Summary: If you don't want to wait until late 2011 to experience USB 3.0 today with the Intel platform, you'll have to spring for one of the new X58 or P55 motherboards with NEC's USB 3.0 controller built-in. Fortunately Gigabyte offers a wide range of boards with this feature, and even 6Gb/sec SATA also. In today's article we take a look at Gigabyte's budget offerings for both chipsets. With prices starting as low as $120 on the P55 and $210 for X58, Gigabyte's boards are quite affordable. But are compromises made in the process? See how these boards fare in today's review!
With the first wave of USB 3.0 drives delivering 3-4 times the performance of USB 2.0, PC hardware enthusiasts in the market for a new motherboard are flocking to products that support the new spec. If youíre going to spend the money on a new mobo, you might as well get one that supports the latest and greatest tech right?
The P55-USB3 is Gigabyteís entry-level USB 3.0 offering for Intelís P55 chipset. Despite this, that doesnít mean that itís light on features. In fact, it supports the same 2-ounce copper PCB and Smart 6 features present on Gigabyteís pricier P55 boards, as well as offering support for up to 8 SATA drives Ė the P55 chipset drives six of them, while two additional SATA drives are supported by Gigabyteís own SATA2 controller. Gigabyteís DualBIOS feature is also supported, as is CrossFire, although as weíll explain later this may not be the board for you if CrossFire support is important.
As its name implies though, itís most important feature is USB 3.0, with NECís USB 3.0 controller used to provide support. The NEC controller can power up to two USB ports, which are colored blue to distinguish them from the boardís USB 2.0 ports driven natively by the P55 chipset. Youíll find ten USB ports on the back plate of the motherboard, which is a really nice number considering this boardís price point. As a result though Gigabyte chooses not to include a USB header inside the boardís packaging, so if you want to populate the board with more USB devices youíll have to recycle one from another board or shell out for a new one yourself.
Like Gigabyteís other motherboards with USB 3.0 support, the USB ports on the P55-USB3 support Gigabyteís 3X USB power boost feature. As a result, both the USB 2.0 and USB 3.0 ports on the P55-USB3 are capable of supplying three times more power than traditional motherboards. In the case of the USB 2.0 ports, Gigabyteís 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 Gigabyteís latest boards, you can run that same hard drive through just one USB port.
Weíve tested this feature out with an old external USB 2.0 Kingwin drive we have and it works flawlessly Ė instead of needing two USB cables for the drive to operate, it runs perfectly with just one.
Because itís light on extra features, the layout of the P55-USB3 is mainly free of conflicts. Our biggest gripe would probably be the layout of the SATA ports, which are located perpendicular instead of parallel to the edge of the board. As a result, if you do decide to run say two Radeon 5870 cards in CrossFire with this board the SATA ports will interfere with that second Radeon 5870 card. If the SATA ports were oriented parallel to the edge of the board your SATA drives and Radeon GPU could co-exist peacefully together.
Since this board is targeted towards the budget conscious crowd, Gigabyte includes three PCI slots on the board, as their target market is more likely to still be using older PCI (versus PCIe) devices like sound cards. Two x1 PCIe slots are also included on the board.
Gigabyte uses a six-phase power design for the P55-USB3. On the surface, this may not sound like a lot of power phases, especially when Gigabyte offers P55 motherboards with up to 24, but as weíve found the number of motherboard power phases isnít a limiting factor when it comes to OCíing Intelís latest Core i CPUs. Theyíre all tremendous OCíers easily capable of hitting 4GHz even with the latest budget P55 motherboards.
The benefit of having more power phases isnít hitting that high OC, especially if youíre OCíing with air cooling, rather lower operating temps. With more power phases, a 12 or 24-phase motherboard can spread the load more evenly across its available phases. This helps to reduce temps of the VRM circuitry, and in theory should help lengthen the boardís longevity.
Obviously the boardís with more power phases have better VRM cooling as well. Gigabyte doesnít use heatpipes on the P55-USB3, everything is cooled with simple aluminum heatsinks. Their pricier P55 boards have larger heatsinks+heatpipes.
