Motherboard makers talk a big game when it comes to component quality and durability. Trust me, I’ve sat through all the briefings. Each board’s capacitors, chokes, and MOSFETs are of the highest quality. These components have been selected because they deliver superior durability and, of course, more reliable overclocking.
Unfortunately, those claims are a little difficult to quantify. Overclocking is largely CPU-limited, at least outside the realm of liquid nitrogen, and the results of meaningful durability testing would be irrelevant by the time they were fit to publish. The durability argument sounds especially hollow when typical motherboard warranties run out after only three years. Premium graphics cards, power supplies, and hard drives offer five or more years of warranty coverage.
Asus decided to walk the walk last year when it announced a new line of TUF-branded motherboards led by the Sabertooth X58. In addition to sporting only the finest electrical components, these TUF boards are backed with five-year warranty coverage, something unheard of in the desktop mobo market.
The egregious use of a lone, PCI-based Gigabit Ethernet controller held the Sabertooth X58 back from true greatness. Still, the board’s unique approach had definite appeal for PC professionals and enthusiasts with more old-school sensibilities. Now there’s a Sabertooth built for Sandy Bridge, and versions of it with the bug-free B3 stepping of Intel’s P67 chipset are finally available. Let’s check out some of the tricks Asus’ new cat has up its sleeve.
Or shroud. This latest addition to the Sabertooth family wears Thermal Armor, a plastic skin designed to improve cooling performance in certain circumstances. More on that in a moment.
At first glance, the armor gives the Sabertooth a distinctive look all too rare in a world of copycat board designs. It adds a stealthy, Special Forces edge to a color scheme drawn from the Army’s camo palette. The resulting aesthetic is a refreshing departure from the black boards and blue accents that permeate the current crop of look-alike P67 products. I’ve gotta give Asus credit for not going overboard and painting the armor with a camouflage print.
Asus was smart to keep the armor out of the way, too. The shroud encroaches on the socket a little, but it’s less than 15 mm tall and shouldn’t interfere with aftermarket heatsinks. Neither should the low-profile VRM coolers.
The heatsinks look much better in color, and their chunky design fits right in with the military aesthetic. That theme is carried right down to the chokes, which have been emblazoned with a subtle cosmetic touch that looks pretty slick next to the row of polished capacitors.
Asus includes a Certificate of Reliability with the Sabertooth claiming that the board’s capacitors, chokes, and MOSFETs meet no fewer than 12 different military standards for everything from temperature cycling to mechanical shock. The capacitors have even been certified to withstand the corrosive effects of an atmosphere laced with sea salt, should you prefer to do your overclocking from the comfort of an aircraft carrier.
A generous cut-out around each expansion slot ensures that the Thermal Armor won’t interfere with expansion cards. There are two PCI Express x16 slots onboard, and you can set the pair in a dual-x8 configuration for CrossFire or SLI. Running a dual-double-wide graphics config will obstruct access to the Sabertooth’s only PCI slot, but such things are easy to live without in this day and age.
The edge of the board plays host to a neat cluster of Serial ATA ports color-coded by speed and controller. Only the four to the right offer 6Gbps connectivity, with the white ones tied to Marvell SATA silicon that sits under the same low-profile heatsink as the P67 Express chipset. The green header to the right of the SATA wall will supply compatible front-panel connectors with a couple of SuperSpeed USB ports.
Asus is using the same NEC USB 3.0 controllers as everyone else, but it’s put two on the Sabertooth. The other chip feeds a couple of SuperSpeed ports located in the loaded rear cluster. Here, we see Asus try to make up for previous sins by splurging on a swanky Gigabit Ethernet solution—the networking controller embedded in Intel’s P67 chipset. The auxiliary PHY chip required to tap the P67’s integrated GigE connectivity costs more than a standalone Realtek controller, and we appreciate the upgrade.
Realtek does, however, provide the Sabertooth’s ALC892 audio codec, complete with surround-sound virtualization for headphones. You also get a digital S/PDIF audio output, standard and powered eSATA ports, a FireWire connector, and even a PS/2 port for folks still clinging to their original Model M keyboards.
