Original Link: http://www.anandtech.com/show/5188/asrock-x79-extreme4m-and-x79-extreme4-review-sandy-bridgee-meets-matx



In our series of X79 reviews, the next boards to face scrutiny are a pair of ASRock boards – the X79 Extreme4-M, one of the first mATX solutions to X79, and the X79 Extreme4, a full size ATX model.  The main interesting point to consider starts with whether the power consumption and heat generation are applicable to the Sandy Bridge-E platform in a mATX format.  With the socket and quad channel memory taking up serious PCB real estate, it is interesting to see how ASRock have tackled heat dissipation issues.  We also compare the Extreme4-M to the Extreme4, its bigger brother.  Both boards offer amazing value in X79 land, coming in at a recommended retail of $224.99 and $234.99 respectively. 

In terms of the initial ASRock release into the world of X79, we are promised five boards ranging from the value X79 Extreme3, the mATX Extreme4-M, to the premium Extreme9.  ASRock have never made an ‘Extreme9’ board before – perhaps they are looking at Gigabyte’s UD9 advertising and wanting some of that.  The other aspect is that typical high end ASRock boards (barring the Fatal1ty editions) are usually priced in the mid range area of other SKU lists, with performance and utilities to match.

A simple comparison between the boards gives us the following:

ASRock X79 Series
  Extreme3 Extreme4-M Extreme4 Extreme7 Extreme9
Release Date Dec 2011 Nov 2011 Nov 2011 Soon Nov 2011
Price $216 $225 $235 $294 $355
Size ATX Micro ATX ATX ATX ATX
Power Phase 5+1 6+2 6+2 12+2 16+2
Memory 4 x DDR3 4 x DDR3 4 x DDR3 6 x DDR3 8 x DDR3
PCIe x16/x16/x8 x16/x8/x16 x16/x16/x8 x8/x8/x8/x8/x8
x16/-/x16/-/x8
x8/x8/x8/x8/x8
x16/-/x16/-/x8
CrossfireX 2x, 3x, 4x 2x, 4x 2x, 3x, 4x 2x, 3x, 4x 2x, 3x, 4x
SLI 2x, 3x, 4x 2x, 4x 2x, 3x, 4x 2x, 3x, 4x 2x, 3x, 4x
Audio ALC 898 ALC 898 ALC 898 ALC 898 Creative Sound
Core3D
LAN Single Single Single Dual Dual
SATA 6 Gbps 3 4 5 7 8
USB 3.0 4 4 4 6 8
USB 2.0 12 10 12 12 12
XFast Software Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
Digital PWM Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
Dr. Debug - Yes Yes Yes Yes

There are some interesting points to make from this table.  For a start, the prices of the entry level boards start to resemble something for the mild enthusiast, especially when considering the cheaper processor SKUs due to ship in Q1 2012.  Each of the boards as we go up the scale seems to offer more in the way of features, especially when considering NICs, SATA 6 Gbps ports, USB 3.0 and USB 2.0 – even the Audio jumps from a Realtek ALC898 to a Creative solution on the Extreme9.

One thing that may seem a little odd is the X79 Extreme7, and its DDR3 solution.  X79 and Sandy Bridge-E supports quad channel memory, either in terms of one DIMM per channel or two DIMMs per channel, and thus boards would expect to have 4 DIMM slots or 8.  The X79 Extreme7 has six DIMM slots for memory, so I had to ask ASRock for an explanation of the layout and the reasoning.  Essentially, they wanted to make a board for people who are jumping from X58 to X79, who were using six sticks of good tri-channel memory.  The layout is such that two channels are one DIMM per channel, and the other two channels are two DIMMs per channel.  ASRock assures me there are no compatibility or speed issues.

All the boards are sporting black aesthetics, which is a somewhat detour to ASRock’s blue and white philosophy of old.  As expected, all the boards will receive the range of software including XFast USB, XFast LAN, and the new XFast RAM, some of which we have seen before. 

So without further ado, let us get cracking onto the specifics behind the X79 Extreme4-M and X79 Extreme4.



Overview

I was not too sure what to expect from the X79 Extreme4-M.  One of the biggest LGA2011 features, 40 PCIe lanes, would not be fully exploited by the mATX layout.  I then looked at the retail price, and compared to other boards we have looked at, could come in at quite a steal.  For users who want pure CPU/memory throughput and are not too concerned with the PCIe layout could pick up a cheap mATX board and an LGA2011 CPU to get the best performance in minimal space.

However, all is not as it seems with the X79 Extreme4-M.  To be honest, I only had two major issues with the board – the first being the overclocking.  ASRock usually cater users well in this department, offering a wide range of choices in BIOS for a user to select.  However, Intel has a feature whereby if a user requires a Turbo mode for a substantial period of time, in order to preserve life and reduce heat, the CPU will clock back.  In previous experience on other motherboards, this is automatically disabled on any sort of overclock.  However, there is not an option here, and the CPU will go back to below stock CPU frequency at high stresses.  I will explain in more detail later.  The second point is the default fan speed, which is at 100% for the CPU, potentially causing noise issues.

Feature wise, the user is well catered for at this price range – there are a SATA 6 Gbps controller and a USB 3.0 controller are added on top of the default chipset, six fan headers onboard, and the range of software provided under the ASRock banner is quite good.  XFast USB is a nice technology to boost a single USB socket throughput (as tested in the review), XFast LAN allows the user to manipulate packet priority and monitor network usage, and a new addition to the scene, XFast RAM, which allows users to create a RAMDisk for quick temporary file storage.

