WITH SEVERAL REALLY useful new standards on the horizon, wouldn’t it be nice if there was a board or two that did both, USB3.0 and SATA3, and did them well? If you have been waiting for such a beast, the ‘333 Series’ Gigabyte GA-P55-UD6 and X58 Extreme 2 are the boards for you.
X58 Extreme II board (Note: This is a prototype, there will be detail differences on the final one)
Update: The X58 Extreme 2 is now called the X58A-UD7, and the P55-UD6 is the P55A-UD6. IN both cases, the A stands for acceleration. Also, the production versions of both have reverted to the Foxconn socket, but still use the nifty gunmetal grey top cover/clip from Lotes. The reason for this is said to be that Lotes has not passed Intel certification. I wonder what that means for the other companies that are using it now?
The top dog is the X58 Extreme 2, and if you didn’t get the idea that it is an overclocking board from the built in waterblock on the northbridge, well, it isn’t the board for you. It takes an Intel Socket 1366 Core i7 CPU, and that means three memory channels, and all the goodies that come from Intel’s currently top CPU. The PCIe lanes can be configured as two 16x slots or four 8x slots, so if you are wanting to try out that quad ATI HD5970 GPU crossfire configuration on a 5GHz Core i7 based system, this is your board.
To complement the high end CPU choice and silly levels of cooling, Gigabyte has put in 24-phase power to the CPU, so it should be clean enough for anyone who doesn’t have a vat of liquid helium beside their computer. Gigabyte has been designing boards that overclock to the moon lately, and this is another in that long line.
If your tastes are high but your bank account is a bit more limited, the GA-P55-UD6 is the one for you. It is an air-cooled P55 board, taking Intel Socket 1156 Core i5 and i7 CPUs. It has only two memory channels, but there are three slots per channel, a nice touch. Like its bigger X58 brother, it also has 24-phase power.
Before you wonder what all the fuss is about with these two boards, the devil is in the details. In this case, all the cool stuff is there as well, SATA3 and USB3.0 are just the starting points. Gigabyte didn’t just pick some specs off a list and slap them on, they are thought through and added to in very intelligent ways.
SATA 2 and 3 ports, side by side
As you can see the UD6 has 8 SATA ports in front, and the X58 has 10. There are two more eSATA ports on the back plate, not a bad start. The blue ports are the same old boring SATA2 ports you know and love, but the white are 6Gb SATA3 ports. Both boards use a Marvell controller, and that is where the Gigabyte boards starts stepping out from the pack.
Some SATA3 controllers are connected to the chipset with a PCIe2 1x lane. For the technically averse, that means you have a 5Gbps link to drive a controller that can support four channels of 6Gbps each. How many times does 24 fit into five again? If you are wondering why some of the early SATA3 benchmarks underwhelmed, this could be the reason.
The Marvell controller on these boards has dedicated hardware for RAID0, so you can stripe them with impunity. Gigabyte claims 12Gbps throughput for the controller, which is not fast enough to saturate all the ports at once, but it is notably faster than any four mechanical drives can put out. This should be more than enough for most users, since mechanical drives are unlikely to catch up to this level of throughput for a long time to come.
Back ports, including just about everything
Moving on to USB3, things get more interesting. You can see the back panel has 10 USB ports in four different colors. USB is where the new boards shine, and the colors are part of that. Each color denotes a different function, but they all share a couple of very unique features.
The black ones are USB2.0 ports, four off the back. Not much to say here – you know it, you use it, and well, it works. To the right of that are two blue ports, and those are USB3.0. This is where the fun begins.
NEC USB3 controller
The heart of the new ports is the NEC chip nestled between the PCIe slot, the sound ports and the CPU socket. From what we have been hearing, there is a lot of tuning to do with this chip. Being the first real USB3 controller on the market, it takes a bit more than the normal plug and go, and from the sound of things Gigabyte did sweat those details. It will be really interesting to see how much throughput the various first generation controllers and motherboards have. There will be a few obvious winners and losers.
