Saturday, 31 December 2011

Intel Sandy Bridge-E platform Review

Intel has held the absolute performance lead ever since its Core series CPUs launched, and AMD has just not been able to keep up. AMD’s Bulldozer was supposed to have been able to provide some competition, but it barely keeps up with even Intel’s previous generation, so there’s no surprise in the fact that Sandy Bridge E, the architecture inside this new Extreme Edition CPU, is the fastest thing we’ve ever tested—by a wide margin.

Hands on preview with the Intel Sandy Bridge E

In fact, Intel seems to have gotten a little complacent over the past few years, causing mild headaches for high-end PC buyers. It launched its last set of Extreme Edition CPUs, the Bloomfield XE i7-9xx series in late 2008 and the Gulftown i7-9xx refresh in early 2011. These series were set apart from the mainstream Core line-up by the use of their own socket and chipset, LGA1366 on the X58, which allowed for exotic triple-channel memory configurations. In the meanwhile, the mainstream CPU line-up was replaced by the Sandy Bridge generation, which often matched the older XE CPUs in terms of performance, but drastically undercut them in price. In effect, high-end buyers were left without much of an upgrade path, despite their massive initial investment. That changes now, with Sandy Bridge E.

The CPU and Chipset
The Core i7-3960X is now the fastest consumer desktop CPU in Intel’s line-up. The 2.27-billion transistor chip has eight cores, but the models being launched at the moment use only six of them. These six cores can execute two threads each, and there’s a 15 MB cache to keep them all occupied. The 3960X’s nominal clock speed is 3.3 GHz, but this goes up to 3.6 GHz on all cores or 3.9 GHz on a single core, when Turbo Boost kicks in to speed up demanding applications.
The six-legged beast
The six-legged beast

The TDP is 130W, which is in line with previous Extreme Edition parts. Perhaps aware that enthusiasts in this price range won’t ever use a simple cooler, Intel has chosen not to bundle one. Instead, for the first time, Intel is offering an optional liquid cooling kit, custom made by Asetek. This adds to the overall cost of a Sandy Bridge E system, but neatly avoids the wastage of the kind of solid copper cooler that would have had to be bundled, and also allows for a bit more adventurousness when overclocking
Intel's wate-cooling solution
Intel's water-cooling solution

On the memory front, each of the four memory channels can be filled with 1600 MT/s modules (with the possibility of higher speeds supported unofficially), allowing for a whopping 51.2 GB/s of memory bandwidth. A number of X79 motherboards tout support for XMP (Xtreme Memory Profiles), a new Intel buzzword that involves certifying motherboards and memory modules that take advantage of certain optimizations above and beyond official DDR3 specifications. XMP squarely targets gamers and overclockers, who will be looking to squeeze even more power out of their systems. Simple XMP settings made via software or the EFI BIOS will do away with the need to tweak individual speeds and frequencies.
Performance is good but not across the board
A breakdown of the new chipset

There’s no onboard graphics subsystem, but no one who buys a CPU of this caliber would want to pair it with anything less than a top-range graphics card, anyway. Rather than graphics, Intel has moved the PCIe controller from the chipset to the CPU package. PCIe 3.0 was supposed to have been part of the specification, and many early X79 motherboards boasted of PCIe 3.0 compatibility, but Intel has labeled its controller as PCIe 2.0. Even so, multi-GPU configurations are supported in a variety of modes, including two x16 plus one x8 and one x16 plus three x8. With so many functions moving to the CPU, there isn’t much left for the chipset to do, and the X79 Express is a mixed bag. All the usual boxes are checked: 14 USB 2.0 ports, Gigabit Ethernet, HD audio, additional PCIe lanes, and SATA. On the downside, there’s no USB 3.0 (although every X79 motherboard should still ship with USB 3.0 ports added via a third-party controller), and only two of the six SATA ports support the latest 6 Gbps standard. Also interesting is the fact that there’s no Smart Response caching—the ability to use a small 20GB SSD to speed up access times on mechanical drives—which is still the headlining feature of the Z68 platform which now occupies a lower rung on Intel’s ladder.

We tested the 3960X on the reference Intel DX79SI motherboard with 8GB of G.Skill RipjawsX DDR3- 2133 RAM and an AMD Radeon HD 6870 graphics card. For the gaming tests, though we used a HD 6970 2GB. There really isn’t much to say about this CPU’s performance—it blows everything out of the water. We recorded scores of 270 Mpix/s and 28.22GB/s in SiSoft Sandra 2011’s processor multimedia and memory bandwidth tests, as compared to 175.11 Mpix/s and 20.6GB/s for a Core i7-2600K.
Performance is good but not across the board
Performance is good but not across the board

POVRay took a mere 11.1 seconds to render our test scene, whereas the older Core i7 CPU took 16.71 seconds. Notably, we saw only marginal improvements in gaming scores, suggesting that the graphics card could be the bottleneck.
Sandy Bridge E in action!
Sandy Bridge E in action!

As for the temperatures, our standard testbed air cooler did a decent job even with continuous heavy loads. However, we suggest going in for a large tower-type cooler for better heat dissipation, or a liquid cooler for peace of mind while overclocking. If you are going to invst in this sort of a setup then it's best you settle for a good water cooling solution. The stock Intel water cooler does a pretty decent job as it's made by Asetek. 

When comes to raw performance and number crunching abilities, the Core i7-3960X is in a league of its own. When it comes to video encoding, the CPU gets to stretch its legs as it puhes past the 2600K. While all this power is great fun, other than a few areas, it doesn't seem to be all that faster than Sandy Bridge in the real world. Even if you are a hardcore gamer, there's no noticible performance boost in gaming. Quad-channel memoryis good for boasting about, but again, real world applications seldom benefit from it. The elephant in the room, however has to be the price, which is US $999 (Approx. Rs. 52,000) and if that wasn't bad enough, the Intel reference board itself costs Rs.22,800, thus arriving at a grand total of Rs.74,800. More than an enthusisat, you need to be bleeding rich to afford a setup like this.  For most of us though, including hardcore gamers and enthusiasts, it's just overkill. 

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