Enthusiast is an odd term. Most of us would class ourselves as enthusiasts. After all who would bother to build their own PC and read through reams of GFLOPS data without actually caring? Certainly not the casual Facebook user of the PC world.
However when it comes to PC hardware, enthusiast often refers to an elitist, high-end, ultra expensive product that only the dedicated can get the maximum from. As time has moved on and even the extreme hardware has become much more stable and easy to tune it tends to just refer to a product that is the flagship of a particular brand.
Enter the Gigabyte X58A-UD9. For a while now Gigabyte have differentiated their models by adjusting the UD number (UD standing for Ultra Durable). So a UD3 is the value board, UD5 the one most of us will purchase, UD7 used to hold the Gigabyte flagship crown, and now we have the UD9.
So what does this board do that the UD7 didn't, and is it worth your money?
Let's start off as always with the technical specifications, courtesy of the Gigabyte website.
|Storage Interface||South Bridge: |
|USB||Integrated in the South Bridge: |
|Internal I/O Connectors|
|Back Panel Connectors|
As you can see it's a hugely comprehensive list, as befits a motherboard in this price-range. Time for a look.
She's a big lass for sure. This is the kind of box that could sleep a family of four in comfort. One of the things that's instantly surprising is how insanely busy the box is with information and tech logos and the like. The chances of anyone going "£450 for a motherboard? Sounds a bargain" is miniscule. No this will only be brought by those who specifically need its feature-set. So calm the box down accordingly. A Rolls Royce hasn't got go faster stripes. A Renault Clio has.
Anyone once the box lid is lifted we get our glimpse of the UD9 itself. And yet more logos, just in case you missed the ones on the front.
Here is a bit of a surprise. The rear is also emblazoned with those same "Unlocked Power" and "333" logos we've been bombarded with on the front. You'd hope Gigabyte might have enough confidence in their product to not need this showy display. Taking the motherboard out the packet we can see that despite it being an e-ATX motherboard it's still not got a single centimeter of unused space. This is thanks to it truly having everything anyone could want.
Looking at the board from the "front" you are instantly struck by the size of the southbridge heatsink. There is a good reason for this as under there lurks the NF200 chip that powers the PCI-e slots, ensuring all of them have x16 capability even when fully populated.
Accessories are as good as any board we've seen. Obviously you get your manual, drivers and IO shield.
We also have eSATA, SATA, IDE and the like. Two Crossfire bridges an SLI bridge, and two hard SLI bridges. One for Tri-SLI and one for Quad-SLI. A Quad-SLI gives us an idea...
Just in case you weren't sure that the UD9 gives you Unlocked Power from the logo on the front of the box, the insert, the rear and the manual, we also have a Gigabyte VIP card.
Finally for those of you who don't have a case with native e-ATX support, Gigabyte have provided three standoffs to ensure the bottom half isn't flapping about unsecured.
A couple of things to note about the CPU socket. Firstly the amount of chokes around the CPU is unbelievable, as befits a board with this much capability. The heatsinks on the power circuitry and linked to each other, and the northbridge, by virtue of a huge heatpipe. However they have also been well designed to ensure that all but the largest CPU cooler shouldn't foul them.
The RAM slots strangely don't use the single clasp retention that are used on many other high-end boards. Below them we have the only couple of curious design choices on the motherboard. The power button is a bit in the middle of nowhere, and the reset switch is tiny. Not at all in keeping with the rest of the board.
Yes, there really are seven PCI-e slots on this board. Plenty of Quad goodness. Of course they can't all be populated due to double-width cooling solutions on cards, but most people will use a board like this with water-cooling and so space wont be an issue. Four stock high-end graphics cards will fit snugly though. Above and below the PCI-e slots are two molex inputs to help provide the juice necessary to run such a configuration. In keeping with the "everything on one board" philosophy we even have a FDD header. Yes you too can spend the best part of £500 on a motherboard and keep your 1.44mb floppy disk to hand.
Moving to the other corner it's dominated by that cooler. Anyone who's seen a big muscle car with a louvred bonnet will instantly recognise the theme Gigabyte seem to be aiming for. The front-panel header is the colour-coded one we love so much, and the right hand edge of the board is absolutely dominated by storage connectors. 6 SATA2 ports, then 2 SATA6 ports, an IDE and then another 2 SATA6. Not sure why they split the SATA6 ports up though. You'd imagine it's to make routing cables to the opticals, traditionally kept at the top of a case, easier. But there aren't any SATA6 opticals about and we haven't even heard a whisper of any forthcoming.
