Gigabyte’s GA-X99-Designare EX motherboard reviewed

When TR writers build personal systems, we usually try to keep things sensible. Look at the Sweet Spot or Sweeter Spot builds in our System Guides, and you’ve got a decent idea of what sits under our desks. A rare few folk might find the quad-core CPUs and single-graphics-card configs in those builds to be too… pedestrian, shall we say.

For those builders, starting with the X99 platform is a given. Thunderbolt 3 support would be nice to have, and enough PCIe lanes for three graphics cards with a full 16 lanes running to each one wouldn’t be out of the question. Perhaps their workloads are even demanding enough that they can harness the ten cores and 20 threads of Intel’s Core i7-6950X. These folks are building bona-fide workstations, and they’ve got wallets fat enough to spare no expense. 

Gigabyte’s GA-X99-Designare EX represents what’s possible when a mobo maker pulls out all the stops in making one of the highest-end boards around. The company released the Designare EX earlier this year with the advent of Broadwell-E, and we have a Core i7-6950X on hand to push this board to its limits. Let’s see what sort of accommodations this $420 motherboard offers that $1650 CPU.

As the highest-end example of Gigabyte’s latest Ultra Durable boards, the X99-Designare EX’s PCB comes clad with ample amounts of white plastic and aluminum, set off by blue, black, and silver accents. All eight of the Designare’s DIMM slots and all five of its PCIe x16 slots are reinforced with fancy metal shields, and Gigabyte finishes the LGA 2011-v3 socket itself in a black nickel that fades beautifully into the black-and-gray PCB. All these touches add up to a distinctly high-end first impression—exactly what you’d want from a board this spendy.

Because this is the year of the RGB LED, dozens of Technicolor blinkenlights dot the Designare’s surface, too. While one could make these lights shine with any of 16.7 million colors, we see no reason to depart from the default blue. Other colors have the potential to clash with the Designare’s blue-and-white complexion. Gigabyte offers the usual array of crazy animations and lighting modes for these LEDs in the board’s firmware and its Windows software, too.

The LED madness doesn’t stop with onboard illumination. The Designare has a four-pin LED strip controller that can synchronize compatible strips with its onboard lighting. Gigabyte throws an extension cable for this header in the Designare’s box, too, so builders won’t have to run LED strips right up to the board when they plan their bedazzling.

Folks with a hankering for lots of RAM will be happy to know the Designare EX can handle up to 128GB of DDR4 memory running at speeds up to 3600 MT/s. If that’s not enough room for your pet data set, using registered DIMMs in the Designare can push the board’s maximum capacity to 256GB. The Designare doesn’t support ECC RAM, though, which might turn off prospective workstation builders.

The X99 platform’s copious DIMM slots lead to a rather crowded socket. We’ve measured distances to several critical obstructions around the socket so that builders can choose parts accordingly.

Let’s take a closer look at what lies underneath the Designare EX’s fancy fascias now.

 

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.

Extras

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.

 

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.

 

Windows on the world

Of course, firmware isn’t the only way to make changes to critical system settings these days. Gigabyte provides a full suite of fancy utilities for managing a variety of features of the Designare EX. Unfortunately, that software doesn’t quite replicate all the knobs and sliders in the motherboard’s firmware, though it works fine for quick-and-dirty settings changes.

Before installing any of Gigabyte’s Windows utilities, it’s first necessary to grab the company’s App Center software. That program serves as a host for all the other utilities one can install with their Gigabyte board.

While the company offers a wealth of utilities on its website, System Information Viewer and Easy Tune will probably be the most relevant to TR readers. System Information Viewer does show some basic information about the user’s PC, but its real raison d’être is for making fan-tuning adjustments in Windows.

Unlike the Designare’s firmware, System Information Viewer includes a calibration routine that establishes the minimum and maximum fan speeds for each connected spinner. Users can then choose one of Gigabyte’s pre-baked fan speed profiles, set up custom curves for each fan, or run them at constant speeds.