The PS/2 port may be a nod to old-school types, but the Sabertooth’s BIOS has a decidedly fresh scent thanks to a very slick UEFI implementation. Asus shares much of the same BIOS code throughout its 6-series motherboard lineup, and it’s a real treat to use. The newbie-friendly GUI pictured above looks an awful lot like something you might find in Windows. Switch to the advanced mode, and everything is organized like a old Asus BIOS with the added benefit of a mouse cursor and wheel support for scrolling.
Underneath the polished interface lies a complete collection of clock, multiplier, voltage, and timing controls. All the Sandy Bridge knobs and dials are present, including Turbo multipliers and power limits. Even the fan speed controls are decent. Tweakers can tune temperature limits and speeds for the CPU and two additional system fans.
A closer look at Thermal Armor
By far the most unique element of the Sabertooth P67 is the Thermal Armor covering the majority of the board. Asus didn’t just employ the shroud for looks, though. The armor was designed to direct airflow to board-level components and shield them from heat generated by expansion cards. Shielding components fits in with the armor theme, but things get a little complicated when you take a closer look at how airflow might be used to cool the motherboard.
Generating airflow for the Thermal Armor requires one of two things: a 50-mm “assistant” fan that screws into the portal pictured above or a CPU cooler whose fan blows down, toward the CPU socket. The assistant fan is an optional component and doesn’t come with the Sabertooth. According to Asus, it would have been too expensive to put the fan through the validation and reliability testing required for TUF-series components. Asus thinks end users will be picky enough about noise levels to want to choose their own fan, anyway.
One could always rely on the airflow generated by CPU coolers that blow down toward the socket. Intel’s stock coolers have used this approach for years, but the tower-style designs that have become almost ubiquitous among aftermarket coolers don’t—they generate airflow parallel to the motherboard, which is of little help to the Sabertooth’s armor.
Popping off the shell reveals little in the way of ducting or internal channels to shape airflow. However, there is plenty of internal scaffolding to add stiffness to what amounts to a thin, lightweight plastic piece.
The armor is surprisingly sturdy given how little material has been used. A dozen screws affix the shroud to the board, ensuring that it won’t rattle around or vibrate in the company of high-speed fans and whirring hard drives. The screws are easy enough to remove, but eight of them are on the back of the board, making it impossible to pry off the armor with the Sabertooth installed in a case.
Undressing the Sabertooth reveals her naughty bits in all their glory. This is still a good-looking board with the armor removed, and I suspected it could be a cooler one, as well. Thermal Armor might shield the board from heat generated by power-hungry graphics cards, but it also prevents the airflow generated by system fans from cooling motherboard components.
Fortunately, the Sabertooth comes equipped with a slew of temperature sensors to help us evaluate the usefulness of its Thermal Armor. In addition to the temperature sensor in the CPU, the board has 11 different probes covering everything from the voltage regulation circuitry to the USB 3.0 and 6Gbps SATA controllers. These temperatures can be monitored with a new Thermal Radar application included in Asus’ AI Suite software for Windows.
The Thermal Radar app is pretty slick. It includes a dose of voltage monitoring and some very detailed fan speed controls. Users can define custom fan speed profiles for the CPU, system, and assistant fan headers. Three target points can be set per profile, and the reference temperature can be tied to a single probe or split between up to three. There’s even a set of sliders to adjust the weighting for profiles based on multiple sensors.
Armed with Thermal Radar, we set out to test the usefulness of the Sabertooth’s outer skin. We tested the board on an open test bench and in an Cooler Master Cosmos enclosure with the CPU strapped to a tower-style Intel cooler and a stock unit that blows toward the socket. Asus wasn’t able to provide us with an assistant fan by press time, so we had to test without—that is, after all, how the board is sold.
Overall, Thermal Armor looks like a very bad idea. When we subjected all the configurations to a combined CPU and GPU load, component temperatures were hotter with the armor in place than with it removed. The differences weren’t insignificant, either. Component temperatures were more than 10°C higher when the armor was used in conjunction with the stock cooler, I suspect because the air being blown into the shroud had already been warmed by the CPU heatsink. This was true not only on an open test bench, but also in our tower enclosure.
Letting the system idle produced better results, at least when the Sabertooth was run in a case with the stock Intel cooler. In that config, and only when idle, component temperatures were 3-4°C cooler with the armor installed. Success! Sadly, this advantage disappeared when we switched to a tower cooler or an open test bench.
