As of November 17th you can officially buy an Intel Core i7 processor - the new heavyweight champion of the world. When it comes to media encoding and 3D animation/rendering tasks, the Core i7 is not only without peer but also provides us the sort of generational performance gap that we've come to expect from Intel every two years. By now you've already decided whether or not you want to buy one, and if you're in a rush to spend money, the next question is what motherboard do you pick?

Current Core i7 CPUs work in Intel's new LGA-1366 socket, currently only found on motherboards based on the X58 chipset. While Intel did a great job of making sure the Core i7 was available at a wide range of price points ($284, $562, and $999), the X58 boards themselves are pretty pricey. We've got a consistent group of $300+ motherboards on the market, and honestly we're not expecting ~$100 Nehalem boards until the introduction of the mainstream Lynnfield/Havendale CPUs in 2H 2009. Boards using the P55 chipset should arrive early next year and at least bring in true sub-$200 options, but for now it's an X58 world.

These boards are very high end - with the exception of Intel's own X58, these motherboards all feature six DDR3 DIMM slots, easily enabling 12GB of memory on a desktop platform. Certification for 24GB and 48GB is coming, but that's absolutely ridiculous on a desktop motherboard. Combine that with the fact that all three Core i7 parts are capable of working on 8 threads at a time and you've got the makings of an extremely powerful system. A desktop Core i7 system has the potential to embarrass quite a few upper end workstations already on the market.

What we've put together today is a roundup of the "midrange" X58 motherboards currently on the market, a sort of first look at the state of the X58 realm for early adopters who are lucky enough to be buying today. We've got motherboards ranging from $220 to $390 in the labs that we will go through over the next couple of weeks; if you're building a Core i7 system before the end of this year, we'll help you pick a motherboard in each category. 

BIOS Ridiculousness: Everyone Say, "Thank You Gary"

Hey guys, Anand here. I'm writing this sub-section, not at Gary's request, but because I felt it was necessary. Over the past year I've watched the number of motherboards Gary gets to review go down, and the amount of time spent per motherboard go up tremendously. This year was especially bad as Gary spent more time helping manufacturers fix their BIOSes and compatibility problems than actually writing motherboard reviews.

I wanted to help bring some of what Gary does to light in this section, just so you know the sad state in which many of these motherboards are being brought to market and the work that goes into getting them ready so that we can actually write about it, much less recommend one.

With that said, let's take a look at a particular sequence of events we encountered with the motherboards in today's review.  We are not going to name names today as all of the manufacturers are guilty, some worse than others.  The point being is that we feel the lack of quality assurance before a product hits the market has now reached an all time high.

Testing Ridiculousness:

It is true, too true unfortunately, about the amount of time it takes to thoroughly test a motherboard, report problems, and then regression test a possible fix.  I am anal retentive when it comes to this process as others are also.  While the benefits of doing it eventually payoff for manufacturers and users alike, it is a disservice to our readership to delay reviews of new products based on this seemingly never ending cycle of test, report, test, report.

So we are refocusing our efforts in generating quick and to the point reviews in the motherboard section.  The manufacturers are going to receive two rounds of the test and report process before we publish our reviews.  After this, we will provide short updates about the product over its lifespan in the market.  We are also instituting a new process where we will purchase select products at retail and review them as is.  This means no conversations with the manufacturers or access to the designers and engineers that we currently enjoy.  We will utilize the latest drivers, BIOS, and utilities on the website in the same way you do when purchasing a product. 

Our plan is to cycle through each manufacturer so we are not singling out any one supplier but we are going to be brutally honest in our assessments in these particular focus reviews.  Our hope is that it will spur the manufacturers to improve their internal QA processes and focus on product usability at launch instead of setting a world record in SuperPI.

That said, let's take a quick look at the number of problems we encountered up until this week with our four boards in today's review.

1.  Of the course of the past 30 days we communicated problems, suggestions, and resolution status on our test products via email 896 times and over a 100 phone conversations.

2.  We have received 31+ different BIOS releases in the last thirty days to address problems and/or improve performance.

3.  Our change log of problems and fixes reads like a bad novel.  While we will not ding the manufacturers for performance improvements that we or others suggest, the simple fact that auxiliary storage controllers, power management features, memory and voltage settings, and other basic features on these boards failed to even work or resulted in a non-POST situation just floored us. 

