Intel DX79SI X79 LGA2011 Motherboard Review

Intel desktop processors are all but useless unless you have a motherboard to plug it into. Intel has been making its own model of enthusiast motherboards for quite some time now and honestly has very rarely hit the target. Today we are reviewing the Intel® Desktop Board DX79SI, LGA2011, Sandy Bridge E motherboard.

Introduction

Intel is a company that needs no introduction. It has been a fixture in this industry since well before I started working in it. Intel has actually been designing microprocessors longer than many of us have been alive. Intel typically sets the standard for many things we use. Not just CPUs either. Intel has been a driving force behind many standards such as PCI-Express, USB, and more. Its network cards, motherboard chipsets, and CPUs are regarded as some of the best in the world and with good reason.

Intel motherboard chipsets have always been regarded as the best when there has been actual competition in the market, although VIA certainly gave Intel a run for its money in the enthusiast world for a good while. Intel hasn’t had any competition in that arena since the socket LGA775 days, but it has continued to provide solid, stable working chipsets for its CPUs. You’d think that the designers of a given processor and chipset would make the best enthusiast motherboards available for that platform. Oddly, you’d be wrong to think that.

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Intel motherboards often lag behind the current trends in the industry when it comes to motherboard design and implementation. Intel typically has a decent, yet very conservative, and uninspiring feature set. Intel’s motherboard layouts are typically well executed but burdened with horrible BIOS ROMs which feature minimal tuning capabilities. Intel boards typically (though not always) lack any third party storage controllers and as a result do not support nearly as many storage devices as its counterparts from other manufacturers do. The model selection in the Extreme Series is also minimal showing a lack of commitment to that aspect of the business. So there are no performance oriented M-ATX "Extreme" boards, or XL-ATX boards, or anything that really gets the enthusiasts blood pumping to places it probably shouldn’t. Your only real consolation when buying Intel branded boards tends to be unsurpassed yet often equaled reliability, stability, and thus peace of mind. You can get the same thing from other board makers, but with one setback in some cases. ASUS, MSI, and Gigabyte for example don’t have Intel’s customer service, although the "big three" are getting a lot better at that in North America. Intel actually excels at customer service and product support, so if that is priority for you, Intel has you covered quite well. The fact of the matter here is that the "extreme" motherboard user is not likely to have that need at the top of their list as say an IT manager would, but the fact is that he is not going to be using an "extreme" motherboard in 300 office machines either.

I’ve said it many times before, and I’ll say it again here. Intel doesn’t truly understand the enthusiast community, or if it does, it does not execute well on that internal information. Everyone I’ve met at Intel over the years has been great to deal with, but I never got the impression they understood gamers or overclockers very well. We are kind of like that teenage son of a banker that just "doesn’t get us." Yet Intel wants our business. So while Intel doesn’t fully understand the community, it tries to offer olive branches from time to time in order to earn that business. The "Fully unlocked" or "K" series SKUs of Intel CPUs are one olive branch that was well received by the community. Other past attempts like most of the "Extreme Edition" CPUs and platforms like "Skulltrail" were less well received mostly because of insane pricing. While enthusiasts may drool over some of these things, many of us simply don’t have the financial resources to drop $1,000+ on a single CPU, much less anything more outlandish. Intel’s Extreme Desktop series boards are another olive branch. Despite Intel’s apparent dislike of overclocking, it recognizes it as a necessary evil, or that is the way we see it at HardOCP. Offering overclockable boards and CPUs is flat out necessary in order to compete in the enthusiast segment, and at least this way Intel retains some manner of control over it. In the past CPU remarking and such was rampant and not good for the entire business, overclocker or not.

While some Intel board owners manage to squeeze some nice overclocks out of Intel’s Extreme Desktop series boards, it’s usually due to the fact that the motherboards play nice with automatic settings as you can’t adjust very much as compared to every other board out there. Intel does have the inside track on what its CPUs need to clock higher, so it takes care of a lot of things for you. Whether you like it or not. Intel’s QC always seems to be on the ball as one Intel motherboard pretty much behaves like the rest. Given the limited options, it’s still easy to hit the mark when looking for the best overclocks these things can achieve.

