Intel Sandy Bridge Extreme Core i7 3960X Review

ccokeman - 2011-10-25 18:39:55 in CPU's
Category: CPU's
Reviewed by: ccokeman   
Reviewed on: November 14, 2011
Price: $990 MSRP

Introduction:

It's been almost a year since Intel launched its Sandy Bridge architecture. In that time frame, the architecture has proven beyond any doubt that it is the current high performance CPU architecture king of the hill. Although the non K-SKU parts were not much interest to the enthusiast community, they still gained the benefits associated with the architecture. For the enthusiast, the K-SKU chips, the Second Generation Core i7 2600K and Core i5 2500K, turned out to be very robust products that put to rest any of the negative overclocking hype induced by the move to the Sandy Bridge architecture. Clock speeds of up to 4.6 to 4.8GHz were very common even on air cooling with some good chips. At this point, they offered performance well in excess of what the X58 platform Nehalem and Gulftown chips were offering for a much lower mainstream cost. If given the choice, a 2600K was the better option for most. The lower-cost, mainstream market reached up and smacked down the Extreme chips that were at this point three years old and in need of a refresh.

Now here we are eleven months later with the introduction of Intel's Sandy Bridge Extreme lineup that is geared toward the power user. Intel will launch with two six-core processors with a quad-core coming early in 2012. Each of the six-cores, the Core i7 3960X and 3930K, are fully unlocked and overclocking-enabled, while the later quad 3820 will be partially unlocked. MSRP for the two six-core processors is going to be what you might expect at $990 for the Core i7 3960X and $555 for the Core I7 3930K. Since I do not have the 3930K, let's talk about the Core i7 3960X. Basic specifications are six cores with Hyper-Threading support for twelve threads, 15MB of shared L3 cache, Intel Turbo Boost 2.0 support, and support for the new Socket 2011, Intel X79 Express chipset-based motherboards, The integrated memory controller supports four channels of DDR3 1600MHz memory, supports Intel AVX (Advanced Vector Extensions), SSE 4.1 and 4.2 instruction sets, and has 40 PCIe lanes for general purpose use that meet the PCIe3.0 specifications. With all the high performance delivered by Intel's Sandy Bridge architecture this year, it will prove interesting to see just how much further the bar is raised in the performance computing segment. Below is the breakout of the die that shows the six cores, large shared cache, integrated memory controller, and the I/O. If the clocks play as nice on this larger die as they did on the smaller socket 1155 chips, the Second Generation Core i7 3960X should be a game changer.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Closer Look:

For this introduction, we have Intel's Second Generation Core i7 Sandy Bridge Extreme Core i7 3960X — Intel's top of the line SKU for the Sandy Bridge Extreme line. Equipped with six physical cores that support Intel Hyper-Threading for a total of twelve threads that can run simultaneously. The Core i7 3960X has a base clock speed of 3.3GHz by way of a 100MHz bclock and 33 clock multiplier. Turbo Boost Technology 2.0 allows the processor to scale as high as 3.9GHz when just a couple cores are in operation and up to 3.6GHz with all cores in operation. On-board, the Core i7 3960X houses 15MB of Intel Smart cache dynamically shared between the cores. The memory controller on the Sandy Bridge Extreme series now supports quad-channel DDR3 1600 MHz memory. The Core i7 3960X has a 130W TDP when run at default speeds. Sandy Bridge Extreme is still part of the Tock sequence that signifies a new micro architecture in the Tick-Tock cadence. As such, the architecture is still based on a 32nm process. Under the hood are a total of 2.27 billion transistors squeezed into a die 20.8 mm x 20.9 mm in size, which fits into the LGA 2011 socket.

 

 

When compared to previous generation processors, the size of the LGA2011 socket and processors is absolutely huge. The CPU package measures a large-by-comparison 52.5 x 45 mm. Placing the Core i7 3960X next to a Core i7 920 socket 1366 and Core i7 875K socket 1156 processors, this large size is readily apparent.

 

 

Intel's Sandy Bridge Extreme lineup will come without a boxed cooling solution, as most of us will be upgrading the cooling from the usually included small, barely adequate cooling solution. However, if you do want the standard Intel cooling solution, it can be had for a minimal $20 US. Intel will also be selling the RTS2011LC self-contained liquid cooling solution for an increased cost. Comparable cooling solutions run in the $85 range, so I would expect the RTS2011LC to follow suit. High end air cooling solutions will be available at launch if a liquid cooling or stock solution are not in your plans.

