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Asus' X79-Deluxe motherboard reviewed

X79 for a new generation

When Intel introduces a new generation of CPUs, the chips usually come with an updated core-logic platform. That platform is dutifully adopted by motherboard makers, which roll out fresh models to meet the latest CPUs. The recent Ivy Bridge-E launch didn't fit the pattern, though. Intel's new family of high-end desktop processors arrived solo, without a new platform attached.

On the one hand, that's pretty awesome. Folks who bought X79 motherboards for Sandy Bridge-E a couple years ago should be little more than a firmware flash away from being able to drop in the new Ivy-based hotness. It's hard to complain about getting more mileage out of Intel's most expensive desktop socket.

On the other hand, I'm kind of bummed out. Although motherboard vendors have updated their X79 offerings since that platform debuted in 2011, it's been a while since the most recent round of revisions. We've been spoiled by the first crop of Haswell motherboards, which boast more mature firmware and software, extra connectivity, and snazzy new features. Older X79 boards look especially dated next to the latest 8-series designs.

Asus apparently agrees. The motherboard giant has released the X79-Deluxe to ensure that Ivy Bridge-E has access to the innovations packed into its latest boards. Naturally, we had to take a closer look.

The bling-on-black color scheme is the first hint that the X79-Deluxe is part of the current generation of Asus motherboards. Most of the firm's Haswell boards share a similar aesthetic, but they kind of ruin it by using beige slots and ports that don't quite match the gold heatsinks. On the X79-Deluxe, the beige has been banished in favor of darker tones that blend in with the circuit board—a definite improvement.

With 2011 teeth, dual levers, chunky screws, and a fat frame, Intel's LGA2011 socket looks pretty hardcore. So do the eight memory slots. The X79-Deluxe hangs two DIMM slots off each of the CPU's quad memory channels, enabling configs with up to 64GB of memory.

No self-respecting motherboard goes without digital power circuitry and fancy electrical components these days. The X79-Deluxe is no exception. It also has the requisite heatsinks on the VRMs and the obligatory heatpipe linked to the hunk of aluminum sitting on top of the chipset. Although it seems odd to connect the two heatsinks, the arrangement makes sense for multi-card graphics configurations. Stacking cards obstructs airflow around the chipset cooler while simultaneously dumping more heat into the area. The pipe should channel some of that excess heat to the socket area, where it has a better chance of being expelled through chassis exhaust vents.

The VRM heatsinks are relatively short, so they shouldn't interfere with oversized CPU coolers. Since we can't test compatibility with every hardware configuration, we've taken a few key measurements to help you get a sense of the distances between the socket and important landmarks.

As is the case with pretty much every modern motherboard, the memory slots are very close to the socket. Beware of combining larger CPU coolers with memory modules that have tall heat spreaders.

Also, note the distance between the socket and the first PCI Express x16 slot. That's a narrower gap than we're used to seeing on desktop boards, which usually stick an x1 slot up top to provide additional clearance between the CPU cooler and graphics card.

The X79-Deluxe can't afford to sacrifice space like that; its PCIe x16 slots are carefully arranged to accept three dual-width cards in CrossFire or SLI. The first and second x16 slots can be configured with 16 lanes of PCIe 3.0 bandwidth from the CPU. For a three-way config, the second slot splits its lanes with the fourth one, yielding an x16/x8/x8 setup.

The third x16 slot also gets its PCIe 3.0 connectivity from the CPU, but it's limited to four lanes regardless of the number of cards installed. That shouldn't matter in a multi-card config, since running a double-wide card in the second PCIe x16 slot will block access to the third one.

Asus fills the rest of the expansion area with PCIe 2.0 slots fed by the X79 Express chipset. It also peppers the PCB with little extras, like a POST code display and buttons for shutdown, reset, clearing the CMOS, and booting directly to the firmware.

With only two 6Gbps SATA ports (plus four 3Gbps ones) and no native USB 3.0 connectivity, the X79 Express chipset feels a bit antiquated. Fear not, because Asus apparently gets some kind of volume discount on auxiliary peripheral chips. There are three additional SATA controllers, starting with a Marvell chip that adds four 6Gbps ports. A pair of ASMedia controllers kicks in two more 6Gbps ports internally and a couple of similarly speedy eSATA ports for the rear cluster.

Then there are the USB 3.0 controllers—all four of 'em. Three are dedicated to fueling the six USB 3.0 ports in the cluster, while one is reserved for front-panel connectors.

And there's more. The X79-Deluxe boasts Realtek's latest audio codec, which combines with DTS software to provide surround sound virtualization for stereo devices and real-time encoding for multi-channel digital output. If you're going to connect the board to a compatible receiver or speakers via the S/PDIF output, you don't need to bother with a sound card.

See that little BIOS button in the cluster? That's for USB BIOS Flashback, a feature that lets you flash the firmware with only a thumb drive and a power supply attached to the motherboard. Pretty slick. Asus also gets props for providing a cushioned I/O shield that won't slice your fingers or get caught up in the ports when lowering the motherboard into a case. The more PCs I build, the more I appreciate little touches like that... and like this:

Front-panel wiring blocks should be included with every single motherboard. Surely these blocks cost just pennies, and they neatly address what is often the most frustrating part of assembling a new system.

Network connectivity rounds out the X79-Deluxe's hardware payload. Excess abounds here, too. There are dual Gigabit Ethernet controllers: one from Intel and one from Realtek. 802.11ac Wi-Fi is provided by a Broadcom adapter, and the board also supports Bluetooth 4.0.

Asus' accompanying Wi-Fi software is particularly robust. In addition to offering the usual client and access-point modes, it has remote desktop and media streaming functionality. The hardware is really only one part of the equation with modern motherboards, so let's take a closer look at the X79-Deluxe's firmware and software interfaces.