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ASUS Sabertooth X79 Motherboard Review

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Eldonko

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In mid November we saw the launch of the enthusiast-based Sandy Bridge Extreme platform along with the X79 (code name Patsburg) chipsets and since then we have brought you reviews of the i7-3960X CPU and the Rampage IV Extreme motherboard. Today we continue our walk down the LGA2011 road and bring you another highly anticipated board from ASUS: the Sabertooth X79.

We know the Sabertooth name well as the P67 Sabertooth was one of the leading boards for the LGA1155 socket, its brother the Sabertooth X58 was a player in the LGA1366 world, and the not so distant cousin- the Sabertooth 990FX- crossed over to AMD's side of the playground. With a number a boards now on the market, ASUS’ Sabertooth line known as a brand which stands for durability and reliability while boasting the ultimate user friendly experience.

Looking at the design concepts of the Sabertooth X79 there are a few distinguishing features that stand out with the first feature being TUF Thermal Armor. TUF Thermal Armor utilizes the concept of a wind tunnel by providing direct airflow through the heat-critical components of the board. With improved cooling comes improved monitoring though TUF Thermal Radar's 12 onboard temperature sensors and 8 controllable fan headers that are used to bring the Sabertooth's thermal management to a whole new level. The last and probably our favourite feature of the Sabertooth X79 is Ultimate Durability. ASUS contracted an independent ISO and IEC/IECO certified lab to test the board’s VRM components to United States Military Standard and to show confidence in this quality, ASUS also added 2 years to the warranty for a total of 5 years.

The above are features specific to the Sabertooth board but we haven’t even touched upon the 3D capabilities yet. One of the strengths of the 40 PCI-E lane Patsburg chipset is its ability to run SLI with both GPUs at a full 16x PCI-E 3.0 bandwidth with some bandwidth left for other devices. Add some other ASUS perks like an industry leading UEFI BIOS and ASUS SSD Caching and the Sabertooth looks like a winner.

In terms of price, this particular board comes in at around $355 at the time of this review, putting it in a category with Gigabyte’s UD7 but significantly less expensive than the Rampage IV Extreme or even the P9X79 Deluxe. Whether or not the board is worth the money, we will let you decide as we go over it part by part and feature by feature.

 
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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.


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 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.


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.


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…”


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 dX79Sabertoothrs 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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Specifications and Features

Sabertooth X79 Specifications and Features

Before jumping right into photos and testing, let’s take a look at the specifications for the Sabertooth X79.




A few notable features on the ASUS Sabertooth X79 include: TUF Thermal Armor, TUF Thermal Radar, UEFI BIOS, ASUS AI Suite II, 8 + 2 + 2 + 2 phase DIGI+ power control, USB 3.0, SATA 6.0, ASUS SSD Caching, and PCI-E 3.0 x16+x16+x8 support. 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


Similar to previous Sabertooth revisions, ASUS went with simplicity and a rugged look in the box design of the Sabertooth X79. The color scheme uses a scratched metal motif with yellow text that really stands out. Two key features are placed front and center as well: the TUF design along with the board’s 5 year warranty and a banner showing the Sabertooth X79 is PCI-E Gen 3 ready. Flipping over the top cover reveals a few of the board’s more notable features: USB BIOS Flashback, USB 3.0 Boost, ASUS SSD Caching, TUF Components, DIGI+ Power, Thermal Radar, and Thermal Armor.


Inside there's a smaller black box which includes a clear cover and anti-static bag containing the motherboard. Beneath the board the accessories sit in a divided black cardboard compartment.


Having a look at the accessory bundle for the Sabertooth X79 you can see it is fairly standard with the exception of a few items such as a Certificate of Reliability, a TUF decal, and a booklet of information for the warranty.


Two final accessories that we will have a look at are the 50mm fan and the I/O Shield. The P67 Sabertooth did not include the 50mm fan so users will be happy to see it in the X79 version of the board. The I/O Shield meanwhile is TUF branded and so will fit nicely with a build using a Sabertooth color scheme.
 
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Eldonko

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Included Software

Included Software


The first item in the ASUS software suite is the utility that an overclocker will use the most: AI Suite II. This is a very powerful tool and allows tweaking and monitoring of just about anything on the board.

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The first section of AI Suite II is under Tools and is titled Turbo V EVO. Turbo V EVO contains three subpages that include frequencies, voltages, CPU ratio, and CPU strap. Next under the Tools menu is DIGI+ Power Control. This section of AI Suite II gives an index page to enter either CPU or Memory power settings.

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The two DIGI+ Power Control pages contain power options for the CPU and memory and adjustable settings for load-line calibration, current capability, voltage frequency, and phase control. There are different power controls for each channel of memory since each is powered independently.

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Continuing down the list we have a monitoring and safety tool called Sensor Recorder which records the voltages, temperatures, and fan speeds so users can see fluctuations. The USB 3.0 Boost page will automatically boost the speed of USB 3.0 devices using UASP protocol and if there are any issues with compatibility users can set USB 3.0 mode back to normal to disable UASP.