At $224.99, we are starting to see more agreeable prices for X79 motherboards, which can only be a good thing as long as we are getting as much of the benefit of the new platform as possible.  The ASRock X79 Extreme4-M has a few teething issues to begin with, especially at any sort of significant full CPU load plus overclock, which could put a dampener on prospective sales.

Visual Inspection

If ASRock were going for the ‘black gold’ metaphor of valuable commodities, they have at least got the styling right, with all black ports (bar two grey SATA) and gold caps everywhere, splashed with gold writing on the heatsinks.  In order to save space, we have only got 4 DIMMs here, which equates to one per channel.  Despite this extra ‘room’, there is a lack of significant extra features on board, such as beefier heatsinks or extra ports.  The 6+2 phase power solution is behind the very small (13/16ths of an inch x 3.5 inch) heatsink which gets extremely hot to touch under full load even at stock – it may have been wise for ASRock to extend this heatsink via a heatpipe to take advantage of the extra space.

One thing we can enjoy though is the abundance of fan headers for a mATX board – the X79 Extreme4-M has six of them.  There are two CPU fan headers north of the right bank of memory slots, along with a power header.  Two of the three chassis headers are beside the 24-pin ATX power connector (presumably for front chassis fans), and the other is on the bottom end of the board next to the power/reset switches.  Control of these is through the BIOS, or the ASRock eXtreme Tuning Utility (AXTU) software in the operating system.

Alongside the 24-pin ATX power connector is a USB 3.0 header, and a seventh SATA port from an ASMedia controller.  This controller also gives an eSATA 6 Gbps port at the back of the IO panel.  Beside these are the six SATA ports from the PCH, four SATA 3 Gbps (black) and two SATA 6 Gbps (grey).  These are all shadowed by the chipset cooler, also in black and gold livery, sporting a small ‘X-Fan’.  This is more substantial than other chipset coolers we have seen (which often use a heatpipe to transfer heat to another heatsink), and the default setting is that the fan only turns on when it reaches 50ºC.  Personally, I didn’t hear it, because the CPU fan defaults at maximum speed.

The bottom end of the board sports the power/reset/debug LED trio I love, alongside headers for the Clear CMOS, COM and IEEE 1394.  Above these is the PCIe layout, which tries to maximize the 40 PCIe lanes as much as possible.  In order, we have an x16, x8 and x16, and PCI, but in reality dual GPU users will populate slots one and three to get their maximum throughput.  The layout does bode well for users of one GPU and another PCIe device, though probably at the expense of cooling – ideally the PCIe device would be in the first slot and the GPU in the second or third slots for optimum efficiency.  Users will also note the additional 4-pin molex power connector on board to aid in power to the PCIe slots.  I was able to run dual GTX580s, without issue, with having nothing plugged into the molex connector.  This raises some issues – a) is it really necessary and b) if it is, are other power connectors not suitable?  A 4-pin molex is quite substantial to put into the board over other components, especially when devices typically using 4-pin molex connectors are not anywhere near this part of the board. 

The IO panel is pretty standard, especially in comparison to most of the Cougar Point chipset motherboards we have seen this year.  From left to right, we see two PS/2 connectors, a clear CMOS button, a coaxial SPDIF out, an optical SPDIF out, two USB 3.0 ports, six USB 2.0 ports, gigabit Ethernet (Broadcom BCM57781), eSATA 6 Gbps, FireWire, and audio headers.  For a board this price and on X79, we do not see much extra from what we would expect to be the standard.



In The Box

Back in the P67 days, if you remember the P67 Extreme4 by ASRock, for ~$160, we got a substantial haul in the box, including a front panel USB 3.0 panel and SSD holder.  No such luck for the low end here, as we have:

2 x SATA Cables
IO Panel
Driver CD
2 Slot SLI Bridge

I am a little disappointed to be honest, given ASRock’s previous tenacity when it comes to box bundling.

Board Features

ASRock X79 Extreme4-M
Size mATX
CPU Interface LGA2011
CPU Support Intel Second Generation Core i7 Sandy Bridge E
Chipset Intel X79
Base Clock Frequency 100.0 MHz
Core Voltage Default, 0.6 V to 1.7 V
CPU Clock Multiplier Auto, 12x to 60x
DRAM Voltage Auto, 1.207 V to 1.806 V
DRAM Command Rate Auto, 1N to 3N
Memory Slots Four DDR3 DIMM slots supporting up to 32 GB
Up to Quad Channel
Support for DDR3, 800-2400 MHz
Expansion Slots 2 x PCIe Gen 3 x16
1 x PCIe Gen 3 x8
1 x PCI
Onboard SATA/RAID 2 x SATA 6 Gbps, Support for RAID 0, 1, 5, 10
4 x SATA 3 Gbps, Support for RAID 0, 1, 5, 10
1 x SATA 6 Gbps (Controller)
Onboard 4 x SATA 3 Gbps (PCH)
3 x SATA 6 Gbps (2 PCH, 1 Controller)
6 x Fan Headers
1 x 4-pin Molex CFX/SLI Power Connector
1 x HDMI_SPDIF Header
1 x Front Panel Header
1 x Front Panel Audio Header
2 x USB 2.0 Headers
1 x USB 3.0 Header
1 x COM Header
1 x IEEE 1394a Header
Power / Reset / Clear CMOS Buttons + Debug LED
Onboard LAN Broadcom BCM57781 Gigabit LAN
Onboard Audio Realtek ALC898
7.1 Ch HD, Supports THX TruStudio
Power Connectors 1 x 24-pin ATX connector
1 x 8-pin 12V connector
1 x 4-pin Molex CFX/SLI Power Connector
Fan Headers 2 x CPU Fan Header
3 x Chassis Headers
1 x SB Header (occupied)
IO Panel 1 x PS/2 Mouse Port
1 x PS/2 Keyboard Port
1 x Optical S/PDIF Out Port
1 x Coaxial S/PDIF Out Port
6 x USB 2.0
2 x USB 3.0
1 x eSATA 6 Gbps
1 x Gigabit Ethernet
1 x Firewire
1 x Clear CMOS
Audio Jacks
BIOS Version 1.4
Warranty Period 2 Years