System Information Viewer’s fan profiles seem to override those in the firmware instead of using them as a starting point, so we’d only install it if you haven’t already set up fan controls in the board’s BIOS. It’d be handier if the firmware and Windows software shared their configurations, though we’re not aware of any other board that does that sort of communication.

Easy Tune is Gigabyte’s Windows-based overclocking utility. It offers control over almost every parameter one might want to tweak when overclocking, though some CPU voltage options won’t be adjustable without choosing the appropriate modes in the firmware. Builders can save their changes to two profiles for different overclocking needs.

For some reason, Easy Tune’s per-core multiplier settings are incorrectly labelled as if they affect the “n cores active” multiplier settings. They also hard-locked our system when we attempted to modify CPU multipliers with the “Turbo Per Core Limit Control” setting enabled, a strange miscommunication between software and hardware. With the complexity of overclocking Broadwell-E CPUs, we’d leave Easy Tune alone and just make the necessary adjustments in the firmware.

The Ambient LED utility lets builders express themselves with the Designare’s onboard RGB LEDs and through any LED strips connected to the board’s built-in header. On the Designare EX, Ambient LED offers a solid-color mode, a “Pulse” mode that cycles the LEDs on and off gradually, and a “Beat” mode that modulates the blinkenlights in response to music played through the board’s onboard audio.

Ambient LED works well enough, but we’d appreciate a way of precisely entering color settings for matching with other hardware (perhaps through 0-255 RGBA values). We’d also like an option to have the “color cycle” (Auto) mode move through its range of shades in more gentle gradations, rather than the hard blink between colors it currently performs. Gigabyte’s GTX 1080 Xtreme Gaming graphics card can do that trick with its LEDs, and it’d be nice if an all-Gigabyte system could perform the same magic with each of its RGB LED-illuminated components.

Some quick performance and power-consumption tests

I don’t have the full range of TR motherboards and CPUs in my labs for testing purposes, but that’s not a huge deal—differences between motherboards rarely make for large performance deltas these days. Even with that caveat, we wanted to make sure the Designare is letting our fancy components live up to their full potential.

Let’s start off with storage. Here are some results from the ATTO and CrystalDiskMark storage-testing tools:

The Designare EX is clearly letting our Intel 750 Series SSD take full advantage of its prodigious performance potential.

Here’s a handful of other benchmarks from our usual test subjects:

While our data isn’t directly comparable with our past motherboard reviews because of some hardware changes, the Designare EX doesn’t seem to be delivering significantly  lower numbers than the competition. For desktop tasks and gaming alike, it doesn’t seem like this board will stand in the way of realizing maximum performance from the parts one chooses.

Perhaps thanks to its copious supply of onboard controllers and PCIe switches, the Designare EX draws far more power from the wall than other X99 motherboards we’ve tested. To be fair, we’re also powering a GTX 1080 instead of our usual Radeon, but even then, we didn’t observe such high idle power draw in our review of the Founders Edition GTX 1080 with a similarly-high-end Asus X99 Deluxe motherboard playing host. Our load power numbers are about 30W higher than other recent X99 motherboards we’ve tested, as well, suggesting the Designare just needs a lot of juice to do its thing.

Overclocking

Though individual overclocking success is determined in large part by the quality of the particular chip one gets, the motherboard has a part to play in making the process as simple as possible. With the prodigious number of knobs and dials that Broadwell-E offers seasoned overclockers, motherboard makers have a challenge in making them easy to manipulate. Let’s see how the Designare EX helps or hinders the overclocking process.

To kick things off, we first asked Easy Tune to run its automatic overclocking utility. After a reboot, the sysetm progressed through rounds of clock speed increases and stress testing before ultimately settling on a 4.3GHz result. We immediately tried running Prime95 Small FFTs with those settings in place and got a BSOD straight away.

