|Introduction and Specifications|
We’ve been in this business here at HotHardware for a long time now. For most of that time, we’ve heard from countless so-called "industry experts" that the PC is dead, or at the very least dying. Quite frankly, we’re sick of hearing it. The PC is far from dead. One has to look no further than Intel's most recent finanical results, or even the contents of this website. In fact, we’d argue that the PC is more pervasive than ever. The PC isn’t dead, it just so happens to be one of the most flexible and versatile pieces of technology in existence, and it has simply gone through a number of transformations in its illustrious lifetime. What was once a non-descript, beige box good for little more than word processing and spreadsheets is now the sleek, aesthetically pleasing, hub of our digital world, that can take many different shapes. And despite its impending doom, today the PC is about to become more powerful than ever.
Before we get to the technical details regarding Sandy Bridge-E and the Core i7-3960X Extreme Edition processor, Intel asked us to get the word out regarding a joint promotion they’re working on with NewEgg to usher in their newest products, dubbed 32-in-32.
Win an Incredible Intel Unlocked PC & More: 32 in 32 Challenge
|Sandy Bridge-E Explained|
Sandy Bridge-E, and by extension the Core i7-3960X Extreme Edition, has a lot in common with the Sandy Bridge microarchitecture, which arrived earlier this year with the Core i7-2600K and other members of the second generation Intel Core processor family—it’s just bigger and badder. As such, we won’t be rehashing many of the details again here, but we would suggest checking out a few previous articles if you’d like more details regarding Intel’s Turbo Boost Technology 2.0, Smart Cache, and Smart Response Technology.
In our Core i7-2600K and Core i5-2500K launch article, we go in-depth on the Sandy Bridge microarchitecture and cover many details that are pertinent to today’s launch as well. In our Core i7-2820QM coverage, we outline more architectural details and in on our Intel Z68 Express with Smart Response Technology article, we detail Intel’s SSD caching technology, a.k.a SRT.
As we’ve mentioned, Sandy Bridge-E shares many of the same features of the Sandy Bridge microarchitecture, but as the “E” denotes, SBE is more extreme. What you see pictured above is a die map of a Sandy Bridge-E based Core i7-3960X Extreme Edition processor. The chip is manufactured using Intel’s advanced 32nm process node and features roughly 2.27 billion transistors. The die size is approximately 434.7mm2 (20.8 mm x 20.9 mm).
The Intel Core i7-3960X Extreme Edition processor we’ll be featuring here today has a base clock frequency of 3.3GHz with a maximum Turbo frequency of 3.9GHz. It achieves those clocks using a BCLK of 100MHz (mistakenly labeled bus speed in the image above) and multipliers ranging from 33 to 39, 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 i7-3960X Extreme Edition is also outfitted with 15MB of shared L3 cache, although lower-end variants of the chip will have 12MB (or potentially less).
|The X79 Express and Intel DX79SI|
Arriving alongside the new Sandy Bridge-E based Core i7 desktop processors is Intel’s X79 Express chipset. Below is a high-level block diagram of the X79 Express chipset, which is targeted at the high-performance and enthusiast market segments.
Like most recent chipsets for Intel’s current processors, the X79 Express is essentially an I/O hub, as all of the traditional Northbridge functionality is integrated into the processor itself. As you can see, LGA2011 Sandy Bridge-E processors offer a whopping 40 lanes of PCI Express connectivity and feature an integrated quad-channel DDR3 memory controller. The PCIe links can be arranged in any number of configurations, and although they’re listed as PCI Express 2.0 here, these integrated PCI Express lanes actually support PCI Express 3.0 speeds. We’re told the lack of PCI Express 3.0 GPUs and peripherals at this time have prevented Intel from definitively qualifying the Sandy Bridge-E’s integrated PCI Express lanes as PCI Express 3.0 capable, so they’re not being labeled as such. However, the functionality does exist, once testing and qualification is complete.