We are talking about $300 plus motherboards designed and released to be the crown jewel in the manufacturers product lineup.  Of course, there is no excuse for this regardless of price, but one would truly think that the QA process would have noticed simple items like S3 not working, drives attached to certain storage ports not recognized, 12GB memory configurations causing non-POST situations, various BIOS settings not working or auto settings generating out of bounds voltages at stock speeds, power management features that when enabled actually increased power consumption, various overclock bugs, and USB and network controllers operating at half speed.  The list just goes on and on.  To us, these were simple items that we found just booting the board and trying to use it in a manner that 99% of buyers would, not randomly generated bugs due to weird settings, bad drivers, or a collection of old peripherals.

Even more depressing was the fact that several of our technical contacts did not have the necessary components to recreate our problems in a timely manner.  The biggest item was memory, specifically 12GB of memory.  All of the boards had some type of problem with a 12GB installation, ranging from overclock performance to non-POST situations.  Granted, 98% of the 12GB problems have been addressed now, but it took close to a month, dozens of phone calls, hundreds of messages, and constant pressure for this to happen. 

We spoke with several personnel at various companies and they asked why we were so adamant about 12GB compatibility and performance (6GB operation was not much better at first) as one example.  The typical response was not that many people will actually use 12GB and we tuned our board for high overclocks with 3GB, this is what the enthusiast wants.  Our simple answer was and continues to be, "If you advertise the feature, we expect it to work correctly."  This particular problem highlighted one area that seems to drive the current high-end market. 

Catering or focusing exclusively to the extreme overclocking community has resulted in initial product launches that are focused on getting the highest possible results from a product at the expense of usability, compatibility, and stability.  The quest to release quickly and have the top motherboard in the forums, or HWBot/FutureMark rankings has blinded some of the product teams to the more important issue of ensuring their product actually works as advertised.  We enjoy seeing these records as much as anyone else and I am guilty of scouring the Internet everyday to see what record has been broken and more importantly, how it was done. 

Overclocking is interesting to most of us and its importance in improving the quality of electrical components and design aspects on the motherboards cannot be overstated.  However, we need balance in this area again.  Simply, we need to get the basic features and options working right at product launch and then the BIOS engineers can have free reign in tuning the boards to reach their limits. 

One of the technical marketing personnel at a particular board supplier kept pressing me on how well does the board overclock. They also wanted to know about 3GB memory performance at DDR3-2000+ and my SuperPI scores.  I kept responding with a laundry list of items that needed to be fixed before I would even worry about overclocking.  His responses continued to be, those problems are minor and we will get to them, what we need to know is if our board overclocks and performs better than the competition. 

I thought the fact that 12GB would not POST correctly at DDR3-1333 or higher, storage controllers were on the fritz, and power management was not even working was more than minor, but it just accentuated the thought processes that we encounter on a daily basis now.  The current situation is not acceptable in our book but we would like to hear your opinions on this subject.  After receiving three new BIOS releases this morning to address performance improvements and not usability concerns, I just have to repeat Serenity Now, Serenity Now....

That said, let's take a look at the EVGA X58 SLI, Gigabyte GA-EX58-UD5, MSI Eclipse, and ASUS P6T-Deluxe motherboards today.

EVGA X58 SLI
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  • araczynski - Monday, December 08, 2008 - link

    mildly interesting, but personally i'd like to see this in comparison to something from the 'normal' lineup, you know, like what most people currently have.

    throw a C2D/3ghz/4gb in there and then we have something interesting.

    compare apples to apples, not just apples to themselves.
    Reply
  • TantrumusMaximus - Monday, December 08, 2008 - link

    THANK YOU THANK YOU ANAND.

    I haven't had a chance to read the entire article but did read all of Anand's comments and am floored. Good Job keep it up and we readers appreciate it. It's gone out of control, prices through the roof for mobos and QA is through the floor. The comments of "why would you want 12GB?" coming from the Manuf mouth is just unsettling at best... if I choose to populate 6 DIMM slots that better work, they're there, and I expect em to work not to be asked WHY I want 12GB!!!!
    Reply
  • CarlosMC - Monday, December 08, 2008 - link

    You just saved me over 1000€ on a new system - guess I'll stick to my 939 for the time being and if things won't change, maybe I'll find better things to do with my money and, specially, my time. Reply
  • DaveLessnau - Monday, December 08, 2008 - link

    And, while talking about the basic quality of the board and the company behind it, don't forget to talk about the manufacturer's web site. Specifically, does it have a forum where people can talk about the individual boards? How slow is the site, itself? Can you actually download things at reasonable speeds? Also, how's the English on the site and also in the documentation (to internationalize that a bit, for any localized site that the company maintains, is the local language real or does it read like something run through Google Translate?)? Reply
  • Emperor88 - Monday, December 08, 2008 - link

    "Hey guys, Anand here. I'm writing this sub-section, not at Gary's request, but because I felt it was necessary."

