The Intel X38 Chipset

Intel unleashes their new X38 chipset for enthusiast platforms and Gigabyte has the first one to hit our test benches. See if the first PCI Express 2.0 motherboard is worth your money and if Intel can compete with NVIDIA’s high end chipsets.

Intel has definitely milked the 975X chipset for more than its fair share of income.  Since its release in December of 2005, the 975X chipset has remained the high-end option from Intel for their own platforms, even though chipsets like the 965 and the recent P35 (released just this past May) have come out since.  The lack of a chipset update has given room for NVIDIA to make headway with their 680i chipsets and grab some market share. 

Intel is finally going to bring a new chipset marketed towards enthusiasts today known as the X38.  It has a significant amount of technological features on it that the 975X can’t compete with, even if the performance differences aren’t as noticeable.  More details as the review continues!

Intel X38 Chipset

The introduction of the Intel X38 chipset brings more than just a simple upgrade to the 975X platform; and in fact it offers even more than the pseudo-enthusiast P35 platform.  Let’s take a look at a high-level block diagram:

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Just like the P35 north bridge, the X38 is going to be paired with the ICH9 south bridge that offers up the standard set of options including RAID support, additional PCIe lanes and HD audio.  The X38 north bridge includes support for both DDR2 and DDR3 memory standards, though boards will only be supporting ONE of these at a time — don’t expect many (if any) DDR2 and DDR3 motherboards.  Intel is promoting support for DDR3-1333 speeds this time around, a jump over the 1066 MHz from the P35 chipset.

Of course, the processor support extends to the recently released 1333 MHz FSB processors as well as to the future 45nm processors as well.  Intel would be foolish to leave users out in the dark on that, and you can count on all of the motherboards offered on this platform to run the upcoming Yorkfield core CPUs. 

The other addition in the chipset features is the move from current PCI Express 1.0 to 2.0.  PCIe 2.0 is completely backwards compatible with all current and upcoming PCIe 1.0 graphics cards and accessories even though PCIe 2.0 has double the potential bandwidth.  You can also see on the diagram that X38 supports dual graphics cards — though SLI and CrossFire support is a debatable issue. 

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The memory system does get a few upgrades to make the X38 stand out as the performance chipset for the enthusiast.  The “cutting edge memory architecture” and “Fast Memory Access” are both items that could be in the existing P35 chipset memory controller, but we can’t say for sure.  The Turbo Memory feature is one we have seen mostly on the mobile platforms as a way to speed up hard drive access times.

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The Intel Extreme Memory feature can be quickly compared to the NVIDIA SLI memory feature: when paired with supported DIMM modules, the motherboard can auto-overclock the memory modules within a set of parameters defined on the memory module itself.  This allows the memory vendors, like Corsair or OCZ, to add information into the SPD module on the DIMM to inform the motherboard’s BIOS that it can safely run the memory at higher speeds, voltages, etc. 

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Another program that seems to have stemmed from NVIDIA’s designs is the Intel Extreme Tuning Utility that allows you to access BIOS-level overclocking options while in Windows.  You can also save profiles, monitor your systems performance and heat levels and, just as with the NVIDIA application, the OEMs and ODMs have the option to customize the front end to their purposes. 

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This slide adds some more detail to the PCI Express 2.0 feature on the X38 chipset including doubling the available bandwidth and allowing for more power management features.  The X38 chipset has enough PCIe lanes on it to support two full x16 PCIe connections and therefore COULD support both SLI and CrossFire configurations.  As of this writing though, only AMD’s CrossFire products (ironically) will run on the X38 chipset correctly. 
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