To showcase the X79 Express chipset, Intel has designed and built a high-end motherboard dubbed the DX79SI (codename: Siler). The DX79SI exploits all of the features inherent to the X79 Express chipset and adds a few more, like USB 3.0 and Firewire, through the use of third-party controllers. The board features “BIOS Vault” technology, which essentially acts as a backup BIOS / UEFI in the event of a bad flash or malware attack. It also features Intel’s “Fast Boot” technology, which speeds the boot process by eliminating the need to complete a full POST when the hardware and configuration of the system is unchanged from the previous boot. The DX79SI also supports Extreme Memory Profiles (XMP) for easy high-speed memory configuration and even includes an extensive set of overclocking tools. And those tools are not only available via the BIOS / UEFI, but also through a Windows-based application called the Intel Extreme Tuning Utility, or Intel XTU. XTU gives users the ability to tweak numerous performance-related options and monitors system temperatures and fan speeds. “One Touch” overclocking options are also available for those that want a quick and easy speed boost, without doing much tweaking.
|MSI - ASUS - ASRock: X79 Motherboards|
For the purposes of this article, we acquired a handful of enthusiast-class X79 Express-based motherboards to give you all an idea as to what type of boards would be hitting the scene when Sandy Bridge-E and the X79 Express is first made available.
First up, we have the MSI X79A-GD65 (8D). Like the other X79 Express-based motherboards featured here, all of the X79 chipset’s features are available on the MSI X79A-GD65 (8D), but MSI works a bit of their own magic as well. The MSI X79A-GD65 (8D) features a mouse-friendly “Click BIOS II” UEFI that’s much easier to navigate than traditional text-based BIOS menus. The board is also in MSI’s “Military Class III” family and features super ferrite chokes, highly conductive polymer capacitors and / or solid capacitors throughout, which should offer increases stability and longevity. MSI also claims the board is PCI Express 3.0 ready.
Next up, we have the Asus P9X79 Deluxe. The P9X79 Deluxe is one of the more feature laden motherboards we have come across. In addition to exploiting all of the features of the X79 Express chipset, the P9X79 Deluxe offers USB 3.0 support, Bluetooth 3.0 and WiFi connectivity, additional SATA 6Gbps ports, and what Asus calls its “Dual Intelligent Processors 3”. The Dual Intelligent Processors consist of Asus’ EPU unit, which we’ve covered in the past, and the TurboV processing unit. The processors work together with the P9X79 Deluxe 16+4+2+2 digital VRM (DIGI+ VRM) and give users the ability to monitor and adjust power delivery across multiple sections of the board. According to Asus, the combination of the programmable digital VRM and Dual Intelligent Processors 3 results in superior efficiency and longevity, as well as better power delivery than previous generation products.
Finally, we present the ASRock X79 Extreme 4. Like the other boards shown here that exploit all of the features of the X79 Express chipset, the ASRock X79 Extreme 4 does so as well, and compliments the chipset with ASMedia USB 3.0 controllers that add front and rear USB 3.0 ports. The board, however, does not include a slot- or bay-mountable USB 3.0 bracket so users can access the additional ports on the front or rear of their systems. Firewire is available on the board as well, by way of a VIA controller.
|Sandy Bridge-E Coolers and Memory|
|Cooling: Although Intel will be producing a standard air cooler that resembles the circular units offered with Gulftown and earlier high-end processors, a self-contained liquid cooling system was included with our test kit. The Intel Active Thermal Solution RTS2011LC, as it is known, is produced by Asetek and is compatible with Intel Core processors for LGA2011 / 1366 / 1155 / 1156 sockets. Please note, however, Intel WILL NOT be including a cooler with boxed Sandy Bridge-E based processors. Because they are targeted at enthusiasts, Intel believes users will be likely to want a high-end thermal solution and are not bundling the chips with basic coolers as they have done in the past.
The RTS2011LC features a custom designed 120mmx25mm fan (74 CFM, 21 dBA@ 800 RPM, 35 dBA@ 2200 RPM), a 150mm x 118mm x 37mm radiator, a high efficiency cooler block, and a new heat exchanger design that differed from other Asetek LCLC solutions. According to Intel, at equivalent acoustic levels and at full processor power (130W) the RTS2011LC can achieve a 7°C cooler CPU core temperature than Intel’s highest performance air cooling thermal solution. In addition, the RTS2011LC runs 10 dBA quieter than the high performance air cooling solution when running in performance mode.
|Test Setup and SiSoft SANDRA|
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.
We began our testing with SiSoftware's SANDRA 2011, the System ANalyzer, Diagnostic and Reporting Assistant. We ran four of the built-in subsystem tests that partially comprise the SANDRA 2012 suite with Intel Core i7-3960X Extreme Edition processor (CPU Arithmetic, Multimedia, Cache and Memory, and Memory Bandwidth). All of the scores reported below were taken with the CPU running at its default settings, with Turbo enabled, and with 16GB of RAM running in quad-channel mode on the Intel DX79SI "Siler" X79 Express-based motherboard.
