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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  • CEO Ballmer - Sunday, December 07, 2008 - link

    Intell is on the ball!

    http://fakesteveballmer.blogspot.com">http://fakesteveballmer.blogspot.com
    Reply
  • Elvis2 - Sunday, December 07, 2008 - link

    i'm tired of being a free beta tester for these "top" tier manufacturers (remembering my E7205 days). If I'm going to spend $300.+ on a motherboard, I expect it to work AS ADVERTISED. I used to upgrade every year but for the past couple, I've been hesitant to do so. I don't want to fork over my hard earned cash (particularly in this economy)for a new rig only to spend hours on the phone with some tech support guy that dosen't know half of what I do ( let's start on page ten ok?)and wait weeks for a bios that corrects the problem. My Opty rig has been incredibly stable while producing a 50% o/c (thanks eVGA)but is getting long in the tooth. I run SLI and have been waiting on an Intel chipset that supports it. I'm going back to intel and the i7 920...maybe. I'm going to wait a couple of months tho. Bleeding edge, spending that kind of coin, and the hassle of working out the bugs, after fifteen years it's not worth it to me.
    Sorry for the rant. Jmh $.02.
    btw, great article.
    Reply
  • fausto412 - Sunday, December 07, 2008 - link

    There isn't one board manufacturer thatdoesn't have a bunch of people complaining in the forums all over the internet. Anand's opening explains why.

    I hate upgrading bios expecting better stability or performance and getting more problems or no fixes.

    Gary, i think it is time to have some kinda of database that covers all boards and their known issues going back 2 years or to the 3 series boards. if the flag ship board has a problem then by extension lower end boards have that problem. if they didn't care to make their product the best then that is their problem. GIVE THEM BAD REVIEWS so that they get on the ball.
    I never knew Anandtech went back and forward with the board makers as if you're beta testers.

    We need to do something to make things better
    Reply
  • strikeback03 - Monday, December 08, 2008 - link

    I'd argue that it is entirely possible for the flagship product to have problems that lower-end products do not. Expensive X58 is the only option for now for i7 processors, but look back at LGA775. I wouldn't be at all surprised if some stability compromises were made on X38/X48 boards in pursuit of higher SuperPI numbers, while those same compromises are probably not present in the mainstream P35/P45 boards of the same age. Motherboards are one area where I can see going with a mid-level (~$90-130 for LGA775) product might give a better result for the majority of users than jumping to the high end would. Reply
  • borneoo - Sunday, December 07, 2008 - link

    Beside the GHz, and MB/s would be good to have a chart/list, which shows the problems of the parts, and aggregated charts to show problems belongs to the same company, ... or SEARCHABLE DATABASE about errors related to products / companies and solutions Reply
  • JonnyDough - Sunday, December 07, 2008 - link

    "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." (the quote button never works for me in Firefox. Plz fix)

    Awesome. At least someone is. I think a "two strikes before we post" policy is fair.
    Reply
  • DandAG - Sunday, December 07, 2008 - link

    After reading the first page of this article “Intel X58 Motherboard Roundup - What does $300 Get You?”, I started reading all the blogs. At first I agreed 100% with Anand’s comments, and wanted to jump on the band wagon like everyone else, but then I read some of the response. Realistically, review sites can’t use the boards under test with ALL the different software/hardware configurations consumers will, and they cannot postpone a review until all the BIOS and operating bugs are fixed…they would be releasing a review a year (or more) after the next generation hardware has already hit the market. People don’t visit these review sites to see how good a DDR2 system is compared to a DDR system, they come to these sites to read about the future, to get the “inside scoop” as to what the manufacturers are thinking up next, and to see the new features of hardware out there today because they are thinking of upgrading right now. To read about overclocking and performance comparisons is really just a bonus for the overwhelming majority. Most people just jump to the conclusion page to see if the reviewer recommends the product or not. We’ve all done it.

    Review sites need the merchandise to review and the funds to stay afloat, so upsetting certain manufacturers is not in their best interest. They can get away with critiques, questions, “less than expected” reviews, and some (very little) criticisms, but if they were to only give bad reviews every time, manufacturers would stop sending them products to review. And if you think that is a good thing, “they’ll just purchase the final release like the rest of us and provide a balanced review”, think again. If a review site did that, 1) it would have to advertise like crazy to maintain its purchasing ability, 2) not be able to provide future analysis, 3) and not provide the consumer anything more than what “free” chat rooms/manufacturer message boards give you.

