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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  • danger22 - Saturday, December 06, 2008 - link

    you should refuse to publish articles with boards that don't work out of the box. why give them any publicity? Reply
  • belladog - Saturday, December 06, 2008 - link

    Im glad Anandtech is taking a firmer stance with the motherboard makers. I too have seen a degradation in quality over the years.

    I take what review sites say with a grain of salt. People concerned about stabilty should go to the motherboards makers forums(or other user forums) to really see what to expect with a product.

    You dont need to be einstein to realise that manufacturers send hand picked and tweaked products to review sites. Their sales figures depend on a good review, but then the masses who buy the boards/products from the shop see very different results.

    Also its hard to poorly rate a product when reviewers have friendships at the companies or depend on advertising revenue from these same companies.

    Whats the use of high overclocks if you cant get 4 Gigs of ram to work? Or your new PCI-E 2.0 Video card is having "compatibilty" problems with a board advertised to run it? Then they say its your PSU or memory. The PSU maker blames the motherboard, everyone blames each other and us suckers have to go out and buy 2 PSU's, 2 different ram kits and mix and match to get a working system.

    I like to buy high end parts but my experience is its usually not worth it. Most "high end" boards, PSU's , memory are overpriced and provide little or no better experience than a mainstream parts at half the price, except maybe graphics cards where a high priced one will provide a better gaming experience on high settings.

    Even in crossfire/SLI an X38/X48 board running at 16X/16X will perform no better than a mainstream P45 board running at 16X/8X. Even worse in some situations.

    X58 is a little different because its a whole new architecture that looks interesting but really doesnt offer a huge performance gain. We will probably see the socket 1156 boards performing about the same if the past is anything to go by.

    Anyway something needs to change in regards to reviews. Maybe review sites should only test parts obtained from retail channels. Maybe review sites should run a standardised lot of tests before even considering overclocking results. I expect all the advertised features to work correctly as advertised.

    Like i said, the best thing consumers can do is, dont take too much notice of reviews and go to the manufacturers forum or other user forums to see what you're really in for.

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

    I love the fact you are trying to implement changes in how you review hardware. Personally I do not overclock, dont want to but i do want the newer Intel processor/motherboard combo for 3d rendering and just because it is time to upgrade I should go with the future. Not all your readers want to burn up cpu components some of us just want a good honest working system. Reply
  • shocku - Saturday, December 06, 2008 - link

    That's it?!
    After promising snippets for weeks, the final article is a compilation of what's been said before. That, and more promises future articles will be more in-depth about: RAM… non ES CPUs… the two or three X58 motherboards not covered here…, etc., etc., etc.

    I appreciate all the work that goes on behind the scenes to make reviews. But at some point you gotta tell it like it is. If a BIOS or driver wasn't ready-- tough luck. There's plenty of room for other companies to shine by getting things right the first time. Or, are sites like Anandtech the new beta testers?

    "We still have several boards to review, ranging from the $220 MSI Platinum up to the $400 Foxconn Bloodrage with several in-between. Our next review will focus on the "lower" end X58 boards from Intel, Gigabyte, Biostar, and MSI. Our final review will feature the upper end boards from ASUS, Gigabyte, DFI, and Foxconn. In between, we will provide a comprehensive OC guide along with a detailed look at memory performance with several DDR3 tri-channel kits from Corsair, OCZ, Patriot, GSkill, Kingston, Crucial, and Mushkin."

    Say it isn’t so. Why did I read this article for?

    I'll try going from the bottom up...
    >I thought the Nehalem memory article was out already. There's that much memory performance left to be covered?
    >How can readers make use of "a comprehensive OC guide" that's coming out before "upper end boards"? There's no point if a few bucks more can get you a board that goes as high as your attempts to OC the cheaper one. Might as well pay more and OC more, or pay less if both have the same ceiling.
    >The next review will be about lower end boards like Intel's?! Huh?! The Smackover retails for over $250 USD. Unless they have a cheaper board nobody knows about, and they're ready to sell it now; there's NO SUCH THING as a low end X58 board this year.

    This article's conclusion, as of 12/05/08, seems impartial and has constructive criticism for the board makers. Perhaps this whole series of articles and blogs will look good to someone reading them for the first time 6 months from now. But, right now, the article is just fodder.

    Are readers better off with an expensive board they know thanks to this article, or should they get an even more expensive board that’s been skipped from this review? Heck, maybe the best is a cheaper one whose price puts it in the so-called ‘low end.’
    These boards are not $1-$5 dollar items. So, say it like you mean it.
    KTHX.
    Or... charge manufacturers for all the beta testing you've done and the many 'second' chances they got before you went public. While you're at it, spare us from dealing with ads in your Web site.

