How to Build a Powerhouse PC Worthy of Sandy Bridge Extreme Edition

I want a PC that performs well in every regard. It needs to be the decathlete of the computing world, a high-performance gaming rig capable of running Windows on at least two displays while handling Photoshop and Premiere Pro editing duties with speed and aplomb. Of course, digital photography and video editing require both good CPU chops and decent GPU performance. And games can be CPU-draining simulators or GPU-punishing virtual worlds--sometimes both at the same time.

Even so, I don't want to build a computer that requires constant babysitting and tweaking, so in addition to performing well, it needs to be a "fire and forget" system--turn it on, and it runs. That requires avoiding multiple-power-supply setups, custom case fans, and liquid-cooling products that require refilling.

These boxes hold the ingredients for PC performance bliss.

The good news is that you can build this dream system, too. The components are bleeding-edge and therefore pricey, but you can make a few alternative choices to reduce the total cost. Let's dive in!

Sandy Bridge Extreme: Core i7-3960X

We start our powerhouse PC with the best Intel CPU currently available, the Sandy Bridge Extreme Edition 3.3GHz Core i7-3960X. Until now, Intel's highest-performing CPU was the Core i7-990X, a six-core monster of a processor based on the Gulftown CPU architecture. The problem with Gulftown is that it needs to run on the aging LGA 1366 socket and X58 chipset. Out of the box, X58 lacks modern amenities such as 6-gbps SATA storage connections. But if you wanted lots of PCI Express lanes for multi-GPU setups and triple-channel memory support, it was (until recently) the highest performing system. Gulftown also splits its cache into two, with three CPUs each sharing 6MB of L3 cache (12MB total). Finally, the X58 core logic contains a PCI Express controller.

Intel's Sandy Bridge architecture is newer than Gulftown, and includes new vector instructions called AVX. It's faster than the previous generation of quad-core mainstream CPUs, but it's not really a high-end processor, because Sandy Bridge integrates the PCI Express controller onto the die--and that is limited to just 16 PCI Express lanes.

Sandy Bridge Extreme is actually a variant of Intel's Xeon server CPU, with a pair of the CPU cores disabled; thus the 3960X really has eight CPU cores, but two aren't functional. Fusing off two of the cores allows Intel to boost clock frequencies while staying within the 130W thermal design power it set for high-end desktop CPUs.

The six cores now all share the same 15MB L3 cache. Intel also decreased cache latencies, improving overall cache performance. The integrated PCI Express controller includes 40 PCI-E lanes, and the memory controller is a four-channel design that supports four channels of 1600MHz (effective) DDR3 memory. Hence, memory-intensive applications will be able to take advantage of substantially better available memory bandwidth.

Sandy Bridge Extreme offers architectural and performance improvements over the old Gulftown CPU.

Like all Extreme Edition CPUs, the Core i7-3960X will cost you something north of $1000 (Intel's bulk price is $990). In addition to the 3960X, which runs at 3.3GHz, Intel will be shipping other products based on the same CPU architecture. The Core i7-3930K will clock in at 3.2GHz, and have 12MB of L3 cache for a probable cost of around $600. The Core i7-3820, a quad-core (rather than hexacore) CPU running at 3.6GHz with 10MB of shared L3 cache, is expected to ship late in 2011.

CPU Cooler

Keeping the CPU running cool while it's running at high clock speeds is essential. Asetek supplied Intel with a sealed liquid cooler built to Intel's specifications.

Intel’s sealed liquid cooler keeps things cool and relatively quiet.

Installation is a little touchy, though. Intel recommends installing the heat-sink bracket with the screws barely inserted, and then rotating the cooler so that the locking tabs on the cooler match up with those on the bracket. I found it much easier to line up the tabs and then screw in the cooler.

The Platform: Asus P9X79 Deluxe

A motherboard using Intel's X79 chipset is required to run a Core i7-3960X. The X79 uses the LGA 2011 socket format--a necessity for Sandy Bridge Extreme CPUs, since all those extra PCI Express lanes and quad-channel memory components are going to require more pins.

Here's the Asus P9X79 Deluxe. That's a lot of pins.

We used the Asus P9X79 Deluxe motherboard, which offers a wealth of PCI Express slots, eight memory sockets, and the ability to have an SSD cache on the secondary hard drive.

The X79 chipset is a single-chip core logic product. It offers an independent PCI Express controller, adding eight more PCI Express lanes to the 40 available with the on-die controller. This design frees up all the PCI Express lanes managed by the CPU's own controller to be used for graphics, if that's what you want. Also available are two 6-gbps SATA controllers, four more 3-gbps SATA controllers, and 14 USB 2.0 ports. The key missing I/O capability is USB 3.0; most motherboards add a discrete USB 3.0 controller chip to make up for that. The Asus P9X79 Deluxe has six USB 3.0 ports on the back.

Asus builds on the X79 chipset with some solid features, particularly SSD caching for all drives.

The P9X79 Deluxe also ships with a tiny plug-in card that houses a Bluetooth 3.0 and 802.11n Wi-Fi controller, if you desire those as well. As with most high-end Asus boards, overclocking one or two speed grades is quite simple in the EFI BIOS. The BIOS also contains an automatic-overclocking feature that tests and then sets the memory and CPU clock frequencies to the most stable overclocked settings. I used the auto-overclock settings to push the speed on the Corsair Dominator memory (see the next page) to 2122MHz and the CPU speed to 4.175GHz. For your reference, the BCLK (base clock) setting after all of my tweaking was 126MHz, which affects the clock speeds throughout the system.

Next page: the memory, graphics board, power supply, and storage

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