04/07/2011 | 09:32 PM
The LGA1366 platform was announced over two years ago, but the Intel X58 Express chipset is still considered to be the fastest available and comes to users on top-end mainboards. On the other hand, a modern flagship mainboard must have two features to claim such a status, namely USB 3.0 and SATA 6 Gbps. Products released two years ago did not have those interfaces, so a revision of the model range was necessary. We have already checked out the new breed of LGA1366 mainboards from the leading makers: ASUS P6X58D-E and Asus Sabertooth X58, Gigabyte GA-X58A-UD3R (rev. 2.0) and GA-X58A-UD5 (rev. 2.0), and MSI XPower. Intel has added two new products into their Extreme Series as well. We will put aside the simpler Intel DX58OG with pretty basic functionality and will focus today on the top-of-the-line DX58SO2 model.
First we want to quote the words the company uses to introduce this new mainboard: “Intel is breaking down the barriers when it comes to the performance and bandwidth that gamers, digital media creators, and ultimate multi-taskers need most”. This phrase can be understood in the sense that there were barriers. Indeed, the previous flagship product, Intel DX58SO, was rather odd and differed greatly from the regular mainboards by other manufacturers. Let’s see what its successor, DX58SO2, can do.
The Intel DX58SO2 belongs to the Extreme Series with a human skull emblem. We are going to see this skull everywhere, starting from the product box.
Besides the mainboard, the box contains a lot of accessories.
There is a mouse pad and eight large stickers with Extreme Series skulls and Intel logos. We also found an interesting black cable that should be connected to the onboard USB pin-headers. Shortly after that we found a small box with the same USB connector in one side and sticky tape on the other (you can see this box on the right in the photo above). It took us some time to figure out what it actually was. The colorful poster with installation instructions has figure 14 which suggests that the small box is supposed to be attached to the interior of the faceplate of a free 5-inch bay of the system case and connected with the black cable to the mainboard. There was no other information except a reference to the user manual.
Figure 14 in the user manual was completely different, though. We also could not find a list of accessories in the manual, on the website or on the product box. So, we had to browse through the user manual page by page and, when we got close to the end of the manual right after a detailed description of a mind-bogglingly complex battery replacement procedure with warnings in multiple languages we finally found it. We read that the DX58SO2 might come with a Wi-Fi/Bluetooth combo-module and ours was exactly the model like that. We guess it would make more sense to have a list of accessories (including optional ones) somewhere or to have an indication of Wi-Fi and Bluetooth support in the mainboard specs. Finally, they could have maintained the same numbering for the illustrations on the poster and inside the user manual so that the user could easily find necessary information. And the wireless module itself could have been labeled in a more meaningful way than just “MSI Model: MS–3871”. But the availability of the module is definitely an advantage of the mainboard.
Here is the full list of included accessories:
It must be noted that some of the accessories are optional, so you should confirm the bundle contents before purchasing the board.
We’ve mentioned above a very odd Intel DX58SO mainboard which looks as if its top part has been turned around by 90 degrees counterclockwise. There are other Intel mainboards that can also be considered solutions with questionable design, but the remarkable thing about DX58SO2 is that it is in fact absolutely normal. It has a classic component layout and there is nothing uncomfortably unusual about its PCB design.
A few peculiarities must be noted, though. Other mainboard makers have used heat pipes to cool their products for a long time already and now Intel also uses heatpipes like that. Every heatsink of the cooling system is secured with screws except for the one on the Intel ICH10R South Bridge which is fastened with a steel bracket. The mainboard has a POST code indicator. Besides Power and Reset buttons, there are also buttons to change the base clock rate “on the fly”. Another new feature on Intel mainboards is a double line of Diagnostic/Status LEDs in the bottom left corner of the PCB. The LEDs of the bottom row sequentially indicate the initialization process when you turn the mainboard on. The top row of LEDs indicates the operation of disks and can also signal that the CPU or its voltage regulator components are running too hot. By the way, the text on the product box mentions a technology that can dynamically adjust the number of active CPU power phases depending on the load.
The mainboard supports CrossFireX and SLI technologies. The first two graphics slots work in PCI Express 2.0 x16 mode while the third one is limited to x8. The chipset’s functionality is enhanced with extra controllers. Particularly, two SATA 6 Gbps ports provided by a Marvell 88SE9128 controller are added to the six SATA 3 Gbps ports provided by the South Bridge. The mainboard also features IEEE1394 (FireWire), two back-panel USB 3.0 ports, two eSATA connectors, and a couple of LAN ports.