If lower operating temps are important to you, you may wish to consider one of these Gigabyte P55 boards, but donít think that theyíll necessarily OC any better than the P55-USB3, as that certainly isnít guaranteed.
One other point we need to mention about the P55-USB3 is CrossFire support. While the board technically does support ATIís CrossFire multi-GPU technology, keep in mind that the secondary PCI Express graphics slot only supports 4-lane PCIe operation. More expensive P55 motherboards with CrossFire/SLI support split 16 PCIe 2.0 lanes evenly, with 8 lanes for each graphics slot. This ensures optimal 3D performance.
Itís for this reason that SLI support isnít provided. NVIDIA has stated from the get-go that they wonít be licensing SLI to any motherboard that sends less than 8 PCIe lanes to the secondary graphics slot.
Because the P55-USB3 board doesnít split its PCIe lanes evenly, you wonít get the CrossFire scaling youíd find on Gigabyteís pricier P55 boards like the P55-UD6.
Also keep in mind that when the second x1 PCIe slot is populated with an expansion card, the secondary graphics slot is limited to x1 speeds only.
The most notable is definitely SATA 6Gb/sec. Marvellís 9128 chip is used to provide 6Gbit/sec SATA functionality. Gigabyte merely swaps their own 3Gbit/sec SATA controller to make room for the 9128, with the P55A-UD3 supporting up to eight SATA drives. Six SATA ports are supported by the P55 chipset, while the Marvell controller powers two.
Thanks to the addition of SATA 3 support, the P55A-UD3 is officially considered one of Gigabyteís ď333Ē motherboards, which refers to USB 3.0, 3X USB power, (both of which we discussed previously on the P55-USB3) and SATA 3 (6Gb/sec). Other Gigabyte features weíve discussed previously on their boards also carry over, just like they did on the P55-USB3. Again, the P55A-UD3 is essentially nothing more than a P55-USB3 with the addition of 6Gb/sec SATA.
As you can see, there are a couple of changes between the two boards. The faster SATA ports are mounted parallel to the edge of the board, just like we asked on the previous page.
This is an ideal orientation for the SATA ports as they wonít interfere with long graphics cards like the Radeon 5870.
Youíll also see that the boardís IDE port is nestled underneath the SATA ports, right near the bottom edge of the board. We actually prefer the P55-USB3 in this regard, which locates the IDE connector right next to the ATX power connector. On the P55A-UD3 youíll have to run your IDE cable further, where it could potentially restrict airflow if the cable isnít tucked away neatly inside your case.
Other than those changes, both boards are pretty similar to one another. They both share the same 6-phase power design for the CPU, and the same PCI Express graphics lane configuration, so youíre limited to 4-lane operation when running two cards for CrossFire.
Also, with the addition of 6Gb/sec SATA on top of USB 3.0, you run the potential to bottleneck the CPUís PCIe subsystem. 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.
The P55A-UD3 sells for about $15 more than the P55-USB3 on Newegg right now, so you donít have to pay a hefty premium for 6Gb/sec SATA. Weíll see in the benchmarks later in this review if the added SATA performance is worth it with Seagateís Barracuda XT, which is the first 6Gb/sec SATA HDD to hit the market.
Gigabyteís X58A-UD3R is their entry-level offering for the X58 chipset that offers USB 3.0 and 6Gb/sec SATA support, making it a ď333Ē compliant motherboard. Like the P55A-UD3, the same controllers from NEC (USB 3.0) and Marvell (SATA 6Gb/sec) are used to provide this functionality.
Also compared to the P55 boards we just discussed, Gigabyte uses a newer Realtek CODEC (the ALC889) which supports higher signal-to-noise ratio and Dolby Home Theater.
With so many PCIe lanes on tap in X58, the X58A-UD3R is a natural for multi-GPU technologies like SLI and CrossFire, both of which are fully supported. In fact, Gigabyte says the board is ready for 3-Way SLI or CrossFire, so the board is loaded and ready to go if two cards arenít enough for you: say for instance you want to run a dedicated graphics card for something like PhysX or to drive additional displays.
The X58A-UD3R is equipped with four PCI Express graphics slots. The primary and secondary x16 PCI Express graphics slots are separated by an x8 PCI Express graphics slot, so there isnít a whole lot of room between the x16 slots (this is the case with most X58 motherboards though).
