Intel’s previous generation LGA 1366-based enthusiast processors found homes everywhere from gaming systems to workstations, with its companion X58 chipset becoming the go to for high end enthusiasts. Unlike last time, this time around Intel’s normal desktop platform delivers more than enough performance for most users. With this in mind, we have deliberately avoided looking at gaming-focused X79 motherboards and are instead looking at the all-rounder options.
ASUS’ Sabertooth X79 and Gigabyte’s X79A-UD7 are two such motherboards. ASUS’ offering is an all-rounder, while Gigabyte’s owes a lot to its previous generation X58-OC motherboard for overclockers.
The X79 has two SATA 6Gbps channels, four SATA 3Gbps channels, eight PCI-E 2.0 lanes, 14 USB 2.0 ports, Gigabit Ethernet and RAID functions through Intel’s Enterprise Rapid Storage Technology. Apart from the use of the enterprise RST drivers, this is the same feature set as the Z68 for normal desktops.
Curiously, this means that Intel actually rolled back features we first saw in motherboards at Computex this year, losing support for Serial Attached SCSI (SAS) drives. It also means that the onus is well and truly on the motherboard manufacturers to deliver features above and beyond the mundane.
Both ASUS and Gigabyte have added third party USB 3 controllers – in ASUS’ case there are four rear ports and a header for two front ports, whereas Gigabyte has gone with two USB 3 ports on the rear and two via a header.
Despite the fact that Intel only unofficially supports PCI-Express 3 in the new CPUs, both companies have ensured that the switches onboard are PCI-E 3 compliant. This means that both have two full x16 PCI-E 3 capable lanes, while ASUS has a third x8 lane and Gigabyte has two more X8 lanes. This allows for three-way SLI/Crossfire on the Sabertooth (running one x16 and two x8 connections) or four way SLI on the UD7 (via four x8 connections).
However, despite the similarities between motherboards, both models have slightly different focuses despite similar price points, designed to complement their featuresets.
ASUS Sabertooth X79
Muted tones: the $399 ASUS Sabertooth board. Click to enlarge.
Designed to be a good option for powerhouse users, the Sabertooth X79 is part of ASUS’ TUF range of motherboards. This means extra thermal sensors, heavy duty components and server level testing.
Like the majority of ASUS’ X79 lineup, the Sabertooth comes with eight DIMM slots, allowing up to 64GB of DDR 3 to be used in the system. Despite support for three way SLI, the positioning of the PCI-E slots will make it a bit problematic to implement. The third slot is right at the bottom of the board, which doesn’t leave enough room to actually mount the card in a lot of cases. Mounting a card in the top PCI-E slot will block the x4 slots on the board, although thanks to the extra PCI-E lanes in the CPU, you can use the middle x16 slot for a graphics card and leave these ones free.
The Sabertooth uses ASUS’ UEFI implementation, which the company has been shipping for almost a year now to great effect. It makes the entire installation experience quite painless, and makes it hard to go back to the mundane BIOS of days gone by.
Overclocking focus: the $419 Gigabyte x79-UD7. Click to enlarge.
In contrast to the mute tones and workmanlike nature of the Sabertooth sits Gigabyte’s high-end UD7 model. Bearing the striking Orange and Black colour combo first seen on the company’s recent X58-OC overclocking motherboard, the X79-UD7 is designed to cater to the overclocking and tweaking crowd.
This means that there are some initially strange tradeoffs in terms of functionality, with only four DIMM slots (in fact, of Gigabyte’s lineup only the X79-UD5 has eight DIMMs) to be found. It does, however, have four PCI-E x16 slots, which opens up the possibility of four way SLI/Crossfire. Like the Sabertooth, the bottom of these slots is right at the edge of the motherboard, so actually using them all would require some special consideration when choosing a case.
Most of the fancy features of this board are in the electronics though. Several extra power connectors and multimeter points give it away, but the board features a whole pile of new power management components designed to enhance overclocking and stability.
The UD7 also marks Gigabyte finally getting around to a ‘proper’ UEFI implementation, with its ‘3D BIOS’. This mouse based interface is again easy to set up, but hides a plethora of settings that only the most adept of overclockers will understand.
Intel’s new CPUs aren’t for mere mortals and neither are these motherboards. If you want to build a robust workstation though, these are much more tempting. ASUS’ offering comes with the benefit of double the potential RAM capacity. Gigabyte’s offering can cope with more GPUs, and the hardcore overclocking capabilities will be tempting to some.
Of these two, we tend towards the ASUS Sabertooth X79 for general use, but Overclockers will want to build on the legacy created by the X58-OC with the X79-UD7. Because performance is largely determined by the CPU rather than motherboard, your best option is to go for the model with the features that suit your needs.