    PS: I wrote this before I read any comments. Boy am I not alone!
    Reply
  • sidewinderx2 - Saturday, December 06, 2008 - link

    Err... i'm pretty sure i'm just feeding a troll here... but here goes:

    Do you not understand what quotation marks mean? You know... somewhat sarcastic? they specifically put the word "lower" in quotation marks, so unless you truly have no grasp of the english language, you must be retarded to think that they actually meant those boards are "low end" boards.


    "This article's conclusion, as of 12/05/08, seems impartial and has constructive criticism for the board makers. Perhaps this whole series of articles and blogs will look good to someone reading them for the first time 6 months from now. But, right now, the article is just fodder. "

    So... what you're saying is... "WAAAAH! ANANDTECH DIDN'T TELL ME WHAT I SHOULD BUY! WAAAAH! THEY'RE TOO IMPARTIAL! WAAAH! THEY SHOULD BLINDLY GIVE ADVICE OVER THINGS THEY HAVEN'T TESTED YET! WAAAAAAAAH!"

    Right.
    Reply
  • LtPage1 - Friday, December 05, 2008 - link

    Which companies have better quality control out of the gate is information of EXTREME relevance to the consumer. These boards are close enough together in pricing, features, and performance as makes no difference to me. Which company's board had the least problems when it was shipped to you would absolutely sway my purchase. Also, how quickly they dealt with problems you brought up, and how obsessed they were with overclocking performance results to the exclusion of basic functionality would be a huge factor for me.

    Inform the consumer! Report on hardware? Tell us which companies deserve our money.
    Reply
  • chekk - Friday, December 05, 2008 - link

    Perhaps you should send the mobo manufacturers a bill for your testing. It sounds like Anandtech provided a very valuable service since clearly the manufacturer's quality assurance processes are not up to the task.
    Yes, overclocking is fun, but if I buy a production board, it had better be production ready. Also, whether the board is $300 or $65, that sucker better work.
    I'd actually like to know which manufacturers we're discussing as I'd like to stop supporting them with my dollars until they get a clue.
    Reply
  • Ben - Friday, December 05, 2008 - link

    It's hard not to rant here, but I know that rants often get passed over.

    You guys don't know what a relief it was to read this article. I've been building systems for many years and I have noticed the steady decline in quality.

    My latest build was not only the most money I've ever spent on a computer, but also the worst experience I've ever had with a build. I've since sold it off as pieces, while I contemplate buying a preassembled workstation for the first time in my life.

    The final straw for me was when I complained about a broken feature to a well-known manufacturer and they told me that I "should have known" what to expect from their product by reading their message boards. In other words, we know it says it does A, B, and C on the box, but if you read our message boards before you bought our product, then you would have known that it doesn't do A, B, and C.

    I hope you guys can turn this situation around.
    Reply
  • DBissett - Friday, December 05, 2008 - link

    Anand's essay on this topic is some of the most important writing I've seen here. Unfortunately, the editorial slant of AT reviews, along with many other sites, has set the stage over the years for exactly what the complaint is about. Anand describes it well...the overriding interest, if not outright obsession, with what often amounts to miniscule performance advantages has literally buried the benefits of simple day to day dependability. Now that this situation has reached such extremes that Anand feels compelled to sound off about it, the task is to turn the editorial focus enough to raise dependability to the higher level of concern that it deserves. Some users in the forums point out at times that different settings or product differences make absolutely no difference in real world use. AT reviews should be equally candid and state, perhaps in bold type, when differences in observed speed are insignificant, and then NOT go on to rank order products on these insignificant speed differences. AT reviews should also go on to provide a rating or at least clear observations about the true ease of use, dependability and satisfaction to be expected by users in general or at different levels of experience, including BIOS issues that the manufacturer has not fixed. It sounds like this might be coming. Great! JDPowers ranks cars on something like initial problems/defects found by new buyers and there's no reason why similar polling/experiences shouldn't be provided for users of what are increasingly expensive computer parts. I hope Anand follows up on this issue and really institutes changes to address it. Reply
  • marsrunner - Friday, December 05, 2008 - link

    Thanks for the roundup. Great reading.
    I bought the i7-920, 12GB of G.Skill PC3-1333 RAM and Asus P6T a couple of weeks ago, and have only had one real problem. My new Logitech Illuminated Keyboard causes the mobo to take about 3 minutes to initialize USB devices at POST, and then when it does POST the keyboard won't work at all until Vista takes over. Very irritating. Haven't contacted ASUS, because I'm sure they'd point the finger at Logitech, who would point the finger back at ASUS. Besides, the keyboard does not cause any problems on my other PC.
    I should say that I don't and won't be doing any overclocking, unlike most people around here I imagine, but even so I've noticed a lack of attention to detail in these mobos.
    Reply

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