Summary: Promising transfer rates up to 10X higher than USB 2.0, next-generation USB 3.0 devices should offer considerably more speed to get things done. The same applies for SATA 6Gb/sec. But does the substance live up to the hype? Yes and no. Join us as we take a look at both of these technologies in Gigabyte's latest motherboards for the P55 and X58 platforms!
But that’s not all. USB 3.0 could potentially be used for a wide variety of other applications. You could slap a graphics chip on it and have an easy upgrade solution for PC users stuck with antiquated graphics. A company called DisplayLink already makes such a device that utilizes USB 2.0, and plans to bring a USB 3.0-based solution in the second half of this year. And drive manufacturers like Buffalo have already announced USB 3.0-powered Blu-ray burners.
Also keep in mind that most of today’s newest SATA hard drives max out at 3.0 gigabits/second, so next-generation USB 3.0 devices have the potential to supplant current HDDs in many applications. USB 3.0 will charge your electronic devices like cell phones and MP3 players quicker too. Power output has also been increased from 100 milliamps to 900 milliamps, allowing you to charge up more powerful hardware.
The bottom line is that USB 3.0 has the potential to dramatically enhance the way we use our PCs today.
Unfortunately if the latest rumors are correct, USB 3.0 won’t find its way natively into AMD or Intel chipsets until sometime in 2011. It’s native chipset support that’s crucial for a new technology like USB 3.0 to reach critical mass. IDE RAID didn’t take off until it was integrated into NVIDIA, VIA, and later, Intel, chipsets. The same is true for wireless networking.
2011 is a long time to wait for such a promising technology.
USB 3.0 isn’t the only new tech on the horizon that we’re excited about though. SATA 6Gbit/sec offers twice the peak transfer rates as today’s 3Gbit/sec SATA drives.
While actual SATA hard drives will come nowhere near hitting their theoretical peak transfer rates (especially for mechanical hard drives), history has shown that over time drive manufacturers are able to tap into the capabilities of the new SATA specifications. Solid State drives should benefit the most from the new SATA specification though.
Like USB 3.0, 6Gbit/sec SATA is probably about a year away from hitting the system chipset natively.
But what if you can’t wait a year to upgrade? What if you want this tech in the PC you’re building tomorrow, or next month? Simple. Check out Gigabyte motherboards.
Gigabyte is offering a huge array of USB 3.0 and SATA 6Gbit/sec certified motherboards. Whether you’re building an Athlon II or Phenom II system, or an Intel-based PC with Core i7-920, Core i5-750, or one of the new Core i3 CPUs, Gigabyte offers several motherboards at various price points for you. By our count, Gigabyte offers a dozen different USB 3.0/SATA 6G motherboards, and has at least 10 more boards coming soon with USB 3.0 support. All of the boards are a part of Gigabyte’s “333 Onboard Acceleration” series of boards.
Today we’re looking at two of Gigabyte’s first boards to offer integrated support for USB 3.0 and SATA 6Gbit/sec, the GA-X58A-UD7 and the GA-P55A-UD6. First though let’s take a closer look at a couple of technologies that are unique to Gigabyte’s latest motherboards…
Gigabyte’s latest motherboards support a wide range of features that set them apart from other boards. So many that Gigabyte marketing has come up with catchy phrases and lingo for all of them. There’s Ultra Durable 3, 333 Onboard Acceleration, Energy Saver 2, Smart 6, and more.
All of these bring something different to the table, and honestly, some of them are more important than others, but combined they add up to bring a pretty unique set of capabilities for Gigabyte’s best motherboards.
The latest of these technologies is Gigabyte’s 333 Onboard Acceleration. 333 refers to three new features that all revolve around the number 3.
The most obvious is USB 3.0. All of Gigabyte’s 333 motherboards feature a USB 3.0 controller from NEC. This USB 3.0 controller powers two of the motherboard’s onboard USB ports and is colored blue.
In case you don’t have any USB 3.0 devices, these ports are also backward-compatible with USB 2.0.
The second 333 feature Gigabyte touts is their 3X USB power boost. Both the USB 2.0 and USB 3.0 ports are capable of supplying three times more power than traditional motherboards. In the case of the USB 2.0 ports, Gigabyte’s latest boards provide up to 1500 milliamps of power, versus the standard 500mA, while their USB 3.0 ports support up to 2700mA.
With more power per port, you can run power-hungry devices through one USB port instead of two. Many external USB hard drives for instance require two USB ports, one port is dedicated for data transfers, while the second is used solely for powering the device. With Gigabyte’s latest boards, you can run that same hard drive through just one USB port.
