Date: October 9, 2007
Author(s): Rob Williams
Intel’s X38 is here and we have Gigabyte’s top offering in-house. Key features include PCI-E 2.0, dual PCI-E 16x slots, 1333/1600FSB support along with a slew of unique features Gigabyte has become well-known for.
When a new high-end chipset launches, it usually results in much fanfare around the enthusiast communities. The last big chipset launch for Intel has been P35 and G33, which happened back in May. Although it brought a fair amount to the table over P965, there was one common thing that I kept overhearing, “Wait for X38.” or, “P35 is nice, but X38 is what I really want to see.”
Personally, I’ve been quite pleased with all of the P35 motherboards we’ve taken a look at, so what makes X38 so desirable? It could be a few things, primarily the fact that X38 is designed with Intel’s upcoming 45nm processors in mind. P35 launched in a similar manner. It had support for 1333FSB out of the box, but we didn’t actually see a 1333FSB processor launch until July.
Although X38 boards have already been available in some e-tailers, especially overseas, today marks the official launch, so boards should begin popping up on your favorite e-tailer soon. Though the new chipset is built with 45nm in mind, all current processors will work as well. You can upgrade your board now, then pick up a 45nm CPU when they are released next month.
That said, X38 brings a lot more to the table than P35 did. First and foremost, these boards make the introduction of PCI Express 2.0. Though not ground-breaking, PCI-E 2.0 offers twice the bandwidth capabilities over PCI-E 1.0, which might prove of benefit to graphic card manufacturers later on, but not right now. To make it clear, current-gen products will not operate faster just because they are used in a PCI-E 2.0 slot. The next big PCI-E move will be with 3.0, as we found out a few weeks ago.
We can’t forget the fact that if you are using dual graphic cards, both PCI-E 16x slots operate at full speeds. Not 8x 8x, not 8x 4x, but 16x 16x. Dual GPU with the purpose of better gaming is still only possible with AMD’s ATI cards. Fans of nVIDIA will have to wait until Skulltrail before having the ability to pair the two together.
Other notable X38 features include Turbo Memory and Extreme Memory Profiles, although the latter will be seen only on DDR3 motherboards, so we will not be experimenting with that here today. Plans are already in the works to have “potential solutions” that officially support DDR3-2133 speeds, so if there were doubts that this was an enthusiast chipset, are they gone now?
That’s all we need to touch on X38 in this article, as most everything else relevant to the new chipset is not relevant with this motherboard, eg: DDR3. If you are interested in learning more about the memory and specifically the Extreme Memory Profiles, you should read our interview with Intel’s Chris Cox, which we posted on Monday. When it comes to X38, there’s only one thing you should know. It was developed with enthusiasts in mind, so it should be the killer chipset on the market.
Gigabyte prides themselves on quality, and with all of their products we’ve taken a look at so far, we have no reason to believe that their R&D department doesn’t kick ass. Well, except those who decide that the motherboards should use 90% of the entire spectrum of colors. But that gripe aside, their products have proven to be well-built, feature-packed and most importantly, stable.
If there is one area you can always count on Gigabyte for, it’s creative packaging. I’ve yet to take a look at a Gigabyte product and not just stare at the colorful and clean designs. Of course, you should never judge a book by its cover, but if that were the case here, then this motherboard should blow our socks off.
Besides the motherboard, included is a manual, driver CD, installation guide, I/O panel, S-ATA cables, IDE/Floppy cables and two sets of eSATA cables. These can be installed in a free slot and enable you to hook up to four different eSATA devices.
Being a high-end enthusiast board, the bundle seems to be lacking. Everything that should be included is, but throwing in a free game or something would be nice. It could be that Gigabyte simply finds their feature-set so incredible, that bundling extra items might take away from the boards greatness. We’ll see shortly if that’s a valid argument.
A look at the board itself, and it’s features, is up next.
As mentioned on the last page, Gigabyte takes pride in their products and it shows. Their motherboards are usually well designed, feature-packed and stable. The X38-DQ6 has no reason to be different, so we hope that’s reflected in our testing. Before we jump into a look at the board itself, we’ll quickly cover a few of the features that makes the board unique.