    I was really pleased to read that section. Not because of the problems experienced, which is terrible and motherboard makers really need to pull their heads in, but because of the honesty shown. More of that kind of commentary would be great, thanks :)
    I think you should add the problems you experience in getting things working correctly in every article. Even briefly would be better than nothing as it paints a deceptive picture of the product's abilities if left off as all the amazing performance figures are presented without acknowledging the hours of fiddling required (by professionals no less!) to get the products up to scratch.
    Reply
  • Zak - Monday, December 08, 2008 - link

    I would be happy to get a mobo that has the basics and no on-board sound, NIC and RAID controllers. These devices often fail and can't be replaced. I'd rather opt for a plain but fast and stable $100 mobo with twice the number of PCI-e slots so I can pick my own devices. Oh, and no legacy stuff: serial, parallel, floppy controller. But I wonder how many reviewers would give it low ratings because it's not overloaded with features?

    Z.
    Reply
  • strikeback03 - Monday, December 08, 2008 - link

    Would need a new motherboard/case standard, obviously ATX couldn't accommodate twice the PCI-E slots. And this will probably never happen, as they seem to not be able to decide when to phase out support for legacy standards such as PCI and floppy. I can't wait to see IDE go, and Intel was onboard with that plan several chipsets ago, put pretty much everyone still includes IDE connectors. Reply
  • Rindis - Wednesday, December 10, 2008 - link

    How do you figure? Most motherboards just have ~3 PCI-E slots + PCI. Remove PCI and you have plenty of room for the expanded PCI-E handling.

    I'll admit I've still got a lot of legacy devices with life in them, so I'm not so keen on abandoning it all. But, as long as it's not a case of abandoning legacy on every motherboard immediately, I think it's past time we see some pure PCI-E + SATA + USB boards.

    I'll also agree with two posts above. My preferred motherboard configuration is no video, no sound, no network. Okay, network controllers are at the point where I use the on-board ones now; but I know of good, reliable, well-priced cards that beat whatever will be on the board, and I don't want to pay for the features I won't be using, and I don't want to have to worry about smashing them into submission. (Which is also better today, but I remember all too well the headaches of turning early on-board audio off.)
    Reply
  • michal1980 - Sunday, December 07, 2008 - link

    This whole motherboard hell is one reason, I didn't even consider upgrading my pc in the past 2 years (that and a quad intel @3ghz is plenty for just about anything right now)


    Ever time I upgraded I went through 2-3 motherboards because ethier they were broken out of the box, or had issues with some other piece of hardware. And its everyone, i've had issues, with evga, gigabyte, asus, abit, etc etc.

    What I really couldnt understand, is most times, I spent the extra money to get the mobo that got good reviews from sites like Anand.

    So while I'm glad your finally going after Mobo manufactures, I feel that you guys bare some of the responsiblity because you allowed it to happen.

    To all readers, just how bad must it be that Anand is finally. FINALLY speaking out? If his speaking out, the boards must be total CRAP. Just plain junk, not only that, 300 dollar junk.

    Part of the problem IMHO, is all this built in stuff, its nice, but it causes corners to be cut, built in network cards, heck, lets make it 2, built in sound cards, etc etc. I'm not even sorry, after a new mobo comes out, i'm waiting 6+ months before i'm even going to consider buying one. I'm sick of being the QA for these manufacture
    Reply
  • SixOfSeven - Sunday, December 07, 2008 - link

    In the discussion of the ASUS P6T, you state "The board officially supports 12GB of DDR3 memory, although we expect full support for 24GB in a future BIOS release." Can you share the basis for this claim? In particular, does ASUS guarantee that P6Ts purchased now will eventually be able to support 24GB with some later BIOS upgrade? Reply

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