ASUS P9X79 and P9X79 Deluxe LGA 2011 Sandy Bridge-E Motherboard Review

P9X79 Review

The P9X79 platform is ASUS' offering for the enthusiast market on Sandy Bridge-E.  We'll be taking a look at the base model P9X79 board and the highest-end Deluxe version, and we'll also take a close look at the P9X79 family as a whole to see where each model fits into the grand scheme of things, and which one would be the best fit for you.  We also examined a wide range of performance and usability attributes which we will go into detail about after the break.

 

 

The P9X79 Family

One of the puzzling aspects we saw from Gigabyte's GA-X79 family was the mixed bag of features each model included.  It wasn't clear what components or features were being upgraded in each model, and the more expensive models were seen lacking features of cheaper models, such as SLI, which added further complication to choosing a particular board they were offering.

Specifications

P9X79  Base Specifications  [Courtesy ASUS]

 

From the base specs listed, the PRO model adds SSD Caching, BTGO! for Bluetooth, two 6GB/s Marvell SATA ports, trades two USB 3.0 ports for two USB 2.0 ports, trades a power e-SATA for a regular e-SATA port, adds power and reset buttons on the board, and comes with two more SATA cables and a Tri-SLI bridge.  The Deluxe then adds Wi-Fi, CMOS reset buttons, an additional Realtek 8111E NIC, two USB 3.0 ports, and two SATA cables from the PRO version.  Further differentiation by ASUS is made in the form of offering their own USB 3.0 Boost technology, as well as the ability for SSD caching (not available by default on X79) on the Pro and Deluxe models.

 

 

We like ASUS' family planning of their motherboard lineups, and the P9X79 family is no exception.  ASUS' philosophy for the P9X79 family is that for each step up in price, there should be an appropriate justification for the price difference. When comparing the spec sheets, we can see how clearly this is demonstrated.

 

 

Each model has feature "stacking," where features are simply added onto the core architecture.  Each model up from the base adds flexibility and functionality, but the core components, those which ultimately dictate performance, remain the same across all models.  The "changelog" from each model in Gigabyte's family gets a bit messy, because core components change as well as featuresets.  For example, the X79-UD3 features Quad-SLI but only 4 DIMM slots, then the UD5 model drops to Tri-SLI but bumps to 8 DIMMS (as well as other mixed changes), and similar changes are seen in the UD7 model.  It's far harder for us to recommend to a reader which Gigabyte board would be best for them without a detailed description of how they'd use it.

 


Additonally, ASUS didn't want the less expensive models to be limited or handicapped in any way.  For instance, the cheapest motherboard, the regular P9X79, will perform identically to the P9X79 Deluxe in nearly every facet, it only lacks the added features found in the Pro and Deluxe models, such as built-in Blutooth or wireless or SSD Caching.  This, we believe, is true family planning; where the base model has everything you'd need to overclock your processor to its full potential, has the same utilities available, and where cheaper doesn't necessarily mean worse, and then the family is built up from there. You then essentially get the same performance across the board, and you can pay up to the additional features you'd like.

 

 

What also differentiates this approach is that a step up to the next model does not simply entail an artificial "upgrade," as the components, from the SATA controllers to the Intel NIC, will be the same all the way through each model.  This creates a methodical and planned upgrade "map," which makes it easier to choose what's right for you, and also assures you that the base model will carry the same core performance as the higher-end models.  

 

 

This varies from other approaches where there are also component upgrades as you step up, which adds complexity to determining the value of each model against its respective price.  Even more frustrating is when a lack of BIOS options or software utilities act as "governors" on the motherboard performance, and you pay more simply to unlock the functionality that is already there or should be there, but capped off on the software side or left out as a cost-saving measure.

