Platform Changes – X79 Chipset and Motherboards

As is usually the case with Intel, when you get a new architecture, you get a new processor socket along with it.  I know many users have been complaining about the seemingly frequent socket changes on the Intel CPU platforms.  After all we went from LGA775 (Penryn) to LGA1366 (Nehalem) to LGA1156 (Clarkdale) to LGA1155 (Sandy Bridge) and now are jumping into the LGA2011 socket for Sandy Bridge-E.  Keep in mind though that in terms of enthusiast class high-end components, the X58 lasted for a solid three years on the shelf before today’s release of X79.

The X79 chipset is really a chipset in name only as just like the current Sandy Bridge platforms, the majority of the important technology is on the processor itself.  The X79 chipset is nearly identical to the P67/Z68 platforms that are available today.

Focusing on the lower half of the diagram above, the X79 chipset offers support for 14 USB 2.0 ports (but no USB 3.0 ports), eight lanes of PCI Express 2.0 for additional storage and network connectivity, HD audio support, and 6 SATA ports with two capable of running at 6.0 Gb/s speeds.  For those keeping score at home, that is nearly identical to the specs found on the consumer boards for Sandy Bridge based on the P67 and Z68 chipsets. 

There were initially rumors of things like 8 SATA 6G ports, SAS integration and much more that was going to be included on the Sandy Bridge-E chipset, but obviously those were either false, or (more likely) fell through and were changed towards the end of development.  The lack of expansion there and the missing USB 3.0 integration still confuse me, and I have to ask what Intel’s platform division really has planned for consumers going forward.  If the Ivy Bridge chipset doesn’t move things forward then we will really have some questions for the company.  However, as it stands now, SNB-E looks very much like SNB from a storage and connectivity perspective.

At one point we had also heard that Intel was doing away with the aging and somewhat slow DMI connection between the processor and chipset, but that hasn’t happened either.  Looks like we will be waiting for at least one more platform release before we are ready to move to a faster interface. 

There are some nice changes with the new platform, although they stem from upgrades on the Sandy Bridge-E processor itself.  While CPUs like the Core i7-2600k only have 16 lanes of PCI Express to split between graphics cards and other add-in cards, the Core i7-3960X and other LGA2011 processors will have 40 total lanes of PCIe support.  This allows for a total of 40 GB/s of bi-directional bandwidth between the processor and attached devices and while Intel doesn’t want to promote it, the CPU will support the PCIe 3.0 standard when storage controllers and graphics cards that utilize it are made available.  

As far as configuration options, the 40 lanes can be broken up into several different bundles including two x16 and a single x8, one x16 and three x8 or even one x16, two x8 and two x4.  For those interested in high-end gaming and multi-GPU configurations, the 40 lanes provide a great way to ensure you are getting full bandwidth to more GPUs without using PCI Express bridge chips like the popular NVIDIA nForce 200. 

Motherboards based on the X79 chipset and sporting the new LGA2011 socket are plentiful and we have options in house from ASUS, MSI, Gigabyte, ECS, Intel, and more.  We aren’t going to have a big motherboard roundup for you here today, but we did spend some time with just about all of them over the past 7 days.  We created a short video here that goes over six motherboards based on this chipset, the main features and layout decisions of each and what you can expect coming up.

As noted in the video, there are some unique features on this new motherboard lineup starting with the "split" memory design that halves the DIMM slots on either side of the processor.  If a motherboard has 4 DIMM slots you’ll see two on either side; for boards with 8 DIMM slots there will be four on either side.  The new quad-channel memory controller essentially required this design specification and this has made design decisions for each motherboard manufacturer somewhat limited.  When the top HALF of the board is basically controlled by a specific socket and memory layout, there isn’t much more you can do in the standard ATX form factor.  

Below are some photos of the 6 boards we had in before the review went live – expect some reviews and comparisons on them very soon!

Intel DX79SI

ASUS Rampage IV Extreme

ASUS Sabertooth X79

ASUS P9X79 Pro

MSI X79A-GD65 8D

Gigabyte X79-UD3

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