Touring the X399 platform with Gigabyte's X399 Aorus Gaming 7 motherboard
Ryzen Threadripper CPUs may be impressive in their own right, but a CPU is nothing without a motherboard to go with it. AMD's vehicle for its high-end platform is the X399 chipset, which bristles with USB and PCIe lanes of its own to go with the 60 available from every Ryzen Threadripper SoC.
A great deal of connectivity comes from the Threadripper package beyond PCIe lanes. Eight USB 3.0 ports are tied to the CPU itself. The X399 chipset provides eight lanes of PCIe 2.0, eight SATA ports, two USB 3.1 Gen2 ports, another USB 3.0 port for rear-panel connectors, four internal USB 3.0 headers, and six USB 2.0 headers.
We performed our Threadripper testing using the Gigabyte X399 Aorus Gaming 7. This beastly board taps most every resource X399 has to offer, and its black-and-gray color scheme serves as a neutral canvas for today's RGB LED-bedecked builds. More conservative builders can turn the onboard LEDs off, but honestly, on high-end systems like this, the extensive illumination the Gaming 7 offers will help communciate that you don't have just any old motherboard in your mid-tower.
The enormous TR4 socket gets flanked with eight DIMM slots on the Gaming 7. These slots are all RGB LED-illuminated, and they use my favored one-clip design for easy insertion and removal of DIMMs. The board offers memory multipliers for DDR4 DIMMS ranging past 3600 MT/s, but I expect most will be happier to hear that ECC memory is supported by this board.
Its back panel offers a whopping eight USB 3.0 ports powered by the Ryzen SoC itself, plus USB 3.1 Gen2 Type-A and Type-C ports powered by the X399 chipset. Audio output comes courtesy of a Realtek ALC1220 codec, and an Intel wireless adapter offers 802.11ac and Bluetooth connectivity right from the board. Killer's E2500 Gigabit Ethernet adapter handles wired networking duties.
The Gaming 7 distributes a Threadripper CPU's 60 PCIe 3.0 lanes across four PCIe slots and three M.2 connectors. The first and fourth slots from the left in the picture above offer a full 16 lanes to the CPU, while the second and fifth tap eight of those lanes. The third slot provides four lanes of PCIe 2.0 from the X399 chip.
Two M.2 22110 slots with four lanes of PCIe 3.0 hooked up nestle between these physical X16 slots. Both connectors are shrouded with heatsinks backed by pre-applied thermal tape. I was initially concerned that one would only be able to install rare M.2 22110 devices in these slots, but Gigabyte helpfully includes a bag of M.2 standoffs in the box that can be added to the board for use with shorter drives. Once an M.2 2280 drive is secured to a standoff, one can simply peel off the protective plastic on the heatsink's thermal pad and screw the heatsink back into the M.2 22110 standoff. Handy.
A third M.2 2280 slot with its own dedicated heatsink sits beneath the chipset heatsink. One doesn't need a separate standoff for use with this slot unless the plan is to install a shorter drive than the typical 80-mm gumstick. I'd use this slot as the default location for an M.2 2280 drive if I were building with the Gaming 7, since it's located a ways from any hardware that might cause heat-soaking issues with the heatsink above.
The nice thing about all of these PCIe and M.2 slots is that not a one shares its lanes with any other device on the motherboard. What you see is what you get, and that should be the case with every Ryzen Threadripper CPU. Even better, only data from the eight SATA connectors and some assorted peripherals should have to traverse the four PCIe 3.0 lanes from the chipset to the CPU. All of the M.2 devices and PCIe slots could, in theory, operate at full bandwidth without risk of a bottleneck.
I cannot overstate how big of a relief this arrangement is compared to the complicated lane-sharing that can arise on today's Intel motherboards. Intel's X299 chipset can be tapped for up to 24 PCIe 3.0 lanes on top of the 28 or 44 lanes direct from an LGA 2066 CPU, but those lanes will all have to traverse the DMI 3.0 connection from chipset to CPU, and it's possible that adding M.2 devices to a board will disable random SATA connectors or cause other minor headaches.
Other nice features on the Gaming 7 include eight four-pin fan headers with automatic three-pin or four-pin fan detection, nine separate temperature sensors, gold-plated ATX and EPS power connectors, and a front-panel USB 3.1 Gen2 header.
All told, the X399 Aorus Gaming 7 has practically everything one could ask for in order to take advantage of a Ryzen Threadripper CPU's impressive resources. Aside from one minor early teething issue that the company explained how to work around from the get-go, my experience with the Gaming 7 was flawless. At $389.99, this is not a cheap board, but it lands about in the middle of the range for X399 mobos right now. I'd heartily recommend it to anybody looking for a reasonably-priced foundation for their Threadripper CPU.
Now that we've seen the X399 platform in its totality, let's get to our performance testing.