Intel launches Sandy Bridge E LGA-2011 chips

Intel's enthusiast-grade Core i7 'Extreme Edition' processors are now officially out of the bag, finally giving motherboard manufacturers something to do with those LGA-2011 motherboards they've had waiting in the wings for months - but do they live up to expectations?

Few would deny that Intel holds the performance crown for high-end consumer-grade processors: AMD's Bulldozer architecture, which fans had hoped would level the playing field, has proven to be something of a damp squib - although its latest 16-core Opteron 6200 'Interlagos' chips are turning heads in data centre and supercomputing markets.

The Intel Core i7 'Extreme Edition' is, therefore, a bit of a strange product: with its existing non-Extreme Core i7 chips handily beating AMD's offerings at the top end, there seems little reason for the company to be offering an even faster - and more expensive - processor series.

The chips have a clear market, however: those with more money than they know what to do with. Designed for high-end gaming rigs, the new Extreme Edition processors will likely find a home in the liquid-cooled heart of PCs with at least four - and, as is becoming worryingly common at the high end, eight - GPUs and multiple power supplies.

The Core i7-3960X is the first of the Sandy Bridge E chips to make it out of the gate - and it's a beast. Featuring six physical cores and HyperThreading support for 12 threads, the processor is clocked at 3.3GHz with a TurboBoost speed of 3.9GHz for unithreaded processing applications. While it's hard to figure out the exactly split of cache memory thanks to Intel's 'Shared Cache' technology, a total of 15MB on the chip is certainly not to be sniffed at.

The processor officially introduces support for DDR3 memory running at 1,600MHz - a speed most overclockers use as a baseline on current chips - and comes with an eye-watering thermal design profile of 130W. Interestingly, Intel will be selling the chip without a stock heatsink, leaving it up to customers to find a cooling solution that can dissipate 130W of heat and also comes with mounting brackets suitable for a LGA-2011 motherboard.

The top-end i7-3960X is joined by a lower-spec Core i7-3930K, offering 3.2GHz standard and 3.8GHz in TurboBoost mode with 12MB of shared cache. Both models include a four-channel DDR3 memory controller as standard, which allows X79 motherboards - like those on show way back at Computex - to make the most out of high-speed memory.

All this performance comes at a cost, however: the Core i7-3960X will set you back a whopping £840, while the cheaper i7-3930K is a slightly more manageable £480 - but remember you'll need an X79 LGA-2011 motherboard, costing another £200-odd, along with a new cooler.

Those two chips are due to be joined by a 'partially unlocked' Core i7-3828, which boost the clock speed to an impressive 3.6GHz but drops the core count to four capable of running eight threads in total, plus 10MB of shared cache.

When a processor costs approximately the same as an entire computer, you know it's going to be a niche product - and rumour has it that issues with the current stepping means that Intel is limiting its production run until a revised design can be introduced early next year.

Initial indications are that Intel is likely to find buyers, however: benchmarking carried out by the guys over at PC Pro shows that the chip offers a measurable improvement in real-world tasks, although whether it's worth the asking price is questionable.