The yellow ones are just pretty. They are no different from the normal black ports, but are brighter to match the yellow of the eSATA and Firewire ports. Gigabyte has long been way ahead of the pack on eSATA, with many of their older motherboards having a dongle to turn a SATA port into a powered eSATA one.
Power plugs near the eSATA ports make a lot of sense. If you look closely at those ports above, you will notice that they are not quite eSATA, but slightly different. Gigabyte turned it into a combo USB and eSATA port. Why? Power – eSATA does not provide power, so the USB port does. Gigabyte provides a breakout cable, so you can plug it all into one port, but it can also be used as a plain vanilla eSATA port if you want. This is a lot more useful than most people realize. Until they need it.
USB power is where Gigabyte first steps out from the pack, and it steps way out. USB2 specifies 500 milliAmps (mA), and USB3 ups that to 900mA. This is good, but not good enough to power a 7200RPM 2.5″ drive without a second power plug. Even then, not all boards and laptops adhere to the spec as strictly as they should, some companies are notorious for not putting out the juice.
With the X58 Extreme II and GA-P55-UD6, Gigabyte tripled the power to each port, 1500mA for the USB2 ports, 2700mA for the USB3 ports. If you need to power that 7200RPM drive, no problem – one port, and it works.
Before you wonder why Gigabyte did this, there is one thing we can point to that will clear things up in a hurry, USB hubs. If you can push 3 times the power through a single port, you can power a full 3-port hub from one mobo port with ‘normal’ power levels at each output. Very smart, and very useful.
One problem with USB ports, especially powered ones, is that they tend to short. I can’t count the number of PCs I see with flaky or dead USB ports. If it has been used a while, there are dead ports on the machine. Most motherboard vendors will tell you that dead USB ports are very high up on the list of RMA causes.
To fix that, almost all motherboards have fuses on the ports to protect the controller. Since that is usually on the chipset itself, a short there is very bad. While a fuse protects the controller, anything that blows it will very likely blow all the USB ports, and then the board gets warrantied. This is very expensive for the mobo maker.
Gigabyte did something unusual, it spent money to save money. Each of these boards has an individual fuse for each USB port, and they are low resistance, 25 milliohms versus about 100 milliohms for a normal fuse. This way, if a fuse is blown, you only lose that port, rather than all of your USB ports, and RMAs are much less likely.
Gigabyte has a standard three year warranty, so it is serious about quality, and has to make things better to not get killed by returns. Its Ultra Durable 3 slogan includes things like a heavier copper PCB, high quality ferrite chokes, two copies of the BIOS and many other mostly unseen quality upgrades. Gigabyte is deadly serious about quality.
Black coated chokes and sockets
Speaking of ferrite chokes, on the new boards, Gigabyte had them coated with a special shiny black coating that supposedly dissipates heat better. It also coated the CPU socket with the same black coating, and it looks quite nice, a deep lustrous gray. Also note, the dreaded Foxconn sockets are not on these two boards, they feature Lotes sockets now.
Last up are the LAN ports, in this case dual GigE ports. They have two nice features, teaming and protection. Protection is basically much increased ESD protection on the ports and Gigabyte claims three times the normal there for durability and lowering of RMAs.
The teaming is a bit more interesting, and it does what it says. You can combine both for double the throughput, or you can set them for failover. Since most receivers can’t take more than a 1Gbps data rate, I think failover is a much better option.
In the end, both boards, the X58 Extreme 2 and the GB-P55-UD6 are extremely well thought out. The advances they bring to the market – and make no mistake, these are genuine advances – are actually useful. The extra USB power will be amazingly handy, and the tweaked controller will put them at or near the top of the pack. Combine that with a SATA3 controller that is not bottlenecked, and you have a winner.
I have used a lot of Gigabyte boards lately, mostly AMD based, and I heartily recommend them all. With support of the new specs and additional intelligent tweaks to them, the new X58 and P55 boards look to be as good, if not better, than their predecessors. Both of these are well worth a long look next time you are shopping for a motherboard.S|A