Intel's DX79SI motherboard
Although much better known for its CPUs, Intel also makes motherboards—enthusiast-oriented models, too. The DX79SI is one such board, as its rather ominous skull logo attests.
When we've included Intel in previous motherboard roundups, the company's boards have come out looking a little light on features given their premium price points. This time around, however, the DX79SI is one of the cheapest of the bunch, with an expected street price in the $280-300 range. Intel has also endowed the board with a few perks you might not expect.
One of those perks is fancier electrical components, which Intel hasn't talked much about in the past. As is customary for high-end motherboards these days, the DX79SI is outfitted with solid-state capacitors, driver MOSFETs, digital voltage regulation for the CPU, and other exotic components aimed at improving power delivery and overall system stability.
Intel can lay claim to being the first motherboard maker to adopt a black-and-blue color scheme, so I can't fault the company for sticking to its guns as everyone else has embraced the same palette. The DX79SI looks like it means business, in part thanks to the chunky heatsinks that sit atop the power regulation circuitry.
Alas, the lower heatsink is too close to the top PCI Express x16 slot, obscuring access to the retention clip. With a double-wide graphics card installed, my stubby fingers had a difficult time releasing the clip. This wasn't a problem with a similarly placed heatsink on the Asus board, which leaves more room around a different retention clip design.
The VRM heatsinks cool eight power phases dedicated to the CPU: seven for the CPU cores and one for the rest of the chip. The coolers are tightly packed around the socket, leaving as little as 8.5 mm of airspace between their metal fins and the edge of the LGA2011 bracket.
Intel apparently prefers a tight fit, because the heatsinks and DIMM slots are closer to the socket on the DX79SI than on any of the other X79 boards we've measured. The heatsinks are relatively short, at 32.5 mm, but folks with aftermarket air-cooling towers will want to be careful about using DIMMs with tall heatspreaders.
Moving south brings us face to face with the skull-infused chipset cooler, whose low-profile design won't interfere with longer expansion cards. There are three PCI Express x16 slots linked to the third-gen controller in the CPU. The first two slots have 16 lanes of bandwidth each, while the third has only eight lanes of electrical connectivity. Those eight lanes actually come from the second x16 slot, limiting the board to an x16/x8/x8 config when all three x16 slots are in use. Intel confirmed this configuration, and I'm still a little confused by it. After all, there are enough PCIe 3.0 lanes in the CPU to power a pair of full-bandwidth x16 slots in addition to a separate x8.
The DX79SI is one of only two boards in the bunch to sport a PCI slot, and perhaps it's time to let the legacy standard go. As much as we love Asus' PCI-only Xonar DG sound card, I'm finding it difficult to think of another PCI peripheral I'd recommend for a modern PC. You will want to plug a sound card of some kind into the DX79SI, though. The board's integrated audio has neither surround-sound virtualization nor real-time multichannel encoding.
On the right edge, one can clearly see that the DX79SI was designed to serve up additional SATA ports. With the X79's SCU disabled, Intel could have turned to third-party controllers to provide additional SATA ports—but it didn't. Instead, the board has to make do with six SATA ports in total, only two of which offer 6Gbps connectivity.
Intel doesn't even offer any external Serial ATA ports, which are admittedly less desirable now that USB 3.0 devices are widely available. The DX79SI has four SuperSpeed ports in total, two in the rear cluster and another two tied to a front-panel connector. Each pair of ports is fed by a dedicated NEC controller.
While the DX79SI scores points for offering a second Gigabit Ethernet connection based on a separate Intel controller chip, the rear cluster looks pretty barren otherwise. I wouldn't mind seeing a few more USB 2.0 ports make their way from internal headers into the rear cluster. The white Back to BIOS button over to the left is a nice addition, though. Press it, and the board will boot with its firmware defaults without forgetting the last settings defined by the user.
Although our press kit didn't come with one, the DX79SI boards sold to consumers will include an external wireless module that plugs into one of the internal USB headers. This module offers Bluetooth 2.1 and 802.11n Wi-Fi connectivity, making it a useful addition to the overall package. Intel also throws in a remote temperature probe that can be used in conjunction with the firmware's excellent fan speed controls.
While the firmware lacks mouse support and a graphical interface, its fan controls are quite powerful. Rather than setting points on a curve, users are asked to define a target temperature for the fan to maintain. There are additional damping and responsiveness options to dictate how aggressively the fan speed changes with the temperature, plus a threshold that kicks fans up to their maximum RPM. In a separate screen, users have control over the minimum and maximum fan speeds. All these settings can be applied independently to all of the onboard fan headers, and Intel says the speed controls work with both three- and four-pin fans. The only thing I'd change is the interface, which awkwardly splits the temperature targets and speed controls between different menus.
The whole firmware could use a next-generation GUI, but at least the old-school approach is snappy and easy to navigate. There are nice little touches, too, like options changing color when they've been modified during the current session. However, there's also some inconsistency in how changes can be made; some variables can be keyed in directly, while others can only be tuned by tapping the + and - keys. At least there are plenty of overclocking options on offer.
If Intel decides to drag its firmware interface out of the BIOS era, it should model the new GUI after its Extreme Tuning Utility for Windows. The app's interface is slick, easily customized, and loaded with overclocking and tweaking options. Unfortunately, fan controls aren't a part of the mix, which is a real shame considering the utility's integrated monitoring panel.