Review: Intel Sandy Bridge-E

As if Intel didn't have a big enough lead in the CPU performance stakes with their Sandy Bridge family of chips, it's gone ahead and released a new series named Sandy Bridge-E (the 'E' reportedly standing for Enthusiast).

NameCPU range: Intel Core i7-3930K & 3960X
At a glance:Two new high-end six-core CPUs,Socket LGA2011, X79 chipset,Quad-channel memory architecture,No built-in GPU
Summary:Sandy Bridge finally gets more than four cores, at the cost of another socket change.
RRP:$899 (3930K), $1499 (3960X)

Intel Core i7-3930K rating: 4/5 stars.

Intel Core i7-3960X rating: 3/5 stars.

As if Intel didn’t have a big enough lead in the CPU performance stakes with their Sandy Bridge family of chips, it’s gone ahead and released a new series named Sandy Bridge-E (the ‘E’ reportedly standing for Enthusiast).

The first Sandy Bridge-E models are the Core i7 3930K and 3960X. Both processors have six HyperThreaded cores (for 12 processing threads in total) and are clocked at 3.2GHz and 3.3Ghz respectively. In Turbo mode they can run at up to 600MHz faster than this stock speed, plus both are unlocked up to a multiplier of 57x – combined with the 100MHz base clock of the platform, this means a theoretical overclocked speed of up to 5.7GHz even before touching the base clock.

Interestingly, these Sandy Bridge-E parts have not received many technical improvements over original Sandy Bridge versions. They come in six-core variants as opposed to four, have much more onboard cache (12MB/15MB respectively for the 3930K/3960X, compared to 6MB/8MB for the old 2500K/2600K processors), and now sport a quad-channel memory architecture as opposed to dual-channel.

Some features have even been dropped: there’s no longer a GPU built in to the CPU (and thus no Quick Sync video transcoding technology either), so you’ll always need to use a separate video card with this new platform.

The new chips also require a new socket – LGA2011 – so you can’t do a simple drop-in replacement if you’re already on a current Intel platform. The first and only chipset for LGA2011 is X79, and Asus has come out swinging with no less than five X79 motherboards on our shelves already. Gigabyte has also released a couple.

The new platform also requires new CPU coolers. The mounting holes are different to the older sockets, so existing coolers will not fit unless it specifically states that they are compatible with LGA2011.

The last major feature worth pointing out is PCI Express 3.0. The current batch of video cards on the market use PCI-E 2.0 but we should start seeing PCI-E 3.0 cards sometime in the new year.

The only difference between the two standards is that the newer has roughly twice the data bandwidth as the older. This is not a massive deal right now: most gear doesn’t even come close to saturating the available bandwidth on PCI-E 2.0 motherboards, but an upgrade will be due eventually (note that new PCI-E 3.0 motherboards will still be compatible with existing PCI-E 2.0, 1.1 and 1.0a devices).

Price-wise you’re looking at $899 NZD for the 3930K and a whopping $1499 for the 3960X, which is a hefty premium to pay for 3MB more cache and an extra 100MHz in my view. Combined with at least $449 for an X79 motherboard, it is evident that Intel was not joking when it called this an Enthusiast platform, however a cheaper Core i7 3820 quad-core chip is expected early next year as well as more low-end motherboards. Affordability should increase over time.

We managed to get hold of a 3930K processor and an Asus P9X79 Pro motherboard thanks to the good folk at Playtech, so we put it through our standard suite of benchmarks and compared it to our current workhorse CPU, the Sandy Bridge 2600K. Rounding out the test system specs are a 240GB OCZ Vertex 3 SSD, two Crossfired AMD HD 6850 OC video cards, four 2GB Crucial Ballistix DDR3-1600 CL8 memory sticks, and Windows 7 Pro 64-bit edition.

At default speed, the 3930K performed only 10% better on average than the 2600K in our tests – rather painful considering it costs twice as much and has two extra cores. That said, it did boast 48% and 59% better results in the multithreaded 7-Zip and Cinebench tests, so in certain areas it does excel.

Once both chips were overclocked to 4.6GHz, the Sandy Bridge-E chip’s lead reduced slightly down to 8% overall. Granted, not all of our tests are multi-threaded, but it still is not a good look for the 3930K.

Whether these new Sandy Bridge-E chips will appeal to you or not is largely going to come down to what, if anything, you need the highly-threaded processing grunt for. If you are big on image and video rendering, or other tasks that can take advantage of a lot of processing cores, then you could really stretch your legs with these new CPUs. For almost everything else (the vast majority of gaming included), it seems like an expensive way to get marginal performance increases.

This is only the start of the new platform however, so 2012 should prove to be another fruitful year for Intel – watch this space.

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Tags cpuSandy Bridgeprocessorintelsandy bridge-e

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Paul Urquhart

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