GIGABYTE X99 Designare EX LGA2011-v3 Review

I have no idea what "Designare" means but it sounds fancy. Come to think of it the X99 Designare EX is pretty fancy. It comes complete with ambient lighting, tons of storage and networking features, 3-Way SLI support and a ton of other stuff. The X99 Designare EX also has quite the price tag to go with it.

Introduction

GIGABYTE is one of the world’s leading motherboard manufacturers, and at present one of the longest lived of the well-known brands. . Like many companies, GIGABYTE got its start in the 1980s and has grown into a huge enterprise. GIGABYTE is publically traded and has more than a billion dollars in annual revenue. With over 7,000 employees worldwide, the company has a surprisingly smallfoot print given how many markets the company operates in. In part, the computing industry is volatile and therefore companies that do not adapt tend to die out. Because of this GIGABYTE, like many of its competitors has branched out to include product lines and markets that aren’t traditionally PC oriented. Today GIGABYTE makes servers, server motherboards, laptops, desktops, desktop motherboards, mobile devices, cases, embedded systems, graphics cards and more. Even with all this diversification, GIGABYTE remains best known for its motherboard business. Its DIY enthusiast desktop computer products are known the world over for their innovation, quality, and stability.

We’ve worked with more GIGABYTE motherboards over the years than I could easily recount. This is due to the wide range of price points, feature sets, and platforms that GIGABYTE makes motherboards for. They have plenty of sub-$100 models and motherboards that cost upwards of $600 or more. In the enthusiast market GIGABYTE, now more than ever is attempting to drive market innovation and set the standard for what a motherboard should be. It’s a competitive space with MSI, ASUS and ASRock being its primary competition. Like anything else, there are pros and cons to going with GIGABYTE compared to other manufacturers offerings. GIGABYTE is often times price competitive with ASUS and MSI, but generally more expensive than ASRock offerings usually are. I believe there is good reason for that, but that’s practically a topic of its own and somewhat beyond the scope of this article.

What we’ve seen over the last few years is the transition of the desktop from a general purpose computing device for web surfing, E-Mail, business, content creation and gaming into a platform that’s more of a niche with content creation or gaming being the last bastion of desktop powerhouses. The business class "beige" box is virtually gone. What was once considered the "black" tower alternative is now a "Las Vegas" style strip of fancy RBG lighting, water pumps, fans, and sometimes power that dwarfs that of many server systems on the highest end of the spectrum. We often see cases with virtually limitless hardware configurations. Despite this, there is still a great deal of market segmentation in various product lines which can often be confusing.

MSI and until recently, ASUS have both had very solid and straight forward marketing with regard to motherboards. Models intended for workstation or content creators primarily, are generally differentiated as such while gaming models are clearly identified by a given series or by having "Gaming" in the name. ASUS still does this but with various subsets of models appearing within other product lines. GIGABYTE’s branding is getting more confusing with the addition of the GSM "GIGABYTE Stable Models," Ultra-Durable, Overclocking Series, G1 Gaming, and Extreme Computing motherboards. There is some overlap between the features and functionality that are offered with these various series’ and product lines. You can obviously overclock on all of these, but the overclocking series has features specific for LN2 cooling which the others lack. You can play games on all of them, but again the G1 Gaming caters to that crowd a bit more than some of the others. The Extreme Computing as near as I can tell is sort of a bridge between the G1 Gaming and workstation type market. The motherboards are built like you’d expect on the latter, with generally conservative styling. Although RGB lighting is present on the "EX" series motherboards as it is on the G1 series. If you look at ASUS’ product lines, the GIGABYTE marketing approach is relatively close although the naming is more confusing on the GIGABYTE side. MSI basically does it with gaming branding and focus being applied to nearly all it does. There is a handful of non-Gaming branded MSI motherboards, but they tend to be budget or OEM type offerings.

I bring the subject of marketing and product naming up because the motherboard we are looking at in this article needs some context. The GIGABYTE X99 Designare EX is part of the Extreme Computing line, whatever that means. It seems similar to ASUS’ X99 Deluxe II in that it has a ton of similar features and while it isn’t necessarily aimed at gamers it offers a lot of what any gamer or general computing enthusiast could desire. The X99 Designare EX even has a similar black / white color scheme although the RGB lighting separates it from the earlier X99 Deluxe we reviewed when Haswell-E launched.

