Sandy Bridge-E is a beast, no doubt about it. In addition to six Sandy Bridge cores, she's loaded with quad memory channels and 40 lanes of third-generation PCI Express. It's a good thing, too, because her X79 sidekick appears relatively weak in comparison. Things weren't supposed to go down this way; Intel intended the X79 to have gobs of additional SATA and SAS ports, but it couldn't get the new storage controller working in time, leaving a neutered X79 that looks more like a P67 platform hub. Fortunately, the lack of additional 6Gbps SATA connectivity is somewhat balanced by the CPU's massive PCI Express payload, which provides plenty of high-speed lanes for the PCIe-based SSDs. High-performance solid-state storage is heading in that direction, anyway.
That said, it seems likely the X79's ill-fated storage controller may be responsible for the rushed feel of this particular platform launch. Intel didn't have an AHCI and RAID driver ready until the middle of last week, and the one it released is tagged as a beta. Then there are the motherboards, which are a little rougher around the edges than the first batch of Sandy Bridge boards. I've given up on trying to keep up with all the firmware updates that have hit my inbox over the past few days. At least the interfaces are much improved over what we saw at the beginning of the year.
If I were to put together a Sandy Bridge-E system for myself today, I honestly don't know which of the four motherboards I'd use. They all have admirable attributes, but each one also has flaws, some of which are more serious than others.
Perhaps the most striking shortcoming can be found on the Intel DX79SI, which fails to take advantage of all the PCIe 3.0 connectivity built into the CPU. Eight lanes are left on the table, and while you probably don't actually need the extra bandwidth, it's hard to justify paying the same price for a motherboard that offers less than its rivals. To be fair, the Intel board is the most power-efficient of the bunch, and the wireless module is a nice touch. The fan controls are excellent, too, even if the accompanying firmware interface is uninspired. This board grew on me the more I used it, but the PCIe config soured my crush.
The MSI X79A-GD65 (8D) shares a similar price range with the Intel board. Instead of wireless connectivity, it sports a couple of extra 6Gbps SATA ports and a slick firmware GUI. Unfortunately, the fan controls are the worst of the bunch, and the auto-overclocker is timid at best. The board's sluggish USB 3.0 write speeds don't help its case, either. MSI seems to be heading in the right direction, but it's not there yet.
Gigabyte isn't either, but it's made notable improvements, too. The 3D BIOS interface has definite promise, even if it needs some tweaking and polish. The UD5 is also jam-packed with other goodies, including plenty of wireless options, real-time Dolby Digital Live! encoding, and actual USB 3.0 ports for your front panel. Gigabyte has delivered the kind of excess one might expect from a $350 motherboard, but it's done so with relatively high power consumption and a mess of different tweaking utilities.
The P9X79 PRO sits in the middle of the pack we've put together, and it's probably the most complete offering of the bunch. Asus continues to add thoughtful new features, and the PRO has the best integrated audio in addition to great tuning software, excellent fan controls, and a next-generation firmware interface that continues to evolve. The flashy interface doesn't make up for Asus jacking up the Turbo multipliers behind the user's back, though. The PRO also has much higher idle power consumption than the other boards.
While the Asus and Intel boards are my favorites among the four, both are difficult to fully endorse with our TR Recommended logo. I'd feel a lot better about the P9X79 PRO if Asus rectified its Turbo behavior, though. If only the DX79SI's PCI Express lanes were as easy to address.
31 comments — Last by theampersand at 10:14 PM on 12/05/11
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