    I agree there needs to be an industry-wide change; a change in R&D, change in QC, and a change in review process and reporting, BUT the real change has to come from the consumer. We the purchasers of their merchandise have to take a stand, bite the antiquated hardware bullet, and wait to buy until all the bugs are fixed (at least to a reasonable state). As long as we continue to want to be “the first” or “the fastest”, manufacturers will continue to scramble to be first on the market with crap that can or cannot be fixed later on.

    Don’t jump down the throats of review sites like AnandTech; instead tell them what YOU want to read about. Give these sites constructive criticism, and suggestions to better themselves like Christoph, Gary, Anand, and all the other reviewers here give the manufacturers. The old “if you don’t have anything better to say, then don’t say anything at all” thing.

    Personally, I would love to have AnandTech continue to review the next best thing before it hits the market just to see what the manufacturers are planning and whether or not the reviewer thinks upgrading will be worth it, BUT I also want them to then purchase that same item over-the-counter for a “final look” review, and then tell it like it is. Of course that can’t be done with all items initially reviewed (too time consuming), but the items that bloggers have shown the most interest in.
    Reply
  • Steve Z - Sunday, December 07, 2008 - link

    First, kudos for reqiring reliability. I've now bought the ASUS board. I won't overclock because I know what gate stress does to CMOS electronics (I slowly destroyed a chip I was testing at an elevated voltage. 18 hours is not enough time to run a $300 CPU). I use my computer to get work done and view overclockability as an indication of robustness in the board's engineering. If it's not - I need to know this. Thank you Gary and Anand - beleive me, $100 extra is a small price to pay for a motherboard that will not waste days of my time trying to get it to work.

    Second, a notice to those of you who are going to buy the ASUS board. They put the "Crash Free BIOS utility" and the driver installation utility on the same CD. Since installing all the drivers takes 3 restarts, imagine my surprise when installing the ethernet drivers did several surprise BIOS flashes (I didn't even know what was happening at first and I reset the system a few times during the process. To ASUS's credit, the board recovered).

    If I pay $300+ dollars for a board, I expect them to pay the extra 5 cents and include a second CD. When you go through your three restarts, make sure you remove the disk every time then put it back in once the OS starts up. Shame on you ASUS for the oversight.

    That said, everything is working well now. I hope I didn't buy a product from the company who thought it was only OK for 3 GB to run reliably as I'm running 6 GB now and will go up at some time in the future since I run math sims.

    cheers,
    --Steve Z.
    Reply
  • RagingDragon - Sunday, December 07, 2008 - link

    Reading the sections on each board, I think the ASUS was the only board which fully worked, out of the box, with 12GB of RAM. This strongly implies they were *not* the 3GB company.

    It's hinted the Gigabyte had some undescribed issues with 12GB and older BIOS's, and it's stated that the EVGA also had undescribed issues with 12GB (no indication whether those issues were at stock speeds or when overclocking). The MSI still has issues overclocking 12GB or RAM - nothing said about whether it worked at stock speed out of the box.
    Reply
  • LeeKay - Saturday, December 06, 2008 - link

    I bought the GA-EX58-Extreme as I posted in the forums the quality of the board is the best I have seen but support wise and bios wise this board sucks worse than any board I have had. For a motherboard to have issues when I use 12GB is beyond me. I want to use this pc for everything from online banking thru gaming for the wife my son and me and to do video editing. Right now I can just run Need for speed undercover at any resonable clock speed without it crashing. Thats as of F4j. And I still can not let my board go to sleep with S3 enabled nor can I expect my Data drives running on the hardware raid controller to recover in S3 mode nore can I run my pc with any of the energy saving options in the bios. Oh and I cannot run my memory at 12gb and at 1600Mhz just noway in hell it will be stable. I have to run it at 1333mhz. I cant run SLI and have my X-FI PCI sound card in either PCI slot and have the pc boot into windows. It just blue screens with the latest Bios. (I am running 2 280GTX with single slot active cooling).

    The good note is to run at 4.13ghz I am running 1.425v without loadline correction. its stable and with the above taken into account far better tha the past issues.
    Reply

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