It will be three years in November since Intel launched their X58 chipset, a platform dedicated to enthusiasts, overclockers and professional benchmarkers. The platform served its purpose well for a long time and has managed to hold on to the ‘best performance’ crown all this while. The X58 chipset now makes way for Intel’s highly anticipated replacement, the X79 chipset. Why X79 and not X68 or X78 beats us, but it is what it is. Intel has a notorious habit of switching sockets time and again and they haven’t broken that streak this time too. Along with the new chipset, the 2nd Generation Core i7 family of processors will use the new 2011 socket so there’s no chance of any backwards compatibility with existing Z68 chipsets. Now, we can’t go into too much detail about the chipset due to Intel’s NDA but we can talk about Asus’s new line-up based on the X79 chipset.
Asus had a little media preview on the 21st of October where a select few journalists (us included) got a first hand look at their upcoming motherboards. Three flagship boards were showcased, each filling up a different segment and first we’ll be looking at the P9X79 mainstream motherboard which also includes a Pro and Deluxe model.
The first major change is the 3rd generation Dual Intelligent Processors along with a new DIGI+ Power control system. Asus first launched the DIGI+ VRM on the P67 motherboard last year and this time, there’s a separate power controller chip for the memory modules as well. This dual chip design ensures dedicated power control to the CPU and memory for better stability during gaming or overclocking.
The P9X79 mainstream motherboard
The second big addition is Asus’s very own SSD caching technique. Intel’s X79 does not support SRT (Smart Response Technology) at the moment so this way, we can enjoy similar benefits like we do on Z68 motherboards. Through the bundled utility, all you have to do is plug in an SSD and let the software do all the configuration for you. You don’t have to re-install the OS either, which is a good thing. Asus BT GO 3.0 feature makes a return but this time the Bluetooth module has been bumped up to v3.0.
The rear ports of the P9X79
The third and perhaps the most interesting new addition (at least for us reviewers and enthusists) is the new USB BIOS Flashback. Now, it’s not something as mundane as being able to flash the BIOS via USB – that feature has already been with us for a while. This involves a physical button at the rear of the I/O ports that lets you flash the BIOS directly through a pen drive, even if none of the components like the CPU, RAM, etc. are installed! This is really convenient since you don’t have to enter the BIOS anymore in order to update it.
Asus SSD caching at work
Their popular UEFI BIOS is back along with some minor tweaks and changes. The DRAM SPD Info feature currently found on their Z68 boards makes an appearance. This utility lets you check the status of the DRAM modules right from the BIOS itself. The new ‘F3’ shortcut key brings up important BIOS features in a single list allowing you to quickly skip to them. Finally, Asus has incorporated a UASP USB 3.0 controller on the motherboard for better speeds from USB 3.0 devices. USB Attached SCSI Protocol (UASP) is a replacement for Mass Storage Class and Bulk Only Transfers (BOT) protocols that will soon be standard on motherboards. In order for this to work optimally though, one needs a UASP motherboard as well as a UASP-based hard drive, which aren’t commercially available right now. However, existing USB 3.0 drives can get a slight speed boost from this as it uses the full duplex capabilities of USB 3.0 and is backwards compatible with USB 2.0 as well.
Asus has revamped the look of their AI SUITE II software to match the series of the board, so for instance the R.O.G series will have a Red theme while the TUF series has a Blue theme. The onboard audio supports DTS Ultra PC II which offers new functions like ‘Enhance’, ‘Surround Sensation’, etc. Next, let’s have a look at the TUF series motherboard, the SABERTOOTH X79.
Asus’s TUF series started back in 2009 and each year, with every new chipset, we’ve seen a new version emerge. For the Intel X79 chipset, Asus had to get rid of the full thermal shell that we saw on the P67 SABERTOOTH simply because there wasn’t enough space on the motherboard to securely fasten the entire shell. Instead, the ‘Thermal Armor’ is placed over just two main areas, the CPU VRM area and the X79 PCH chip at the bottom. Both the heatsinks are aluminium with copper pipes along with low profile fans from Delta used to blow air outwards, away from the motherboard. In order to make room for larger 3rd party heatsinks near the CPU area, the heatsinks around the CPU are connected to the ‘Thermal Armor’ via heat pipes which exhausts all the hot air directly outside the case through vents in the I/O shield. The design is quite clever and makes the best use of the little space that’s available.
