Wednesday, July 28, 2010

X58 To The Max: Three New Flagship LGA 1366 Motherboards

Supporting Intel’s highest-performance processors with twice the bandwidth of its mainstream counterpart, the X58 chipset proves the staying power of good ideas. We take a closer look at what makes the latest generation of premium motherboards special.
One word explains how Intel’s oldest Core i7 chipset has been able to dominate the high-end desktop market for an impressive two years: more. More PCI Express (PCIe) 2.0 pathways feed more high-bandwidth expansion cards. More memory channels on the socket increase bandwidth to more physical CPU cores, while new models, like the Core i7-980X and Xeon X5600-series chips, are introduced.

Yet because the concept of more always translates to cost, manufacturers are constantly looking to pack more features into these already-more-expensive motherboards.

Our most recent “more” article for X58 motherboards examined boards with USB 3.0 and SATA 6 Gb/s controllers, two items that take advantage of the X58’s four left over PCIe 2.0 pathways. Intel solutions aren’t completely comparable, since Intel's LGA 1156 platform only has 16 lanes to begin with. It might surprise you then that the latest trend in more doesn't have anything to do with additional connectivity at all.

Top LGA 1366 motherboards now feature two eight-pin ATX12V/EPS12V power connectors to enable enhanced power delivery under the rigors of extreme overclocking. Builders whose overclocking needs are less intensive will still find that a single connector works, while those running at stock speeds will even find a four-pin connector adequate. Today we consider the totality of features, performance, and stability of the three latest examples of flagship-class X58-based platforms.

Quite possibly the best-featured motherboard Asus has ever produced, the Rampage III Extreme is everything its predecessor should have been, and then some.

The “and then some” comes courtesy of an NEC PD720200 USB 3.0 controller that wasn’t available when the first LGA 1366 Republic Of Gamers product was introduced. Retained from previous models is the ROG Connect dual-function USB header that allows tuners BIOS-level access from a second PC, no matter what programs or operating system the Rampage III Extreme is running.

The Rampage III Extreme adds support for four dual-slot graphics cards, a feature that simply must be present before any motherboard can claim to be the “ultimate gaming platform.” Supporting four x16 cards from 32 of the X58 northbridge’s 36 total lanes is accomplished by dropping the first and third x16 slots to eight lanes whenever a card occupies the second and fourth x16-length slots, respectively.

Yet even though 4-way CrossFireX and 3-way SLI are supported, Quad SLI is not (at least out of the box). Nvidia has decided to require two of its NF200 PCI Express bridges to enable the feature, and Asus includes these on workstation-class P6T7 WS SuperComputer motherboard. Competitive overclockers who love the Rampage III Extreme's other features might be interested in its announced ROG Expander, which adds NF200 controllers to the Rampage III Gene through a daughter board. That's going to be a separate purchase though, adding to the cost of this board.

As with most "Republic Of Gamers" products, the Rampage III Extreme's most prolific features are designed exclusively for competition-level overclocking. The Rampage III Extreme lives up to that purpose as well with dual eight-pin CPU power inputs. Gone is the space-consuming and marketing-driven array of 16 tiny voltage regulator phases, replaced by Asus’ Extreme Engine Digi+ collection of eight digital-analog hybrid phases that it claims respond more quickly and accurately while operating more efficiently at high loads. A Q-Reset button next to the CPU’s power connectors allows builders to cut CPU power temporarily to recover from a “cold-bug” boot failure when using sub-ambient cooling.

Buyers now have three ways to access BIOS-level controls from an external device, thanks to Asus’ new RC Bluetooth module. Just as with the previously mentioned ROG Connect, pressing a button transforms the device from an ordinary data link (for mobile device syncing and peripherals) to an overclocking gadget interface. A smart phone becomes the controller for RC Bluetooth, but only if it has Windows Mobile 6.0 Professional (or higher), Symbian 3.1 or 3.2, or Android 2.0. The third method of external control is to borrow an OC Station controller from a previous Asus motherboard that was so equipped and connect it to a special 4x2 pin connector along the Rampage III Extreme’s bottom edge.

