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ASRock X79 Extreme9 Motherboard Review

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Eldonko

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In 2011, ASRock made a huge push forward in the channel motherboard segment, allowing them to pull into third place behind market leaders ASUS and Gigabyte with 7.8 million units shipped. A major part of this improvement was a general move away from their oddball value oriented offerings of previous generations in order to focus upon a full range of LGA1155 products. Continuing down the enthusiast path in 2012, ASRock has a number of X79 boards with one of the key flagship models being the Extreme9 we will be looking at today.

The Extreme9 is an LGA2011 board based around Intel's latest Patsburg or X79 chipset. One of the strengths of the 40 PCI-E lane Patsburg chipset is its ability to run SLI or Crossfire with both GPUs at full x16 speed with some bandwidth left for other devices. The Extreme9 can run up to quad four GPUs at x8 or dual cards at x16 which is perfect for anyone looking for massive rendering potential.

In addition to the 3D capabilities, the Extreme9 comes with ASRock’s so called “Game Blaster”. The Game Blaster is essentially an external sound card and NIC which supports Creative Sound Core3D 7.1 CH HD audio and has an integrated Broadcom gigabit LAN. ASRock has also included a robust software suite with features such as XFast RAM, XFast LAN, and XFast USB technology. <span style="text-decoration: line-through;">It is just important to note that unlike other motherboard manufacturers' 3 to 5 year warranties, ASRock only offers a single year of coverage on their products.</span> EDIT: Please note that even though ASRock's website says differently at the time of this review, we are now told that all of their X79 boards have a 3 year warranty.

Surprisingly the Extreme9's price has a fair amount of variation between Canada and the US, something we don't see much of anymore. In Canada the board is priced at $429 while south of the border it can be found for as little as $345, a difference of $84. With that being said, the Canadian price puts the Extreme9 firmly into the premium price category alongside the big guns such as ASUS' Rampage IV Extreme and MSI's Big Bang Xpower II X79. Those are some tough boards to compete against and on top of that ASRock has dubbed its board the "Overclock King" which does everything but directly challenge the big boys to a benching contest. However, any Americans reading this will see the Extreme9 lining up against Gigabyte’s UD5 and ASUS’ P9X79 PRO so it should be interesting to see where it ultimately falls in terms of capabilities.

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Eldonko

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Diving into Intel's X79 Express Chipset

Diving into Intel's X79 Express Chipset


With Intel’s Sandy Bridge platform well integrated into certain areas of the market, we have seen an expanding number of motherboard chipsets which support it. Originally, B65, H61, H65 and P67 motherboards were released with or soon after the initial launch while the recent introduction of Z68 “Cougar Point” brought RST SSD caching into the mix. What we haven’t seen up to this point is an enthusiast level X-series chipset made available but the new Sandy Bridge E platform is about to change that.

Called the X79 (code named Patsburg), this chipset is the spiritual successor to the long lasting Tylersburg X58 and finally ushers the PCH era into the high end market. With Bloomfield finally on its way out, X79-based motherboards should be the go to products on Intel’s high end platform for the foreseeable future. Will still be around when the Panther Point platform is introduced in 2012 for Ivy Bridge CPUs and will be compatible with any Socket 2011 processors from now until the launch of Haswell in 2013. This is one of the reasons why Intel decided to go with the 7x moniker instead of sticking with Sandy Bridge’s 6x naming scheme.

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Some of you may remember the last X-series chipset –the X58- from our original Nehalem review. Back then a 3-chip solution consisting of a processor, MCH and ICH was used but Intel has gradually moved towards a simplified approach by grouping functions into two areas: on the CPU die and within a so called Platform Controller Hub or PCH. This centralization leads to higher performance and increased platform efficiency.

The basic functionality built into the Socket 2011 processors closely mirrors that of previous Sandy Bridge chips but the capabilities have been expanded to better suit enthusiasts. An Integrated Memory Controller acts as a backbone for up to four high speed DDR3 memory channels, each rated at 12.8 GB/s while a separate controller takes care of the PCI-E lanes.

