Intel Sandy Bridge Extreme Core i7 3960X Reviewccokeman -
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The expectation was that the Second Generation Core i7 3960X was going to be a game changer. And with very few exceptions, it was. The Sandy Bridge micro architecture, when combined with an X79 Express chipset motherboard, is just more efficient and offers a higher level of performance than the previous generation Nehalem or Gulftown processors paired with an Intel X58-based motherboard. And that's at stock speeds. The allure of the Sandy Bridge architecture is that the performance scales so well when the clock speeds are increased. To that end, overclocking was just as easy with the SNB Extreme as it was with the mainstream parts, the Intel Core i5 2500K and Core i7 2600K. Intel did add an additional wrinkle in the process with its use of "Gear Ratios" that bumps up the bclock to a 125MHz or 166MHz strap to offer an increase in bandwidth across the platform. Sure you can bump the multiplier straight up to 46-48 and play all day long with the right chip. You will see a massive boost in performance for very little effort. The sample I have was good for about 4730MHz any which way I cut the bclock/strap/multiplier. 127.8MHz x 37 and 102.9MHz x 46 were both solid, but took about 1.43v to run the numbers. Memory overclocking was just as easy — set the multiplier, set the voltage, set the timings, and then boot. Running 16GB of 2133MHz DDR3 memory at over 2200MHz seemed to be easy for this chip to do, using just 1.05v vccsa. Pushing the limits with voltage comes at a price and that price is the thermal load generated by the Core i7 3960X. Six cores at 4.5GHz or better is going to bring the heat. At above 4.5GHz, the Intel liquid cooling solution was just not robust enough to handle the thermal load and keep the temperatures under 80 degrees Celsius. Under the 4.2 to 4.3GHz point, tweaking the voltage and clock speeds resulted in temperatures more in line with what you would expect, with temperatures in the 60s to mid 70s degrees Celsius.
Pricing on this CPU is what you would expect, as the $990 to $1000 price point is where the Extreme Edition processors are traditionally priced, so there really is no sticker shock, per se. The 3930K, the processor that most likely will be the one to get for the majority of users who adopt this platform, carries an MSRP of $555, or right between the price point of the Gulftown Core i7 970 and 980. The pricing for what you get is spot on with the current offerings that hopefully will see some price drops, although that may be overly optimistic seeing as how the competition did not light the world on fire with its latest offering. There is no doubt that the pricing is for the power user. Performance-wise, the expectations were met and exceeded. The multi-threaded tests show the strength of the architecture, as the Core i7 3960X just flat-out outperformed the comparison field, including last generation's hex-core 980X. Gaming tests are more bound by the video card when tested at resolutions and settings that are a good cross section of what people game at.
While Intel's DX79SI motherboard may not see a lot of traction or love from the enthusiast community, it proved to be a solid motherboard with excellent failed overclocking recovery. The feature set puts it right in line with a mid range, aftermarket offering. After playing with the latest uEFI builds on Z68 boards, going backwards to a traditional BIOS was easy. The BIOS was well laid out and included an overclocking assistant to help the end user reach for specific clock speeds just by choosing one setting in the BIOS. This setting sets the variables such as voltages and memory timings to the parameter needed based on Intel's in-house testing. Over the past few launches, Intel has delivered motherboards that keep getting better. Combined with one of the Core i7 Sandy Bridge Extreme variants, the DX79SI makes for a potent combination. Overall, I would have to say that Sandy Bridge continues to impress and delivers excellent performance that just gets better with a bit of tweaking.
- CPU overclocking
- Memory overclocking
- Workload performance
- Improvements over prior generation
- Quad-channel bandwidth
- It gets hot when pushed