When Intel launched its Z170 Express chipset, motherboard manufacturers made a number of strides technologically and feature wise which in some ways make X99 look like less than the premium platform it should be. In order to make the HEDT platform more attractive, GIGABYTE and its competitors have launched a number of X99 "refresh" motherboards that bring them closer to parity with those more advanced Z170 Express based offerings, while offering the advantages and features the HEDT platform is known for. To this end we’ve seen expansion slots and memory slots gain steel reinforcement, the addition of USB 3.1 controllers, Thunderbolt 3 support and fancy RGB lighting. GIGABYTE in particular has taken this opportunity to advance its software. The X99 refresh motherboard we are looking at here is the first we’ve seen with an all new from the ground up UEFI and some other improvements which we’ll get into as we move through each topic of our motherboard coverage.

Article Image

As its name implies, the X99 Designare EX is based on Intel’s X99 Express chipset and is designed for LGA 2011-v3 compatible processors. The voltage subsystem on the X99 Designare EX is probably one of the most robust and well-built I have ever seen. Around the CPU socket you will find several International Rectifier IR3580 and IR3556 PWMs with Cooper Bussman server grade chokes and 10k black capacitors in an 8-phase power with digital controls. The driver ICs combine the low and high sides into a single, efficient package. GIGABYTE has made a number of improvements to the already impressive feature set found on many of its X99 offerings.

The X99 Designare EX has support for type 22110 or 110mm M.2 devices, dual U.2 ports, SATA Express, 10x SATA ports, USB 3.0 and USB 3.1, improved fan control, onboard "Ambient Surround" LED lighting, an RGB LED header, Intel wireless AC7420, Bluetooth 4.2, dual Intel NICs, and more. Built with overclocking in mind, GIGABYTE once again uses its Turbo B-Clock feature which is an external clock generator that allows for base clock frequency adjustments in a range of 90-500MHz. This is far more flexibility than the LGA 2011-v3 CPUs are actually capable of using, but the idea is that base clock should never be a limiting factor when overclocking with the X99 Designare EX. GIGABYTE is also very proud of its new anti-sulfur resistor design which increases prevents corrosion in the resistors. I’m not sure how necessary this really is, but this improvement theoretically increases the motherboards environmental durability. That can’t be a bad thing and it’s something to think about when buying a motherboard to be used in more hazardous environments.

Main Specifications Overview:

Article Image

Detailed Specifications Overview:

Article Image

Packaging

Article Image Article Image Article Image

Article Image Article Image Article Image Article Image

The packaging is what you would expect for a premium motherboard part. The box is elegant and has the usual box flap and window showcasing the motherboard’s heat sinks and PCB. Our sample arrived intact with the following accessories: User manual, multilingual installation guidebook, I/O shield, DisplayPort cable, RBG LED strip extension, wireless antenna, SATA cables, SATA cable labels, Ultra Durable case badge, SLI bridge, 3-Way SLI bridge, driver disc, wireless setup & utility disc, G-connector block, Velcro straps, and lastly, a 3 to 1 8-pin CPU power cable. The last one is an interesting beast as it allows you to plug up to three 8-pin CPU power connectors into one for insertion into the motherboard. Often times HEDT motherboards will have two 8-pin CPU plugs. In this case GIGABYTE only has one physical port on the board but allows for multiple 8-pin cables to supply power through it.

One additional note; GIGABYTE has joined MSI in cloning the ASUS Q-Connectors, although GIGABYTE took this a step further and actually improved the design. The GIGABYTE version has clips on the back side of the cable block that holds the attached front panel cables in place. If you weren’t especially careful, the cables on the ASUS and MSI versions would sometimes come off the block and you’d have to reattach them. Often times I wouldn’t use the block feeling as though the connections to the motherboard stayed in place better. The G-Connectors really give you no reason not to use them. GIGABYTE has a very solid accessory bundle here with very little fluff that has little to no use. The included accessories add to the premium feel of the product.

Board Layout

Article Image

The layout of the X99 Designare EX is good but not perfect. One complaint I have is that a motherboard sold at this price point should have onboard power and reset buttons. This isn’t something I feel is a deal breaker, but it would be nice to have those controls. I think it’s more important in the overclocking series than the "Extreme Computing" series, but again it would have been nice to have. A few generations ago that feature was practically standard in a lot of price points and I miss it. The motherboard’s aesthetics are really nice in my opinion. I usually think GIGABYTE tends to choose more colors than they should, or I don’t like the color ratios of the base color vs. it’s contrasting color. In this case I think GIGABYTE did well. Despite the chosen aesthetic, the X99 Designare EX comes across as more "mature" than many gaming focused offers do. The white heat sinks have blue accents that rest against the black PCB add good contrast without reaching gaudy proportions. There isn’t any faux gold, tin I/O shrouds or anything cheap looking here. The quality of the finishing work on the heat sinks is excellent. Overall, the X99 Designare EX feels like a well-built product. It has quite possibly the straightest PCB I’ve ever seen and very high quality soldering work. The weight of the motherboard with its large heat sinks, expansion and memory slot reinforcements is substantial for a motherboard. If someone breaks into your house at night and your defensive choices are a hammer or the X99 Designare EX, I’d opt for the latter. It has corners and I think it just might hurt more than the hammer.