 

 

The Second Generation Core i7 Sandy Bridge Extreme processors are designed to work with a two-chip platform, with the bulk of the I/O on die and the Platform Control hub taking care of the rest of the functions. Coming off the Sandy Bridge processor are the four memory channels, each supporting bandwidth of 12.8GB/s for a substantial increase in bandwidth for the platform. There are a total of 40 lanes of PCIe 2.0 graphics bandwidth, with each lane carrying 1GB/s of data bi directionally with some PCIe devices potentially capable of reaching a 8GT/s transfer rate. Multiple GPUs are supported in several configurations that should improve multi-GPU performance. No longer will you have to sacrifice other PCIe device functionality due to a lack of PCIe lanes. Eight lanes are now available from the X79 PCH. A total of fourteen USB 2.0 ports, Intel Gigabit LAN, Intel HD Audio, and 6 SATA ports are attached to the X79 PCH.

 

The new Sandy Bridge Extreme Core i7 3960X is only one part of the X79 platform. Let's take a look at the rest.

Closer Look:

It seems that with each successive launch of a new chipset, Intel's motherboards have gotten better. With the DX58SO, the overclocked speeds possible were limited by a weak BIOS and massive vdroop on the vcore. Socket 1156 Kingsburg boards saw an increase in scaling with less vdroop and the socket 1155 Burrage board really hit the mark for use with the K-SKU Core i7 2600K and Core i5 2500K processors. For the socket 2011 launch, Intel has equipped the DX79SI (Siler) motherboard with a full feature set, great overclocking tools, and looks that are decidedly top shelf. The packaging for the DX79SI takes a page out of the aftermarket book. The front cover shows the skull emblem that has become a hallmark on Intel boards over the last few launches. The eyes peer all the way into the inside of the package to show a glimpse of the DX79SI. The front also shows the Intel branding and lists some of the basic specifications. The front panel lifts up to show the area around the CPU socket and quad-channel DIMM sockets. On the rear of the package is a view of the DX79SI in its entirety with some features pointed out, such as the Back To BIOS switch, BIOS vault technology, USB 3.0, and quad-channel memory support. Intel equips the board with a solid three-year warranty. Multi-GPU solutions from both NVIDIA and AMD are supported.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Inside the package, the DX79SI is in a large plastic shell with the accessory bundle stored underneath. The bundle may not be full retail in size, but it includes what is needed for the testing of the board. Highlights are a temperature sensor, mousepad, and dual- and tri-SLI bridge connections.

 

 

Pulled out of the packaging, we can finally get a look at the DX79SI. Intel used a black and blue theme that is pretty popular at this point in time. The DX79SI is an ATX form factor motherboard built around the Intel X79 PCH chipset and LGA2011 socket, supporting socket 2011 Core i7 and Xeon processors. On the back side of the DX79SI is the large socket retention plate. Its large size is needed due to the size of the LGA2011 socket. Screws hold on the heat sink package for a secure mount.

 

 

The trip around the DX79SI begins with the I/O panel. Much like the last four boards I have looked at from Intel, Intel has done away with the PS/2 ports for use with a keyboard or mouse and are strictly USB now. At the left is the Back to BIOS switch to get you out of trouble when a bad batch of settings has been applied. This button only works to force a default parameter boot into the BIOS maintenance menu without writing over the saved settings in the BIOS. There are two USB 3.0 ports, six USB 2.0 ports, a pair of Gigabit RJ-45 LAN ports, a single IEEE 1394 port, and the analog and digital ports for the 8-channel RealTek ALC892-based sound solution. Expansion ports come in the form of three 16x PCIe 3.0 slots (two 16x and one 8x, electrically), two 1x PCIe, and a single PCI slot.

 

 

Across the bottom of the board are the connection points for the front panel audio, one of the four fan headers that feature PWM control, on-board power and reset buttons, an IEEE 1394 header, front panel connectivity for the power and reset buttons, as well as the HDD and Power LEDs, a single USB 3.0 header, BIOS jumper, and four USB headers that bring the total USB 2.0 ports on board to fourteen. Above the power and reset buttons, Intel has installed a debug LED to help with diagnosing boot problems.

