While out at CES we had a chance to speak with the folks at Intel and they asked us if we would be interested in looking at one of their Extreme Edition processors, now we did not get the either of the six core processors, but instead they gave us a chance to look at the quad core i7 3820. Clocked at 3.6Ghz stock with a turbo boost up to 3.9Ghz, this also has full hyper threading and makes use of a quad channel memory controller. Unlike the other two Extreme processors the 3820 is only partially unlocked, with the multiplier limit to x43, or a 4.3Ghz max.
Now before we get started I want to make clear this review will be of the entire Extreme (Socket 2011) platform as well as the CPU. We were provided a motherboard by the folks at Sapphire, a Pure Black X79N, Kingston gave us a quad channel RAM kit, 16 gig HyperX DDR3 1600 and Intel gave us the chip and cooler. We will look at the individual components in later reviews.
The Extreme processors and platform are meant to be just that, extreme. With quad channel memory access the design should allow applications that make intense use of the memory to roar compared to a dual channel system. Intel lists the Extreme as the ultimate desktop processor and says you will use it to dominate in your gaming, well lets put that to the test.
We begin our testing with the basic setup, using the Pure Black board we put in Kingston’s 16 gig of RAM. With this platform using 4 sticks at a time it makes no sense to run less than 16 gigs of RAM. The Sapphire board we have allows for 4 sticks to be used but some of the higher end boards allow for 8 sticks and make it simple to run at much as 32 gig if the memory demand is there. We round out the build with a Sapphire 6950 Flex card for our video and fire up some games.
For our game testing we chose some games that we have seen push harder at the CPU; Skyrim, Supreme Commander, Champions Online, Civilization V and Star Trek Online. I chose these games based on the fact I know each of them intimately and so can tell when a hitch in smooth playback hits. Also these games have shown processors make a difference in their performance, much more so than games most places use in testing which are of the FPS style and really focus more on the GPU.
The pricing for the 3820 is supposed to come in under $300, so this actually makes the chip less expensive than the 2600K. However for purposes of our testing I do not have a 2600K and so had to use the closest thing I have, the 2500K. With this chip lacks the hyper threading of the i7 chips it is still a gaming brute and has proven to be a great value chip for a gaming system build. We set all of the games at 1080 resolutions and then maxed out the in game graphics settings and let her fly.
From a pure experience point of view there was zero difference between the two systems. Both systems ran everything I threw at it butter smooth, with no glitches or hitches. This does show that moving from 8 gig on the 2500K to 16 gig on the 3280 along with dual vs. quad channel memory was making little to no difference in the game play experience, or does it. With the experience being a dead tie we next move to some frame rate counts to see how the 3820 is really doing against the 2500K.
Now at this point I could put up a bunch of numbers but to be honest the numbers do not mean that much. What I mean is both chips where within about 4% of each other in every test. At no point in ANY test did the 3820 draw out a clear lead, in fact in couple of tests the 2500K was able to tie the 3820. The conclusions we can draw are pretty clear in most of the games on the market right now the 3820 does not give a significant advantage.
However when you step outside of gaming the 3820 and the entire platform can get it’s chance to shine. You see the key to the Extreme platform is that quad channel brute of a memory setup. To use it however you have to saturate the memory channel, you need really memory intense applications to make use of this. With that in mind this little chip could be a serious brute when it comes to CAD, heavy rendering and video operations. However in gaming there just not seem to be enough pressure put on the memory system to allow the quad channel controller to shine.
However the Extreme platform does excel in one area of gaming over the 1155 platform and that is in PCIe lanes. The 1155 cannot get above 2 lanes at X8 in performance but the 2011 (extreme) can handle 2 lanes at x16, this means in theory high end Crossfire/SLI setups should gain a performance boost.
The 3820 is a solid chip and a value for an i7 processor, however the chip is held back as a value due to it needing the X79 boards and quad channel memory kits. This pushes the cost above an i7 build. In addition the 3820 faces stiff competition, not from AMD but within Intel. The 2500K can deliver a similar gaming and everyday computing experience for a lot less money.
When it comes to overclocking, as I mentioned the 3820 is a limited model. For our overclock testing we did as we always do and looked to see how far we could take the chip with no tweaking, just raise the speed at otherwise stock settings and see what we can get. The 3820 was able to get to 4.0Ghz before it would go no farther without tweaking. Our 2500K was able to hit 4.2Ghz making the 2500K come even closer to the 3820 in performance numbers.
What this is showing us is first that most of todays games are still fine on a quad core processor, this means that hyper threading or even adding more cores is not really something most of us need to worry about. Additionally while having 16 gigs of RAM is nice and quad channel on the memory in theory means you will get great performance, the reality is that you need to have software the pushes the memory enough to make this really have an impact and that is something again most of us will never hit, even most hard core gamers.
I know this might not be what Intel wants to hear but what I got from reviewing the 3820 is what a great chip the 2500K is. Now that being said do not take my position to mean I think the 3820 is a bad chip. With a reasonable, sub $300 price the 3820 is a great chip to allow a professional using memory intense software, a way to get into the 2011 platform at a more reasonable price. You get the performance of a solid quad core processor with hyper threading and the power of quad channel memory plus the ability to really put in massive amounts of RAM. However the claim by Intel of a platform that will let you dominate gaming is just not there. Sure it can be a brute of a gaming platform but at the end of the day the 1155 platform can deliver the same gaming experience for less money and you can use the savings to boost other areas of the gaming PC and actually get a more powerful system for the same money for your games.
A special thanks BTW to Kingston and Sapphire for getting us the RAM and motherboard quickly so we could do these tests. Also a special thanks to Intel for letting us test this platform but also for sending us their cooling solution so we could get on our testing right away.
Review as aired live 11 February 2012