Gigabyte X79-UD5 Main Board Review Part 1: Features and Issues
by Mark W. Hibben
Very Good, but not Flawless
Based on our experience with the Gigabyte X58A-UD7, our expectations were very high for the Sandy Bridge-E based Gigabyte X79-UD5. It seemed to have everything we wanted in terms of features, as I discussed in X79 System Design. This time around, our praise for the board cannot be unequivocal. Not that it suffered any hardware failures; the board has been perfectly reliable. Nor has the board failed to live up to our performance expectations, it has, but getting it that point has been much more of a chore than we would have liked. Part of this has been due to the newness of the platform: the as delivered BIOS (version F3) very much needed to be updated to the newest version (F8). Part of this has nothing to do with the board at all, but is due to Intel’s X79 platform controller hub design. Finally, some of the extra effort involved in building the system was due to a lack of built-in drivers in Windows 7. In the end, we got the system we wanted, but getting it wasn’t as easy as it should have been.
As discussed in X79 System Design, we opted for the Gigabyte X79-UD5 based on our perception of the quality of the board, the fact that it offered 8 memory slots for ample memory expansion and also offered 3 Marvell SATA 3.0 RAID controllers (for a total of 6 drive ports). Our perception of the quality and durability of the board is unchanged: we put the board and Intel Core i7 3930K processor through hell in our quest for maximum overclocked performance, and both emerged unscathed. Most of our board-related criticism will be leveled at the not-ready-for-prime-time UEFI BIOS. UEFI is supposed to offer a modern mouse driven user interface, but the UI implementation seemed haphazard and incomplete. Yes, there was a mouse cursor that we could move around and select things with, but often, if we navigated down enough menu levels, the mouse would simply cease to have any effect, and we had to fall back on the usual keyboard commands. A later BIOS we installed only partly relieved this condition. Overall, the mouse driven interface seems poorly implemented, and many users will opt for keyboard commands even when the mouse can be used. UEFI has finally taken the BIOS out of the DOS era, only to leave it at Windows 3.0.
Some of the issues with the board were really not the fault of Gigabyte. For instance, the X79 PCH has a couple of SATA 3.0 ports that can be configured for RAID. We actually did configure the system for RAID using the PCH and compared our results with the Marvell RAID. A uniquely annoying feature of Intel’s design of the SATA controllers in the PCH is that they cannot be separately configured for IDE, AHCI, or RAID mode. All the ports, including the four SATA 2.0 parts must be configured the same. So if you’re running a pair of RAID disks on the PCH, attaching SATA optical drives becomes a little problematic, since the remaining SATA ports function in AHCI mode. Some people seem to have no problems doing this, while others report that the optical drives cease to function. The results of attaching a SATA optical drive to an AHCI SATA port appear to be highly variable, but for our part, the results were always the same. The drives were usable, but not convenient to use. In the end, we were thankful to have the Marvell controllers for RAID duty and happy to set the SATA ports of the PCH to IDE mode.
In building our previous X58 system, we were delighted to find that Windows 7 included a driver for the Marvell RAID controller, so that we didn’t have to manually load a driver in order for Windows to properly recognize and install onto the RAID system. We assumed from this that the era of manually providing RAID drivers was effectively over. Wrong! In what felt like a throwback to a previous era, both the X79 PCH based RAID and the Marvell RAID required drivers to be loaded during Windows 7 installation. (Well, at least we didn’t have to copy the driver files to floppies.) Once again we assume that this was due to the relative newness of the X79 PCH and Marvell 9172 controller chips. We can only hope that Microsoft incorporates the needed drivers into a future build of Win 7.
Features and Specifications
The X79-UD5 package contains a useful set of accessories to complement the main board, besides the usual manual, driver disk and back panel I/O shield. In the box are also a set of 4 high quality SATA cables with locking tabs, two way SLI and Crossfire cables, and a 3 way SLI cable. Oddly, although Gigabyte advertises that three way Crossfire is supported, there’s no cable for it.
