Intel has just launched its new “Extreme” Core i7-3960X processor, codenamed Sandy Bridge-E. This chip features 6 cores, like its predecessor the Intel Core i7 990X. This new processor features an array of improvements, but the most important ones are the higher memory speed, a larger 15MB cache and works with a faster chipset: the Intel X79.While this is clearly a high-end processor, I tend to think of it as a workstation chip, rather than a gaming chip because content creation usually use multiple cores better than games do (except for physics, and a few others tasks). The same goes for bandwidth. Typically, game developers will design to reduce bandwidth. On the contrary, content creation often require moving data around at high-speed, and in fact, the processor often waits on the data before it can process it, so the impact of bandwidth is critical. Also, this version of Sandy Bridge does not feature an internal graphics processor, or Quicksync, the dedicated Mpeg4 hardware encoder.
When compared to the non-Extreme edition, Video Editing (compression) and scientific computations should benefit the most from the two additional cores because the performance on this type of workload tends to scale proportionally with the number of cores.
As for gamers, it really depends: games that have not been optimized for multi-core may not perform faster, and may even be slower than older CPUs that run at a higher frequency. On the other hand, a Sandy Bridge-E motherboard can be paired with an X79 chip that supports up to 4 GPUs, so it’s an indirect way to reach the top in terms of gaming performance. Here, the name of the game is to read gaming benchmarks to figure out which processor has the optimum cost/performance ratio (check the Intel Core i7 2500k/2600k).
Overall, Sandy Bridge is clearly a top performing CPU, but it will most likely be reserved to an elite that can afford it for personal usage, or justify its purchase in an enterprise environment, based on productivity metrics. It is best used with applications that rely heavily on multi-core to scale performance. In my view, this is the only way to use its full potential, and justify its price.