Intel’s high-end desktop platforms can be finicky beasts, and X299 is no exception despite its roots in Intel’s enthusiast-desktop chipsets. I’m not going to name names, but the breadth and depth of CPUs one can install on this platform seems to have stretched some first-run X299 boards past their limits. I’ve had boards crash entirely when benchmarks like AIDA64 try to execute AVX-512 code, for example—a flagship feature of X299 and its Skylake-X CPUs. Others can’t handle Intel’s highest-end Skylake-X chips without a fan directly on their VRM heatsinks to prevent overheating, even when chips aren’t overclocked. In short, X299 has fallen a bit short of the expectations we hold for high-end desktop platforms, especially when compared to the stability and reliability we’ve seen from AMD’s X399 boards.
One X299 motherboard in the TR labs has stood out from the pack for its unflappable demeanor, though. Much like AMD’s motherboard partners have had to do in preparation for second-generation Ryzen Threadripper WX chips, a number of Intel motherboard partners released refreshed X299 boards earlier this year to better handle VRM cooling and the demands of 12- to 18-core Skylake-X CPUs. Gigabyte’s X299 Designare EX is one of those boards, and it has been pleasantly problem-free with any Skylake-X CPU and memory kit I’ve dropped in its socket and slots over months of testing.
Gigabyte’s X299 refresh mojo starts under the Designare EX’s VRM heatsink. This board dispenses with the eight-phase International Rectifier power-delivery subsystem of many first-generation X299 boards in favor of an all-Intersil 12-phase design, achieved with a six-phase PWM controller run through six doublers. Gigabyte taps the company’s ISL99227B integrated power stages for the dirty work and an ISL69138 PWM controller to give those phases their marching orders. Each ISL99227 is rated for 60 A of current and has an exposed thermal pad on both the top and bottom of its package. That exposed metal allows for better cooling through both the heatsink above and the PCB below.
Unlike the somewhat ornamental VRM cooling systems that appeared on many first-generation X299 boards, the Designare EX puts some real heavy metal atop its power-delivery subsystem. The massive heatsink on those Intersil power stages has a beefy metal base capped with chunky fin-like structures. These cut-outs and ridges don’t have quite as much surface area as the true fin-stack heatsinks that Gigabyte has begun using on its latest high-end AMD motherboards, but they’re a far sight better than the abstract sculptures that tended to cool quite poorly on early X299 products.
The X299 Designare EX gets another lift in VRM cooling from a 30-mm fan attached to the back of the secondary VRM heatsink. This fan draws air through a mesh cutout on the board’s integrated I/O shield and exhausts it toward the first memory slot. We’re not usually fans of putting such tiny fans in PCs, but Gigabyte has proven judicious in its selection of VRM-cooling spinners every time we’ve seen one, and the X299 Designare EX is no exception. This fan has proven barely audible in the course of our testing with this board.
Flip the board around, and you’ll find a Designare-branded full-coverage backplate. These plates make it less likely that you’ll zap sensitive components while handling the board and add some extra backbone against heavy graphics cards and CPU coolers. Unlike the implementation we recently saw on the X399 Aorus Xtreme, the Designare EX’s backplate isn’t coupled to its VRM-cooling solution by way of thermal pads.
The X299 Designare EX taps Skylake-X CPUs’ quad-channel memory controllers with the expected eight memory slots, capable of handling up to 128 GB of RAM. Thanks to Intel’s segmentation decisions, however, the board doesn’t come with ECC memory support, and its 128-GB capacity is a hard cap, not a suggestion.
Expansion, I/O, and audio
In contrast to AMD’s X399 motherboards, whose ports and slots are generally what-you-see-is-what-you-get, X299 boards suffer from Intel’s segmentation of its high-end desktop CPUs. That practice makes trouble for the X299 Designare EX by forcing it to support and route PCIe lanes from out-of production 16-lane parts, as well as 28-lane and 44-lane Socket 2066 chips.