Heat is the enemy of every enthusiast, and here Gigabyte have tripped over themselves a bit. We have a combined water and air solution for the chipset, which is no use to anybody really. The water guys will either use their own block, or not want all that extra metal to have to cool. And the air brigade wont get the full benefit of a specifically designed cooler. It's a curious choice indeed.
Additionally Gigabyte provide two towers of aluminium to help disperse some of the heat created. Again it's just not well a well-thought out solution though. Because they need to be a certain thinness to fit between a graphics card in the top slot, and the CPU cooler, the likelyhood of any air passing across them is minimal. Even in the most extreme air chassis you'll still struggle to keep them cool. The primary problem is that they are, by nature, a heatsink. Ergo they soak up heat. They are also position right above the primary GPU. It doesn't need a genius to work out that what they will do is soak up all the heat from the primary graphics card and, thanks to the lack of airflow, hold onto it just below your CPU.
On the IO panel we find all the standard things we'd expect such as Firewire, USB3, twin Gigabit ethernet and the like.
BIOS and Overclocking
Of the two BIOS available Gigabyte use the AWARD BIOS. The UD9 shows its overclocking leanings with the M.I.T (the overclock menu) is the first option available, rather than on the right hand side like it is with some variants of the AWARD. Whereas the AMI BIOS has most of the overclocking options setup on a single page, the M.I.T has them spread around a little within the submenu. It takes a little getting used to if you're more familiar with the AMI BIOS, but everything is neatly labelled and navigation is a breeze.
Before you get excited that Gigabyte have some secret trick to unlock your processor, we're running the 980x in this, hence the high multiplier.
Everything you could desire to get a good overclock out of your processor is available to tweak. As it is so easy to navigate hopefully we'll see a nice result.
As always with a good overclocking method the first thing is to see how far we can push the BCLK and so we know if this is a real lunatic overclocker, or something that will need a little massaging.
One thing to note before we get to the figure, is that if you have all four PCI-e slots populated then the ability of the UD9 to push the BCLK hard is greatly reduced. This is hugely surprising given its status as an extreme enthusiast board, but it's something to be aware of.
207MHz was the limit of the UD9. Initially this might seem a little disappointing, but the reality is that with most memory topping out just past 2GHz, and with the i7 Extreme's being happier using the multiplier to overclock rather than BCLK, it should be more than enough for our needs.
And so it proved. 4.648 GHz being a new record for this processor, beating the Rampage 3 Extreme by 38 MHz. This is entirely on air and, as you can see from the CPU-Z, without insane voltages. Not the kind of thing we'd want to run 24/7, but my word it's stunning.
Intel i7 980x
6GB Corsair Dominator GT
Corsair AX1200w PSU
Asus HD5870 v2
4 x Zotac GTX480
Windows 7 Ultimate x64
We have to emphasise our huge thanks to Zotac for lending us four nVidia GTX480s to allow us to test out Quad-SLI. They really came through for us in the clutch.
Our primary motherboard based testing will be on our standard bench rig using the HD5870 as our graphics card. The 3D and gaming tests we'll get to in a moment will be utilising the Quad-SLI setup. Because it's fairly obvious that an overclocked system will lead our charts, for comparison today we're putting the UD9 up against it's main rival, the Asus Rampage 3 Extreme. Both with stock settings for the CPU and Memory.
The inclusion of the AES instruction set in the 980x does make our graph a little top heavy. The UD9 managed to edge out the R3E in everything but our CPU Queen tests. The zLib result is particularly eye-opening. A great start.
Absolutely no idea what is going on here. We tested and re-tested. Using the identical kit of RAM that we tested the R3E with, the UD9 is absolutely spanked. We know how important memory speeds are, so let's hope this is an aberration with Everest rather than a specific problem with the board. We'll soon find out.
Starting with the Arithmetic test, the Whetstone results have a slight lean towards the UD9, but within tolerance. The Dhrystone result really liked the UD9 and this is then shown up in our aggregate results. Nothing earth shattering, but considering how highly we thought of the Rampage 3 Extreme, impressive.
