Intel has just unleashed a new line of processors. It’s not based on a new architecture, but is instead an expansion of the current Sandy Bridge line. Now, instead of a maximum of four cores, you can buy a processor with up to six!
Of course, you could do that months ago – but you’d have to purchase a processor using the Nehalem architecture. That made no sense, because the quickest quad-core Sandy Bridge options were almost as fast and hundreds less expensive. Does Sandy Bridge-E resolve that issue? Let’s take a closer look.
Behind the Name
Once again, Intel has created a name that’s not nearly as clear as they might have thought. What’s the E stand for? Efficiency? Eco? Extreme?
Nope. It stands for Enthusiast. The Sandy Bridge-E is built to be the best of the best, and as a result it’s not meant to appeal to a layman user who uses his or her PC for common tasks like web browsing and PC gaming. Instead, it’s targeted at people who need as many cores as possible, and use demanding applications that can actually take advantage of multiple threads.
Two new processors will be offered at launch, the Core i7-3930K and the Core i7-3960X. The difference between these choices is clock speed and cache. The 3,930K offers a 3.2 GHz base clock speed and 12MB of cache, while Core i7-3,960X offers a 3.3 GHz base clock speed and 15MB of cache. Both have hyper-threading, so the six cores can support twelve threads.
What about pricing? The MSRP is $555 for the 3,930K and $990 for the 3,960X. I’d expect retailers to actually ask more for these initially, as despite the already high prices, they will be in high demand. They are, after all, the most powerful processors money can buy.
That may sound dramatic, but it’s absolutely true. In testing by PC Perspective, the new processors were able to outperform the Core-i7 2600K by as much as 30%. As you might expect, programs with excellent multi-thread support revealed the largest gap between the quad-core and six-core Sandy Bridge entries. Software that doesn’t require the extra cores, such as games, show little difference between the new processors and the older quad-core Sandy Bridge products.
Strangely, these new LGA 2011 processors do not come with a heatsink or cooler, making them the only processors sold by Intel in an OEM box without a cooling solution. Don’t forget to budget a processor cooler when purchasing one of these processors. Intel will offer its typical low-end cooler for $20, but also plans to offer a water cooler for around $80. Of course, for the same money you could purchase a third-party cooler. The choice is yours.
A New Chipset, Too
In addition to the new processors, Intel is unleashing a new chipset, called X79. It is meant as a replacement for the X58 chipset that was once considered Intel’s flagship. Because X58 does not offer Sandy Bridge support, the chipset has been of questionable use since the release of the newest processor architecture.
X79 introduces yet another new processor socket, LGA2011. There are other changes, as well. RAM support has changed from tri-channel (as found on X58) to quad-channel, and the new chipset has been built to handle the high power requirements of the new processors, all of which are slapped with a 130W TDP. By comparison, a Core i7-2600K has a 95W TDP.
Chipset changes were also required because the new Sandy Bridge-E processors, like their previous brethren, entirely eliminate the Northbridge.
Should You Buy One?
So, you’re impressed by the performance. Now you’re wondering – should I blow my savings on one of these? Or is this not the best use of my cash?
The title “enthusiast” doesn’t properly describe the exclusivity of these processors. I am an enthusiast, but I would never buy one of these, because I don’t run software that needs the extra cores. My most demanding tasks is gaming, which still sees only a small benefit from four cores, never mind six.
Instead, these products are aimed at people who use computers as important tools for doing work. If a 20% increase in performance can cut an hour off the time it takes for your PC to complete an encoding run, then you’re the kind of person this processor is for. If you regularly edit files with multi-gigabyte file sizes, you’re the kind of person this processor is for. If a computer crash effectively shuts down your business, you’re the kind of person this processor is for.
And in the hands of such a professional, yes, the high prices can be justified and may in fact pay for themselves in a matter of weeks by saving time that would otherwise be spent waiting for a task to finish.
Of course, there’s no accounting for taste. If you have a lot of money to spend on a PC, and you want the fastest possible, feel free to jump on the Sandy Bridge-E bandwagon. You may receive much better value from a less powerful configuration, but not every nerd cares about value as much as owning a stonking fast computer.
Sandy Bridge-E is an impressive step forward for Intel, and one that is perhaps overdue. The older Nehalem-based six-core processors were still commanding high prices, despite the use of a nearly three year old architecture and chipset.
With this new line, Intel will once again have a proper flagship that can leave both Intel and AMD’s best in the dust.