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The grand tour

The bones of the Designare EX haven't changed a lot from the first Gigabyte X99 Ultra Durable boards we reviewed back in 2014. The Designare uses the same tried-and-true eight-phase power delivery subsystem that debuted on the X99-UD4. International Rectifier's PowIRStage PWM circuitry, Cooper Bussmann chokes, and Gigabyte's proprietary Durablack capacitors massage electrons before they flow into the innards of Haswell-E and Broadwell-E CPUs. Ahh.

In the non-volatile storage department, the Designare EX taps all ten of the X99 PCH's SATA ports, although only six of them are configured to work with the chipset's RAID features. The leftmost four ports in the image above are limited to non-RAIDed operation.

Gigabyte also baked extensive next-generation storage support into this board. The Designare offers two U.2 ports for hooking up devices like Intel's 750 Series SSDs or server-grade hardware that supports the interface. Both of these ports will only be available to builders who choose one of Intel's Haswell-E or Broadwell-E CPUs with 40 PCIe lanes on tap, though. Use a Core i7-5820K or Core i7-6800K with this board, and the U.2 port on the left above gets turned off. We'll explore some more differences between 28-lane and 40-lane CPUs on this board in a moment.

The Designare hides a pair of M.2 connectors under its Gundam-esque center cover. One M.2 2280 slot provides a home for next-generation NVMe devices, while the other holds the board's included Intel 8260 Wireless-AC adapter. While that aluminum cover certainly looks neat, putting an M.2 SSD directly under the first graphics card in a system might lead to storage performance issues with thermally-constrained drives during intensive I/O work.

All of these PCIe-powered ports need lanes to feed them, and even 40 lanes of PCIe 3.0 from the CPU isn't enough. To get around that issue (at least in part), Gigabyte expands some of the PCIe 3.0 lanes from Haswell-E and Broadwell-E chips using a spendy Avago PEX8747 PCI Express switch that hides under the chipset heatsink. In turn, the PEX8747 governs the second and fourth PCI Express x16 slots, the second U.2 connector, and the M.2 slot. Since that switch only has 32 lanes to offer, though, not all of those PCI Express ports and slots can operate with all of their lanes active all at once.

With no M.2 or U.2 storage installed, this PLX chip sends sixteen lanes each to the second and fourth PCI Express slots. That configuration is ideal for builders trying to make the most of triple-GPU setups (the most double-wide graphics cards one can practically install on the Designare to begin with). Start plugging in PCIe storage, however, and that precious bandwidth gets redirected a bit. 

With a U.2 SSD plugged into the Designare's bottom connector, the second PCIe 3.0 x16 slot drops to x8 mode (and the remaining four lanes shared between the two go unused). Plug in an M.2 SSD, and the fourth PCIe 3.0 slot also drops to x8 mode (and another four lanes go dark).

The PCIe lane-juggling doesn't stop there, either. The bottom-most PCIe slot on the board shares the first slot's 16 lanes direct from the CPU, so plugging an expansion card into that slot switches both slots into x8 mode. The third PCIe x16 slot gets four lanes of PCIe Gen2 from the chipset, and in the unlikely event you have anything to plug into the Designare's SATA Express port, that device will peel two PCIe Gen2 lanes off the board's third PCIe x16 slot. Whew.

Here's how all of those permutations look in a perhaps-easier-to-digest chart:

The only differences one will experience by installing a 28-lane Haswell-E or Broadwell-E CPU in the Designare-EX come in the number of available U.2 ports and the number of PCIe 3.0 lanes running to the PLX chip. With a 40-lane CPU, both U.2 ports will be available and the PLX chip will have sixteen lanes of PCIe 3.0 connectivity direct to the CPU. Use a 28-lane chip, though, and the board will shut down the first U.2 port and allocate eight lanes of PCIe 3.0 from the PLX chip to the CPU. We figure most folks eyeing this board will have the scratch to get a 40-lane Haswell-E or Broadwell-E CPU, but you never know. 

The Designare's rear I/O block doesn't bristle with ports like some X99 motherboards we've seen, but that's because its one USB Type-C port serves several duties. As our PCI routing diagrams reveal, Gigabyte hooked up Intel's Alpine Ridge controller to four PCIe lanes direct from the CPU. (You can see that chip sitting behind and to the right of the USB-C connector in the image above). That's because this board is Thunderbolt 3 certified, meaning it can deliver 40 Gbps of potential bandwidth to peripheral devices through the USB-C connector. Owners can daisy-chain up to six Thunderbolt devices off that single port, including displays. 

To get display signals out to the Thunderbolt chain, Gigabyte includes a DisplayPort input on the Designare's port block. That's because Haswell-E and Broadwell-E CPUs don't have onboard graphics, so the motherboard needs a DisplayPort signal from the system's discrete GPU to stream out over a Thunderbolt connection. Thunderbolt speed aside, the Designare's USB-C port can also deliver up to 36W of charging power to devices that support the USB Power Delivery 2.0 standard.

The four blue USB 3.0 ports in the Designare's port cluster run off a Renesas USB 3.0 chip, while the red USB 3.1 Type-A port taps the Alpine Ridge controller for its next-gen bandwidth. The white USB 3.0 port comes from the X99 chipset, and it supports Gigabyte's Q-Flash feature. Though our board worked with the Core i7-6950X out of the box, Q-Flash can help builders get around any CPU incompatibilities by letting them update the board's firmware with only a USB flash drive and a power supply.  

Another Renesas chip provides four more USB 3.0 ports through internal headers, while four more USB 2.0 ports are available through internal headers connected to the X99 chipset.

The Designare's networking subsystems rely entirely on tried-and-true Intel components. One of the board's twin Gigabit Ethernet controllers comes courtesy of an I218V controller, while the other is powered by an I211 chip. The twin wireless antenna connectors at the rear of the board hook up to an Intel Wireless-AC 8260 mini-PCIe card with Bluetooth support. We'll never complain about Intel networking hardware, so kudos to Gigabyte here.

For the board's 7.1-channel audio output, Gigabyte uses the tried-and-true Realtek ALC1150 codec paired with premium Nichicon capacitors and an isolated analog audio path. I tried the board's headphone jack with my ultra-sensitive Bose QuietComfort QC25 noise-cancelling headphones, and I heard nary a squeal or squawk from that output even with our full Prime95 and Unigine Heaven stress-tests running. That's excellent performance. The board also produced pleasant-sounding audio from a range of sources, and I'd compare its output favorably with the Asus Xonar DG sound card in my personal PC.

As befits a $420 motherboard, Gigabyte includes a truckload of handy extras with the Designare-EX. Here's the full accounting: 

  • A "G-Connector" for easy wiring of front-panel connections
  • A soft two-way SLI bridge and a hard three-way SLI bridge
  • Six high-quality SATA cables covered in nylon webbing
  • A three-into-one EPS eight-pin power connector for potential extra stability with tri-SLI or Crossfire setups
  • A padded rear I/O shield
  • A short DisplayPort cable for the DP input on the rear I/O panel
  • A four-pin RGB LED extension cable
  • Cable labels
  • "Ultra Durable"-branded cable ties

Whew, again. For the builders looking to take full advantage of what the Designare EX offers, all of these accessories are genuinely useful. Let's boot up the board now and see how it works in action.