We contacted Asus about our results, and the company said the effectiveness of Thermal Armor will depend on one’s case, cooling, and system configuration. I’m a little dubious that lower temperatures can be achieved when the airflow is coming from a CPU cooler whose heatsink is being warmed by a loaded-up processor, though. I’m also discouraged that component temperatures were so much higher with what amounted to a pretty standard system configuration. For a lot of folks, Thermal Armor may do more harm than good.
Digging into the details
If you want all the nitty gritty details on the Sabertooth’s BIOS options and hardware specifications, check out the charts below.
|Clock speeds||Base: 80-300MHz in 0.1MHz steps
DRAM: 800-2400MHz in 133MHz steps
|Multipliers||CPU: 35-59X in 1X steps|
|Voltages||CPU: 0.8-1.99V in 0.005V steps
CPU PLL: 1.2-2.2V in 0.00625V steps
DRAM: 1.2-2.2V in 0.00625V steps
PCH: 1.05-1.4V in 0.05V steps
CCIO: 0.8-1.7V in 0.00625V steps
CCSA: 0.8-1.7V in 0.00625V steps
CPU upper temp: 20-75°C in 1°C steps
CPU lower temp: 20-75°C in 1°C steps
CPU max duty cycle: 0-100% in 1% steps
CPU min duty cycle: 0-100% in 1% steps
System, Assistant max duty cycle: 60-100% in 1% steps
System, Assistant max duty cycle: 60-100% in 1% steps
That may not look like a lot of overclocking options, but there’s only so much you can do with a Sandy Bridge CPU. Get yourself a fully unlocked K-series chip, and you’ll be able to take full advantage of all the multiplier and Turbo options built into the Sabertooth’s BIOS.
|DIMM slots||4 DDR3-1333|
|Expansion slots||2 PCIe x16
3 PCIe x1
|Storage I/O||2 6Gbps SATA RAID via H67 Express
4 3Gbps SATA RAID via H67 Express
2 6Gbps SATA RAID via Marvell 88SE9120
|Audio||8-channel HD via Realtek ALC892|
1 PS/2 keyboard/keyboard
2 USB 3.0 w/ 2 headers via NEC D720200F1
8 USB 2.0 w/ 6 headers
1 FireWire via VIAVT6308P
1 RJ45 Gigabit Ethernet
1 analog front out
1 analog bass/center out
1 analog rear out
1 analog surround out
1 analog mic in
1analog line in
1 optical S/PDIF output
There are no surprises on the spec sheet, so let’s move on.
Our testing methods
New drivers and BIOS updates have been released since we looked at the first wave of P67 boards. We’ve pulled out our favorite, Asus’ own P8P67 PRO, to compare to the Sabertooth. With few exceptions, all tests were run at least three times, and we reported the median of the scores produced.
|Processor||Intel Core i7-2600K 3.4GHz|
|Motherboard||Asus P8P67 PRO||Asus Sabertooth P67|
|Platform hub||Intel P67 Express||Intel P67 Express|
|Chipset drivers||Chipset: 184.108.40.2065
|Memory size||8GB (2 DIMMs)||8GB (2 DIMMs)|
|Memory type||Corsair Vengeance DDR3 SDRAM at 1333MHz||Corsair Vengeance DDR3 SDRAM at 1333MHz|
|Audio||Realtek ALC892 with 2.59 drivers||Realtek ALC892 with 2.59 drivers|
|Graphics||Asus EAH5870 1GB with Catalyst 11.3 drivers|
|Hard drive||Raptor WD1500ADFD 150GB|
|Power Supply||PC Power & Cooling Silencer 750W|
|OS||Microsoft Windows 7 Ultimate x64|
We’d like to thank Asus, Corsair, and Western Digital for helping to outfit our test rigs with some of the finest hardware available. Thanks to each of the motherboard makers for supplying their boards, too, and to AMD and Intel for providing the CPUs.
We used the following versions of our test applications:
- TrueCrypt 7.0a
- x264 4.0
- 7-Zip 4.65
- Metro: 2033
- Stream 5.8 64-bit
- CPU-Z 1.41
- HD Tach 3.01
- HD Tune 4.01
- RightMark Audio Analyzer 6.2.3
The test systems’ Windows desktop was set at 1280×1024 in 32-bit color at a 60Hz screen refresh rate. Vertical refresh sync (vsync) was disabled for all tests.
