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Intel Sandy Bridge-E Core i7-3960X Review: High End CPU roundup

With the announcement of the new Core i7-3960X by Intel, the current performance throne holder (i7-990X) was replaced, not surprisingly, by yet another Intel CPU. We took some time to compile a detailed comparison of all major current top desktop X86 CPUs by both Intel and AMD, to show you the real performance gains when moving from the old to the brand new.


We often compare cutting-edge new CPUs to their brethren from the previous generation. After that, we rarely go back to the old models, simply because it doesn’t have too much of a practical value, but also because the new models are better than the old ones as a rule. 

Furthermore, as far as CPUs are concerned, we often talk about various abstract subjects such as bottlenecks – a term we often encounter when testing the strongest graphics cards, for instance. It’s occurred to us recently that we often don’t compare the old and new in a sufficient number of tests, perhaps because of our desire to dive into the new technology as much as possible, which may leave out some of the much needed objectivity. This might cause some confusion amongst PC users and a wrongful logic when assembling a new PC or upgrading the old one. Are new CPU generations really all that better than the old ones? Do they bring all the marketed increases in performance, or are those just percentages occurring in particular programs under particular conditions? Ultimately, is it all about presenting you what you want to see rather than what it is?

During conversations with reputed hardware manufacturers, for instance, we’ve encountered the general attitude that Sandy Bridge CPUs are around 30% faster than Nehalem/Westmere-based ones. Many articles on the net confirm the same allegations. However, as time went by, we’ve established that this sort of prejudice is just wrong in many ways, as the situations where that percentage is reached come in a very limited number. In regard with that situation, this review is meant to give an overlook of the strongest CPUs made by AMD and Intel so far.

Test Setup

For the needs of this test, we obtained highest end CPU's for each generation, both from AMD and Intel. Intel was represented with Westmere Core i7 CPU (Core i7 990x) and Sandy Bridge – Core i7 2700K and Core i7 3960x. AMD was represented with their strongest CPUs: AMD FX-8150 (Bulldozer) and AMD Phenom II X6 1100T (Thuban). 

After obtaining a total of five CPUs (three from Intel and two from AMD), we had to decide on the motherboards to be used. The negative aspect of Intel’s policy to change the socket with each new CPU generation came to full effect yet again – three motherboards and three OS installations were required just for their part of the test. 

In order to do the test we obtained following motherboards for Intel processors: ASUS Rampage IV Extreme (X79 chipset), ASUS Sabertooth X58 (X58 chipset) and ASUS P8P67 WS Revolution (P67 chipset). AMD only required a single 990FX motherboard for both CPU's- ASUS Crosshair V Formula (990FX chipset). These five systems were tested in two scenarios. The first entailed the CPU set to its default clock, while the second one was with all CPUs set to exactly 4.5 GHz, thereby measuring clock-for-clock performance. The only exception to this was Phenom II X6 1100T, which had a lower OC margin, so it had to be excluded from the second round. In order to make testing more realistic, we overclocked through changing the multiplier exclusively, while the FSB remained locked at its default value. Furthermore, the RAM clock was constantly at 1600 MHz with 9-9-9-24 1T latencies. All these precautions isolated the CPU as much as possible. The chipset factor is something you just can’t avoid in this sort of test, but we’re fairly certain that its impact on overall CPU performance is irrelevant. As the number of RAM channels has a lot to do with the architecture of each CPU, we used the best available settings each time, ranging from dual- to quad-channel memory, the latter being used by Sandy Bridge E models.

For all the test for round up we used Kingston HyperX 1600 CL9 4 x 4GB kit, and just for special, latency test we used Kingston HyperX T1 2133CL9 4x2GB kit. Having in mind both performance and capacity two Kingston HyperX 240GB SSD were used. Trusty and more then capable, PSU Cooler Master UCP 900W was used to power up all these monsters. We used two different cooling solutions; primarily it was Cooler Master V10 for all the sockets beside socket LGA 2011. For that one we used Intel liquid cooling solution (RTS 2011LC) that came together with Core i7 3960x CPU. Only logical choice for VGA was ASUS GTX580 as a most powerful single GPU graphic card.

Tests were split into two categories: typical benchmarks of the CPU, memory and system in general on one hand, and various games on the other. All in all, over 300 tests were done in total, and there was a lot to deduce as well.

VR-Zone is a leading online technology news publication reporting on bleeding edge trends in PC and mobile gadgets, with in-depth reviews and commentaries.

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