Summary: With support for 1600MHz FSB speeds, PCI Express 2.0, and full 16-lane CrossFire, Gigabyte's X38-DQ6 looks impressive on paper. In practice, we were actually able to hit FSB speeds of 2.0GHz! See why we were so impressed with this motherboard in this review!
From a strategic perspective, the 3-series launch was important for Intel as it laid the groundwork for a range of new technologies. The 3-series platform supports up-and-coming tech like DDR3 memory, 1333MHz front-side bus (FSB) speeds, and Intel’s new fast memory access technology, which features an updated memory controller that has been tweaked to offer lower latency when accessing memory as well as providing more efficient use of available memory bandwidth.
The most notable new addition to the 3-series line though is support for Intel’s upcoming 45-nm Penryn processors. Intel has incorporated a number of improvements into Penryn besides the smaller, more energy-efficient manufacturing process. When it launches next month, Penryn should offer clock-for-clock performance improvements over today’s Core 2 CPUs, as well as supporting Intel’s latest instruction set, SSE4.
Intel’s 3-series launch in May missed one important segment of the market though: high-end. Officially up to this point, Intel’s chipset for the high-end segment has remained the same, 975X. Considering that the 975X chipset was originally launched with the Pentium Extreme Edition 955 back in 2005, and is in fact largely based on the 955X chipset, it goes without saying that the 975X chipset is in need of replacement. (Over the years Intel has steadily improved the 975X chipset so much they’ve gone through three different revs of their own 975XBX motherboard, but none of these changes have really impacted the feature set of the chipset.)
Today that replacement is finally here in the form of the X38 chipset. We use the word “finally” because the launch of X38 has repeatedly been pushed back from July to September, and now finally October. Has the wait been worth it? To help answer that question we got our hands on one of the first X38 motherboards to hit the market, Gigabyte’s X38-DQ6. First we’ll provide a quick refresher on what’s new with the X38 chipset.
Like the P35 chipset, X38 supports 1333MHz FSB operation and Intel’s fast memory access technology.
One new feature Intel plans to roll out in X38 early next year is support for their Turbo Memory technology, which launched earlier this year on the mobile side with Intel’s Santa Rosa platform. The technology is designed to speed up tasks like launching a program or application, as well as reducing system boot-up times, but so far results with Turbo Memory have been mixed at best.
Another new feature Intel is rolling out with X38 is Intel’s Extreme Memory Profiles (XMP). Extreme Memory Profiles acts much like NVIDIA’s own SLI-Ready memory. Like SLI memory, Extreme Memory Profile will offer an enhanced performance profile setting in addition to the standard SPD memory settings. Once enabled in BIOS, Extreme Memory will automatically adjust memory timings and voltages to the optimal level of the memory module for enhanced performance over the standard SPD settings. Intel has been working with memory manufacturers and already companies like OCZ have developed compliant modules. The only downside to Extreme Memory Profiles is that it’s currently limited to DDR3.
Another new feature Intel will be launching with X38 is their Extreme Tuning Utility. This software utility acts much like NVIDIA’s nTune software, providing a graphical user interface for controlling system settings like FSB and memory speeds, memory timings, and voltages. These are typically settings an enthusiast would traditionally adjust in the motherboard’s BIOS. With the Extreme Tuning Utility, enthusiasts who would like to dabble in overclocking will be able do this from within Windows.
Intel’s Extreme Tuning Utility is compatible with Extreme Memory and provides manual or automated overclocking functionality, and also offers the ability to save custom profiles; say for instance if you want to have a gaming profile that overclocks the CPU for playing Crysis, and a home theater PC (HTPC) profile that underclocks the CPU for watching movies.
We haven’t personally tried Intel’s Extreme Tuning Utility just yet, so we don’t know how powerful it is or how easy it will be to use. The utility will be bundled by ODMs, who will then be able to tweak the front end to their liking, so someone like Dell may decide to provide an interface with reduced functionality compared to a boutique manufacturer like Alienware. Of course, as many enthusiasts know, motherboard manufacturers like Gigabyte have also produced their own custom programs for years with similar features.
PCI Express 2.0
For gamers, X38’s most prominent new feature is without a doubt its support for PCI Express 2.0. PCI Express 2.0 offers twice the bandwidth of today’s 1.1/1.0 PCI Express, with PCI Express 2.0 graphics cards expected to debut later this year from AMD and NVIDIA. PCI Express 2.0 is backward-compatible with PCI Express 1.1/1.0, so even if you don’t have a PCI Express 2.0 graphics card or motherboard, the devices will still work together, but obviously you won’t get the full 5.0 GigaTransers/second PCIe 2.0 provides.
