A new chipset: the Intel X58
As with all new major architecture changes from Intel, the Core i7 processors get paired with a new chipset as well: the Intel X58. 

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Much like the AMD chipset market after the Athlon 64 moved the memory controller into the CPU itself, the new X58 north bridge is really not much more than a high speed PCI Express 2.0 bridge to the processor with up to 36 total lanes of PCIe traffic.  Those lanes can be divided up into various configurations to allow for different multi-GPU support.  The Intel-branded X58 “Smackover” motherboard offers up two full speed x16 PCIe 2.0 slots while the ASUS Rampage 2 Extreme has three PCIe 2.0 x16 slots with two of them getting x8 bandwidth allocations.  Though I don’t have any on-hand yet, I assume other models will be released with four x8 connections for full AMD CrossFire X support and 3-Way SLI + PhysX support. 

With the memory controller functionality ripped from the north bridge and placed inside the core of the Nehalem architecture it is really the Intel ICH10R south bridge that will get most of our attention.  This is the same south bridge used on the X48 and P45 chipsets as well so this is really nothing we haven’t already seen and tested before.  The I/O hub offers up a robust set of features including 12 USB 2.0 ports, six PCIe 1.0 lanes, Gigabit networking support, HD Audio and six combination SATA/eSATA channels to be used with the optional Matrix Storage RAID Technology. 

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ASUS Rampage 2 Extreme X58 with 3-way Zotac GTX 280 SLI

What we likely won’t see then is any real improvement in speed on the various I/O and storage systems – the SATA, USB, audio and LAN performance should be dead on with previous motherboard tests that also used the ICH10R south bridge. 

Pricing on the new X58 motherboards is something I haven’t gotten a firm answer from anyone on yet – that will likely mean then that initial prices on X58 motherboards will be high.  Because the initial designs that manufacturers like Gigabyte, ASUS and MSI are sending out are high-end enthusiast-class boards you can expect the prices to fall in line with the X48 motherboards currently on the market: nothing today is selling for under $200

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Intel’s X58 “Smackover” motherboard was our reference for testing

The Intel X58 motherboard has some interesting characteristics like 4 DIMM slots on a platform that supports three channel memory – it’s just odd.  As usual though the board was robust and stable and offered a lot of overclocking options for the new CPUs.  The layout is definitely unique and is something we’ll look at in our review of all the initial X58 motherboards we have received. 

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The ASUS P6T Deluxe will likely be a bigger enthusiast favorite

The ASUS P6T Deluxe was also an early board in our lab and looks much more like a traditional enthusiast motherboard with its DIMM placements (notice there are 6 on this board!), chipset cooling solutions and PCIe 2.0 slot locations. 

If you want more details on these and other initial release X58 motherboard (and I know you do!) head over to our second part of the Core i7 launch to read all about them!  In that article we detail the layout and features of each board, the BIOS configuration options and how well we were able to overclock these new Nehalem processors.

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