INTEL CORE I7 3960X REVIEW – Godzilla from Chipzilla!

Posted Jan 11, 2012
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There was once a time when demands of what the user wanted from their software drove manufacturers to develop faster (and more expensive) hardware. When A-10 Tank Killer was released by Dynamix many, many years ago, it drove millions of XT based systems into obscurity. Like many of that time, I also had a 10MHz 8088 based ‘Turbo XT’ system. And like many others I spent thousands of dollars to get me an AT system so that I could enjoy the game.

Several years later, the paradigm has shifted radically. Though the requirements of the users and thus the software continue to grow, the processing capabilities of hardware have grown at a greater pace. Today a computer system purchased a couple of years ago (say 2008) will still be able to satisfactorily run all of today’s software. The need to upgrade every-time a new version of your favorite operating system, software suite or even entertainment software is not there anymore.

That however dose not deter hardware companies to release equipment that does things even faster than before, though the need for speed is not what it once was (just like the game that was once good and now is just okay).

Late into 2011 Intel released its most bad-ass consumer oriented CPU series of all times: the Sandybridge-E (SBE). This mammoth of a processor (in its 6 core variant) has 2.27 billion transistors carved out of a 32nm process in a die area of 435mm2. By contrast AMD’s much touted but highly ridiculed Bulldozer series has 1.2 billion transistors (for ‘eight’ core processors). Intel’s own Sandybridge processors have less than a billion transistors and a die area that is less than half of Sandybridge-E.

What do all of these transistors bring to the table for the average Joe? Read on to find out.

Introducing the new King: The Intel 3xxx series of Processors

 

Intel has so far released 3 processors based on slightly handicapped Sandybridge-EP Xenon server architecture CPUs. The top of the line 1000 dollar 3960X, followed by the 3930K (US$ 550) and finally the ‘locked’ quad core 3820 processor.

CPU

Cores/Threads

L3 Cache (MB)

Speed

Turbo

Price (US$)

3960X

6/12

15

3.3

3.9

990

3930K

6/12

12

3.2

3.8

550

3820

4/8

10

3.6

3.9

285

2700K (SB)

4/8

8

3.5

3.9

332

The “X” stands for extreme edition processor. This is the great-great grand-child of the forgotten Pentium 4 Extreme edition CPU. The “K” series have unlocked multipliers. The vanilla processor (3820) lacks multiplier based over-clocking, but Intel was kind enough to bring back a form of base clock based overclocking, something it locked when designing the chipset for the Sandybridge processors.

Today we’ll be looking into the performance of the 3960X processor.

 Inside the Intel 3 Series Processors

 

The die shot above shows that the majority of the transistor bulk goes in to the huge L3 cache of the 3960X processor.

Here’s a list of what Intel has done with the ~2 billion transistors that help build this CPU (as compared to the Intel 2700K, the last year’s top performing, still in production Intel processor)

Parameter

Intel 3960X

Intel 2700K

Cores/Threads

6/12

4/8

L3 Cache

15MB

8MB

PCI-e

40 PCI-e 3.0 lanes

16 PCI-e 2.0 lanes

Memory Controller

Quad Channel

Dual Channel

Memory Speed supported (officially)

DDR3-1600

DDR3-1333

Integrated GPU

None

Yes

Apart from the lack of an integrated GPU, the new processor has more of everything.

 The Cooling Solutions

Unlike all other Intel processors of recent times, the 3 series is NOT bundled with a cooler. Intel however does produce two variants, one ‘bog’ standard air and the other slightly exotic liquid cooling solution (LCS).

The LCS (RTS2011LC) is Intel’s recommendation for processor over-clocking. The OEM for this is Asetek and costs around 100 dollars. This will no doubt add to Intel’s bottom line, but it also allows free choice to the end user.

This however does imply that you simply cannot use this processor out of the box. You must buy a cooler to get this to work.

The New Platform: Intel X79

 

How would Intel look if it launched an entirely new processor without a new chipset? Pretty stupid! (Sarcasm) The new processors not only need a new chipset but an entirely new socket, the LGA 2011.

The new socket comes with an entirely new look. Rather than just one locking mechanism this one comes with two as more pressure is required to keep the heat-sink fan assembly to latch onto the processor. Intel will no doubt make tons of money selling not only a new processor but a new motherboard as well to all the prospective buyers.

The Intel x79 is a little less exciting; it’s a wolf in sheep’s clothing, the sheep being the z68. Rather I’d call the x79 the sheep and the z68 the wolf. The reason being that the x79 actually lacks the speed boosting Intel Smart Response Technology which helps improve hard drive throughputs, as well as graphics output. The latter is not required as the SB-E lineup does not an integrated GPU to start with. We’ll look at the x79 in more detail when during our motherboard round up for the new processor series.

 Testing

As we have only one 3 series processor, we’ll compare its performance to the next best thing, the Intel 2600K processor. Sadly we don’t have a 2700K processor to play with, but with minimal differences between the two, the results should be pretty comparable.

