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Intel DX58SO 'Smackover' Motherboard

Original and progressive. Now with SLI support.

April 15, 2009




Intel has launched an unusual motherboard with the top X58 chipset (the only one for Socket 1366). It's not a top product in the true sense of the word, but it definitely has nothing to do with budget models either, strangely combining features of both categories. Almost all reviewers (most test labs got the first samples of Nehalems together with Intel DX58SO) mentioned such conspicuous features as only four memory slots with a triple-channel controller as well as the lack of license to support NVIDIA SLI. Although the situation with both features turned out to be much better than it had looked after all, this motherboard still leaves a trace of some disappointment. Let's try to get rid of this residue.

Design



Speaking of motherboard design, long meditation over the published photo works better than words here. The layout of expansion slots is regulated by the ATX standard, of course, so there are no surprises here. But the other components have been shuffled by Intel engineers. The processor socket is moved much closer to the center of the board, its voltage regulator takes up the rest of the room traditionally reserved for the Northbridge, and the CPU power connector is shifted further down (if we take a look at this photo). In its turn, Northbridge has been relocated to the edge of the board, having pushed memory slots to the right edge close to the processor socket.

Memory slots are often installed like this on motherboards for servers with several sockets. And early products for Athlon 64 (the first desktop processor with an integrated memory controller) used this design. We shall not conjecture the causes that made Intel engineers change so much the habitual design of their motherboards. We can only say that cooling efficiency was hardly improved, it probably even suffered from it. However, this layout does not bring any noticeable inconveniences, only the power cable now takes an unusual path to the processor socket. But its rather thin.

It's was possible to install memory slots in this way only because there were only four of them, not six, as in most models with X58. Is it bad? Well, at the very least, PCB layout is much simpler in the first case. In brief, you have to look for differences between dual- and triple-channel modes with a microscope. Even a single-channel mode is outperformed only formally. On the other hand, a top motherboard simply must maintain a certain level (even if a purely populist one), or it risks disappointing potential users and, consequently, sale drops. We can say only one thing in this respect: Intel's implementation is technically correct, and it probably does not disagree with its idea of a top model.

Prior to the announcement of the desktop platform for Nehalem, NVIDIA decided against designing its own chipset for Core i7 and came up with a compromise as far as SLI support was concerned. For the first time (on the desktop market) there appeared an opportunity to build SLI with the chipset from a different company, even though it involves royalties. (In fact, NVIDIA suggested using its nForce 200 bridge for 3-way SLI and "SLI acceleration" in general, but only a couple of motherboards used this solution.) SLI certification for motherboards has to be obtained for each model, not for the chipset in general, and the license key is hardcoded into BIOS.

When Intel DX58SO rolled out, it lacked SLI support, which is apparently a marketing drawback for a top motherboard. Despite the insignificant percentage of multi-GPU video configurations and full CrossFireX support, the DX58SO is outscored here by many products from other manufacturers, being the only Intel's solution based on X58. However, in February, 2009, this motherboard finally got the SLI license (both contracting partners informed general public about it), so this problem will go away, when you flash a new BIOS version (3435).



Speaking of other peculiarities of the design, we should mention almost complete abandonment of outdated periphery. There are no PS/2 ports on the rear panel, expansion slots are represented by just one PCI, and it's not done to increase the number of PCIEx16 slots (as it sometimes happens with graphics stations), just peripheral PCIEx1 and PCIEx4 slots. (The latter is equipped with a latch in case you want to install a graphics card into this slot with an open end.) Besides, this motherboard lacks IDE and FDD slots, so it's one of the most progressive models in the market. Other manufacturers are gradually abandoning outdated interfaces, but none of them burns their bridges so aggressively.

This PCB layout is not inconvenient, only a couple of SATA ports may be blocked by long graphics cards (especially considering SLI support for top graphics cards from NVIDIA). This problem can be easily solved by using special SATA cables with L-shaped connectors (they are bundled with the Intel DX58SO). Other than the above mentioned global peculiarities, this PCB layout has lots of minor ones. For example, the board offers additional power supply to PCI Express slots -- not only with a usual peripheral connector from a PSU, but also with a SATA power connector. You can choose any connection type or use both -- only when graphics cards need more power than goes via the bus, of course (up to 75 W); it may come in handy for the third graphics card installed into a PCIEx4 slot.

This motherboard lacks various indicators, which are often used in top products. Besides, it has no indicators for power saving technologies (that disable idle channels in a PWM power controller), because it does not use such technologies. In return, it offers a couple of useful LEDs that inform about CPU and VRM overheating, and an unusual power indicator. Besides, the board integrates a rare indicator of HDD activity (it works only when a hard drive is plugged to ports of the chipset controller). We can only regret about the lack of a POST indicator to inform about startup problems.

The power circuits of this motherboard from Intel apparently do not break any records in complexity. The switching voltage regulator of the processor uses six phases, two MOSFETs per phase. The processor power circuit actually uses ferrite chokes and only polymeric capacitors, but other voltage regulators incorporate standard components -- they used to be popular a couple years ago, but now they are not used even in Mid-End products. We don't try to say that the DX58SO is less reliable or reasonable in its design than competing solutions. But it's outscored in "demonstrative technological effectiveness".



