With the Sandy Bridge line of processors, Intel is not looking to so much introduce a new speed monster, as it is to provide near top-level performance at mainstream prices. As Intel's "tock" to the earlier "tick" by their Lynnfield, the SandyBridge processors remain at 32nm fabrication. But they do bring in quite a performance improvement, with large jumps over the previous generation of mainstream Intel processors.
One of the big changes in the Intel Core i7-2600K is the requirement of an entirely new processor socket, LGA1155, which requires a new set of motherboards based on the Intel P67 or H67 chipset.
The model numbers have undergone a change too, with four digits being used now instead of three. The "K" suffix at the end denotes that it is a multiplier-unlocked variant, which you'd have to pay a premium for, as overclocking has been rendered more difficult now. Intel still uses DDR3 memory of course.
The quad-core 2600K offers a 95W TDP, an 8MB L3 cache, 256KB L2 cache per core (making it 1MB in all) and 64KB L1 cache per core (256KB in total). It supports HyperThreading (thus allowing for 8 threads simultaneously), operates at 3.4 GHz by default, and offers TurboBoost up to 3.8 GHz.
For the curious, a CPUID screenshot of the Intel Core i7-2600K
We tested the Intel Core i7-2600K processor on a test rig comprising the following components: an Intel DP67BG motherboard, stock Intel heatsink and cooler, 8 GB of Silicon Power DDR3 RAM in dual-channel mode, Radeon 5970 graphics card, Intel X25-M 80GB SSD, Tagan BZ-1300W PSU, 1080p monitor, Windows 7 Ultimate 64-bit Edition and Radeon Catalyst 10.12 graphics drivers.
All test scores on record were run at default clock speeds. For comparison, we have here the Intel Core i7-965 with a DX58SO motherboard and 12GB of DDR3 RAM in triple-channel mode. Storage input/output, USB, RAM and processor cache speeds measured up to the level expected. We then ran synthetic benchmark tests. First off, was PC World's own WorldBench 6 benchmark suite, with points scored as seen in the graph below:
Okay, so it manages to pull far ahead. The clock speed may not be the only factor, as the 1100T is also clocked at the same base speed
The synthetic system tests did not quite have such a runaway difference, but the Core i7-2600K did perform well
Real world gaming tests turned in the scores seen above
In brief, this mainstream processor manages to class itself among the top performing processors, even overtaking AMD's six-core on occasion.
Most people who pass over the standard i7-2600 and buy the i7-2600K, will do so for overclockability. The variant with a "K" has an unlocked multiplier, and we decided to see how high it could go, retaining stability as verified by an AIDA-64 stress test.
With a tiny voltage increase, it managed 4.33 GHz and ended up being "throttled" for thermal reasons by the BIOS, so that was all we could attain from a simple manual overclock "on air", but this number is still a full 1 GHz higher than its normal speed. At the increased speed, there was a further performance jump in real world game benches, varying from 15% to almost zero depending on the game in question.
The entire SandyBridge line-up now has graphics onboard the processor (not DirectX 11 though). The Intel HD Graphics 3000 has enhanced performance by upto 3 times, with its "Execution Units" model, which will mean a lot for lower-end PC gaming and be a potent threat to low-end graphics cards.
As with the previous generation the "P" performance oriented boards cannot make use of the IGP, while those marked in the "H" series can. Check back in a while to see how it performed in video encoding and gaming tests.
The Intel Core i7-2600K is a worthy successor to the i7-860 and i7-920 at default clock speeds. If Sandy Bridge permeates the entire market, the (relatively) lower-end LGA1156 motherboards and processors can securely walk into the sunset. In fact, even the X58 line (including the hexacores) can now be scratched off the wishlist of most aspiring gaming/performance PC buyers, replacing the same with a Sandy Bridge board and processor instead.
On balance, paying about the same amount for a higher-midrange processor and getting a 25 per cent increase in performance (besides overclocking) is a deal that is very hard to pass up. Despite the rapid socket changes Intel is going through, we can safely say that those looking to build a performance PC won't regret a Sandy Bridge purchase.