Intel's ultra-high-end desktop platform got a shot in the arm from Ivy Bridge-E in September. This refresh delivered updated CPU cores, but it didn't bring any changes to the two-year-old LGA2011 platform. Intel didn't update the accompanying X79 Express chipset, which is why we didn't see a wave of new motherboards rolled out with Ivy-E. Asus' X79-Deluxe was the only fresh face at the time, and neither Gigabyte nor MSI has released anything since.
Part of Ivy-E's appeal is the fact that the chip is a drop-in replacement for its Sandy Bridge-based predecessor. Existing X79 boards should require no more than a firmware update to work with the latest processors. Gigabyte and MSI both have newish X79 models that we haven't tested, so we decided to have a little throwdown to see how they compare. In the black and grey trunks, we have the $220 Gigabyte X79-UP4. And, uh, also in black and grey trunks, we have the $250 MSI X79A-GD45 Plus.
These boards have been in the lab for a while now, and I still have trouble telling them apart at a glance. Closer inspection reveals plenty of differences, though.
We begin with Gigabyte's X79-UP4, which delivers a lot more extras than one might expect from an affordable X79 model.
The UP4 wears its black-and-grey aesthetic well. The circuit board's matte surface is especially sinister, and I really like the look of the heatsinks. At the very least, the monochrome motif shouldn't clash with other system components.
Zooming in on the socket gives us a better angle on the seven-phase power circuitry feeding the CPU. Each phase is powered by fancy electrical components from International Rectifier. The board has ferrite-core chokes and extra-beefy copper layers, too. We'd expect nothing less from an enthusiast-oriented motherboard.
As you can see, the socket area is a little crowded. The VRM heatsink and top PCIe x16 slot encroach from the north and south, respectively, while dual banks of DDR3 memory slots flank from the east and west. We can't check clearances for every hardware combination, but we can convey a few key measurements.
Like on most modern motherboards, the DIMM slots come closest to the socket. Beware of combining taller memory modules with oversized air coolers. Watch out for the PCIe slot, too; it's all up in the socket's business. At least the VRM cooler is short enough to stay out of the way.
The socket area is crowded in part because the board's ATX footprint has limited room for eight DIMM slots. (There are two slots for each of the processor's quad memory channels.) Gigabyte's decision to add a seventh expansion slot—one more than on the MSI board—also results in tighter clearances around the socket.
All four of the x16 slots get PCI Express 3.0 connectivity directly from the CPU. The first and last slots have x16 and x8 links, respectively. The middle two share an x16 link that can be split evenly between them or devoted solely to the third slot. Props to Gigabyte for putting enough space between the full-fat x16 slots to provide breathing room for dual-card configs. I'm even more impressed that the X79-UP4 can host four double-wide graphics cards, each one connected to the CPU. This board is officially approved for quad CrossFire and SLI configurations.
The rest of the PCIe slots stem from the X79 platform hub. Although the chip is limited to Gen2 connectivity, the older spec should provide sufficient bandwidth for the x1 slots and auxiliary peripheral controllers.
The X79's own peripheral payload is relatively weak. There's no built-in USB 3.0 connectivity, and 6Gbps SATA support is restricted to two of the six ports. Gigabyte provides some relief with a collection of Marvell controllers that adds four internal 6Gbps ports and two external ones. A pair of Fresco Logic controllers handles USB 3.0, providing two ports at the rear plus an internal header for two more.
Four USB 3.0 ports doesn't sound like a lot in the context of modern Haswell boards, but it's enough to handle more high-speed peripherals than most folks need to run simultaneously. The X79-UP4 is loaded with USB 2.0 ports for older devices with lower bandwidth requirements. It even sports a combo PS/2 port for the old-school clicky keyboard crowd.
Gigabyte earns two gold stars for populating the cluster with both common connector types for digital S/PDIF audio output. Bypassing the onboard DAC is the best way to get good sound out of integrated motherboard audio. Unfortunately, digital audio output is limited to stereo playback and surround-sound content with pre-encoded tracks. Music and movies should work great, but multi-channel game audio can't be encoded in real time. The drivers for the Realtek audio codec at least offer some virtual surround mojo that fakes multi-channel output for stereo devices.
The cushioned I/O shield pictured above is pretty awesome—there are no tiny slivers of metal to slice your fingers or get caught up in the ports. Little touches like this can make the building process much easier. Too bad Gigabyte made the front-panel connectors unnecessarily difficult to use.
The front-panel pins are nicely walled off, but there's no external block to simplify the wiring process. Each connector must be attached individually, which can be difficult to do inside a fully-loaded system. MSI and others employ an elegant solution that adds just pennies to the cost of the motherboard. Speaking of which, let's see what MSI's X79A-GD45 Plus has in store...