Intel's Sandy Bridge E launched: Review round up

Core I7 LGA 2011 Die

The last few months have been a bit of a disappointment as far as components news goes. As well as the damp squib that was AMD's Bulldozer launch, there's no sign of NVIDIA's Kepler or AMD's GCN graphics cards yet either.

Today, however, is the day that Intel releases it's new Sandy Bridge E processors into the world. Are they enough to bring some end of year cheer?

Sandy Bridge E, also known as second generation Core i7 Extreme Edition, processors are the ultra-elite-enthusiast-super incarnations of the likes of the Core i7 2600K. Costing up to $999 a piece, they're the very pinnacle of desktop performance and replace current Gulftown processors like the Core i7 990X in Intel's line up.

There's three new chips out today, and you can spot them by their '3' prefix to the codename. They are as follows:

  • Core i7-3960X

    (3.3GHz, 3.9GHz Turbo, six cores, hyperthreading, unlocked multiplier 15MB L3 cache)

  • Core i7-3930K

    (3.2GHz, 3.8GHz Turbo, six cores, hyperthreading, unlocked multiplier 15MB L3 cache)

  • Core i7 3820

    (3.6GHz, 3.9GHz Turbo, four cores, hyperthreading, partially unlocked multiplier 10MB L3 cache)

So what's new about Sandy Bridge E? In terms of the CPU architecture, the differences are largely esoteric. The top two chips have six, rather than four, cores for multhreaded applications to draw upon, and there's a larger amount of cache memory shared between them to keep them fed. Future versions of the Sandy Bridge E will have eight cores, all hyperthreaded to show 16 possible processor targets for Windows.

Perhaps more interestingly, Sandy Bridge E is the first desktop chips to support quad channel RAM, which doubles the available bandwidth over cheaper Sandy Bridge processors. With 1600MHz DDR 3 on board, that's a theoretical 51.2GB/s of data it can chuck around.

In order to do these things, however, the new Core i7 Extreme Editions do require a new motherboard socket only available on X79 chipsets. It has, serendipitously, 2011 pins – up from the 1366 of the previous X58 boards.

Easy to remember, given the date.

Taking the cost of a new motherboard as well as memory into account, it's not an upgrade you'll want to make without seriously considering the law of diminishing returns over a much cheaper Core i7 2600K or Core i5 system.

The cheaper chips actually have a couple of advantages, too. One of the biggest differences between the Core i7 2011s and the socket 1155 i7s and i5s is that there's no integrated graphics core. That's not a concern for gaming, but it does mean you miss out on Intel's impressive QuickSync video encoding trick, which can outperform multithreaded CPUs and any GPGPU stuff from NVIDIA and AMD.

Also, the new X79 motherboards don't have Intel's excellent Smart Response Technology , and its clever SSD caching techniques.

Our review sample should be arriving some time this week. In the meantime, here's what the internet thinks of Sandy Bridge E:

My colleague Jeremy over on TechRadar thinks that the Core i7-3960X is a worthwhile improvement over 1366 Core i7s, but is fuming that there are two disabled cores on the 3960X. There's no reason for them to have been switched off, he reckons.

PCMag's Matthew Murray has nothing bad to say about the new chips, and thinks that support for “ 40 full lanes of PCI Express... alone will seal the deal for some ”. Of course it will, Matt.

Anand Lai Shrimpi is, like many of us, bothered by the fact that the new chips don't support QuickSync for video encoding. It's a workstation chip, he says, not really for gaming. “ If your livelihood depends on it, the 3960X is worth its entry fee .”

Meanwhile, over at Tom's Hardware Chris Angelini has a neat summation: “ A symbolic king in a crowd full of value ”. There's no reason to buy one of the new Core i7s, but it demonstrates what Intel is capable of. You're better off waiting until next year's Ivy Bridge chips to upgrade.

If you are tempted, though, all of the major motherboard vendors have also announced support for the X79 chipset, with some very glittery high end boards to choose from. We'll round up the best of those later today.