Here is a complete list of the mainboard’s back-panel connectors (from left to right):
The Intel DX58SO2 is quite up to today’s requirements in terms of PCB design, component layout, exterior design and functionality. You can learn its basic features from the table below:
We described the BIOS functionality of Intel mainboards in our earlier reviews, and the BIOS of the Intel DX58SO2 is overall the same. Therefore we will but briefly glance over its features, starting from the Main section. This mainboard belongs to the Extreme Series, so its BIOS interface background is black just like its PCB.
Here is the Configuration section. Besides controlling the speed of the CPU fan, the mainboard can lower the speed or even halt altogether the other three fans you can connect to it. Every fan connector is a 4-pin one, but the mainboard can adjust the speed of 3-pin fans, too, even though without flexible setup options.
The Performance section is where you can change the base clock rate and check out any other changes in voltages, multipliers and frequencies compared to the current and default operation modes.
It is this section you are going to use the most if you are setting your system up or overclocking it, but ironically enough, this section is the best illustration of how inconvenient Intel’s BIOS interface is. First of all, before you get to see this section with all of its settings, you will have to agree to a number of warnings telling you how dangerous it is to change the settings manually. The main screen is only for changing the base clock rate; the rest of the parameters are set up in the multiple subsections.
There are some inconveniences in those subsections, too. For example, the memory settings are all specified either automatically or manually. If you want to change the memory frequency or voltage, you have to manually set up all of the memory timings as well.
Besides, the mainboard does not allow entering a value directly as a number. You have to browse the list of possible values using the “+” and “-“ keys. To change a parameter, you have to move the cursor to it with the arrow keys and then confirm your intentions by pressing Enter. This BIOS section doesn’t contain all of the overclocking settings, by the way. Some important CPU-related options can be found in the Power section. So, this is a truly enthusiast-targeted mainboard because you must have a lot of enthusiasm and patience to put up with the numerous limitations and inconveniences.
Here’s the Security section:
And here’s the Power section:
In the Boot section, besides the traditionally detailed boot-up options, we can see a new HyperBoot menu which helps speed up the boot-up process by skipping such things as RAID configuring, USB device polling, and the startup image. It must be noted that the mainboard starts up rather quickly even without those optimizations.
The Exit section allows saving one user-defined profile with the BIOS settings.
Summing up this section of our review, we must say that the BIOS is one of Intel mainboards’ weak spots. Although it formally has all the options necessary for setting up and overclocking the system, it has a very unfriendly interface in which key parameters are scattered around different sections and you have to take a lot of extra steps that you don’t normally do with other mainboards. Besides, one user-defined profile with BIOS settings is obviously not enough.
There is one familiar tool called Intel Desktop Utility in the software suite provided with the DX58SO2 mainboard. It is neither remarkable nor particularly useful.
It knows some basic facts about your system and helps monitor its temperatures, voltages and fan speeds. When any value goes beyond an acceptable limit, the utility issues a warning message.
The new Intel Extreme Tuning Utility is far more interesting. Its window takes up the whole screen by default. Although you can make it smaller, the utility really has a lot of information to tell you, making the full-screen mode most appropriate.
Detailed system information (about the CPU, memory, graphics card, and the mainboard itself) is displayed at the top of the program window. At the bottom you can see a customizable graph with key monitoring parameters. By the way, you can minimize the window so as to leave only the bottom section visible.
This utility allows changing nearly all of key system parameters such as frequencies, multipliers, voltages, memory timings, and fan speeds. Adjustable values are highlighted in a different color. To apply most of the settings you have to reboot the system. After that, you can use this utility to test the CPU, memory and graphics subsystem (if it’s made by Intel) for stability and save the settings into a profile.
We like this Extreme Tuning utility as it seems to have high potential. It even offers some functions, which you cannot find in the mainboard BIOS like finer tuning of the fans rotation speeds. On the other hand, some important options are missing, for example CPU power-saving modes (the so-called C-States) or the technology for counteracting the CPU voltage drop under load.
All performance tests were run on the following test platform:
We used Microsoft Windows 7 Ultimate SP1 64 bit (Microsoft Windows, Version 6.1, Build 7601: Service Pack 1) operating system, Intel Chipset Software Installation Utility version 188.8.131.525, ATI Catalyst 11.2 graphics card driver.
