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A bevy of BIOS options
Asus, Gigabyte, and MSI have been building highly tunable motherboard BIOSes for years, so it's no surprise that each of the boards we're looking at today is loaded with tweaking and overclocking options. Behold the entirety of clock speed, multiplier, and voltage options available:

Asus P6T Gigabyte EX58-UD3R MSI X58 Eclipse
Bus speeds Base clock: 133-500MHz in 1MHz increments
PCIe: 100-200MHz in 1MHz increments
DRAM: 800, 1066MHz (Core i7 920 ES)
Base clock: 100-1200MHz in 1MHz increments
PCIe: 90-150MHz in 1MHz increments
Base clock: 133-400MHz in 1MHz increments
QPI: 4.8GT/s, slow mode (Core i7-920 ES)
PCIe: 100-200MHz in 1MHz increments
PCI: 37.3, 42MHz
Bus multipliers NA DRAM: 6X, 8X (Core i7-920 ES)
Uncore: 12X-48X in 1X increments
QPI: 36X, 44X, 48X, slow mode
DRAM: 3X-7X in 1X increments
Voltages CPU: 0.85-2.1V in 0.00625V increments
CPU PLL: 1.8-2.5V in 0.02V increments
Uncore: 1.2-1.9V in 0.00625V increments
DRAM bus: 1.5-2.46V in 0.02V increments
DRAM channel A-C ref: 0.395-0.630X in 0.005X increments
IOH: 1.1-1.7V in 0.02V increments
IOH PCIe: 1.5-2.76V in 0.02V increments
ICH: 1.1-1.4V in 0.1V increments
ICH PCIe: 1.5-1.8V in 0.1V increments
CPU: 0.5-1.9V in 0.00625V increments
CPU PLL: 1.8-2.52V in 0.02-0.04V increments
DRAM: 1.3-2.6V in 0.02-0.1V increments
DRAM termination: 0.52-1.225V in 0.02-0.025V increments
DRAM channel A-C data ref: 0.7-0.97V in 0.01V increments
DRAM channel A-C address ref: 0.71-0.97V in 0.01V increments
IOH: 1-1.5V in 0.02-0.1V increments
PCIe: 1-2.14V in 0.02-0.1V increments
QPI/VTT: 1.035-1.615V in 0.02V increments
QPI PLL: 0.8-1.6V in 0.02-0.1V increments
ICH I/O: 1.05-2.5V in 0.02-0.05V increments
ICH core: 0.92-2.38V in 0.02V increments
CPU: -0.32 - +0.63V in 0.01V increments
CPU PLL: 1-2.43V in 0.01-0.05V increments
DRAM: 1.2-2.77V in 0.01V increments
DRAM channel A-C CA ref: 0.0.51-1.225V in 0.005-0.025V increments
DRAM channel A-C DQ ref: 0.699-0.985V in 0.002-0.01V increments
QPI: -0.32 - +0.63V in 0.01V increments
NB:0.8-2.62V in 0.01V increments
ICH: 0.7-2.13V in 0.01-0.05V increments

Monitoring Voltage, fan status, and temperature Voltage, fan status, and temperature Voltage, fan status, and temperature
Fan speed control CPU, system CPU CPU, system

Get all that? Good. There will be a quiz later.

For overclockers, the most important element of the BIOS is control over the Core i7's base clock, which is available with all three boards. You can even key in base clock values directly on each board rather than scrolling through a list of options. However, only the EX58-UD3R offers explicit control over the uncore multiplier, at least with our engineering sample Core i7-920.

Unfortunately for us—but by contrast, very good for enthusiasts—Intel is selling retail Core i7 CPUs with unlocked uncore components that allow users greater freedom in manipulating the processor's memory and QuickPath Interconnect speeds. Engineering sample CPUs like the one we used for testing have these multipliers locked. Among other things, that fact restricts our 920's QPI link to 4.8GT/s and its memory to either 800 or 1066MHz. Don't pay too much attention to the above chart's rundown of available QPI and memory speeds, then; you're likely to see a more robust suite of options with a retail CPU.


The P6T's BIOS is classic Asus

The Core i7 looks to be a reasonably good overclocker; my 920 is capable of running at 3.3GHz at its default voltage. If you're not so lucky, the Asus, Gigabyte, and MSI boards all offer a wealth of over- and under-volting options for not only the processor, but a host of other system components. I wouldn't worry too much about the slight differences in voltage ranges and degrees of granularity offered by each board, since all three provide more than enough voltage options for even seasoned enthusiasts.

One pertinent difference between these boards' voltage manipulation options is the fact that the Platinum makes you step through options one-by-one, while the P6T and UD3R allow the user to key in arbitrary values. The Asus and Gigabyte boards are still working with a limited set of actual voltage options, but they try to settle on a voltage close to what the user has entered. That scheme works well on the P6T. With the UD3R, the BIOS pops up a handy list of available options that narrows as you add digits, which makes defining a supported voltage a snap.


Gigabyte serves up more than enough voltage manipulation options

Given the sheer volume of voltage options available on each board, one wonders why the Asus and Gigabyte offerings are missing a rather important memory voltage option of 1.65V. Intel has decreed that pumping more than 1.65V to the Core i7's memory risks damaging the processor, and memory makers have answered by releasing triple-channel DDR3 kits rated for 1.65V. However, with the P6T and UD3R, users are forced to choose between 1.64 and 1.66V. A 1.66V memory isn't likely to fry a Core i7 CPU, and feeding DIMMs only 1.64V probably won't compromise memory stability. Still, the lack of a 1.65V option seems odd.

Years ago, enthusiasts were all about making PCs faster. That's still the case today, but we've tempered our enthusiasm for performance with a dose of desire for silence. To meet this growing interest in quiet computing, all three of these boards feature temperature-based fan speed control for the CPU cooler. MSI even lets you define a temperature target between 40 and 70°C in 5° increments and set a minimum processor fan speed between 0 and 87.5% in 12.5% increments. The X58 Platinum's fan speed controls don't stop there, either. You can also set the speed of each of the board's three system fan headers at 50, 75, or 100%.


Fan speed control done right—or at least better—on the X58 Platinum

Though not as well endowed as the Platinum, the P6T does offer automatic fan speed control for its CPU and system fan headers. You can't adjust temperature targets or actual fan speeds, but each fan can be configured in silent, standard, and turbo modes. That's better than the fan speed control available on the UD3R, which just affects the CPU fan and only allows users to choose between profiles designed for three- and four-pin fans.

Support for multiple BIOS configuration profiles has gained popularity in recent years. The P6T and Platinum allow users to save two and four different profiles, respectively. The UD3R doesn't support multiple profiles, but the board does come with a backup BIOS chip that should save you in the event of a failed flash attempt, which is always nice for peace of mind. All three mobos also feature handy BIOS update utilities that can flash directly from USB thumb drives, too.

Speaking of flash memory, like just about every new Asus motherboard these days, the P6T comes with an embedded ExpressGate instant-on operating system. This dumbed-down Linux-based OS offers a web browser, Skype client, and instant messaging capabilities, but it lacks the sort of file browsing, hardware monitoring, data recovery, and stress testing applications that could make such a flash-based OS useful—even indispensable—for PC enthusiasts.