3 cache that is shared between the processors and utilizes Intel Smart Cache technology. The 15MB L3 cache works as a last-level cache that enables dynamic and efficient allocation of shared cache across all six cores. Sandy Bridge-E also includes per-core 32 KB L1 data/instruction and 256 KB L2 caches, as did the original Sandy Bridge architecture.

Much like what AMD did when it released its Bulldozer architecture, Intel has contracted Asetek to create a custom thermal solution for their new platform. The thermal solution is dubbed the Intel RTS2011LC Liquid Cooler, and from the looks alone you can see it uses a third generation Asetek design, similar to the Antec KÜHLER series. The unit also features a double wide radiator that can accommodate two 120mm fans, flexible rubber tubing and a circular block design. The fan included with the unit operates between 800PRM to 2200RPM, and at the highest RPM the airflow can reach 74CFM. As for noise, the fan operates between 21dBA and 35dBA depending on the RPM rating. The fan included with the cooler features a slick blue LED, while the top of the block has an Intel logo on it that also sports a blue LED.

Since the Sandy Bridge-E processors do not come with a reference heatsink, the Intel water-cooling solution is considered a stand-alone product. This raises the issue of availability, but the 3960X we received did come with the Intel water-cooler, so all indications point to the unit being available right around the time Sandy Bridge-E launches. Intel stated that the cooler will be sold separately in it's own retail packaging through channel distribution and should cost between $85 to $100 USD. Along with support for the latest Intel platforms, the heatsink is also compatible with all LGA-2011, LGA-1155, LGA-1156, and LGA-1366 sockets., so it can be used across multiple Intel sockets.

Intel is also offering a more cost effective thermal solution, which is essentially the same circular heatsink sold with their previous generation processors. Of course the size has been altered to properly mount on the LGA-2011 socket and of course accommodate the higher TDP of SB-E processors. This solution will also be available separately, but it has a more reasonable MSRP of just $20. Unlike the Asetek water-cooler however, this unit is designed to support only the LGA-2011 interface.

To support the new processors, Intel is releasing an entirely new chipset and socket, the X79 Express and LGA-2011, respectively. For anyone keeping count, this is the fourth new socket released by Intel since the 2008. So, anyone expecting to be able to switch out a Sandy Bridge chip for a Sandy Bridge-E chip, think again.

The box for Intel's reference motherboard features a sleek black design with a large blue skull across the front. The packaging also lists the processors supported by the motherboard, and the various features and specifications. The motherboard itself comes packaged in a custom formed plastic mould that sits atop the accessories. Intel has bundled an "Extreme" mouse pad with the skull logo and a Bluetooth/Wi-Fi module, along with the more traditional accessories.

The Intel P67 based motherboard is dubbed the DX79SI, which along with an all-new CPU socket and chipset also features a redesigned memory DIMM layout. As you can see from the image below, the LGA-2011 socket is rather big and takes up a substantial portion of the PCB. Along with the size, the latching mechanism has also been slightly altered, as both sides of the socket now have a locking clip. The steps to open the socket are built into the cover. This ensure the latches are removed in the proper order to prevent damaging the socket. Additionally, the heatsink mounting brackets surrounding the socket have also changed. In previous generation motherboards, Intel placed four mounting holes around the socket to secure the mounting clips. The LGA-2011 socket on the other hand actually has four screw holes where the screws can be threaded directly into.

The socket sits in between eight memory DIMMs, four to a side. Similar to motherboards that utilize a dual or triple channel design, the DIMMs are color coded per memory channel. SB-E supports a quad-channel memory architecture, so as long as four of the DIMMS are occupied the memory will run in quad-channel. While the Sandy Bridge-E processor officially supports DDR3 1600, the DX79SI is designed to support overclocked DDR3 2400 memory, delivering up to 64GB/s memory bandwidth. The motherboard also supports the Intel XMP (Extreme Memory Profile), which is essentially an easy overclocking feature that boosts the memory frequencies.

Intel has really gone all out when designing the DX79SI, as it features a wide array of high-end features. These include support for two SATA 6.0Gb/s and four SATA 3.0Gb/s ports, a post code detector, tweaking switches and a design that includes all solid-state capacitors. The board also includes a sleek heatpipe heatspreader that sits atop the X79 Express chipset. Overall, the amount of cooling on X79 boards is reduced in comparison to X58 based motherboards, because many of the functions that were previously built into the North and South bridge have now been relocated directly into the SB-E circuitry.

