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Intel Core i7-3970X Sandy Bridge-E CPU Review
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Date: May 16, 2013
Section:Processors
Author: Marco Chiappetta
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Introduction and Specifications

It’s no secret that Intel is readying processors based in its Haswell microarchitecture. The new chips are due to be released in the not too distant future and feature a number of noteworthy enhancements, including a much more powerful integrated graphics core. When Haswell arrives though, it will supplant current Ivy Bridge-based processors, which target more mainstream market segments than the product we’ll be showing you today. For the foreseeable future, Intel’s big dog remains Sandy Bridge-E, the monstrous six-core beast which utilizes the X79 Express chipset and socket LGA 2011.

Prior to the arrival of Haswell, we figured it would be a good idea to show you just what Intel’s current flagship desktop processor can do. That processor is the Core i7-3970X, pictured below. Last year, when Intel originally released Sandy Bridge-E, we covered the Core i7-3960X and discussed the X79 Express chipset and associated motherboards and related components. If you want a refresher on what Sandy Bridge-E is all about, we suggest taking a look at that article. We’ll detail the main features and specifications of the Core i7-3970x below, but we won’t be re-posting all of the technical details already mentioned in the launch piece.


Intel's Core i7-3970X Extreme Edition Processor

Intel Core i7-3970X Extreme Edition Processor
Specifications & Features

  • Core Frequency:
    3.5GHz (Up To 4.0GHz w/ Turbo)
  • QPI Speed:
    6.4GT/s
  • TDP (Thermal Design Power):
    130W
  • Number of CPU Cores:
     6 (12 Threads w/ HT)
  • Intel SmartCache:
    15MB
  • L2 Cache:
    1.5MB (256K x 6)
  • Processor input voltage (VID):
     .95v
  • .032-micron manufacturing process
  • Shared Smart Cache Technology
  • Enhanced Intel SpeedStep Technology (EIST)
  • Extended HALT State (C1E) Enabled
  • Execute Disable Bit (XD) Enabled
  • Intel 64 Technology
  • AES-NI: Processor instructions
  • Intel Virtualization Technology (VT)
  • Packaging - Flip Chip LGA2011
  • Total Die Size: Approximately 434.7mm2
  • Approximately 2.27B Transistors
  • Price - $950 - Currently $1007 on Amazon
Six Core Processing: Runs 6 independent processor cores in one physical package

Base Processor Frequency: 3.50 GHz

Massive PCI Express Bandwidth: 40 lanes of PCIe supported through the processor

Intel Turbo Boost Technology: Dynamically increases the processor frequency up to 4.0GHz when applications demand more performance. Speed when you need it, energy efficiency when you don’t.

Intel Hyper-Threading Technology: 12 threads provide unprecedented processing capability for better multi-tasking and threaded applications. Do more with less wait time.

Intel Smart Cache: Up to 15MB of shared cached allows faster access to your data by enabling dynamic and efficient allocation of the cache to match the needs of each core significantly reducing latency to frequently used data and improving performance.

Overclocking Enabled: Core (Turbo) and DDR3 ratios are unlocked for ease of overclocking

Integrated Memory Controller: Supports 4 channels of DDR3-1600 memory with 1 DIMM per channel. Support for XMP memory. See this site for certified XMP memory.


  
Intel LGA 2011Sandy Bridge-E Processor, Top and Bottom

Sandy Bridge-E based processors are manufactured using Intel’s advanced 32nm process node and feature roughly 2.27 billion transistors. The die size is approximately 434.7mm2 (20.8 mm x 20.9 mm). The processors feature up to 6 active execution cores that can each process two threads simultaneously courtesy of Intel’s HyperThreading technology, for support of a total of 12 threads. We should point out, however, that SBE actually has eight cores on-die, but due to power and yield constraints, only six are active at this time. The actual cores are essentially identical to the original Sandy Bridge microarchitecture and support the same Intel AVX and AES instructions, along with SSE4.1, SSE4.2, etc.

As we mentioned, the Core i7-3970X Extreme Edition is designed for Intel’s socket LGA 2011, and it requires a compatible motherboard built around the new X79 Express chipset. The processor sports 15MB of shared L3 Intel Smart Cache, although there is actually 20MB on die (the remaining L3 is disabled along with those other two cores), and feature an integrated quad-channel memory controller with official support for DDR3 memory at speeds up to 1600MHz, although higher speeds are possible through overclocking. Sandy Bridge-E based processors like the Core i7-3970X also feature 40 integrated lanes of PCI Express connectivity, that support speeds equivalent to the 8GT/s PCI Express 3.0 specification.