All the tests and methods we employed are publicly available and reproducible. If you have questions about our methods, hit our forums to talk with us about them.
Don’t expect much in the way or surprises here. We’re using the same Sandy Bridge memory controller, Corsair DIMMs, and BIOS-level memory timings with both boards.
As one might expect given those conditions, the Sabertooth’s memory bandwidth and latency are comparable to that of the P8P67 PRO.
We see largely equivalent application performance between the two boards, as well. The Sabertooth is marginally faster in a few tests, while the P8P67 has a slight edge in others.
We measured system power consumption, sans monitor and speakers, at the wall outlet using a Watts Up Pro power meter. Readings were taken at idle and under a load consisting of a Cinebench 11.5 render alongside the rthdribl HDR lighting demo. We tested with Windows 7’s High Performance and Balanced power plans.
Asus’ P67 boards ship with a handy BIOS switch that enables their EPU power-saving functionality. We tested the Sabertooth and P8P67 PRO with this feature enabled and disabled.
The Sabertooth’s power consumption is comparable to that of the P8P67 PRO, whose power draw is among the lowest we’ve seen from an enthusiast-grade P67 board. Interestingly, Asus looks to have changed the clock-scaling behavior of its most recent P67 BIOSes. When the Windows power plan is set to High Performance, the Sabertooth and P8P67 both lock the CPU multiplier at its maximum Turbo setting (38X for our Core i7-2600K). Dropping down to the Balanced power plan allows the CPU to lower its multiplier at idle, which in turn reduces power consumption. Sounds good to me.
Intel put up barriers to pushing Sandy Bridge speeds by increasing the base clock frequency, but it also made K-series CPUs with fully unlocked multipliers cheap enough even for budget-conscious enthusiasts. Unfortunately, Asus’ TurboV Windows overclocking utility doesn’t give users control over the CPU multiplier or Turbo limits. The app is also missing a tuning function to overclock the CPU automatically.
However, AI Suite does have interesting twists, including a refined user interface and modular components. If the default color scheme doesn’t suit you, a series of contrast, brightness, saturation, hue, and gamma sliders will let you change the palette to just about anything you want.
Hot pink, anyone? As you can see, all those extra sensors exposed by Thermal Radar are also tracked by AI Suite’s monitoring app. Enough fiddling around in Windows, though. Let’s get down to some serious overclocking in the BIOS.
Although the Sabertooth’s AI Suite may lack an auto-tune feature, there is one in the BIOS. Seconds after hitting the OC Tuner option, the system rebooted with a 43X CPU multiplier and a 103MHz base clock speed.
We used an eight-way Prime95 load in conjunction with the rthdribl HDR lighting demo to test for stability, and the Sabertooth was perfectly happy at 4.43GHz with just 1.3V. That’s a pretty healthy overclock for just a few seconds worth of effort. Could a little more effort coax higher speeds from our Core i7-2600K?
Indeed it could. For our manual overclocking test, I dropped the base clock speed back down to 100MHz and started cranking on the CPU multiplier. The system had little trouble getting up to 4.5GHz with a 45X multiplier, but it crashed under load until I set the load-line calibration to high. After that, the CPU cruised up to 4.7GHz without so much as a voltage tweak. It was even stable with a 47X multiplier, but throttling started to kick in under load. Throttling disappeared at 4.6GHz, and the system remained completely stable at that speed.
Further fiddling with the load-line calibration and other BIOS settings didn’t help matters, but I think it’s clear that our CPU and cooling solution were the limiting factors here. If you’re looking to overclock, the Sabertooth has you covered—just make sure the rest of your system’s components are up to the task.
Motherboard peripheral performance
Our last stop on the testing front is the wonderful world of onboard peripherals.
|HD Tach USB 3.0 performance|
| Read burst
| Average read
| Average write
| CPU utilization
|Asus P8P67 PRO||220.9||176.6||57.9||2.0|
|Asus Sabertooth P67||221.2||177.0||58.3||2.0|
|HD Tach USB 2.0 performance|
| Read burst
| Average read
| Average write
| CPU utilization
|Asus P8P67 PRO||35.1||35.0||25.2||2.0|
|Asus Sabertooth P67||35.1||35.0||25.2||2.0|
Solid USB performance? Check. Obviously, the USB 3.0 ports are much faster. Keep that in mind when considering your next external storage device.