The new Intel Core i7-3960X Extreme Edition had absolutely no trouble besting all of the reference systems in SANDRA's database of scores. In terms of integer and floating-point performance, the Core i7-3960X Extreme Edition leads all other desktop processors and its peak memory bandwidth is equally as impressive. With a quad-channel setup, the Core i7-3960X Extreme Edition / X79 combo offered up over 37GB/s of memory bandwidth, besting the previous champ--the Gulftown-based Core i7 / X58 Express triple-channel combo--by over 10GB/s.
|Futuremark PCMark 7|
|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
From this point forward, we'll not only be comparing the new Intel Core i7-3690X Extreme Edition processor to the top-of-the-line processors from three competitive platforms (AMD FX, Intel Socket 1155 Sandy Bridge, Intel Socket 1366 Gulftown), but we'll also be comparing the performance of the X79 Express based motherboards that arrived in time for testing with Intel's new flagship CPU.
In our custom WinRAR x64 benchmark, we take a directory loaded with two hundred, 12.1 megapixel image files and compress them into a single archive using the default WinRAR compression scheme. The length of time it took each system to save the completed archive is represented in the graph below.
The Core i7-3960X Extreme Edition put up the best scores in our custom WinRAR compression benchmark, besting every other platform by a considerable margin. Only 1 second separated the four X79-based motherboards we tested, but the Core i7-3960X Extreme Edition / X79 combo finished the test a full 16 seconds faster than the Core i7-990X and 13 seconds faster than the Core i7-2700K. The FX-8150 lagged behind by about half a minute.
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.
Clearly the Sandy Bridge architecture at work in the Core i7-3960X Extreme Edition and Core i7-2700K offers the best performance here due to its high Turbo frequencies, as is evidenced by their similar, class-leading performance. The Core i7-990X finished about 25ms behind and the FX-8150 trailed by about 82ms.
|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.
Here we're running just the CPU test module in this benchmark suite.
In terms of its single-thread / core performance, the Core i7-3960X Extreme Edition performs on par with the Core i7-2700K (not surprisingly). Tack on a couple more cores, however, and the Core i7-3960X Extreme Edition pulls well ahead of the 2700K and clearly outpaces the Core i7-990X as well. The Core i7-3960X Extreme Edition is also nearly twice as fast as the FX-8150 here.
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.
Once again we see the Core i7-3960X Extreme Edition offering similar single-threaded performance to the Core i7-2700K, but in terms of multi-threaded performance Intel's new flagship couldn't be touched. The Core i7-3960X Extreme Edition finished well ahead of the second-place Core i7-990X.
|LAME MT and Mediashow Espresso|
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.
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.
The Core i7-3960X Extreme Edition tied with the Core i7-2700K for the best scores in our LAME MT benchmarks. Since this benchmark uses only two threads at a time, the chips are able to hit their peak Turbo frequencies. Couple that fact with the architectural advantages of Sandy Bridge and you've got one heck a performer here.
Next up, we tested the video encoding performance of the Intel Core i7-3690X Extreme Edition using Cyberlink's MediaEspresso 6.5. Although this application is coded to take advantage of Intel Quick Sync technology and leverage GPU compute resources, we disabled hardware acceleration for these tests to ensure they were all run only on the CPU cores at play.
In this test, we took a 284MB AVCHD MTS file recorded using a Canon HD camcorder and converted it to an H.264 encoded MP4 designed for use on an iPhone 4 / iPad (or other portable media playback device).
Once again, the immense compute resources available in the Intel Core i7-3960X Extreme Edition allow it to take the top spot in our MediaEspresso benchmarks. Please note, however, that QuickSync was disabled on the Core i7-2700K; with it enabled that chip can churn through this test in 10 seconds flat.
|Gaming: 3DMark Vantage and L4D2|
3DMark Vantage's CPU Test 2 is a multi-threaded test designed for comparing relative game physics processing performance between systems. This test consists of a single scene that features an air race of sorts, with a complex configuration of gates.
There are aircraft in the test that trail smoke and collide with various cloth and soft-body obstacles, each other, and the ground. The smoke spreads, and reacts to the planes as they pass through it as well and all of this is calculated on the host CPU.
The Intel Core i7-3960X put up the best score in 3DMark Vantage's CPU Test 2 by far. The chip's compute resources, high Turbo frequency, and massive memory bandwidth all contribute to a dominant performance here, besting the Core i7-990X by approximately 20% and nearly doubling the performance of the FX-8150.