Speaking of PCI-E lanes, Sandy Bridge E processors support a serious number of lanes; 40 to be exact. These can be configured in a variety of different layouts depending on the number of slots Intel’s motherboard partners implement on their boards. We are told every X79 motherboard will include at least two 16x PCI-E 3.0 slots for a full speed 16x / 16x Crossfire or SLI, a vast improvement over the 8x / 8x supported by P67 and Z68. There is also the option of having a third or fourth graphics slot (running at 8x bandwidth) for triple and quad GPU setups.

The X79 Express Chipset incorporates the motherboard’s I/O functions and its features closely mirror those of the P67 and Z68. It includes support for up to 14 USB 2.0 and two SATA 6Gb/s ports (though motherboard vendors can ship products will less) while also including the usual Intel HD Audio module. Many will be disappointed with the omission of integrated USB 3.0 and Thunderbolt support but it seems like Intel isn’t ready to plunge into those waters just yet. Nonetheless, there is an additional 8 PCI-E 2.0 lanes that can be used for more slots or add on-controllers so boards can include USB 3.0 and other non natively supported features.

We should also mention that Patsburg-based motherboards won’t support Smart Response Technology or SSD caching at this point.

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Connecting the processor to the PCH is a second generation Direct Media Interface along with an optional SCSI Controller Unit. However, the Intel FDI (Flexible Display Interface) from P and Z-series boards has been removed since none of the SB-E processors will come with onboard graphics controllers.

The Direct Media Interface (DMI) hasn’t changed either. When necessary, it can function with the same peak bandwidth as four PCI-E 2.0 lanes or 5 GT/s (20Gb/s) but most of the time it will be operating at lower speeds ensure optimal efficiency.

One thing that we didn’t see on previous chipsets is the SCU Uplink which Sandy Bridge E processors are capable of providing. In essence this link allows for a dedicated path between the PCH and processor in order to speed up storage performance and decrease latency. The only downside to using the SCU function is its need for a portion of the CPU’s PCI-E lanes (in this case four) which in essence limits the secondary PCI-E function to a 4x link down from 8x and eliminates the possibility for native 3-way GPU compatibility.

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Unfortunately, there is a bit of confusion here since some of Intel’s documentation (including the diagram above) lists the Sandy Bridge processor as having 40 PCI-E 2.0 lanes while most of their other pieces list full compatibility with the upcoming PCI-E 3.0. This is a bit of a slippery slope but after digging much further with Intel and their motherboard vendors, a clearer picture is beginning to emerge.

According to our conversations these new processors do indeed have PCI-E 3.0 compatibility built in –at least one paper- but they haven’t been officially certified by the PCI-SIG. The main reason for this lack of the necessary certification is a lack of compatible add-in cards from AMD and NVIDIA to test on the dedicated graphics lanes. So while SB-E is physically capable of providing up to 40 PCI-E 3.0 lanes, we likely won’t see anyone make a big deal about it until some additional testing can be done in the near future.

With that being said, some motherboard partners feel strongly enough about the upcoming certification for the SB-E chips that they will be including PCI-E 3.0 stickers on their X79 boards’ packaging and marketing materials. We will even see a few instances of PCI-E 2.0 / 3.0 switching options included within the BIOS.

Intel themselves are quite confident as well as they say: “The processor features up to 40 lanes of PCI Express 3.0 links capable of 8.0 GT/s…”

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With all of this additional bandwidth coming their way, graphics card manufacturers are feeling quite confident as well. According to NVIDIA they have seen a substantial increase in overall 3-Way SLI performance when using the native solution on X79 instead of the usual 16x / 16x + NF200 setup some X58 boards used. Remember, this is based off of the exact same dEXTREME9rs being used in each instance and comparable processors so it looks like higher end SLI configurations could finally see better scaling.
 
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Eldonko

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X79 Extreme9 Specifications and Features

X79 Extreme9 Specifications and Features

Before jumping right into photos and testing, let’s take a look at the specifications for the Extreme9.

