Like the GA-Z170X-Gaming G1 did for Intel's Z170 chipset, the GA-X99-Designare EX represents the peak of what's possible when Gigabyte's hardware engineers get free rein to pack every bit of their expertise into one motherboard. This board looks and feels every bit of its $420-ish price tag.
Unfortunately, the Designare EX's dazzling exterior belies software and firmware that still need more polish. Gigabyte's latest firmware interface is clean and responsive, but adjusting settings or determining how certain parameters interacted with one another wasn't intuitive. Gigabyte's scant documentation of critical firmware settings didn't help us master the vast swath of parameters one can tweak with a Broadwell-E CPU, either.
Gigabyte also plays a dirty trick when XMP profiles are enabled by setting the all-core Turbo multiplier to that of the fastest core on the chip. With a Core i7-6950X and Turbo Boost Max 3.0, that means an ambitious 40x multiplier across all ten cores, and that move triggers a substantial increase in voltage across the CPU. The Designare's firmware and Windows software offered no testimony to the fact that the board was toying around with those settings in the background. We've complained about this behavior for years, and it's aged about as well as Franzia in a flooded basement.
Gigabyte admits that it gooses clocks when XMP is enabled because of performance concerns in reviews like this one, but we're far less worried about benchmark performance (which was stellar by every measure we tested) than we are about complete control over our hardware. We eventually figured out a way to get XMP and the CPU's stock clocks to play well together while keeping Turbo Boost Max 3.0 intact, but it took far longer than we'd have liked. Clearer documentation would have been a great help in that regard. Even better, Gigabyte's engineers could leave CPU multipliers alone to begin with if XMP is enabled. Enthusiasts everywhere would be thankful.
On the plus side, Gigabyte's firmware fan controls are now about as good as Asus' gold-standard approach, though we'd appreciate more flexibility in choosing the component temperatures the board's fan headers respond to. All of the board's fancy LED features can be set up in firmware, too, and its extensive menu of connections for PCI Express storage, Thunderbolt 3 devices, and multiple GPUs is top-shelf.
The company's Windows utilities now feature clean UIs and largely intuitive controls, though the Easy Tune utility's parameters need some updating to work properly with Broadwell-E and Turbo Boost Max 3.0. We also enjoyed the board's sterling audio subsystem, fast built-in wireless networking, and luxurious build quality. With a little more polish, the Designare EX would offer one of the most compelling feature sets around.
In the end, though, we think that any motherboard as pricey as the Designare EX should be darn near perfect. While this board's great specifications, flashy looks, and fine-grained fan-control features all impress, the at-times-befuddling firmware and its behind-the-scenes manipulation of the hugely expensive Core i7-6950X left us feeling let down. Other hiccups—like the downright dangerous shutdown of our liquid cooler's pump when we loaded up our overclocked CPU with Gigabyte's Windows utilities installed—have no place on any motherboard, much less one this dear.
If Gigabyte irons out the firmware wrinkles we observed, the Designare EX will be at the cutting edge of PC hardware for years to come, and we'd heartily recommend it even with its lofty price tag. For now, builders looking to make one of the baddest PCs around with Gigabyte's top-end X99 board should be ready to spend some time in its firmware getting everything just right.
28 comments — Last by Umbral at 7:37 PM on 12/03/16
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