Also provided is a front panel adapter that slots into a floppy drive space and which provides a pair of USB 3.0/2.0 connectors. Gigabyte even threw in a PCIEx1 card with combined 802.11n Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 4.
The Gigabyte motherboard offers a wealth of expansion and I/O capability. The two PCIEx16 slots and the single X8 slot which interface directly to the CPU are stated to conform to the PCIE 3.0 standard. This is a capability of the Sandy Bridge E processors themselves, thus we expect any X79 board to be able to accommodate PCIE 3.0 cards when they become available. As can be seen from the motherboard photo on the next panel, these slots are laid out to accommodate up to 3 double wide graphics cards, although doing so will cover up the remaining expansion slots.
Furthermore, the two x16 slots are four slots apart so that in two way SLI or Crossfire, the graphics adapters are as far apart as possible to maximize air flow and minimize heat buildup within the case. We found this configuration worked very well in our two way SLI testing.
The board also features two PCIEx1 slots and a legacy PCI slot which interface to the X79 PCH. If you don’t need the legacy PCI slot, we suggest putting your graphics adapter in the PCIEx16_2 slot (furthest to the left in the picture) in order to keep both of the PCIEx1 slots available. Although this went against Gigabyte’s recommendations, we could discover no performance downside to this configuration, and this allowed us to plug in Gigabyte’s WiFi/Bluetooth card and still have one PCIEx1 slot available.
Other expansion capability includes the 8 DDR3 DIMM slots capable of supporting 2133 MHz XMP memory modules like the ones use for the system under test. The motherboard also has headers for HD Audio, IEEE 1394a, multiple USB 2.0 ports, and a special header for the USB 3.0 front panel adapter. There’s even a back-lit on-off button useful when servicing or debugging your system. Keep in mind that all this expansion comes at the price of the board being Extended-ATX form factor with dimensions of 30.5 x 26.4 cm. The board mounts on the same hole pattern as ATX, has the same back panel width, but is a little deeper. At the bottom of the image, you can see the board extend about 2 cm further down past the mounting holes than the normal ATX board.
The back panel offers lots of IO and overclocking capability. There’s analog and digital 7.1 surround capability (on the far right), Gigabit ethernet and multiple USB 2.0 connections. There’s two USB 3.0 connections, in blue, and there’s two SATA 3.0 ports, although one does double duty as a USB 2.0 part. Both SATA 3.0 ports are controlled by a common Marvel 9172 chip, and therefore can be configured for external RAID duty.
The BIOS control functions are co-located in a single module (second from the left). The Clear CMOS button is thankfully recessed and virtually impossible to trigger accidentally. Above that is the selector switch for the Dual BIOS capability of the motherboard. Indicator lights on the switch tell you which BIOS is engaged, blue for the “backup” BIOS and green for the “main” BIOS (Gigabyte’s terminology). The O.C button provides instant, one-touch overclocking to a Turbo Mode maximum clock rate of 4.0 GHz. It’s very conservative and safe overclocking for those who don’t want to mess around in the BIOS.
As can be seen from the diagram, the X79 PCH doesn’t support USB 3.0 directly, so the four USB 3.0 ports are handled by a pair of Fresco FL 1009 chips. The table on the next panel summarizes the X79-UD5 features and specs.