The Intel Core i7-3970X Extreme Edition processor has a base clock frequency of 3.5GHz with a maximum Turbo frequency of 4.0GHz. It achieves those clocks using a BCLK of 100MHz and multipliers ranging from 35 to 40, although lower and higher multipliers are available with this unlocked processor. The chip sports 192K of L1 data cache (32K per core), 192K of L1 instruction cache (32K per core), and 1.5MB of L2 cache (256K per core). The Core i7-3970X Extreme Edition is also outfitted with 15MB of shared L3 cache. The 3970X has a 130W TDP and requires a .6v to 1.35v input voltage, that will dynamically scale as lower or higher multipliers are used, like when Turbo Boost frequencies kick in, for example.
 

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Test Setup and PCMark 7

Test System Configuration Notes: When configuring our test systems for this article, we first entered their respective system BIOSes / UEFI and set each board to its "Optimized" or "High performance Defaults". We then saved the settings, re-entered the BIOS and set the memory frequency to the maximum officially supported frequency for the given platform. SSDs were then formatted, and Windows 7 Ultimate x64 was installed.

When the Windows installation was complete, we updated the OS, and installed the drivers necessary for our components. Auto-Updating and Windows Defender were then disabled and we installed all of our benchmarking software, performed a disk clean-up, cleared temp and prefetch data, and ran the tests.

HotHardware's Test Systems
Intel and AMD - Head To Head

System 1:
Intel Core i7-3790X
(3.5GHz - Hex-Core)
Intel Core i7-3690X
(3.33GHz - Hex-Core)

Intel DX79SI (Siler)
(X79 Express Chipset)

4x4GB G.SKILL DDR3-1866
(@ 1600MHz)

GeForce GTX 280
On-Board Ethernet
On-board Audio

OCZ Vertex 3 MaxIOPS

Windows 7 x64

System 2:
Intel Core i5-2700K
(3.3GHz - Quad-Core)

Asus P8Z68-A Pro
(Z68 Express Chipset)

2x4GB G.SKILL DDR3-1866
(@ 1333MHz)

GeForce GTX 280
On-Board Ethernet
On-board Audio

OCZ Vertex 3 MaxIOPS

Windows 7 x64

System 3:
Intel Core i7-990X
(3.43GHz Hex-Core)

Gigabyte EX58-UD4
(X58 Express Chipset)

3x4GB G.SKILL DDR3-1866
(@ 1333MHz)

GeForce GTX 280
On-Board Ethernet
On-board Audio

OCZ Vertex 3 MaxIOPS

Windows 7 x64

System 4:
AMD FX-8150
(3.6GHz Eight-Core)

Asus CrossHair V Formula
(AMD 990FX Chipset)

2x4GB G.SKILL DDR3-1866
(@ 1866MHz)

GeForce GTX 280
On-Board Ethernet
On-board Audio

OCZ Vertex 3 MaxIOPS

Windows 7 x64


Futuremark PCMark 7
General Application and Multimedia Performance

Futuremark's PCMark 7 is the latest version of the PCMark whole-system benchmarking suite. It has updated application performance measurements targeted for a Windows 7 environment and uses newer metrics to gauge relative performance. Below is what Futuremark says is incorporated in the base PCMark suite and the Entertainment, Creativity, and Productivity suites, the four modules we have benchmark scores for you here.
The PCMark test is a collection of workloads that measure system performance during typical desktop usage. This is the most important test since it returns the official PCMark score for the system
Storage
  • Windows Defender
  • Importing pictures
  • Gaming

Video Playback and transcoding
Graphics

  • DirectX 9

Image manipulation
Web browsing and decrypting

The Entertainment test is a collection of workloads that measure system performance in entertainment scenarios using mostly application workloads. Individual tests include recording, viewing, streaming and transcoding TV shows and movies, importing, organizing and browsing new music and several gaming related workloads. If the target system is not capable of running DirectX 10 workloads then those tests are skipped. At the end of the benchmark run the system is given an Entertainment test score.

The Creativity test contains a collection of workloads to measure the system performance in typical creativity scenarios. Individual tests include viewing, editing, transcoding and storing photos and videos. At the end of the benchmark run the system is given a Creativity test score.

The Productivity test is a collection of workloads that measure system performance in typical productivity scenarios. Individual workloads include loading web pages and using home office applications. At the end of the benchmark run the system is given a Productivity test score.

The Intel Core i7-3970X put up some impressive numbers in PCMark 7, outpacing the older 3960X by a few percentage points, but trailing the Core i7-3770K slightly.  This benchmark suite is sensitive to drive performance and doesn't show much scaling past four cores, so the updated Ivy Bridge architecture of the 3770K gives it a bit of an edge.

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Cinebench R11.5 and POV-Ray

Cinebench R11.5 is an OpenGL 3D rendering performance test based on Cinema 4D from Maxon. Cinema 4D is a 3D rendering and animation tool suite used by 3D animation houses and producers like Sony Animation and many others. It's very demanding of system processor resources and is an excellent gauge of pure computational throughput. This is a multi-threaded, multi-processor aware benchmark that renders and animates 3D scenes and tracks the length of the entire process. The rate at which each test system was able to render the entire scene is represented in the graph below.

