|Introduction and the X79 Chipset|
|Intel’s X58 chipset made for great platform performance, and even though the chip maker has unleashed many more chipsets since the X58 came out, there hasn’t been a true successor in the high-end of their product line-up (not even the Z68 chipset) until now. The X79 chipset looks to pick up the X58’s poll position, so we decided to bench test a few motherboards from ASRock, ASUS, and Gigabyte to see how Intel's new flagship performs.
The CPU definitely pulls its weight in the X79 platform; it can handle up to 12 threads on 6 cores and supports 40 total PCIe lanes, quad channel memory (which results in 8 DIMM slots on most boards), and native 3- and 4-way graphics.
There is no integrated graphics, however, and Intel still hasn’t included native support for USB 3.0 (though that's coming so we hear with next generation 7-Series chipsets for the midrange) If you were a fan of Intel Smart Response (which allows you to use an SSD as a speedy cache drive), tough luck--it’s nowhere to be found here. However, for overclockers, the X79 platform offers plenty of enticing options, beyond just unlocked CPU multipliers and memory ratios.
The X79 chipset also offers Intel's RST (Rapid Storage Technology) which offers high performance RAID storage functionality, integrated HD audio, an additional 8 PCI-E 2.0 lanes, 14 USB 2.0 ports, 2 SATA 6Gb/s and 4 SATA 3Gb/s ports, and 3Gbps eSATA connectivity.
Let's dive into the specifics of our motherboard contenders, shall we?
|ASRock X79 Extreme6/GB|
|The ASRock X79 Extreme6/GB is actually rather new to ASRock’s X79 lineup, but it sports the sexy black, silver, and gold (capacitors) look that we’ve seen from the company before.
The board supports the new socket LGA 2011 Intel CPUs and provides 12+2 Digi Power power phase, up to 64GB of DDR3-2400MHz (OC) system memory, and plenty of expansions options. You can run up to 4-way SLI or CrossFireX with x8 connections. There’s also a PCI-E x1 slot, a pair of PCI slots, and note that three of the x16 slots are PCI-E 3.0 capable (though Intel hasn't specifically validated the platform yet).
ASRock X79 Extreme6/GB
There are five SATA 6Gb/s ports via the chipset and an ASMedia USB 3.0 chip, as well as four SATA 3Gb/s ports. Four USB 3.0 ports dot the back panel, while internal headers offer up another two, as well as six USB 2.0 ports. The motherboard itself has power and reset buttons, a Dr. Debug LED and a Clear CMOS button conveniently located on the back panel.
Other ports and connectors include eSATA3, seven audio jacks, FireWire, LAN, PS/2 keyboard and mouse ports, coaxial and optical S/PDIF outs, and an IR header.
There are plenty of extras in the box, including 2- and 3-way SLI bridges, a handful of SATA cables and screws, and a front USB 3.0 panel, but ASRock also included a Game Blaster. The palm-sized Game Blaster pops into a PCI-E x1 slot and has four mini jacks, a LAN port, optical and coaxial S/PDIF, and front panel audio and HDMI/S/PDIF headers on the back. In addition to providing Creative Sound Core3D 7.1 HD sound, the Game Blaster supports LAN teaming when used with the onboard LAN port.
ASRock bundled a lot of tools and utilities in the X79 Extreme6/GB, including Instant Boot, Instant Flash, APP Charger, SmartView, and Crashless BIOS, and of course, there’s the X family of tools (XFast LAN, XFast RAM, and XFast USB) that let you easily optimize the performance of each.
Overclockers have some toys to play with, too. The board includes the ASRock Extreme Tuning Utility, X-FAN (a fan over the southbridge that automatically kicks on only when needed), and Hybrid Booster, which is a suite of utilities designed to prevent you from overclocking your system to death.
|ASUS Sabertooth X79|
|ASUS’ motherboard line has its share of performers, but the Sabertooth “TUF” series stands alone as the one built specifically to handle heat aggressively, almost obsessively. It has Thermal Armor and Thermal Radar evoking thoughts of war machines of the past and present that are designed to vanquish the evil of heat. The board itself has a commensurate militaristic black, grayish tan, and grayish green color scheme to go with it.
Despite its thematic posturing, the Sabertooth X79 does have some impressive heat-dissipating features. The choke, cap, and MOSFET components are built for toughness and longevity and have been certified through “military-grade” testing, which is a good start.