We had no problems assembling our test configuration on this mainboard but our first attempt to start everything up almost failed. The CPU fan would not spin up and at first we attributed this to an aggressive speed management algorithm. The rest of the fans connected to the mainboard are slowed down by default but you can let them stop completely. Unfortunately, our mainboard just turned out to have a defective CPU fan connector.
Anyway, we proceeded with our tests. Our Intel Core i7-930 processor can overclock from its default 2.8 GHz to 3.9 GHz and we repeated this overclocking on our Intel DX58SO2 mainboard. To achieve that CPU frequency we increased the base clock rate to 177 MHz and added 0.025 volts to the default CPU voltage.
The mainboard has a technology for counteracting the CPU voltage drop under load. Besides turning it on and off, you can also set it to a medium mode. However, we didn't notice any serious difference between the medium and the turned-off states of that technology whereas the biggest voltage drop was observed when the technology was set to its maximum mode. Therefore we used the medium mode and the CPU voltage would increase from the default 1.2 to 1.3 volts under load (although we only had to increase the CPU voltage to 1.28 volts to ensure stability with other mainboards, which we used with our CPU previously). The power-saving technologies were all active during our tests, lowering the CPU frequency multiplier and voltage in idle mode.
However, the memory frequency isn't very high, just slightly over 1400 MHz, with such overclocking. This is not the mainboard issue but the peculiarity of our Kingston KHX12800D3LLK3/6GX memory modules. In our earlier tests we found out that they have very low overclocking potential. They cannot work at clock rates much higher than their default 1600 MHz and do not support low latencies at low frequencies, either. So, we have to set the CAS Latency parameter at 7. Therefore, we decided to give up Intel Turbo Boost technology which increases the CPU multiplier by x1 in order to overclock the CPU to 3.9 GHz at a higher base clock rate. This would also increase the rest of the related frequencies, including the memory frequency. We achieved the desired CPU frequency at a base clock rate of 186 MHz and not just 177 MHz.
We hadn't used this mode in our previous tests, fearing that the power consumption would grow too much due to the higher CPU voltage. With Intel Turbo Boost enabled, we only added 0.025 volts to the default voltage of 1.2 volts, so the peak voltage was 1.3 volts. To achieve the same with Turbo Boost turned off, we had to increase the voltage by 0.0875 volts. The CPU voltage and the total power consumption of the system were the same under load, but the second setup led to a higher voltage in idle mode.
However, the power consumption in idle mode was actually lower with the second setup, i.e. with Intel Turbo Boost turned off. Why? The answer lies with C-States parameter. When Turbo Boost was enabled, we had to prohibit our CPU to switch into deep power-saving modes so that Turbo Boost could increase its multiplier by x1 only, i.e. to x22 in our case. And when Turbo Boost was turned off, the CPU would disable unused subunits in idle mode, consuming less energy. Thus, overclocking with disabled Turbo Boost seems preferable because the power consumption of the system is lower in idle mode. And under load the performance is somewhat higher due to the increased frequencies of the various buses.
As usual, we are going to compare the mainboards speeds in two different modes: in nominal mode and during CPU and memory overclocking. The first mode is interesting because it shows how well the mainboards work with their default settings. It is a known fact that most users do not fine-tune their systems, they simply choose the optimal BIOS settings and do nothing else. That is why we run a round of tests almost without interfering in any way with the default mainboard settings. For comparison purposes we are going to use the results of Asus P6X58D-E. The results of Intel DX58SO2 are marked with darker color on the diagrams.
We used Cinebench 11.5. All tests were run five times and the average result of the five runs was taken for the performance charts.
We have been using Fritz Chess Benchmark utility for a long time already and it proved very illustrative. It generated repeated results, the performance in it is scales perfectly depending on the number of involved computational threads.
A small video in x264 HD Benchmark 3.0 is encoded in two passes and then the entire process is repeated four times. The average results of the second pass are displayed on the following diagram:
We measured the performance in Adobe Photoshop using our own benchmark made from Retouch Artists Photoshop Speed Test that has been creatively modified. It includes typical editing of four 10-megapixel images from a digital photo camera.
In the archiving test a 1 GB file is compressed using LZMA2 algorithms, while other compression settings remain at defaults.
Like in the data compression test, the faster 16 million of Pi digits are calculated, the better. This is the only benchmark where the number of processor cores doesn’t really matter, because it creates single-threaded load.