ASRock are starting to use Broadcom NICs on their products, as you will see with the Extreme4 later in this review and the Extreme9 in a later review.  As mentioned in the intro, it is nice to see a high end Realtek Audio Codec in there, even on a mATX board.  On the flip side, with the 4-pin molex CFX/SLI power connector on board in an odd position, one has to wonder whether it is really needed when other boards do not require it.

Overclocking

Over this year, I have had a number of ASRock Sandy Bridge boards through my hands.  On the whole, they tend to overclock well with one button settings, even if not able to overclock to the absolute extreme.  This is usually useful for system builders or amateur users wanting some extra bang for their buck.  But as we have already seen on the Patsburg chipset, these LGA2011 chips are hot beasts waiting to be tamed.  In order to keep everything the same, we are testing the same exact processor on the exact same cooling – the Intel All-In-One Liquid Cooler.

Initial impressions for the X79 Extreme4-M looked good, however it does suffer from various throttling modes to prevent high temperatures.  What I mean by this is that if you set the processor frequency high enough, and the cooler cannot deal with it properly (either it is not a good cooler, or clogged with dust), the system will reduce the multiplier to compensate for temperature.  This is all well and good on the majority of systems, however there was no option to turn it off in the BIOS (think extreme overclocking, or perhaps just experienced users).  So for example, if we set 4.6 GHz in BIOS, it would run at that speed in single threaded scenarios, but in multi-threaded tasks it would reduce back to 3.9 GHz.  Then, as per Intel specifications, the CPU would reduce to stock (3.3 GHz) if it was at full load for a certain time.  There seemed to be no way to turn any of these options off – the last point for 3.3 GHz is usually controlled by a timer stating how long Turbo can be engaged, but ASRock have not offered an option to disable it for ‘safety’.  Each to their own, but it really hurts anyone who overclocks the system.  The only way around this reduction to 3.3 GHz seemed to be to leave the CPU at stock frequencies, then it would only reduce to 3.6 GHz, as per Turbo core rules.  It is rather disappointing.

Nevertheless, I did go through the Auto and Manual OC tasks as usual to see what was possible.  In our Auto tests, we keep everything untouched as much as possible except the one setting.  During our manual OC of X79, we set a CPU voltage limit of 1.4 V for a balance of performance and temperature.

In Auto OC mode, the BIOS offers several options from 4.0 GHz to 5.2 GHz in 200 MHz jumps, with the final three in a red font, showing their ‘extreme’ nature.  I was able to start at 4.8 GHz; however the automatic settings on board gave the CPU 1.54 volts!  This was quite extreme, resulting in throttling almost immediately, but still reaching 83ºC in our multithreaded 3DPM test, with 3.3 GHz scores.

At 4.6 GHz, these issues still persisted, and the CPU was still receiving 1.54 volts.  However at 4.4 GHz, the system seemed stable, even if the CPU was getting 1.48 volts.  No throttling took place, until the turbo period was up and the CPU cut back to 3.3 GHz.

In terms of Manual OC, I set the board to give the CPU 1.4 volts, and rose the Core Current Limit to 500A, to stop as much throttling as possible.  Using this, I was able to reach a 47x multiplier, giving 4.7 GHz.  In the OS, the CPU was recorded as receiving 1.456 volts at load, presumably due to load line calibration.  At full multithreaded load, the CPU would reduce back to 3.9 GHz, and reach 71ºC when under 3DPM.  After the allotted turbo time, the CPU would again reduce back to 3.3 GHz.

For the memory overclock, this was a bit frustrating.  I am currently using a 4x4 GB set of GSkill RipjawsZ (DDR3-2133 9-11-9-28 1.65 V), in which I have had them running at 2752 MHz (even though at silly timings of 13-13-14, but still with 1.65 V) with Llano.  However, it seems the Integrated Memory Controller with my LGA2011 chip is not that good.  While we were able to set our XMP profiles on the memory, the next divider up was at DDR3-2400.  In order to be comparable to XMP, I reduced the timings to 10-12-10-31 2T, but after one successful boot, it failed to get into the OS after many attempts, and thus is not stable.



Overview

One of the first things people notice about the X79 Extreme4 is the price – a full size ATX board with the X79 chipset for ~$235 MSRP.  As I mentioned in the X79 Extreme4-M overview, there will be demand for such cheap motherboards when more mainstream enthusiasts (rather than pure enthusiasts) may consider spending some, but not a lot, of money on a Sandy Bridge-E system.

With the ATX size, we can take full advantage of all the X79 features.  In comparison to the X79 Extreme4-M, there is no lack of space for 40 PCIe lanes between the PCIe slots, there are more SATA 6 Gbps ports, the package has more to it (SATA cables, SLI connectors), and the board is tri-GPU possible.  Some users may not like the fact that it has four memory slots (one per channel), but that is part of the reason why the board is cheaper than others.  I will touch on this in the conclusion at the end of the review.