 

 

ASUS' approach may not lead to greater profits on the base models, but adds commonality between motherboards across the family, which also allows them to do more thorough compatibility and validation testing, something ASUS prides themselves upon.  For instance, let's say motherboard A is the entry-level model, and B and C were the mid and high-level boards, respectively. If each had component AND feature upgrades, then you end up with very different motherboards across the family.  Even though they may be sold under a single family label, they're very different from one another.  This makes for a particular challenge for the manufacturer, which trickles down the the end user.  To do compatibility testing, you'll need to run each model through the full gauntlet, which becomes expensive very quickly, and it then follows that the compatibility testing may often not be as thorough as you'd like, and may ultimately lead to issues with the endless combinations of hardware available today.

 

 

Now, let's revisit the example, but instead the core components of the A, B, and C motherboards were the same.  Now you can compatibility test any of the core motherboard functions, and it applies to all other members of the family.  The commonality creates a support advantage in a true "family" of motherboards.

 

Added Value

There are a number of "marketable" value additions here which might often be overlooked, and we've seen that its these factors that have made ASUS such a successful motherboard designer.  In terms of hardware, the Intel NIC presents a step up from NIC offerings from Realtek, Marvell, or Atheros.  Others have followed suit to include Intel NICs in their X79 boards, such as the GA-X79-UD3.  Additional flexibility and support is seen with the awesomely-flexible Fan Xpert utilities which allow dynamic fan speed profiles which are completely configurable.  The USB 3.0 boost technolgoy is seamless, and again, others have tried to implement similar features in their boards.  Value is added in compatibility as well, and this can be a "priceless" intangible.  The UEFI design, flexibility, and suite of options is also currently leading the industry.  The SPD memory status tool in the BIOS has proven to be valuable in diagnosing issues and testing memory overclocking settings.  These all go a step past "just performance," and will benefit any user and any type of usage, not just the hardcore gamer, builder, or overclocker.

 

 


 

A Closer Look- P9X79

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The windowed box which gives you a teasing glance at the P9X79 inside opens to the board, two 3GB/s SATA cables, two 6GB/s SATA cables, a rear I/O plate, an SLI bridge, the headache-saving case headers, a driver disc, and an install guide to supplement the full user guide.

 

The P9X79 has a clean layout and a black/blue color scheme, complete with an all-black PCB.  ASUS' intricate PCH and VRM heatsinks add a but of functional visual appeal to the board as well.  The rear of the PCB is clean and orderly.  I'll point out that if you look at the positioning of the 4-pin fan headers, it's clear that ASUS has put effort into intelligently placing the fan headers, as opposed to simply sticking them where there's open space on the PCB, which makes the user experience that much better.  Two near the CPU for push-pull, one near the right for a front fan, one one the left for a rear exhaust fan, all in a logical placement.  Additionally, an ASUS-exclusive differentiation here is the complete fan capability offered by ASUS' Fan Xpert software, which allows you to setup a "cooling curve" which auto-adjusts fan speeds based upon a number of configurable parameters, such as CPU temperature.

 

The SATA ports extend outward from the right side of the board, stacked two high and butted right up against the PCH heatsink.  This has become a fairly standard SATA port design, and allows for clean cable routing.  Below the ports are the power-saving EPU switch (which has an equivalent BIOS setting) and the quick-overclock TPU switch.  The EPU switch will undervolt the processor (but not the clock speeds) to reduce the power drawn by the CPU and reduces temperatures.  The TPU provides a quick-overclock to 4.2-4.3GHz as a quick and easy way to boost performance without getting your "hands dirty."  The bottom row contains the headers for external USB 2.0 connections, external sound, as well as an SPDIF_O port. 

 

The PCI-e ports are also spaced to allow for SLI configurations of ASUS' high-performance DCUII GPU cooling system which consumes 3 rear expansion slots.  To the left of the CMOS battery, we see a removable BIOS chip, which is another small added-value item ASUS has included, with a bit of added expense.  If for some reason your BIOS chip were to become irreversibly corrupted, only the BIOS chip needs to be replaced, and not the whole motherboard, again adding to the end-user experience.

