Review: Intel Core i7-3970X

Review: Intel Core i7-3970X
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Socket 2011 is pretty much a dead end.

Price
$1099 AUD
> Pricing info
Specs
3.5GHz clock speed • six cores • twelve threads • 150W TDP • PCI-E 3 • 15MB Cache
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Intel’s fastest Extreme Edition CPU to date shows just how irrelevant the Socket 2011 platform has become.

Even before firing up the Core i7-3970X and its accompanying Intel DX79SR motherboard we knew we were in for some very fast performance. Intel’s Extreme Edition CPUs have always sat at the bleeding edge of compute power, and we expect nothing less with each new flagship CPU.

The Core i7-3970X is a beast on paper, with six physical cores and support for twelve threads. It has a base frequency of 3.5Ghz, boosting up to 3.9GHz, and is unlocked for easy overclocking. Like the 3960X that preceded it at the high end, it is based around the Sandy Bridge Extreme architecture that Intel launched late in 2011. It is the kind of monstrously specced CPU that used to get us salivating in anticipation of its benchmark scores.

However, in recent times there has been an ever-closing gap between the ‘enthusiast’ Socket 2011 platform that the 3970X uses and the mainstream socket 1155 one. The vast majority of PC users will be perfectly served by a desktop Core i5 CPU, and even the most power hungry will be sated by the top end Socket 1155 CPU, the Core i7-3770K, which outperforms the previous high end Socket 2011 CPU, the 3960X, in a lot of cases.

If anything, Intel has become its own worst enemy when trying to position the 3970X. Not only are the current Ivy Bridge mainstream CPUs great performers, but the entire ecosystem of products built up around them is cheaper and more varied than those made for Socket 2011.

Make no bones about it, the only reason you’d want to opt for the 3970X is if you absolutely needed the feature set it brings to the table. This includes speed, but also the six core/twelve thread design (it feels like Intel is deliberately limiting its desktop designs to a max of four cores and eight threads to keep this distinction between product lines) and quad channel memory support. We’ve even noticed that the hardcore overclocking crowd is keeping away from the CPU, due to its high cost and the inherently random nature of obtaining a good overclocking CPU.

It wasn’t until we set up our testbench that the other major thing working against the 3970X struck us – it is still based upon Intel’s Sandy Bridge CPU design, and Ivy Bridge Extreme isn’t set to launch until later this year. That means the Socket 2011 chipsets only support USB 2 natively (the DX79SR uses a separate USB 3 controller to enable the six USB 3 ports onboard, while the chipset drives 14 USB 2 ones).

We did an initial benchmarking run using the CPU set to defaults, where we saw it hit an overall score of 1.15 – marginally better than the 1.14 scored by the 3960X and behind the 1.18 score of the 3770K. We then reran our testing using the highest stable overclocked settings we could get out of the DX79SR motherboard, seeing the score jump to 1.23 with the processor running at 4GHz.

This was already pretty underwhelming, and then we checked the price. The Core i7-3770K costs a cool $335 while the 3970X is a staggering $1099 – that means you’ll be forking out $764 for a few extra cores, some more cache and less performance. Plus that isn’t even factoring in the slightly higher cost of building a system around the processor.

Not only does this relegate the Core i7-3970X to a very tight niche, serving those who value more cores over straight out CPU grunt (even then you’d be better served looking at the eight-core Xeons based on the same architecture), but it effectively signals the end of Socket 2011 as a consumer platform for now. Not only is the CPU and chipset technology a generation behind the mainstream CPUs, but the performance just isn’t there to justify the purchase.

We wanted the 3970X to blow us away, much as the ‘Gulftown’ Core i7-960X did a few years ago. But in the end it is just an overpriced, highly niche offering that is desperately trying to relive the glory days of the Extreme Edition brand. Maybe Ivy Bridge-E might redeem Intel’s enthusiast product line, but for now we are quite happy to declare Socket 2011 a dead end, no matter how fast the CPU. 

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