Intel Core i7 3970X Extreme Edition (Sandy Bridge-E) CPU Review

We're checking out the new Core i7 3970X EE from Intel. The only thing probably more insane than its performance is its price tag. Intel's top-dog is in the house!

Manufacturer: Intel
11 minutes & 24 seconds read time


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As soon as we hear that Extreme Edition label at the end of an Intel processor we know two things; one it's the flagship processor for the company; second it's going to cost a bucketload of money. This is a formula that has been tried and true since the introduction of the Extreme Edition series processors.

They've always been kind of a funny one. Value has never been the focus of these chips. Instead it's all just about the performance side of things and while often you can get similar performance for what is often half the price, there just seems to be something about owning an Extreme Edition CPU from the folks at Intel.

Once you go down the path of an Extreme Edition CPU everything in your system tends to go down that path. SSDs in RAID, multiple video cards, more memory than your computer will know what to do with and a power supply that can probably power over half the electrical devices in your house. It's a slippery slope in where you're the winner and your credit card is the loser.

The latest Intel processor to get the Extreme Edition tag is the recently released Core i7 3970X EE designed to take over from the already very powerful and very expensive 3960X which graced us with its presence back in November of last year.

What's the difference between the two? Well we'll find that out and a few other things as we take a closer look at it.

Intel Core i7 3970X Extreme Edition (Sandy Bridge-E) CPU

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While taking over as the flagship processor from Intel, the 3960X Extreme Edition continues to be available at the moment. So the main question we have to ask is what's the difference between the two Extreme Edition processors?

Actually probably less than you think. The most obvious is the out of the box speed which is now 3.5GHz instead of 3.4GHz. Throwing "Turbo Boost" into the mix sees our CPU then run at 4GHz instead of 3.9GHz as seen on the 3960X.

The other major change is the power draw on the processor with the newer 3970X being rated at 150w and the older 3960X using slightly less at 130w. As soon as we move away from those two key areas we start to see that everything else on the 3970X lines up just as you'd think.

On the core front we've got six active cores alongside Hyper Threading bringing a total of 12 threads to the table. We see the same 15MB of L3 cache and 32nm manufacturing process being used.

In the end what we're ultimately dealing with is a speed bump. That's never a bad thing, but sometimes it can be a little harder justifying the upgrade from the predecessor.

Benchmarks - Test System Setup and Overclocking

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We would like to thank the following companies for supplying and supporting us with our test system hardware and equipment: Intel, ASUS, MSI, Western Digital, MemoRight and Corsair.

Looking above you can see our testbed so we won't go into too much detail. Instead we'll just get into the overclocking side of things. For almost the last 12 months our 3960X has been at the forefront of our main testbed which is used for video card reviews alongside quad channel memory reviews. It's been running at a solid 4.7GHz for literally hundreds and hundreds of hours working its way through everything from $100 video cards to multiple $1000 setups.

4.8GHz was the minimum we had hoped to get from the processor and around the 5GHz mark would've been what we really liked to see. We started at 5GHz by moving straight to a 50x multiplier and adjusting our voltages. While we managed to get into Windows we couldn't do much else. At this setting the system froze after idling for about a minute.

With that not working we headed back into the BIOS and spent some time adjusting the multiplier, voltages and BCLK to see if we could get a combination that would get us a stable 5GHz clock. While we managed to get a bit further than our system crashing after idling for a minute, we ultimately couldn't get 5GHz running 100% stable in any way with our standard cooling setup.

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After a bunch of tinkering we ended up coming at just above 4.9GHz with a final clock of 4905MHz. Looking above you can see this was done with a combination of both the BCLK and the multiplier which comes in at just over 122 and 40 respectively.

PCMark 7 and HyperPi

PCMark 7

Version and / or Patch Used: 1.04

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PCMark 7 includes a range of tests that give different views of your system's performance. In the Advanced Edition you can choose which tests to run. The common use and hardware component tests are unavailable in the Basic Edition.

Overall system performance is measured by the PCMark test. This is the only test that returns an official PCMark score. The Lightweight test measures the system capabilities of entry-level systems and mobility platforms unable to run the PCMark test, but it does not generate a PCMark score. Common use performance is measured by the scenario tests - Entertainment, Creativity and Production - each of which results in a scenario score. Hardware component performance is measured by the hardware tests - Computation and Storage - each of which results in a hardware score.