We also spent some time testing the Intel Core i7-3960X with Left 4 Dead 2. This DirectX9-based game has been out for a while and is mostly bound by CPU and memory performance, especially when run with relatively low-quality in-game graphics settings.
All of the Intel-powered rigs performed within a couple of percentage points of one another in our custom Left 4 Dead 2 benchmark, with only about 8 frames per second separating the best Intel Core i7-3960X score from the Core i7-2700K score. AMD's fastest desktop processor, however, didn't fare so well.
|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.
The Intel Core i7-3960X Extreme Edition puts up the highest frame rates in both Crysis and ET:Quake Wars, with the Core i7-990X and Core i7-2700K coming in second and third place, respectively. In a distant fourth place was the AMD FX-8150.
|Overclocking and Power Consumption|
We also spent some time overclocking our Core i7-3960X Extreme Edition sample using Intel’s own DX79SI motherboard and the Asus P9X79 Deluxe, with similar results.
Using Intel’s RTS2011LC thermal solution, we were able to take our particular Core i7-3960X Extreme Edition processor all the way up to 4.75GHz using a 125MHz BCLK and a peak all-core Turbo multiplier of 38. At that speed, however, we were pushing the limits of the RTS2011LC thermal solution as the processor would approach the 90ºC mark after long periods of sustained load. At 91ºC, the chip will begin to throttle. At 4.75GHz, the Core i7-3960X Extreme Edition processor put up a Cinebench 11.5 MT score of 13.89.
We also spent some time using the “easy” overclocking tools available on Intel’s and Asus’ X79 boards with success. Hitting the “High Performance” performance option on Asus’ board, for example, yielded a peak CPU frequency of about 4.2GHz, with only a single click in the UEFI. And at that speed, the chip barely broke a sweat, running at about 75’C under load.
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.
The Core i7-3960X ended up consuming somewhat less power than the six-core Core i7-990X under both idle and load conditions, but considerably more than the quad-core Core i7-2700K. The Core i7-3960X's idle and load power was also somewhat higher than the AMD FX-8150, but considering the massive performance increases offered by the Core i7-3960X, using a bit more power is easily justified.
As we mentioned earlier, overclocking the Core i7-3960X can result in large increases in power consumption. To demonstrate this, we also monitored power consumption with the chip running at its stock configuration and while overclocked to 4.2GHz and 4.7GHz. As you can see, power consumption jumped up almost 200 watts with the chip overclocked to 4.7GHz.
|Our Summary and Conclusion|
Performance Summary: The Intel Core i7-3960X Extreme Edition is the fastest desktop processor we have tested to date, bar none. In all of our multi-threaded benchmarks, the higher Turbo Boost frequencies and additional compute resources of the six-core Core i7-3960X Extreme Edition allowed it to easily overtake every other processor we tested, including the six-core Core i7-990X and pseudo eight-core AMD FX-8150. In our single and dual-threaded tests, the Core i7-3960X Extreme Edition also offered excellent performance and outpaced every other processor, save for the Core i7-2700K which features a similar microarchitecture and peak Turbo Boost frequencies. The Core i7-3960X Extreme Edition also proved to be an excellent overclocker.
Intel will initially be releasing two Sandy Bridge-E based desktop processors, the Core i7-3960X Extreme Edition we featured here and the slightly lower-clocked Core i7-3930K. Both of the processors are unlocked for more flexible overclocking, and they both feature six cores (12 threads), 130W TDPs, and quad-channel memory controllers. The Core i7-3930K, however, is outfitted with “only” 12MB of L3 cache, whereas the Core i7-3960X Extreme Edition has 15MB, and the Core i7-3930K’s base and peak Turbo Boost frequencies are 100MHz lower. As such, the Core i7-3930K will be somewhat more affordable at $555, while the flagship Core i7-3960X Extreme Edition will command $990. As has always been the case with top-of-the-line desktop processors, you’ll have to pay to play with the Core i7-3960X Extreme Edition. A higher clocked quad-core variant with 10MB of L3 cache is also coming at some point in Q1 of next year.
Put simply, the Intel Core i7-3960X Extreme Edition is the most powerful desktop processor available on the market. Period. When paired to its companion X79 Express chipset, the two make for the most potent foundation of a desktop system yet, whether it be for gaming, content creation or productivity. Even so, there are still a couple of execution cores lying dormant in the processor which will likely be unleashed at some point in the future, when / if Intel re-spins the chip to tame its power requirements. Considering how powerful the platform is now, we shudder to think what the next version of SBE will do, if Intel takes that route, of course. And why wouldn't they?