Intel Core i7-3960X - Sandy Bridge E Processor Review

Intel debuts its $1000+ Extreme Edition 3960X processor parroting how great it is for the gamer and enthusiast. With 6 cores and 12 threads, a new motherboard and chipset platform, and quad channel DDR3, Intel has done the impossible, given us everything we don't want, and nothing we do want.



While I have not spent a great amount of time playing with this 3960X since we just got final BIOS in from ASUS Friday, I will say that if you looked at the Power Consumption page, you likely know the handwriting is on the wall.

This is the first processor I have ever had Intel send to us with a water cooler. Now it was the "normal" Asetek sourced high end single fan radiator cooler that is self-contained, but a water cooler nonetheless. I did not use this unit as I just KNOW it does not have the balls I need to get a 4.8GHz overclock on this 3960X and keep it stable for 24+ hours. In fact the Koolance system with heavy duty water block seemed to be given a run for its money at first. A few tweaks here and there Rampage IV Extreme BIOS got everything running smoothly I think, but I have not gotten to long term stability testing yet. That will be done this week. But I am fairly certain I can tell you that you will not be using a "small" water cooling system and overclocking the snot out of this 3960X. Look at the 275 watt delta between idle and load on a CPU-only load. Also consider that this is a 130 watt TDP rated processor out of the box.

Now all that said, and when I did get my water block fastened properly, and I got a good mate, I saw decent temperatures in the 73C range under full load. (And as I am editing this, I turned to double check my 2 hour temperatures on my 4.8GHz overclock running a Torture Test and it BSOD'd before I could check the temperature, but it looked like it was in the mid-80s.) CoreTemp also show TJ Max to be 91C, but I am not sure if that is correctly identified. With a good CPU, RAM, and GPU load I also saw the system pulling an easy 630 watts at the wall.

I have seen this system throttle itself in every long term load test I have put on it so far. And I am now running with the " Adaptive Thermal Monitoring" turned off to see what happens with that. I think it is just a wattage sieve once it starts getting hot.

Now while I have gotten a little off point here, this surely all is going to impact overclocking 3960X. Still, on our Rampage IV Extreme, I could go into the BIOS and do nothing but change the multiplier to 48 and get a decently solid 4.8GHz processor overclock running a 1600MHz memory bus speed. The BIOS did automatically assign the cVore to 1.48v. I did play around with this some, and I think I can get a solid 4.8GHz with 1.45v possibly. We will see if that pans out.

I have not felt this much heat generated in my office in quite some time. It reminds me somewhat of the Pentium 4 days...but not quite that bad, but close.

One thing is for certain, our overclocking netted us some huge performance increases, if you are willing to power the components.


No gaming article to go with this launch? Nope, not at this time. While this needs to be covered, I am not going to do it with a $1000+ 3860X processor that none of our readers are going to be buying anyway. We really need the 3930K series processor to do that and Intel did not send one in our reviewers kit, so that will have to wait.

But let me say this, while Intel has been beating the drum about this being the "Ultimate Desktop Processor for Gamers," I think that is a lot of horse shit. This Sandy Bridge E is not going to do much anything for gamers if I am making the right guess based on what I have seen, possibly with one exception, and that is multi-GPU, multi-display gaming. And certainly we will investigate that. I have no reasons to believe Sandy Bridge E is going to do anything for a gamer that is already using a 2500K or 2600K that has been clocked up. Surely those two will save you some money on power as well. But I guess if you are looking for a new way to heat your computer room this winter, Sandy Bridge E should be on your short list. Maybe they will start selling these at Home Depot?

Content Creation / Workstations

As we have seen, the 3960X chews through multi-threaded encoding and rendering faster than Herman Cain goes through secretaries. But still, even I do a fair amount of content creation and I have to wonder just how much I would value a 3960X in my box. It would be great, till the heat started pouring out from under my desk I guess. Considering the price of the 3960X and the power used, you will need to be in a position that content creation is your job. Now if content creation is your job, I can see the benefits surely. If you are working at a CAD station, I can surely see the 3960X as being beneficial too. But I just do not truly see the 3960X as a "desktop" processor.

The Bottom Line

I am not sure who is supposed to buy a 3960X. I really do not see it benefiting gamers. I do not see it being a boon too overclocking enthusiasts due to price, power usage, and subsequently heat output. I guess if I sat around all day ripping Blu-ray disks and encoding those for torrent sites, it would be awesome. Maybe that could be Intel's new 3960X motto, "Sandy Bridge E, maximizing BitTorrent ratios, one desktop at a time." Meh. Let's see what the K series brings before we totally turn our noses up at this beast of a processor...that none of us really need, or I think even want. I think we have enough cores for now. Get your noses back on the grindstone and give us stellar IPC gains or even better, 5GHz stock clocks.