The Thermal Armor consists of two out-of-the-ordinary looking multilayered heatsinks, one over the southbridge and one on top of the rear I/O panel. Both bulky black plastic heatsinks have fans that expel air away from the components (though the one over the I/O panel is optional and must be installed by the user). A heat pipe, partially covered by a bulky metal heatsink positioned above the CPU socket, draws heat away from that area to the Thermal Armor fan, where it gets blown out the back of the case.
The Thermal Radar aids the effort by using multiple sensors all over the motherboard to identify temperatures and automatically adjusting fan speeds accordingly. Users can set parameters for Thermal Radar in the BIOS.
In case you were doubting ASUS’ sincerity regarding the durability of the Sabertooth X79, the company is putting its money where its mouth is by offering a 5-year warranty.
ASUS Sabertooth X79
The Sabertooth X79 (ATX form factor) supports a total of 64GB of DDR3-1866 quad channel memory over 8 DIMMS and has six expansion slots, three of which support PCI-E 3.0. The board supports four-way SLI/CrossFireX; three cards can run at x8, and a dual-card setup can run at x16.
There are ten total SATA ports; six from the chipset (with RAID 0,1,5, and 10 support), two from a Marvell controller, and eSATA and Power eSATA via an ASMedia controller. Four of the chipset SATA ports are 3Gb/s, but the rest are all 6Gb/s.
An ASMedia controller supports six USB 3.0 ports, while the chipset delivers another fourteen USB 2.0 ports. The board also has a LAN port, FireWire, S/PDIF out, and six audio jacks. The BIOS Flashback button, which lets users flash the BIOS without booting or entering the BIOS, is found on the back I/O panel.
ASUS is all about giving users fine control over every possible aspect of their systems via the UEFI BIOS, and its X79-based motherboards offer control in spades, including the new DIGI+ Power Control that offers power control for the CPU and memory with three digital voltage controllers.
Other notable features include the MemOK button for automatically correcting any memory issues; ESD (electrostatic discharge) prevention; USB 3.0 performance boost with UASP (USB Attached SCSI Protocol); and SSD caching.
Fortunately, ASUS still supports SSD caching, even though Intel ditched it for some reason with the X79 chipset. ASUS’ version allows the use of an SSD for caching with no capacity limitations.
The Sabertooth X79 is designed with overclockers in mind, braced in advance for the extremes its users will ask it to endure.
|ASUS P9X79 Deluxe|
|While the Sabertooth X79 is built for extreme heat, the P9X79 Deluxe is simply ASUS’ top board in its mainstream line, which is to say that it’s no slouch.
The P9X79, with a black PCB and blue, white, and metallic components, supports up to 64GB of DDR3-2400 (OC) memory and up to 3-way SLI or 4-way CrossFireX (at x8). There are four total PCI-E 3.0 slots, as well as a pair of PCI-E 2.0.
ASUS P9X79 Deluxe
The P9X79 Deluxe has eight total SATA ports: six are from the chipset (two SATA 6Gb/s, four SATA 3Gb/s) and two (both SATA 6Gb/s) are courtesy of a Marvell controller. Two of those ports support ASUS’ SSD Caching. There are two additional power eSATA 6Gb/s ports, as well.
There is no shortage of USB ports, either; the board has no fewer than ten on the back panel (six USB 3.0, four USB 2.0), which are conveniently clearly labelled, with headers supporting another ten (two USB 3.0, eight USB 2.0).
On-board buttons include power, reset, Clear CMOS, and MemOK (which validates and patches RAM) on the main PCB, with a BIOS Flashback button on the back panel. The BIOS Flashback button allows you to flash the BIOS using a USB drive with nothing more than standby power. ASUS also included physical TPU and EPU switches, which enable technologies that take some of the burden off of the CPU intelligently managing or boosting power, or to conserve power when not needed.
The TPU and EPU are part of ASUS’ DIGI+ Power Control, which includes three digital voltage controllers for more granular fine-tuning of memory and the CPU.
With BT GO 3.0!, users get a module that supports both Bluetooth and WiFi, and ASUS included a pair of white antennae for the WiFi.
ASUS is serious about giving users as much control as possible by making almost every aspect of the system changeable in the BIOS. This includes Fan Xpert+, which lets users adjust the speeds on all attached case and CPU fans according to a number of different user-customizable parameters.
Having so much control is great for overclockers, but ASUS also included AI Suite II, which automatically boosts the system but allows users to change settings, in case they wanted to let some software do most of the tweaking.
|Although Gigabyte has always made a fine motherboard, its products have occasionally been more subdued than other board makers’ offerings, recently lacking amenities such as onboard power/reset buttons and a UEFI BIOS. With the X79-UD5, those days are apparently over.
