Extreme CPU at an extreme price: Intel Sandy Bridge-E Core i7-3960X

Intel’s new premium CPU the i7-3960X Sandy Bridge-E processor and its accompanying X79 chipset is aimed squarely at those who have absolutely no regard for pricing and a burning desire for as many cores as possible. This six-cored 2.27 billion transistor beast is based upon the Sandy Bridge design. As expected given its Intel origins this CPU is not backwards-compatible with any existing motherboard chipset designs so you’re going to need to buy a Socket 2011-equipped motherboard to house this huge processor.

Manufactured on the now mature 32 nanometre process each of the six cores is hyper-threading enabled delivering a whopping 12 threads of overall performance. Base frequency for the 3960X is a mere 3.3GHz but scales up to a more impressive 3.9GHz once Intel’s Turbo Boost technology kicks in during processor intensive situations.

Given the extreme pricing we’d have preferred a 4GHz-smashing top frequency but with so many cores in one package Intel has had to take a slightly more conservative approach. At maximum speed the Thermal Design Power tops out at a rather steamy 130W and Intel has introduced a new cooler to handle the high loads.

Sadly our overclocking attempts on the unlocked i7-3960X didn’t yield very impressive results hitting a maximum stable speed of just 4.7GHz on a CPU core voltage of 1.45V. It’s obvious that this chip’s strength — six cores — is also its greatest weakness when it comes to overclocking as the extra cores generate too much heat for entry into the 5GHz club. No doubt extreme coolers will remedy this with a shot of liquid nitrogen.

The Intel i7-3960X is a chip that is as limited in its applications as it is expensive in its pricing with a recommended customer price of US$999-$1059. Yet only those users who run extremely threaded applications will notice the benefits delivered by this six-headed behemoth. The vast majority will find Intel’s existing 2nd Generation Core processors a more appealing option while gamers can save themselves several hundred dollars and get even better performance with an overclocked K-series CPU. However if you do fit into a select group of digital content creators (and can confirm that your software of choice makes use of six threads or more) Intel has delivered a powerful new product to help speed up your workflow.