It has been two years since Intel launched its six-core Sandy Bridge-E series and its accompanying LGA2011 socket. In 2011, Sandy Bridge-E was Intel’s first consumer-oriented product with quad-channel DDR3-1600 memory, and support for PCI-Express 3.0 (though not on Intel’s own motherboards). The Intel Core i7-4960X processor launching today updates the CPU architecture to the 22nm-based Ivy Bridge, but makes precious few additional changes.
The new Ivy Bridge-E CPUs will be available in three variants. At the top-end part is the hexa-core Core i7-4960X, with a clock speed of 3.6GHz base and 4GHz Turbo. That’s a modest bump over the Intel Core i7-3960X, with its base clock of 3.3GHz and a 3.9GHz Turbo. The L3 cache is 15MB on both models, but the new i7-4960X does support slightly faster memory—quad-channel DDR3-1866 is formally supported, up from the Sandy Bridge-E’s DDR3-1600. The Core i7-4960X is set to debut at $990, which matches the launch price of the Intel i7-3960X.
There will be two additional IVB-E processors—the Intel Core i7 4930K, at 3.4GHz Base/3.9GHz Turbo and $555, and the quad-core Intel Core i7 4820K, at 3.7GHz Base/3.9GHz Turbo, with 10MB of L3 cache and a list price of $310. That puts the 4820K just slightly below the Intel Core i7-4770K, but in this case, that distinction is a tad misleading. The 4770K is based on Haswell, Intel’s newer architecture, and is 5 to 8% faster than Ivy Bridge when measured clock for clock. The Intel Core i7-4820K, in other words, is almost certainly going to be outperformed by the Haswell processor.
Since Sandy Bridge and Ivy Bridge performance were very nearly identical, there’s not a lot to get excited about here. Multi-threading performance is going to improve modestly, thanks to an increase in non-Turbo base clock speed. Single-threaded performance between the older Intel Core i7-3960X and newer Core i7-4960X is going to be nearly identical, which means we may see the Haswell-based 4770K outperforming both cores in some tests.
One of the benefits to a relatively small update like this is that backwards compatibility is much easier to ensure. Sure enough, if you own an X79 motherboard, you can look forward to an Ivy Bridge-E upgrade, however marginal that upgrade might happen to be—unless you own Intel’s X79 motherboard. If you had the misfortune to purchase an Intel DX79SI, DX79SR or DX79TO (boards that retailed for between $219 and $319), you don’t get to upgrade.
When Intel announced it would kill off its motherboard division earlier this year, it was understood that this meant the company wouldn’t be building new motherboards for its own chipsets. The company neglected to mention that this also meant it would immediately dump all support for its enthusiast products, including refusing to provide a minor microcode BIOS update. Typically, adding support for a new processor is a relatively simple affair, particularly when the new chip doesn’t introduce new features, core counts, instruction sets, or operating parameters.
It’s worse, in this case, because Intel had a two-decade reputation for building solid motherboards with excellent customer support. Users who bought on the strength of that reputation two years ago, however, are out of luck here.
We tested the 4960X using an AMD Radeon 7990 dual GPU, 16GB of Mushkin DDR3-1866, and an Asus X79-Deluxe motherboard. The Asus board is a particularly gorgeous implementation of the chipset, with six USB 3.0 ports in back, dual gigabit Ethernet, integrated Wi-Fi, and support for up to 64GB of RAM across 8 DIMMs. Intel’s specifications state that the system should only use one DIMM per channel in a quad-channel configuration at this speed, however, so that’s what we’ve gone with. All tests were run using a SanDisk Extreme II 240GB SSD for primary storage, with Windows 7 64-bit SP1 (all additional patches and updates were installed prior to testing.)
Is the 4960X faster than the Intel 3960X or the Haswell-based 4770K? Barely, compared with the first, and sometimes, when it comes to the second. It’s important to pay attention to where the chip’s benefits do and don’t materialize. In 3D rendering test Cinebench 11.5, the 3960X scored a 1.57 in the single-threaded test, compared to the 4960X’s 1.67. That’s a gain of 4% for the Ivy Bridge-E chip, but the Core i7-4770K scores a 1.78, putting it a further 9% ahead. In the multithreaded test, where the hexa-threaded processors can stretch their legs, the Core i7-4960X scored an 11.13 compared with 10.52 for the Core i7-3960X and 8.18 for the Core i7-4770K. That’s a gain of 6% compared to the Sandy Bridge-based processor and 36% over the quad-core Haswell.
In the encryption and security benchmark test TrueCrypt 7.1a, both of the six-core processors beat out the Intel Core i7-4770K. The Core i7-4960X and Core i7-3960X both scored 297MBps, while the 4770K trailed the pack, at 240MBps in the Serpent-TwoFish-AES test. In Handbrake, in our iPod Touch file conversion test, the Core i7-4960X again won out overall, with a 25-second convert time compared to 28 seconds for the Intel Core i7-3960X and 29 seconds for the Intel Core i7-4770K.
Where the 4960X runs into trouble is in benchmark tests that don’t give it room to stretch its cores. In POV-Ray 3.6, the 4960X took 247 seconds to render the benchmark scene, compared to 256 seconds for the Core i7-3960X took 256 seconds. The Haswell-based Core i7-4770K finished the job in 193 seconds. In Adobe Photoshop CS6, using our 11-filter test, the Core i7-4960X finished in 189 seconds, compared with 169 seconds for the Core i7-4770K.
In the general-purpose PCMark 7 test, the Haswell-based Core i7-4770K actually pulled ahead, with a score of 6,686, compared with 5,917 for the Core i7-4960X. Obviously, PCMark 7 isn’t optimized for more than four cores, but that’s indicative of the general problem—a great deal of modern software isn’t really designed to run at up to 12 threads. Most games, for example, won’t really benefit.
The value of the Intel Core i7-4960X is much weaker than it had it to be, thanks to multiple compromises on core counts and small clock speed increases. Intel is poised to launch a number of eight-core Xeon processors— moving one of those chips over to LGA2011 while refreshing the chipset to add native USB 3.0 support and more SATA 6G ports could have been a reasonable update for the platform.
When Sandy Bridge-E launched, the LGA2011 platform and six-core processor were the fastest Intel solutions you could buy. Two years later, the Ivy Bridge-E is the fastest solution, but only some of the time. For a chip that costs three times as much as the Intel Core i7-4770K, but lacks certain features and capabilities, that’s a poor value.
Here’s the bottom line: If you have multi-threaded workloads that you know respond well to more than four cores, then yes, the Intel Core i7-4960X is still going to be an interesting chip but only if you buy the highest end. Unlike in 2011, where the lower-end Intel Core i7-3820X might have been a valid option to pair with the X79 chipset for PCI-Express 3.0 and more memory bandwidth, there’s no reason to pay a premium for a last-generation X79-compatible processor like the i7-4960X now as compared to a Core i7-4770K. In a core-for-core comparison, Haswell is always going to beat Ivy Bridge.
Copyright © 2012 Ziff Davis, Inc