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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  • Sunsmasher - Saturday, December 06, 2008 - link

    Your comments are extremely well thought out and relevant.
    The idea that $300(!) motherboards don't work reliably upon release
    is beyond ridiculous.
    I think your plan to write an as-is review initially in a great idea.
    This will give early buyers a true heads-up on what they're getting.
    And then later, you can perform your invaluable beta feedback service to the manufacturers and your readers.
    Hopefully, this policy will cause improvements on the QC end.
    Thanks again for being so on top of it!
    Reply
  • Zak - Saturday, December 06, 2008 - link

    I still had working PII and PIII mobos that I trashed this year, not because they were bad but because these platforms were outdated. These mobos still worked 100% after what 7-8 years??? Each mobo I bough within the last 3-4 years never lasted more than 2 years without some major malfunction (some controller dying, memory slots failing, etc). The boards are getting more expensive and less reliable. There is an obsession with overclocking without any effort to offer perfect stability. Most users want a good balance of speed and stability, and as we all know one isn't any good without the other. Besides, overclocking yields minimal real life gains, unless you do something really extreme, and how many people do extreme overclocking??? Mobo makers should focus on stability and features first. Eh...We live in beta culture:(

    Z.
    Reply
  • Griswold - Saturday, December 06, 2008 - link

    What does AT get for being a quasi outsourced QA branch of these mobo manufacturers? To me it looks like you're being taken advantage of - its great that you work with them to get stuff fixed, but is there any compensation for the time invested other than the good feeling? Reply
  • Syntience - Saturday, December 06, 2008 - link

    Some of us have non-parallelizable applications (in our case, a certain kind of AI research) that require vast amounts of memory but don't require that much in the way of processing power. We buy the motherboards with the highest number of memory slots and fill those up with the largest memory modules we can reasonably afford. At the moment (late 2008) that means 4GB DDR2 modules. Boards like SuperMicro H8QMi-2+ have 32 DIMM sockets on the motherboard which means our current sweet spot is 128GB.

    We expect motherboards to operate in these fully loaded configurations, and so far we've been quite lucky. But we'd appreciate manufacturers and reviewers consistently testing boards in whatever max memory capacity the manufacturer is advertising.

    Incidentally, we'd like to see motherboard manufacturers produce systems with DIMM sockets on daughter boards that could be stacked to some depth for even more memory, or even return to backplane/bus based designs with multiple separate memory boards. I don't know whether this is economically feasible to do with current memory interface chip sets. It clearly is possible, since these kinds of systems are available in the turnkey server market.

    - Monica
    Reply
  • LTG - Saturday, December 06, 2008 - link

    What you guys are doing is outstanding and exactly the right thing.

    What's the saying, sunshine is the best disinfectant?

    That's what manufacturers need - as much light as possible shown on their quality and stability issues.

    Let the best companies reap the rewards just as the top automakers do with their reliability measures.

    Reply
  • DaveLessnau - Saturday, December 06, 2008 - link

    The reason manufacturers have thrown reliability, stability, and maintainability (i.e., Quality) out the window is because of the way the review sites review their products. Back in the day, places like PC Magazine would do yearly articles that talked about which manufacturer produced, essentially, the highest quality products. Try to find something like that today. If a board doesn't have glowing fins, can't overclock to a bajillion GHz, use a terabyte of RAM, run 27 video cards in tandem, have every doodad imaginable stuck onto it, roar like a jet-engine because of the cooling requirements, and require a KW-level power supply, the review sites don't even cover it (I'm using an Intel DP45SG right now -- I double-dog dare you to find a review of it anywhere (I mean, it's only a fairly new board from the pre-eminent computer company on the planet)). Plus, every review automatically focuses on the over-clocking aspects of the boards. Overclocking is a fine thing to mention ONCE THE BASIC QUALITY OF THE BOARD AND THE COMPANY BEHIND IT HAS BEEN DETERMINED.

    For instance, this DP45SG. I bought it for two reasons: 1) it (supposedly) does exactly what I need it to do, and 2) Intel (supposedly) provides good support and reliable boards. There are no reviews out there because it's not an "enthusiast" board from an "enthusiast" company. So, I had to buy it blind. After setting it up, I found that (this is from my Newegg review):

    "Under Vista Ultimate (x64), drives connected to the eSATA port on the back do not get recognized as external or removable after the machine has entered and exited sleep mode. Without having slept, there's no problem. I confirmed this with 3 separate drives in 2 external enclosures.
    - The Dolby Control Center software doesn't exist in a 64-bit version. I searched Intel's site and the web in general and found nothing. Intel doesn't even know when there will be a 64-bit version.
    - The Intel Desktop Control Center software isn't available for the current BIOS. According to the web site: "The current BIOS release for Intel Desktop Board DP45SG does not support the Intel Desktop Control Center. A new version of the Intel Desktop Control Center will be posted here when a compatible BIOS becomes available."
    - The Intel Integrator Assistant software isn't available for 64-bit versions of either Vista or XP."