The Sandra Processor Multimedia test is almost as curious as the Everest Memory results were. There is no reason for the UD9 to be so very far ahead of the Rampage 3 Extreme, and yet there it is.
One bunch of tests down, and it's not at all easy to pinpoint what is what. Are those Everest Memory results right, and if so how can the Sandra Multimedia results be right? But that's why we test using more than one program.
CineBench uses the whole performance capability of the system and so should hopefully put to bed any of the anomalous results we saw on the previous page. Sure enough it's almost impossible to split the UD9 and R3E, with the Gigabyte offering just edging ahead.
Completely putting to bed any thoughts that the Everest RAM results were anything other than an issue with Everest itself as the UD9 is so new, wPrime really takes a hit from slower RAM and yet here, in wPrime, we saw some of the fastest results we've ever seen. Even allowing for our use of the 980x, 175 seconds for the 1024M test is insanely fast. Nearly sub 6 seconds on the 32M test too. There is no doubt we have performance to spare, with even the mighty R3E being left behind.
PC Mark Vantage
Finally before we move on to our 3D testing, PC Mark Vantage is a great way to test the whole system. If anything the Gigabyte X58A-UD9 stretches an even larger lead over the Rampage 3 Extreme. 1000 points might not seem loads, but at this extreme performance end of the market people will do almost anything for a dozen or so points. So an extra thousand is mighty good.
Once we'd finished our standard application side of the testing, it was time to really push this board to its limits. Given that the major bonus of this over the standard sized motherboards it would be foolish to not take advantage of its ability to run four cards at once. We saw recently in the Ares testing how Quadfire performs, so we were anxious to try out Quad-SLI.
nVidia seemed to be loath to assist despite repeated promises, and so we're hugely grateful to Zotac for stepping up to the plate and delivering four shiny GTX480s for us to put through their paces.
Rapidly becoming one of our favourite benchmarks, Unigine just looks so sumptuous. We're sick to death of seeing the 3D Mark Vantage tests, but everytime we see Unigine we something new.
Testing actually scaled well. For a long time, and even now, there is a law of diminishing returns with multiple cards. If 2 cards give 175%, then 3 cards give about 200% and 4... well we shall see.
A single 5870 just about bests the GTX480, but that's not really why we're here. If Unigine is anything to go by then scaling issues have definitely been sorted, because there is almost a linear increase between one, two, three and four cards. We tested with 0 and 2 x AA, but to be honest with 95.8 average using 4x AA there is no point in making you sit through the lower results.
3D Mark Vantage
Yes, just like you this is the result we were desperate to see too. Scaling within 3D Mark is clearly nowhere near as linear as it was in Unigine. Obviously the CPU score gets a boost from the use of Physx, but the 4th card isn't being used anywhere near well enough to justify it.
What we did see though, from our first GTX480 review, and again today, is the potential the 480 has for a high score. Having four GTX480s to hand, and a motherboard we know can use them, was just too tempting. Bringing out the portable air-con, waiting til late at night, and lots (and lots) of tweaking we managed to obtain an overclocked system that was just stable enough to enable a single Quad-SLI run, just to show the potential available. At this point we'd like to remind you that we're still on air here.
54246. Fifty-Four Thousand, Two Hundred and Forty-Six. Good enough for a HWBot top 10. If you have the time, this setup of Quad-SLI and UD9 can certainly deliver. Sure it's 3 grands worth of kit, but you can't put a price on performance.
As if to demonstrate the brutality this setup and how easily it smashes previous thoughts of what scores are achievable. Tri-SLI in Extreme (which is 1920x1200, heavy AA etc) scores higher than a single card at Performance settings. Again the fourth card isn't really giving us much of a boost, but still. Look at those scores and gasp.
Unlimited power indeed.
Out of the synthetic and into the real-world, the results pretty much echo our previous page, but generally the fourth card has a negative impact if anything. So we'll whip through them to save you reading the same thing lots of times, and also because this a UD9 review and not strictly a Quad-SLI review.
That fourth card gives us a 4 frame drop in Dirt 2. The overheads it causes aren't able to be overcome by the power it provides.