You might have noticed that the term “Ultra Durable 2” has been thrown around a lot on the packaging, and no this does not mean the board will bounce or work under water. Instead, it refers to the fact that the boards equipped with high-quality components that will work well under pressure.
First up are Ferrite Core Chokes, which are comprised of iron oxide and various other materials that Gigabyte claims holds energy longer than common chokes at higher frequencies and in effect, produces a reduced energy loss and lower EMI interference. Though this might not be a problem for most, the new chokes are also designed to resist rust better than conventional chokes.
Ultra Durable 2 continues with lower RDS(on) MOSFETs, which are designed specifically to produce lower switching resistance which will allow faster current charging and discharging. Again, this design change helps overall temperature of the MOSFETs and potentially other nearby components.
Lastly, the Japanese-made All Lower ESR solid capacitors contain a solid organic polymer, which adds enough “durability” to last up to 18x longer than electrolytic capacitors. Though many people might not particularly care about what MOSFET designs are used or which compounds are used for the chokes, it’s good to know that the board is developed with high-quality in mind, along with longer life. These should all add up to provide a better overclocking experience as well.
The “Q6” in the products title refers to 6 Quad, which in turn refers to Quad BIOS, Quad Cooling, Quad eSATA 2, Quad Triple Phase, Quad-Core Optimized and Quad DDR2 slots. In general, all of the features included are designed to increase the functionality of the board. The Quad-BIOS is an extra safeguard for you, in case your BIOS goes the way of the dodo during overclocking. The board itself includes two identical copies of the BIOS, while the hard-drive and CD-Rom will also contain a copy, in case you need to reflash it to get back up and running. I’ve never had to use this feature, so I can’t comment on it’s ease of use, but it’s a nice piece of protection to have.
If you are interested in all of the other features that I didn’t touch on, you can head over to Gigabyte’s product page, though we covered all of the important ones here. With that said, let’s move right into a look at the board itself.
As expected, the X38-DQ6 is a colorful affair, but there are no immediate complaints with regards to the layout or other design decisions. There are a total of five fan connectors, including the one for the CPU. All were conveniently located during installation, a huge plus since I required all of them except one.
As is quickly becoming the theme of other motherboards, the X38-DQ6 is completely silent, with use of one large connected heatsink that covers the Southbridge, Northbridge and also the PWM. They look sharp, and get the job done.
There are a total of eight S-ATA ports on-board. The two purple ones are used for RAID 0 or RAID 1, or a single device if that’s what you prefer.
Included are three PCI-E 1x slots, dual PCI-E 16x slots and also two old-school PCI slots.
In this picture, you can also see the modest southbridge heatsink.
Red and yellow DIMM slots adorn the top right-hand corner of the board. There’s a 4-Pin connector on-board which is used to supply extra power to your graphics cards. If you are using two high-end cards, it would be wise to make use of this.
Around the CPU socket are all of the high-quality components that make this an Ultra Durable 2 board, as well as the northbridge and PWM heatsink. The 8-Pin motherboard connector, I found, was in an inconvenient location, so it might be a good idea to plug that cable in before mounting the board into the case, since you will have more room to move.
Lastly, the back panel connectors are as follows: PS/2 Keyboard/Mouse, Coaxial/Optical S/PDIF connectors, Firewire 1394a, 8x USB 2.0, dual LAN, 7.1 audio ports.
With our look at the board out of the way, we can check out the in-depth BIOS that’s been equipped for your overclocking pleasure.
As you would expect from a high-end motherboard, the BIOS that Gigabyte ships with this board caters to enthusiasts, with numerous overclocking-related options available. As with all Gigabyte boards, you need to hit CTRL + F1 in order to access some of the more hardcore options, none of which I personally understand or felt the need to touch.
Instead of describing the entire BIOS, I’ll let the photos speak for themselves. If you are curious about voltage and overclocking options, I’ll explain those better below.