Click to enlarge

Lastly under Tools, the ASUS SSD Caching page is where SSD Caching is set up. Connect the SSD and hard drive to the Marvell SATA ports and enable SSD caching using this page in AI Suite II. Although the X79 chipset does not provide native SSD caching, ASUS developed a software solution for a number of their boards, including the Sabertooth. Moving over to the Update tab we come to ASUS Update which is a utility for updating the board’s BIOS.


Click to enlarge

Also under the Update tab in AI Suite II is MyLogo. MyLogo gives users the option to replace the POST splash screen with their own image files. The System Info tab of AI Suite II contains information on the motherboard, CPU and memory. Here you can find your serial number, BIOS version, CPU stepping, and memory specs.


One other software item worth mentioning that comes with the Sabertooth X79 is ASUS Web Storage. This is a cloud computing application that gives users web storage and access to data on many devices.
 
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Eldonko

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A Closer Look at the Sabertooth X79

A Closer Look at the Sabertooth X79


Above is a map of the Sabertooth X79 motherboard layout with descriptions of the various parts. We used a shot of the board with the heatsincks removed so we can show the parts hidden beneath.

Looking at the board from a high level view, you can see that ASUS left a good amount of PCI-E expansion space without any obstacles in the way. Since there is no heatpipe like we saw with the Rampage IV Extreme, the video card release clips are fully accessible.


The cooling system on the Sabertooth consists of a heatpipe system for the VRM and a separate heatsink for the chipset. The VRM cooler is equipped with a plastic cover that acts as a wind tunnel and the optional 50mm fan can be attached here for additional cooling.


The VRM heatsink covers the I/O panel and fits snugly against the memory. The chipset fan is a typical low profile cooler with fully adjustable fan speeds and provides plenty of clearance for video cards. For those of you who were worried about the acoustical profile of this small fan, it will likely be the quietest of the fans within your case, regardless of how much the processor is overclocked.


The chipset is located beneath the cooler and does not include a metal shim like we saw with the Rampage IV Extreme.


Conventional digital VRM solutions typically have all components sealed in one chip; however, this gives the disadvantage of high temperatures and low response due to the use of serial connection architecture. With DIGI+ Power Control, ASUS uses a parallel connection which means power is delivered at the end of each phase instead of having to rush through all active power phases to have the power delivered. This in turn allows for a relatively lower operational switching frequency with the same power delivery potential.

The parallel digital VRM system involves a number of chips situated around the board. The EPU chip analyses CPU loading and dynamically runs the system’s energy saving processes, the TPU chip offers voltage control and monitoring through Auto Tuning and TurboV functions, and there are DIGI+ Power Control chips controlling CPU core power (8 phase), system memory (2 + 2 phase), and VCCSA (2 phase CPU IMC).


Near the CPU socket is another crucial part of the VRM architecture: a line of chokes, MOSFETs, and caps. ASUS uses higher grade and military certified power components for the Sabertooth X79, namely the TUF Capacitor, TUF Ferrite Core inductor and up to four TUF Low RDS_On MOSFETs per power phase. Several other manufacturers use an integrated solution which consists of a power driver combined with two MOSFETs (DrMOS) but ASUS engineers feel that multiple Low RDS_On MOSFETs provide much higher current delivery, stability, and durability in comparison to a DrMOS solution.


The CPU socket itself is a new socket, LGA2011 or also called Socket R. LGA2011 replaces Intel’s LGA1366 (Socket B) in the high-end and performance market. The socket hold down includes a double latch which must be unclipped in sequence in order to open the hold down plate.

On the underside of the board there is a backplate that holds the socket in place. As you can see above right the holes through the board are blocked by the socket and since the Sabertooth does not include the X Socket like we saw with the Rampage IV Extreme mounting of 1366 CPU coolers will probably not be possible.
 
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A Closer Look at the Sabertooth X79 p.2

A Closer Look at the Sabertooth X79


Unlike several competitor brands, ASUS went with 8 DIMM slots on pretty much all of their X79 offerings. The Sabertooth is no exception with 8 DIMM slots offering quad channel DDRIII support up to 2400Mhz. 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.


The ATX-12V input is found in a fairly accessible spot on the board's upper edge near the VRM heatsink. Moving over to the top right corner we come to the MemOK! button as well as the 24-pin power connector. The MemOK! button is a memory rescue tool that is used when memory-related booting issues are encountered. MemOK! determines fail safe memory settings and can help improve boot success.


Next to the 24-pin power connector is a green USB 3.0 header which is run by the ASMedia ASM 1042 USB 3.0 host controller chip located nearby.


The bottom right corner of the Sabertooth has 8 SATA ports colored brown, black, and white. The four black ports run directly off of the PCH at a speed of 3GB/s while the two brown ports also originate from the PCH but run at 6GB/s. The two white ports on the far left labeled SSD Caching are run by the nearby Marvell 9128 controller chip and run at a speed of 6GB/s. ASUS has developed their SSD caching software using this Marvell controller so the SSD and hard drive must be connected here to enable caching. You will also find the front panel connectors as well as a Clear CMOS jumper in this area.


Along the bottom of the board are 4 USB 2.0 headers, a serial port connector, and front panel audio connectors. Directly above that is the board’s removable BIOS chip made by Winbond.
 
