If the recent release of Intel's X58 chipset has taught us anything, it's that change can be good. In our first two forays with these new boards and Intel's Core i7 processor, we've been firmly impressed by the performance gains seen over legacy Core 2 architectures, much less AMD's recent advancements and new offerings. Now, with some time under our belts, we're going to take a look at two new Intel X58 Express chipset based boards from ASUS and MSI that we've put through the test ringer. Focusing on the upper-tier of the PC market, both come fully stocked with additional components, fancy board designs, and all of the other benefits that the X58 provides, with higher-end prices to match.
First, we'll start off with an overview of the Intel X58 Express chipset. As shown in the block diagram below, the major changes revolve around the CPU's system and memory interfaces. Considering Intel's relatively slower evolution over their past few chipset updates, it's almost as if they sat back, looked at what needed changing, and then just went ahead and did them all in one fell swoop.
The first and most obvious change is the new LGA1366 socket, which nearly doubles the number of pins in order to support the Core i7. Why all the extra connections? Well, one of the biggest changes to the CPU design was to move the memory controller from the North Bridge to the CPU itself, which now supports Triple Channel DDR3. Also to supplement this new memory controller with more bandwidth, Intel created a new way to connect the CPU and the rest of the board. Dubbed QPI (Quick Path Interconnect), it consists of a serial point-to-point interconnect that offers up to 25.6GB/s of bandwidth - more than double that of the previous X48 chipset.
Another big change brought about is the native support of not only ATI's CrossFireX, but 2 or 3-way SLI for NVIDIA's graphics cards as well, provided the motherboard has the necessary BIOS hooks. As the X58 is currently the only chipset that supports the Core i7, it means you won't have to debate where to go to support not only the top processors, but the top graphics solution as well (depending on which side is currently residing on top). The South Bridge sees very little change, actually, although the ICH10/R originates from a previous coupling to the mainstream P45 chipset rather than the ICH9/R found on the X48s.
Both of today's entries feature all of the above, and then throw in their own special accoutrements to make them stand out on their own. For our testing purposes, we'll pit these two boards against each other in head-to-head combat spanning synthetic benchmarks, some real-world rendering and encoding, and then finally the all-important gaming benchmarks including some SLI frame rates.