Intel 3960X test system CPU: Intel 3960XMotherboard: Intel DX79SIMemory: G.Skill Ripjaws DDR3-1600; (4×4) 16 GB
Intel 2600K test system CPU: Intel 2600KMotherboard: Asus P8P67Memory: G.Skill Ripjaws DDR3-1600; (4×4) 16 GB
Common Hard-disk: Seagate 1TB 7200 (SATA 3 Gbps)GPU: Nvidia GTX 480Power Supply: Thermaltake Tough Power XT 775 WattsOS: Windows 7 x64 with SP 1

 CPU-Z: Intel 3960X and Intel DX79SI

Memory Bandwidth: Sandra 2012

 

The quad channel controller gives a massive advantage to the 3960x, however bear in mind that this is a synthetic test and the results should be taken with a grain of salt.

 CPU Tests: AIDA 64

AIDA64 like Sandra can be used to test the isolated CPU performance in a system. Again the results are synthetic and not real world so the same caution as above applies.

It should come as no surprise that the 3960x bests the 2600k in all tests. It should also come as no surprise that the margins are quiet significant.

Real world applications test 

Cinebench R11.5 Processor Performance

Cinebench from Maxon can help gauge GPU as well as CPU performance. To put the two extra core of the SB-E to work we’ll reproduce the multi-threaded results

The two extra cores and oodles of cache gives the 3960x a massive lead over the 2600k

7-Zip Compression tests

7-Zip is a freeware archiver that comes with a built benchmark tool.

The architectural differences between processing cores is minimal (if any) at best. Extra memory bandwidth, more cores again help the 3960x take the lead.

Gaming Performance

The all-important gaming performance! The problem here is that there are not many games that support 6 physical cores. Heck there are not many that scale well with 4 cores. Testing games at lower resolutions so that the GPU does not limit performance is another caveat. No one plays games at 1024*768, well no one who can afford a 1000 dollar processor.

One game however that can help delineate CPU performance is Civilization V.  The late game-view benchmark generates three scores (frames per seconds); two are GPU bound (full render, no shadow render) while one is not (no render). We’ll use the last as a measure of 3960x prowess!

There is a discernable performance difference here.

We could have reproduced graphs after graphs of your favorite video game for your viewing pleasure. But that would have been futile. In gaming, the two processors, show no real difference. Even in Civilization 5 the numbers you see above are not what you would see in the game as the output has to be rendered which closes the gap significantly to being non-existent.

Over-clocking

For SBE processor (the “X” or “K” variants), it is possible to over-clock the processor by manipulating the processor multipliers or using a modified form of base-clock over-clocking or both.

The first technique has been standard since the launch of Sandybridge processors. The latter is a ‘new’ form of over-clocking from the hay days of Intel processor of yester-years. The new technique allows fixed increments in the base clock. These fixed frequencies are 125, 166 and 250 MHz. These are in addition to the default clock of 100 MHz. It is possible to micro-manage base-clock from these fixed frequencies but there is little room to play with.

Our test bed came with an Intel motherboard, the top of the line Intel DX79SI as well as Intel LCS. We also tested our processor on an Asus P9X79 Pro motherboard.

We used built in over-clocking tools for the boards. Both boards over-clocked our processors differently. The Asus board over-clocked the processor to 4.3GHz using a base-clock of ~126 and multiplier of 34. The Intel board selected a multiplier of 44 to achieve a final speed of 4.4 GHz. We used built in over-clocking tools for the boards. Both boards over-clocked our processor differently. The Asus board over-clocked the processor to 4.3GHz using a base-clock of ~126 and multiplier of 34. The Intel board selected a multiplier of 44 to achieve a final speed of 4.4 GHz.

CPU-Z would not read the voltage of the over-clocked processor correctly. Intel desktop utilities on the other hand do (bottom of the screen shot).

Given the large die areas, billions of transistors and most importantly a TDP of 130Watts make this processor power hungry. It is definitely easier to achieve better over-clocking results with SB processors as compared to SBE processors.

Conclusions: The Ivy Bridge Factor

This is the fastest Intel processor that an average consumer could buy off a shelf today. However this power has specific uses and not one that an average user might need. If you need a blazingly fast processor for video processing or are in need for tons of memory this processor might just be for you.

But with Ivy Bridge processor coming in a few months-time, bringing with it lower power dissipation and better clock for clock performance (as compared to Sandybridge processor) coupled with their (much) lower price point and the fact that they are plug in replacements on LGA 1155 platforms makes this a niche product, a blisteringly fast niche product. PCI-e 3.0 integration is another interesting aspect. The bandwidth offered by PCI-e 3.0 is really not required for gaming, but might find itself useful in other areas. The power consumption for a SB-E setup is higher than those for SB computers. But this is to be expected considering the number of transistors that makeup the 3960.

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