We happen to have an old Kingwin USB 2.0 external drive that requires two USB ports in order to operate properly, and sure enough, we were able to run it flawlessly using just one USB cable on the P55A-UD6 and X58A-UD7.
For those of you with USB hubs, you’ll be able to support more devices via your hub.
In addition, every USB port is protected by its own dedicated fuse. This is important, as some USB devices are built worse than others, with power spikes and other issues which could potentially short out your board’s USB controller.
The third feature Gigabyte offers with 333 boards is third-generation SATA 6Gbit/sec support. Gigabyte uses a SATA controller from Marvell to provide this functionality, which is offered on two ports.
The first motherboard we’re looking at is Gigabyte’s GA-P55A-UD6. This motherboard is based on their P55-UD6, only it’s been updated with 333 support. The P55-UD6 was one of the best high-end P55 motherboards of last year. It offered a boatload of connectivity options, and was equipped with really powerful heatpipe cooling. Its most notable feature though was its 24-phase power design, the first motherboard to be equipped with so many phases. The arrival of the board started a power phase arm race with ASUS, who responded with their own 32-phase P55 motherboard.
As we mentioned on the previous page, a Superspeed USB 3.0 controller from NEC is used on the P55A-UD6 board. The controller used is the NEC D720200F1, which is actually used on a wide range of USB 3.0 devices, including controller cards and other motherboards. Meanwhile Marvell’s SE9128 is used for 6Gbit/sec SATA.
The issue is that both of these controllers are PCIe-based devices, both with high bandwidth demands. And Gigabyte relies on the CPU’s integrated PCIe lanes to drive them.
As anyone who’s familiar with the Lynnfield/P55 platform can tell you, PCIe bandwidth is one of the key weaknesses of the platform. To keep costs down (and provide some breathing room for X58), Intel just didn’t equip it with a lot of PCIe lanes; 16 lanes total – just enough for one PCIe graphics card, or two cards running in x8 mode.
Because of this, when the USB 3.0 and 6Gbit/sec SATA controllers are in use, the primary graphics card runs in x8 mode, while the second PCIe graphics slot is disabled. When two PCIe graphics card are running in SLI/CrossFire mode, the USB 3.0 and 6Gbit/sec SATA controllers revert to just 2.5Gb/sec so that both graphics cards can run in x8 mode.
So you’re either going to sap the potential performance of your GPU, or your USB 3.0 and SATA drives.
Fortunately USB 3.0 and SATA 6Gb/sec devices come nowhere close to hitting their theoretical transfer rates. As a result, the performance hit isn’t as bad as it would first appear. In a single GPU configuration, the P55A-UD6 performs comparably to its predecessor in 3D gaming, while it’s doubtful SLI or CrossFire users would be pressing their SATA or USB 3.0 subsystem while also gaming.
Gigabyte knows this is an issue though, which is why they’ve devised the P55A-UD7. The UD7 board features a PLX PCIe bridge, providing an additional 32 PCIe lanes for the USB 3.0 and SATA 6Gb/sec controllers. But that’s not all, as the board also ships with NVIDIA’s NF200 chip, which allows the board to support 3-Way SLI.
No word on how much all this is going to cost though, as the UD7 hasn’t been released yet.
Besides the USB 3.0 and SATA 6Gb/sec controllers, not much has changed on the P55A-UD6 when compared to the P55-UD6. The board’s 24-phase power carries over unchanged, with Gigabyte providing an additional 2 phases for CPU VTT power and two more phases for system memory.
We’re big fans of the cooling Gigabyte employs on the P55A-UD6. Everything is cooled by heatpipes. This is complete overkill for the system chipset, which is able to get by with just an aluminum heatsink on cheaper motherboards, but by dispersing heat over such a large area, the effectiveness of the heatpipe system improves. When combined with the board’s 2-ounce copper PCB, the P55A-UD6 runs very cool.
Gigabyte’s slick eSATA/USB combo ports are carried over also. As an added bonus, no additional power source is needed for eSATA devices when in use. Gigabyte provides 8 USB ports on the back plate of the board, as well as dual Gigabit Ethernet ports. Gigabyte also carries over the six DIMMs, although the motherboard is limited to the same 16GB DDR3 as other P55 motherboards. If you wish to populate all six DIMMs, you’ll need to use at least two single-side memory modules, which are incredibly rare.
