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Gigabyte X58A-UD7 ATX PC Motherboard

by Mark W. Hibben
5/24/2010

The Good: Intel Core i7 LGA 1366 compatibility for top CPU performance, new USB 3.0 and SATA 3.0 interfaces, chipset water cooling capability built in.
The Bad: PCIEx1 slots are partially blocked by water cooling port.
The Ugly: Bolt-on air cooling tower if water cooling isn't used.
The Price: a very reasonable US$350.

Intel's Desktop CPU Dominance

As many independent tests show, the Intel Core i7 processor family in the LGA 1366 form factor includes the highest performing single-processor CPU obtainable for Windows OS desktops: the Core i7 980X, a six core, 12 thread monster built on Intel's latest 32 nm process.  Even if you don't need this much processing power, an LGA 1366 capable motherboard provides a high performance platform with built-in protection from obsolescence, since you can always start with a mid-priced Core i7 now and upgrade to a Core i7 Extreme in a couple of years.

Reasons for Choosing the Gigabyte X58A-UD7 Board

There are many good boards in both the ATX and microATX form factors that support the LGA 1366 family of processors (certain Core i7s and Xeons). To a large extent, selection of a particular board is a matter of personal preference and intended use.  After all, all the boards make use of the same basic Intel X58 chip set.  Here are the criteria I used to narrow down the field:

1.    ATX form factor.  This provides the most number of PCI and PCI Express expansion slots, usually 6 or 7, depending on the board.
2.    USB 3.0.  This new USB standard is just starting to be included by motherboard manufacturers, although there are relatively few USB 3.0 devices as yet.  USB 3.0 offers full duplex data transfers at 3.2 Gb/s, a big improvement over USB 2.0's 480 Mb/s.
3.    SATA 3.0.  This new SATA standard doubles the data transfer rate of SATA 2.0 to 6 Gb/s.  Once again, there are not many drives out there with SATA 3.0, but I managed to snag a brand spanking new Western Digital Velociraptor with SATA 3.0 for the system under test.  Shortly after I got mine, they sold out nation-wide.  Solid state disks are also becoming available with SATA 3.0, and these should benefit from the faster interface in sustained read and write speed.
4.    SATA 3.0 RAID.  This is even harder to find on a motherboard than straight SATA 3.0.  The advantage here is that data transfer rates are not as limited by the physical read and write speeds of the individual disks.
5.    Chipset water cooling capability.  For overclocking, there's nothing like water cooling your CPU, but adding an after-market water cooling block to the motherboard chipset heat sink is something I really wouldn't want to do unless I absolutely had to.  So, built-in water cooling capability, even if I don't use it right away is a plus.
6.    Flexible overclocking features.  Generally, most boards do a reasonably good job of supporting overclocking in the BIOS.  Increasingly manufacturers are offering software to perform overclock adjustment outside of the BIOS, a real convenience.

When the above criteria are applied, the field of over 50 boards narrows down pretty quickly.  I consider USB 3.0 and SATA 3.0 must-haves if you're upgrading now, and only a few ATX boards, by Asus and Gigabyte include both.  The Gigabyte X58A-UD7 has the further advantage of using a Marvell 88SE9128 SATA 3.0 controller that supports RAID, which its competitors don't. 

Gigabyte also provides a suite of software to support overclocking adjustments within the operating system.  These are serviceable, but not the greatest in the world, and unfortunately, not a real substitute for making adjustments within the BIOS.  For criterion 6, the Gigabyte board just squeaks by.

Finally, the Gigabyte board offers built in water cooling capability and extensive heat sinks and heat pipes that interconnect to the water cooling port.  In effect, this allows almost all of the major heat producing components on the board to be water cooled.  Not quite ready to dive into water cooling?   Gigabyte provides a bolt-on air cooling tower if you don't want to use the water cooling connections right away. 

In addition to meeting the above criteria, the Gigabyte board has an air of quality impossible to capture in a photo.  Part of it is the all metal capacitors, reputed to be more durable than standard electrolytic capacitors.  I've never known an electrolytic cap to fail on a motherboard, but I suppose it happens. 

A more compelling argument for the quality of the board is the use of 2 ounce copper layers for power and ground, about double the standard thickness for PCB traces.  What does the weight actually mean? It means that the copper layer is the same thickness as a foil of copper weighing 2 ounces and having an area of a square foot, or a thickness of 0.0028 inches. 

