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ASUS X79 Rampage IV Extreme Socket 2011 Motherboard Review

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Eldonko

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You saw them in our i7-3960X review; the much anticipated Sandy Bridge Extreme launch along with the X79 code name Patsburg chipsets. Not only do we have a brand new socket (2011) but motherboard manufacturers have have been quick on the uptake and ASUS is trying to lead the pack with their X79 Rampage IV Extreme.

We know the Rampage name well as the Rampage III Extreme was one of the leading boards for the X58 generation and its brother, the Maximus IV Extreme was the Republic of Gamers (ROG) team’s entry into the Z68 market. As many know, the ROG team was founded about five years ago with the sole purpose of delivering the most innovative hardcore hardware for truly dedicated gamers and benchers. With an all-star class of overclocking enthusiasts and hardcore benchers the ROG team has really packed the X79 RIVE full of features for the enthusiast user, many of which are industry firsts.

There are three features in particular that the RIVE brings to the table that have never been seen on a motherboard: OC Key, Subzero Sense, and VGA Hotwire. The OC Key is a small device that connects to the video card output and gives users the capability to conduct tweaking and monitoring without using CPU cycles and slowing down benchmarks. Subzero Sense integrates two type-K Probe digital thermometers onboard, eliminating the need for expensive standalone digital thermometers used by sub-zero benchers. Finally the VGA Hotwire feature integrates a set of 6 variable resistors and voltage sensors into the board, allowing extreme overclockers to read exact GPU voltages while enabling GPU voltage mods without adding their own trimpots.

The features mentioned above really just scratch the surface of what’s included and with a chipset that costs upwards of 60% more than Z68 a premium price should be expected. At around $460, the Rampage IV Extreme is definitely in the upper echelon of the X79 spectrum but at first blush it includes everything we could possibly want in a motherboard.

 
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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 six 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.


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 drivers 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

Rampage IV Extreme Specifications and Features

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






The features on the Rampage IV Extreme are endless. Here they are:




 
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Eldonko

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Packaging and Accessories

Packaging and Accessories

ASUS went for a simple design of the RIVE’s box; something we seem to be seeing less and less of these days. The back of the box shows a few of the board’s more notable features: OC Key, VGA Hotwire, and Sub Zero Sense.


Inside the front cover, features are explained in a little more detail which is nice as it keeps the outside simple and eye catching. Inside, the Rampage IV Extreme has two smaller black boxes; one with a clear cover that contains the board and one with the accessories.


The Rampage IV comes with a ton of accessories including three SLI bridges, a CrossFire bridge, OC Key, SATA 6GB/s cables, and an X-Socket kit which allows for the use of 1366 CPU coolers.


The OC Key is a small module that connects to the motherboard via a black cable. It allows for hassle free monitoring that runs agnostically from the CPU and also comes with a two-ended USB cable which allows for firmware updates.


The X-Socket is a handy item which allows for changing out the 2011 socket backplate and replacing it with a custom unit that allows for 1366 coolers to be installed. The I/O Shield is ROG branded and includes spots for clear CMOS and ROG Connect buttons.
 
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Eldonko

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Included Software

Included Software


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

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The first section of AI Suite II is called CPU Level Up and shows four subpages for Turbo V EVO. CPU Level Up can be used for automatic overclocking while under Manual Mode there are three subpages which include frequencies, voltages, CPU ratio, and COU strap.

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

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Under the Tools menu we also find the EPU and FAN Xpert sections. EPU gives different power saving configurations and shows the current amount of CPU power being used. Meanwhile, FAN Xpert allows for fine grain speed adjustments on certain fan headers.

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Continuing down the list we have two monitoring and safety tools, Probe II and Sensor recorder. Probe II allows for setting safe thresholds for voltages, temperatures and fan speeds as well as setting alerts. Sensor Recorder records the voltages, temperatures, and fan speeds so users can monitor fluctuations.


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The final two pages under the Tools menu are Ai Charger+ and USB 3.0 Boost. When enabled, Ai Charger+ allows up to 3x faster charging of mobile devices connected to USB. USB 3.0 Boost allows for the implementation of Turbo USB or the latest UASP USB protocol which speeds up throughput and reduces data transfer time.


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Under the Update tab in AI Suite II we have ASUS Update and MyLogo. ASUS Update allows for updating the board’s BIOS either directly from the Internet or from a preloaded file. MyLogo gives users the option to replace the POST splash screen with their own image files.

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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.
 
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Eldonko

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Included Software p.2

Included Software


CPU Maximizer is a handy tool that allows users to set up throttling by CPU temperature interval to avoid running the processor at excessive temperatures over long periods.


