Intel's X48 Chipset
Stop us if you've heard this one before: In this article we will be looking at the latest high-end desktop chipset from Intel, featuring support for DDR2 and DDR3 memory, support for 45nm dual- and quad-core processors, and PCI Express 2.0 connectivity with 16 lanes devoted to each PEG slot and compatibility with ATI's CrossFire technology. If it all sounds familiar, it's because the Intel X48 Express Chipset that's used on the three boards we'll be looking at here is almost exactly the same as the X38 Express that preceded it a few months back. In fact, if we take a gander at the chipset block diagram below, the only glaring addition would be official support for a 1600 MHz FSB - something that some X38 boards were hitting already, but without that "official" tag.
One might also stop and point out that DDR3 is the only memory technology listed in the diagram (twice, to be exact). Initial reports stated as much, but we obviously know that wasn't to be the case, which is a good thing for a variety of reasons. For sure, hitting the highest supported memory frequencies will only be possible using DDR3; with some manufacturers already offering >2.1GHz modules. It's the price and availability of DDR2, though, that makes it a quite an attractive option. Although DDR3 prices have begun to fall somewhat, 4 GB of DDR2 can be bought on the cheap these days. Upgrade paths are also made easier as there's one less component to buy when building a new system, if you already own some DDR2 that is. Thus, having X48 boards that support either standard is a win-win for just about everybody.
So, featuring basically the same Northbridge and identical ICH9/R Southbridge, the X48 really becomes more of an update over the X38, rather than a real replacement, and hence claims the title as Intel's flagship chipset for now. The good news, however, is that the last few months should have allowed for a maturing of sorts, as manufacturers will have had more time and experience to tweak and refine their boards even further. Three such manufacturers have sent us X48-based motherboards for us to put through the wringer, all aimed at the enthusiast crowd.
The first motherboard comes from ASUS, and belongs in the gamer-oriented Republic of Gamers series, which we have taken a few looks at in the past. We've been mostly impressed by what they've offered in this series, and expect no less with the Rampage Formula. Next up is the X48T-A from ECS. We can honestly say that we haven't seen much from ECS in the past couple of years in the enthusiast segment, so we aren't exactly sure what to expect, but if early impressions mean anything, this "Black Series" board means business. Finally, following on the heels of their popular Bonetrail X38 board, Intel has sent along the DX48BT2, which, like the X48 chipset is more or less an update of the original. Three boards, three manufacturers, all shooting for the top spot in our round-up. Who will come out on top? Let's read on and find out...