Intel's Core i7 processors have started trickling onto the market, and the collection of X58 Express-based motherboards ready to accept them has started to grow. We've already looked at X58 boards from Asus and Intel, predictably finding the former to be a much better fit for enthusiasts than the latter. Intel, it seems, still hasn't figured out what makes a good enthusiast board. Gigabyte and MSI have been building them for years, though, and today their respective EX58-UD5 and X58 Eclipse motherboards take center stage.
Like most X58 boards, the UD5 and Eclipse aren't cheap. But one could argue that that makes them more interesting. These are unabashedly high-end motherboards, and as such, they're tricked out with excessive arrays of expansion slots, ports, and auxiliary peripherals in addition to novel features you won't find on budget or even mid-range products. The question, of course, is which offers the best blend of indulgent excess, solid performance, and overclocking headroom. Read on for the answer.
Gigabyte has several X58 motherboards planned, including models that will sell for significantly less than the EX58-UD5's $300 asking price. However, those cheaper derivatives aren't expected to be available until early next year, allowing Gigabyte to capitalize on early Core i7 adopters willing to get in on the latest and greatest desktop processor at any cost. Besides, the UD5 is actually one of the more affordable X58-based motherboards currently on the market.
Long known for the virtual rainbow of expansion slots and ports that tend to populate its boards, Gigabyte has toned down the color palette a little for the UD5. The board is still draped in the company's trademark shade of turquoisey blue, but the rainbow has been replaced by a subdued collection of white and light blue ports, with a little extra color here and there. Gigabyte says this new palette was a conscious attempt to make the board look more elegant than its predecessors, although unless you're running a case window or one of Antec's open-air Skeleton enclosures, you probably won't notice the difference.
At first glance, it's almost impossible to miss the giant Ultra Durable 3 billboard that Gigabyte has slapped onto the board's gargantuan south bridge cooler. Ultra Durable refers to the use of solid-state Japanese capacitors, low RDS(on) MOSFETs, and ferrite core chokes—higher quality electrical components that Gigabyte says prolong the life of the board and improve its overclocking potential. This latest Ultra Durable iteration also doubles the thickness of the copper layers built into the board—a move that apparently lowers both impedance and board temperatures. Besides, nothing says bling like an extra ounce of copper in your motherboard.
It's probably a good thing that Gigabyte so loudly advertises the attention it pays to the UD5's electrical components, because they'd otherwise be lost in the sea of expansion slots, ports, and auxiliary peripheral chips that dominate the rest of the board's real estate. To say that the UD5 is packed would be an understatement, and yet the board is largely free of clearance issues and niggling little layout quirks. Those with upside-down cases will want to note that Gigabyte puts the auxiliary 12V power connector along the top edge of the board, though. This location is perfect for traditional cases that put the PSU above the mobo, but with more obscure layouts, you might need a 12V extension cable to reach.
Gigabyte rings the UD5's CPU socket with the usual combination of heatpipe-linked passive coolers. The heatsinks are relatively short, so they shouldn't interfere with larger aftermarket coolers that fan out from the socket. Also note that one of the VRM heatsinks actually extends into the port cluster, providing a measure of convection-fueled exhaust out the rear of a system.
The EX58-UD5 features 12 power phases for the processor, two for the memory, and another two for the north bridge chip. To conserve power, the board is also capable of scaling back on the number of phases used through Gigabyte's Dynamic Energy Saver software. There are even little LEDs on the board that light up according to how many power phases are active at a given time. Unfortunately, though, versions of Gigabyte's DES software available for download on the company's website and bundled with the board throw up BIOS incompatibility errors, rendering the board's Dynamic Energy Saver functionality all but useless. If only Gigabyte built DES functionality directly into the BIOS—without the need for cumbersome Windows software—we wouldn't have to wait for a software update to fix the issue.
Moving down the board, we find what may be the world's largest south bridge heatsink. Seriously, this thing has more land mass than, er, Liechtenstein. And there's more than just an ICH10R hiding beneath it. Under this mass of metal you'll also find a "GSATA" storage controller (a JMicron JMB363 with Gigabyte's name silk-screened on the chip) flanked by a couple of JMB322 hardware RAID chips. Each of the JMB322s is responsible for two of the white SATA ports and offers driver-free RAID 0 and 1 support. However, rather than riding the PCI Express bus, each of these chips hooks into one of the GSATA controller's two Serial ATA ports. The hardware RAID stack in the JMB322s makes arrays connected to them appear as standard hard drives.
With ten SATA ports onboard, one might expect at least a couple to interfere with longer double-wide graphics cards. That's not the case, though; all the ports are mounted along the edge of the board to keep cabling out of the way. I quite like this configuration, although it can cause problems for smaller enclosures that put hard drive cages or other bits of internal scaffolding right up next to the edge of the motherboard tray.
Over to the left of the SATA port cluster we can see a handy two-digit POST code display that makes troubleshooting much easier. The UD5 also has onboard power and reset buttons located up near the DIMM slots in the top-right corner of the board.
There's certainly no shortage of expansion options on the UD5, which features a total of five PCI Express slots: three x16s, one x4, and one x1. Three-way CrossFire and SLI configurations are supported, and depending on your enclosure, you might even be able to squeeze in a double-wide threesome—the hottest of all trailer park exploits. You can even add a fourth graphics card, since the x4 slot is notched to accept longer cards. However, the position of the north bridge cooler precludes the use of longer x1 cards.
If you still have PCI peripherals kicking around, the UD5 obliges with a couple of old-school PCI slots, one of which will be blocked by a double-wide primary graphics card. Gigabyte even throws in a floppy port, although in this day and age, I think we can do without.
Before we move on, note the dual BIOS chips located in the bottom left-hand corner of the board (bottom right in the picture above). One of these chips is a backup that will come in handy if a flash attempt goes awry.
As one might expect from a board bursting with connectivity options, the UD5's port cluster is peppered with goodies, including a clear CMOS button that overclockers should find quite useful when testing the limits of their systems. You also get plenty of USB ports, a couple of Ethernet jacks, Firewire, and a slew of audio ports, including two flavors of digital S/PDIF output. Gigabyte uses Realtek's ALC889A audio codec, which for some might seem like an odd choice to praise. However, the ALC889A is capable of encoding Dolby Digital Live bitstreams on the fly—an old SoundStorm trick—allowing gamers to pass pristine multi-channel audio to compatible receivers and speakers.
The only thing missing from the UD5's port cluster is external Serial ATA connectivity. Rather than putting eSATA ports on the board and arbitrarily tying them to a specific storage controller, Gigabyte provides a PCI back plate with two eSATA ports that can be connected to any of the board's internal SATA ports. This additional flexibility is appreciated, particularly since I like the idea of running one half of a mirrored RAID 1 array in an external enclosure for easy off-site backups.