If you are an enthusiast overclocker, you should be in heaven when you enter the BIOS on this board. There are far more options available here than I would personally touch, and options you will likely never touch. I don’t see a need to fine-tune that much, but you might disagree. Here are the complete voltage options for the major components:
It goes without saying, Gigabyte gives far more voltage control than is necessary, so you need to play it safe or else you might fry your components.
Next up, a look at our testing methodology and our SYSmark 2007 Preview results.
Throughout all of our benchmarks regardless of what we are reviewing, testing is done in a clean and stand-alone version of Windows XP Professional with SP2. The exception is SYSmark 2007 Preview, which is tested under Windows Vista. Prior to testing, these conditions are met:
The testing rig used for todays benchmarking is as follows:
Please note that for our DDR3 motherboards, we use DDR3-1066 speeds with 6-6-6 timings, and for our DDR2 boards we use DDR2-800 4-4-4-12.
Due to the lack of time we had to spend with the board prior to publishing, we decided to stick with our Dual-Core setup, which includes the E6600. Future reviews will shift over to a Quad-Core processor as it’s adoption is growing quick. Faster memory for both our DDR2 and DDR3 platforms will be used as well, to reflect the faster offerings that are available.
SYSmark is an industry leading system benchmarking tool, which is completely automated but utilizes real-world tests. It installs common applications such as Microsoft Word and Excel, Photoshop CS2, 3DS Max, SketchUp! among others.
SYSmark grades the performance of the system by how well it could handle different operations. Systems with more than one core will benefit in the tests, since there is a lot of multi-tasking throughout. Once the test is completed, it will provide you with an overall score, in addition to showing areas where the computer excelled.
Nothing has been able to overtake the Intel XBX2 here, and it doesn’t look like it will happen with our current setup. Our X38-DQ6 board ranks close to the top, though, which is nice to see.
Next up, the most beloved/hated benchmark of them all, Futuremark. From here-on out, I’ll let the benchmarks speak for themselves.
Futuremark has long offered benchmarking tools to enthusiasts that allow them to gage their systems worth. There is a lot of skepticism revolving around the importance of the overall scores, but we enjoy running them because it’s a quick fix to see differences between platforms. Real world benchmarks are by far more important, and we will cover those on the next few pages.
Although old, 3D Mark 2001 proves a good benchmark to evaluate your systems overall performance. In 2000, this benchmark really stressed whatever GPU you owned, but today the GPU hardly comes into the equation. What does help you achieve a higher score is faster CPU and memory frequencies.
3D Mark 2006 tests your system in a similar manner that 2001 does, except this updated version actually does bottleneck on your GPU. The faster the GPU, the better the score. Multi-core processors also help greatly improve your scores here.
PC Mark is somewhat similar to SYSmark, which we discussed on the previous page. The difference is that PC Mark focuses more on synthetic benchmarking schemes, such as disk access and multi-tasking. Very little of the entire test will be seen by you though, as it all goes on behind the scenes.
Although the X38-DQ6 lagged slightly in 3D Mark 2001, it well made up for that in both 3D Mark 2006 and PC Mark 2005. Real-world testing up next.
Nothing can prove the performance of a PC better than real-world benchmarks. The only downside to real-world tests is that it’s difficult to compare to a friends computer, unless they happen to have the same software and media files that you are encoding/converting. We can show direct differences though, since we run the exact same tests on each board.
To test video encoding capabilities, we ripped our “Lamb of God – Killadelphia” concert DVD and then used Nero Recode to convert it into something that can be burned on a normal sized DVD. The direct DVD rip is 7.7GB, and Recode compresses it into a 4.5GB frame.
Similar to our video encoding test, we originally ripped a solid FLAC file from our “Tiesto – Elements of Life” album. From there, we decompressed it using flac -d and then compressed it into a 320Kbits MP3 using lame -b 320. LAME 3.97b2 was used for testing.
As mentioned earlier, I have performed numerous tests using 3DS Max 9 on multiple motherboards, to find that the end performance results hardly differed at all. My tests consisted of a 3200×2400 render, in addition to an export of 100 frames at 640×480. With both tests, the results were either exact or one second different.