Although the Gigabyte was the only board to meet all 6 criteria, it's not perfect.  It has some idiosyncrasies such as the PCI Express x1 slots.  The number 1 slot (furthest on the right in the above photo) is completely useless because of interference from the water block.  The number 2 slot is almost useless if the air cooling tower is used, since it is attached to the space behind the water block and curls around it.  I suppose it's possible that there's a PCI Express x1 card that's small enough to fit in the allotted space.

In the documentation that's available on-line, it was difficult to tell that a normal sized card inserted into the PCI Express x1 slot 2 wouldn't clear the air cooling tower, but it really can't.  Since I planned on water cooling eventually, I wasn't particularly concerned about the PCIe x1 slots, but if you plan on air cooling the board, kiss the x1 slots good-bye.

A final note on reliability:  From the customer ratings posts on Newegg.com, it’s apparent that Gigabyte doesn’t enjoy the stellar reputation for quality that Asus does.  This board particularly seems to be prone to the mysterious dead-on-arrival syndrome that people claim when they have a board failure.  It may be that the board is more susceptible to ESD damage than some others.  For my part, this board provided the smoothest, most trouble free PC build I’ve ever had, but I was extremely diligent when it came to ESD safety.  Part of the credit for the lack of problems must go to Windows 7, which installed on the ‘Raptor without needing special drivers for the Marvell SATA 3.0 controller.  The system booted up the very first time without any problems, and has been trouble free since. 

Gigabyte X58A-UD7 Features and Specifications

The board is provided with a very complete set of accessories, including 2 and 3 way SLI bridge connectors, SATA and parallel IDE cables, the air-cooling tower for the North Bridge and an external SATA mounting bracket.

The board features 8 internal SATA 2 ports and 2 additional external SATA 2 ports as well as the twin SATA 3.0 ports.  The back panel features analog matrix 7.1 surround output as well as optical Toslink and digital audio outputs.  Next to the digital audio output is a rather dangerously positioned Clear CMOS switch that will take you back to a set of factory defaults in the BIOS if you're not careful. Also on the back panel are 2 1394a ports, 2 eSATA, 4 USB 2.0, 2 USB 3.0 and 2 gigabit Ethernet ports.

The 4 physical PCI Express x16 connectors actually share two X58 Northbridge x16 ports.  Using full x16 lanes renders the 2nd and 4th PCI Ex16 connectors inoperative.  Bandwidth can also be split to make all four connectors operative at x8 lanes.  Three-way SLI would be possible with the first, third and fourth connectors as x16, x8, x8 respectively.  These PCIE slots interface directly with the North Bridge, and the bandwidth limitation is inherent to the X58 Chipset, unless augmented with a PCIE bridge chip. 

As can be seen from the block diagram, the LGA 1366 has three DDR 3 memory controllers for three way memory interleaving and an Intel Quick Path Interconnect interface to the X58 North Bridge.  The QPI provides a very high bandwidth link through the X58 to the PCIE bus and other peripherals such as the USB 3.0 ports and the SATA 3.0 ports.  The maximum data throughput for QPI is 12.8 GB/s in each direction.  This is exactly double the bandwidth afforded by the previous generation of Intel X48 chipset using a 1600 MHz front side bus. 

The X58 Northbridge actually has 36 PCIE lanes available, configurable as two PCIEx16 slots and a third PCIEx4 slot.  Many first generation X58 boards featured this third PCIEx4 slot, but for the Gigabyte board, 2 of the lanes are used up interfacing to the USB 3.0 and SATA 3.0 controllers.  Unfortunately, the Marvell 9128 controller is designed to interface only with a PCIEx1 bus, and this makes the bus the choke point for data to the connected disk or disks, since a PCI Express 2.0 x1 lane only supports a data throughput of 4 Gb/s.  As far as I know, this is a deficiency of all the first generation Marvell SATA 3.0 controllers.  Even though the controller chip doesn't quite allow the SATA 3.0 interface to live up to its potential, it's still more bandwidth than even Solid State Disks can use, and more than enough for a conventional disk RAID 0 (data striping) system.   However, a high performance SSD RAID 0 system might possibly exceed the bus limited read or write speed of 500 MB/s.  In that case, a higher performance SATA 3.0 controller would be needed, presumably as a PCIEx8 card. Something to think about for future upgrades.  In any case, I like having the system disks interfaced through the X58 rather than through the older ICH10R, which imposes an additional, though slight, latency penalty, as well as being only capable of SATA 2.0 performance.  It's still an open question in my mind whether a RAID 0 system hosted by the Marvel SATA 3.0 controller would outperform a RAID 0 system hosted by the ICH10R, even if both systems used identical SATA 3.0 disks.  Exploration of RAID performance will have to wait until I can obtain another Velociraptor drive.