The company’s line of X79-based motherboards are the first to feature Gigabyte’s new 3D BIOS, which is based on Gigabyte’s DualBIOS and finally gives users a UEFI in which to tweak and tinker instead of the outdated AWARD BIOS.
The X79-UD5 also sports a big red power button and a reset button, and a clear CMOS button and OC button are on the back I/O panel. The board itself is black with a black and metallic gray color scheme with metallic blue accents. The DIMM slots are color-coded for easy installation, which is always a welcome feature.
The X79-UD5 has eight DIMM slots supporting up to 64GB of quad-channel DDR3-2133 memory. It has six expansion slots, three of which support PCI-E 3.0, and of those three, two can run at x16 when in a dual-CrossFireX/SLI configuration and all three can run at x8 in a three-way graphics setup.
Between the chipset and Marvell, Fresco, and VIA chips, the board has six SATA 6Gb/s (including one eSATA) and six SATA 3Gb/s connectors with support for RAID 0, 1, 5, and 10; four USB 3.0 ports (two of which require an attachment) and fourteen USB 2.0 ports; and two FireWire ports. The back I/O panel also has an optical S/PDIF connector and five audio jacks.
Gigabyte’s X79 motherboards are the first to utilize the company’s new Digital Power Engine for controlling the CPU and memory. The hardware and software tool provides steady power to the CPU and memory under all conditions, giving users better overclocking capabilities. It includes a new 3D Power utility that gives users an attractive graphical interface for adjusting voltage, phase, and frequency.
Speaking of overclocking, Gigabyte built in OC-DualBIOS, which lets users use one BIOS version for overclocking while keeping another stable BIOS separate for if (when) you take your overclock too far; even better, OC-DualBIOS is controllable via a button on the back panel.
The X79-UD5 also feature Gigabyte’s 333 on-board acceleration technology, which promises to speed data transfer over USB 3.0 and SATA, as well as On/Off Charge for quick-charging iOS devices even when the system is powered down.
The rest of the software and utilities we’ve come to expect from Gigabyte are here as well, including EasyTune6, Q-Share, Smart 6, XHD, Cloud OC, and TouchBIOS.
For connectivity out of the box, Gigabyte included a Bluetooth/WiFi card and an antenna for each; the card occupies a PCI slot and connects with one internal header; it’s up to you to find somewhere to mount the two antennae.
|UEFI Comparison and Overclocking|
|Now that Gigabyte has officially implemented a UEFI BIOS, there aren’t any major motherboard manufacturers without one (and you can take screenshots by hitting F12 in most of them!). Even so, not all UEFIs are created equal; some are definitely more mature than others.
Gigabyte has finally followed suit with the rest of the competition with a true UEFI BIOS, even offering different “modes” for differently-experienced users. Gigabyte’s so-called 3D BIOS has a 3D Mode and an Advanced Mode; the former gives you a “3D” image of the motherboard so you can click various sections of the picture to adjust those settings. The latter lets you navigate the other areas of the BIOS with a mouse and keyboard.
In both modes, unfortunately, the results are disappointing. Gigabyte’s 3D BIOS is slow, janky, and confusing. There are a few items items that seem to warrant a double-click, but for some reason the mouse does nothing, and you have to use the old PU/PD buttons to navigate; in other cases, the mouse works just fine. That means that either the design is poor or the execution is at fault,t but neither is acceptable. We also noticed that the F10 command doesn’t work (it doesn’t save the settings), leading to several frustrating reboots before we figured it out.
For as long as it took Gigabyte to build a UEFI, we were initially excited to dig in to the 3D BIOS and all the other overclocking tools such as the OC button on the back panel. Unfortunately, the 3D BIOS seems unfinished.
ASUS’ UEFI BIOS, on the other hand, was excellent even before the tweaks the company added to the latest version for the X79 motherboards; now it’s superb. There’s no noticeable mouse or keyboard lag; the response time to commands is as zippy as you’d expect in the OS environment.
EZ Mode displays plenty of needed information (although we don’t really need the large clock display taking up so much screen real estate) and has handy shortcuts to additional frequently-used features. Advanced mode is a tweaker’s paradise, as everything is adjustable, down to individual fan speeds and voltages.