The biggest draw from this board for many high-end builders will be the pair of Thunderbolt 3 ports in its I/O panel. These connectors run off a dual-port Intel JHL6540 controller from the Alpine Ridge family, and they’re both ready to do anything the average Thunderbolt 3 port can do, including the transmission of DisplayPort 1.2 signals to compatible Thunderbolt 3 displays. There’s just one catch, though: Skylake-X CPUs have no integrated graphics processors, and thus no way to pipe pixels directly to a Thunderbolt 3 controller. To make the most of the X299 Designare EX’s TB3 ports, Gigabyte includes a pair of DisplayPort inputs on the board’s back panel so that owners can run a pair of included DisplayPort patch cables from their discrete graphics card to the board’s inputs for bundling into the Thunderbolt 3 data stream.
Because of the intake for the VRM fan and the aforementioned DisplayPort inputs, there’s less room than usual on the I/O panel of the Designare EX for more typical peripheral I/O options. The left-hand side of this board’s port block starts with two USB 2.0 ports from the X299 chipset and a hybrid PS/2 keyboard-and-mouse port, both of which seem out of place on a board destined for high-end workstation builds.
One of the X299 Designare EX’s two Intel-powered Gigabit Ethernet ports comes by way of an I219-V PHY chip connected to the X299 chipset, while the other comes from a standalone I211AT controller. Gigabyte also taps Intel’s Wireless-AC 8265 radio for cable-cutters. While we would ask for a Wireless-AC 9260 radio on more recent boards, the Wireless-AC 8265 was hot stuff around the time the X299 Designare EX was introduced.
The four USB 3.1 Gen 1 ports on the back panel come courtesy of a Realtek USB 3.1 Gen 1 hub. Gigabyte routes four USB 3.1 Gen 1 ports from the X299 chipset through the Designare EX’s internal headers, but we really would have preferred that routing be reversed. The white USB 3.1 Gen 1 port supports Gigabyte’s Q-Flash Plus feature. Q-Flash Plus lets builders update the board’s firmware with nothing more than a power supply and a USB flash drive.
The X299 Designare EX has five PCIe 3.0 x16 physical slots, but just what lanes will be available from those metal-jacketed connectors will vary depending on what Core X CPU a builder has installed. With 44-lane CPUs (the Core i9-7900X on up), the first (from left) PCIe slot gets 16 lanes, the third PCIe slot gets 16 lanes, and the final PCIe slot gets eight lanes that are shared with the first slot. The second physical x16 slot gets four more CPU lanes, and those are shared with the topmost M.2 slot on the board. If a user installs a storage device in that topmost slot, the second PCIe slot will go dark. The fourth slot always gets four lanes from the X299 chipset, no matter what CPU is installed in the socket.
Install two graphics cards with a 44-lane CPU installed, and the first and third slots will each get 16 lanes from the CPU. Put a third card in the last slot, and the lane configuration becomes an x8/x16/x8 setup. Now that Nvidia Turing cards are here and three- and four-way SLI setups are dead for the moment among high-end GPUs, that limitation doesn’t matter nearly as much as it might have in the past, but it could still pose issues for builders trying to populate all three of the board’s best-spaced-out PCIe slots. Gigabyte says the strange lane routing is a consequence of having to accommodate Kaby Lake-X CPUs, so those chips’ spectres haunt the X299 Designare EX even as they’ve gone out of production.
With 28-lane CPUs like the Core i7-7800X and i7-7820X, the first slot gets 16 lanes. Install another graphics card in the board’s third slot, and the first and third slots each get eight PCIe lanes. Install an expansion card in the fifth slot, and the board splits the lanes from the first slot into an x8/x8 configuration, just as it does with 44-lane CPUs. The second PCIe slot keeps its four shared CPU lanes at all times.
On the off chance you can find a Core i5-7640X or Core i7-7740X to install in this board, the first slot will get 16 lanes from those chips with one graphics card installed, while two-way SLI or CrossFire will split those lanes into a pair of x8 connections across the first and third slots. With these CPUs, the topmost M.2 slot shares its lanes with the third PCIe slot. Install an M.2 device in that slot, and the third slot drops into an x4/x4 shared arrangement. The final PCIe x16 slot will remain nonfunctional no matter what.