In order to ensure as much airflow goes to the GPU as possible, for the GeForce GTX 480 NVIDIAís recommending users place their second GTX 480 card in an SLI setup in the bottom PCI Express graphics slot, but if you were to follow that advice youíd have to step down to x8 speeds.
Unlike the price-conscious P55 boards we mentioned earlier, you wonít have to step down when it comes to connectivity with Gigabyteís value-oriented X58 board. The X58A-UD3R has a bevy of output options: 10 SATA ports built-in to the board, 4 USB 2.0/1.1 ports, 2 USB 3.0 ports, 2 of Gigabyteís slick e-SATA/USB combo ports that support both interfaces, 2 IEEE-1394 Firewire ports, and youíll even find a button for clearing CMOS on the back panel of the X58A-UD3R. The board also ships with one PCI slot and two x1 PCIe slots for expansion.
Gigabyte has integrated an 8-phase power design for the CPU on the X58A-UD3R. Cooling the VRM as well as the North Bridge of the X58 chipset are large aluminum heatsinks, along with a single heatpipe. Here we should note that Gigabyte uses large screws to securely mount the heatsink to the X58 North Bridge, so that heatsink isnít going anywhere on accident, while the other heatsinks are secured with push-pins. This isnít as secure as the North Bridge cooling, but these heatsinks have been mounted well with very little wiggle and seem to be locked tightly in place.
The area immediately surrounding the CPU is obstacle-free, providing plenty of room for our oversized Thermalright Ultra-120 heatsink/fan unit.
One object that is blocked the first x1 PCIe slot. The heatpipe used to cool the chipset runs precariously close to this slot, ad the heatsink itself used to cool the North Bridge is definitely in the way. If you plan to use this slot youíll have to use a very small, short expansion card. Fortunately, thereís just enough clearance for the second x1 PCIe slot, although some cards may also be obstructed also.
To cool the South Bridge, Gigabyte uses a fairly simple aluminum heatsink, but fortunately thereís just enough clearance for long graphics cards to fit. Ditto for the SATA ports. Since theyíre mounted parallel to the edge of the board, you can run SATA cables to the ports without interfering with long graphics cards.
The location of the IDE connector isnít the greatest, but hopefully youíve got all SATA drives and wonít have to use this connector.
Also, the Gigabyte website mentions that the X58A-UD3R has built-in power and rest buttons Ė useful if you happen to use the board on an open test bench Ė but our board revision (1.0) didnít ship with these unfortunately.
As we mentioned earlier, the X58A-UD3R is priced at $209.99 on Newegg right now, making it one of the cheapest X58 board with USB 3.0 support. Compared to other X58 motherboards with USB 3.0, the Gigabyte board offers more SATA connectivity and is equipped with more PCI Express graphics slots.
And with Gigabyteís latest BIOS, the X58A-UD3R works flawlessly with Intelís latest Core i7-980X Extreme Edition CPU.
If youíre willing to splurge a little, Gigabyte also offers the X58A-UD5. This is a much more robust USB 3.0 motherboard thatís tailored a little more towards enthusiasts and the OCíing community than the X58A-UD3R, which is more oriented for budget shoppers.
So what makes the board more appealing to the enthusiast crowd? For starters, the X58A-UD5 features more powerful chipset and VRM cooling. The heatsinks found to the left and below the CPU socket look similar to the ones used on the X58A-UD3R, and are similar in size, but the X58A-UD5 heatsinks have many more fins than on the less expensive UD3R. With more fins, these heatsinks boast more surface area, increasing their effectiveness at dissipating heat.
Youíll also notice that instead of relying on one heatpipe like the UD3R, the X58A-UD5 has two heatpipes. Again, this move is made to improve cooling.
Here we should note that both boards run cool, but the X58A-UD5 has the potential to run substantially cooler under the extreme conditions an enthusiast would be more likely to require (read: overclocking).
A heatpipe is also used to cool the six power phases located above the LGA-1366 socket. On the UD3R, its four phases that are located here are cooled solely with a small aluminum heatsink.