Next, we tried the “Core i7-6950X 4.3GHz” profile from the “CPU Upgrade” menu in the system’s BIOS. Though we were able to get our system to boot with these settings, loading up Prime95 caused another BSOD.

With Gigabyte’s automatic overclocking options exhausted, we turned to the firmware. Since we already knew our system could run stably at 4 GHz because of our earlier experiences with XMP, we left the CPU Vcore setting at “normal,” which automatically varies voltage but allows the user to dial in offset values. After achieving stability at 4.2 GHz this way, we started dialing in negative voltage offsets until we retained stability at 1.284V, or about a -0.025V offset.

At those settings, we were thermally limited—our 240-mm CPU cooler was struggling to keep the i7-6950X below 95° C. A bigger radiator might unlock even more headroom from this chip. For its part, the Designare EX had no issues taking us to the limits of our equipment.

One oddity that arose during our overclocking feats was a strange tendency for the Designare EX to shut off our liquid cooler’s pump header when we cued up our Prime95 load. This issue only raised its head with CPU multipliers at or above 40x. Opening the System Information Viewer software and clicking the maximum RPM value for our cooler’s pump solved the issue until the next reboot.

After several of these hiccups, we decided to uninstall System Information Viewer and control the pump speed through the firmware. After that move, we had no further issues. It seems like System Information Viewer has some potentially serious bugs that need worked out before someone toasts their Broadwell-E or Haswell-E chip. We keep our test rig on an open bench, but folks with their motherboards in a case may be left wondering why their radiator fans are running at full tilt while their overclocked CPU desperately throttles to save itself.

 

Conclusions

Like the GA-Z170X-Gaming G1 did for Intel’s Z170 chipset, the GA-X99-Designare EX represents the peak of what’s possible when Gigabyte’s hardware engineers get free rein to pack every bit of their expertise into one motherboard. This board looks and feels every bit of its $420-ish price tag.

Unfortunately, the Designare EX’s dazzling exterior belies software and firmware that still need more polish. Gigabyte’s latest firmware interface is clean and responsive, but adjusting settings or determining how certain parameters interacted with one another wasn’t intuitive. Gigabyte’s scant documentation of critical firmware settings didn’t help us master the vast swath of parameters one can tweak with a Broadwell-E CPU, either.

Gigabyte also plays a dirty trick when XMP profiles are enabled by setting the all-core Turbo multiplier to that of the fastest core on the chip. With a Core i7-6950X and Turbo Boost Max 3.0, that means an ambitious 40x multiplier across all ten cores, and that move triggers a substantial increase in voltage across the CPU. The Designare’s firmware and Windows software offered no testimony to the fact that the board was toying around with those settings in the background. We’ve complained about this behavior for years, and it’s aged about as well as Franzia in a flooded basement.

Gigabyte admits that it gooses clocks when XMP is enabled because of performance concerns in reviews like this one, but we’re far less worried about benchmark performance (which was stellar by every measure we tested) than we are about complete control over our hardware. We eventually figured out a way to get XMP and the CPU’s stock clocks to play well together while keeping Turbo Boost Max 3.0 intact, but it took far longer than we’d have liked. Clearer documentation would have been a great help in that regard. Even better, Gigabyte’s engineers could leave CPU multipliers alone to begin with if XMP is enabled. Enthusiasts everywhere would be thankful.

On the plus side, Gigabyte’s firmware fan controls are now about as good as Asus’ gold-standard approach, though we’d appreciate more flexibility in choosing the component temperatures the board’s fan headers respond to. All of the board’s fancy LED features can be set up in firmware, too, and its extensive menu of connections for PCI Express storage, Thunderbolt 3 devices, and multiple GPUs is top-shelf.

The company’s Windows utilities now feature clean UIs and largely intuitive controls, though the Easy Tune utility’s parameters need some updating to work properly with Broadwell-E and Turbo Boost Max 3.0. We also enjoyed the board’s sterling audio subsystem, fast built-in wireless networking, and luxurious build quality. With a little more polish, the Designare EX would offer one of the most compelling feature sets around.