|CPU support||Intel LGA2011||Currently the Core i7 3930K and 3960X|
|Chipset||X79||Uses a single Platform Controller Hub|
|Memory||8 DDR 3 DIMM sockets||Supports up to 2133 MHz XMP|
|Audio||Realtek ALC898 codec||Supports HD audio, 7.1 analog surround output, optical SPDIF|
|LAN||Intel Gb Ethernet 10/100/1000 Mbit/sec||LAN performance issue resolved by BIOS update|
|Expansion Slots (CPU)||2 PCIE x16, 1 PCIE x8||Supports PCIE 3.0|
|Expansion Slots (PCH)||2 PCIE x1, 1 PCI||PCIE slots support V. 2.0|
|Multi Graphics Cards||Supports up to 3 way SLI or CrossFireX||In 3 way mode, PCIE x16 slots revert to x8|
|PCH SATA Support||2 SATA 3.0 ports, 4 SATA 2.0 ports||All ports configured as either AHCI or IDE, also RAID 0, 1, 5, 10|
|Marvell SATA Support||3 Marvell 88SE9172 controllers providing 6 SATA 3.0 ports, 2 external||Supports IDE, AHCI, or RAID 0,1 in pairs for each controller|
|PCH USB Support||14 USB 2.0 ports||8 ports on back panel, 6 headers on board|
|USB 3.0 Support||2 Fresco FL1009 chips providing 4 ports||2 ports on back panel, 2 on special header on board|
|IEEE 1394a Support||VIA VT 6308 chip provides 2 ports||1 port on back panel, 1 header on board|
UEFI BIOS Quirks
Most X79 motherboards come with a Universal Extensible Firmware Interface based boot system. Strictly speaking, we shouldn’t even call UEFI a BIOS, but the vernacular is so deeply embedded that the terms now seem stuck together. UEFI provides a modular architecture for booting a UEFI compatible OS (like Windows 7) and provides runtime services to the OS after boot. UEFI is supposed to be more secure against certain kinds of malware, and is able to provide a 32 or 64 bit run time environment, as opposed to previous BIOSs that ran in 16 bit DOS mode. There is also better graphics support, allowing images as well as text to be displayed. UEFI is also supposed to boot faster than previous BIOSs.
The Gigabyte AMI UEFI provides for USB mouse and keyboard support. One of the first quirks you will notice if you happen to try using a PS2 keyboard is that you can’t use the keyboard with the BIOS for pre-F8 versions. The keyboard will work fine once the OS starts up, but a USB keyboard will be required for any BIOS changes. This is, of course, undocumented. Version F8, released in January, fixed this problem, but created another that made it difficult for our purposes, as noted later in this article.
Once you get past the “3D” motherboard graphics (the 3D BIOS) which provide a somewhat redundant way to select particular menu items of the main BIOS, you’ll find things arranged much as in the past, with menu items for overclocking, called by Gigabyte Motherboard Intelligent Tweaker (M.I.T), system status, peripherals, etc. The main difference is that there are some non-essential graphics across the top of the screen, and you can select menu items with the mouse. Sub-menus are supposed to open by double-clicking, but this is hit or miss, and only seems to work about half the time. As the user descends through the various submenus, it seems that the mouse ceases to have any effect at all, and you’re back to keyboard commands.
Except for the slick 3D BIOS GUI, which feels like an add-on, Gigabyte's UEFI has taken users out of the DOS world only to dump them unceremoniously into Windows 3.0. Oh, joy.
You get a double helping of this joy in the Dual BIOS, a “Main” and “Backup”, which are selectable via the back panel switch. The two BIOSs are effectively interchangeable and configurable as you see fit.
Furthermore, although Gigabyte claimed in their documentation that the “backup” BIOS couldn’t be flashed by the user, such is not the case, and we were able to flash it just fine, even with a version different from the main BIOS. The dual BIOS is a godsend for overclockers, giving you a quick convenient fall-back position in case you have problems, or simply don’t need overclocking to write an essay in Word. Since overclocking can consume much more electricity than operating in the stock mode, the dual BIOS gives you a way to select an energy saving mode quickly. BIOS switching can’t be made on the fly, so you have to power down to make the switch.
Perhaps the best feature of the BIOS is the built in Q-Flash utility, which allows flashing the BIOS, from within the BIOS. All the you have to do is download the new BIOS file to a flash drive, then insert the drive into an available USB port and run the Q-flash utility. There’s also Gigabyte’s @BIOS Windows utility that allows flashing from a file or by directly connecting to a Gigabyte server. The server connection approach actually worked, with the only downside being that you’re restricted to the latest version of the BIOS, F8, which you may or may not want.
