Sunday, July 17, 2011
Sandy Bridge Buyer’s Guide
Intel released its second-generation Core CPUs back in January. Unfortunately, the excitement generated by the release of the fastest mainstream desktop processors was quickly dampened by the Cougar Point chipset recall.
To be clear, this issue affected only the earliest Sandy Bridge-compatible motherboards, and not the Sandy Bridge CPUs themselves. This issue is now fixed—there are no defective motherboards available through reputable North American retailers like Newegg and Amazon. In the almost half-year since the initial Sandy Bridge CPU release, the platform has matured, with CPU variants available for almost every budget and a number of niches, as well as motherboard chipsets with a variety of feature sets and in form factors from mini-ITX to extended-ATX. Succinctly, the second-gen Core CPUs are astonishingly powerful and sip electricity. As Anand aptly described them, “architecturally it’s the biggest change we’ve seen since Conroe.” I agree with Anand—not since I upgraded from an AMD Athlon X2 3800+ to an Intel Core 2 Duo E6600 at the end of 2006 have I been so impressed by a new CPU as I have by the Core i7-2600K.
This is the first guide I’ve written for AnandTech that will not be ‘fair and balanced’ for both AMD and Intel. I hoped this month’s guide would detail higher-end builds featuring and comparing AMD’s Bulldozer CPUs and Intel’s Core i5 and i7 chips, but unfortunately, AMD’s release of its high-end desktop Bulldozer SKUs is now delayed until September. The midrange Llano desktop APUs are scheduled for retail availability in early July, and Llano-based laptops are already showing up here and there online (though as of the time of writing, they are not available for actual sale). Thus, AMD’s entire product line will be refreshed within the next few months. With the imminent release of radically new APUs and no currently available AMD CPUs that can compete with Intel’s higher-end CPUs, this month’s guide focuses on the second-generation Intel Core processors. I simply don’t think it makes much sense to build an AMD system at least until Llano’s desktop release—unless you need a budget rig and you need it right now. And lest I be accused of favoritism, next month’s guide will likely focus on Llano-based desktop computers.
It’s also a great time to build an Intel-based computer. The successor to LGA 1155 (the Sandy Bridge socket), LGA 2011, is not due out until late this year, and looks to supersede LGA 1366 at Intel’s highest-end of the desktop CPU spectrum. Other than supporting Sandy Bridge-E CPUs, LGA 2011 will offer PCIe 3 (which current GPUs can’t take advantage of) and native USB 3.0 (even though third-party USB 3.0 controllers are already shipping on many Intel and AMD motherboards). Considering how capable the Core i5-2500K and Core i7-2600K are today, it’s unlikely Sandy Bridge-E will field any model that’s astonishingly faster than what’s already available. Thus, if you buy a Core i7-2600K now, you’ll be at the near pinnacle of desktop computing for at least 5-6 months. I think there are times to buy and times to wait. It’s a bad idea to buy right before a lineup refresh (as is the case with AMD today), but it’s also unwise to delay building a system to hold out for the next big thing when that’s half a year away and unlikely to be that much better!