In the end, though, we think that any motherboard as pricey as the Designare EX should be darn near perfect. While this board’s great specifications, flashy looks, and fine-grained fan-control features all impress, the at-times-befuddling firmware and its behind-the-scenes manipulation of the hugely expensive Core i7-6950X left us feeling let down. Other hiccups—like the downright dangerous shutdown of our liquid cooler’s pump when we loaded up our overclocked CPU with Gigabyte’s Windows utilities installed—have no place on any motherboard, much less one this dear.

If Gigabyte irons out the firmware wrinkles we observed, the Designare EX will be at the cutting edge of PC hardware for years to come, and we’d heartily recommend it even with its lofty price tag. For now, builders looking to make one of the baddest PCs around with Gigabyte’s top-end X99 board should be ready to spend some time in its firmware getting everything just right.

Comments closed
    • Umbral
    • 3 years ago

    No matter how good Gigabyte hardware is or how top-tier the implementation, their software is the worst. Since this chipset is still current they make an effort to keep things bandaged and running, but since this is the X99’s ‘last hurrah’ all that will change soon. It’s one .net patch away from failure. This wouldn’t be a big problem is they didn’t use slightly customized versions of common ASICs, but they manage to change things just enough to make third party programs useless.

    • TheMonkeyKing
    • 3 years ago

    I dunno. Yes, you can have all the bells and whistles and pay through the nose to be First! but I seriously think these boards are becoming ultra niche markets because the CPU wars have died down. So why pay anything more than $200 for a board nowadays? The $2000 just for CPU and mobo is becoming an outdated relic of when PCs were the only computing platform.

    • gmskking
    • 3 years ago

    Way too cramped.

      • BIF
      • 3 years ago

      Not really. This board was easy to work with during my build.

    • Ultracer
    • 3 years ago

    Will they ever learn how to visually design a motherboard? This one is too plasticky and cheap from the look.

      • Chrispy_
      • 3 years ago

      That thing would look vastly better if they just discarded all the plastic and left the high-quality components on display.

      • BIF
      • 3 years ago

      Nah, this motherboard is fine in real life. Not cheap or plasticky looking.

    • ltcommander.data
    • 3 years ago

    Has there been any word on whether the Skylake-X HEDT platform will have official Windows 7 support from Intel and Microsoft? Microsoft restored full support for Skylake with Windows 7 until EOL, but is sticking with no official support for Kaby Lake. The Skylake-X HEDT platform uses a Skylake-based CPU of course, but reportedly the chipset is based on the upcoming Kaby Lake 200-series PCH so it’s not clear how it fits into Microsoft’s support policy or if Intel will offer Windows 7 drivers.

    And so if I’m interested in building a fully supported system capable of dual booting Windows 7 and Windows 10 is Broadwell-E and X99 the last, best option or will Skylake-X be able to do it as well?

      • Krogoth
      • 3 years ago

      I suspect that Microsoft will not provide any support for Skylake-EX/EP platforms for Windows 7 and 8.1. Intel will likely provide basic chipset support.

      Microsoft wants you to get Windows 10 and Server 2016 for these platforms. 😉

      This is hardly new though. Microsoft did the same thing with Windows 2000 and XP for newer hardware platforms. FYI, there’s no generic Microsoft PCI Express drivers for XP/2000.