There are good and bad things about complex performance tests. However, Futuremark benchmarking software has become extremely popular and is used for comparisons a lot. The diagram below shows the average results after three test runs in 3DMark11 Performance mode with default settings:
Since we do not overclock graphics in our mainboard reviews, the next diagram shows only CPU tests from the 3DMark11 – Physics Score.
We use FC2 Benchmark Tool to go over Ranch Small map ten times in 1280x1024 resolution with medium and high image quality settings in DirectX 10.
Resident Evil 5 game also has a built-in performance test. Its peculiarity is that it can really take advantage of multi-core processor architecture. The tests were run in DirectX 10 in 1280x1024 resolution with medium image quality settings. The average of five test runs was taken for further analysis:
Now we are going to run the same tests at the increased CPU and memory frequencies. The CPU frequency was increased to 3.9 GHz by raising the base clock to 186 MHz whereas the system memory worked at 1489 MHz with 7-7-7-20-1T timings.
As expected, similar systems deliver similar performance under the same conditions. We are only worried about Intel mainboard falling 2.5% behind in 3DMark11. This difference is not accidental because we see it in the nominal operation mode as well, but we could not find an explanation for this. The Intel mainboard is not slower in games which performance depends on the graphics card.
We performed our power consumption measurements using an Extech Power Analyzer 380803. This device is connected before the PSU and measures the power draw of the entire system (without the monitor), including the power loss that occurs in the PSU itself. In the idle mode we start the system up and wait until it stops accessing the hard disk. Then we use LinX to load the Intel Core i7-930 CPU. For a more illustrative picture there are graphs that show how the computer’s power consumption grows up depending on the number of active execution threads in LinX (both at the default and overclocked system settings). We performed the test in four modes: idle mode, single-thread load, four-thread and eight-thread load. The mainboards are sorted in alphabetical order on the diagrams.
Intel mainboard turns to be economical, especially in idle mode. This is important because our computers work in power-saving modes most of the time, so this can eventually lead to large savings in electricity. We have recently raved about MSI XPower mainboard being highly economical in its nominal operation mode. We wrote then that we expected mainboards from other makers to get as energy-efficient as the MSI board soon enough. And now, Intel DX58SO2 is really as energy-efficient as the MSI XPower but the latter has some problems with overclocking which do not occur with the DX58SO2.
The DX58SO2 is Intel’s first “normal” mainboard. This sounds provocative, suggesting that the rest of the company’s mainboards were not normal. Indeed, this statement can possibly be untrue, especially as we can't consider ourselves Intel mainboard pros. Until a few years ago we would rather pass them by because they provided only basic functionality and were downright unfriendly towards overclockers. As for the last few years, we’ve tested several Intel products and found them to be odd, nonstandard or unusual, and none of these words could be considered a compliment. We’ve mentioned above the weird Intel DX58SO which seemed to have its top part turned by 90 degrees. There are also the Intel DP55KG and Intel DP55WG models that seem to be microATX mainboards stretched out to the ATX dimensions. They retain all the downsides of the smaller form-factor whereas the three additional expansion slots can hardly be viewed as a serious advantage today. And the Intel DH55TC is a dinosaur that provides almost no configuration or overclocking options. After such a negative experience we’ve had with Intel mainboards lately, you can understand why we are so enthusiastic about the DX58SO2.
Of course, we wouldn’t be that enthusiastic if this mainboard came from ASUS or Gigabyte. Of course, we would note the rich accessories and energy efficiency but wouldn't pay much attention to the convenient PCB design because it is normal, just like in most other mainboards from these makers. We would also criticize the unfriendly BIOS and most likely draw a negative verdict if it were an ASUS or a Gigabyte.
But this is an Intel mainboard and, despite our unfavorable preconceptions about such a product, we can recommend this particular model for building an LGA1366 platform. This mainboard not only looks normal but also has modern functionality, rich accessories, overclocking potential, good performance and impressive energy efficiency. The only serious problem we can find with it is that the BIOS interface remains as unfriendly as before, but you can put up with this. After all, you can set up your mainboard once and use it for many years without changing anything in its BIOS options. Hopefully, Intel mainboards will continue to improve, and so will their BIOS.
Therefore, despite the above expressed criticism we are proud to award Intel DX58SO2 mainboard with our Editor’s Choice title. It truly deserves your attention as it is a well-made, high-performance, reliable, functional and energy-efficient product from the processor manufacturer.