The Rampage III Extreme still carries over the top traits of preceding models, such as the ProbeIt voltage-sensor points, the Go Button overclocking profile switch, and a row of PCIe slot-disabling switches to help overclockers determine which card has stopped responding after being pushed too far. An LN2_Mode jumper is meant to reduce “cold-bug” boot errors when using extreme cooling, hopefully reducing reliance on the previously mentioned Q-Reset button.

Asus even includes a button to enable manual switching between the Rampage III Extreme’s two BIOS chips, allowing tuners to boot from one IC and to make adjustments to the settings on the other IC.

The Rampage III Extreme’s remaining layout is almost as pleasing as its expansion slot placement. Six SATA 3Gb/s and two SATA 6Gb/s ports face forward to slip easily under the sinks of long graphics cards and behind the drive cages of most modern cases, while the lack of legacy drive interfaces prevents us from complaining about associated connector placement.

That’s not to say that the lack of legacy connectors makes the Rampage III Extreme’s layout perfect, however. Front-panel audio and FireWire headers are pushed so far towards the back of the bottom edge that they make cable reach a problem for some cases. Another potential problem is that outward-facing headers along the motherboard’s bottom edge require cables ends to be smashed flat when placing a double-slot card in the Rampage III Extreme’s bottom slot and that little issue precludes the use of Asus’ Q-Connector cable-end bundler.

The Rampage III Extreme installation kit differentiates itself from most competitors by including eight SATA cables and a replacement chipset cooling sink with a fan. The original chipset sink can also be replaced with certain chipset water blocks, although buyers should contact the water block’s manufacturer concerning compatibility. Asus includes two-way CrossFire and SLI bridges plus a three-way SLI bridge.

Gigabyte’s EasyTune6 utility for Windows provides several status and overclocking menus to adjust CPU, memory, and graphics performance.

The EasyTune6 Tuner menu is where the excitement happens. Choosing the Quick Boost option allows the board to attempt an automatic overclock to the frequency of a higher-model processor, while Easy mode brings up an array of manual options that are mostly blocked-out. Advanced mode unlocks its settings, beginning with base clock and memory ratio.

The Ratio tab is limited to CPU clock only, while the Voltage tab offers a far broader selection of adjustments that mimic those found in BIOS.

It’s unusual to find a basic graphics card overclocking utility in motherboard tuning software, but Gigabyte is also a video card manufacturer. This utility should work with most recent Gigabyte cards, but our Sapphire Radeon HD 5850 threw its fan settings way off.

The EasyTune6 Smart menu doesn’t report drive status, but is instead the only method Gigabyte provides for altering its automatic fan-speed control. While this level of control is annoyingly not found in BIOS, the software method works extremely well.

Hardware monitoring includes a full set of alarm controls to notify users if any problem occurs.

MSI’s Cell Menu contains primary clock and voltage settings, with separate submenus for memory timings and signal amplitude control.

Choosing the Memory-Z submenu takes the user though several steps to a single XMP memory reading. We would have preferred to see both XMP configurations for our modules.

The Advanced DRAM submenu allows timings to be set per-channel, but thankfully defaults to a single set of timings for all channels.

The ClockGen Tuner submenu contains only CPU and PCIe amplitude controls.

MSI’s M-Flash menu directs the PC to a protected-mode user interface, where the BIOS can be updated or stored to non-bootable drives, including most USB flash drives.

An Overclocking Profile menu allows up to six BIOS configurations to be stored separately with custom names and descriptions.

The X58 chipset supports two cards with 16 PCIe 2.0 lanes. Installations of three or more cards benefit from the NF200 PCIe bridge’s lane multiplication, while its added latency is a slight detriment to installations of two or fewer cards. That puts Gigabyte’s NF200-enhanced X58A-UD9 in a tough position for our single-card graphics performance tests.

Differences to this point have been minimal, slightly favoring Asus’ tiny 2.1 MHz CPU overclock and not favoring Gigabyte’s 8.4 MHz CPU underclock, though the previously-mentioned NF200 latency hit may also be in play.

Apple iTunes performance is frequency-dependent, so a win for the slowest-clocked board is anomalous.

HandBrake puts MSI in the lead, while Gigabyte’s slower clock drags it down. These types of differences shouldn’t matter to overclockers, since they set their own speed.

Repeat performances in TMPGEnc and MainConcept again point out a clock-speed discrepancy.