 

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Taking a close look at the CPU socket area, we see adequate spacing for larger coolers, our biggest gripe with the X79-UD3.  This requires significant design effort, as the number of lanes coming from 8 DIMM slots become difficult to route without making spacing sacrifices.  The heatsink covering the power-transmission components also stands far enough back and is swept to stay out of the way.  The 8-pin power connector is also closer to the CPU socket than we've seen on other designs, which makes power transmission to the CPU more efficient.  Great detail has been paid to this portion of the board which creates the most formidable design challenges, and ASUS pulled off a great layout and overall PCB design with nice-looking heatsinks to top it off.

 

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The rear panel has ten total USB ports, with 4 being the blue USB 3.0 ports.  e-SATA ports are offered with one powered, and one unpowered port, sandwhiching an optical output.  The white USB port is for ASUS' unique, and very handy USB BIOS Flashback, which in addition to simly updating your BIOS from a USB stick.  Where is this really handy, imagine you've borked the BIOS settings and you cannot POST, without changing out the BIOS chip or RMA'ing the board, you'd be hosed.  However, now you can plug in a flash drive with the BIOS loaded on it, press and hold the button, and voila, it'll take a couple minutes to update, and you're up and running once more!  And to go the extra mile, ASUS has also made it so that the you only need standby PSU power to the motherboard to flash the BIOS, so you don't need to have a CPU, memory, or graphics card installed, which may be very convenient in a number of instances.

 


A Closer Look- P9X79 Deluxe

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Continuing from the P9X79, we see that the bottom of the board have power and reset buttons, and the BIOS chip has been moved toward the bottom of the board, and is overall more accessible there.  The EPU and TPU switches have also been moved along the bottom edge of the board, and the SATA ports have the addition of two SSD Caching ports run by a Marvell┬« PCIe 9128 controller.  I was happy to see this, as SSD Caching functionality was left out of the X79 platform, probably with the mentality that enthusisasts will likely be purchasing a standalone SSD as opposed to using a cache drive to boost drive performance. SSD Caching is also implemented more simply with ASUS' method as well, because it can be installed any time, where Intel's SRT requires setup during the OS install.

 

The beauty in ASUS' SSD Caching implementation over even Intel's built-in method, as it can be done after OS installation and doesn't require any special configuration in the UEFI.  It also offers no caching capacity limit like Intel's implementation, which add alot of value to the Pro and Deluxe boards.

 

The internal USB 3.0 header has also been moved to the right edge of the board, which routes neatly with the primary motherboard power cable.  We also see extensions of both heatsinks including a second block connected by a heatpipe for more even and efficient thermal transfer.  ASUS has accomplished this without squishing the CPU area and limiting cooling options, which I applaud them for, and must have also taken a fair amount of design effort to do so. 

 

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 The rear I/O panel is also rearranged, largely due to the space needed for the BTGO! module which allows for Bluetooth and Wi-Fi connections.  The great part of the onboard wireless is that the PCI-e slots remain untouched and won't limit the space you have to work with for expandability.  It connects to a header on the PCB and is secured with a single screw.  A circular antenna is also included, and we found it to have great range and stable performance.  We also see two NICs, 6 USB 3.0 ports (4 on P9X79) and the same 10 total USB ports.  There's also an additional powered e-SATA port.  The PS/2 port, a regular e-SATA, and firewire port were all dumped to make room for the other additions.  The BIOS Flashback button has been moved to the upper edge of the board as well.

 

It's obvious that despite having the same core componentry, the boards evolve to be quite different in a number of facets.  It's also quite easy to see where the value is added and justifying the increase in cost between models, which helps sort through all of the marketing jargon thrown on the boxes.

 


ASUS' UEFI BIOS

ASUS' UEFI BIOS has been, and still is, the standard for comparison for other graphical BIOS implementations.  It's smooth, snappy, the layout makes sense, and the overall appearance is modern and attractive.  

 

 

One of the best achievements in my mind is the fine mesh of the new UEFI BIOS with the classic BIOS navigation.  Nearly everything is easily navigated with the mouse, as clicks are swiftly registered and the pointer tracks smoothly.  But, possibly more importantly, is that it's just as easily navigated with a keyboard alone, and the layout is familiar to anyone who has dabbled in the BIOS before.