As you can see, we saw the X38 platform clearly delivered performance that was superior to P35 in CrossFire mode, including SuperAA settings of 16xAA (with adaptive AA turned on as well). In FEAR, the X38 CrossFire platform outperformed P35 by 8% at 16x12, that figure increased to 21% at 16x12 with 16x SuperAA. In Company of Heroes with 4xAA the X38 platform ran 12% faster at 16x12 and 8% faster under SuperAA. We saw gains of over 20% in Quake 4 as well.
However, for enthusiasts who absolutely crave performance, and don’t mind paying a premium for DDR3, Gigabyte will also offer the X38T-DQ6 which supports DDR3 memory, we’ve been told that the first X38T-DQ6 motherboards should be hitting US shores sometime next week. Functionally it’s identical to the motherboard we’re evaluating today, with the obvious difference being DDR3 versus DDR2 memory support.
Gigabyte has designed the X38-DQ6 to be a performer. Gigabyte boasts full support for 1600MHz FSB operation, as well as DDR2-1066 speeds, even though the X38 chipset doesn’t technically support these features.
Gigabyte achieves these speeds by basically overbuilding the X38-DQ6 board. For instance the board features 12-phase power circuitry and all-solid Japanese capacitors. Gigabyte has also redesigned their SilentPipe cooling on the system chipset and power circuitry for improved cooling performance. The new SilentPipe cooler is composed entirely of copper and uses heat pipe cooling on both the North and South Bridge of the chipset as well as the MOSFETs powering the CPU. On the underside of the motherboard Gigabyte places their Crazy Cool cooling.
Crazy Cool is comprised of copper heatsinks that sit directly underneath the CPU/North Bridge, as well as the South Bridge of the chipset. By placing heatsinks underneath these hotspots on the motherboard, additional heat is transferred off the motherboard and transferred directly to your system case. In theory, this should help to keep board temps, as well as the temps of these specific components down. It’s a nice idea that actually works, but the problem is this can make mounting some aftermarket CPU coolers more difficult, as some of these coolers require brackets that sit underneath the CPU to hold the CPU cooler in place. If this is the case for your particular CPU cooler, one solution we’ve found is simply to go by your local hardware store and pick up longer screws.
As one of Gigabyte’s 6-Quad boards, the X38-DQ6 is loaded with features. You’ve obviously got the standard 6-Quad features including quad-core CPU support and quad DDR2 slots, which are standard fare on any X38 motherboard. On top of that Gigabyte adds features that are unique to their boards such as quad cooling (SilentPipe and Crazy Cool) as well as Quad eSATA 2 ports, Quad triple-phase power (12 phases total allowing the X38-DQ6 to deliver a steady flow of power to the CPU at even the most extreme clock speeds), and Quad BIOS. With this feature Gigabyte provide two distinct BIOS chips on their X38-DQ6 motherboard (one BIOS is the primary while the second chip serves as a backup BIOS) as well as a third copy of the board’s BIOS that you can recover from on CD, while a fourth copy can be saved to your system’s hard drive.
Gigabyte endows the X38-DQ6 with eight SATA ports, two more than the X38 chipset provides natively. You can also see the addition of an IDE connector. Again, the chipset doesn’t natively support this feature, but many motherboard manufacturers are including IDE connectors on their boards as the optical drive industry has been slow to really embrace SATA.
Audio duties are handled by a Realtek ALC889A high definition audio controller. This is the same CODEC Gigabyte used on their older P35 motherboards. The board also supports Firewire thanks to a controller from Texas Instruments, as well as dual Gigabit Ethernet.
As you can imagine with a board this loaded with features, there are a couple of quirks with the motherboard’s layout. For starters, the DIMM sockets for the DDR2 memory are located too close to the primary PCIe graphics slot. As a result, you have to install the system RAM before installing the video card in order for everything to fit. We also don’t like the graphics card retention tabs Gigabyte has employed on the X38-DQ6. They’re located in a terrible spot, right beneath the PEG slot. As a result, when removing a dual-slot card like the Radeon HD 2900 XT, you have to reach your finger up and underneath the card and try and guess where the retention mechanism is. Then once your finger finds it, you have to pull it out. This can be a difficult endeavor if you have large fingers. Even people with medium-sized hands may have problems. We’d prefer it if the retention mechanism was placed on the top edge of the PEG slot similar to what NVIDIA has done on their nForce 680i SLI reference design.
Another gripe we have with the board’s layout is the amount of space between the PEG slots. While there’s enough room to run dual 2900 XTs in CrossFire, there’s barely any space separating the two cards and as such the uppermost card in the primary graphics slot doesn’t get very good airflow. This can lead to higher board and GPU temperatures for the primary graphics card.
We wish Gigabyte would have placed one of the two PCI slots between the two PEG slots to create some additional spacing between the two graphics cards. Right now they’re both located beneath the secondary PEG slot.
The rest of the board’s layout is pretty good. None of the SATA ports interfere with the graphics card, so you can run dual 2900 XTs and populate all 8 SATA ports smoothly. And thanks to the revised SilentPipe cooler there’s plenty of space around the CPU socket for large coolers. We were able to install our Scythe Ninja quite easily.