Keeping the X79 chipset cool
The ‘Thermal Radar’ utility lets you monitor temperatures on the motherboard thanks to 12 sensors embedded at critical areas like CPU, VCore, VCCSA, VTTCPU, PCH, DRAM, USB 3.0 and both the PCIE slots. The utility neatly maps out all the sensor readings on your motherboard and gives you a real time feed. If you feel a certain section is getting too hot, you can create a custom profile where you can set at what temperature you wish to ramp up the fan speed and up to what percent. By simply dragging the points on the graph, you can achieve the perfect balance between noise and low temperatures.
The new double retention system
The rest of the features are carried forward from the mainstream boards like DIGI+ Power control, SSD Caching, UEFI BIOS including the new utilities, etc. The TUF X79 motherboard will come with a 5 year warranty and uses military certified components that are designed to work in extreme conditions. Finally, we come to what is perhaps the most exciting motherboard of the lot, the Rampage IV Extreme.
Asus RAMPAGE IV Extreme
Asus’s Republic of Gamers (R.O.G) line of motherboards are further classified into GENE – which is their m-ATX board for case modders; Formula – which is for the overclocker on a budget; and Extreme – which as the name suggest, is a no holds bar tricked out mobo for competitive overclockers and power users.
The Maximus IV Extreme
First up is X-Socket which is a customised 3-piece socket design that lets you re-use your Socket 1366 cooler with the new 2011 socket. Not only that, it also works with an LN2 pot. This not only saves you money on a new cooler but also the headache of finding a compatible mounting bracket for your old cooler. It also features DIGI+ II which involves 4 digital controllers equipped for CPU and Memory. NexFET Power Block MOSFET achieves the same efficiency but is half the size so it takes up less space as well.
The OC KEY in action
The RAMPAGE IV Extreme’s party piece has got to be OC KEY, the most innovative hardware based overclocking tool yet. The little gadget is about the size of a memory module (a little smaller actually) and interfaces between the GPU and your monitors DVI cable. Along with bypassing the video signal, the hardware inside the OC KEY produces an OSD overlay which can be summoned at anytime, in any program by simply hitting the hot keys on the keyboard. This overlay features two display modes, Extreme and Normal, depending on how much information you wish to see at a time. Not only can you monitor CPU temperatures, voltages and CPU Ratios, you can also tweak them in real time through OSD Tweak IT. We weren’t allowed to snap any pictures during the this demo of but here’s the gist of it. Let’s say you’re running 3DMark Vantage to test out your new highest overclock and you feel you can push the CPU further, you don’t have to wait for the loop to finish anymore. You simply bring up the OSD and start increasing the ratio or the BCLK, while the test is running. This way, you can constantly monitor your progress and know exactly at which point you’ve hit a limit. Since the OSD is purely hardware-based, you can actually view the stats of your PC right from the time you hit the power button all the way to the desktop, heck it will even show you the OSD if you disconnect it from the GPU.
The jumpers for VGA Hotwire
Subzero Sense lets you monitor subzero temperatures when using LN2 cooling. Asus provides two K-type thermocouple temperature sensors on the motherboard itself that can read temperatures up to -200 degrees Celsius. This works in conjunction with OC KEY and lets you monitor temperatures for both the sensors through the OSD. Finally, we have VGA Hotwire which is a VGA overvolting solution. Traditionally, if you wanted to overvolt your graphics card, you’d need to solder variable resistors whereas now, Asus has already provided onboard headers to which you link to the graphics card and then you can increase and monitor the voltages through either the BIOS, OS KEY or TurboV EVO utility.
Asus have managed to live up to the ‘Extreme’ moniker in their R.O.G lineup and it’ll be interesting to see what the competition has to offer. As far as pricing goes, Asus hasn’t disclosed any of those details yet but given the X79 is an enthusiast class chipset, you better start saving up. We’ll be bringing you more details on the chipset itself and the various features it has to offer later on but for now, we think Intel will be keeping the ‘best performance’ crown at least for some more time.
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