There are also plenty of expansion options available on the DX79SI. For instance there are a total of three PCI-E 3.0 slots on the board that support both CrossFire and SLI. All the PCI-E lanes are integrated into the Sandy Bridge-E processor, and there are a total of 40 available lanes. Configuration of the lanes depend on the number of graphics cards installed, but here is a quick rundown. Dual graphics cards will run at x16/x16, while three graphics cards will be set at x16/x16/x8, and four cards at  x16/x8/x8/x4. This feature could prove to be beneficial to games, but the consensus so far is that more lanes does not necessarily increase gaming performance. However, the available lanes will make setting up triple or quad GPU systems all that much easier.

The rear I/O panel on the back includes most of the high-end features we have come to expect, but since this is an enthusiast grade platform there are no video output options available. This means a discrete graphics card is required when using the SB-E platform, but at the price point we doubt anyone will miss (or even expect) the built-in video. From top to bottom, the DX79SI includes a Back-to-BIOS button, four USB 3.0 ports, six USB 2.0 ports, Dual Intel Gigabit Ethernet LAN ports, Firewire and a 10-channel Intel High Definition audio panel.

Last up we have a block diagram of X79 chipset. As you can see, the memory and PCI-Express lanes are connected via the processor, while the USB, SATA LAN and audio options are connected via the X79 Express chipset.

Test Setup:

Comparison Setups:

AMD Phenom II "Zambezi" (Socket AM3+)

AMD Phenom II "Thuban" (Socket AM3)

AMD Phenom II "Deneb" (Socket AM3)

Intel Core i7 "Bloomfield" (Socket 1366)

Intel Core i7 "Sandy Bridge" (Socket 1155)

Benchmarks:

Like the Sandy Bridge "K" series processors, the 3960X comes with an unlocked multiplier. However, unlike the LGA-1155 chips, overclocking the BCLK does not increase other bus frequencies. This is going to make fine tuning a processor all that much easier, as raising the BCLK will not affect other buses. The original Sandy Bridge platform had very limited overclocking when it came to increasing the BCLK. Still, the majority of overclocking is going to be done via the multiplier, and the BCLK will be used for the last few MHz.

To start the overclocking process we turned to the pros at Intel, who recommended the best settings to hit 4.8GHz. These settings include increasing the CPU voltage to 1.44V, raising the TDC, Burst Mode, Sustained Mode, CPU voltage type and setting the multiplier to 48. With the settings recommended to us, the system booted into Windows without a hitch and was stable for the majority of our benchmarks. There were just a few benchmarks that couldn't pass with these settings though, so we scaled them back until we could conclude the system was stable.

In our test system the final overclocked frequency for the processor was 4.65GHz, which is actually quite impressive considering it is nearly 30% higher than the reference clock speed. To remain stable at this setting we had to increase the voltage to 1.40V, and all other settings were left at the levels recommended in the Intel overclocking guide.

Intel Core i7-3960X

At 1.44V the temps could get quite high, even while using the Asetek water-cooler. During load we were seeing temperatures that spiked into the high 70°C range, as one of our cores was being pushed into the low 80°C range. To lower the temperatures, we decreased the ambient room temperature and added extra fans to the rig. The change in room temp dropped the processors thermal load by 10°C.

Even while the Asetek water-cooler struggled above 1.4V, it was extremely efficient at the stock settings, and even while attempting to overclock with the voltage set below 1.35V. This makes the water-cooler a good investment for the majority of users, as only extreme overclockers are going to push their chips beyond the thermal threshold of the Asetek cooling unit. Additionally, even at 1.4V the only programs that pushed the temps beyond 70°C were demanding applications such as Prime95. Other programs such as 7-zip and Cinebench maxed the chip out at around 65°C.

Sisoft Sandra 2010:

Sandra, by SiSoftware, is a tool capable of benchmarking about every component found inside a computer. The processor arithmetic and multi-core efficiency will be ran as well as the memory bandwidth and latency benchmarks.