 

 

On the right side of the PCB are four black SATA 3Gb/s that support RAID 0, RAID 1, RAID 0+1 (or RAID 10), and RAID 5. Just above the 3Gb/s ports are a pair of SATA 6Gb/s ports followed up by another of the 4-pin PWM-controlled fan headers. Past that is the 24-pin ATX power connection and four of the eight DDR3 dimm slots.

 

 

Across the top of the PCB there is not much to see with the exception of the 8-pin auxiliary power connection and 4-pin fan header.

 

 

Surrounding the LGA 2011 socket on the DX79SI are a total of eight 240-pin DIMM slots that support up to 64GB of DDR3 memory. Single, dual, triple and quad channel configurations are supported with speeds of 2400/2133/1866/1600/1333/1066 MHz DDR3 SDRAM DIMM. To reach the higher speeds, you will need modules that have the overclocking margins and a good memory controller on the processor. XMP 1.3 performance profile support is available for memory speeds above 1600 MHz. Intel has worked with the market and all the big names will have memory available at launch. Voltage support is 1.65v and lower, down to 1.35v. The recommended voltage level is the JEDEC spec for DDR3 memory of 1.5v.

 

As large as the Second Generation Core i7 3960X is, the LGA 2011 is correspondingly huge. All LGA 2011 processors are supported, from the four-core i7 3820 to the six-core i7 3960X, all of which support overclocking. Instead of a single-release lever, the package uses dual-release levers to ensure even pressure to the pins in the socket. The release mechanism is keyed so that to release one the other has to be released. Marked on the retention plate is the sequence that the levers must be opened and closed. The retention mechanism is manufactured by LOTES. Heat sink retention is much different than in the past. Instead of small holes through the PCB, a series of four threaded bosses are used to attach the heat sink, from the lowly $20 Intel air cooler to the upper end air and liquid cooling solutions.

 

 

 

The heat sink package used by Intel is spread over the board and covers the power circuits of the DX79SI, as well as the X79 PCH. A three part solution is used with each heat sink held on with spring-loaded screws. The PCH heat sink is interconnected via a heat pipe for more efficient operation with airflow from the installed CPU cooling solution.

 

 

Intel has put together a fully featured board that leverages the technologies of the CPU package with plenty of tools for the enthusiast to increase the performance over and above that delivered by Intel's Turbo Boost technology. Intel's overclocking assistant in the BIOS makes this process even easier if tweaking for performance and the BIOS options are a little much. By contrast, those who do tweak can use the tool to find some good baseline starting points for overclocking based on the data that Intel has acquired through its testing of the platform.

Closer Look:

Intel has chosen to not sell the Intel Core i7 Sandy Bridge Extreme processors with an included heat sink. Sounds like a pretty significant break from the past, where the included heat sink was your key to a warranty if the processor should fail. Knowing that the enthusiasts and most likely everyone who purchases a processor in this price range is going to move up to a higher end cooling solution, be it air or liquid-based, the reasoning makes sense. Intel has jumped into the fray with its Intel RTS2011LC as an option. Intel has chosen to sell this processor with an optional all-in-one liquid cooling solution much like AMD did with the FX series, or if you really want it, a standard Intel-boxed heat sink can be had for around $20. The liquid cooling provider is Asetek, long known for OEM-style cooling solutions. Where this solution differs from the AMD solution used on its "Bulldozer", is the single fan, thinner radiator, and Intel-lighted branding.

What you get in the kit is standard fare for a self-contained liquid cooling solution. There is the main assembly that includes the pump/cooling plate, mounting hardware, radiator, and the flexible rubber tubes to carry the coolant from the pump to the radiator and back to facilitate the transfer of the thermal load from the liquid to the airstream provided by the single fan. The included manual illustrates how the cooling solution is installed and if you have installed one before it is all self explanatory.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The radiator measures 37mm thick at the edges, but the actual core surface is thinner and is closer to 28mm thick. The difference between the shell thickness and core thickness is there for a reason, to keep reasonable length fan and chassis mounting screws from penetrating the core liquid tubes. Fins per inch of core surface was 18. Looking through the core, you can see it is not restrictive in the least, allowing plenty of airflow. The overall dimensions are 180x115x37mm, making this solution an ideal fit in just about any chassis with a 120mm fan in the rear or top panels.

