As of November 17th you can officially buy an Intel Core i7 processor - the new heavyweight champion of the world. When it comes to media encoding and 3D animation/rendering tasks, the Core i7 is not only without peer but also provides us the sort of generational performance gap that we've come to expect from Intel every two years. By now you've already decided whether or not you want to buy one, and if you're in a rush to spend money, the next question is what motherboard do you pick?

Current Core i7 CPUs work in Intel's new LGA-1366 socket, currently only found on motherboards based on the X58 chipset. While Intel did a great job of making sure the Core i7 was available at a wide range of price points ($284, $562, and $999), the X58 boards themselves are pretty pricey. We've got a consistent group of $300+ motherboards on the market, and honestly we're not expecting ~$100 Nehalem boards until the introduction of the mainstream Lynnfield/Havendale CPUs in 2H 2009. Boards using the P55 chipset should arrive early next year and at least bring in true sub-$200 options, but for now it's an X58 world.

These boards are very high end - with the exception of Intel's own X58, these motherboards all feature six DDR3 DIMM slots, easily enabling 12GB of memory on a desktop platform. Certification for 24GB and 48GB is coming, but that's absolutely ridiculous on a desktop motherboard. Combine that with the fact that all three Core i7 parts are capable of working on 8 threads at a time and you've got the makings of an extremely powerful system. A desktop Core i7 system has the potential to embarrass quite a few upper end workstations already on the market.

What we've put together today is a roundup of the "midrange" X58 motherboards currently on the market, a sort of first look at the state of the X58 realm for early adopters who are lucky enough to be buying today. We've got motherboards ranging from $220 to $390 in the labs that we will go through over the next couple of weeks; if you're building a Core i7 system before the end of this year, we'll help you pick a motherboard in each category. 

BIOS Ridiculousness: Everyone Say, "Thank You Gary"

Hey guys, Anand here. I'm writing this sub-section, not at Gary's request, but because I felt it was necessary. Over the past year I've watched the number of motherboards Gary gets to review go down, and the amount of time spent per motherboard go up tremendously. This year was especially bad as Gary spent more time helping manufacturers fix their BIOSes and compatibility problems than actually writing motherboard reviews.

I wanted to help bring some of what Gary does to light in this section, just so you know the sad state in which many of these motherboards are being brought to market and the work that goes into getting them ready so that we can actually write about it, much less recommend one.

With that said, let's take a look at a particular sequence of events we encountered with the motherboards in today's review.  We are not going to name names today as all of the manufacturers are guilty, some worse than others.  The point being is that we feel the lack of quality assurance before a product hits the market has now reached an all time high.

Testing Ridiculousness:

It is true, too true unfortunately, about the amount of time it takes to thoroughly test a motherboard, report problems, and then regression test a possible fix.  I am anal retentive when it comes to this process as others are also.  While the benefits of doing it eventually payoff for manufacturers and users alike, it is a disservice to our readership to delay reviews of new products based on this seemingly never ending cycle of test, report, test, report.

So we are refocusing our efforts in generating quick and to the point reviews in the motherboard section.  The manufacturers are going to receive two rounds of the test and report process before we publish our reviews.  After this, we will provide short updates about the product over its lifespan in the market.  We are also instituting a new process where we will purchase select products at retail and review them as is.  This means no conversations with the manufacturers or access to the designers and engineers that we currently enjoy.  We will utilize the latest drivers, BIOS, and utilities on the website in the same way you do when purchasing a product. 

Our plan is to cycle through each manufacturer so we are not singling out any one supplier but we are going to be brutally honest in our assessments in these particular focus reviews.  Our hope is that it will spur the manufacturers to improve their internal QA processes and focus on product usability at launch instead of setting a world record in SuperPI.

That said, let's take a quick look at the number of problems we encountered up until this week with our four boards in today's review.

1.  Of the course of the past 30 days we communicated problems, suggestions, and resolution status on our test products via email 896 times and over a 100 phone conversations.

2.  We have received 31+ different BIOS releases in the last thirty days to address problems and/or improve performance.

3.  Our change log of problems and fixes reads like a bad novel.  While we will not ding the manufacturers for performance improvements that we or others suggest, the simple fact that auxiliary storage controllers, power management features, memory and voltage settings, and other basic features on these boards failed to even work or resulted in a non-POST situation just floored us. 