    The first three of those bullets are some of the core things I needed. They're advertised for the board, but there are no reviews. So, no one knows about it.

    Then, take a look at support. Intel just released a new BIOS for the board (0102). You can take a look at ABXZone in the Intel DP45SG (Skyburg) thread starting on page 38 for comments on this. In a nutshell, Intel released a BIOS that sets processor speeds and voltages wrong and killed SpeedStep if you just LOOKED at the processor settings. Granted, talking to their technical support was somewhat refreshing compared to other companies. But, finally, I (and others) reverted back to the previous BIOS.

    The horrifying thing is that this has nowhere to go but down. None of the sites cover this kind of information. So, basic quality just continues to ebb while the companies put more and more focus on the trivial bells and whistles that the "enthusiast" sites focus on.

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

    I'd guess the most basic answer is that they don't have enough man-hours available to do complete testing on every motherboard available. As far as I can tell, motherboard testing is done by Gary, with some help from Anand and possibly Raja. Guessing by the name of your board, it is a P45-based design. Looking at just ASUS site, they list 12 P45 boards, and based on previous ASUS experience there are probably more which just do not show up properly in the list. How long would it take one or two people to only check basic operation of the 12 listed boards? There are at least two relevant OSes to test under, Vista 32 and 64 bit. Do they test XP as well? Both 32 and 64 bit? How about any forms of Linux, again with both 32 and 64 bit? A previous commenter complained about a certain Logitech keyboard not working, just how many different peripherals should they keep around? And multiply this by however many boards all the other manufacturers have out, and get thm done in time to be relevant before the next chipset revision comes out? For free?

    As a result I imagine they pick only boards which stand out or they guess will bring the most traffic to the site. This ends up being the overclocking-friendly boards, some uATX boards, and some HTPC friendly boards it seems.
    Reply
  • ATWindsor - Saturday, December 06, 2008 - link

    Very nice that you focus on stability and things actually working, to many sites give our "recommended"-stmaps in an uncritical fashion even when boards work poorly. This makes the site even more excellent, Goog work! Reply
  • poohbear - Saturday, December 06, 2008 - link

    why are u guys accomodating the mobo manufacturers?!?!?! i understand you're one of the bigger review sites, but seriously if the product doesnt work just say that in your review, dont even bother contacting their engineers for help cause they should've taken care of that before it was even released. I dont read your reviews to see who i have to call or where i have to look to get a certain feature on the mobo to work. I know i sure as hell won't be able to call Evga's engineer and ask for help when my $300 mobo doesnt work. Gimme a break. I just want to know if it works out of the box.

    I'm glad to hear u guys are now going buy a mobo off the shelf to review the same product we all get, but didnt u do that all along?!!? its pretty disturbing to think u have always been reviewing cherry picked products. i'll have to read your reviews with a grain of salt UNLESS you specifically state where you got the product from. Didnt it ever occur to you that the products the manufacturer sends to u might have been unfairly optimized??


    Reply
  • thorgal73 - Saturday, December 06, 2008 - link

    ... motherboard makers that don't care about finishing their products before they come to the market, that is.

    A simple example is DFI, but lately even the tier 1 manufacturers are guilty of it. I personally pulled al lot of my hair out while reviewing the DFI X48-T3RS over at Madshrimps.be. I've spent 2 months on that one, before I had anything decent to write about, and even now the review feels incomplete.

    Did any of you notice that there never was a DFI X48-T3RS review here at Anand ? There was a preview with the Corsair 2133 memory, but the promised review never made it. Now you understand why...

    I can only side with Anand here that something needs to be done urgently. I myself am as sick and tired than any other reviewer to spend ages on a review, while having my boss at my back asking "what's taking so long" ;-) I agree with the opinion that unfinished boards do not deserve publication, problem is, no boards that we (reviewers) get in our hands are finished, as they're mostly rev. 1.0 (or worse) with very early biosses.

    Only solution is waiting with the risk that other sites will beat you to the review, and your own review will barely surface on the web any more....
    Reply

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