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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  • Ecmaster76 - Friday, December 05, 2008 - link

    Good article.

    However the feature tables are a rather large download. If you absolutely must post them as an image please use PNG or GIF. I resaved one in both formats and the size dropped in half without a loss in quality. JPEG is excellent where color content is more important than detail. However the indexed color of PNG and GIF is superior for a 2 color text table where the sharpness of the letters and not the exact shades of those two green is most important.

    Also you have a next page link at the bottom of the last page that, of course, goes nowhere.
    Reply
  • TeXWiller - Friday, December 05, 2008 - link

    Are you sure the 6 DIMM configuration is even supported with the current Nehalem at DDR3-1333 speed? Supermicro X8SAX, for example, does not support 6 DIMM configuration over DDR3-1066 speed, which is also the maximum Intel supported speed. This might explain some of those POST related problems. Reply
  • javamann - Friday, December 05, 2008 - link

    I usually go for the high end board but I don't overclock. I expect if a board is built to run at a higher speed running at a normal speed would sit in the middle of the bell curve of it operating parameters. I would also expect it to just work. My bad. Reply
  • mjz - Friday, December 05, 2008 - link

    not having support for 24GB ram of the bat is ridiculous.. With DDR3 ram going to be at a decent price next year, why not??? having 15GB as a ram disk would be amazing for many people.. this is MB companies being lasy Reply
  • AeroWB - Friday, December 05, 2008 - link

    "Hey guys, Anand here. I'm writing this sub-section, not at Gary's request, but because I felt it was necessary."
    I totaly agree with you here, thanks for letting us know the size of the problem and Gary thanks for all those fixes.

    "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."
    I do believe this is true, and I also have to say that I'm having problems with these kind of things for quite some years now, and I'm getting sick and tired of this.
    For me the crap kickstarted in 2001 with an MSI mainboard, one brand I will never buy again...

    (2001) MSI K7N420 Pro, it took MSI half a year to fix the issue of not being able to run the ram in dual channel mode on default speed without data corruption (the year I learned about memtest86) Also this board could not boot from an LSI 21320-R SCSI card and that problem has never been fixed (the Asus board with the same chipset could do it but my attempt to put that bioscode in the MSI bios failed)

    (2003) Asus A7N8X-E Deluxe. onboard Marvell Gigabit card corrupted data, about one bit each 2GB so all my DVD downloads were corrupt! at 100Mbit it worked ok, an add-on Gb card also worked ok, lots of bios updates, no solution. Here's probably too much controllers cramped in not enough space. After 3 years upgrading the ram to 2GB didn't work, tried a lot of different brands. Bought an Intel D975XBX. (but the asus did support my LSI SCSI card!)

    (2005) SuperMicro PDSGE, I finally bought a board with PCI-X for my Netware Server with SmartArray controller (which before was running in an Intel D945GTP desktopboard on PCI). The SmartArray card would boot, I got 2 special biosses for the board from Supermicro (great supportteam) but could't get it to work so added extra disk to boot the system, problem never solved. but it seems strange the controller working on a desktopboard and not on a server board. Updating the SmartArray also didn't help, My server still runs this board but now has a never HP SmartArray 641 that does work.

    (2008) Asus M3A78-T, Razer Lachesis mouse is not working when powering up, I have to reinsert the usb connector of it everytime I start the computer to get it working (standby doesn't help) In 4 months I have flashed 3 newer bios versions in the mainboard and 2 in the mouse. Problem still exists. The Lachesis works fine in my IntelD975XBX system. My Razer Copperhead works fine in both (so I swapped the mice)

    All listed boards are only from my private systems, I work at a computershop for over 10 years so needless to say I saw much more bios/board misery.
    So far I have had the least problems with Intel boards but they also have their share of problems. Some years ago the company switched from Asus to Intel partially because alot of customers sometimes accidently overclocked their system (the boards got into the bios if they thought the post failed) and it got unstable. I really do not get why there are so many overclocker options while 90% of the people doesn't use it and just want a stable system. If for example I now look at Asus' website I almost get a heart attack, there are just too many mainboard models, most are not interesting at all, too many useless onboard crap, too expensive, absurd features (Aopen tube board for example), crap quality chipsets, etc. And in all that mess there's no board without overclocking and quality components except maybe some Intel models. Try to find a board that will get your vidcard and soundcard a real free non-shared interrupt, you can't. So there is too many stuff and not enough simple quality models. How can they test and support all those models, well they can't as we know now. They don't update drivers for their chipsets and onboard junk, so you have to search yourself. It looks like they haven't got enough time to do it good so why not make less models and get it working right. All of this holds true for many brands not only Asus. Maybe the economic crysis will have a positive side-effect of getting less different models but better supported and tested components.