If only the PCIe lane sharing ended there. The board’s third M.2 slot, M2Q_32G, sits just below the chipset heatsink, and it draws its lanes from the X299 chipset. That slot shares lanes with four of the six chipset-driven SATA ports. Put an M.2 device in the M2Q_32G slot, and SATA ports 4, 5, 6, and 7 (the leftmost four ports in the image above) are disabled. That leaves a pair of X299-powered SATA ports and a pair of ASMedia ASM1061-powered SATA ports to storage-hungry builders who want to fill as many ports and slots as possible.
The middle M.2 slot on the board, M2M_32G, draws four lanes from the chipset at all times, but its positioning potentially puts any M.2 device installed there in the direct path of the jet blast from any open-cooler graphics card in the board’s primary PCIe slot. While lane-routing decisions likely led to this setup, it’s not ideal for builders concerned about their PCIe gumsticks running hot. Gigabyte does put heatsinks on all three of the board’s M.2 slots, but we’d have preferred that the company dedicate its always-on PCIe lanes to a slot that wouldn’t normally be blanketed by the heat of a graphics card to begin with.
To make the X299 Designare EX sing, Gigabyte taps a fairly standard Realtek ALC1220 audio subsection without any fancy op-amps or DACs in the analog audio path. The company does use a few WIMA and Nichicon caps to spruce up this otherwise bare-bones setup, but that’s not a knock—the ALC1220 sounds perfectly fine, and Gigabyte wisely doesn’t mess with what works.
Gigabyte’s Designare series of motherboards offer some RGB LED accents, but they’re not the stars of the show like they might be on the X470 Aorus Gaming 7, for just one example. The X299 Designare EX takes a lighting tack that’s the total opposite of Aorus boards, in fact: it has just one zone that controls diffused blinkenlights in the I/O shroud, the chipset heatsink, and the onboard audio path.
The board still has a pair of strip headers for RGBW lighting ribbons and a single header for addressable RGB LED strips, but folks without ambitious lighting plans will never see what those headers are capable of. Professional users who want a bit of excitement from the appearance of their builds will find it in the Designare EX, but folks looking for something that might stand out more in the lighting department are going to want to look at Gigabyte’s Aorus offerings instead.
This review does mark our first encounter with Gigabyte’s recently-revised version of RGB Fusion, its lighting-synchronization and settings app. While it’s clear to me that RGB Fusion is headed in a slicker direction, its present implementation of those ideas is wanting for both functionality and polish.
The basic divisions into “Basic Mode,” “Advanced Mode,” and “Intelligent” effects that past versions of RGB Fusion offered are gone. On first launch, the app now displays a selection of all the components it can synchronize—and perhaps even some that it can’t, given that our system didn’t have an Aorus SLI bridge (or even any SLI bridge) installed. The app does keep most of its basic lighting modes from past iterations, at least. Pulse gently illuminates and darkens the board in one color at one of three available speeds. Music blinks out a one-color light show in sync with any audio that’s playing through the board’s audio outputs.
Color Cycle takes the whole board through the standard rainbow sweep that defines RGB LED lighting for many. Flash blinks every LED on and off, and Double Flash unsurprisingly doubles the blink rate of Flash. Random, well, randomly illuminates each of the board’s zones with different colors in an unpredictable swirl. A new mode, Game, appears to respond to in-game events, although we weren’t able to try it with two apps it appears to work with so far (Project Cars and CS:GO).
Clicking any component from the main screen lets you see what effects RGB Fusion can assign to that part. In the case of the Designare EX itself, the component view reveals the board’s single lighting zone and its strip headers. The single onboard lighting zone and RGBW strip headers can be configured to use the Static, Pulse, Flash, Double Flash, and Color Cycle modes, while the single addressable header unlocks a wide range of modes specific to those special lighting strips. We won’t run through all of those modes here, but you can view them on the Designare EX’s product page.
