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The D5400XS motherboard — continued

One thing you won't find on the D5400XS is a legacy port—not a PS/2 mouse or keyboard plug, not a serial or parallel port, and no floppy drive connector. Those things are all missing. The only obvious concession Intel has made to older standards is the inclusion of an ATA connector presumably intended for optical drives. I can't say I'd miss anything Intel has left out here, and it does make for a tidy port cluster, despite the board's ample array of connections for standards invented in this century.

Even with the omission of legacy I/O and the use of the EATX form factor, real estate on this board is tight. We were only able to fit the brackets for these Zalman coolers onto the board in one specific orientation around each socket. In neither case did that orientation put the retention bracket's larger, curved edge in the proper place to allow clearance for the CPU retention lever. As a result, we'll have to remove the bracket in order to swap out either processor.

In the picture above, you can also see the board's dual eight-pin power connectors situated between the sockets. Seeing these together offers a hint about something you may have suspected: a setup like this requires a potent power supply unit. Intel recommends a kilowatt or better PSU for a system with 4GB of memory, two GPUs, and two CPUs, and if you want to go for it all with four GPUs and 8GB of memory, they recommend a PSU rated for over 1400W. Holy moly. Fortunately, though, we were able to power our test rig quite well with "only" a 1kW unit, PC Power & Cooling's Turbo-Cool 1kW-SR, which has dual eight-pin aux power connectors. Even more fortunately, you may be able to get by with a lesser PSU than the one we used, since Intel says that connecting both of those eight-pin plugs is only necessary for "extreme overclocking."

Speaking of which, we should talk about precisely what Intel has wrought with the D5400XS's BIOS. Here's a look at the voltage ranges and basic tweaking options exposed in the BIOS menu.

Bus speeds FSB: 133-550MHz in 1MHz increments
PCIe: 100-120MHz in 1MHz increments
DRAM: 667, 800MHz (Auto by SPD only)
Bus multipliers CPU: 5x-40x
Voltages CPU 0: 1.2875-1.6V in 0.0125V increments
CPU 1: 1.2875-1.6V in 0.0125V increments
DRAM (1.8V): 1.8-2.8V in 0.04V increments
DRAM (1.5V): 1.5-2.5V in 0.04V increments
FSB: 1.1-1.5V in 0.025V increments
: 1.275-1.6V in 0.025V increments
Monitoring Voltage, fan status, and temperature monitoring

The Skulltrail board's voltage ranges and granularity of control are in league with some of the best enthusiast-class mobos on the market, with 1MHz increments for the FSB clocks and 0.0125V increments for CPU voltage. Not only that, but Intel augments the numbers you see above with additional options that add incremental steps of 300 mV and allow the CPU and FSB reference voltages to be modified further. Yes, the max CPU voltage could be somewhat higher, like the hair-raising 2.35V available on Gigabyte's GA-X38-DQ6, but this board probably offers sufficient range for use with 45nm processors and all but the most exotic chilling schemes.

When coupled with the unlocked Core 2 Extreme QX9775 processors we used for testing, overclocking can be as simple as turning up the CPU multiplier. What may be more exciting, though, is the prospect of grabbing a pair of, say, Xeon E5410 processors for just over 300 bucks each, with a native clock speed of 2.33GHz and FSB speed of 1333MHz, and taking them up from there. Chips like these—or, even better, their new 45nm variants—could sustain some titanic overclocking exploits inside a Skulltrail rig.

So Intel has given us plenty of leeway to fine-tune our abuse of its processors, but the BIOS's knobs and dials offer less control on other fronts. The south bridge voltage can't be modified. Although the menu allows tweaking of the four major memory timing parameters we all know and love, delving into the deep voodoo magic settings beyond those isn't possible. Such things are likely to be strange and foreign territory for FB-DIMMs, anyhow, I suppose. The bigger disappointment is the utter lack of clock speed control for those FB-DIMMs. You're driving at the SPD limit, like it or not.

The D5400XS does have extensive monitoring capabilities, with readouts for nine voltage values, eight fan speeds, and six temperature zones. The board uses those values to modulate the speed of some CPU and system fans, but here's the catch: no speed control options are exposed in the BIOS menu. Nada. No enable/disable choices, no temperature targets, nothing. That fact is punctuated by the high-pitched drone of the board's south bridge cooler. The south bridge's voltage and temp aren't shown in the BIOS monitoring screen, and this fan apparently doesn't respond to changes in temperature at all. I've already started playing with sticking a manual control unit on this fan, because it annoys me. I know that a board like this one will probably involve lots of heat and noise by its nature, but to me, part of building a really good system is tweaking it out for the optimal mix of cooling and acoustics. I'd like to see the kind of control here we find on most enthusiast mobos.

Along similar lines, the pre-release D5400XS BIOS we used didn't yet support either C1E halt or SpeedStep dynamic clock throttling. These things may not make a Skulltrail rig especially cool or quiet, but they're still features I want. Intel says it will have them working by the time the board is released to the public. Skulltrail systems should become available within the next 30 days.

I should mention a few more things before we finish with the D5400XS. The picture above gives you a view of several nice touches. Contrary to how it may look in the picture, one of those nice touches is the placement of the board's six SATA ports. Because this board is 13" deep, those ports won't interfere with the installation of extra-long graphics cards like the Radeon HD 3870 X2. The shrouded south bridge cooler is also quite obviously tailored for keeping things cool with a full slate of PCIe x16 slots populated, and it shouldn't present any clearance problems, either. Two other touches that will warm any DIYer's heart are the POST-code LEDs on the bottom corner of the board (two gray rectangular doodads in the picture) and the built-in power and reset buttons along the board's edge—very helpful for testing and troubleshooting.