The performance results in Sandra show the 3960X dominating all other processors in both of the CPU specific tests. This is a good example of just how much additional raw processing power is offered by the 3960X in comparison to chips that do not have a total of 12 threads. The most impressive benchmark though had to be the one for memory bandwidth. In testing, the quad-channel memory architecture nearly doubled the total memory bandwidth performance with a rating of 41.4GB/s. That is just a massive increase, and while we were expecting to see an improvement over the previous generation, this percentage incresae still managed to impress us.

POV Ray:

POV-Ray, for Persistence of Vision Raytracer, is a 3D rendering software that has impressive photorealistic capabilities.

Setting: Run Benchmark (All CPU's).

When it comes to encoding and rendering, the 3960X comes out ahead of all the other processors and by a wide margin to boot. In this benchmark, the FX-8150 actually had a strong showing and was able to surpass both the Intel 2600K and 2500K while rendering. The additional threads available in the 3960X substantially increased the performance, allowing it to achieve a higher score than even the FX-8150.

If we break down the results down into percentages, we can see that when benchmarking POV-Ray, the stock 3960X is 30% faster than the 2600K, and just over 26% faster than the stock FX-8150.

Handbrake:

HandBrake is an application that converts sound and video files to other formats. It makes use the many available threads so it can exploit the processor to its full potential.

Settings: Custom file used.

To test HandBrake we use a custom MP4 file that is converted into another format. The total length of the clip we use is two minutes, so the scores below can tell you exactly how long it would take for a certain processor to convert an entire movie. When converting the file at the reference clock speed, the total elapsed time was 68 seconds. This means that nearly two seconds of video were converted per second. This is actually quite a bit faster than other processors, such as the 2600K, which took an additional 25 seconds to render our two minute video clip.

7-Zip:

POV-Ray, for Persistence of Vision Raytracer, is a 3D rendering software that has impressive photorealistic capabilities.

Setting: Run Benchmark (All CPU's).

7-Zip is a program that can utilize multiple threads simultaneously, and is the reason the Bulldozer architecture was able to scale so well in this benchmark. Even at stock frequency without Turbo Boost enabled, the 3960X was able to outperform the overclocked FX-8150. So when it comes to multi-threaded performance, the 6-cores/12-threads built into the SB-E architecture help it better than any current AMD based processor 100% of the time.

Cinebench:

Cinebench 11.5 is another rendering program, also optimized for many-core processors. I will run both the single-threaded benchmark as well as the multi-threaded.

Settings: Run CPU benchmark

Cinebench is another program that efficiently utilizes all the available threads in the 3960X processor, and again it easily outperforms all the other processors in our testbed. Once we overclocked the 3960X, the multi and single-threaded performance increased by roughly 29%.

This is the only benchmark we have tested thus far that analyzes single-threaded performance as well as multi-threaded. What we can gather from the single threaded results is that the 3960X performs essentially the same as the 2600K when the additional cores are taken out of the equation. However, in applications that support all the available threads, the 3960X comes out ahead.

PCMark Vantage:

PCMark resembles a lot to the 3DMark suite from FutureMark, except the fact that it includes many other tests like hard drive speed, memory and processor power, so it is considered as a system benchmark and not just a gaming benchmark.

Settings: PCMark Suite at default settings.

PCMark 7:

PCMark resembles a lot to the 3DMark suite from FutureMark, except the fact that it includes many other tests like hard drive speed, memory and processor power, so it is considered as a system benchmark and not just a gaming benchmark.

Settings: PCMark Suite at default settings.

Interestingly enough both PCMark Vantage and 7 appear to utilize only up to 8-threads, as beyond that point the performance relied solely on clock speeds as opposed to the core count. With this being the case, both the 3960X and 2600K virtually tied, while the lower clocked processors showed progressively slower performance. The importance of clock speeds was further evident in our tests after we overclocked our 3960X, as the results show the performance increased by roughly 20% in both benchmarks once the clock speed was boosted.

Far Cry 2:

Far Cry 2 is another first person shooter that has been developed by Ubisoft. The story takes place in Africa, where the ultimate goal is to assassinate an arms dealer.

Settings: DirectX 10, 0x AA, overall quality value set to high and performance settings at high.

Colin McRae DiRT 2:

DiRT 2 is a driving game in the Colin McRae series. It features a built-in benchmark consisting of displaying a race of computer players using the same view as the gamer would.