Performance on the whole was not too dissimilar to the X79 Extreme4-M, as expected.  There were certain tests that this board would be slightly better on, and vice versa, but nothing outside the realms of statistical variance.  Like the 4-M, despite the Realtek ALC898 audio, DPC Latency was a bit lacking compared to other X79 boards tested so far since release, probably due to BIOS configurations and maturity.  The XFast LAN results however, as with Sandy Bridge P67/Z68 iterations, were a cut above the rest.

Visual Inspection

Perhaps it is just me, but I am starting to like the new ASRock styling.  The black and gold angular PCH/heatsink style works quite well in my view of a top of the range motherboard, even if this is the more financially realistic end of X79 for the majority of users.

Despite the ability of having eight memory slots on X79, ASRock have decided to reduce the board price by only using one DIMM per channel, meaning four memory slots in total, here with quick release connectors.  Given the abundance and low price of 4 GB DDR3 modules recently, and few power users requiring more than 16 GB of memory, using 4 DIMM slots is a good representation to save a few dollars on an overall system build perhaps.  We will not be seeing all four memory slots on one side though, due to the pin layout of SB-E.  As a result, the power solution to X79 boards are going to be squashed in the area above the socket itself – we see here ASRock have a heatsink covering the 6+2 phase VRM and chokes.  A few vendors have this heatsink connected to a heatpipe and another heatsink below the socket, but again ASRock have left this out to save a few pennies.

Fan headers are in abundance, with a total of six. Two CPU headers and a PWR header on the top right, and a chassis header is underneath the 24-pin ATX power connector.  Another chassis header is above the main block of SATA ports (which gets completely obstructed by any full length GPU in the first PCIe slot, and a third chassis header below the SATA ports (again, obstructed when a third full length GPU is in use).

Beneath the 24-pin ATX power connector is a USB 3.0 header, and a SATA 6 Gbps port, both provided by ASMedia controllers.  The main block of SATA ports contains the typical ports from the Platform Controller Hub (four SATA 3Gbps in black, two SATA 6Gbps in gray), and another two SATA 6 Gbps provided via a controller.  Next to this is the PCH itself covered in a black, gold and silver heatsink.  As the heatsink is relatively small, ASRock have included a small fan connected to a small onboard header.  This fan isn’t set to come on (by default) until the PCH reaches 50 degrees Celsius.

Despite this being one of the cheaper X79 options, we still get power/reset buttons, along with a two-digit debug LED useful for recognizing board issues.  Aside from the usual array of headers on the bottom of the board, people will note the colorful use of gold capacitors on the board to tie in with the black/gold theme.  ASRock argue in their marketing that these are premium conductive polymer caps – I hope they’re in some way premium, with this being X79.

In terms of PCIe layout, we have good and negative points.  At the top is a 4-pin molex connector designed to give the PCIe extra power.  For all intents and purposes, I found this largely useless, as two GTX580 GPUs ran quite happily without issue, as they already have their own power connectors and the PCIe specification should provide more power through the slot.  It is also in an awkward place, for cable management inside a case.  Nevertheless, we cannot really poke holes in the PCIe layout – at the top is a PCIe x16, x1, PCI, x16, PCI, x8, x1.  I am thankful for the triple slot gap between the first two GPU x16 slots, and there is some space for any PCIe x1 card at the bottom.  This is slightly different to what we normally see when PCIe lanes are at a premium – normally the x1 is at the top.

The back panel layout is identical to the X79 Extreme4-M.  To quote, ‘From left to right, we see two PS/2 connectors, a clear CMOS button, a coaxial SPDIF out, an optical SPDIF out, two USB 3.0 ports, six USB 2.0 ports, gigabit Ethernet (Broadcom BCM57781), eSATA 6 Gbps, FireWire, and audio headers.  For a board this price and on X79, we do not see much extra from what we would expect to be the standard.’



In The Box

As mentioned in the Extreme4-M section, if you remember the P67 Extreme4 by ASRock, for ~$160, we got a substantial haul in the box, including a front panel USB 3.0 panel and SSD holder.  Though compared to the X79 Extreme4-M, we get more in the box for our extra $10:

4 x SATA Cables
IO Panel
Driver CD
3 Slot SLI Bridge
Tri-SLI Bridge (3 slot, 2 slot – to fit this board)

I am a little disappointed to be honest, given ASRock’s previous tenacity when it comes to box bundling.