Stock (Non-Overclocked) Test System At a Glance:

Component

Performance Parameter(s)

Quantitative Rating

X58A-UD7 Motherboard

Baseline Clock, QPI, Memory Bus

135MHz, 4.86 GT/s, 1350 MHz

Award Software BIOS

Version No., Date

F5, 2/11/2010

Intel Core i7 930

Clock Multiplier Range, Internal Clock Range, Core Count, L2 Cache, Cooler

12-22, 1620-2970 MHz, 4 Cores (8 threads), 1 MB, stock Intel heat sink and fan

Kingston DDR3 1333 MHz XMP Memory

Number x Size

3 x 2GB

EVGA NVidia GeForce GTX 470

Graphics Card Memory

1280 MB GDDR 5

Western Digital VelociRaptor WD6000HLHX

Capacity, Spindle Speed, SATA Speed

600 GB, 10000 RPM, 6 Gb/s

Ultra X4 Modular Connector Power Supply

Maximum Combined Power, Typical Energy Efficiency

1050 Watts, 85 %

 

Note that I like a lot of overkill with my power supply.  I suspect that many mysterious system crashes are due to inadequate power supplies, so I like to have about a 2x performance margin for power output.

Benchmarking with Performance Test 7.0

This review of the Gigabyte motherboard is intended to help home PC builders evaluate this product for future system builds or upgrades by providing the reader with a means of comparing the product directly with PC components or systems that the reader already owns.  For this and future PC hardware reviews, I plan to depend mainly on a PC benchmarking suite that the reader can easily run at home, thus providing a means of making apples-to-apples comparisons.  You won't have to guesstimate whether this board represents an X.X factor improvement in CPU performance compared to your current system, you'll be able to determine this precisely for yourself.  The suite I'll use is Performance Test 7.0 by Passmark Software. Performance Test is inexpensive (even free during the full-featured 30 day evaluation period), very comprehensive, and provides single click ease of use.  The latest version is Windows 7 compatible and available in native 32 bit and 64 bit versions, both on the same license.  Performance Test is so lean, rock solid, and useful to assess PC performance that it's invariably one of the first programs I load onto a newly built PC.

Another advantage of Performance Test is that Passmark maintains a very large data base of test results uploaded by Performance Test users.  The data base is accessible at the PassMark site and contains the results of over 200,000 tests on CPUs, drives, video cards and complete systems.  One of the facts that becomes apparent when you visit the website is that Intel has taken a commanding performance lead with the Core i7 and Xeon 56XX series processors using the LGA 1366 package.  There is simply no faster single-processor architecture available for Windows. 

The Core i7 only becomes more desirable with overclocking:

PassMark provides a number of computer baselines to compare your own test results to.  In the results that follow, the system under test is compared with two other systems for which PassMark provided baselines.  Here are the PassMark test configuration summaries:

Motherboard and CPU Temperatures and Power Dissipation:

Using CPUID Hardware Monitor, I measured temperatures for the North Bridge and CPU and CPU power dissipation under quiescent (processor utilization ~3%) and test (processor load 100%) conditions:

 

 

Component

Measured Value (Quiescent)

Measured Value (Under Test)

CPU Ave. Core Temperature

38 C

56 C

CPU Ave. Power Dissipation

47 W

149 W

North Bridge Temperature

34 C

46 C

PassMark Results Summary

It should be understood by the reader that the PassMark Performance Test results are for comparison purposes only, and not to be taken as an absolute measure of processor or motherboard performance. 