Where Intel looks confident is the on-board cooling system. No huge fancy heatsinks or a jungle of heat pipes, which look so good on photos in press releases. However, both bridges and MOSFETs in the power circuit of a processor are equipped with relatively compact aluminum heatsinks (nice blue color, efficient shape, decent heat release surface area). Heatsinks on MOSFETs are not very high, and the NB heatsink is situated rather far from the processor socket, so they won't interfere with large CPU coolers. Intel engineers do not worry about high operating temperature of the Northbridge (its top limit is 100(105?) °C), so it may even burn your finger, if you touch it. You can optionally install an additional fan on top (comes with the bundle). But NB temperature during our tests was far from the overheating point, even though there was no assistance from the CPU cooler.

Efficient contact with the board is one of the major reasons of high temperature of heatsinks -- it improves heat exchange. There is a special frame to cool the Northbridge (screwed to brackets on the back side), and the heatsink is pressed to the chip with a spring-loaded bracket. Even plastic latches used to install MOSFET heatsinks have an intricate design (with a removable core), which facilitates (de)installation of the cooling system. Besides, all of them use a better thermal interface than usual.

All motherboards from Intel traditionally have enhanced temperature monitoring features. It's a good example for the other manufacturers, who usually don't show even temperature of the Northbridge (although it has an integrated sensor). What concerns automatic fan speed control (for two fans), you can only enable or disable it in BIOS Setup. You can also allow a fan to stop completely in idle mode -- if you want to control this process, you will have to use Windows utilities. There are quite a lot of options for overclocking and tweaking, you can specify a lot of memory timings and adjust many voltage values. As usual, BIOS Setup of Intel motherboards has a complicated structure, it's different from competing solutions, and not always logical. Besides, the advanced BIOS mode is enabled by an on-board jumper.

We got this motherboard without a package and bundle, so we cannot provide detailed information. According to the information on the official web site, the box contains the usual bundle (paper manuals, CD, etc) plus four SATA cables with L-shaped connectors (so that they can be used even with bulky graphics cards). Besides, the motherboard comes with a fan, which can be installed on the NB heatsink (we are inclined to recommend using it).

What concerns bundled utilities, we can mention only Desktop Control Center, which is responsible for system monitoring, detailed information on CPU and memory, as well as control of voltages, fan speed, and on-the-fly overclocking. Intel motherboards do not need a special utility to flash BIOS in Windows, because one of the options offered on the official web site is to download new BIOS versions integrated into an executable module.

Features



This motherboard is based on the Intel X58 chipset (X58 Northbridge and ICH10R Southbridge). You can read about its features in the corresponding review. Besides, the motherboard offers the following extra functions:

  • Integrated audio, based on the 10-channel (7.1+2) HDA codec Realtek ALC889 (top codec from this company supporting audio output from HD DVD and Blu-ray in full quality), 7.1-ch audio, front line-ins/outs, optical S/PDIF-Out jack on the rear panel, S/PDIF-Out and HD Audio Link to output sound via a graphics card with HDMI.
  • Network controller, based on the MAC controller in the Southbridge and Intel 82567LM PHY controller (proprietary GLCI interface), supporting 10/100/1000 Mbps (Gigabit Ethernet) and a number of proprietary technologies from Intel.
  • SATA-II RAID controller based on Marvell 88SE6121 (PCIEx1) supporting two SATA300 devices (both ports are implemented as eSATA on the rear panel), connected drives may form RAID 0 and 1 (functionality of this controller, responsible for IDE support, is not implemented in this motherboard).
  • FireWire controller, based on Texas Instruments TSB43AB22A (PCI), supporting two ports (one of them is installed on the rear panel).

The integrated audio quality was tested in the 16 bit 44 kHz mode using RightMark Audio Analyzer 6.0 and the Terratec DMX 6fire sound card. The final grade: Very good. S/PDIF on this board supports both popular sampling rates: 44.1 kHz and 48 kHz. This codec offers not only a high signal/noise ratio for recording and playback, but it also allows to transfer audio, including full audio quality, from DVD Audio, HD DVD, and Blu-ray to output via HDMI. This feature is implemented owing to support for the digital content protection technology, which lets certified software players channel the audio stream to a graphics card with HDMI (or any other expansion card) without quality losses.

Besides, ALC889 is certified to support Dolby Home Theater, including Dolby Virtual Speaker and Dolby Headphone, as well as stereo signal decomposition into 4-8 channels to produce an effect of surround audio (Dolby Pro Logic IIx). Drivers also support Dolby Digital Live -- on-the-fly AC-3 audio encoding to output via S/PDIF.

Performance

We have practically nothing to say about specific performance of this motherboard from Intel relative to its competitors. We performed a usual set of tests, and results obtained did not differ much from those of MSI Eclipse SLI and Biostar TPower X58 (or other Socket 1366 models).

Let's get back to the issue of four memory slots. What's the marketing drawback of this solution? Impossible to install six memory modules? But you will hardly want to do it out of insufficiency of available memory capacity -- you can always buy 2GB memory modules. Performance drops, when four modules are installed? But even omitting our benchmarking results, we should take into account that memory space of the first three modules is addressed in the top triple-channel mode, and only the fourth module is addressed in a single-channel mode. It means that even theoretical performance drops may occur only when programs and an operating system need more than three modules. Thus, in our opinion, all these memory problems of the Intel DX58SO are non-issue or simply dilettantish.


The motherboard provided by the manufacturer,
ATI Radeon HD 3870 graphics card provided by PowerColor,
ASUS PM007-8LB4WHD cooler provided by ASUS.

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