It’s also really nice to see Gigabyte include 8 USB ports on the back plate of the X38-DQ6. We applaud this move. You can also see two FireWire connectors on the back plate.
We just wish Gigabyte had included a USB header in the packaging of the X38-DQ6. If they had you’d be able to hook up to 10 USB devices to the X38-DQ6 out-of-the-box! Oh well, a quick trip to Fry’s can solve that problem. For eSATA fans, Gigabyte does include two eSATA headers inside the packaging of the X38-DQ6, so you can potentially run up to four eSATA devices.
Gigabyte has put together a pretty solid BIOS for the X38-DQ6. Like some high-end motherboards, if the board is pushed too far when overclocking and unable to POST, the BIOS will reset itself with safe mode settings.
For users who are new to overclocking, the board also has a number of presets within the C.I.A.2 setting that will automatically adjust the clock speed of the CPU to higher speeds for overclocking. Five settings are available ranging from “Cruise” to “Full Thrust”. With the Robust Graphics Booster BIOS setting, the board also has two settings for overclocking the graphics card.
Enthusiasts will want to tweak system settings for overclocking by hand though, and here the X38-DQ6 BIOS doesn’t disappoint. Inside you’ll find FSB speeds ranging from 100-700MHz in 1MHz increments as well as PCIe speeds from 100-150MHz. For tweaking memory speeds, Gigabyte provides seven memory multiplier settings, so you can run memory speeds of 667MHz, 800MHz, 887MHz, 1000MHz, 1066MHz, 1110MHz, and 1333MHz with a 333MHz FSB. Just select which multiplier you want with the “system memory multiplier” setting. You can also manually adjust memory timings to your heart’s content.
For voltages, the BIOS of Gigabyte’s X38-DQ6 is extremely well-equipped. CPU voltages of up to 2.35V of juice are available within BIOS. This is simply an incredible amount of flexibility, in fact it’s too much for most users. Keep in mind that a quad-core Kentsfield CPU requires just 1.372V to operate. The really sweet part about the CPU voltages available is the voltage increments. Most of them are as fine as .00625V! This gives you a ton of options when it comes to choosing just the right voltage for your CPU when overclocking.
Gigabyte is equally insane with the range of DDR2 memory voltage options. You can overvolt the DDR2 memory by as much as 1.55V over the default 1.8V. That’s nearly 3.4V of juice for a DDR2 module! Fortunately Gigabyte color codes these settings, with colors ranging from grey to red. The red voltages also blink intermittently. Hopefully that’s enough to scare a newbie from say, overvolting his memory by 1.0V. PCIe and FSB overvoltage settings of up to 0.35V are available, while the MCH can be overvoltage by as much as 0.375V.
Overall this should be more than enough voltage and bus speed options to please most enthusiasts out there.
With the X38-DQ6 boasting 1600MHz FSB support, we were eager to see how far we could push the board when overclocking. Fortunately, it didn’t disappoint. With our Core 2 Extreme QX6850 we were able to reach FSB speeds of 472MHz with complete stability. We were actually able to boot the board even higher, but Windows wasn’t completely stable under those conditions.
As you probably know though, quad-core CPUs don’t scale quite as far when overclocking as their dual-core counterparts. Therefore we whipped out our dual-core Core 2 Duo E6750 engineering sample we reviewed a few months ago. Armed with this processor we were able to reach FSB speeds of 501MHz. We think we could have pushed things even further with the FSB but the clock multiplier on our CPU wouldn’t budge from its 8.0 rating (even though the X38-DQ6 BIOS provides this feature) and our CPU simply wouldn’t scale beyond 4.0GHz.
In any case, we definitely think it’s safe to say this board is good for its 1600MHz support claim. As you can see, we were able to break the 2GHz FSB mark in our overclocking testing.
LAME MT MP3 Encoding (MS Compiler)
Microsoft Windows Media Encoder 9
LAME MT MP3 Encoding
Company of Heroes
X38 chipset: Intel’s X38 chipset is a solid successor to 975X. Unlike P35 it offers official support for 1333MHz DDR3 as well as Intel’s Extreme Memory Profiles, which should help inexperienced users extract more performance from their system memory. The feature we’re most excited about though are the 32-lanes of PCIe 2.0 present in the X38’s North Bridge.
Couple of board layout issues: Our biggest layout gripe is the lack of space between the PEG slots on the X38-DQ6. Enthusiasts like to keep their components as cool as possible, and with so little room between the graphics slots the primary graphics card in a CrossFire config is going to get less airflow and thus run warmer. We wish Gigabyte would have placed one of the PCI slots between the graphics card slots to free up some space. The retention mechanism is also hard to access when a dual-slot card like the Radeon HD 2900 XT is installed, and you’ll have to install the board’s DDR2 memory before installing the graphics card.