 

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ASUS has also done a few other small things which impact the ease-of-use of the BIOS.  One of the most challenging things with a new motherboard or a new BIOS is finding the elusive option you're looking for.  Be it power management for your CPU or legacy USB settings, ASUS has created a "shortcut," activated by pressing F3. The shortcut displays a list of functions, and it'll take you the the desired section without having to first go into "Advanced Mode" and then sift through various menus and sub-menus.

 

 

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The Fan Xpert utility is a clear differentiator for the board, and enables an array of fan speed profiles which are nearly endless, and can be tailored to your desired needs.

 

The SPD tool is also a great feature, as it will give you quick pre-boot access to RAM diagnostics and other detailed SPD information.  As we'll discuss in more detail in a bit, ASUS' BIOS settings are also complemented by an OS-based equivalent, for those who are more comfortable working from the OS instead of the BIOS.

 

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AI Suite II

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ASUS' AI Suite II utility suite rolls all of their utility applications into one program.  AISuite II offers a "modular" program which allows for full customization from the operating system.  The modularity makes it very easy to disable any of the various components of AISuite II from running, and everything may be accessed from a single small, unobtrusive dock on your desktop.

 

ASUS strove to deliver both BIOS and software support for all of their motherboards' features and settings.  Some people are simply more comfortable with a graphical software UI on their desktop, and others would rather tune their motherboard in the BIOS.  The idea here is to not force compromise, and ASUS' AISuiteII is the software-based "desktop BIOS."  It also rolls in other desktop-only utilities into one easy install and easy-to-access program.  And, don't worry about it being a resource hog, as all of the programs are easily disabled from running under AISuiteII.

 


Test Setup

Test System:

CPU: Intel i7-3930K

CPU Cooling:  Arctic Freezer i30

Motherboard: ASUS P9X79/P9X79 Deluxe

Comparison Motherboard: Gigabyte X79-UD3

RAM: 4x4GB Patriot Viper Xtreme Division 4 1333MHz DDR3

GPU: ASUS GTX 560Ti 448 Core

OS HDD: OCZ Vertex 3 120GB MaxIOPS

Secondary HDD: Patriot Pyro SE 60GB

Power Supply: Cooler Master Silent Pro Hybrid 1050W

OS: Windows 7 Professional 64-Bit

 

Test Procedure

We will be comparing a variety of performance characteristics between the three motherboards we've tested on the X79 platform.  We will test the SATA ports, USB 2.0 and USB 3.0 transfer speeds, overall performance via PCMark7, as well as CPU-specific performance.  Additionally, our Seagate USB 3.0 drive we use for testing doesn't have a driver compatible with the host controller for the ASUS board, so we weren't able to get any USB 3.0 data from the ASUS board, but we're updating our USB 3.0 testing hardware, and those numbers will be updated shortly.  Each benchmark or test was run a minimum of three times to minimize variation in the independent test runs, and the average of the runs are reported.

 

 

The overclocked tests were performed by first setting the "Optimized Defaults," in the BIOS, then simply setting the multiplier at x42 and leaving the voltage AUTO.  We wanted to test each board in a consistent manner based upon "out of the box" performance, please let us know in the comments if you'd like to see us take another angle on the overclocked settings.  We avoided the software as different software may make a number of behind-the-scenes changes, and manual settings ensure we best control the test environment to make accurate comparisons.

