Out of the box, one thing is clear. The new Intel Core i7-3960X is in a class of its own.
That, of course, isn't terribly surprising. AMD's new pseudo eight-core FX processors are well behind the old Gulftown Core i7 processors on performance. So, they were hardly likely to give this new Core i7 anything to worry about.
The contest, therefore, is Intel versus Intel.
Does the new Core i7 represent a significant step forward over the old king? The answer, inevitably, is yes and no. More specifically, it's a question of whether you're talking about stock frequencies or running overclocked.
The official numbers give the Core i7-3960X a nominal frequency of 3.33GHz, with a top Turbo speed of 3.9GHz. In our testing, it typically ran at 3.6GHz regardless of how many cores were heavily loaded.
Now, the fastest Gulftown processor is the 3.46GHz Core i7-990X.
In other words, the new i7 doesn't bring a major frequency boost. Nor does it add extra cores. So any performance advantage is going to be largely architectural.
For our yardstick, we've commandeered a Core i7-980X. It's slightly slower than the 990X at 3.33GHz, but the difference is pretty marginal. Kicking off with the x264 HD video encode test, it turns out that the new Core i7-3960X tears through at 49 frames per second while the old timer manages 43fps.
Elsewhere, it's a similar story. In Cinebenches R10 and 11.5, the Core i7-3960X achieves 27 seconds in the former and cranks out 10.54 points in the latter. The 980X's numbers are 32 seconds and 8.64 points.
In World in Conflict, which remains one of the most demanding games in terms of CPU load, it's 93fps for the Core i7-3960X and 88fps for the 980X.
All of this means the new chip is appreciably but not dramatically faster.
If you already had a 980X, you'd hardly feel compelled to upgrade.
Unless, that is, you compared the available overclocking headroom. Our 980X sample chip is capable of clocking up to just 3.9GHz. But in our testing, the new beast is good for 4.8GHz. And that's on plain old air cooling.
At that frequency, the Core i7-3960X is spewing out 63fps in the x264 HD video encode benchmark. At 3.9GHz, the 980X is good for 51fps.
Factor in overclocking, therefore, and the 3960X's performance advantage roughly doubles.