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Gigabyte's X399 Aorus Xtreme motherboard reviewed

Threadripper Xtreme

AMD's second-generation Ryzen Threadripper CPUs proved a bit of a bump in the road for the long-term compatibility roadmap for its X399 high-end desktop motherboards. The Threadripper 2990WX and Threadripper 2920WX pose some of the highest per-socket demands for power this side of a dual-socket server.

AMD is confident that every X399 motherboard launched alongside first-generation Ryzen Threadrippers will be able to handle its latest high-end CPUs at stock speeds, but holding up to the demands of overclocking those chips is another story. To keep up with those parts, motherboard makers are supporting the second-generation Threadripper launch with some new boards meant to allow no-limits tweaking of WX-series chips.

Gigabyte's X399 motherboard range previously topped out with the X399 Aorus Gaming 7 and X399 Designare EX, both of which are rock-solid boards that I've had the pleasure of using on the bench and in system builds. With the advent of second-generation Threadripper chips, the company has stepped up to the plate with a fresh board designed with Threadripper WX parts in mind: the X399 Aorus Extreme.

The Aorus Extreme earns its name by starting with an E-ATX foundation. Gigabyte kept all of its past X399 boards within an ATX footprint, but the Aorus Extreme needed to loosen a belt loop to let the company's designers cram everything they needed onto its surface.

To get power to second-generation Threadripper CPUs, Gigabyte uses an unusual International Rectifier PowIRStage, the IR3578, as the main building block for the Aorus Extreme's 10-phase main VRM. For the unfamiliar, PowIRStages integrate the high-side, low-side, and driver circuitry of a buck converter into a single package for better efficiency and thermal characteristics. The PWM controller for this array of PowIRStages is the common IR35201, and it gets signals to all of those phases with IR3599 doublers.

In this particular PowIRStage's case, IR tops off the package with an exposed metal cap to enhance cooling. We've seen this design used to great effect with Intersil power stages in the past, and it's the first sign that Gigabyte is serious about keeping the Aorus Extreme's power-delivery circuitry cool.

Gigabyte's engineers put that exposed metal cap to good use by running a heat pipe directly over the CPU VRM. That heatpipe transfers thermal energy into an honest-to-goodness fin stack similar to the one we saw on the X470 Aorus Gaming 7 Wifi. The fin stack runs over the board's SoC VRM phases, as well. This time around, Gigabyte has plated the heatsink's fins in a dark nickel or similar material that results in a beautiful luster. Gigabyte also notes that it uses premium thermal pads rated for 5 W/mK of conductance between the board's power circuitry and the heatsink above.

As another layer of insurance against a 250-W TDP CPU and the stress it could place on power-delivery circuitry, Gigabyte nestles not one, but two 30-mm fans underneath the Aorus Extreme's I/O shroud. These spinners kick on only when the board's VRM gets hot enough to demand it. We're usually wary of putting fans this tiny in any system, but the fans the company has chosen for the Aorus Extreme only add a minor whir to a system's noise signature—certainly nothing a user will notice in a Threadripper build under full load.

Flipping the Aorus Extreme over reveals a full-coverage back plate. This plate isn't just for looks and structural reinforcement, although it certainly achieves both of those goals. It's finished with what Gigabyte calls a "nano-carbon" coating that's purported to improve the thermal radiation from its surface. Gigabyte uses another thermal pad between the plate and power-delivery components on the back of the board to turn it into part of the VRM cooling arrangement.

The X399 Aorus Extreme comes with Gigabyte's DualBIOS pair of firmware chips for insurance against overclocking or firmware update failures, and its main EEPROM chip is socketed. Should you mangle your board's firmware beyond repair (and even beyond the help of the backup BIOS chip), Gigabyte can simply send out a pre-programmed EEPROM chip rather than arranging the return of the entire board for repair.

That socketed chip could be handy should one ever have to update the board for use with future Threadrippers, too, since Gigabyte curiously omits its Q-Flash Plus feature from the Aorus Extreme. Q-Flash Plus allows a system builder to update firmware without anything more than a USB flash drive and a power supply, and it recently saved my bacon when I attempted to boot the Ryzen Threadripper 2950X with a stale BIOS on the X399 Aorus Gaming 7.

Like most Threadripper motherboards, the Aorus Extreme has eight DIMM slots to allow for two DIMMs in each of a Threadripper CPU's four memory channels. While Gigabyte says the Aorus Extreme can handle as much as 128 GB of RAM, tops, AMD informally suggests that Threadripper memory capacity is limited only by the density and number of DIMMs one can cram into an X399 board's DIMM slots.

In another point of interest to workstation builders, Gigabyte says the Aorus Extreme supports unbuffered ECC DIMMs for those whose concern lies more with data integrity than with flat-out speed. Whatever approach you want to take in providing your Threadripper CPU with RAM, the Aorus Extreme seems to stand ready for it.