Intel Core i7-3960X Review: Sandy Bridge-E And X79 Express

X79 Express: P67, Is That You?

The Patsburg chipset (code name for the silicon on which X79 Express centres), as Intel originally planned it, was to have as many as 14 ports of storage connectivity. Six of them were SATA-based (2 x 6 Gb/s and 4 x 3 Gb/s), while as many as eight emanated from a separate, integrated storage controller. In its most decked-out form, that controller would have offered eight SAS 6 Gb/s ports. It also would have borrowed four of the processor’s 40 third-gen PCI Express lanes to create an x4 link dedicated to storage traffic.

Apparently, we’ll still see that souped-up rendition of Patsburg in 2012. But the company either couldn’t or didn’t enable it in X79 Express, leaving the chipset with the same two 6 Gb/s and four 3 Gb/s SATA ports we’ve seen for almost a year on the P67 Express chipset.

When you start looking around at the rest of X79’s features, you realize that, while the platform bears a new name, it’s pretty much P67 Express. You get the same 14 USB 2.0 ports, the same integrated gigabit Ethernet MAC, eight lanes of second-gen PCI Express, and HD Audio.

Now, Intel does include a driver called Rapid Storage Technology Enterprise 3.0, which is designed to facilitate the additional data protection servers and workstations will need once the more advanced versions of Patsburg emerge. For all of our testing, though, Microsoft’s native AHCI drivers are fine.

As a result, all of the changes inherent to the Sandy Bridge-E/X79 platform, at least on the desktop, are attributable to the processor. We’ll have to wait until next year for a more advanced platform—which motherboard vendors don’t seem to be sure what to do with yet, by the way.

I’m frankly not too concerned, though. Do I really need SAS support? No. Do I even need more than six SATA ports? Not really. More than anything, it’s a shame that Intel wasn’t able to incorporate native USB 3.0 support.

Create a new thread in the UK Article comments forum about this subject
This thread is closed for comments
Comment from the forums
    Your comment
  • flong
    Wow, I am so underwhelmed. My 2600K is looking better and better ha, ha. Yea there is an average performance increase of 17% over my 2600K but this CPU costs $1000 - honestly I don't get the $700 difference other than it MAY support PCI-E 3.0 (we don't know for sure). For those that use Premier Pro and ABBYY Fine Reader and other specific programs like them, then yes there is a real tangible benefit.

    For gamers there is virtually no real benefit worth $700. It is entertainingly funny that SLI performance doesn't change much between the 2600K and the 3960X. The only real benefit to gamers will again be PCIE 3.0 support IF the Sandy Bridge E chips will support this.

    I guess I was expecting more oomph from this new flagship. A measly 17% average performance increase over my $292.00 2600K makes me think that I have the best CPU available for the money. When we see how the new Sandy Bridge E CPUs overclock this may change greatly because there is every indication that they will be amazing overclockers. That coupled with PCI-E 3.0 capability may provide some separation between the Gen 2 and Gen 3 E CPUs.
  • Magic Man
    Is it really that suprising though since they are the same cores? Nobody really expected much more than a marginal increase core for core, the difference in the platform comes with addition of those two extra cores (in the hexcore chips obviously) that are not available in the standard sandybridge package.
    And, don't compare with the top end six core but the 3930 which offers far better value for money for those extra cores, extra cache and the platform advantage of 4 channel memory with a cheap 32GB option or more expensive 64GB option - again, something that is not available to the cheaper sandybridge platform.

    Nobody knows what performance increase Ivybridge will bring, it may be great but will still be limited to four cores in the standard platform, hopefully Ivybridge-E wont take longer than this time next year and will offer at least a six core option if not eight core to the desktop if Intel don't decide to kill the two extra cores as they have done with the desktop sandybridge-e
  • theFatHobbit
    Is the main selling point for this over the gulftown the improved energy efficiency?
  • Anonymous
    The Visual Studio benchmark looks suspicious to me: A 6 core only showing a few percentages improvement vs a quadcore? What is the unit of time of that test, minutes or seconds? Compilation should be perfectly scalable (with the correct tools).
  • techpops
    OK first of all, great article. Really enjoyed reading about the new processors. I was a bit miffed there wasn't a Cinebench score as Cinema4D is what I live in. I'll add those scores here for anyone interested.