Settings: 0x AA, in-game preset setting option to high.

Most games can only utilize up to four processing cores, with a small exception supporting up to six. As a result, it really isn't too surprising to see that the 3960X performed at the same level as the LGA-1155 based Sandy Bridge processors. Additionally, since the clock speeds of the 3960X are already above 3GHz, overclocking only marginally improved the maximum frame rate while gaming. This actually a good sign though, as it means the 3960X is not a bottleneck for the HD 6970, even when it is set at the stock frequencies.

3DMark 11:

The demo of these two gaming benchmarks can be downloaded for free. Call of Juarez is made by Ubisoft whereas the World in Conflict game is developed by Massive Entertainment. They will be run at the lowest settings possible so the score is not GPU-bound, so that entails a resolution of 1024x768 pixels for Call of Juarez and 800x600 for World in Conflict. This way, the true processor power will be exhibited.

Settings: Resolution at 1024x768 with details set to low.

3DMark 11 is a 3D rendering program that relies mainly on the power of the graphics card. Since is the case, we are gauging the total performance of the processor based on the difference in the stock and overclocked results to see if any bottleneck is occurring. As you can see from the graph, there was a decent performance increase at the lowest setting, so at least when it comes to running DX 11 games at low settings, overclocking will improve the total frame rate. However, as the resolution is increased the difference becomes marginal at best, so like what we saw during the two previous gaming benchmarks the 3960X is not really going to affect the overall performance.

Lost Planet:

Settings: Resolution at 800x600 with lowest in-game settings

The results during Lost Planet benchmarking came out a bit lopsided. During the Snow benchmark the results were essentially the same, as both frequencies maxed out around 450 FPS. However, the Cave benchmark showed entirely different results. From the graph, there was a substantial increase in the frame rate during this portion of the testing, as we netted an additional 100FPS. We ran the benchmark multiple times to try and iron this out, but each time we continued to get the same results.

While we are not sure why the Cave portion of the benchmark was able to more effectively utilize the additional clock speed, the net performance gain was impressive.

Call of Juarez

The demo of these two gaming benchmarks can be downloaded for free. Call of Juarez is made by Ubisoft whereas the World in Conflict game is developed by Massive Entertainment. They will be run at the lowest settings possible so the score is not GPU-bound, so that entails a resolution of 1024x768 pixels for Call of Juarez and 800x600 for World in Conflict. This way, the true processor power will be exhibited.

Settings: Resolution at 1024x768 with details set to low.

The 3690X showed no discernible difference in Call of Juarez compared to the 2600K. This again goes to show that when a program cannot take advantage of all the available ,threads the 3960X performs more or less equal to the 2600K. This leads us to conclude that the 3960X is not going to show much, if any advantages in gaming performance until games start to natively support more than four to six threads.

World in Conflict

Settings: Resolution at 800x600 with lowest in-game settings

World in Conflict actually did a relatively good job of utilizing the available threads, but the biggest difference in performance was due more to the clock speed than thread count. It is easy to see this, as once we overclocked the 3960X the frame rate jumped from 384FPS to 514FPS.

Turbo:

By now, both processor manufacturers had the occasion to reiterate their Turbo capability which had been disabled in all previous tests. Three benchmarks from the previous pages have been chosen and were run with Turbo enabled and disabled. Far Cry 2 and Call of Juarez have been chosen for their poor multi-threaded support, whereas 7-Zip has been chosen as a benchmark that makes use of all threads, but without capping the TDP.

Clock speeds have come along way over the last few years, and processors such as the i7-920 that are clocked below 3GHz really benefit the most from Turbo frequencies. Still, even while the default clock speed of the 3960X is above 3GHz, there was a decent performance increase when it came to 7-Zip. However, the gaming benchmarks showed little scaling, so there are going to be some scenarios where the Turbo Boost feature only marginally has an impact on the total performance.

Power Consumption:

To measure power usage, a Kill A Watt P4400 power meter was used. Note that the above numbers represent the power drain for the entire benchmarking system, not just the processors themselves. For the 'idle' readings we measured the power drain from the desktop, with no applications running; for the 'load' situation, we took the sustained peak power drain readings at the end of a 30 minute OCCT power supply benchmark.