 

 

The Intel RTS2011LC low profile pump head and cold plate assembly are built using a proven design from Asetek. It receives some enhancements to the cold plate in the form of a more efficient micro-channel cold plate design to offer better cooling with less noise. The coolant mix is propylene glycol-based with most likely the same proprietary blending that Asetek has used in the past. Connecting the Intel RTS2011LC pump head to the radiator are a pair of extremely flexible rubber coolant tubes that are clamped in place. These tubes exit the pump head/cold plate via 90 degree swivel fittings for ease of placement. The rubber tubes are rated for a 50,000 hour life cycle. The Intel logo on the pump head lights up so you can show your loyalties. Power is supplied to the Intel RTS2011LC via a 4-pin connector. The fan attaches to the pump head via a 4-pin connection so both the pump and fan can be PWM controlled.

 

 

The custom designed blue LED 120x120x25mm fan used in the Intel RTS2011LC kit is rated to run between 800 and 2200RPM and push up to 74CFM. This fan is PWM controlled through the 4-pin power connection. At 800RPM, the fan is rated at a near silent 21dBa, while at full speed it carries a 35dBa rating. At the lower end, the noise level is near silent with other PC components making more noise. At full speed, the fan is audible, but no worse than the fans offered on competing solutions.

 

 

Rather than offer a fit that only works on a socket 2011 system, the Intel RTS2011LC is backwards compatible to sockets 1156,1155 and 1366. This means even if the solution looks attractive for a current build, you can use it now and later when moving up to socket 2011.

 

Good looks are not everything, however, and to see just how well the Intel RTS2011LC holds up under load, I decided to see how high the temperatures would get while overclocking. Using 1.45v on the core at 4.72GHz, the temperatures skyrocketed right on up and past 85 degrees Celsius after four minutes of testing. This shows that the thermal load at this level is a bit too much for the cooling solution. A bit more radiator and fan should help. The next quest was to find out at what speed and voltage combination I could reach Prime 95 stability and manage the thermal load. This turned out to be a much milder 4.5GHz using 1.325v. Still a pretty respectable number with a solution that would have an easier time holding the load with a processor that had fewer cores.

 

 

Holding the load at a high speed with a huge load is something that most solutions do not do well. Hence the need for liquid cooling solutions. Custom loops offer much better thermal performance, but an all-in-one will fit the bill even with the large thermal load. My goal was to find an overclock that would keep the temperatures in check and keep the load temperatures at or below 80 °C. In that respect, 4.5GHz was about the maximum speed attainable on this processor today. Intel's RTS2011LC is released into a crowded market with loads of liquid cooling "systems" on the market from Corsair, Antec, Cooler Master, and CoolIT. Of course air-cooled aftermarket solutions are available from the usual sources. Noctua has also released a kit to mount its line of heat sinks onto the 2011 socket.

Specifications:

2nd Generation Intel® Core™ i7 Processor Comparison
Core™ i7-3960X Processor
Extreme Edition
Core™ i7-3930K Processor
 
Core™ i7-3820 Processor
 
 
Number of Processor Cores
6
6
4
Number of Simultaneous Threads with Intel®
Hyper-Threading Technology
12
12
8
Intel® Smart Cache Size
15 MB
12 MB
10 MB
Processor Base Frequency
3.3 GHz
3.2 GHz
3.6 GHz
Memory Frequency
1600 MHz
1600 MHz
1600 MHz
Intel® Turbo Boost Technology
2.0
2.0
2.0
Number of DDR3 Memory Channels
4
4
4
Overclocking Enabled
Yes
Yes
Yes
Intel® Express Chipset
X79
X79
X79
Socket
LGA2011
LGA2011
LGA2011

 

Features:

 

 

All information courtesy of Intel

Testing:

Testing the Intel Core i7 3960X Sandy Bridge Extreme will involve running it and its comparison products through OCC's test suite of benchmarks, which include both synthetic benchmarks and real-world applications, to see how each of these products perform. The gaming tests will also consist of both synthetic benchmarks and actual game play, in which we can see if similarly prepared setups offer any performance advantages. The system will receive a fully updated, fresh install of Windows 7 Professional 64-bit edition, in addition to the latest drivers for each board and the latest AMD Catalyst drivers for the XFX HD 6970. To ensure as few variables as possible, all hardware will be tested at their stock speeds, timings, voltages and latencies – unless otherwise stated. Turbo Boost is disabled on all processors to make a fair comparison without skewing the results.