ASRock’s UEFI isn’t as flashy as ASUS’, but it performs just as well. There are just 7 areas to work in (Main, OC Tweaker, Advanced, H/W Monitor, Boot, Security, and Exit). although you can open the “System Browser”, which is basically just an overhead shot of the board with areas you can hover over and click to adjust--not unlike Gigabyte’s 3D Mode. Overall, ASRock provides a clean, easy-to-use environment, but there is still plenty to work with in terms of adjusting settings.
We left the voltages alone and pushed our systems simply by finding an optimal balance between the base clock and CPU ratio. On air cooling, the Gigabyte X79-UD5 hit the highest stable clock at 4.3GHz. The ASRock X79 Extreme 6/GB posted the second-best clock at 4.24GHz, and both ASUS boards topped out at 4.18GHz.
The variance between the boards is notable; however, virtually every aspect of these motherboards is adjustable (especially the ASUS boards), so with some patience and a lot of time and tweaking, we believe each board in our roundup has even more headroom to work with than we found.
|Test Systems and PCMark Vantage|
|Test System Configuration Notes: When configuring our test systems for this article, we first entered their respective system BIOSes and set each board to its "Optimized" or "High performance Defaults". We then saved the settings, re-entered the BIOS and set the memory frequency to DDR3-1333. We updated the OS and installed the drivers necessary for our components. Auto-Updating and Windows Defender were then disabled and we installed all of our benchmarking software, performed a disk clean-up, defragged the hard drives, and ran the tests.
Our test system consisted of a Core i7-3820 (3.6GHz) processor, 4x2GB Kingston HyperX DDR3-2400 (@1333), ZOTAC GeForce GTX 260, WD 150GB Raptor HDD, and Windows Home Premium x64.
Most of the sub-tests used to come up with the final scores in each category are multi-threaded as well, so the tests can exploit the additional resources offered by a multi-core CPU.
Clearly, the Gigabyte board stood tall just above the field in this test. In addition to posting the best PCMarks score, it took the top spot in all but two of the sub-tests (Music and Gaming). One caveat we should note is, if you decided to employ SSD caching on the ASUS boards (a feature exclusive to them in this round-up), the number definitely would have swayed in their favor. The PCMark suite is heavily affected by storage performance.
|Futuremark PCMark 7|
|Futuremark's PCMark 7 is the latest version of the PCMark suite,
which has updated application performance measurements targeted for a
Windows 7 environment. Here's what Futuremark says is incorporated in
the base PCMark suite and the Entertainment suite, the two modules we
have benchmark scores for you here.
The PCMark test is a collection of workloads that measure system performance during typical desktop usage. This is the most important test since it returns the official PCMark score for the system
Video Playback and transcoding Graphics
Web browsing and decrypting
The Entertainment test is a collection of workloads that measure system performance in entertainment scenarios using mostly application workloads. Individual tests include recording, viewing, streaming and transcoding TV shows and movies, importing, organizing and browsing new music and several gaming related workloads. If the target system is not capable of running DirectX 10 workloads then those tests are skipped. At the end of the benchmark run the system is given an Entertainment test score.
In PCMark 7, the Gigabyte motherboard again dusted the field, though not by much. It’s also worth noting that the ASRock board again posted the lowest score, with the two ASUS boards occupying the middle. All of the scores here are clustered fairly closely, though.
|LAME MT Audio Encoding and Cinebench|
|In our custom LAME MT MP3 encoding test, we convert a large WAV file to the MP3 format, which is a popular scenario that many end users work with on a day-to-day basis to provide portability and storage of their digital audio content. LAME is an open-source mid to high bit-rate and VBR (variable bit rate) MP3 audio encoder that is used widely around the world in a multitude of third party applications.
In this test, we created our own 223MB WAV file (a hallucinogenic-induced Grateful Dead jam) and converted it to the MP3 format using the multi-thread capable LAME MT application in single and multi-thread modes. Processing times are recorded below, listed in seconds. Shorter times equate to better performance.
There is essentially no differentiation in the LAME scores, with the exception of the 0:30 posted by the ASUS P9X79, which is obviously fairly negligible as well.
Cinebench R11.5 is an OpenGL 3D rendering performance test based on Cinema 4D from Maxon. Cinema 4D is a 3D rendering and animation tool suite used by 3D animation houses and producers like Sony Animation and many others. It's very demanding of system processor resources and is an excellent gauge of pure computational throughput. This is a multi-threaded, multi-processor aware benchmark that renders and animates 3D scenes and tracks the length of the entire process. The rate at which each test system was able to render the entire scene is represented in the graph below.