Different motherboards use different chipsets for SATA controllers, so these tests are a good way to see how one board will compare to another. The first test is synthetic, using HD Tach RW/3, while the File Compression is real world, which involves compressing a 4GB folder (4,809 files) using 7-Zip.
On the next page, we will take a quick look at gaming performance, and finish off with our final thoughts!
To pit these boards against some popular games, we chose to use Half-Life 2: Episode 1, S.T.A.L.K.E.R. and Need for Speed: Carbon. Each game offers its own flare to our benchmarking reviews for different reasons. HL2 is great simply because it’s one of the most popular games of all time, while STALKER has a wide open world to render and AI to churn. NFS: Carbon is included because racing games really enjoy powerful systems to push high FPS when you are driving at 200MPH.
As a reminder, we are running a 2.4GHz Intel E6600 along with an ASUS 8800GTX, which we choose because of its power and ability to rid out the GPU as being a bottleneck. All of the games were run on 1280×1024 using default options. The only options changed was to NFS: Carbon in order to select “High” detail. Results were tabulated with the help of FRAPS 2.8.2. Each play through lasted between three and five minutes, depending on the level chosen.
For Half-Life 2: Episode 1, I chose my favorite level, ep1_c17_02a. The level starts you off in a dimly lit hallway and you need to make it through to the roof where an airship is trying to gun you down. It’s a fun level, and really shows off HDR.
In S.T.A.L.K.E.R., I chose a run-through with the thumb drive mission, which occurs near the beginning of the game. Through it, there are many people who die and you get to leave with a thumb drive. Does it get much better?
In our NFS: Carbon test, we played through the first normal race when choosing one through the Quick Race mode. Two choices of car are given, an upcoming Chevrolet Camaro and a Koenigsegg CCX. I think it’s obvious which one I chose.
We’ll wrap the review up with our final thoughts on the next page.
I’ll admit something. I received this board Tues afternoon at 9:30AM PST, which means I had a little over eleven hours before NDA was lifted. If I were to say that I had a lot of time to experience what the board has to offer, I’d be lying. That said, I will be unable to slap a rating at the end of this review, simply because it cannot realistically be done.
During the time I did use the board, I am left impressed and wanting more. In true Gigabyte fashion, the board looks great, performs well and is feature-packed. If you are someone who is dying to have X38 and don’t feel like waiting, then I am doubtful you’d go wrong with this board.
The BIOS is rich with enthusiast options, and quite stable. I made a boo earlier in testing where I set an option too high, but the motherboard recovered from it just fine, after a second reboot. One thing that struck me though, is that you need a jumper to short two pins beside the BIOS battery if you want to reset it. Oddly enough, one is not included with the board. Normally there are three pins around the BIOS, with a jumper covering two of them, but no such thing here.
As we touched on earlier, this board is developed with high-end users in mind, so all of the components used were carefully chosen before being implemented, such as the Ferrite Core Chokes and low ESR solid capacitors. Even if you don’t care what those are, you can rest-assured you are buying quality when picking up this board, one that should last a lot longer than you need it to.
The lack of overclocking testing is linked straight back to the fact that I had this board for less than twelve hours prior to posting this review. As it stands, we are in the process of re-benchmarking all of our motherboards using a Quad-Core processor and slightly different applications. This review is more of a preview, and an update will be posted later this week, if testing on the other motherboards can be completed on time. In the weeks to come, you can expect more X38 motherboard reviews, so stay tuned for that.
As it stands, X38 is looking good, Though right now, I don’t think anyone considers an X38 board to be a final release. The BIOS I received with the motherboard was dated for Sept 15, and an updated BIOS I received was dated for Oct 5. So even though X38 is out the door, BIOS updates will not be slowing down anytime soon. Does this mean that the current boards are prone to faults? Not that I could see, but I can’t be quoted since I’ve had limited time with one. If there are any major issues at all, it’s unlikely that they will not be discovered right away.
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