Our testing methods
Here are the specifications of our test system:
|Processor||Intel Core i7-6950X|
|Motherboard||Gigabyte GA-X99-Designare EX|
|Memory||64GB (4x16GB) G.Skill Trident Z DDR4-3200|
|Graphics card||Asus ROG Strix GeForce GTX 1080|
|Storage||Intel 750 Series 400GB|
|Power supply||Corsair RM850x|
|CPU cooler||Cooler Master MasterLiquid Pro 240|
|OS||Windows 10 Pro|
Our thanks to Gigabyte for the GA-X99-Designare EX we're testing, to Intel for the Core i7-6950X CPU and 750 Series 400GB SSD, to Asus for the Strix GTX 1080 graphics card, to Corsair for the RM850x PSU, and to Cooler Master for providing our CPU heatsink.
A special shout-out here goes to G.Skill for providing us with a roomy 64GB kit of its DDR4-3200 Trident Z memory. This quad-DIMM kit goes great with the white-and-silver accents of the Designare EX. We think that it's worth grabbing nice-looking DIMMs like these if you're already spending well over $2000 on a system, and it's hard to argue with their impressive specifications, as well.
With the introductions out of the way, let's get to know the Designare EX better.
Frequent foibles fluster freshened firmware
The GA-X99-Designare EX is one of the first boards to get Gigabyte's most recent firmware interface. Upon pressing Delete at startup, tweakers will be greeted with the stripped-down MIT tab (for Motherboard Intelligent Tweaking), whose bulleted list provides quick access to CPU frequency, memory, and voltage settings.
Stripped-down is actually a good way to describe the entire firmware of the Designare EX. Where mobos from other makers might offer pop-up menus with full ranges of settings, the Designare simply offers dozens and dozens of fields. Some of those fields will accept text input, while others only have a couple modes that can be cycled through using the space bar. Returning to the default setting can be tricky, though typing in "A" or "Auto" will usually get there. We had to figure all of that out through trial and error.
This firmware is also frustratingly opaque in places beyond its settings adjustments. For example, Gigabyte offers a wide variety of voltage settings for the Broadwell-E CPU we're using, but certain settings are greyed out by default. Applying a positive or negative voltage offset requires one to first change the "CPU Vcore" setting to "Normal." The observant user will pick this up if they watch what becomes enabled and disabled as they scroll through various settings, but there's no obvious relationship between the two settings. Similarly, there's no explanation on how or why one might want to enable "Adaptive Mode." Turns out that feature only does something when one dials in a fixed Vcore first.
We're still not sure what "Adaptive Mode" does, as just one example, because Gigabyte's documentation would fail a fifth-grade vocabulary test. It often uses the name of a given menu item as the full explanation for what that thing does. For example, the in-firmware help screen (invoked by the left Alt key) for Adaptive Mode voltage settings is "Adaptive Mode." Left wanting by this paucity of information, I turned to the manual and found that the entire description of the "CPU Core Voltage Control" sub-menu was "This section provides CPU voltage control options." Yeah, no kidding. The manual offered no further insight about how one might want to adjust those parameters.
In contrast, Asus offers a comprehensive guide to its latest X99 firmware and Broadwell-E overclocking that actually proved invaluable to me as I tried to turn the screws on our sample Core i7-6950X. That documentation is available whether one chooses Asus' relatively inexpensive X99-A II or the $400 X99-Deluxe II. Asus' firmware is also much clearer on how the various settings within interact. While I was eventually able to get my legs under me with the X99-Designare EX's firmware, Gigabyte still has a long way to go to match Asus' polish and depth here.
Gigabyte also performs some dirty tricks with the Designare's CPU multiplier settings if one enables XMP on their RAM. When we turned that feature on for our G.Skill memory, the Designare silently goosed our CPU's all-core Turbo multiplier to 40X. With a 140W CPU like the Core i7-6950X, the extra voltage the board dialed in to keep the system stable at those settings came just a hair short of overwhelming our 240-mm liquid cooler when we fired up the Prime95 Small FFTs stability test. To be fair, Asus plays the same wrongheaded game with its most recent X99 boards, but at least those boards' firmwares are open about their underhandedness when a user goes to exit the UEFI.