We are talking about $300 plus motherboards designed and released to be the crown jewel in the manufacturers product lineup.  Of course, there is no excuse for this regardless of price, but one would truly think that the QA process would have noticed simple items like S3 not working, drives attached to certain storage ports not recognized, 12GB memory configurations causing non-POST situations, various BIOS settings not working or auto settings generating out of bounds voltages at stock speeds, power management features that when enabled actually increased power consumption, various overclock bugs, and USB and network controllers operating at half speed.  The list just goes on and on.  To us, these were simple items that we found just booting the board and trying to use it in a manner that 99% of buyers would, not randomly generated bugs due to weird settings, bad drivers, or a collection of old peripherals.

Even more depressing was the fact that several of our technical contacts did not have the necessary components to recreate our problems in a timely manner.  The biggest item was memory, specifically 12GB of memory.  All of the boards had some type of problem with a 12GB installation, ranging from overclock performance to non-POST situations.  Granted, 98% of the 12GB problems have been addressed now, but it took close to a month, dozens of phone calls, hundreds of messages, and constant pressure for this to happen. 

We spoke with several personnel at various companies and they asked why we were so adamant about 12GB compatibility and performance (6GB operation was not much better at first) as one example.  The typical response was not that many people will actually use 12GB and we tuned our board for high overclocks with 3GB, this is what the enthusiast wants.  Our simple answer was and continues to be, "If you advertise the feature, we expect it to work correctly."  This particular problem highlighted one area that seems to drive the current high-end market. 

Catering or focusing exclusively to the extreme overclocking community has resulted in initial product launches that are focused on getting the highest possible results from a product at the expense of usability, compatibility, and stability.  The quest to release quickly and have the top motherboard in the forums, or HWBot/FutureMark rankings has blinded some of the product teams to the more important issue of ensuring their product actually works as advertised.  We enjoy seeing these records as much as anyone else and I am guilty of scouring the Internet everyday to see what record has been broken and more importantly, how it was done. 

Overclocking is interesting to most of us and its importance in improving the quality of electrical components and design aspects on the motherboards cannot be overstated.  However, we need balance in this area again.  Simply, we need to get the basic features and options working right at product launch and then the BIOS engineers can have free reign in tuning the boards to reach their limits. 

One of the technical marketing personnel at a particular board supplier kept pressing me on how well does the board overclock. They also wanted to know about 3GB memory performance at DDR3-2000+ and my SuperPI scores.  I kept responding with a laundry list of items that needed to be fixed before I would even worry about overclocking.  His responses continued to be, those problems are minor and we will get to them, what we need to know is if our board overclocks and performs better than the competition. 

I thought the fact that 12GB would not POST correctly at DDR3-1333 or higher, storage controllers were on the fritz, and power management was not even working was more than minor, but it just accentuated the thought processes that we encounter on a daily basis now.  The current situation is not acceptable in our book but we would like to hear your opinions on this subject.  After receiving three new BIOS releases this morning to address performance improvements and not usability concerns, I just have to repeat Serenity Now, Serenity Now....

That said, let's take a look at the EVGA X58 SLI, Gigabyte GA-EX58-UD5, MSI Eclipse, and ASUS P6T-Deluxe motherboards today.

EVGA X58 SLI
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  • whb456 - Monday, April 20, 2009 - link

    They should be paying you for all the hard work you're doing for them. ;-) Reply
  • rreuscher - Thursday, February 19, 2009 - link

    Hi,

    I don't know if this the right place to post this comment, but I try it.
    I read that you always perform DPC latency tests in all your reviews, I'm missing this results for this Gigabyte X58-UD5 board.
    I build last week a system with an i7/920 CPU (Bios F4) but the DPC latency is a nightmare (my dual core 4 year old laptop outperforms this system). I'm using/intended this machine for dedicated Real Time Audio production, which means I need a steady DPC latency.
    The system shows very low DPC latency values with WIN XP and hyperthreading off (about 4 us), but with constantly spikes reaching up to 8000 us, and this is a killer.

    Did you did some testing on this also ?

    Kind regards, Rene Reuscher
    Reply
  • sahina - Tuesday, January 27, 2009 - link

    I am looking for 4GB memory sticks for this board but the only one in QVL is S10C1 4GB Samsung M378B5273BH1-CF8 DS Samsung K4B2G0846B HCF8. This is DDR3 1066. I can not find it for sale in the market.