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A few notable features on the ASRock Extreme9 include: ASRock Extreme Tuning Utility, Instant Boot, Instant Flash, APP Charger, XFast USB, XFast LAN, XFast Charger, XFast RAM, X-FAN, Crashless BIOS, 8 DIMM slots, 16 + 2 phase Digi power, and 5 x PCI-E 3.0 x16 slots.

A brief summary of each of these features and other board features is as follows:

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Eldonko

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Packaging and Accessories

Packaging and Accessories


The first thing we noticed when the Extreme9 arrived was the sheer size of its box - this thing is huge and will cost a small fortune to ship! ASRock went for a simple colour scheme with a metallic look on the box's front and features detailed on the inside cover and back.

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Inside, the Extreme9 has two smaller boxes, one containing a protective foam barrier and the motherboard along with another that stores the accessories.

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The accessory bundle is fairly standard with the exception of a few items such as a the Game Blaster and the USB 3.0 front panel. Other than those two standouts you also get a couple of black SATA cables and some hard drive installation screws.

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The ASRock Game Blaster incorporates both a Creative Sound Core3D 7.1 CH HD soundcard and a Broadcom BCM57781 gigabit LAN that supports Dual LAN with a Teaming function. The Creative Sound Core3D Audio includes its own quad core processor to eliminate dependency on the CPU and includes support for THX TruStudio™ PRO, CrystalVoice and EAX1.0 to EAX5.0. It plugs into a PCI-E x1 slot and is actually seems like quite a novel idea until you realize that it takes up the Extreme9's only PCI-E x1 slot.

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Two final accessories are the USB 3.0 front panel break out box and the SLI bridges. The Extreme9's specs state the board supports quad SLI but ASRock only included bridges for dual SLI and tri SLI and there is only space for three dual slot GPUs on the board. Perhaps ASRock meant quad SLI with dual GPU cards.
 
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Eldonko

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Included Software

Included Software

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One of the most important pieces of software included with the Extreme9 is the ASRock Extreme Tuning Utility. This utility includes a number of functions for overclocking and system monitoring (it is essentially ASRock’s version of the ASUS AI Suite) with the first two tabs being Hardware Monitor and Fan Control. The Hardware Monitor is where you find clock speeds, fan speeds, temperatures, and voltages. The Fan Control tab is where fan speed adjustments for all of the Extreme9's fan headers are located.

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Tab number three houses the all important overclocking settings. All of the voltages you need are present and accounted for but just remember that adjusting BLCK requires a system reboot. An overclocker or bencher will be very surprised and annoyed to see a message that states "In order to see actual frequency change, please reboot the system" when attempting to adjust BCLK. However a few days before this review went live we were provided with version 0.1.177.1 which allowed for dynamic BCLK changes so remember to update the software before actually using it.

Next up, the OC DNA tab includes information on the BIOS version as well as three slots to save and load user generated profiles.

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The IES tab contains the energy saving utility Intelligent Energy Saver or “IES”. The feature is supposed to reduce the number of output phases to improve efficiency when the CPU cores are idle. Sound familiar? ASUS, MSI and Gigabyte have all used similar features over the last few years.

Last but not least we have XFast RAM which has a number of uses. This utility allows a 32-bit OS to use all of the RAM in the system to shorten the loading time of previously visited websites, boost the speed of Adobe Photoshop 5, and reduce the frequency of accessing SSDs or HDDs in order to extend their lifespan. In plain English, in most cases it functions as a caching system so you can take full advantage of installed memory modules.

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Instant boot is an ASRock utility intended to speed up boot time. We tested this extensively and after numerous tries, just couldn’t enable Fast Mode due to a constant error message. Regular Mode meanwhile led to an "Internal Power Error" BSOD along with a reboot loop and we had to use Safe Mode to uninstall the utility so we could enter Windows again.

To add insult to injury the only instructions we could find on this utility were an ASRock YouTube video in Chinese. So not only could we not get the utility to work but enabling it prevented us from entering our OS because of a recurring BSOD. In essence, this just proves that while ASRock may be trying to copy features from their competitors’ products, they really missed the target on this one since it renders the system useless without a full reinstall of Windows. This is simply unacceptable in our books.