Click to enlarge

One of the most useful tools that we didn’t see with Sandy Bridge is MemTweakIt, tweaking tool which allows for modification of memory timings. Just so you know, we didn't screw up our Photoshop cropping in the picture above. The MemtweakIt window is actually missing its left side regardless of being fully functional. We're guessing this is a simple bug which will be ironed out soon.


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Similar to MemTweakIt, ROG CPUZ is also missing the left side of its window. As a result we opted to use the latest version of CPUZ for our tests instead.


ROG Connect is a utility which allows for connecting and overclocking via a remote PC. RC TweakIt provides BCLK, CPU ratio, VCCSA, CPU PLL, and VTT adjustments as well as temperature and voltage monitoring.


ASUS Web Storage 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 Rampage IV Extreme

A Closer Look at the Rampage IV Extreme


Above is a map of the Rampage IV Extreme motherboard layout with descriptions of the various parts. 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. The only thing that may be difficult to access are the video card release clips.


The cooling system on the RIVE is a one-piece heatpipe design with active cooling on the chipset. Not all X79 boards have active cooling but benching boards will likely be run with more voltage on the PCH so ASUS has added a small fan. The heatpipe system surrounds the CPU socket and rests on the MOSFETS and chokes.


The X79 chipset itself appears to be covered with some sort of shim, perhaps due to a spacing issue.


The various parts of the cooling system which are connected via a heatpipe and the chipset cooler dissipates the heat with a fan.


Near the CPU area is part of the board’s VRM which consists of a line of chokes and caps along the edge of the socket and residing underneath the heatsink.


Behind the chokes are NexFET Power Block MOSFETs. These special MOSFETS have twice the current capability of any low RDS_On MOSFETs and are capable of 90% efficiency at 15A. The fully digital Extreme Engine DIGI+ ties this all together and the VRM includes 8 phases for CPU Vcore, 3 phases for the CPU Integrated Memory Controller, and 2+2 phases for the system DRAM. Additionally the VRM on the RIVE includes VRM EMI Reduction, which is the minimization of emissions of electromagnetic interference that can interfere with the functionality of surrounding components if the VRM is under high frequencies.


The Sandy Bridge E processors use a new LGA2011 socket or also called Socket R. LGA2011 replaces Intel’s LGA1366 (Socket B) in the high-end market. The socket hold down includes a double latch which must be unclipped in sequence in order to open the hold down clip.
 
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Eldonko

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A Closer Look at the Rampage IV Extreme p.2

A Closer Look at the Rampage IV Extreme


Unlike several competitor boards the RIVE includes 8 DIMM slots which provide quad channel DDR3 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). All of this extra memory can allow for options such as a RAM Disk or RAM caching.


On the board's upper edge, there are dual ATX-12V inputs for the better delivery of CPU power. Moving over to the top right corner we come to a nice cluster of components which include the Debug LED which is helpful in diagnosing POST issues. Directly below the Debug LED are the LN2 jumper and the Slow Mode Switch. The LN2 jumper loads profiles suitable for low temperature overclocking when the jumper is moved over to the enable position. The Slow Mode Switch is also for sub-zero benching and helps the system remain stable during temperature and frequency fluctuations.

Below the LN2 jumper are the voltage read points and LEDs, titled Voltiminder V2. Voltminder V2 provides measurement spots and also indicates (with LEDs) which voltage is being polled. The small red button is the Go Button which loads user customized OC profiles and nearby are the ROG standard power and reset buttons as well as four DIP switches for PCI-E slot Enable / Disable. The headers next to the DIP switches are for VGA Hotwire which integrates a set of 6 variable resistors and voltage sensors for video card voltage mods.


Next is the 24-pin power connector complete with voltage read points and LEDs and a USB 3.0 header. The USB 3.0 header is run by the ASMedia ASM 1042 USB 3.0 host controller chip located nearby.


The bottom right corner of the Rampage IV Extreme has 8 SATA ports and 2 Subzero Sense connectors. The four black ports run direct to the PCH at a speed of 3GB/s while the two red ports run at 6GB/s. Meanwhile, the two red 6GB/s ports on the far left are run by the nearby ASMedia ASM1061 chip.

Subzero Sense integrates two Type-K Probe digital thermometers onboard whichs allow for plugging Type-K probes directly into the board instead of purchasing separate digital thermometers.
 
