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A trio of affordable Core i7 motherboards

X58 on a budget

When Intel launched the Core i7 back in November of last year, it was a decidedly exotic high-end platform. Sure, you could get a Core i7-920 for around $280, but it required a motherboard with Intel's new X58 Express chipset. At the time, those were running $300 and up. What's more, the Core i7 only works with DDR3 memory and is at its best with a triple-channel configuration, which was another expensive proposition just a few months ago.

Apart from eager early adopters, I suspect few PC enthusiasts were enticed into taking the Core i7 plunge at the beginning¬ómost of us are far too frugal. We also know how quickly prices can drop. And so they have. The free-falling memory market has dragged triple-channel 6GB DDR3 memory kits from reputable manufacturers down to less than $90 online. A new wave of X58-based motherboards has arrived, as well, and this latest collection comes with price tags approaching $200.

In just a few short months, the Core i7's once-tenuous value proposition has blossomed into something entirely more compelling. Indeed, the platform has become so attractive that it's migrated down to the ~$1300 Sweeter Spot build in our latest system guide¬ónot bad for a brand-new microarchitecture and the undisputed clock-for-clock performance leader.

The introduction of cheaper X58 boards deserves much of the credit for the Core i7's newfound affordability. As one might expect, the first batch of LGA1366 mobos were pimped-out flagships brimming with excess. This latest bunch trims extraneous peripherals and unnecessary frills, reducing prices accordingly. Naturally, we had to find out how these cheaper Core i7 boards stack up, so we've gathered the Asus P6T, Gigabyte EX58-UD3R, and MSI X58 Platinum and fed them to the wolves.

Lining up the competition
If you're unfamiliar with the X58 Express, I suggest reading our comprehensive review of the chipset. We'll be focusing on motherboards today, and while the X58 is essential to Core i7 compatibility and thus the most important part of these motherboards, it's also the one thing they all have in common, which makes it much less interesting from a comparative standpoint.

The X58 Express is currently the only core logic chipset compatible with the Core i7's new QuickPath Interconnect. That QPI link is housed in the north bridge chip, and thanks to the Core i7's integrated memory controller, this chip is largely a PCI Express hub. The chip bristles with 36 lanes of second-generation PCI Express connectivity, which is more than enough for a couple of full-bandwidth PCIe x16 slots. CrossFire is supported, of course, but the SLI situation is a little sticky. Rather than granting the X58 chipset official support for multi-GeForce configurations, Nvidia insists on certifying motherboards on a model-by-model basis.

Most of the first set of uber-expensive X58 boards were SLI-certified. However, support isn't universal in this latest crop; only Asus' P6T will let you team up a couple of GeForce cards. Interestingly, Gigabyte and MSI do offer SLI versions of the EX58-UD3R and X58 Platinum. Both are available at Newegg, and they don't seem to carry a price premium over their SLI-less twins.

Asus P6T Gigabyte EX58-UD3R MSI X58 Platinum
Chipset Intel X58 Express Intel X58 Express Intel X58 Express
DIMM slots 6 240-pin DDR3 4 240-pin DDR3 6 240-pin DDR3
Expansion slots 3 PCI Express x16
1 PCI Express x1
2 32-bit/33MHz PCI
2 PCI Express x16
1 PCI Express x4
2 PCI Express x1
2 32-bit/33MHz PCI
2 PCI Express x16
3 PCI Express x1
2 32-bit/33MHz PCI
Multi-GPU support CrossFire, SLI CrossFire CrossFire
Auxiliary storage JMicron JMB363
JMicron JMB322
iTE IT8720
Gigabyte GSATA2
JMicron JMB363
JMicron JMB322
Networking Realtek RTL8111C Realtek RTL8111D 2 x Realtek RTL8111C
Audio Realtek ALC1200 Realtek ALC888 Realtek ALC888
Firewire VIA VT6315N T.I. TSB43AB23 JMicron JMB381

On these boards, the X58 teams up with Intel's ICH10R south bridge. This chip is little more than a die shrink of the ICH9R, which in turn differed little from the ICH8R and the ICH7R. Welcome to Intel's tick-tock-tock-tock approach to I/O chip development.

With six Serial ATA RAID ports, a dozen USB ports, an HD audio interface, and even a seldom-used Gigabit Ethernet controller, the ICH10R has just about everything a high-end motherboard needs. However, it doesn't offer Firewire, forcing mobo makers to seek out auxiliary peripheral chips to provide a little 1394 love. Asus settles on a Firewire chip from VIA, while Gigabyte employs one from Texas Instruments and MSI one from JMicron.

The ICH10R's HD audio interface requires an accompanying codec, and on this front, we have some agreement between Asus, Gigabyte, and MSI. Fear the crab, baby. But don't pay too much attention to the model numbers. The P6T's ALC1200 may sound fancier than the ALC888, but in reality, the capabilities of the two chips are almost identical. Both are eight-channel HD audio codecs, and neither is capable of encoding DTS or Dolby Digital Live bitstreams on the fly like Realtek's ALC889A. So why does the ALC1200 have a higher model number than even the superior ALC889A? Probably because, if you're the world's biggest potential customer for Realtek chips, you can have whatever model number you'd like.

Realtek's domination continues on the networking front, where each board taps at least one of the company's Gigabit Ethernet controllers. The X58 Platinum is the only one to offer dual GigE ports, although it does so with older RTL8111C chips. Only Gigabyte's EX58-UD3R features the newer RTL8111D. Naturally, we've tested the peripheral performance of each board. We'll see how they stack up in a moment.

The ICH10R's six SATA RAID ports should be enough for most folks, yet all three of these X58 boards offer additional storage options via auxiliary storage controllers. To be fair, these chips are necessary to provide IDE connectivity lacking in the ICH10R. That accounts for the Gigabyte board's iTE controller and the JMB363 used on the Asus and MSI boards. So what about the JMB322 and GSATA2 chips? They're meant to bring a measure of additional RAID and 1 support to the boards, and the JMicron chips do it without requiring drivers. Driver-free, OS-independent RAID is a neat trick, but if faced with trusting my array's integrity to an Intel, Gigabyte (which is just a re-branded Silicon Image chip), or JMicron controller, I'm going to go with Intel every time. Reputation matters when it comes to RAID, and it's easy to install Vista to arrays connected to the ICH10R's proven storage controller.