Breaking in Sandy Bridge-E: Building A Kick-Ass Rig with Intel's New Chip

Nathan Edwards

Intel's new enthusiast platform is here. I'm going to put it through its paces with a quiet riot of a gaming rig.

Intel has just released its new Sandy Bridge-E platform. With six- and eight-core processors, eight DIMM slots, and multiple PCIe 3.0 slots, it’s Nehalem’s true heir and the answer to complaints that Sandy Bridge, while awesome, just isn’t enthusiast enough. (Check out our official benchmarks here ). The i7-2600K is a great part, but it’s only a quad-core, and there hasn’t been a six-core enthusiast CPU from Intel since the i7-990X, which is on a dead platform.

I’ve gotten my hands on the Sandy Bridge-E flagship CPU: the Core i7-3960X, a $1,000, six-core beast at 3.3GHz. Oh, and a motherboard and cooler to go with it. I’ve rustled up a passel of RAM, a titanic GPU, a quiet case, and a speedy SSD. I’m going to see whether X79 has what it takes to wrest the enthusiast crown from X58, and whether it can do so quietly.

Building From the CPU Out

Why a $1,000 CPU? Well, it’s the only Sandy Bridge-E chip we could get our hands on, but it’s also multiplier unlocked, so in a matter of moments that 3.3GHz hexa-core becomes a 4.3GHz without even trying, thanks in part to the desktop overclocking software included with Asus’s P9X79 Deluxe motherboard. Intel’s RTS2011LC cooler is Asetek-made, and should enable nice overclocks without causing much noise.

The mobo’s eight memory slots and the low cost of 4GB DDR3 DIMMs make the RAM choice easy—two 16GB Corsair Vengeance DDR3/1600 kits cost less than $200. A 256GB Samsung 830 SSD will hold my OS and games, with a 3TB Deskstar for storage.

Asus’s ROG Matrix GTX 580 is one of the quietest full-powered videocards we’ve ever tested, and its massive fans mean it stays quiet even when overclocked and overvolted. Speaking of quiet: Antec’s P280 combines the quiet competence of the P180 series with modern niceties like cable-routing cutouts and USB 3.0 front-panel connectors. Thermaltake’s Toughpower Grand 850W provides the juice for my build while promoting good cable management with its modular design. Add in a Blu-ray combo drive, and I’ve got all the ingredients for a fantastic, overclockable, quiet gaming rig. With 32GB of RAM. Still not tired of that.

Assembling the Hardware

Step 1: Prep the Board

Unlike previous Intel LGA sockets, Sandy Bridge-E’s LGA2011 socket requires the use of two levers to secure the CPU, not just one. When installing the CPU, make sure the first arm is secure over the socket top’s lip (image below, top), then secure it. Afterwards, secure the bottom arm (image below, bottom).

Because LGA2011 comes with its own universal backplate, you don’t need to install a separate one for the cooler. Instead you’ll just follow the instructions on the cooler to prep the retention mount for LGA2011 install.

I'm using all eight DIMM slots on the X79 board, so I don’t need to worry about which slots to populate first. If you are only using four, however, install your DIMMs in the blue (outer) sets of slots, not the black ones.

Step 2: Prep the Case

I’m using Intel’s RTS2011LC cooler, which usurps the rear exhaust fan mount, so the first thing to do is remove the 12cm exhaust fan (don’t forget to detach its speed toggle from the rear panel). The P280 doesn’t ship with any intake fans by default, though it provides mounts for two 12cm fans fore and aft of the hard drive tray. The fan’s power cable won’t reach the motherboard from the front intake mounts, so either mount it on the inside of the hard drive cage (image below) or invest in an extension cable.

Install the motherboard’s I/O shield, then the motherboard itself.

Step 3: Install the CPU Cooler

Here’s where it gets tricky. The P280’s rear-panel fan-control switch won’t allow us to install the radiator directly against the rear panel; we have to put the fan in first. The fan that comes with Intel’s RTS2011LC, though, only has mounting holes on one side of its housing. In order to mount the fan as intake (rather than exhaust), we’ll need to use the four aluminum spacers Intel ships with the cooler. Install as shown (image below).

Once the radiator and fan are installed, apply a dollop of thermal paste half the size of a pea to the CPU’s heat spreader, and attach the CPU retention clamp to the backplate by using the shorter of the two sets of mounting screws included with the cooler. Seat the cooler on the CPU, then align the ledges on the cooler with the barbs on the mounting plate, and tighten the screws, opposite corners first, like changing a car tire (image below). Connect the fan’s power cable to the header on the pump, then connect the pump’s power cable to the CPU_FAN header.

Step 4: Install Drives

Remove the top-most optical drive bezel and slide the Blu-ray drive into the slot; the toolless mechanism will engage when the drive is in all the way. Secure the drive with screws if you’d like, then connect a SATA cable from the optical drive to one of the blue SATA ports on the motherboard.