ASRock XFast USB boosts the speed of both the USB 2.0 and USB 3.0 ports on the Extreme9. This utility worked great and we found reads and writes were much improved as you will see later on in the review.
 
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Eldonko

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Included Software p.2

Included Software

The software included with the Game Blaster module includes XFast LAN and THX TruStudio PRO. The module is simple to install, just install the drivers and utilities and ensure Windows is set to use the output you want and you are all set.

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ASRock XFast LAN is a tool to help manage priorities of Internet protocols and programs and includes features such as online budgets (restrict time online), traffic shaping, and traffic analysis. This application is quite daunting at first but we managed to figure the majority of the features after a bit of trial and error.

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The sound card in the Game Blaster comes with its own utility called THX TruStudio PRO. Made by Creative, THX TruStudio PRO includes a number of features:
  • THX TruStudio Pro Surround controls the level of audio immersion in music, movies and games
  • THX TruStudio Pro Crystalizer enhances music and movies to make them sound livelier
  • THX TruStudio Pro Speaker enhances the sound quality and bass of speakers
  • THX TruStudio Pro Dialog Plus enhance the voices in movies for clearer dialog
  • THX TruStudio Pro Smart Volume adjusts the loudness of your audio playback automatically to minimize sudden volume changes

We put the Creative Sound Core3D 7.1 CH HD audio to the test later in the review.
 
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Eldonko

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A Closer Look at the X79 Extreme9

A Closer Look at the Extreme9

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Above is a map of the Extreme9 motherboard layout with descriptions of the various parts. Looking at the board from a high level view, you can see that ASRock provided a good amount of PCI-E expansion space without any obstacles in the way, active cooling on the chipset, and a ton of SATA ports.

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The cooling system on the Extreme9 consists of a heatpipe system for the VRM and a separate active heatsink for the chipset. The heatsink over the VRM is equipped with a heatpad and the secondary part next to the I/O panel is intended to release heat rather than cool components underneath. The VRM cooler arrived with some scratches but this is a review unit and we wouldn't expect any damage on a retail board.

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The chipset fan is a typical low profile affair with fully adjustable speeds and provides plenty of clearance for video cards. Underneath the cooler we have Intel's X79 Patsburg chipset.

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ASRock uses a 16 + 2 phase digital VRM design on the Extreme9 with a CHiL CHL8328 PWM at the center acting as the system’s brain. Beneath the VRM cooler are 16 ferrite chokes (one per each phase) and 32 Power MOSFETs (2 per phase). Similar to ASUS, ASRock uses multiple Power MOSFETs instead of the integrated solution of a power driver combined with two MOSFETs (DrMOS). The Power MOSFETs on the board are NTMFS4927N for the low side (30V 38A 9 mOhm) and NTMFS4935N for the high side (30V 93A 3.2 mOhm). The Extreme9 also uses Premium Gold Polymer Capacitors and Highly-Conductive Polymerized capacitors (Hi-c) rated at 330uF.

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On the underside of the board there is a backplate which holds the socket in place. As you can see in the above right image the holes through the board are blocked by the socket and since the Extreme9 does not include the X Socket like we saw with the Rampage IV Extreme, mounting of 1366 CPU coolers will probably not be possible without larger screws.
 
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Eldonko

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A Closer Look at the X79 Extreme9 p.2

A Closer Look at the Extreme9

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ASRock went with 8 DIMM slots on the Extreme9, a change from their other X79 offerings (6 DIMMs on Extreme7 and 4 DIMMs on Extreme4). With 8 DIMM slots users can install up to 64GB of DRAM (8GB sticks) or 32GB for those on a tighter budget (4GB sticks) and all of this extra memory can allow for options such as a RAM Disk or RAM caching.

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On the board's upper edge near the VRM heatsink, dual ATX-12V inputs are found. Since the Extreme9 is designed to be an overclocking board, ASRock added the extra power connector to provide stability at higher voltage.

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Next to the 24-pin power are two black USB 3.0 headers run by a pair of Texas Instruments TUSB7340 USB 3.0 host controller chips located nearby.