For expansion, Gigabyte offers 3 PCIe graphics slots, two x1 PCIe slots, and two PCI slots on the P55A-UD6. The uppermost x1 PCIe slot is located right next to a large heatsink, making it pretty much useless, and the third PCI Express graphics slot is limited to just x4 speeds, so it isn’t compatible with SLI or CrossFire, instead you’d use it to power additional display(s). Gigabyte does outfit the board with 10 SATA ports (8 internal, 2 on the backplate) however, making it one of the most SATA-rich P55 boards on the market today.
Tweakers will appreciate the board’s integrated power and reset buttons. There’s also a diagnostic LED located on the bottom of the board. This is useful for diagnosing errors during POST. Simply look up the error code on the diagnostic LED display and you’ll instantly know what is preventing your board from booting properly.
At first glance, it appeared that Gigabyte had switched from Foxconn CPU sockets to ones from LOTES. If you recall there’s a bit of a controversy over this topic, as OC’ers using subzero cooling have run into issues with failing Foxconn sockets. Gigabyte continues to use Foxconn’s socket on the P55A-UD6, although they’ve switched to brackets from LOTES. Gigabyte switched to the LOTES bracket for aesthetic reasons: the shade of the metal used on the LOTES bracket matches their heatpipes and motherboard cooling better than the original Foxconn bracket.
Gigabyte tells us they haven’t switched to LOTES sockets because they aren’t on Intel’s list of approved LGA-1156 sockets. The Foxconn sockets are Intel approved.
Gigabyte provides a very powerful BIOS for the P55A-UD6. Overclockers will appreciate the simplicity of the interface – everything you need to tweak the CPU can basically be found under one menu – and it also offers a robust selection of BIOS settings. For example, voltages top out at 1.9V of juice; that is more than enough voltage to damage a 45-nm or 32-nm CPU, while base clock speeds go up to 1200MHz!
With their X58-UD7 board, Gigabyte’s really gone out of their way to improve on the formula established a year ago with their X58-Extreme.
For starters, the X58A-UD7 features 24-phase power, just like the P55A-UD6. This is twice the number of phases as the X58-Extreme, which was a 12-phase design, and is the most powerful X58 system on the market today.
The X58A-UD7 also supports Gigabyte’s unique Hybrid SilentPipe 2 technology. This is without a doubt, the most extreme cooling system we’ve ever seen applied to a motherboard.
For users with watercooling, the North Bridge of the chipset has a built-in waterblock. Simply attach your tubing, and you can liquid cool your motherboard’s chipset. But that’s not all. If you’d rather rely on traditional air cooling, the built-in cooling is more than up for the task. Gigabyte uses dual heatpipes to cool the system North Bridge, you’ll also see that these heatpipes are also used to cool the motherboard’s power circuitry. To keep the heatpipes cool, Gigabyte uses beefy heatsinks also.
Everything’s made from aluminum rather than copper, although this doesn’t seem to hold the board back in any way. For even more cooling, you can mount an external cooling module to the North Bridge of the chipset.
This module is massive, and includes two additional heatpipes for added cooling. These heatpipes are then flanked by two large aluminum heatsinks which have been designed with what Gigabyte calls a “convection slot” to help dissipate heat even further.
The apparatus is impressive to look at – it’s larger than some Core i7 heatsinks – and is surprisingly easy to install. All you need is a Phillips screwdriver to mount the cooler to the chipset North Bridge. Once everything’s mounted to the board it’s quite secure too. Nothing wiggles or wobbles, as everything is clamped down with screws. The cooler does partially block the uppermost x1 PCIe slot, you’ll have about 0.75” of free space between the x1 PCIe slot and the cooler, so not much room for an expansion card.
The highlight of the board though is USB 3.0 and 6Gbit/sec SATA. Because the X58 chipset has over twice the number of PCIe lanes as P55, the X58A-UD7 doesn’t suffer from the same issues as the P55A-UD6: the platform can handle it. Gigabyte uses the same NEC and Marvell controllers on the X58A-UD7, and Gigabyte includes the same high-end features that are found on the UD6 board. These features include the onboard diagnostic LED display, built-in power and reset buttons, and a button for clearing CMOS, which is located on the motherboard’s backplate (this particular feature isn’t found on the P55A-UD6 board).
Another big difference between Gigabyte’s X58-Extreme and the X58A-UD7 is that the UD7 adds a fourth PCI Express graphics slot. The Extreme board shipped with just 3 PEG slots. Two of the PEG slots get full 16-lane connectivity, while the third and fourth PEG slots are limited to x8 speeds. The x16 slots are separated by at least one expansion slot, leaving plenty of room to run two dual-slot GPUs in these slots.