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Eldonko

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A Closer Look at the Rampage IV Extreme p.3

A Closer Look at the Rampage IV Extreme


For expansion slots, the Rampage IV Extreme has four PCI-E 3.0 x16 slots, all of which are usable for SLI thus making quad-SLI possible. Since X79 has 40 PCI-E lanes direct from the CPU, no NF200 chips are needed and dual card x16 is possible. For tri-SLI the slots will operate at x16/x8/x16 and under quad operation the slots will operate at x16/x8/x8/x8.


The bottom right corner of the board has the typical front panel connectors and USB headers. There are two USB 2.0 headers and a USB 3.0 header run by another ASMedia chip. The red button seen in the corner is the BIOS Switch in order to change between a main and secondary BIOS. Further to the left are the two BIOS chips that contain the UEFI BIOS.


Moving across to the bottom left corner of the RIVE, we come to a few fan headers, thermal sensor cable connectors, front panel audio connectors, and the audio codec chip; a Realtek ALC898. ASUS improved the previous gen audio codec (ALC889) with the new ALC898 which is 8+2 channel HDA codec.


The PCI-E slot area has a few more chips of interest - two ASMedia ASM1042, Nuvoton NCT6776F, and ASMedia ASM1480. The ASM1042 are USB host controllers, the same as we saw near the USB 3.0 header on the other side of the board. These chips run the USB 3.0 ports on the I/O panel. The NCT6776F monitors several critical parameters on the Rampage IV Extreme, including power supply voltages, fan speeds, and temperatures. Last we have several small chips marked ASM1480. These are PCI-E 3.0 16 to 8 channel switches that enable the PCI-E slots to switch between x16 and x8 depending on how many video cards are installed.


In behind the I/O panel are a few connectors and a small Intel chip. The Intel chip is for the board's Intel Gigabit LAN while the black 6-pin connector supplies extra power to the PCI-E 16x slots and the white header supplies extra power to the DIMMs. Use these if you are running several power-hungry video cards or if you are pushing extra voltage through your memory. Meanwhile the USB-like header is the connection point for the OC Key.

Moving back to where we started, there are the VRM chips the Q-Reset button (clear CMOS), a thermal sensor cable connector, and the OT Header. The OT Header allows connection of a 2-pin cable switch for users to enable/disable the OC Key and use ROG Connect. This switch is not included but we highly recommend getting one as you will have to get up and press ROG Connect constantly while benching (every reboot).


The I/O panel on the RIVE is fairly straightforward however it does have a few buttons worth explaining. The button with the curved arrow is essentially a Clear CMOS button however settings like hard drive boot priority are retained to save time. The button next to that is ROG Connect button which enables ROG Connect when connected to a remote computer or enables OC Key. The white USB header is where you connect a remote computer for ROG Connect.
 
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Eldonko

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Hardware Installation

Hardware Installation


Before delving too deeply into hardware installation, we are going to quickly go over changing the backplate of the RIVE so our 1366 cooler and backplate will fit. First you use the tool that comes with the board to physically remove the stock CPU retention mechanism.


Next remove the stock backplate and replace it with the X-plate. The X-plate holds the CPU socket in place while leaving space for users to install their CPU coolers using the holes where the original backplate was installed.


With the X-plate installed, our Zalman CNPS10x Flex fit without any issues whatsoever. This is an average-sized aftermarket CPU cooler so it should provide a good reference to see the kind of space we are dealing with.


As you can see, there is plenty of clearance above the board’s heatsinks and there is also room for additional fans on the Zalman.


Looking at memory clearance, we found the RIVE layout to be great and we didn’t find any issues even when using a cooler equipped with dual fans. Although the red slots are required for 4 stick operation, we installed memory in the black slots to show clearance for 8 DIMM population. Using the red slots would give even more space.


As shown above, adding a trio of GTX 470 cards to the RIVE didn't cause any areas of concern in terms of clearance. The PCH fan is blocked to some extent but since many boards don’t even have active cooling on the chipset we don’t see this as an issue. The SATA ports are side mounted are the GPUs fit over top of them snugly while the USB headers are also accessible with three video cards installed.


Here you can have a better look that 3 cards do not create any clearance issues but if a 4th is added the USB headers and everything along the board's bottom edge would be covered. This is a common issue and unavoidable without extra real estate.


Running two GPUs on the RIVE really gives the cards a lot of breathing room for dual x16 operation. We did encounter one major issue however: releasing GPUs after they are installed is next to impossible. Shown in the picture above, the CPU cooler and board’s heatsink actually block the release for GPU 1 and the only way to get it out is to use a screwdriver to push down the release clip. This really is a poor design in our opinion.
 
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