|HD Tune Serial ATA performance – VelociRaptor|
|Burst (MB/s)||Average (MB/s)||Random 4KB (ms)||Burst (MB/s)||Average (MB/s)||Random 4KB (ms)|
|Asus P8P67 PRO||292.1||129.9||7.0||292.3||125.9||2.7|
|Asus P8P67 PRO (Marvell)||235.6||129.9||7.2||238.9||114.8||2.6|
|Asus Sabertooth P67||294.2||129.9||7.0||294.1||125.8||2.7|
|Asus Sabertooth P67 (Marvell)||235.4||129.9||7.2||234.4||127.2||2.7|
|HD Tune Serial ATA performance – Vertex 3|
|Burst (MB/s)||Average (MB/s)||Random 4KB (ms)||Burst (MB/s)||Average (MB/s)||Random 4KB (ms)|
|Asus P8P67 PRO||387.8||383.1||0.05||348.1||279.6||0.06|
|Asus P8P67 PRO (Marvell)||263.0||261.3||0.07||241.8||130.6||0.09|
|Asus Sabertooth P67||388.7||383.7||0.07||346.4||278.5||0.07|
|Asus Sabertooth P67 (Marvell)||261.3||258.8||0.08||238.1||167.9||0.10|
Regardless of whether you’re using a mechanical hard drive or an SSD, you’re much better off having it plugged into the P67’s Serial ATA ports rather than those tied to an auxiliary Marvell controller. There’s little difference in SATA performance between the Sabertooth and P8P67, but the Intel chipset offers clearly superior performance to the Marvell controllers on both boards.
|NTttcp Ethernet performance|
|Throughput (Mbps)||CPU utilization (%)|
|Asus P8P67 PRO||934.6||1.8|
|Asus Sabertooth P67||938.3||1.8|
Unlike the old Sabertooth X58, the new P67 model has competitive Gigabit Ethernet throughput.
|RightMark Audio Analyzer audio quality|
|Frequency response||Noise level||Dynamic range||THD||THD + Noise||IMD + Noise||Stereo Crosstalk||IMD at 10kHz||Overall score|
|Asus P8P67 PRO||5||4||4||5||3||5||5||5||4|
|Asus Sabertooth P67||5||4||4||5||3||5||5||5||4|
There’s no difference in RMAA scores between the Sabertooth and P8P67. If you’re really serious about analog audio signal quality, I suggest checking out Asus’ excellent Xonar DG sound card.
Asus’ Sabertooth P67 is a very good motherboard. Its performance and power consumption are solid, the BIOS is excellent, and there are plenty of overclocking options for folks looking to go to town on their K-series Sandy Bridge CPUs. The Sabertooth might not have quite as many ports and slots as some other boards in its price range, but there should be more than enough connectivity and expansion capacity for the vast majority of hard-core enthusiasts.
The real draw here is the higher-grade electrical components that pepper the board and the five-year warranty they’ve inspired. Asus also deserves credit for loading the Sabertooth with temperature sensors tied to a powerful Thermal Radar application with even more advanced fan control functionality than what’s offered in the BIOS. Unfortunately, that application proved vital in exposing the Sabertooth’s greatest flaw: a Thermal Armor outer layer that in some cases does the exact opposite of Asus’ intentions.
Thermal Armor was designed to lower motherboard component temperatures, but it actually increased temperatures with most of the configurations we tested. The optional assistant fan is probably necessary to achieve the best results. Asus doesn’t include it with the board, so you’ll have to add one at an additional cost. Of course, you can also remove the armor and enjoy the Sabertooth without it.
What really bothers me about Thermal Armor is the fact that it feels like the sort of gimmicky feature that TUF-series motherboards should be above. That makes it difficult to swallow the Sabertooth’s $220 asking price, which is $40 more than what you’ll pay for a P8P67 PRO with the same BIOS, performance, and general feature set.
For discerning enthusiasts making a long-term investment, the Sabertooth’s perks may be worth the extra cash. However, Intel’s incoming Z68 chipset looms large on the horizon, making pricey P67 boards a questionable investment overall. Don’t fret, though. The TUF series surely has something special in store for Z68, and missteps aside, Asus seems to be heading in the right direction with this new family of motherboards.