In theory with the fourth PEG slot you could run 4-Way CrossFire without having to purchase two 4870 X2 cards (or dual Radeon 5970s), although finding a high-end Radeon board that’s single-slot is becoming increasingly difficult to do. All of the 5750, 5770, and 5800 series cards on the market today are dual-slot.
This could prove useful for someone looking to build a high-end graphics workstation to drive lots of displays though.
In order to get that fourth PEG slot to fit on the board, Gigabyte dropped one of the two PCI slots that was originally included on the X58-Extreme. The UD7 board also ships with two x1 PCIe slots, but as we mentioned on the previous page the uppermost PCIe slot could prove unusable, as its located close to the cooling on the chipset’s North Bridge.
Other than this issue, the board’s layout is pretty good considering the number of features that have been included on the board. Gigabyte even managed to find room for IDE and floppy connectors.
The X58-UD7 uses a similar interface/layout to its P55 cousin. In fact, many of the BIOS options are identical to each other, including the lack of a 1.65V DDR3 voltage setting. You can see the BIOS options available on the board in the following table:
Intel Core i7-870
4GB (2x2GB) Kingston KHX1600C8D3K2/4GX @ DDR3-1333 Speeds
Intel Core i7-975 Extreme Edition
6GB (3x2GB) OCZ Reaper HPC @DDR3-1333
ATI Radeon HD 5850
2TB Seagate Barracuda XT
Windows 7 Ultimate 64-bit
Far Cry 2
To test the capabilities of USB 3.0 we utilized a 1TB external USB 3.0 drive from Buffalo Technologies, their DriveStation USB 3.0. This is one of the first USB 3.0 drives to be announced, and it’s a pretty slick drive, with an LED up top that shines blue when running in USB 3.0 mode, and green when running at USB 2.0 speeds.
Valve Particle Simulation Benchmark
In our testing, USB 3.0 delivered dramatic performance improvements over USB 2.0. While USB 3.0 didn’t provide the full 10x speedup listed on paper, we did see a performance improvement of over 3x!
It’s simply incredible to see this kind of performance gain from one generation to the next. And to think that you’ll be able to get this kind of speed boost in all USB 3.0 devices has us excited for the future.
Unfortunately, our results with 6Gb/sec SATA weren’t as impressive. Burst speeds improved by a little over 20%, but average read speeds were only 5% higher than 3Gb/sec SATA.
Clearly this is a tech that will benefit best with SSDs.
You don’t have to wait until 2011 to experience the benefits of USB 3.0 and 6Gb/sec SATA though. With Gigabyte’s latest 333 motherboards, you can reap the added performance of these new technologies today. Gigabyte is offering USB 3.0 and 6Gbit/sec SATA in a wide range of boards too – you don’t have to fork over a ton of money to pick up one of these boards: right now on Newegg Gigabyte’s P55A-UD3 sells for just $135, with additional boards priced at $160 and $185 (the P55A-UD6 we reviewed today sells for $250).
Cutting edge technology at an affordable price? Sign us up!
Gigabyte’s flagship P55 board, the P55A-UD6, is incredibly powerful. Its 24-phase power is more than capable of supplying your CPU with lots of good, stable power. And Gigabyte equips the board with an excellent BIOS. If it weren’t for the limitations of the P55 platform, this would be the perfect high-end P55 motherboard. Unfortunately though the CPU just doesn’t have enough PCIe lanes to drive graphics duties and USB 3.0/SATA 6Gb/sec. Many gamers aren’t going to want to give up a single fps to their USB or SATA controller, no matter how impressive the speed gains are. This is the type of user who is going to want Gigabyte’s upcoming P55A-UD7. With its PLX bridge and NF200 chip, the UD7 should offer uncompromising performance under all situations (including 3-Way SLI).
Our favorite board though is the X58A-UD7. Gigabyte throws everything but the kitchen sink on this board.
You’ve got Gigabyte’s 24-phase power, which is honestly overkill for Core i7: these CPUs OC to incredible clocks with little or no effort as it is. And Gigabyte also includes the most powerful chipset cooler we’ve ever seen mounted to a motherboard on the X58A-UD7.
The board also ships with tons of USB and SATA ports, four PEG slots, and has all the goodies for tweakers you’d expect to find on a high-end motherboard.
And since it’s based on the X58 chipset, the X58A-UD7 has more than enough PCIe lanes to handle graphics duties on top of USB 3.0 and SATA 6G.
Quite simply, this is the best X58 motherboard money can buy right now, and as such, it takes home our Editor’s Choice Award:
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