 

Overclocking

ASUS has fully-included all overclocking options in their AISuiteII as well as in the BIOS.  This includes their advanced DIGI+ power control, phase control, flexible fan speed profiles, memory options, as well as the standard overclocking settings.  Using manual settings, we were able to push the our i7-3930K up to just over 4.5GHz at an imposed voltage limit of 1.45V, which we used as a baseline for the AutoTune settings found from the TPU switch, the OCTuner in the BIOS, and the AutoTune settings in AISuiteII.  We should also note that the overclocking behavior was nearly identical between the P9X79 and the P9X79 Deluxe, which verifies ASUS' claims and was also expected given the hardware similarities.  The P9X79 Deluxe was easier to get to 4.5GHz, but that's also because by default it pumps a bit extra voltage to the chip.  In general, as we will see later, the P9X79 Deluxe did a bit better, possibly due to more intensive quality control on the higher-end models and/or luck of the draw.   ASUS provides all the necessary options to make this a top-notch overclocking board, and since ASUS performs more compatibility validation testing than anyone in the business, the overclocking experience is sure to be a pleasant one for just about anyone.

 

The Digi+ power control is one of ASUS' proudest innovations, but the average user won't understand how to use it.  But for the power users out there, it helps open up another world of possibilities for tweaking and optimization.  Digi+ really deserves a dedicated article to do it all justice, so we will point you to ASUS' site for further details.  For X79, ASUS has extended the capability of their 8th-generation power control design to include control over the CPU, VRAM, and also DRAM.  Again, the power controls are available in both AISuite II and the BIOS, for convenience and flexibility.

 

Using automatic voltage settings when making manual changes showed that the P9X79 platform, in general, pushed more voltage to the chip than the Gigabyte X79-UD3.  For a 4.2GHz with a 42 multiplier, the P9X79 Deluxe pushed 1.296V, where the X79-UD3 drew 1.236V.  Seeing the hardware variability between Gigabyte's models, we cannot say if we'd see lower overall voltages from the UD5 or UD7 models.

 

Automatic Overclocking

The "Fast" setting in AISuite, the TPU Switch, the "Performance" Quick Profile in the BIOS, and the BIOS OCTuner all lead to the same end overclocking result.  Each of these settings automatically set a clock speed, perform stability tests, and iterate until they settle on a final clock.  In each of our tests, these settings all lead to a 3.9GHz clock speed, which is a nice boost, but also very safe, even with rather poor cooling equipment.  The beauty of these settings is that they're dynamic, so if you're running the stock cooler and its clogged with dust, if the stability tests see the chip is running hot, it'll choose a lower clock speed.  These settings usually only took a minute to converge on a setting, and it was also rather aggressive on the base clock speed, bumping it up to 103.00 in all cases.

 

 

The "Extreme" auto-overclock option is found in AISuiteII, and performs the same iterative process as described above, with a clock setting>stability test>repeat until it settles on an aggressive but safe overclock. In general, the iterative process likes to boost the base clock to 103.00 right off the bat, and then cycling the multiplier.  We got a very aggressive 4.532 GHz, but it did take it up to 1.456V, which is actually only slightly higher than our voltage limit.  The process worked flawlessly, and it really is great even for extreme overclockers who plan on pushing it hard themselves, as the AutoTune will iterate and at least give you a good starting point.  The peak core temperature under load was at 88┬░C, which is a bit high for long-term usage, but overall we got a great result.  When the dust has settled, you're rewarded with the image shown below:

 

AutoTune


Storage Testing

For the storage tests, we ran our (bare) Secondary SSD, a Patriot Pyro SE 60GB through three separate benchmarks, AS SSD, ATTO, and CrystalDiskMark.  For the USB tests, CrystalDiskMark was used to measure the transfer speed of our Seagate GoFlex Desktop 2.0TB USB 3.0 hard drive.

 

SATA Testing

SATA-AS-SSD

 SATA-ATTO

SATA-CDM

 We see a roughly 4% advantage in 6GB/s testing from the Gigabyte X79-UD3, and nearly identical performance in 3GB/s speeds.  In terms of absolute values, and the rough error margin of our tests, these results would seldomly be recognized in normal usage, and even in the most intense applications would be difficult to tell apart.  We see the Deluxe version perform slightly better across the board, but nearly identically to the P9X79.  The additional Marvell SATA ports on the P9X79 Deluxe do quite well in read, but is the slowest in write speeds, which is probably why these are ideally labelled as the "SSD Caching" ports, being read-optimized.