    • mark84
    • 3 years ago

    I’m glad TR found the XMP and Turbo Boost issue too.
    When I reviewed it for the national magazine I write for this fact alone annoyed the heck out of me. How dare they dictate CPU multipliers when simply enabling XMP.
    [url<]http://www.pcauthority.com.au/GroupTest/439202,group-test-x99-motherboards-shift-into-top-gear.aspx[/url<] [url<]http://www.pcauthority.com.au/Review/439206,gigabyte-ga-x99-designare-ex.aspx[/url<] I did convince them to give me a beta BIOS that allowed XMP+Turbo Boost (2.0) to work properly (although at 100MHz lower stock speeds on the 6950X). Also meant the Turbo Boost 3.0 stuff didn't work either off the bat. So CPU heavy tests were poor vs competition as a result. Also the BIOS I found problematic. Laggy and and even updating the BIOS itself was a task (as updating via the UEFI interface was completely broken and had to be done via Windows utility). Obviously needing some serious iteration and revisions to get up to expected standards. The other minor quibble was the BIOS battery and M.2 slot + wifi module placement. In between the primary PCIe 16 slots hidden behind a face plate you need to unscrew with a tiny screwdriver. Bad for maintenance and easy access. But hey, looks cool! :\ Good hardware. But seriously, avoid it.

      • Annex
      • 3 years ago

      I followed a bunch of reviews on this board and none of them mentioned how much Gigabyte fudges clocks especially with XMP and Turbo Boost. TR seems to be the [b<]only[/b<] one to even talk about it. I wasn't able to convince Gigabyte support for a special BIOS though, they just kind of shrugged and told me it is what it is, as if I didn't just pay a car payment for their motherboard. Let's just say I have a new first-source for reviews on stuff I want to purchase, because in a lot of ways I would have been better off getting a different X99 board but other reviewers weren't intellectually curious enough to hunt down problems.

    • Srsly_Bro
    • 3 years ago

    With the mention of workstations, is it unfair to omit the 22 core xeons?

    • chuckula
    • 3 years ago

    I appreciate the review. I really do… but.. could we have a formal review of that 6950X at some point?

      • sophisticles
      • 3 years ago

      NO YOU MAY NOT!

    • Shobai
    • 3 years ago

    It’s interesting that the PCIe lane chart on the second page suggests that you can choose between having the X99 chipset supply either two lanes or 6 lanes – the text in the previous paragraph makes it clear that that isn’t the case.

    Out of curiosity, was the chart drawn up by TR? Or, more probably, Gigabyte?

    • Krogoth
    • 3 years ago

    It kinda late to get a X99 board when there’s a platform revamp just around the corner.

      • Shobai
      • 3 years ago

      [quote<]The company released the Designare EX earlier this year with the advent of Broadwell-E...[/quote<] That suggests a late April time frame for release, I suppose? Whether or not Broadwell-E's release was well timed is another matter.

    • albundy
    • 3 years ago

    they skimped on the audio and used generic Realtek ALC1150 crabby audio. If I’m shelling out $420 for a mobo, there better be a sound blaster ZXRi on it, like the gigabyte G1 Z170.

      • Krogoth
      • 3 years ago

      It is a workstation-tier board. Audiophiles are going to opt for some kind of external DAC for their audio needs.

        • BIF
        • 3 years ago

        THIS.

      • morphine
      • 3 years ago

      You would be surprised at how the “crabby” Realtek ALC1150 audio sounds.

        • Airmantharp
        • 3 years ago

        I’m running an ASUS Z170-AR with their CrystalSound 3 stuff based on crab-audio, and while it isn’t top-tier (i.e. external discrete DAC and amp setup or top-end Xonar) it is certainly good enough to push my new 300Ohm Sennheiser HD600 cans.

        (I did briefly try a Soundblaster Z, and while it sounded ‘better’ than the onboard for straight music, I couldn’t find a setting to prevent it from molesting the output mix while gaming, where their software would screw with the output channels and levels such that it seemed like they were trying to simulate someone unplugging and replugging the audio plug, and it’s a real shame as the SB-Z is actually pretty good hardware for high-impedance headphones, for the price)

      • Chrispy_
      • 3 years ago

      I’d actively avoid a board with Sound Blaster Audio and the “generic” Realtek ALC1150 is actually a decent codec that works fantastically with the generic Windows High Definition Audio driver.

      If you want fancy effects and EQ, there are better free tools than the garbage bloat bundles that Creative require you to install.

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