Believe it or not, Intel's top-of-the-line Core i7-980X Extreme is a pretty compelling value, at least within the context of a high-end system build. That's uncommon for a halo product that costs an even grand, but we shouldn't be surprised. The 980X's Gulftown silicon is a native six-core design built using 32-nano fabrication technology, so it's as cutting-edge as desktop CPUs get.
Gulftown's arrival ushered in a renaissance of sorts for Intel's LGA1366 platform, which includes the X58 Express core-logic chipset. As the original launch vehicle for the first Nehalem-based CPUs, the X58 has been around for just about two years now. Intel's flagship chipset is still a competent competitor, but with Sandy Bridge lurking just over the horizon, rumors of a six-core derivative swirling, and motherboards based on new 6-series chipsets on display at IDF, the X58 is destined to be deprecated... eventually. Even after Sandy Bridge arrives, the X58 will reign as Intel's only desktop core-logic chipset capable of supplying a pair of graphics cards with 32 lanes of PCIe 2.0 connectivity.
To keep the X58 Express in tune with the latest fashions, Asus has come up with a couple of new models that have all the latest goodiesUSB 3.0 and 6Gbps SATAplus their own unique perspective on what makes a good enthusiast board. One, the Rampage III Gene, is a microATX midget geared toward gamers and laced with remote overclocking functionality. The other, dubbed the Sabertooth X58, eschews the excesses that weigh down a lot of high-end motherboards in favor of a classic, stripped-down approach. Both boards are available for around $200, putting them firmly at the affordable end of the X58 spectrum. Naturally, we had to find out which is best and whether either is worthy of the high-end system setup you're thinking about using to justify that 980X upgrade.
The Rampage III Gene
Exhibit A is the most recent addition to Asus' growing family of Republic of Gamers motherboards. I'd characterize the ROG umbrella as the PC equivalent of BMW's M division, Audi's RS line, and Mercedes' AMG offerings, but that implies an increase in performance that we generally don't see from premium motherboards. Instead, the ROG badge denotes the inclusion of extra widgets and software, such as a GameFirst app that prioritizes networking packets for multiplayer gaming, onboard voltage probe points for hardcore overclockers, an overhauled AiSuite of Windows tweaking apps, and the ability to overclock and monitor a system remotely with a laptop via ROG Connect.
Premium features don't come cheap. However, the Rampage's $225 asking price is pretty reasonable for a high-end motherboard. This isn't a run-of-the-mill ATX board, either. The Rampage squeezes into microATX dimensions, which should give LAN gamers a little more room in the trunk for an extra-large bag of Cheetos and a couple of cans of their favorite overcaffeinated beverage.
Despite its small footprint, the Rampage has all the accoutrements one would expect from a premium motherboard, and it very much looks the part, all dressed up in black and two different shades of red. I'm not sure if Asus meant the DIMM slots to be slightly more orange than the other red accents found on the board, but the two shades don't quite match. You're going to have a hard time spotting a difference between them in a fully loaded system, though.
I don't mean to dwell on aesthetics, but the Rampage's funky heatsinks are quite becoming. The north-bridge cooler is nice and chunky, and the dense array of thinner fins that sprouts up from the power regulation circuitry offers loads of surface area. Both heatsinks are a little on the tall side, so you'll want to avoid aftermarket coolers that taper out aggressively from the CPU socket. Most tower-style designs raise their fins up high enough that clearance shouldn't be a problem.
To avoid clearance conflicts with longer graphics cards, the Rampage's DIMM slots only have retention tabs on one side. That's enough to hold DIMMs securely, at least with the standard-sized modules we used for testing.
Speaking of clearance, note that all eight of the internal SATA ports are lined up along the board's right edge. This orientation leaves plenty of room for longer graphics cards, but it can be a problem in tighter enclosures that put hard drive cages or other internal scaffolding right next to the motherboard tray. I suspect microATX cases are more prone to a tight fit than the average ATX mid-tower.
The slot stack on the Rampage III Gene is more generous than one might expect from a microATX board. You get two PCI Express x16 slots, each of which has a full 16 lanes of bandwidth. The x4 slot that sits between them is notched to accept longer graphics cards, but since it's connected to the first-generation PCIe lanes in the south bridge, you're only getting half the bandwidth of a PCIe 2.0 x4 slot.
Just to the left of the expansion slots lies a very fancy looking X-Fi SupremeFX sticker. Peel it back, and you'll find a pedestrian Via VT2020 audio codec chip. The Via codec is responsible for handling the hardware side of the Rampage's onboard audio, while Creative's SupremeFX software adds support EAX 5.0 positional audio effects and leans on the CPU for any associated heavy lifting. EAX support is a nice touch on a board that targets gamers, but its utility is questionable at a time when few new titles make use of the standard.
At least the Creative audio control panel is slick, and it's easy to avoid bloat by just installing the necessary drivers. I do wish the X-Fi supported real-time Dolby Digital Live or DTS encoding, though. The only way to get multi-channel audio out of the Rampage's S/PDIF digital audio output is with content that has pre-recorded audio tracks. Gamers will have to use the analog outputs if they want surround sound.
Although the Rampage III Gene has a pretty good selection of connectivity options, it's conspicuously missing external Serial ATA ports. There's certainly room for eSATA, and I suspect most users would gladly give up one of the eight internal SATA ports to get an external option.
A couple of buttons do take up space in the port cluster, but both are important. The one on the left is a handy CMOS reset button, while the one on the right toggles the ROG Connect feature. Just to the right of the ROG Connect button sits the USB port used to connect a secondary system running Asus' remote tweaking and overclocking software. ROG Connect is undoubtedly a neat technology. However, I don't see much utility to the remote control capability outside of competitive overclocking circles.
Fortunately, you can still overclock via Asus' TurboV Windows software or through the BIOS, which is predictably loaded with tuning options.
With a base clock that goes up to 500MHz and support for CPU and DRAM voltages up to 2.5V, even extreme overclockers fueled by liquid nitrogen should find ample headroom in the Rampage's BIOS. The BIOS is a pleasure to use, too. Most clock speeds and all voltages can be keyed in directly, and there's an incredible degree of granularity throughout.
An abundance of overclocking controls is hardly uncommon in the motherboard world, but good fan speed controls can be difficult to find. Asus has done a good job here, offering control over the CPU fan's duty cycle and high temperature trigger. Similar options are available for one of the auxiliary fan headers, and users can choose between three presets for the system fan header. There's only one problem: you'll need a four-pin fan to get any level of fan speed control working with the CPU fan header. Three-pin fans will spin, but only at a constant speed.