Cinebench R11.5
3D Rendering Benchmark

In terms of its single-thread / core performance, the Core i7-3970X Extreme Edition performs on par with the Core i7-3770K (not surprisingly). With its additional cores, however, and the Core i7-3760X Extreme Edition pulls well ahead of the quad-core chips in our reference group and squeaks past the Core i7-3960X.
 
POV-Ray Performance
Ray Tracing Benchmark

POV-Ray , or the Persistence of Vision Ray-Tracer, is an open source tool for creating realistically lit 3D graphics artwork. We tested with POV-Ray's standard 'one-CPU' and 'all-CPU' benchmarking tools on all of our test machines and recorded the scores reported for each. Results are measured in pixels-per-second throughput; higher scores equate to better performance.

Our results with POV-RAY look much like those from Cinebench above. The Core i7-3970X puts up the best multi-threaded score by a fair amount and its single-threaded performance is among the best as well.

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LAME MT and SunSpider

In our custom LAME MT MP3 encoding test, we convert a large WAV file to the MP3 format, which is a popular scenario that many end users work with on a day-to-day basis to provide portability and storage of their digital audio content. LAME is an open-source mid to high bit-rate and VBR (variable bit rate) MP3 audio encoder that is used widely around the world in a multitude of third party applications.

LAME MT
Audio Conversion and Encoding

In this test, we created our own 223MB WAV audio file and converted it to the MP3 format using the multi-thread capable LAME MT application in single and multi-thread modes. Processing times are recorded below, listed in seconds. Shorter times equate to better performance.

Our custom LAME MT benchmark doesn't scale past two cores, so the Core i7-3970X's additional resources aren't put to use. With that said, the chip still put up the best score of the bunch, which matched the Ivy Bridge-based Core i7-3770K.
 
SunSpider JavaScript Benchmark
JavsScript Performance Testing
Next up, we have some numbers from the SunSpoder JavaScript benchmark. According to the SunSpider website:
This benchmark tests the core JavaScript language only, not the DOM or other browser APIs. It is designed to compare different versions of the same browser, and different browsers to each other. Unlike many widely available JavaScript benchmarks, this test is:

Real World - This test mostly avoids microbenchmarks, and tries to focus on the kinds of actual problems developers solve with JavaScript today, and the problems they may want to tackle in the future as the language gets faster. This includes tests to generate a tagcloud from JSON input, a 3D raytracer, cryptography tests, code decompression, and many more examples. There are a few microbenchmarkish things, but they mostly represent real performance problems that developers have encountered.

Balanced - This test is balanced between different areas of the language and different types of code. It's not all math, all string processing, or all timing simple loops. In addition to having tests in many categories, the individual tests were balanced to take similar amounts of time on currently shipping versions of popular browsers.

Statistically Sound - One of the challenges of benchmarking is knowing how much noise you have in your measurements. This benchmark runs each test multiple times and determines an error range (technically, a 95% confidence interval). In addition, in comparison mode it tells you if you have enough data to determine if the difference is statistically significant.
All of the systems were testing using the latest version of Internet Explorer 9, with default browser settings, on a clean install of Windows 7 Ultimate x64.

The Ivy Bridge-based Core i7-3770K put up the best score in the SunSpider benchmark, but the Core i7-3970X finished right behind it and outpaced the rest of the pack easily. The AMD FX processors finished well behind the Intel chips here.
 
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Crysis and ET: Quake Wars

For our next series of tests, we moved on to some more in-game benchmarking with Crysis and Enemy Territory: Quake Wars. When testing processors with Crysis or ET:QW, we drop the resolution to 1024x768, and reduce all of the in-game graphical options to their minimum values to isolate CPU and memory performance as much as possible. However, the in-game effects, which control the level of detail for the games' physics engines and particle systems, are left at their maximum values, since these actually do place a load on the CPU rather than GPU.

Low-Resolution Gaming: Crysis and ET: Quake Wars
Taking the GPU out of the Equation


The Core i7-3970X took the top spot in both of our low-res gaming benchmarks. The processor's 6-cores, relatively large caches, and higher clocks gave in an edge over the other processors in the games we tested.

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Overclocking and Power Consumption

We also spent some time overclocking our Core i7-3970X Extreme Edition. Like the first batch of Sandy Bridge-based second generation Intel Core processors, new Sandy Bridge-E based processors offer limited flexibility when overclocking via BCLK manipulation. If you want to tweak CPU and memory frequencies via the BCLK, it can only be increased by a few MHz (think 3-5MHz) maximum.