In the move to overhaul RGB Fusion, the app did lose some functions builders might have become familiar with. The Advanced Mode view has disappeared from the app entirely, and while some of its functions have been absorbed into the component-level views that now dominate customization of the board’s lighting, its build-your-own-effect Custom mode has not survived the move. While the custom effect wasn’t the easiest or most comprehensive way to tune the board’s lighting, I’m surprised that the options it offered are gone entirely.
While I can understand why Gigabyte might want to streamline RGB Fusion, I think the company will probably want to give the revised version of the app a little more time in the oven of refinement. The default serif font that the app uses looks like a generic placeholder compared to the clean and consistent identity of RGB Fusion on past Gigabyte motherboards, and while the functionality of the company’s custom effects editor might have gone over the heads of some users, I can’t imagine that the folks who did use it will be happy that it’s gone entirely. RGB Fusion continues to have basic issues with its mission to sync various RGB LED components, as well—our G.Skill Trident Z RGB RAM never really synced up with the rest of the board’s lighting in any of the dynamic modes we chose.
Overall, this new iteration of RGB Fusion is a step backward from past versions of the app we’ve used.I don’t think the issues it faces are unsolvable, but I wouldn’t advise Gigabyte motherboard owners who are happy with the present functionality of RGB Fusion to upgrade to the new app until it’s gone through a couple more point releases or until they can confirm that the new version doesn’t remove functionality they rely on.
Deservedly or otherwise, Intel’s Skylake-X CPUs have developed reputations as intractable power hogs when they’re overclocked. Those reputations might have come from the fact that some early X299 boards proved to have more style over substance in the VRM heatsink department, even if the power-delivery hardware on those boards was up to the task of powering the 18-core i9-7980XE.
As an aside, If you’re concerned about high-end desktop power draw at the wall on a brand-against-brand basis, the stakes were recently raised by AMD’s Ryzen Threadripper 2990WX. That chip pulled 800 W through our Watts Up in overclocked trim, far more than even an overclocked i9-7980XE. The fact is that as long as the core wars continue, motherboards are going to be stressed harder and harder, and supporting infrastructure like VRM heatsinks are going to have to get beefier to match.
Enter the X299 Designare EX. We’ve already seen that this board has a massive array of high-quality, easier-to-cool-than-average VRMs at the ready, and it has an actively-cooled heatsink to match. We have a Core i9-7980XE ready to test any X299 motherboard that thinks it’s up to the task of powering an overclocked 18 cores and 36 threads, too. Let’s hop to it.
First off, I tried the auto-overclocking routine available to Gigabyte motherboard owners through the company’s EasyTune utility. This routine is a one-click iterative overclocking tool that attempts to find a stable combination of voltage and frequency through a loop of stress-test . After one such loop, the program turned in a 4.6-GHz all-core overclock. A quick all-core stress test showed that Gigabyte’s automatic internal Vcore for this combination was about 1.232 V in software.
After Gigabyte’s auto-OC routine did its thing, I fired up the Blender “Classroom” demo, my favored overclocking-stability test of late. While our i9-7980XE didn’t prove unstable under Gigabyte’s combination of voltage and frequency, the chip quickly throttled back to 4.3 GHz on all of its cores as a result of thermal protections kicking in. That fact does go to show that Intel’s continued use of paste rather than solder under its integrated heat spreaders could be choking off the overclocking potential of its CPUs, but it’s also a sign that the auto-tuning utility isn’t taking thermal considerations into account during its stress-testing phase.
Within those constraints, at least, Gigabyte’s auto-OC utility didn’t kick in unreasonable amounts of voltage, although I believe its 4.6 GHz target speed was overly ambitious. The i9-7980XE has a 4.4-GHz Turbo Boost Max 2.0 clock speed, to be sure, but its all-core Turbo Boost speed is just 3.4 GHz. Had the program started out at a more reasonable all-core overclock and worked up, I believe it could have arrived at a more useful overclock without inducing thermal throttling.