    Only pointing the finger at the manufacturers however is too easy.
    Lots of review-sites focus on speed and overclocking, exagerating speed differences, over-hyping all kind of not-so-usefull onboard junk. Its all speed and quantity for the least money, so boards come factory overclocked, memory timings set to tight, onboard controllers that almost no-one needs etc. Just so it looks they provide more bang for the buck then the competition and get a better review score.
    Lots of customers want the most speed and features for the least money, and forget about quality, support etc. Manufacturers look at the market and provide the crap that people scream for to get bashed by those customers for the crap, that will still buy the cheapest stuff next time. so the demand for shit doesn't decrease so the shit is provided again....
    Reply
  • chizow - Friday, December 05, 2008 - link

    I've felt the motherboard industry has been the weakest link in the PC industry for a very long time. I'm really glad someone finally called them out on it.

    I used to get REALLY upset at AT reviews because they'd publish a review making it seem these boards are rock solid stable with insane overclocking ability only to learn the ugly truth once I got the board home. It wouldn't take long to confirm it with other reports of underwhelming performance totally out of line with various reviews.

    BIOS stability and quality certainly needs to improve, especially if board makers want to charge such insane prices for something that has always seemed low-end and interchangeable. Its probably a good thing that the market for mobo makers has shrunk, now they can focus on quality and add some value by making these things last longer than 6-9 months.
    Reply
  • haukionkannel - Friday, December 05, 2008 - link

    When I bought last time purhaced new PC. It had vorce USB support that I can imagine. Every time I put an new USB devile like USB stick, the computer freeces down after short or long period of time... Ower the years situation got better and better. But It reguired a lot of installing of new versions of Bios... And yeh, it was expensive motherboard from big maker.

    I am allmost somewhat customed to that the computer does not properly... and that is something that is not right! It should work better from the beginning.
    Maybe we need some form of ISO standard for new mother board:
    When these and these things works. You can start selling these items and review sites starts makin revies of them. Prewievs and beta programs are different story all to gether, but final product shoulf be better.
    Now we only need a forum where to make that standard. I am quite sure that testers are even more frustracted with stupid errors they encounter than I who has never been "huge" over clocker.
    - - - - - -
    1) The machine must works with all specified memory configurations
    2) Informed normal speeds should work with all integrated parts
    3) the machine should be stable enough to run 24 hours burn test with adverticed speed specifications.
    4) If you allso overclock it 10-20% That is good extra, but I expect more of these after more mature bios.

    This list is not accurate enough, but somekind od insurance is needed! I Thank you for your hard work. For normal user these test you make are the only way of getting to know who can still make desent bios and who can not!
    Reply
  • karhill - Friday, December 05, 2008 - link

    "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."

    EXACTLY. Board stability and features that work are SO MUCH MORE IMPORTANT to me than overclocking. When I buy a board, that's what I'm looking for: stablity and features that work. Any consideration of overclocking is simply as an indicator for the qualities that matter to me; that is, I figure if board overclocks well, then it ought to be extra stable at stock speeds.
    Reply
  • TennesseeTony - Friday, December 05, 2008 - link

    The ASUS P6T Deluxe sounds exactly like what you've been describing. Screw 12GB of RAM, I can't get six 1GB sticks of OCZ-1333 to boot/post. 3GB great. 4GB, fine, no problem. 5GB, yep, works just fine. But put that sixth stick of memory in there, in ANY of the slots, and when that little annoying blue led by the mem slot turns on, the computer dies.

    Vista won't boot on the SAS controller (64bit). ASUS says it's Microsoft's problem, nothing wrong with them... XP64 finally loaded up, I think I'm on Windows installation number 14, still buggy.

    I've been quite pissed with Anandtech for not coming through with all the promises of overclocking guides and such, but thank you, Anand, for finally shedding some light on the problems behind the delays, and an extra big thank you for deciding to only give them two strikes, then they're out! It's far past time!
    Reply
  • pwndcake - Friday, December 05, 2008 - link

    So, the motherboard companies are using yours and other tech sites for free QA testing? Am I reading this right? Not a bad idea really. They don't even have to pay the price of 12GB of RAM to get all the testing and feedback they need. Reply

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