 

USB Testing

USB

 We also see a slight advantage for the Deluxe over the base P9X79, but the Gigabyte X79-UD3 bests them both with an 11% write and a 10.3% read advantage.  The speeds with USB 3.0 Boost slightly edge those of Gigabyte's "boosted" USB 3.0 speeds, but for all practical purposes, they're essentially the same.

 


Computation

 Our computation benchmarks are meant less to be a comparative test, and more of a validation test that nothing strange is going on.  We don't expect any non-trivial differences in these tests, and it's only when there are differences that we become alarmed.

CineBench

wPrime

PCMark7

We see nearly identical performance between all three boards in the computational benchmarks, which is as expected, and is a validation that each board does not have any gaping flaws or computational disruptions.  We do see a larger overall performance boost during overclocking for the P9X79 boards, but, again, we see very slim differences which we could not call appreciable or statistically significant enough to draw a particular advantage toward any of the boards. 

 

Memory

AIDA64

 We do see a roughly 6.7% advantage in the P9X79 Deluxe over the X79-UD3, with an edge of 3.8% over the P9X79 in copy speeds.  Read and write speeds are nearly identical for both the P9X79 boards, and carry a 3.3% advantage over the X79-UD3.

 


Final Thoughts

Overall, ASUS' clear-cut X79 family is laid out so that each model carries an associated value to justify its price increase.  ASUS also looks to break a simple "spec-to-spec" marketing comparison, as they've included components such as an Intel NIC (which much of the market has followed) and other high quality chips, as well as user-friendly design which breaks simple numerical comparisons.  It's not simply X-number of USB ports versus Y-number on a competitor, and it's with this mentality we think ASUS has pulled ahead in motherboard marketshare.  A perfect example here is the fan header placement, with two 4-pin connectors right near the CPU pocket for high performance coolers, one on the left edge for exhaust fans seen on 99% of cases, and other strategically-placed locations.  The cheaper, easier way would be to lay out the core components first, and stick the fan headers where they fit without regard to the end-user.  Other items like removable BIOS chips, diagnostic LEDs, and the USB Flashback utility breaks these simple number comparisons by adding value in usability.

 

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ASUS has also removed contraints on how you customize your system.  Anything that can be changed in the BIOS can be changed with AISuiteII, and there are some hardware-level switches for the EPU and TPU which add further flexibility.  ASUS' UEFI BIOS is the best in the business in terms of smooth operation, natural navigation with a keyboard or mouse, and overall appearance.  ASUS also conducts high levels of compatibility validation, which further translates into a better, smoother overall experience.  The Auto-overclock options are also intuitive and easy to use, and allows a novice to safely enjoy the performance boost of an overclock without touching a single clock or multiplier setting.  The extreme setting took us to 4.5GHz, and even for an experienced overclocker, provides a baseline to start their own benchmarking from.  Advanced power management is also available for those who understand their implications in achieving their highest overclock possible.

 

The overall performance of the board, plus the BIOS and OS-level features, and the intelligent layout of the board make it a winner in many regards.  The CPU socket area is actually quite spacious, which will alleviate worries about cooler compatibility we saw in the X79-UD3.  The P9X79 does come with a $20 higher price tag than the X79-UD3, and ASRock also makes some appealing budget boards in the ~$200 range, but for an enthusiast platform, and a board which has all of the core enthusiast features throughout, the P9X79 carries the extra weight to justify the cost for most making the jump to Sandy Bridge-E.  The flexible fan and power controls, SSD caching, an Intel NIC, 8 DIMM slots, UEFI memory diagnostics, and the BIOS flashback utility add value in a larger number of aspects, and the overall compatibility of the X79 platform is icing on the cake.

 

Pros:

  • Fully-capable OS-based tuning
  • Auto-overclocking works great
  • Logical and functional board layout
  • Hardware-side EPU and TPU switches
  • Removable BIOS chip
  • BIOS Flashback takes the worry out of BIOS updates

Cons:

  •  More expensive than other base-level options

 

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