Today is the day that Intel widens the CPU performance gap between itself and AMD with the release of Sandy Bridge-E processors, an update of its Extreme Edition chips using the company's latest and greatest microarchitecture.
The centerpiece of the new rollout is the Core i7-3960X Extreme Edition, a six-core 3.3GHz screamer that jumps to 3.9GHz with TurboBoost and comes with 15MB of cache. It's unlocked so you can overclock it to your heart's content, but requires a new socket, the LGA2011, and a motherboard built for the new X79 chipset. Intel will be offering a liquid cooling solution, the RTS2011LC, for the new chips, but Sandy Bridge-E processors won't come shipped with a cooler.
Also available is the six-core Core i7-3930K, which features 3.2GHz clock speed (3.8GHz Turbo Boost) and 12MB of cache -- as well as a much cheaper price tag. While the i7-3960X is priced around $1,000 -- like all top Extreme Edition chips in the past -- the i7-3930K will "only" cost around $550. A third Sandy Bridge-E processor, the Core i7-3820, will be released in 2012, though it's a quad-core CPU that's only partially unlocked.
Benchmarks of the i7-3960X from sites like Hot Hardware, PCMag, AnandTech, and Tom's Hardware show that it inevitably earns the "fastest desktop CPU ever" title, though not without caveats. It uses huge amounts of power, especially when overclocking, and doesn't outpace the much cheaper Core i7-2600K by that much on certain benchmarks.
Then again, there will always be buyers of the chip despite its super-high price. If you're one of them, and you prefer to buy a desktop already configured with the processor, boutique system builders Maingear, Origin and Digital Storm are ready to oblige you. Maingear is now offering the i7-3960X in its Shift and F131 desktops, Origin in its Genesis desktop, and Digital Storm is introducing the new ODE Level 4 desktop with the new processor. All three vendors will overclock the Sandy Bridge-E CPU for you to well above 4GHz.
Are you one of the few well-heeled enthusiasts who will be shelling out a grand to buy the new Core i7-3960X Extreme Edition? Or will you "settle" for the cheaper Core i7-3930K? Let us know your thoughts in the Talkback section.