Board Features

ASRock X79 Extreme4
Size ATX
CPU Interface LGA2011
CPU Support Intel Second Generation Core i7 Sandy Bridge E
Chipset Intel X79
Base Clock Frequency 100.0 MHz
Core Voltage Default, 0.6 V to 1.7 V
CPU Clock Multiplier Auto, 12x to 60x
DRAM Voltage Auto, 1.207 V to 1.806 V
DRAM Command Rate Auto, 1N to 3N
Memory Slots Four DDR3 DIMM slots supporting up to 32 GB
Up to Quad Channel
Support for DDR3, 800-2400 MHz
Expansion Slots 2 x PCIe Gen 3 x16
1 x PCIe Gen 3 x8
2 x PCIe x1 2 x PCI
Onboard SATA/RAID 2 x SATA 6 Gbps, Support for RAID 0, 1, 5, 10
4 x SATA 3 Gbps, Support for RAID 0, 1, 5, 10
3 x SATA 6 Gbps (Controller)
Onboard 4 x SATA 3 Gbps (PCH)
5 x SATA 6 Gbps (2 PCH, 3 Controller)
6 x Fan Headers
1 x 4-pin Molex CFX/SLI Power Connector
1 x HDMI_SPDIF Header
1 x Front Panel Header
1 x Front Panel Audio Header
3 x USB 2.0 Headers
1 x USB 3.0 Header
1 x COM Header
1 x IEEE 1394a Header
Power / Reset / Clear CMOS Buttons + Debug LED
Onboard LAN Broadcom BCM57781 Gigabit LAN
Onboard Audio Realtek ALC898
7.1 Ch HD, Supports THX TruStudio
Power Connectors 1 x 24-pin ATX connector
1 x 8-pin 12V connector
1 x 4-pin Molex CFX/SLI Power Connector
Fan Headers 2 x CPU Fan Header
3 x Chassis Headers
1 x PWR Header
1 x SB Header (occupied)
IO Panel 1 x PS/2 Mouse Port
1 x PS/2 Keyboard Port
1 x Optical S/PDIF Out Port
1 x Coaxial S/PDIF Out Port
6 x USB 2.0
2 x USB 3.0
1 x eSATA 6 Gbps
1 x Gigabit Ethernet
1 x Firewire
1 x Clear CMOS
Audio Jacks
BIOS Version 1.5
Warranty Period 2 Years

ASRock are starting to use Broadcom NICs on their products.  As mentioned in the intro, it is nice to see a high end Realtek Audio Codec in there (ALC898).  On the flip side, with the 4-pin molex CFX/SLI power connector on board in an odd position, one has to wonder whether it is really needed when other boards do not require it.

Overclocking

At the time of testing, the latest BIOS available for the X79 Extreme4 is the 1.50 BIOS.  This, according to ASRock, affords a better overclocking experience.  The 1.50 was not available for the 4-M, so we may get different results here.

ASRock always like offering overclock presets, and the X79 Extreme4 is no different.  We can select between 4.0 GHz and 5.2 GHz in 200 MHz increments, however your mileage may vary depending on the CPU itself, and cooling.  I went straight in at the 4.8 GHz setting, not expecting any trouble.  However, while the board did POST, it did not want to load any OS – the screen would hang with a blinking carat, then after 20 seconds the whole board would reset.

On the 4.6 GHz setting, it all went swimmingly – the board booted without issue.  When running 3DPM (multi-threaded mode), we saw a constant 4.6 GHz in CPU-Z, although the CPU voltage was fairly alarming, running at 1.496 V at full load.  This is about 0.1 volts too much!!  From this, a temperature of 83 degrees Celsius was seen in 3DPM, on an open test bed with the Intel All-in-One Liquid cooler.  When running a thorough CPU and memory test using Blender, the board would declock the CPU to 3.3 GHz when the CPU hit 84 degrees Celsius, and stay there until the end of any CPU load, wholly negating any overclock.

When adjusting the settings manually, I used my common X79 overclock presets – CPU at 1.4 volts, Power Limits to 500W and Core Limits to 500A.  With this, I went straight in with a 46x multiplier (4.6 GHz) without issue.  During 3DPM-MT, the highest temperature seen was 76 degrees Celsius.  However, during the Blender test, due to the lower voltage compared to the auto settings in the previous paragraph, it took about 7 minutes to reach 84 degrees Celsius, and then the CPU backed off to 3.3 GHz.  I turned off CPU Thermal Throttling in the BIOS, and reran the test.  This time, at 85 degrees Celsius, the board decided to shut off completely, with no warning whatsoever.  This must be an ultimate temperature failsafe for the board, however it does leave us with what to suggest with an appropriate overclock.  With an ASRock it seems, it all depends on your cooling – our 4.6 GHz manual adjustment only hit the throttling after several minutes of 100% CPU, so could offer good speed in all but the most strenuous loads.

For memory overclock, we have several options (with a CPU frequency of 100 MHz), from DDR3-800 to DDR3-2400, going up in typical memory straps, as well as standard XMP.  At 1866 MHz and 2133 MHz, the board gave automatic subtimings of 9-11-9-28 2T.  At 2400 MHz, which did not work with the Extreme4-M, we had a completely stable system with the Extreme4, with automatic timings of 10-12-10-33 2T.  This was completely Blender stable.  Unfortunately, the system doesn’t offer further straps than this, so we had to bump the CPU bus frequency to see more.  At the 1.25x gear ratio (125 MHz on CPU, multiplier was lowered accordingly for the same CPU overall speed), the straps offer different values, including 2000 MHz, 2333 MHz, 2666 MHz and 3000 MHz.  At 2000 MHz, the memory defaulted to 11-11-11 which equates to JEDEC settings on the memory.  Thus at 2333 MHz, when the board didn’t boot, I assume it was trying to implement 9-11-9-28 2T, which for this kit is a no go.

An overall overclock of 4.6 GHz and DDR3-2400 (for all 16GB) is a respectable result, limited only by the cooling and the thermal throttling of the board.



BIOS

I have decided to tackle the BIOSes of the Extreme4-M and Extreme4 together, as they are much the same with the only major difference being the detection of the various extra ports and connectors the larger Extreme4 has over the mATX Extreme4-M.