The P280, like previous Antec cases, is all about silence, and its hard drive trays bear that out. Rather than attaching to the sides of the hard drive, like most trays, the P280’s trays attach to the bottom of the drive through thick silicone grommets (image below). These dampen vibration and prevent noise.

Since SSDs don’t produce vibration, they just mount to the middle of the drive tray. Install both drives, slide the trays back into place, and attach each drive to the top gray 6Gb/s SATA ports on the motherboard with the black-and-white 6Gb/s SATA cables that come with the motherboard.

Step 5: Install PSU, Route Wires

Connect the front-panel connectors to the motherboard, then install the PSU in the bottom of the case with the fan pointing down. Use the four extra-long screws that come with the PSU. Route the 24-pin and 8-pin ATX power cables behind the motherboard, as well as one Molex power connector, which you should bring behind the motherboard tray with the 8-pin ATX power cable, to plug into the fan controller at the top rear of the case (image below).

You should be able to power the optical drive and both storage drives with a single SATA power strand; I found it helps to bring the cable through the bottom cutout, back out through the top, and use the first SATA power port on the optical drive, then bring the rest of the strand back through the cutout and down to the hard drive and SSD.

Don’t forget to attach two 8-pin PCIe power cables (the ones with the red connectors) to your PSU and run them up to where the videocard will be. When completed, the right side of my case looked like the image below.

If you haven’t already, take the time to plug in the front-panel connectors: the USB 2.0, HD Audio, and front-panel controls go to the bottom of the motherboard, and the USB 3.0 internal header attaches at center right.

Step 6: Install the Videocard

From an installation perspective, the only unusual aspect of the Asus Matrix GTX 580 we’re using is its tremendous size—it uses three expansion slots instead of the usual two. Install it in the case’s second through fourth expansion slots, which correspond to the top PCIe x16 slot on the motherboard (image below). Attach the two 8-pin power connectors. Double-check to make sure everything is connected and powered, and you’re all set!

It's a Quiet Riot, All Right

Even before I overclocked the machine, its results were impressive, but once I got the CPU up to 4.4GHz and the GPU up to 930MHz (from its 816MHz default), it blew our zero-point out of the water. Thanks to those six overclocked cores and 32GB of RAM, the Sandy Bridge-E rig was a whopping 60 percent faster than the zero-point in our Vegas Pro 9 test, 45 percent faster in Lightroom, 40 percent faster in ProShow, and 54 percent faster in MainConcept Reference. The overclocked GTX 580 even outperformed the dual-GPU Radeon HD 5970 from our zero-point.

In CPU- and RAM-dependent tests, my X79 also trounced Dream Machine 2011’s overclocked 2600K, though the single GTX 580 in my rig, overclocked as it was, couldn’t match the three GTX 580s in the Dream Machine, producing just 51.6fps in our Stalker benchmark to the Dream Machine’s 125.9fps. It fared a bit better in our Far Cry 2 benchmark, at 124.5fps, but the tri-SLI Dream Machine pushed over 203fps to our 2650x1600 panel. Still, with a few more GPUs, the Sandy Bridge-E machine would trounce our Dream Machine.

One thing I didn’t get to try was building out a RAM disk—yet. With 32GB to play with, I could make a 20GB RAM disk with read speeds in the 4,000MB/s range and still have 12GB of RAM for day-to-day tasks. I also probably could have clocked the CPU up a bit more, but I ran out of time. Still, 4.4GHz is quite nice. I’m also really impressed with how easily the Matrix GTX 580 overclocked with Asus’s GPU Tweak software, and how quietly it ran even at a 13 percent overclock.

Another nice surprise was Antec’s P280 chassis. This was my first build into that case, and frankly, I expected to have to add more fans. While it’s not the easiest build I’ve ever done, the P280’s guts are miles ahead of Antec’s older designs, and the darn thing is quiet.

It did feel weird to pay just $200 for 32GB of RAM, yet more than $350 for a 3TB hard drive. The flooding in Thailand had just started to affect hard drive supplies at the time I was building, and I was startled to see prices on existing stock double nearly overnight.

After this build, I’m definitely excited for Sandy Bridge-E. The platform’s sheer power and ease‑of‑overclocking breathe new life into enthusiast computing. Most people will find that Socket 1155 Sandy Bridge machines are still a better buy from a cost/performance standpoint, but those who need power by the bucketful will find it here.


Zero Point PC
Intel Core i7-3960X @4.4Ghz
Vegas Pro 9 (sec)
1,905 (+60%)
Lightroom 2.6 (sec)
356 245 (+45%)
Proshow 4 (sec)
795 (+40%)
Reference 1.6 (sec)
2,113 1379 (+53%)
51.6 (+23%)
Far Cry 2 (fps)
124.5 (+9%)

Our current desktop test bed consists of a quad-core 2.66GHz Core i7-920 overclocked to 3.5GHz, 6GB of Corsair DDR3/1333 overclocked to 1,750MHz, on a Gigabyte X58 motherboard. We are running an ATI Radeon HD 5970 graphics card, a 160GB Intel X25-M SSD, and 64-bit Windows 7 Ultimate.

Around the web