    Has anyone tested this board with 24GB RAM?
    Reply
  • Twoboxer - Monday, January 26, 2009 - link

    Anand, your comments represent a start, but . . .

    If you are not part of the solution, you are part of the problem. Unfortunately, there is very little grey area between "reviewer" and "shill".

    1) Ask mfgs to submit samples by Date X.
    2) Test until the board will go no further.*
    3) Publish report.
    4) Rinse and repeat to recognize and publicize improvements, if any.

    * If you want to make ONE phone call to each manufacturer, fine.

    Allowing mfgs to cherry-pick parts is concession/advantage enough. ONE phone call is honorable. More than that is a disservice to your readers, and denies you your supposed purpose as a reviewer. The time saved during your first review will more than cover rinse/repeat.

    In practice I can often get a better idea of what parts to buy after reading a couple of dozen consumer in-use reviews on, for example, Newegg.

    You may find it painful or difficult to change course, but you are now at least on the right path. IMO, you can either continue on the return path to "reviewer", or watch Newegg become the de facto replacement for much of your work.
    Reply
  • aussie greg - Saturday, January 24, 2009 - link

    I want to join the chorus of 'cFoo' and probably many others.
    What you [Anand] have to say about all the 'SNAFU'S' relating to these boards, have been going on with many other boards for years, My Asus P5 would not work until the 3rd bios update and then failed shotly after...by the time it was replaced updates had reached 12...in 10 months! I was without a fully working mobo for 7 months!
    It's not good enough, it's actually pathetic dishonest performance by the manufacturers and probably worth investigating by a relevant govt. authority. Anandtech...and others, should bite the bullet and name names, in detail.
    Maybe if some of these companies got the kick up the arse [with apologies] they deserve, we consumers would be better off.
    Ausssie Greg
    Reply
  • Eru The One - Tuesday, January 20, 2009 - link

    I have been pouring over reviews for the last three days comparing any x58 motherboard review I can find. I feel i've narrowed my choice down to the Gigabyte Extreme but I have yet to see anyone comparing DFI's new x58 against anything.

    I think I should wait before I see someone doing this before I make my final choice. Can you guys at AnandTech help me out here?
    Reply
  • tyaiyama - Wednesday, December 17, 2008 - link

    I am planning to build a system using P6T Deluxe:
    Pro: ATX form factor not E-ATX(previously?)
    PATA is implemented by Marvel 88SE6111
    Dual GbE
    Triple channel DDR3
    True16+2 Phase Power Design
    100% High-quality Japan-made Conductive Polymer Capacitors
    Con: Max memory 12 GB
    3rd PCIe 2.0 x16 (not usable)
    SAS Onboard
    Some people may say FDD connector is not necessary, but I need it. I use SATA for all drives; thus I actually do not need PATA, but just in case. Triple channel DDR3 4GB module will be available next month. Since i7 is the memory controller at the same time, what maximum size does it support? I know it is at least 128GB. Through BIOS upgrade, can we use 24GB or more memory in P6T?
    Reply
  • cFoo - Sunday, December 14, 2008 - link

    Anand, I hope one day you will decide to let the cat out of the bag. Post all the problems and the manufacturer's name beside them. I understand that would risk them from giving you exclusive early access to the boards. But we desperate need accountability. You cannot let them stomp all over fair and accurate journalism.

    Accountability now! I'm sick of spending $300+ dollar and waiting 1-2 months for fixes. If I wanted to do that, I'll rather wait 1-2 months to buy the board for $100 cheaper!
    Reply
  • mwm - Friday, December 12, 2008 - link

    Thanks, Anand; I really appreciate the valuable info regarding your experience with partially-DOA motherboards. Where else would be get this information? How many hours would it take a builder to run down the problem? We don't have the bench or knowledge resources to do that. So we are just screwed.

    Keep up the good work. (I'd even like to see a cheat-sheet on exactly what did not work on a board: a little embarrassment and no sale from guys like myself might prompt them to pay more attention.)
    Yours,
    mwm
    Reply
  • steveyballme - Thursday, December 11, 2008 - link

    ...as long as they run Vista!

    http://fakesteveballmer.blogspot.com">http://fakesteveballmer.blogspot.com
    Reply

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