For our troubles of moving to X79, ASRock have mildly revamped their BIOS user interface, deciding to go for colorful blues rather than the dulcet grays of regular Sandy Bridge iterations.  The front screen displays a few important details: motherboard, BIOS version, CPU, CPU speed, memory and memory speed.  It would be good to see some temperature and voltage values, as seen on some other BIOS implementations.  However the new area on this main screen is under the ‘System Browser’ option:

Here we have an overview of the specific board in question.  As you mouse over all the different areas of the board (such as memory, and PCIe slot, SATA ports or I/O panel), a description of what is in there is shown underneath.  If there are specific options related to that section, clicking the area will bring up those options.  This is a nice effect, similar to what we have seen on other BIOS implementations – what would be ideal is if ASRock made this their intro screen into the BIOS, with an ‘advanced’ mode giving the menus underneath.

In terms of BIOS options, neither the X79 Extreme4-M and X79 Extreme4 have anything out of the ordinary.  By default, the SATA ports are set to AHCI (which is a good thing for almost every new HDD/SSD sold in the past few years), but PCIe slots are set to PCIe Gen2.  This is purely for compatibility at this time – when we get PCIe 3.0 capable cards, users will have to adjust these options manually to get the best performance.

One area of concern with the BIOS is some of the other ASRock defaults.  I point specifically to the fan settings.  By default, the CPU fan is set to max, full on 100%, no matter what the temperature.  For users who want to be careful of noise, this is a bad thing.  ASRock have told me that this is set by default so that the user has no temperature issues arising from using sub-standard cooling.   Also of note is that the fan on the PCH is set to be active when the PCH is at 50 degrees Celsius.  This was inaudible over my Intel All-in-One Liquid cooler set at default, and GPUs, when on an open test bed.

For overclocking, the OC Tweaker screen is the place to be.  As we have seen previously, overclocking on Sandy Bridge-E is performed either by the multiplier, or by changing the CPU gear ratio/base frequency.  However ASRock have made their BIOS empty of gear ratio – the gear ratio is automatically changed when a user adjusts the base frequency.  This is a different tack to almost all other motherboard manufacturers, as users who do not know how to overclock Sandy Bridge-E may find themselves to be limited in overclock to 105-110 MHz, then not get a bootable PC again until 120-125 MHz (relating to the 1.25x CPU gear ratio) without knowing why.

ASRock have included CPU multipliers, CPU base frequencies, Memory straps (including XMP), power limits and turbo options in the OC Tweaker screen.  However, to adjust the voltages for the CPU and memory, the user must navigate to the Voltage configuration.  CPU voltage is able to be changed by offset or to an absolute value, and here we also get options to adjust Load Line Calibration.  Memory subtimings also have their own menu, however I would like to propose a change to this screen, and make it also show the SPD information for the memory at hand, including subtimings and JEDEC values.

Software

ASRock over the past 24-30 months have slowly been licensing an array of software for use on their boards.  Their eXtreme Tuning Utility (AXTU) has been a staple for a while now, which contains a Hardware Monitor, Overclocking options, Fan Controls, Energy Saving options, and BIOS sharing.  As I have said previously regarding AXTU in previous reviews, while it is for the most part functional, it is not the most aesthetically pleasing bit of software.  There are perhaps different ways of displaying the data which could be more useful, and the fan controls can be a bit confusing, as we do not have the standard ramping topology as seen on other motherboards.

We have also seen some of the other software on previous boards:

 

Instant Boot uses a system similar to Windows’ hibernate features, to allow a quick startup.

XFast USB is a software implementation that ASRock have licensed which adjusts the Windows driver to improve USB speed by allowing a form of multi-threading for copying.  We usually see a good speed up using this software, in terms of pure throughput over the USB bus, as well as in our copy time tests.  The downsides however are that it only works on one USB device at a time (either USB 2.0 or USB 3.0), and when a device is plugged in for the first time, Turbo mode will only be applied if the device is removed and plugged in again.

XFast LAN is something ASRock debuted on their A75 Llano boards.  This is another piece of licensed software, available for €15.90 on non-ASRock boards. XFast LAN hooks into the networking drivers and NIC to give the user ‘complete’ control – the network traffic can be monitored (IP addresses, TCP, UDP, etc), shaped, prioritized, and many other features besides.  Arguably, this software causes more CPU usage; however that should not be much of a problem on any X79.

The new bit of software in ASRock’s arsenal is XFast RAM, found as part of AXTU:

To start, I should advise everyone who wants to use this to update to the latest version of AXTU, available on the ASRock website, for full usage under 64-bit Windows.

The main area for XFast RAM is under 32-bit Windows, where the software promises to unlock the area beyond the 3.2 GiB limit of 32-bit in the form of a RAMdisk.  With the XFast RAM software, users can shift certain parts of the OS to the RAMdisk, such as the memory pagefile, temporary files, IE/Firefox cache files, and WinRAR temporary files.  Under 64-bit, this software will make a RAMdisk out of the available memory to do this.

This is initially a good idea, though I doubt that X79 users will be installing a 32-bit OS, especially with quad-channel memory in play suggesting >3.2 GiB memory as standard.  For 64-bit, and users not using SSDs, the RAMdisk does offer that extra bit of speed for cache files and, ideally, pagefiles.  I was able to create an 8 GB RAMdisk while using 16 GiB of memory, however I did not see any change in WinRAR speed with it in use.