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As you'd expect performance out of the box for the 3970X is strong and comes out ahead of our other setups. Overclocking as you'd expect helps boost overall performance and you can see a decent jump in both the standard PCMark test and the Lightweight one.

HyperPi 0.99

Version and / or Patch Used: 0.99

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HyperPi is a front end for SuperPi that allows for multiple concurrent instances of SuperPi to be run on each core recognized by the system. It is very dependent on CPU to memory to HDD speed. The faster these components, the faster it is able to figure out the number Pi to the selected length.

For our testing we use the 32M run. This means that each of the four physical and four logical cores for the i7 and the four physical cores of the i5 is trying to calculate the number Pi out to 32 million decimal places. Each "run" is a comparative to ensure accuracy and any stability or performance issues in the loop mentioned above will cause errors in calculation.

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Looking at our two Extreme Edition processors you can see just a second separates them and the 3770k actually manages to come in two seconds quicker again. Overclocked, though, we see a decent chunk of time taken off as we come down to the mid 11 minute mark.


Version and / or Patch Used: 1.00.1035BETA

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Replacing Everest in our labs is AIDA64. This new testing suite is from the core development team from Lavalys and continues that tradition. The guys have thrown in better support for multithreaded CPUs as well as full 64 bit support. We use this to test memory and HDDs for now, but may find ourselves opening this up to other areas of the motherboard.

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Looking at AIDA64 we again see very strong performance out of the box, but you can see very little difference between the two Extreme Edition CPUs that go a little back and forth with overall performance. It's not until we overclock that we see the new 3970X clearly separate itself from the rest of the pack.

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Memory performance lines up just as you'd expect which is behind that of our dual channel based setups which have always ran extremely efficiently. More so than the quad channel ones which you'd think would be the better option. We actually did an article late last year looking at the setups slightly more in-depth.

PassMark PerformanceTest

Version and / or Patch Used: 7.0.1021

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Fast, easy to use, PC speed testing and benchmarking. PassMark PerformanceTest allows you to objectively benchmark a PC using a variety of different speed tests and compare the results to other computers. Twenty-eight standard benchmark tests are available in six test suites plus there are seven advanced testing windows for custom benchmarking.

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We again see little difference between the two Extreme Edition CPUs here with the newer 3970X sneaking ahead sometimes and other times it falling just behind due to the 100MHz difference in clock speeds doing very little and fluctuation being thrown into the equation.

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PassMark memory testing has always been interesting as it's favored the quad channel setup over AIDA64. Here you can see strong performance from our 3970X EE setup and even strong performance when we overclock.

CINEBENCH, Adobe Lightroom and MediaEspresso


Version and / or Patch Used: R11.5

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CINEBENCH is a real-world cross platform test suite that evaluates your computer's performance capabilities. CINEBENCH is based on MAXON's award-winning animation software CINEMA 4D, which is used extensively by studios and production houses worldwide for 3D content creation. MAXON software has been used in blockbuster movies such as Spider-Man, Star Wars, The Chronicles of Narnia and many more.

CINEBENCH is the perfect tool to compare CPU and graphics performance across various systems and platforms (Windows and Mac OS X). And best of all: It's completely free.

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Getting into real-world benchmarks is the area we've seen the LGA2011 based CPUs outperform the LGA1155 ones. Here is no different and you can see very strong performance from the 3970X under CINEBENCH with even better numbers being seen when overclocked.

Adobe Lightroom

Version and / or Patch Used: v3.4

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Adobe Photoshop Lightroom 3 software helps you bring out the best in your photographs, whether you're perfecting one image, searching for ten, processing hundreds, or organizing thousands.

Create incredible images that move your audience. Experiment fearlessly with state-of-the-art nondestructive editing tools. Easily manage all your images. And showcase your work in elegant print layouts, slide shows, and web galleries, as well as on popular photo-sharing sites. All from within one fast, intuitive application.

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Lightroom is again another test which sees benefits and while little changes between the two EE based processors you can see we shave off about 20% when we overclock to 4.9GHz.


Version and / or Patch Used: v6.5

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MediaEspresso is a blazingly fast media universal converter that can transcode your videos, photos and music files and out put them to a huge range of portable devices including mobile phones, portable media players and even game consoles. With technologies like Smart Detect, Direct Sync and CyberLink's TrueTheaterâ„¢ video enhancements, you can not only forget about complicated format, resolution and output settings, but your converted file will come out the other side looking better than when it went in!

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Finally we finish up here with MediaEspresso and we again see those real-world benefits an Extreme Edition CPU brings to the table and the impact that overclocking has on overall performance.