 

Testing Setup: Intel Core i7 Socket 2011

 

Testing Setup: AMD AM3+

 

Testing Setup: Intel Core i5/i7 Socket 1155

 

Testing Setup: Intel Core i7 Socket 1366

 

 

Comparison CPUs:

 

Overclocking:

Overclocked settings:

 

If you have had the chance to overclock any of Intel's Sandy Bridge processors, then you know what to expect with the i7 3960X, to a point. There is one more wrinkle to work out that the 2600K and 2500K do not have — the ability to move up to a 125x+ or 166x+ bclock using what Intel is calling gear ratios. This new gear ratio allows the bclock and performance to scale up much higher than possible by adjusting the bclock alone. By changing the "strap", you can take advantage of the higher memory bandwidth and clock speed. The 125MHz bclock strap should be achievable by the majority of processors, while finding one that runs the 166MHz strap is a rare find from what I have been told. This processor does the 125MHz gear ratio and then some with close to a 3MHz upside over and above the strap. If you stick with the tried and true method for overclocking a Sandy Bridge architecture processor, then you can up the multiplier and voltages as needed to reach the core clock speed you are looking for. Tweaking the straps opens up some different memory speeds as long as the memory controller can handle it. Memory speeds above 2200MHz were easy with this CPU and should be a hallmark of this architecture. 16GB at 2218MHz with the default 1.65v on the DIMMs with a boost in vccsa voltage to 1.05v was all it took. Memory speeds will be dependent on the margins built into the modules and the strength of the memory controller. Any which way I cut it, 4.73GHz was about the best I could pull from the DX79SI using all the tools in the BIOS. 4.8GHz using the default 100MHz bclock was possible, but ended up not being stable enough with the vcore required to run the number. An easy way to overclock on Intel's DX79SI is the Overclocking Assistant in the BIOS. This tool lets you choose a specific clock speed and then apply and reboot the system for an almost no-fuss overclock.

 

 

If overclocking is not in your future, Intel's Turbo Boost 2 technology is used to boost the speed of the processor under differing load conditions. Low load situations with one or two cores active will see a boost of up to 600MHz over the base clock speeds of 3300MHz, or a total of 3900MHz. With all cores active you can expect a boost of up to 300MHz for a total of 3600MHz when fully loaded. Each of these scenarios offers a nice boost in clock speed with really no effort, as the default settings in the BIOS are enabled allowing the end user the ability to overclock without really overclocking. Intel does it for you.

 

Intel Extreme Tuning Utility:

Just about every motherboard manufacturer (CPU and motherboard manufacturer in this case) has its own overclocking utility, all with varying levels of functionality and usability. Intel offers its own Extreme Tuning Utility (XTU) as a way to monitor and tweak your system. There are several functional areas in the utility. The manual tuning and stress test functions are most likely to be used by the enthusiast. Under Profiles you can save a profile much like you can in the BIOS for an easy way to change the performance characteristics of the combo within the operating system.

 

 

 

 

Maximum Core Clock Speed:

Each CPU has been tested for stability at the overclocked speeds listed. These clock speeds will represent the overclocked scores in the testing.

 

 

Benchmarks:

  1. Apophysis
  2. WinRAR
  3. Geekbench 2.1
  4. Office 2007 Excel Number Crunch
  5. POV-Ray 3.7
  6. Bibble 5
  7. Sandra 2011
  8. AIDA64 1.85
  9. ProShow Gold
  10. HandBrake .9.5
  11. ScienceMark 2.02
  12. Cinebench 10 & 11.5
  13. HD Tune 4.60
  1. Aliens vs. Predator
  2. Civilization V
  3. Battlefield: Bad Company 2
  4. 3DMark 11

Testing:

The first part of our testing will involve system-specific benchmarks.

 

Let's get started with Apophysis. This program is used primarily to render and generate fractal flame images. We will run this benchmark with the following settings:

 

 

The measurement used is time to render, in minutes, to complete.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  

Lower is Better

 

WinRAR is a tool to archive and compress large files to a manageable size. Here, we will test the time needed to compress files of 100MB and 500MB. Time will be measured in seconds.

 

ZIP:

  

  

Lower is Better

 

 

RAR:

  

  

Lower is Better

 

Geekbench:

Geekbench 2.1 is a benchmark that tests CPU and memory performance in an easy-to-use tool. The measure used for comparison is the total suite average score.