One thing is for certain: mobo makers need to stop fooling with these settings for no good reason. An unwelcome overclock like the one the Designare offers could suprise the builder who's expecting to cool a stock-clocked Core i7-6950X in tandem with fast memory. Enabling XMP on such a system might result in intractable thermal throttling issues or even damage to hardware before one figures out what's going on.
We had to do more fiddling to get around this issue, but the eventual solution lay in the "Advanced CPU Settings -> Advanced CPU Core Settings -> Turbo Per Core Limit Control" menu item. In spite of another unhelpful tooltip, we discovered that this setting lets us set maximum Turbo ratio for each core on the CPU. By default, the firmware properly shows the 35x multiplier for every core save the sixth on our chip, which is favored by Intel's Turbo Boost Max 3.0 feature. That core gets a 40x multiplier. Leaving this setting on "Auto" for each core won't rein in that 40x all-core multiplier, though—one has to enter the proper Turbo ratio for each core manually.
In contrast, the Designare's Turbo settings for scaling multipliers with n cores active on the chip (in response to progressively increasing thermal loads) miss out on the proper settings. For some reason, the multiplier settings for three to ten active cores top out at 34x by default, despite the 35x stock Turbo ratio of our Core i7-6950X. They also seem overly sensitive to the number of loaded cores on the CPU. This sensitivity sometimes seemed like it was preventing Turbo Boost Max 3.0 from spinning up our chip's favored core to its full 4 GHz speed, even with exclusively single-core loads.
To get TBM 3.0 working, we eventually had to set a 40x multiplier for every cores-active parameter. In tandem with the "Turbo Per Core Limit Control" setting, that let our chip's fastest core boost to 4 GHz when needed while holding all the others at 3.5 GHz.
For at-a-glance settings, Gigabyte also offers an "easy mode" interface with a quick look at critical system parameters. Folks who just want to ensure their system is running as expected can invoke this mode by mousing over the bottom menu bar and clicking.
Gigabyte's refreshed fan-control interface almost makes up for the balkiness of the rest of the firmware. Each fan has a four-point adjustable curve that plots fan speed against temperature. The CPU and OPT headers track CPU temperatures, while each of the three system fan headers reads from its own dedicated temperature sensor on the motherboard. While that sort of fine-grained reporting is neat in principle, we'd at least like the option to tie all fan speeds to the CPU temperature, as one can on other makers' boards.
Setting each fan curve is also more trouble than it should be, though. The mouse response in this part of the firmware is laggy, so it's often necessary to move the mouse a couple centimeters before it'll start producing input. The points on the fan-speed curves will also jump around for no good reason while one is adjusting another of the set. That makes adjustments to these curves frustrating, since one can repeatedly lose the curve they've set when the points decide to get rowdy. There's no calibration routine, either, so it's up to the builder to observe when a certain duty-cycle percentage or voltage causes a fan to shut off. At least all five headers can run voltage or PWM fans.
|TR's 2017 Christmas giveaway: goodies from MSI, Antec, and OCZ||10|
|VESA DisplayHDR attempts to demystify HDR-capable monitors||10|
|BenQ EW277HDR brings HDR10 in reach of mere mortals||4|
|Intel Pentium Gold chips now have Silver siblings||20|
|Acer ProDesigner PE320QK is big on size and color accuracy||2|
|Thermaltake's Nemesis Switch has enough buttons for all your macros||17|
|Zotac Gaming MEK1 PCs have the requisite pieces of flair||9|
|Toshiba's latest hard drives store 14 TB without shingles||66|
|Friday deals: a motherboard trio, a cheap CLC, and a rodent||11|