More Serious BIOS Issues
Early on in testing the board with the as-delivered BIOS (F3), we noticed a peculiar slowness in the ethernet port. Our Internet download speed tested at a very slow 6 Mbit/sec, much lower than the fiber optic limit of 15 Mbit/sec. File transfers within our LAN were equally tortoise-like, even though the ethernet port test utility provided by Intel as part of their driver showed nothing wrong. Then we noticed that Gigabyte had posted the F8 BIOS revision claiming to have fixed “LAN performance issues”. Downloading and installing F8 went smoothly via the Q-Flash utility built into the BIOS, but F8 hosed our ability to boot from the Marvell RAID drive array we had created for the X79 system. Falling back to the F7 BIOS cured this problem, and appeared to take care of the LAN performance issue as well, but at the cost of markedly lower RAID disk performance. Using the F7 BIOS allowed us to complete the Core i7 3930K review, but for this review, we decided to revisit the F8 BIOS.
Using F8 forced us to reinitialize the RAID disks, and reinstall Win 7 and our test apps. We could find no way around this, so be forwarned that if you receive an X79-UD5 board that doesn’t have F8 installed, upgrade it to F8 from within the BIOS before you do anything else. If you’re installing a RAID system using the Marvell or Intel drivers, also be sure to download the latest version of these from Gigabyte’s web site. Despite the pain of having to throw away our installed OS and start over, we were glad we did in the end. F8 restored our RAID system performance to its former glory, provided great LAN performance, and even improved power efficiency somewhat at the board level, all of which will be shown in the performance results section, Part 2 of this review.
The X79-UD5 provides a wealth of overclocking approaches, perhaps more than most people will use. The simplest approach is the overclock button on the back panel. Engaging this will produce an immediate overclock of the 3930K processor up to 4.0 GHz in Turbo Mode, where Turbo Mode is the operating mode of the processor in which a limited subset of the processor cores can be operated at greater than the stock clock frequency. For more details on this mode see my review of the Core i7 3930K. For a little more performance, Gigabyte’s Windows utilities provide almost as easy a way to overclock. With the push of a software button, the user can overclock to 4.0, 4.2 or 4.4 GHz in Turbo Mode. This “one click” overclocking is available either in Gigabyte Smart 6 or in Easy Tune 6. Easy Tune 6 goes even further by allowing the user to adjust other parameters such as Vcore in an advanced mode. We used both the “one click” and advanced settings and found that the utilities worked as expected.
ET 6 can even enable “real time” BIOS changes from within the Windows app, but we don’t recommend this, as it proved an all too easy way to blue screen the system. Actually, we don’t recommend using the advanced mode at all for experimenting with overclock settings. If you need to experiment, it’s better to do so at the BIOS level first, since getting through the UEFI POST is still the critical first hurdle when trying out new overclock settings. In the end we decided that using the UEFI was the easiest way to overclock, if you want more performance than the overclock switch or the software presets can provide. In the video on the next panel, I walk through the BIOS steps for achieving the Sweet Spot overclock condition (4.375 GHz in Turbo Mode) that I describe in our Core i7 3930K review.
BIOS Overview and Overclocking Walkthrough
Configuring for RAID
For this review I decided to try both the Intel X79 PCH SATA 3.0 ports for RAID as well as one of the Marvell 9172 chips, and in the performance section I’ll compare the results of the two configurations. First I’ll describe the process of setting up the RAID systems and the complications one may encounter.
Setting up a RAID system on the X79-UD5 is basically the same three step process whether you use the X79 PCH or one of the Marvell controllers.
Step 1) In the BIOS, set either the Intel PCH or one of the Marvell controllers to RAID mode. If starting the board after loading “optimized defaults” for the BIOS, you may not see the RAID option initially for the Marvell controllers. This problem is cleared up by simply saving and exiting and then re-entering the BIOS.