The CPU Mark, Memory Mark, and 2D Graphics Marks results are primarily driven by the CPU/Motherboard combination, so we'll focus on these for this report.  3D Graphics Mark performance is primarily a function of the graphics card and will be covered in a separate report on the card.  The Disk Mark results details will be covered in a separate report on the hard drive.  The CD Mark I regard as purely informational, since it's very much dependent on the optical drive and media used. CPU Mark details:

The overall CPU Mark score of 6297.7 is actually above the average PassMark rating of 5840 for the Core i7 930 and is comparable to a stock Core i7 950.  This is probably due to improved integer calculation performance that Intel 64 bit CPUs typically display when running Windows 64 bit operating systems, regardless of the generation of OS.  PassMark's published results probably don't distinguish between different OS types.  Over the years, I've observed a consistent factor of 2 improvement in the PassMark Integer Math test results when running under 64 bit Windows compared to 32 bit Windows.  Since integer calculations drive much graphics and display performance, this should be a strong motivation to upgrade to 64 bit versions of Windows. Memory Mark details:

It should be noted that these Memory Mark results are for a single channel and therefore don't reflect the bandwidth improvement due to interleaving 3 channels for the Core i7. Populating all three channels should result in an approximate 3x read and write speed improvement.  The Read Cached test is supposed to be a read from the CPU on-chip cache, but it doesn't appear to be doing that, since a cache read (either L2 or L3) should be much faster than external RAM.  The Memory – Large Ram test is supposed to be the time to allocate and read a large block of RAM, but the size of the block is not specified in PassMark's documentation. 2D Graphics Mark details:

The 2D graphics performance tends to be driven by CPU integer computational throughput and data throughput to the graphics card through the North Bridge, which is why it's included in this report.

Overclocking Performance

I didn't extensively test overclocking performance for this report, since the system under test still employs the stock Intel CPU heatsink and fan.  With the good efficiency of the Core i7 processors on the 45 nm process, even the stock heat sink proved adequate for moderate overclocking.  Unfortunately, the Gigabyte provided utility for in-OS overclocking and hardware monitoring EasyTune 6 simply wouldn't run under Windows 7 x64.  However, another utility Gigabyte Smart 6 did run and was able to overclock the board a moderate amount.  Here, the approach to overclocking is to just increase the base clock rate from 135 to 150 MHz, an 11% increase in clock rate.  Everything else scales accordingly. Clock effects ofiIncreasing the baseline clock:

Baseline Clock Frequency Quick Path Interconnect Memory Bus CPU Clock Multiplier Range CPU Clock Range
135 MHz 4.86 GT/s 1335 MHz 12 - 22 1620 – 2970 MHz
150 MHz 5.4 GT/s 1500 MHz 12 - 22 1800 – 3300 MHz

Measured temperatures and power consumption when overclocked:

Component Measured Value (Quiescent) Measured Value (Under Test)
CPU Ave. Core Temperature 47 C 69 C
CPU Ave. Power Dissipation 41 W 147 W
North Bridge Temperature 41 C 56 C

I'm not sure why measured power consumption went down.  This appears to be an erroneous reading by CPUID Hardware Monitor. 

Overclocked Processor Performance

Here, I compare the system under test before and after overclocking. CPU Mark details:

CPU performance didn't quite scale by 11%, but still managed a respectable 8%. 2D Graphics details:

Apparently, the solid and transparent vector calculations reside in the graphics card, which may explain why the previous comparisons showed low performance for these categories for the system under test.

Memory performance showed the consistent 8% improvement. Memory Mark details:

Final Thoughts

The Gigabyte board equipped with a mid-range Core i7 processor provided very respectable performance for the CPU Mark tests.  This of course, is determined by the capabilities of the CPU itself, but it's good to verify that the board doesn't get in the way.  Because of the high throughput of the Quick Path Interconnect and the X58 Northbridge exceptional graphics and hard disk access performance can be obtained when connected to high end graphics cards and SATA 3.0 drives.  All of this makes the Gigabyte a good board, but built in water cooling makes it great.  In a future report I'll describe water cooling and overclocking results.  Overclocking to 4 GHz should be no problem, with a commensurate improvement in CPU performance.

  • 1.
    Dominant Desktop
  • 2.
    Reasons Why
  • 3.
    Water Cooling
  • 4.
    Air
    Cooling
  • 5.
    Imperfect X58A
  • 6.
    In the Box
  • 7.
    Back Panel
  • 8.
    Block Diagram
  • 9.
    SATA 3.0 RAID
  • 10.
    Stock Specs
  • 11.
    Perform. Test 7.0
  • 12.
    CPU Ratings
  • 13.
    OC CPU Ratings
  • 14.
    Baseline Config.
  • 15.
    CPU Temps
  • 16.
    Passmark Summary
  • 17.
    CPU Results
  • 18.
    Memory Results
  • 19.
    Graphics Results
  • 20.
    Over-Clocking
  • 21.
    OC CPU Results
  • 22.
    OC Graphics
  • 23.
    OC Memory
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