I ran into another hitch after running that auto-overclocking routine, too. Instead of returning our i9-7980XE to its stock settings, using Easy Tune’s “Default” button on either of its overclocking profiles instead seemed to leave Gigabyte’s equivalent of the dreaded multi-core enhancement enabled. That fact caused our i9-7980XE to continue running at a 4.4-GHz all-core speed. Once I rebooted the system and reset the firmware to its defaults for insurance, the board returned our chip to its stock clock speeds. Whatever the cause of this apparent mismatch between intent and effect, I wish Easy Tune would follow the accepted understanding of “default” or “reset” and really put a previously overclocked CPU back to stock settings.
With our auto-tuning options exhausted, I turned to manual overclocking. From experience, I know that our i9-7980XE can hit about 4.4 GHz on about 1.33-1.44 V without running into a persistent thermal wall. Once I dialed those settings in manually via the X299 Designare EX’s firmware, I was able to quickly verify that the system was stable using the Blender Classroom benchmark.
Throughout all my overclocking attempts, I was impressed by the performance of the X299 Designare EX’s VRM heatsink. Even in a minimal-airflow environment on our test bench, the active fan on that heatsink was able to hold the board’s power-delivery circuitry to 95° C or less, well under the 125° C throttling temperature Intersil specifies for its ISL99227B power stages. In a typical case with several fans, then, the X299 Designare EX should have no trouble holding VRM operating temperatures well within safe ranges, even with an overclocked i9-7980XE in the socket. Thanks to that performance, the Designare EX had no issues taking our Extreme Edition chip to its limits, and it proved an able overclocking companion despite its serious-business workstation demeanor.
Although Intel’s X299 platform has one foot on the gaming and enthusiast side and the other on on the prosumer-workstation side of the high-end desktop fence, Gigabyte’s X299 Designare EX dispenses with the gamer bling. Instead, this board makes the most of what X299 has to offer for folks who are serious about performance and want to hook up a ton of high-speed external peripherals, as well.
For all its virtues, the Designare EX has a couple of rough spots. Thanks to the wide range of CPUs it has to support, this board can’t provide two fully-fledged PCIe 3.0 x16 slots and a PCIe 3.0 x8 slot for triple-GPU or dual-GPU-and-other-PCIe-expansion-card setups, even with 44-lane Skylake-X CPUs installed. USB 2.0 ports and a PS/2 connector have no place on the back panel of what’s supposed to be a cutting-edge motherboard, either. Attempting to overclock a CPU through Gigabyte’s Windows utilities can be way balkier than it needs to be. Finally, Gigabyte’s RGB Fusion app is in transition to a new version, and that work could leave RGB LED-hungry builders coughing on some construction dust.
Happily, the rough spots stop there. Thunderbolt 3 support on X299 motherboards is a rare sight, but the Designare EX provides two such ports off an Alpine Ridge controller. What’s more, users who want to use single-cable Thunderbolt 3 displays can do so with the Designare EX thanks to its duo of DisplayPort inputs on its back panel. A massive array of VRM hardware and a massive heatsink to match makes overclocking even a Core i9-7980XE worry-free on this board, even without supplemental cooling for the power-delivery subsystem.
On top of all that, the X299 Designare EX is just a nice motherboard to build around. This board’s silvery color scheme stands out in a world of black-and-red gamer gear, and its subdued RGB LEDs make for soothing accent lighting rather than retina-searing rave diodes. An integrated back plate and I/O shield make the board easy to handle and install, too.
In all honesty, Intel’s X299 platform hasn’t aged gracefully next to the bounty of PCIe lanes and consistent lane-routing arrangements AMD offers from its Threadripper CPUs and X399 boards. Motherboard makers can only do so much about that fact. With that caveat, among the selection of Skylake-X-supporting hardware I’ve played with in the TR labs, the X299 Designare EX has proven itself time and time again as the most stable and reliable X299 board I’ve used over the course of several critical reviews. If you need a trustworthy platform to let Skylake-X CPUs do what they’re good at, the X299 Designare EX should be at the top of your list even with its $426 price tag at e-tail, and I’m happy to call it TR Recommended.