Intel doesn’t fall behind the curve in every aspect of board design as it is all about driving standards. That’s one thing I think many enthusiasts do like, but then again some of that same crowd would rather be using legacy PS/2 ports, etcetera. Intel does not, and has not had legacy ports on its boards for many years now. Intel officially was the first to push EFI/UEFI on its motherboards, but as of this writing Intel still has not done anything to take advantage of what UEFI offers and still use a traditional BIOS interface with its current boards. The board we are looking at today is no different in that regard. So while there are no legacy ports on the DX79SI, it’s still saddled with the legacy BIOS interface despite it really being UEFI.

The Intel DX79SI is an LGA2011 socket motherboard based off Intel’s X79 Express chipset. This board has most of the hallmarks of a feature rich solution despite one thing. There are no third party drive controllers integrated into this board. This means no eSATA, and only 2 SATA 6Gb/s ports. You get almost everything else you could want in enthusiast board hardware wise. Quad channel memory, up to 64GB of RAM, PCIe 3.0, 3 PCIe Express slots, dual Intel Gigabit Ethernet jacks, SLI, and CrossFireX support. You of course get the standard gamut of features every board has such as Realtek audio and even IEEE1394 ports.

Main Specifications Overview:

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Detailed Specifications Overview:

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Packaging

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Unlike most of our boards, this board is not a retail sample. As far as I know, the hardware is identical to what is shipping to retail channels as we did ask Intel. Our sample however didn’t come with all the included accessories. In the retail box you will have been supplied, and we quote: "I/O Shield, SATA cables, Driver DVD, Some flyers, A really cool mouse pad, Some extreme stickers, Quick start guide, Configuration label with header pin-out’s, and a WiFi / Bluetooth module and cable."

Board Layout

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The Intel DX79SI has a truly good layout. It is devoid of the typical things that bother me on many other boards. About the only thing I’d like to see would be the relocation of the SATA ports. I would prefer that these be moved to the left and away from the primary PCI-Express x16 slot. With a larger video card reaching these ports can be a pain. Unless you add and remove cables for storage devices a lot, this is not likely to be a significant issue. In fact I only noticed it because I do precisely that during testing.

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The CPU socket area is actually really clean for an LGA2011 board. That being said, the DIMM slots are too close to the CPU socket to allow the problem free use of large air coolers. Intel doesn’t suggest air cooling for top end speed on Sandy Bridge E processors. Even its own branded cooler is a self-contained water cooling unit. With the proliferation of such units today, there isn’t much of a reason to complain here. Still anyone who has the desire to use air coolers with the platform should be aware of the footprint constraints.

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As stated above, the DIMM slots are too close to the CPU socket. The memory slots flank either side of the CPU and are a bit closer than I’d like. This isn’t a failing of the board design, in itself, but a result of all modern platforms which are compatible with CPUs that have integrated memory controllers although we do see deviations in space here from board to board.

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The X79 chipset is a unified chipset. This means that there isn’t a dedicated north bridge. Those functions provided by the north bridge in the past are now integral to the CPU or have been moved to the south bridge. As a result, the single component of the X79 chipset, is located where the south bridge was on older designs. The chipset is cooled by a large and flat heat sink with a heat pipe running through it. While Intel typically goes light on the cooling, they’ve done a fairly good job here as many X79 boards use a simple passive design. Directly in front of the south bridge are the SATA ports. There are no additional / third-party drive controllers. Because of this, all these SATA ports are connected to the chipset’s C600 series drive controller.

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Intel’s expansion slot area is solid. The CMOS battery is actually in a place where it could be reachable in most machines without pulling cards out. The one thing Intel does with its boards that I really get behind is the almost complete lack of legacy I/O options. There is only a single PCI slots in the expansion area. It’s still a bit more than I’d like, but I realize I’m probably in the minority on that. Still slots are spaced evenly for 2 and 3 card configurations. None of the slots are "useless."

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The rear I/O panel is free of legacy stuff save for the IEEE1394 port. There are 6 USB 2.0 ports, 2 USB 3.0 ports, 2 RJ-45 ports, one clear CMOS button, 5 mini-stereo jacks, and a single optical output. There is actually quite a bit of unused space on the back plane. I’d love to have seen some eSATA ports or additional USB 3.0 ports.