    Straight i7-3960X = 10.55
    Overclocked = 12.31

    Anyone into 3D and Cinema in particular will be looking at those figures and drooling. Is it worth the cash considering everything you need to buy if you render at home? not really. You can get close to a 10 score with an overclocked i7-2600k and the massive expense of a 3960 could see you building two or three 2600k boxes to get scores of close to 20 and 30 respectively. Of course that's only going to be meaningful to animation heads using separate machines to render different frames in an animation, but as that's really all they need, more cores, more gigahertz's, Intels latest offerings aren't priced right to attract them.

    Looking at the cheaper chip, it still doesn't really make sense to go for it in a graphics workstation. You will get far more performance and value from just building the cheapest second 2600k box you can. A big shame really as it feels like we are doomed to a certain level of computing in one computer for at least the next two years with small percentage bumps along the way unless you're willing to go way out there on the money tree.

    Intel are a bunch of meanie heads putting the prices of these so far out of reach of us peons.
  • flong
    Take heart, Ivy Bridge is coming out int 2012 and hopefully it will be the real-meal deal. I am somewhat stunned that my 2600K has such staying power. Except for the new PCI-E 3.0, I don't see much reason for upgrading my CPU.

    Still, that being said, when you take a look at the performance increases on some specific programs they can be dramatic - some are as much as 50% faster than the 2600K. There is some real improvement in many areas with the 3960X.
  • techpops
    flongTake heart, Ivy Bridge is coming out int 2012 and hopefully it will be the real-meal deal. I am somewhat stunned that my 2600K has such staying power. Except for the new PCI-E 3.0, I don't see much reason for upgrading my CPU.Still, that being said, when you take a look at the performance increases on some specific programs they can be dramatic - some are as much as 50% faster than the 2600K. There is some real improvement in many areas with the 3960X.

    @flong I agree the top end chip especially is a beast. For the kind of work I do it would be a huge benefit but as I'm only a hobbyist at this, these prices can't be paid for by saying a next big budget job will pay for the new hardware as any real business could.

    Also I think as even the Toms article points out, with the perspective change on the 2600k initially looking a bit of a miss up against the almost as good 2500k. Looking at it today the 2600k clearly shines when placed in line with these new chips. So it's less about the 2600k holding its own and more about Intel refusing to let us all at the good stuff in new hardware, instead concentrating on super high profit margins they can get from business.

    I'm assuming the enthusiast and really anyone falling in the can only afford a 2600k market is quite small compared to where these 3960X's are being targeted so at least until that sector gets chips that are much faster again than the 3960X's, I don't really see Intel giving us anything significantly better for at least the next two years. Whatever launches next year can't really be as fast as a 3960X and priced just above a 2600k or it would invalidate the pricing structure they already have in place. So really how can you expect anything more than a few percent bump?

    With AMD floundering around like sad fishes out of water, Intel just have no reason to really push the value.

    "This news just in" Fire brigade saved the day at a local IT business today, the fire initially started when staff decided to cook their fried breakfasts on the AMD Bulldozer server cases instead of ordering out. Fireman Sam who was at the scene is urging others not to cook on AMD products but suggests heating sandwiches in bulldozer hot swappable drive bays is OK"
  • flong
    I think that Ivy Bridge is supposed be a step up from Sandy Bridge E, but I am really tired right now ha, ha.
  • Idonno
    I really don't why anyone is even the least bit surprised with the small performance increase of Intel's new extreme CPU.

    People everywhere have always paid dearly for that last little bit of performance and it really doesn't matter whether we are talking about tennis rackets, fishing poles or technology!

    The last 10% will always cost exponentially more than the first 90% .