Intel Core i7-3960X Review Roundup: It’s Full of Expensive

Intel's latest uber-powered, ultra-expensive CPUs are available now, so do they offer enough oomph to warrant draining your bank account?

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Sandy Bridge, make way for Sandy Bridge-E, Intel’s ramp-up to its LGA 2011 socket CPU architecture designed to woo enthusiasts with deep pockets. SBE is Intel’s platform for a trio of just-announced powerhouse CPUs, each packing over two billion transistors and weighing in at just 32 nanometers. And with the shift to LGA 2011 pinouts comes the inevitable mainboard transition, including a move to Intel’s X79 chipset and a four-channel memory controller, all of which means: Guard your wallets, this could get extortionate.

Of the three CPUs, two are available today: the six-core i7-3960X and i7-3930K. A third, the four-core i7-3820, should arrive sometime during the first quarter next year. Let’s talk about today’s two: The  $990 3960X has a base clock of 3.3GHz, turbos up to 3.9GHz and has 15MB of L3 cache, while the $555 3930K has a base clock of 3.2GHz, turbos up to 3.8GHz and has 12MB of L3 cache.

(MORE: Steve Jobs: The iPad Almost Had Intel Inside)

Two billion transistors means we’re talking about a very big chip: 435 square millimeters. Contrast with Intel’s early 2010 Gulftown lineup at 1.1 billion transistors and a 248 square millimeter die. So bigger, more expensive, and with a slew of upgrade costs to boot. Say you’re in the market for a high-end PC—is it worth it?

Tom’s Hardware says no, that it “can’t see any reason to recommend paying $990, plus the price of a cooling solution, plus a new motherboard, plus a quad-channel memory kit for Intel’s Core i7-3960X.” But if you drop down to the $555 Core i7-3930K and you’re willing to trade out 3MB of cache, “that’s the processor enthusiasts with money…should be lusting over.”

Anandtech feels about the same, concluding “The vast majority of desktop users, even enthusiast-class users, will likely have no need for Sandy Bridge E. The Core i7 3960X may be the world’s fastest desktop CPU, but it really requires a heavily threaded workload to prove it,” and—listen up gamers—noting that “What the 3960X doesn’t do is make your gaming experience any better or speed up the majority of desktop applications.” The benchmarking site adds that “the 3930K will be a good balance of price/performance despite having a smaller L3 cache.”

Extreme Tech’s a bit more positive, but warns the benefits of Intel’s X79 will only exist for insanely high-end users: “If you’re jonesing to build a high-end workstation, are using software that can reasonably demand up to 64GB of RAM, or are planning to build your own 3 to 4-way multi-GPU system, than the 3960X is a great chip on a solid platform.”

PCWorld‘s also modestly upbeat, but says “You’ll see the greatest benefit in programs that are heavily threaded–computation-heavy spreadsheets, video encoding applications like Sony Vegas Pro, and 3D rendering applications like Maxon Cinema 4D, for example.” And if you’re a gamer with serious cash to burn, the site says “you can’t go wrong,” but adds that “if you aren’t overclocking–or looking to get some gaming done–you don’t need this much power.”

MORE: Intel Bets Big on Small with Google Mobile Partnership

Matt Peckham is a reporter at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @mattpeckham or on Facebook. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.

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