The power consumption of the 3960X is better per-watt than the previous generation architecture, but the chip does consume a hefty amount of power under load. However, this is to be expected considering it is running additional core. The idle power has obviously been improved, as the power rating when idle was a mere 96 watts at the default settings, and 118 watts once overclocked.

We first got our hands on the Sandy Bridge-E processor just a few weeks ago and in that time we were able to examine the chip from all angles. Our findings actually didn't come out too far off from what we were initially expecting. This is to say that the 3960X demonstrated excellent performance in applications that that were able to utilize all the twelve available threads. On average, the performance of the 3960X is around 30% to 40% faster than the 2600K in multi-threaded applications, but at times it could go higher. This makes it an excellent choice for workstations that run applications dealing with video rendering, image editing, 3D modeling and so on. However, in applications that are not coded to support up to twelve threads simultaneously, the results are more or less similar to those of the 2600K. So, while the 3960X is going to boost productivity in workstations, mainstream users might not experience the same benefits.

The same can be said for gaming. Most games on the market currently only support up to four threads simultaneously. There is a growing trend toward supporting six or more threads, but even while game developers are catching up, they are still way behind the curve. This lead to the 3960X showing no discernible difference from the 2600K in the majority of our gaming benchmarks. The only difference observed was while testing World in Conflict, but only at the lowest possible settings. All other titles benchmarked showed no real difference between the two chips. So, it might not be worth for gamers it to upgrade from a 2600K considering the premium and additional power requirements of the 3960X.

In addition to the excellent multi-threaded perfomance, the 3960X also displayed excellent memory bandwidth. When Nehalem was launched, the triple channel memory controller really set it apart from the other platforms that were currently available. However, even while Sandy Bridge only supports a dual channel memory architecture it had no issues reaching the same bandwidth speeds as Nehalem. Sandy Bridge-E on the other hand has a quad-channel memory controller  that supports DDR3-1600 data rates, giving it a robust throughput of 51.2GB/s. That nearly doubles the memory bandwidth of previous generation Intel offerings, and also leaves AMD's bandwidth ratings in the dust.

Intel is also releasing their enthusiast grade X79 based motherboards to support the Sandy Bridge-E processors. In comparison to their X58 counterparts, the X79 based motherboards boast a robust feature set that includes native support for 14 USB 2.0 ports, 8 PCI-E 2.0 slots and 6 SATA ports. The largest difference between the two chipsets is that X79 based motherboards do not require a South-Bridge, as the majority of functions have been integrated into the SB-E processor itself. With the majority of the functions relocated in this manner, the X79 chipset doesn't get as hot as the previous generation chipsets, so smaller thermal solutions can be used.

Still, many of the functions we were expecting to see integrated into the X79 chipset just didn't make it into the final product. This means support for more than two SATA 6Gb/s ports and any USB 3.0 ports is still going to require add-on controllers. Without native support, it will be left up to motherboard manufactures to add these features to their own boards. Overall this is not much of a loss, but it would have been nice to see more high-end technologies integrated into the chipset especially given how this is expected to be Intel's flagship platform.

Of course we can't conclude the review without mentioning the overclocking headroom of the Sandy Bridge-E processors. In our labs we were able to increase the clock speed of the 3960X to an impressive 3.65GHz. This was done mostly by increasing the unlocked multiplier, and then slightly tweaking the BCLK. All in all, our chip performance was increased by nearly 30% of the original non-Turbo frequency. We could have pushed the chip a bit further, but at 1.44v, we just did not feel comfortable increasing the voltage any higher without a more substantial thermal solution. Still, even while we didn't quite reach 4.8GHz, we observed a performance increase in the range of 30% to 40% at 4.65GHz.

Wrapping things up, the 3960X is an outstanding processor that excels in multi-threaded applications. The performance of the chip is really a  testament to the second generation Core architecture, as the 3960X is significantly faster than the Intel 990X and 2600K in applications that can effectively utilize all 12 threads. Additionally, the massive memory bandwidth further increases performance, which along with the Core architecture makes SB-E one hell of a powerhouse. However, at $990 without a heatsink, the 3960X is pricey even for the enthusiast market segment considering mainstream users, especially gamers, will not see any discernible difference between the 3960X and processors such as the 2600K.

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