3DMark 11 and Aliens vs. Predator

3DMark 11

Version and / or Patch Used: 1.0

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3DMark 11 is the latest version of the world's most popular benchmark. Designed to measure your PC's gaming performance 3DMark 11 makes extensive use of all the new features in DirectX 11 including tessellation, compute shaders and multi-threading. Trusted by gamers worldwide to give accurate and unbiased results, 3DMark 11 is the best way to consistently and reliably test DirectX 11 under game-like loads.

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Aliens vs. Predator

Version and / or Patch Used: Standalone Benchmark

Timedemo or Level Used: Built in Benchmark

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Aliens vs. Predator is a science fiction first-person shooter video game, developed by Rebellion Developments, the team behind the 1999 original PC game, and published by Sega for Microsoft Windows, the PlayStation 3 and the Xbox 360. The game is based on the Alien vs. Predator franchise, a combination of the characters and creatures of the Alien franchise and the Predator franchise. There are three campaigns in the game, one for each race/faction (the Predators, the Aliens and the Colonial Marines), that, while separate in terms of individual plot and gameplay, form one overarching storyline.

Following the storyline of the campaign modes comes the multiplayer aspect of the game. In this Multiplayer section of the game, players face off in various different gametypes in various different ways.

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Looking at gaming performance it comes as no surprise that there are only small changes between all our high-end setups here.

This isn't anything new and exactly what we've come to expect when it comes to single GPU setups and even dual GPU setups. It's not until we start going into three and four GPU setups that the benefits of such high performance comes in handy.

Power and Temperature Tests

Power Draw Tests

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With the higher power rating on the new 3970X it comes as no surprise that it sucks down more power.

Overclocking of course draws even more power thanks to the boosted voltages. Adding more video cards into the mix means that a serious power supply is going to be needed on this kind of setup. Considering the associated cost of the CPU, that shouldn't be an issue for the purchaser.

Core Temperature

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Heat levels also seem a little up due to the increased wattage. Intel recommends the closed circuit water cooling loop like they did on the 3960X.

You're going to want to at least opt for a high-end air cooler at worst.

Final Thoughts

Intel clearly has brought the 3970X Extreme Edition to the table because they can and not because they needed to do so. The previous crop of Bulldozer CPUs from AMD competed mainly against the Sandy Bridge and Ivy Bridge line of processors and not the higher end Sandy Bridge-E ones.

Jump forward to the newer AMD Piledriver based Vishera processors and you of course see an improvement over the Bulldozer line, but not one that puts them in contention with the flagship line of processors from Intel in any shape, way or form. After almost a year Intel thought they should clearly bring something new to the table, but at the same time knew they didn't have to do anything too crazy to get enthusiast consumers attention.

If you're the proud owner of a 3960X you should continue to be a proud owner of one. If you're looking at building a new system with the ultimate CPU for the holidays, you should be looking at the new 3970X EE. At $1079.99 I'm not too sure why you'd opt to save $50 on the $1029.99 3960X. If you're going to spend over $1,000 on a CPU today, you may as well spend that extra $50 to say you own the fastest chip.

You can throw a lot of words around when it comes to the Extreme Edition line of CPUs. One you can't throw around is "value", but I feel that "value" is very much in the eye of the beholder. For example, if you're going down the path of four HD 7970 GHz Edition video cards or GTX 680's, this CPU does hold value as it's going to allow you to get the absolute most out of that setup. This is about the only stretch we can use when it comes to that word.

Instead massive performance, insane performance and fantastic performance come to mind. Six cores for a total of 12 threads help bring insane performance to applications that can use them. Under stressful real-world situations like media encoding and image encoding you can see real-world performance differences between this and CPUs that are priced at a third of it. If three times the price is worth that extra performance... well, only you can really decide that.

If you're looking to build a system around the fastest processor on the market you can't deny that it has to be based on the Intel Core i7 3970X Extreme Edition. Just make sure if you're going to spend over $1,000 on a CPU that you make sure the parts around it are worthy of it including multiple GPU, RAID SSDs and a ton of RAM, and also a good power supply and CPU cooler.

Even if you think the price is too high, you have to admit, you wouldn't say no to it if you had your way.

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Shawn takes care of all of our video card reviews. From 2009, Shawn is also taking care of our memory reviews, and from May 2011, Shawn also takes care of our CPU, chipset and motherboard reviews. As of December 2011, Shawn is based out of Taipei, Taiwan.

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