Finally, you canít miss the massive cooler on the X58ís South Bridge chip. Itís adorned with Gigabyteís logo and is nice and slim so it wonít bump into anything.
Besides improved cooling, the other addition is more power phases. While the UD3R is limited to 8-phases for the CPU, the X58A-UD5 features 12-phase power, with an additional 2 phases for the CPUís integrated memory controller.
Again, weíre not going to say that youíll need these extra phases to push your Bloomfield CPUs past 4GHz, as all of the CPUs are tremendous OCíers in their own right, but the extra power phases should do a better job of supplying the CPU with additional power under the most demanding circumstances and at the least they should help to reduce board temps, which in turn could increase longevity.
In addition to improved cooling and power, the UD5 board also features a second Gigabit Ethernet controller, giving it dual GigE to the UD3Rís single Gigabit Ethernet. With twin controllers, the board supports Teaming as well.
Other features enthusiasts will appreciate that have been added to the UD5 include a built-in diagnostic LED display and the built-in power and reset buttons we enjoy so much as testers. The power button is actually backlit, allowing it to double as a power LED also. A clear CMOS button is located on the backplate of the board.
The layout of the X58A-UD5 is very similar to the X58A-UD3R, other than some tweaks here and there, both boards are practically identical.
Gigabyteís BIOS implementations havenít changed all that much since their P55 motherboards were first introduced last September, and in the case of X58 nearly a year ahead of that. Weíre not complaining here, as Gigabyteís BIOS is loaded with features for enthusiasts who want to tweak and fiddle with every little setting inside BIOS, but this section is beginning to become a little boring. It would be nice to at least see Gigabyte add more fan control settings (and maybe even fan profiles?) inside their motherboardís BIOS interfaces.
In any case, what we have is more than enough for the OCíing crowd, who want tons of options to choose from when it comes to bus speeds and a wide range of voltage options with very fine levels of granularity on top of that.
In both of these regards, Gigabyteís latest P55 and X58 motherboards deliver in spades.
Everything you need to tweak the CPU can basically be found under one menu Ė 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 600MHz.
For less experienced users who may not know how far they can push their CPU, Gigabyte also color codes everything, so even if you arenít well versed in CPU voltage adjustment, youíll see the flashing red voltage options and realize you may be cranking it up too far. Our only real complaint with the boardís BIOS is it lacks a 1.65V DDR voltage setting. Youíll either have to settle for 1.64V, which is just under Intelís max voltage guideline of 1.65V, or 1.66V, which is a pinch too much voltage as far as Intel is concerned. Remember that if you apply too much RAM voltage, this could potentially kill your CPU prematurely, so itís important to remain as close to spec as possible.
And here are the BIOS screenshots and settings available for Gigabyteís P55 boards:
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
Buffalo DriveStation USB 3.0
Windows 7 Ultimate 64-bit
Far Cry 2
Valve Particle Simulation Benchmark
Overall the P55-USB3 is a solid offering from Gigabyte. Itís attractively priced and offers just enough features for the price conscious system builder who wants to build a high-performing Core i5 or Core i7 system. Gigabyte earns a Bullís Eye hear if you want USB 3.0.
Of all the motherboards represented here today, this one is our favorite. The X58A-UD3R nicely blends enthusiast features youíd expect on a high-end motherboard like heatpipe cooling, gobs of SATA ports and PCIe connectivity, etc, while still being priced aggressively.
Selling for just a little over $200 on Newegg, itís one of the least expensive X58 motherboards with USB 3.0 and 6Gbit/sec SATA support on the site. And while itís down on power compared to a high-end X58 board, the power subsystem Gigabyte has implemented is on par with other boards in this price range and also keep in mind that Core i7 is a tremendous OCíer in its own regard Ė you donít have to spend $300 on a flashy motherboard to get good OCíing results with this processor.
Our only real gripe with the board is the location of the uppermost x1 PCIe slot. Itís nestled right next to the motherboardís massive North Bridge cooling, making it pretty much unusable.
Thatís the only real flaw in what is otherwise the perfect budget X58 motherboard. Because of its high feature content and price/performance ratio, the X58A-UD3R is a natural for our Bullís Eye Award.