  

  

Higher is Better

 

Bibble 5:

This test consists of converting 100 8.2MP RAW images to jpeg format. The file size is 837MB. The measure used for comparison is time needed to convert the file in seconds.

  

Lower is Better

 

In Apophysis, the Core i7 3960X is slightly slower than the 990X and about even with the 2600K, showing the architecture performs similarly. The WinRAR testing shows the 3960X does better by comparison in the RAR testing. The Geekbench and Bibble 5 tests show how strong the Sandy Bridge Extreme architecture is in multi-threaded applications.

Testing:

Office 2007 Excel Big Number Crunch: This test takes a 6.2MB Microsoft Excel spreadsheet and performs about 28,000 sets of calculations that represent many of the most commonly used calculations in Excel. The measure of this test is the amount of time it takes to refresh the sheet.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  

Lower Is Better

 

POV-Ray 3.7: This program features a built-in benchmark that renders an image using Ray Tracing. The latest versions offer support for SMP (Symmetric MultiProcessing), enabling the workload to be spread across the cores for quicker completion.

  

Higher Is Better

 

ProShow Gold: This program is used to take a collection of images and stitch them together in a slide show, using a variety of transitions and effects, to make a compelling show you can share with friends and family. The workload consists of 29 high-resolution images that are stitched into a 3 minute video file.

  

Lower Is Better

 

HandBrake .9.5: is an open source application used to transcode multiple video formats to an h.264 output format. The test file size is 128MB in size and 43 seconds in length.

  

Lower Is Better

 

Through all four of these tests, both stock and overclocked, the Intel Core i7 3960X delivers a higher level of performance. Lower completion times equate to more work done in a given time frame.

Testing:

SiSoft Sandra is a diagnostic utility and synthetic benchmarking program. Sandra allows you to view your hardware at a higher level to be more helpful. For this benchmark, I will be running a broad spectrum of tests to gauge the performance of key functions of the CPUs.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Processor Arithmetic

  

  

Multi-Core Efficiency

  

  

 

Memory Bandwidth

  

  

 

Memory Latency

  

 

Cache and Memory

  

 

 

Power Management Efficiency

  

 

AIDA64 Extreme Edition: is a software utility designed to be used for hardware diagnosis and benchmarking. I will be using the CPU Queen test that looks for the solution for the "Queens" problem on a 10x10 chessboard. This tests the branch prediction capabilities of the processor. The FPU Mandel test measures double precision floating point performance through computation of several frames of the "Mandelbrot" fractal.

  

  

Higher is Better

The only real weaknesses noted in the Sandra testing is in the memory latency tests. In the rest of the Sandra testing, the i7 3960X is again well above the field. The quad-channel memory bandwidth delivered is in excess of 40GB/s at stock speeds and almost 50GB/s when overclocked. In the FPU Mandel and CPU Queen tests in AIDA 64, the 3960X easily outperforms the 980X.

Testing:

ScienceMark tests real-world performance instead of using synthetic benchmarks. For this test, we run the benchmark suite and will use the overall score for comparison.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  

 

 

 

  

 

 

 

  

Higher is Better!

 

 

 

Cinebench 10 is useful for testing your system, CPU, and OpenGL capabilities using the software program, CINEMA 4D. We will be using the default tests for this benchmark.

 

  

 

  

Higher is Better

Cinebench 11.5

 

  

Higher is Better

 

HD Tune measures disk performance to make comparisons between drives or disk controllers.

 

  

 

  

Higher is Better

 

  

 

  

Lower is Better

 

PCMark 7 is the latest iteration of Futuremark's popular PCMark system performance tool. This latest version is designed for use on Windows 7 PCs and features a combination of 25 different workloads to accurately measure the performance of all PCs from laptops to desktops.

  

  

Higher is Better

 

The Sciencemark test is single-threaded allowing all three Sandy Bridge processors to score similarly based on clock speed. The single-threaded Cinebench results show the same trend, while the multi-threaded tests show the 3960X is faster than the 980X. The hard drive tests show similarity across the platforms giving no real advantage to one platform or the other. In PCMark 7, the 980X has an overall higher suite score, but the computation test is skewed heavily toward the i7 3960X. As we have seen, the Second Generation Core i7 3960X offers up a distinct advantage over the previous generation Extreme series processor at a slightly lower clock speed.