Step 2) After the settings change is made in the BIOS to RAID mode, a new POST screen will appear immediately after the BIOS splash screen which is the POST screen for either the PCH RAID controller or the Marvell RAID controller setup BIOS. No UEFI here. It’s pure DOS. Press <CTRL> I for the Intel PCH or <CTRL> M for the Marvell chip. If you’re using the PCH, your keyboard will need to be connected through the PS2 port. Yes, I know it’s idiotic, but the PCH setup BIOS won’t respond to a USB keyboard. Follow the on-screen prompts to configure your RAID 0 or RAID 1 system. You’ll need to have two identical drives connected to the appropriate ports, so that they show up in the RAID controller setup BIOS. After configuring the RAID disks, it’s probably a good idea to exit the controller setup and restart the system. In the RAID controller POST screen you will see a status message indicating if the disk array is “on line”. If you get this message, you’re good to go to step 3.
Step 3) In order to install Windows 7, you will need to supply drivers for either the Intel PCH and Marvell 9172 RAID systems. Theoretically, you can do this from the Gigabyte driver disk. If you have only a single optical drive for your system, don’t bother. For various reasons, it’s much easier to put the necessary drivers on a USB flash drive, and have that drive handy for the Win 7 installation.
When you get to the point of the OS installation where the installer can’t find your RAID system, click on the “Load Drivers” link. Even if you’ve already inserted your flash drive, Windows will inform you that it can’t find the right driver. This is just Windows displaying its usual artificial stupidity (the opposite of artificial intelligence). Click the Browse button and navigate to the appropriate folder on your flash drive. Windows will load the driver and your disk array will appear as a single unformatted drive. Then partition and format the drive as you would any normal drive. Win 7 creates an additional 100 MB partition for the Windows Boot Manager. Leave that partition alone, as Windows needs it to transition from UEFI to the OS.
Setting up RAID on the X79 PCH may have unpleasant consequences if you have a SATA optical drive plugged into one of the PCH SATA 2.0 ports on the board. The PCH doesn’t allow you to separately specify the operating mode for the SATA 3.0 and 2.0 ports, so that once RAID mode is selected, all SATA ports are enabled for RAID and operate in AHCI mode otherwise. Some have reported no problems using optical drives in AHCI mode, but we tried three different drives (2 different makes of Blu-Ray and a DVD drive) and got exactly the same behavior in all cases. The drives would work, but only by adhering to the following rather inconvenient ritual.
If no disk was inserted in the drive when the system booted: 1) Insert disk into drive. Win 7 will ignore disk, indicating that there is a music CD already inserted. 2) Eject disk by pressing eject button on drive. Win 7 now indicates that the drive is empty. 3) Re-insert disk. Win 7 now shows the actual disk in the drive and accesses it normally.
If a disk was inserting in the drive at the time of system boot-up: 1) Win 7 shows the actual disk inserted, accessess it normally, and behaves normally if another disk is inserted.
This process of having to insert and re-insert disks may seem a minor annoyance, but it becomes a real pain after a couple dozen times. We tried updating firmware in the drives, and using the latest Intel RAID driver, but to no avail. We suspect that the problem resides within the driver Windows supplies for optical drives. Another manifestation of this problem occured during Win 7 installation.
When attempting to swap the Win 7 installation disk for the Gigabyte driver disk to provide the necessary RAID driver for the X79 PCH, we found that the installer wouldn’t recognize that the Win 7 installation disk had been replaced. Thus our recommendation to use a USB flash drive. As we’ll show in Part 2 of this review, the Marvell RAID system performed a little better overall than the Intel RAID system, therefore we think it makes more sense to leave the X79 PCH SATA ports in IDE mode and dedicate the Marvell controllers for high performance disk or RAID duty. And it’ll save you having to dig out that old PS2 keyboard. In the following video, I walk through the steps to set up Marvell RAID.