However, with Sandy Bridge-E, two new BCLK multiples or straps are also available, that were not offered on earlier Sandy Bridge processors. With Sandy Bridge, only a 100MHz BCLK is available. With Sandy Bridge-E 100MHz, though, 125MHz, and 166MHz BCLK frequencies are also possible. In addition, like K series SKUs, the Core i7-3970X Extreme Edition is fully unlocked; so CPU, Turbo, and Memory frequencies can be easily altered through multiplier manipulation as well.

With a chip as large and complex as the Intel Core i7-3970X Extreme Edition, power and cooling considerations are very important when overclocking. At its stock configuration the Core i7-3970X has a 130W TDP, but power consumption and heat output can shoot up considerably when the chip is pushed well beyond spec. As such, Intel has incorporated options to increase voltages and specify peak current thresholds too. The new options and power / heat considerations add some wrinkles and complexity to the overclocking process, but overclocking a chip like the Core i7-3970X is still fairly easy.


Intel's Extreme Tuning Utility Offers UEFI Customization Via Windows

Most Sandy Bridge-E processors can easily hit 4.5GHz with good air or liquid cooling. 80-90% of the CPUs can hit up to 4.6GHz, 60-70% can do 4.7GHz, and approximately 50% of the CPUs can hit the 4.8GHz mark with the right combination of voltage (1.4v to 1.5v) and a powerful liquid cooler. Although the options are there to disable SpeedStep and various C states, overclocking SBE is really as easy as finding the right combo of voltage, BCLK, and peak Turbo frequencies. By altering those options and leaving SpeedStep, etc. enabled, the processor can still clock-down when not under load, minimizing overall power consumption and heat output.

Using a Cooler Master TPC 612 thermal solution, we were able to take our particular Core i7-3970X Extreme Edition processor all the way up to 4.78GHz using a 126MHz BCLK and a peak all-core Turbo multiplier of 38. At that speed, however, we were pushing the limits of the cooler and the processor would approach the 90ºC mark after long periods of sustained load. At 91ºC, the chip will begin to throttle. While we had the chip overclocked, we re-ran a few tests and saw some impressive performance gains. As you can see above, the Core i7-3970X's Cinebench multi-threaded score jumped way up to 13.91--well ahead of anything else we tested.

Total System Power Consumption
Tested at the Outlet

Before bringing this article to a close, we'd also like to take a but about power consumption. Throughout all of our benchmarking and testing, we monitored how much power our Intel Core i7-3960X-based test system was consuming with a power meter, versus other test systems we used for benchmark comparisons on the previous pages. Our goal was to give you an idea as to how much power each configuration used while idling at the Windows desktop and while under a heavy CPU workload. Keep in mind, this is total system power consumption being measured at the outlet and not the the individual power of the CPUs alone.

Considering the fact that the Core i7-3970X is Intel's most powerful desktop processor, it should come as no surprise that it's the most power hungry as well. While idling, the Core i7-3970X consumed a similar amount of power as the slightly lower clocked Core i7-3960X. While under load, however, the 3970X consumed slightly more power than its SBE-based counterpart.  We were expected the deltas separating the two SB-E based chips to be somewhat larger than what we saw, but our 3960X is a very early sample and Intel was most likely able to tame  this beast a bit in later manufacturing runs.

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Our Summary and Conclusion

Performance Summary: Summarizing the Core i7-3970X Extreme Edition’s performance couldn’t be any easier. With the exception of a couple of single- or lightly-threaded tests which favor Intel’s updated Ivy Bridge microarchitecture, the Core i7-3970X took the top spot in all of our benchmark and outran all other desktop processors. Quite simply, the Core i7-3970X is the most powerful, highest performing desktop processor available, bar none. It excels with highly-threaded workloads (like Cinebench and POV-RAY, for example), but it equally adept with games and productivity applications.


Intel Core i7-3970X Extreme Edition Processor

The on problem with the Core i7-3970X Extreme Edition is pricing. When Intel slaps the “Extreme Edition” moniker on a product, you know it’s going to command a premium, and the Core i7-3970X is no different. As of today, this processor is available at about $999 - $1029. That is a tall order for all but the most affluent PC enthusiasts, and although the processor is uber fast, it doesn’t represent the best value, obviously. You could buy three Core i7-3770K processors for the price of a single 3970X, but these are things we’ve been saying for years. Intel’s flagship desktop processors have been priced this way for ages.

For the select few of you that can afford such a beast and want nothing by the best components in your system, the Core i7-3970X is it. Until Ivy Bridge-E arrives sometime later this year, Sandy Bridge-E will remain at the top of heap, and the Core i7-3970X is currently the highest performing member of the family. It’s not cheap by any means, but it’s unlocked, overclockable, and offers performance that can’t be matched, especially with highly-threaded workloads.

  • Extreme Performance
  • Unlocked
  • Huge Cache, High Clocks
  • Ultra Expensive
  • No QuickSync
  • Pumps Out The BTUs



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