Test Setup

Processor Intel Sandy Bridge-E i7-3960X
6 Cores, 12 Threads, 3.3 GHz (3.9 GHz Turbo)
Motherboards ASRock X79 Extreme4-M (mATX)
ASRock X79 Extreme4 (ATX)
Cooling Intel All-In-One Liquid Cooler, made by Asetek
Power Supply Silverstone 1000W 80 PLUS Silver
Memory G.Skill RipjawsZ DDR3-2133 9-11-9 28 4x4 GB Kit 1.65V
Memory Settings XMP
Video Cards XFX HD 5850 1GB
ECS GTX 580 1536MB
Video Drivers Catalyst 11.8
NVIDIA Drivers 285.62
Hard Drive Micron RealSSD C300 256GB
Optical Drive LG GH22NS50
Case Open Test Bed - CoolerMaster Lab V1.0
Operating System Windows 7 64-bit
SATA Testing Micron RealSSD C300 256GB
USB 2/3 Testing Patriot 64GB SuperSonic USB 3.0

Comparison to Other Reviews

Where applicable, the results in this review are directly compared to the following chipsets and boards which we have reviewed previously.

Power Consumption

Power consumption was tested on the system as a whole with a wall meter connected to the power supply, while in a dual GPU configuration.  This method allows us to compare the power management of the UEFI and the board to supply components with power under load, and includes typical PSU losses due to efficiency.  These are the real world values that consumers may expect from a typical system (minus the monitor) using this motherboard.

Power Consumption - Two 5850s

In low power usage, the mATX uses less power, however in large usage scenarios, it uses more.  This could be due to the GPU spacing - the Extreme4 has an extra slot gap between the GPUs, meaning there is some airflow, and the fans do not have to work as hard.  That wouldn't really affect OCCT though, so I'm unsure where exactly the difference would be in this regard.

CPU Temperatures

With most users running boards on purely default BIOS settings, we are running at default settings for the CPU temperature tests.  This is, in our outward view, an indication of how well (or how adventurous) the vendor has their BIOS configured on automatic settings.  With a certain number of vendors not making CPU voltage, turbo voltage or LLC options configurable to the end user, which would directly affect power consumption and CPU temperatures at various usage levels, we find the test appropriate for the majority of cases. This does conflict somewhat with some vendors' methodology of providing a list of 'suggested' settings for reviewers to use.  But unless those settings are being implemented automatically for the end user, all these settings do for us it attempt to skew the results, and thus provide an unbalanced 'out of the box' result list to the readers who will rely on those default settings to make a judgment.   Ultimately, it all comes down to design – if a manufacturer has put thicker copper in its power plane, there is less resistance, and thus a higher voltage (and possibly temperature) at the CPU, but a higher overclockability, perhaps.

CPU Temperatures (Idle)

Overall CPU temperatures are within range for the two boards.



USB Speed

For this benchmark, we run CrystalDiskMark to determine the ideal sequential read and write speeds for the USB port using our 64GB Patriot SuperSpeed USB 3.0 drive.  Then we transfer a set size of files from the SSD to the USB drive, and monitor the time taken to transfer.  The files transferred are a 1.52 GB set of 2867 files across 320 folders – 95% of these files are small typical website files, and the rest (90% of the size) are the videos used in the Sorenson Squeeze test. 

USB 2.0 Sequential Read Speeds

USB 2.0 Sequential Write Speeds

USB 2.0 Copy Time

Despite the poor sequential performance of the Extreme4-M, under XFast mode, both boards outperform the rest in the USB 2.0 copy tests, especially the Extreme4.

USB 3.0 Sequential Read Speeds

USB 3.0 Sequential Write Speeds

USB 3.0 Copy Time

Both boards, under XFast mode, steam past all the other boards in our USB 3.0 copy test, with a 20% decrease in time required.

SATA Testing

We also use CrystalDiskMark for SATA port testing.  The operating system is installed on the SSD, and the sequential test is run at the 5 x 1000 MB level.  This test probes the efficiency of the data delivery system between the chipset and the drive, or in the case of additional SATA ports provided by a third party controller, the efficiency between the controller, the chipset and the drive.

SATA 3 Gbps Sequential Read Speeds

SATA 3 Gbps Sequential Write Speeds

SATA 6 Gbps Sequential Read Speeds

SATA 6 Gbps Sequential Write Speeds

While neither board shines in SATA 3 Gbps testing, in terms of SATA 6 Gbps on our C300, both the X79 Extreme4 and X79 Extreme4-M beat the other X79 and Z68 comparison points.

DPC Latency

Deferred Procedure Call latency is a way in which Windows handles interrupt servicing.  In order to wait for a processor to acknowledge the request, the system will queue all interrupt requests by priority.  Critical interrupts will be handled as soon as possible, whereas lesser priority requests, such as audio, will be further down the line.  So if the audio device requires data, it will have to wait until the request is processed before the buffer is filled.  If the device drivers of higher priority components in a system are poorly implemented, this can cause delays in request scheduling and process time, resulting in an empty audio buffer – this leads to characteristic audible pauses, pops and clicks.  Having a bigger buffer and correctly implemented system drivers obviously helps in this regard.  The DPC latency checker measures how much time is processing DPCs from driver invocation – the lower the value will result in better audio transfer at smaller buffer sizes.  Results are measured in microseconds and taken as the peak latency while cycling through a series of short HD videos - under 500 microseconds usually gets the green light, but the lower the better.

DPC Latency Maximum

DPC Latency seems to be majorly dependent on the BIOS - it also helps if there is no CPU/fan monitoring software in the background.  Both boards here perform well under 500 microseconds, but nothing stellar compared to other products.



3D Movement Algorithm Test

The algorithms in 3DPM employ both uniform random number generation or normal distribution random number generation, and vary in various amounts of trigonometric operations, conditional statements, generation and rejection, fused operations, etc.  The benchmark runs through six algorithms for a specified number of particles and steps, and calculates the speed of each algorithm, then sums them all for a final score.  This is an example of a real world situation that a computational scientist may find themselves in, rather than a pure synthetic benchmark.  The benchmark is also parallel between particles simulated, and we test the single thread performance as well as the multi-threaded performance.

