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Review: Intel Core i7-4960X (32nm Ivy Bridge-E)

by Tarinder Sandhu on 3 September 2013, 08:00

Tags: Intel (NASDAQ:INTC)

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What's new?

Intel's consumer CPU focus is clearly on the 4th Generation Core Processor Family, codenamed Haswell, which launched in June of this year. Offering a smattering of extra performance over last-gen Ivy Bridge but with energy efficiency very much to the fore, you'd be forgiven for thinking the range-topping Core i7-4770K is the meatiest chip around.

The chip giant's fastest processor is hewn from older technology, however. Go back a couple of generations and, though not popularised by Intel, the six-core/12-thread Sandy Bridge-E remains head honcho. The SNB-E's $999 Core i7-3970X is up to 33 per cent faster than the Haswell-based Core i7-4770K in applications that take liberal advantage of its extra cores and threads.

Intel has been in no hurry to replace SNB-E as the high-end desktop (HEDT) architecture of choice; rival AMD's FX chips are still unable to pose a credible performance threat. So with no pressure to reinvigorate HEDT CPUs and mainstream Haswell processors selling well, Intel's remained happy to retain a 2011 architecture as its finest... until now.

Core i7-4960X - last-gen technology

There's a new CPU sheriff in town and it goes by the name of Core i7-4960X. Using the same LGA2011 (X79) platform and six-core/12-thread topology as SNB-E but now upgraded with respect to architecture, a sensible assumption, based on nomenclature, would intimate this is Haswell-E. Intel's playing somewhat fast-and-loose again, though, as the best 4-series chip is based on last-gen Ivy Bridge technology.

You see, Intel, like practically everyone else, now designates nomenclature based on performance, not architecture. Heck, if, by some miracle, the manufacturing goliath managed to resuscitate a Pentium 4 enough to provide the best CPU performance, then it would also be called the Core i7-4960X, too.

In a nutshell, Intel has taken the Ivy Bridge architecture and transitioned the four-core/eight-thread setup to, now, a six-core/12-thread beast, just like it did for Sandy Bridge. The Core i7-4960X is therefore internally known as Ivy Bridge Extreme (IVB-E) and will be supported by two (slightly) slower, cheaper IVB-E processors. Let's roll out the now-familiar table and see how the new IVB-E shapes up against other high-end Intel chips.

Processor comparison

Desktop

Model
Cores /
Threads
CPU Clock
(GHz)
Turbo Boost
(GHz)
Process
Die Size
Cache
IGP
IGP Clock
(MHz)
DDR3 Support (MHz)
TDP
Launch Price
(US 1ku)
Ivy Bridge Extreme Core Processor Family (3nd Generation, LGA2011)
Core i7-4960X
6 / 12
3.6
4.0
22nm
257mm²
15MB
N/A
N/A
Quad 1,866
130W
$990
Core i7-4930K
6 / 12
3.4
3.9
22nm
257mm²
12MB
N/A
N/A
Quad 1,866
130W
$555
Core i7-4820K
4 / 8
3.7
3.9
22nm
257mm²
10MB
N/A
N/A
Quad 1,866
130W
$310
Sandy Bridge Extreme Core Processor Family (2nd Generation, LGA2011)
Core i7-3970X
6 / 12
3.5
4.0
32nm
434mm²
15MB
N/A
N/A
Quad 1,600
150W
$999
Haswell Core Processor Family (4th Generation, LGA1150)
Core i7-4770K
4 / 8
3.5
3.9
22nm
177mm²
8MB
HD 4600
1,250
Dual 1,600
84W
$339
Ivy Bridge Core Processor Family (3rd Generation, LGA1155)
Core i7-3770K
4 / 8
3.5
3.9
22nm
160mm²
8MB
HD 4000
1,150
Dual 1,600
77W
$313

Analysis

It makes sense to focus on the difference - or improvements - when compared to the best super-chip of the previous generation, Core i7-3970X. The newer processor has a slightly higher base clock and a matching single-core Turbo Boost frequency of 4.0GHz. Like other recent Intel processors, 4960X constantly changes speed depending upon load. We noted it ran at 3.7GHz when all six cores were stressed.

Apart from cementing its position as purveyor of the fastest consumer silicon, there's a very good, obvious reason why Intel wants to move to the IVB-E architecture: cost. Basing it on the smaller-geometry 22nm process reduces die size by a whopping 40 per cent, while still keeping 15MB of shared last-level cache (LLC) intact.

Core i7-4960X is a CPU powerhouse alone; there are no integrated graphics present. The quad-channel memory speed is increased to an official 1,866MHz, and TDP reduced to 130W. Intel uses the same processor segmentation as before, that is, the 4930K has less LLC, and the 4C/8T Core i7-4820K is an interesting alternative to the Haswell 4-series chips. It's good to see the trio of IVB-E processors is multiplier-unlocked for hassle-free, easy overclocking.

Users who shelled-out cash for an X79 board will be pleased to learn the same-socket IVB-E chips should run just fine on their platform. Intel says that full support requires installation of the Management Engine 8.1.20.1366 software and, optionally, RST 12.7 drivers. We'd recommend updating the board's BIOS to the latest one in any case, as well.

One area in which these LGA2011 chips score over the Haswell LGA1150 counterparts is with respect to PCIe lanes. IVB-E carries over the 40 lanes present on SNB-E, and the real-world implication is that, without motherboard-mounted bridging chips, users can install and run high-bandwidth graphics in premier system builds.

Overview

Intel has finally overhauled its HEDT platform by transitioning the architecture from Sandy Bridge to Ivy Bridge. We know from looking at mainstream parts that the architecture move doesn't provide a whole heap of extra performance in everyday tasks. Intel, too, accepts this fact and reckons the Core i7-4960X offers single-digit gains over incumbent Core i7-3960X.