Just Cause 2
When it first was released it appeared to be a hardware eater. A couple of driver upgrades and some heavy-hitting hardware later and it's getting spanked. Tri-SLI giving us 164fps. The UD9 has all the graphics bandwidth you could ever need.
As hardware improved we edged towards the 60fps barrier in Crysis Warhead. With the release of the 5870, and latterly the GTX480, we've blown past that and discovered what we knew all along. The Crysis engine is terrible. 16 fps increase for another £1200 worth of graphics card is useless.
Now this is a game that really punishes a weak system. The most surprising thing is how well it handles multiple cards. We can really see the UD9s ability to power 4 cards having the benefit we all hoped it would have. Once we get to three cards the framerate goes through the roof, and this is the only game on test that takes advantage of that fourth card.
Stalker Call of Pripyat
Clearly all the bugs haven't been fully ironed out of either Stalker, or the Forceware drivers. Call of Pripyat sent Fraps completely bananas with the average framerate being what we expected, but the minimum and maximum rates being all over the shop. So ridiculous was it we had to crop the graph otherwise those 1500+ maximum results made the normal scores invisible.
Perhaps the thing to take away from this is that two cards are plenty for Stalker.
Strewth. Ok let's wrap it up.
Phew. What a rollercoaster ride that was.
There is a little bit to get through here, but there is one thing we have to deal with before we move on, because it colours everything else. The price.
It's available around £450 online. Just stop for a moment and take that in. You can buy a Gigabyte UD7 and a Intel i7 930 for the same money as just this board. So if you're here to see if this is good value, then no it isn't.
But value isn't everything, otherwise we'd all be driving 1 litre diesels and eating cheap beans on cheap bread. Just like a tent from Millets will keep you dry, not everyone wants the basics. Sometimes you want the best. The absolute, no compromise, does it all, best.
Certainly Gigabyte delivers on nearly everything we could desire. Performance is absolutely not an issue. Despite a couple of strange results in our first tests, it consistently beat out the Asus Rampage 3 Extreme using identical hardware. We also saw the highest overclock we've managed to obtain out of our engineering sample 980x. 4.6 GHz using only 1.4v is mightily impressive in anyones books.
The ability of the board to run four cards to their capacity is something barely a handful of boards offer. Those that do certainly don't come with the after-sales comfort that a board from Gigabyte gives us. As our testing showed Quad-SLI isn't really for anyone but the extremely wealthy, but 16x/16x/16x Tri-SLI has absolute performance benefits and would be the kind of system that we all dream of. Certainly having tasted that power we were saddened when Zotac took their cards back.
Connectivity is capably handled by the UD9 too. 10 SATA ports, of which 4 are the SATA 6Gbps variety. Multiple USB2.0 and USB3.0 ports. Hell it even has a Floppy and IDE connector should you bizarrely have some old bit of hardware you want to plug into your motherboard that cost the same as a cheap second hand car.
The accessories packaged with the board are comprehensive to say the least We can't think of anything it doesn't come with that we'd need. The inclusion of three extra stand-offs for those whose cases don't come with eATX support is one of those touches that really shows attention to detail.
In fact what we dislike about the board is brief indeed.
The box is far too gaudy for something in this price bracket. It's priced at the very tip of the enthusiast level and do they, heck do we, need to be told endlessly about the "Unlimited Power" and "333 Support". Yes once is fine, put it on the back by all means.
When all four slots are populated it is much harder to obtain a decent overclock out of the board. Considering that if you've got the wedge to lay down on four graphics cards you're more than likely to want to overclock your CPU too. This is a small thing though because you're also likely to have an Extreme Edition processor and therefore can massage the multiplier, as we did.
The cooling isn't brilliant and you definitely need to have a think about how to keep that northbridge cool if you're on air. If you're on water then your problems are greatly lessened.
Finally there is that price. Even with every single feature you could desire it's still arse-clenchingly expensive. The fact that there are already 40 or 50 quid variances in online price show how much mark up it's getting, which does make the retail price even harder to swallow.
So in short, if you can stomach the initial outlay, the Gigabyte X58A-UD9 is the absolute performance king and because of its huge connectivity will last until you move along to the i8 or whatever comes next. It's an easy winner of our Performance Award.
Many thanks to Gigabyte for letting us have a play with the UD9, and to Zotac for the GTX480s. Discuss in our forums.