Group Test: X99 Motherboards shift into top gear

With a slew of new X99 motherboards being released, we invited each of the four major motherboard manufacturers to send their very best X99 product. Mark Williams hits the Labs and compares the best of the best.

Intel’s High End Desktop (HEDT) range, while aimed at computing enthusiasts, also targets big business and enterprises needing powerful workstations. As such the HEDT platform needs to be supported for longer periods of time as companies like having stable platforms they can get a good return on investment with. This means the lifecycle of the HEDT platform, currently in the form of the X99 chipset, is about three to four years instead of the typical one or two years on mainstream platforms and is also the reason why you’ll find Xeon and registered memory compatibility along with consumer Core i7 and unregistered memory support on this one platform.

To keep performance relevant over that time scale, Intel committed to supporting two generations of CPU for each HEDT platform allowing drop in CPU upgrades. For the previous X79 chipset that was Sandy Bridge-E then Ivy Bridge-E CPUs. For the current X99 chipset it’s Haswell-E followed by Broadwell-E.

With the Broadwell-E CPU not long out, it marks the second half of the X99 platforms lifespan, and with the improved CPUs now available the platform can hit its full performance stride especially now that Intel have a ten core hyper-threaded monster to shove into it, in the form of the i7 6950X.

As it has been about two years since X99 launched, motherboard manufacturers have taken the CPU refresh as a cue to refresh their X99 board offerings, with an eye to include new tech that wasn’t around in 2014.

We test four of the top offerings, one from each manufacturer, aimed at gamers and enthusiasts to put through their paces.

How we tested. It was harder than you’d think!

With Intel introducing its new Turbo Boost 3 tech with Broadwell-E, we wanted to test this functionality along with the big claims motherboard manufacturers constantly make about their beyond DDR4-3000 memory support. Basically we wanted to have XMP and Turbo Boost 3 both enabled and working at the same time during our tests. However, as you’ll read in each review, it wasn’t as simple as that in most cases.

Often enabling XMP resulted in Turbo Boost 3 simply not working until some other BIOS settings were tweaked. XMP on one board caused continuous rebooting, on another a particular benchmark consistently failed, and one simply ignored Turbo Boost 3 altogether, by design!

So, using Intel’s top of the line i7 6950X we benchmarked each board with a 4x8GB DDR4 kit with its DDR-3200 XMP profile enabled along with Turbo Boost 3 enabled in BIOS along with the OS level Intel driver installed to facilitate the boosting of single or lightly threaded tasks to 4GHz on a single core.

Each benchmark was then run three times, including one run with the driver disabled just in case it actually hurt performance, which it did in a few scenarios, then recorded the best result of the three runs.

In the end only one board could do this with no other setting changes other than enabling the XMP profile. Read on to find out which.


Performance wise the Asus board walks away with first place in all but one test, establishing yet another reason why it is able to command the premium price that it does.
Here’s where it gets murky though, despite MSI coming a pretty convincing second place, Gigabyte’s BIOS issues and subsequent use of a beta BIOS to work around them resulted in a CPU that ran at 3.4GHz in multithreaded tasks (100MHz less than the others) meaning Gigabyte’s results aren’t very representative of their true performance. Judging by the Gigabyte boards memory speed tests, they are more likely around MSI’s performance capabilities.

The ASRock offering gets a technical bronze medal thanks to Gigabyte’s issues, however it is well deserved. It won the 7-zip benchmark and came outright second in the y-cruncher tests, while not being far behind the leaders in all the other tests, except for the memory speed test where it was markedly slower. But, with a future BIOS update perhaps memory compatibility can be further improved, removing this problem. Having to manually set DRAM frequencies and OC profiles to provide XMP + Turbo Boost 3 compatibility could well be a cause too.

From a price/performance perspective MSI is clearly the best option of the four, a solid second place performer combined with a lovely looking BIOS that eventually ended up the best for XMP + Turbo Boost 3 compatibility. As long as you don’t want flashy RGB lighting it’s the stand out choice.

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