Aliens vs. Predator, developed by Rebellion Developments, is a science fiction first-person shooter and a remake of its 1999 game. The game is based on the two popular sci-fi franchises. In this game, you have the option of playing through the single player campaigns as one of three species: the Alien, the Predator, or the Human Colonial Marine. The game uses Rebellion's Asura game engine, which supports Dynamic Lighting, Shader Model 3.0, Soft Particle systems and Physics. For testing, I will be using the Aliens vs. Predator benchmark tool with the settings listed below. All DirectX 11 features are enabled.

 

Settings

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  

  

Higher = Better

 

When you get down to it, playing this game at either of the tested resolutions is going to deliver the same gaming performance. The maximum FPS difference between the highest and lowest FPS average is at most 1.5 frames per second; not enough to notice while in the game.

Testing:

Civilization V is a turn-based strategy game. The premise is to play as one of 18 civilizations and lead it from the "dawn of man" up to the space age. This latest iteration of the Civilization series uses a new game engine and brings massive changes to the AI behaviour in the game. Released for Windows in September of 2010, Civilization V was developed by Firaxis Games and published by 2K games. Testing will be done using actual gameplay, with FPS measured by Fraps through a series of five turns, 199-205  turns into the game.

Settings

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  

  

Higher = Better

 

Again the gaming performance sees performance differentials in a pretty narrow band. More cores is not necessarily the best choice in this game, as the game play is smooth with any of the tested CPUs.

Testing:

Battlefield: Bad Company 2 is a first-person shooter developed by EA Digital Illusions CE (DICE) and published by Electronic Arts for Windows, PS3, and Xbox 360. This game is part of the Battlefield franchise and uses the Frostbite 1.5 Engine, allowing for destructible environments. You can play the single-player campaign or multiplayer, with five different game modes. Released in March 2010, it has sold in excess of six million copies so far.

Settings

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In this game, the 3960X seems to have an advantage. At 1680x1050, it delivered performance numbers above the comparison processors. As the video card becomes the limiting factor at 1920x1080, it still averages above the field, though the small difference at 1920x1080 is not enough to feel in-game.

Testing:

3DMark 11 is the next installment for Futuremark in the 3DMark series, with Vantage as its predecessor. The name implies the benchmark's focus on Microsoft DirectX 11 and with an unintended coincidence, matches the current year in number (which was the naming scheme to some prior versions of 3DMark nonetheless). 3DMark 11 was designed solely for DirectX 11, so Windows Vista or 7 are required alongside a DirectX 11 graphics card in order to run this test. The Basic Edition gives unlimited free tests on performance mode, whereas Vantage only allows for a single test run. The advanced edition costs $19.95 and unlocks nearly all features of the benchmark, while the professional edition runs for $995.00 and is mainly suited for corporate use. The new benchmark contains six tests, four of which are aimed only at graphical testing – one that tests physics handling and one that combines graphics and physics testing together. The open source Bullet Physics Library is used for physics simulations and although not as mainstream as Havok or PhysX, it still remains a popular choice.

The new benchmark comes with two new demos that can be watched; both of which are based on the tests, but unlike the tests, contain basic audio. The first demo is titled "Deep Sea" and involves a number of vessels exploring what looks to be a sunken U-Boat. The second demo is titled "High Temple" and displays a location similar to South American tribal ruins, with statues and the occasional vehicle. The demos are simple in that they have no story, but really demonstrate testing conditions. The vehicles have the logos of the sponsors, MSI and Antec, on the sides, helping to make the basic edition free. The four graphics tests are slight variants of the demos. I will use the three benchmark test preset levels to find the performance of each card. The presets are used because they are comparable to what can be run with the free version, so results can be compared across more than just a custom set of test parameters.

 

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Through five of the six tests the 3960X is the class of the field until the Extreme Preset where the FX-8150 delivers the highest average score.

Upcoming Reviews

While it would be nice to be able to have all these products tested and written before the product launch, reality sets in fast, as testing a new platform takes a little more time. In the next few weeks we will have the opportunity to test a broad cross section of parts that complement the Sandy Bridge Extreme lineup, including motherboards from ASUS, ECS and MSI, as well as memory kits from a variety of manufacturers. Shown below are some of the parts we will be testing!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Conclusion:

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.

 

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