3D Particle Movement - Single Threaded

3D Particle Movement - MultiThreaded

The extra speed of the i7-3960X shows in both tests, and the ASRock boards are well within 1% of the other X79.

WinRAR x64 3.93 - link

With 64-bit WinRAR, we compress the set of files used in the USB speed tests. WinRAR x64 3.93 attempts to use multithreading when possible.

WinRAR x64 3.93

WinRAR shows better performance under the X79 platform, however neither of the boards was quicker than the ASUS P9X79 Pro.

FastStone Image Viewer 4.2 - link

FastStone Image Viewer is a free piece of software I have been using for quite a few years now.  It allows quick viewing of flat images, as well as resizing, changing color depth, adding simple text or simple filters.  It also has a bulk image conversion tool, which we use here.  The software currently operates only in single-thread mode, which should change in later versions of the software.  For this test, we convert a series of 170 files, of various resolutions, dimensions and types (of a total size of 163MB), all to the .gif format of 640x480 dimensions.

FastStone Image Viewer 4.2

Sorenson Squeeze 6.0 - link

Sorenson Squeeze is a professional video encoder, complete with a vast array of options. For this test, we convert 32 HD videos, each a minute long and approximately 42 MB in size, to WMV 512KBps format.  Squeeze can encode multiple videos at once, one for each thread.

Sorenson Squeeze 6.0



Aliens vs. Predator Benchmark

Aliens vs. Predator is a DirectX 11 science fiction first-person shooter video game, developed by Rebellion Developments.  Available as a standalone benchmark, on default settings the benchmark uses 1920x1080 with high AF settings.  Results are reported as the average frame rate across 4 runs.

AVP - One 5850

AVP - Two 5850

AVP - One 580

AVP - Two 580

Dirt 3

Dirt 3 is a rallying video game and the third in the Dirt series of the Colin McRae Rally series, developed and published by Codemasters.  Using the in game benchmark, Dirt 3 is run at 1920x1080 with full graphical settings.  Results are reported as the average frame rate across 4 runs.

Dirt 3 - One 5850

Dirt 3 - Two 5850

Dirt 3 - One 580

Dirt 3 - Two 580

Metro2033

Metro 2033 is a challenging DX11 benchmark that challenges every system that tries to run it at any high-end settings.  Developed by 4A Games and released in March 2010, we use the inbuilt DirectX 11 Frontline benchmark to test the hardware at 1920x1080 with full graphical settings.  Results are given as the average frame rate from 10 runs.

Metro2033 - One 5850

Metro2033 - Two 5850

Metro2033 - One 580

Metro2033 - Two 580

Conclusions

The GPU tests don't show much difference between any of the X79 boards we have tested for either AMD or NVIDIA, which is to be expected.



ASRock have released a range of motherboards for X79, and today we have looked at the X79 Extreme4-M, a microATX board with all the Sandy Bridge-E credentials, and its bigger brother, the X79 Extreme4.  Along with this, ASRock are also planning on releasing an Extreme3, Extreme7, and an ultimate version Extreme9, all at various price points.

It is good to see a microATX board on the X79 market, despite the host of problems that it presents – the premium of space, the ability to use (and abuse) all the additional benefits X79 to offer, and the potential of making the board a lot cheaper than the full ATX brethren.  ASRock are offering the X79 Extreme4-M for one cent less than $225 (MSRP), compared to the larger X79 Extreme4, which weighs in at just less than $235 (MSRP).  In an age of austerity, a few dollars here and there can count, even if you splash out on an X79 and Sandy Bridge-E system.

However, there are points to note.  These two boards are considerably cheaper than the ASUS P9X79-V Pro and Intel DX79SI I have reviewed so far.  So, as you would expect, there are a couple of features you might not get.  The biggest one to note is the memory – while on all the boards we have quad channel, for the smaller sum of money you only get one DIMM per channel, compared to two DIMMs per channel on the more expensive boards.  As a personal option, this affects fewer people than you may think – of all the people who are going X79, enthusiasts (as opposed to professionals) rarely need more than 16 GB of memory.  Given the low cost of 4GB DDR3 sticks, these ASRock boards can easily be filled with memory at little cost.  If you need more, you could look at 8 GB sticks just coming onto the market, otherwise yes, you will need two DIMMs per channel motherboard.

In comparison between the two ASRock boards, you get a lot more than $10 difference in terms of extras on the full size ATX X79 Extreme4 than the price difference suggests – more PCIe slots and space for add-on cards, more SATA 6 Gbps ports and more in the box in terms of cables and SLI connectors.  Thanks to the extra space, the PCIe x16 slots are also more beneficial for airflow in dual GPU setups on the Extreme4.  As a result, you may see the mATX Extreme4-M being sold with small discounts (e.g. currently $219 at time of writing, saving £6) to reflect the true difference.

The Extreme4 also performs slightly better, especially in the memory overclock, though that may be down to the updated BIOS version which ASRock had not released for the Extreme4-M at the time of testing.  Nevertheless, the Extreme4 would be my choice if I had to choose between these two boards for performance.  If you absolutely need a mATX board, the Extreme4-M is not a bad choice.  However, you will not be pushing any of the boards too hard on a CPU overclock.  And for the noise conscious, you will definitely have to change that default CPU fan setting of a constant 100%.

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