All three boards in today’s competition offer voltage levels in excess of what most users actually need, but competitors who use liquid nitrogen cooling will be happy to see these ultra-high limits.
BIOS Frequency and Voltage settings (for overclocking)
Asus Rampage III Extreme Gigabyte X58A-UD9 MSI Big Bang XPower
CPU Base Clock 100-500 MHz (1 MHz) 100-600 MHz (1MHz) 100-600 MHz (1 MHz)
CPU Multiplier Yes Yes Yes
DRAM Data Rates BCLK x6-x18 (x2) BCLK x6-x18 (x2) BCLK x6-x16 (x2)
PCIe Clock 100-200 MHz (1 MHz) 90-150 MHz (1 MHz) 100-190 MHz (1 MHz)
CPU Vcore 0.85-2.30 V (6.25 mV) 0.50-1.90 V (6.25 mV) 0.90-2.30 V (6.25 mV)
Uncore Voltage 1.20-2.50 (6.25 mV) 1.075-2.015 V (20 mV) 1.20-1.83 V (6.25 mV)
IOH Voltage 1.11-2.20 V (13.25 mV) 1.00-2.00V (20 mV) 0.80-1.70 V (10 mV)
ICH Voltage 1.11-2.00 V (13.25 mV) 0.92-2.38 V (20 mV) 1.10-2.00 V (10 mV)
DRAM Voltage 1.21-2.50 V (13.25 mV) 1.30-2.60 V (20 mV) 1.20-2.50 V (1 mV)
CAS Latency 3-11 Cycles 5-15 Cycles 4-15 Cycles
tRCD 3-15 Cycles 1-15 Cycles 3-15 Cycles
tRP 3-15 Cycles 1-15 Cycles 3-15 Cycles
tRAS 3-31 Cycles 1-31 Cycles 9-31 Cycles

Our air-cooled configuration and first-generation Core i7 processor limit us to a far more practical 1.45 V, a configuration we’ve maintained through several product generations to make comparisons of overclocking capabilities possible between articles.

This is the closest we’ve seen any three boards come to overclocking parity, indicating the true limit of our CPU at our chosen voltage. The actual difference is less than the 21 MHz we’d get from increasing the base clock by 1 MHz, so all three boards are tied within the “margin of error” for each board’s clock generator.

Base-clock capability is also essentially tied for all three boards, with Gigabyte’s 220 MHz setting coming in at an actual 219.8 MHz.

Memory is where things get a little trickier. MSI appears to lead in the average of three- and six-module speeds, but it’s hard to know exactly where it would have ended up had its 7x memory multiplier actually worked. That’s right, MSI’s memory overclock started at the DDR3-1600 setting rather than the DDR3-1866 setting used by its competitors, requiring a higher base clock to reach its memory overclocking limit.

We manually set a 133 MHz base clock with all power-saving features enabled during both our benchmark and power consumption tests. MSI wins big here with power consumption numbers that are close to those we’ve seen on less-overclockable products.

MSI makes a lot of noise about its Icy Choke design, but this is the first time we’ve seen it produce noticeably lower voltage regulator temperatures. This alone could explain the XPower’s lower power consumption.

A quick comparison of the total performance for today’s three motherboards shows a difference of only 1.25%, even though the clock speed difference between the top and bottom boards was only around 0.4%

Dividing average performance by average power consumption could get ugly:

MSI leads by a huge margin, a fact that should excite efficiency fans, such as our own Patrick Schmid.

Today’s tested motherboards offer some of the best features we’ve seen, which should come as no surprise, since many of those features have only recently been introduced. Yet, features aren’t the primary motivation behind the design of these parts.

Instead, we find dual-CPU power connectors on each board that are designed to provide the higher amperage extreme overclockers need to reach CPU limits at extreme voltage levels. Liquid nitrogen is only typical at the competition levels these motherboards were designed to tolerate.

While performance and air-cooled overclock results were a dead-heat for all three boards, MSI’s Big Bang-XPower led in efficiency. If extreme overclockers aren’t impressed by that feat of engineering, then they probably won’t be too impressed by the fact that the board isn’t able to effectively support high-performance SLI or CrossFire configurations in excess of two cards. Though it has six x16-length expansion cards, going even to three cards drops its pathways to a ridiculous x8-x4-x8 mode.

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