Both ASUS boards hit the same score of 7.44, topping the other boards by a fairly small margin. In order to parse out the differences in those scores, you'd really need to dig deep into each board's stock CPU clock and other details. Note that this is the lone benchmark in which the ASUS boards took the top score. Historically, we've seen ASUS aggressively tuning PLL clock speeds a tick or two northward for just bit more performance at stock settings.
|Low-Res Gaming: Crysis and ET:QW|
|For our next set of tests, we moved on to some in-game benchmarking with Crysis and Enemy Territory: Quake Wars. When testing processors with Crysis or ET:QW, we drop the resolution to 1024x768, and reduce all of the in-game graphical options to their minimum values to isolate CPU and memory performance as much as possible. However, the in-game effects, which control the level of detail for the games' physics engines and particle systems, are left at their maximum values, since these actually do place some load on the CPU rather than GPU.
The ASRock X79 Extreme6/GB shows its stuff in our gaming benchmarks, posting the best score in both ET:QW and Crysis. In Crysis, the ASRock board didn’t beat out the two ASUS boards by much, but in ET:QW, it had a slightly more significant lead. Regardless, all performance numbers here are within a few percentage points of each other.
|Total System Power Consumption|
|Before bringing this article to a close, we'll take a look at power consumption of each of these motherboards. Throughout all of our benchmarking and testing, we monitored how much power each was consuming with a power meter. Our goal was to give you an idea as to how much power each configuration used while idling on the desktop and while under a heavy workload. Keep in mind, this is total system power consumption being measured at the outlet and not the the individual motherboards alone.
Although the ASRock board pulled the least amount of power at idle by 4W, it was the ASUS Sabertooth X79 that had the best showing under load (and second best at idle), pulling 193W of juice. The second most efficient motherboard under load was the other ASUS offering.
|Performance Summary and Conclusion|
|This crop of boards is tough to compare, because the four have a lot in common. They all have similar specs (predictably), boast good looks, feature UEFI BIOSes, and posted very similar scores in our benchmark tests. Thus, looking at the pros and cons of each one is mostly an exercise in looking at small details, bonus features, and cost.
It’s a little unnerving, however, when although something seems to mostly work well, there are a couple of things here or there that cast doubt, like when Van Halen would find brown M&Ms in the bowl backstage (someone didn’t read the rider all the way through and got sloppy, causing the band to wonder what other details were missed). In the case of the Gigabyte X79-UD5, it’s our shaky BIOS experience and the OC button that didn’t seem to work which gave us pause. Granted, these issues can be resolved with a simply BIOS tweak but the issues didn't instill complete confidence.
It’s tempting to give Gigabyte a mulligan considering the company’s past track record for excellent quality, but we wouldn’t feel especially thrilled with dropping $299.99 on this board at this point in time. Again, we all know what a difference a BIOS rev can make.
ASUS P9X79 Deluxe
The ASUS P9X79 Deluxe is, as were its Deluxe predecessors, a solid performer with plenty of great features, including extremely detailed control over overclock settings and ASUS' SSD caching. However, in our tests the board didn’t post overly impressive scores compared with the rest of the field, yet it costs by far the most at $369.99.
ASRock X79 Extreme6/GB
While the ASUS P9X79 Deluxe is a great board with a high price tag, the ASRock X79 Extreme6/GB actually performed a tad better and costs $90 less at $279.99. The Game Blaster is an intriguing component for gamers, especially the teaming function, and although its scores were up-and-down in our tests, the ASRock board had some high marks and also hit the highest overclock of all our systems.
The ASUS Sabertooth X79 didn’t induce awe with its benchmark scores, but it was very consistent, and the scores were closely clustered anyway.
ASUS Sabertooth X79
Looking at prices, the ASRock board boasts the best value for your buck, but when you’re putting together a high-end system, another fifty bucks gets you board with slightly better features in the Sabertooth X79 ($329.99). Though the ASRock X79 Extreme6/GB has an appealing LAN teaming function and a handy USB 3.0 bracket, the Sabertooth X79 has the same SSD caching and overclock controls as the P9X79 and an overall design (Thermal Armor heatsinks) geared to prolonging the life the components.
Although you’d do just fine building a smoking hot system with any of these motherboards (the X79 UD-5’s issues notwithstanding), we think the price tag for the ASUS Sabertooth X79 is acceptable given its features, design, and capabilities, which is why we’re giving it our Editor’s Choice award.