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The bottom right corner of the Extreme9 has 12 SATA ports colored grey and black. Moving right to left, the four black ports run directly from the PCH at a speed of 3GB/s and the two grey ports run at 6GB/s. The four grey ports in the middle run from the Marvell 88SE9172 controller and run at 6Gb/s. Lastly, the two grey ports on the far left labelled HyperDuo Plus (ASRock’s version of SSD Caching) use the nearby Marvell 88SE9220 controller chip through a 6GB/s interface. ASRock has developed their SSD caching software using this Marvell controller so the SSD and hard drive must be connected here to enable caching.

Also found in this corner are the board's debug LED, power and reset buttons, front panel headers, and a few fan headers.

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Along the bottom of the board are 3 USB 2.0 headers, a serial port connector, a clear CMOS jumper, and a front panel IEEE 1394 header. The chip with the white sticker is the board’s removable BIOS chip (64mb SPI Flash memory).
 
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Eldonko

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A Closer Look at the X79 Extreme9 p.3

A Closer Look at the Extreme9

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For expansion slots, the Extreme9 has five PCI-E 3.0 x16 slots and one PCI-E 2.0 x1 slots that is used for the included Game Blaster module. Unfortunately the PCI-E slots are not placed in such a way that three dual slot cards can easily be used since the bottom card will overhang the board’s lower edge, causing potential conflicts with some USB headers. To make matters even worse, the onboard Power and Reset buttons are totally covered by a third card, eliminating the possibility of their use by overclockers that want to run potentially record breaking triple card setups.

For dual card setups, the layout is nearly perfect though but we would have appreciate a clearer labeling scheme that referenced which slots should be used for dual and triple card layouts.

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At the bottom left corner of the board you will find a few chips of interest: the VIA VT6135N and a PLX PEX8605. The VIA chip is responsible for running the IEEE 1394 port and the PLX chip is a 4-lane, 4-port PCI-E Gen 2 switch which connects some PCI-E lanes main to the chipset.

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The next stop on our whirlwind tour of the Extreme9 is the large Nuvoton NCT6776F chip which monitors several critical parameters on the Extreme9, including power supply voltages, fan speeds, and temperatures. The small chip above that marked BCM57781 is the onboard Broadcom Gigabit LAN controller which can be paired up with the LAN in the Game Blaster for the Teaming function.

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The TI TUSB7340chip is the same as we saw near the USB 3.0 headers and runs the USB 3.0 ports on the I/O panel and the NXP L04083B chips around the PCI-E slots are PCI-E Gen 3 switches which allow for multi-GPU PCI-E Gen 3 compatibility.

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The I/O panel on the Extreme9 includes a PS2 keyboard port, 6 USB 2.0 ports, 2 eSATA3 ports, 4 USB 3.0 ports, a RJ-45 LAN port, a IEEE 1394 port, and a clear CMOS button so users don't have to open their case to get at the board’s jumper.
 
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Hardware Installation

Hardware Installation

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In order to test how different hardware combinations will fit onto the Extreme9, we installed a Zalman CNPS10x Flex, a 16GB quad channel kit of Mushkin Redline memory, and three GTX 470 video cards. The Zalman is an average-sized aftermarket CPU cooler so it should provide a good reference for other coolers’ potential clearance issues.

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ASRock allows for plenty of space between this board’s heatsinks and an aftermarket CPU cooler so we have to conclude that most coolers will fit without any problems. Looking at memory clearance, we found the Extreme9 to be great and even with 8 DIMMs we didn’t encounter issues.

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After adding two GTX 470 cards to the Extreme9, we did’t find anything that caused concern in terms of clearance and there is plenty of breathing room between the video cards. The Game Blaster fits in between the two video cards and due to its length, won’t impede on either of the card’ cooling fans.

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A third GTX 470 covers everything at the bottom of the board (USB headers, clear CMOS, power and reset buttons, etc.) but most boards have this issue due to the space available. It would be nice if ASRock had at least designed their board in such a way that the power and reset buttons were actually accessible when a third GPU is installed.

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The PCH fan is blocked to some extent but since many boards don’t use active cooling on the chipset we don’t see this as an issue. The SATA ports are side mounted so the GPUs over them snugly without any problem.
 
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