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A Closer Look at the Sabertooth X79 p.3

A Closer Look at the Sabertooth X79


For expansion slots, the Sabertooth X79 has two PCI-E 3.0 x16 slots (beige) usable for SLI and since x79 has 40 PCI-E lanes direct to the CPU, enough bandwidth remains for the third PCI-E 3.0 x16 slot (brown) to get 8 lanes. In addition to the PCI-E 3.0 slots, there are two PCI-E 2.0 x1 slots and one PCI slot for other devices.


At the bottom left corner of the board you will find the audio chip and a Nuvoton chip marked NCT6776F which monitors several critical parameters on the Sabertooth X79, including power supply voltages, fan speeds, and temperatures. The audio codec, Realtek ALC892, is a 7.1+2 channel HD audio codec.


A few more chips of interest along the left side of the board and in the I/O panel area are VIA VT6315N, Intel 82579V, ASMedia 1042, and ASMedia 1061. The VIA chip controls the IEEE 1394 port on the I/O panel, the Intel chip is the coveted Ethernet controller, ASMedia 1042 runs the USB 3.0 ports on the I/O panel, and the ASMedia 1061 is SATA 6Gb/s controller for the eSATA ports.


Similar to the P67 version of the Sabertooth, the Sabertooth X79 has a fan port to mount a 50mm fan which could provide extra cooling to the system. The Thermal Armor acts like a duct system so the included fan is beneficial and users will not have to purchase one from a retailer. Mounting the fan is simple and only involves removing two screws from the cover, inserting the fan, and then connecting the its power cable to the right side of the I/O panel. Similar to the other fan ports on the board, the 50mm header is fully customizable.


The I/O panel on the Sabertooth is fairly straightforward but it does have a few items worth explaining. The button marked BIOS with the curved arrows is the USB BIOS Flashback button. This works with the white USB port to the right of it and by adding a flash drive with a BIOS file, the BIOS can be flashed with a simple press of a button without the need of even a functional CPU or DRAM. There are also two eSATA ports on the I/O panel, one powered (green) and one unpowered (red).
 
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Hardware Installation

Hardware Installation


In order to test how different hardware combinations will fit onto the Sabertooth X79, we installed a Zalman CNPS10x Flex, a 16GB quad channel kit of G.Skill memory, and two GTX 470 video cards. The Zalman is an average-sized aftermarket CPU cooler so it should provide a good reference for other coolers so we can see if there any clearance issues.


As you can see above, ASUS allows for plenty of clearance 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 Sabertooth to be great and even with 8 DIMMs we didn’t find any clearance issues.


On each side of the board the memory does sit very close to the I/O panel cover and the 24-pin power connector but there is sufficient clearance for both.


After adding two GTX 470s to the Sabertooth X79, we did not find anything that caused concern in terms of clearance and there is plenty of breathing room between the cards.


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 fit over top of them snugly. The only inconvenience we encountered was getting the first video card off the board with a large CPU cooler installed. You can’t exactly fit your hand in that space so you have to use a screwdriver or similar to press the release or remove the CPU cooler.
 
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BIOS Rundown

BIOS Rundown

2011 was the year of the UEFI BIOS and ASUS has adopted this BIOS type in style. The Sabertooth X79 features one of the most advanced BIOS’ that we have ever seen and features capabilities such as support for hard drives above 2.2TB and mouse support for easy navigation. The BIOS featured in this section is version 0906 dated Dec 22/11, and we will be looking at the Advanced version of the BIOS.


The Advanced Mode naturally provides more fine grain tweaking options for experienced end-users to configure the BIOS settings. The Main menu provides an overview of the basic system information, and allows for setting the system date, time, language, and security features. You can also set Advanced Mode as default under the Boot menu.

If you plan on overclocking your system at all, the page that you will spend the majority of your time is the Ai Tweaker section. The Ai Tweaker menu items allow you to configure overclocking-related items such as clock speeds and voltages. The top of the page shows the target CPU and memory speed in yellow and the first setting is Ai Overclock Tuner. You set this to manual for manual overclocking and BCLK and multi adjustments become available. Other items like Turbo Ratio, Memory Frequency, EPU Power Saving, and OC Tuner are also found within the first part of Ai Tweaker. With OC Tuner all you do is select it, hit OK, and the system reboots with an automatic overclock applied.


Further down the Ai Tweaker page you will find voltages such as CPU voltage, VCCSA, DRAM, PLL, VTT, PCH, VTT DDR, and so on. As you can see each channel of RAM has its own voltage settings.


The DRAM Timing Control screen contains every memory timing imaginable and will be a dream for memory tweakers. There are literally five pages of memory timings including primary, secondary, third, and latency timings available.


Ai Tweaker also has a few subsections - DIGI+ Power Control and CPU Performance Settings. DIGI+ Power Control contains all voltage tweaks and every overclocker will spend some time in this section. Voltage and current options for CPU, VCCSA, VTT, DRAM, and PCH are found here. CPU Performance Settings is where you find CPU Ratio, Speedstep, and Turbo. You can also set custom Turbo Mode Parameters such as power limits.
 
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