The ambient LED lights default to a blue color and accent the motherboard quite nicely as it compliments that slight blue accent found on the white heat sinks. All the vented areas on the heat sinks emit the light. On some motherboards the LEDs are simply surface mounted and look somewhat cheesy. The location of the M.2 slot is by far the biggest and most glaring flaw in the X99 Designare EX’s layout. The slot sits underneath a metal shroud, sandwiched between the primary PCI-Express x16 slot and the secondary. This is a very bad place to locate the M.2 slot. Any M.2 drive that runs in this slot is certainly going to run hotter than it would in another location. GIGABYTE should have put this between two slots further down, or in another orientation such as the way it’s done on the Rampage V Extreme or the MSI Z170A GAMING M9 ACK. GIGABYTE does provide dual U.2 ports, so depending on your SSD choice this may be a non-issue.

Article Image Article Image

The CPU socket area is packed with stuff, but nothing that would interfere with the installation of most cooling hardware. There are some considerations that have to be taken into account when going with air cooling and the use of taller memory modules. This isn’t specific to this motherboard, but rather any that I’ve seen which support CPUs that have integrated memory controllers. In addition, the CPU socket features 15μ gold plating for corrosion resistance and optimal conductivity.

Article Image Article Image

The X99 Designare EX has a total of eight 288-pin DDR4 DIMM slots each supporting modules up to 16GB in size for a total of 128GB of DDR 4 memory. Speed of up to 3400MHz can be achieved through overclocking assuming your particular LGA 2011-v3 CPU can handle that. Unfortunately, or fortunately, these sockets are not color coded to denote the proper memory configuration for either dual, or quad-channel memory mode operation. This is likely an aesthetic design choice as aesthetics are often dominating factors in motherboard designs provided that these design choices don’t interfere too much with general functionality. The GIGABYTE X99 Designare EX features a number of aesthetic features like RGB lighting and a high contrast monochromatic look which strongly supports this idea.

What’s interesting is that GIGABYTE has chosen to add its one-piece stainless steel "memory armor" to the DIMM slots. Not only does this metal bracketing provide some reinforcement to a high stress area of the PCB where stress occurs during memory insertion, but it provides a high quality aesthetic value as well. Indeed, the X99 Designare EX shows virtually no signs of give when installing modules so this seems to work to some degree at the very least. Even if it didn’t, it’s hard to argue that it looks good when looking at the entire motherboard. The memory subsystem uses a 2+1 phase power subsystem with digital PWMs. All of which are provided by International Rectifier, just as the CPU power phases are.

Article Image Article Image Article Image

The chipset is cooled via an extremely large, yet aesthetically pleasing white and blue heat sink. It is a low profile design which will not interfere with the expansion slots. Embedded "vents" have the ambient LEDs in them that light up and change color depending on the user settings. Directly in front of this are multiple SATA 10Gb/s ports, SATA Express and 2x U.2 ports. Just left of the chipset heat sink, you’ll find the front panel connector block and various front panel headers.

Article Image Article Image

The expansion slot area is almost perfect. I say nearly perfect because the location of the M.2 slot is somewhat unfortunate. The way the slots are spaced, you can see GIGABYTE was just leveraging what they had in terms of PCB real estate. Still this would have been better if located on the left most edge of the board, or above the primary PCI-Express slot. There is a metal shroud which covers the M.2 slot. This must be removed in order to access the slot. It is easy to remove and far more difficult to reinstall due to the guide tab at the back of the expansion slot area. GIGABYTE did up its game here and now supports 110mm long M.2 devices. Up until now, GIGABYTE stuck with 80mm long slots in most if not all cases. There is also a wireless controller in another M.2 slot in the expansion slot area. This slot is for WiFi adapters only.

The X99 Designare EX has 5x PCI-Express x16 slots. The first three operate at x16 speeds while the 4th and 5th operate at x8 and x4 speeds respectively. Keep in mind that all these slots do share bandwidth with the various SATA Express, U.2 and M.2 ports on the motherboard. Your final PCIe lane allocation could be quite different in multi-GPU configurations depending on how your storage is configured. One interesting bit of information here is that GIGABYTE employs a PLEX PLX8747 chip to handle switching and lane multiplexing duties. This enables 3-Way SLI / Crossfire when a 28 lane CPU is used. Given this is part of GIGABYTE’s Extreme Computing series, it has more of a professional air to it than your standard Gaming G1 motherboards would. This was GIGABYTE’s intent, and the X99 Designare EX is certified and supported with NVIDIA’s Quadro line of professional GPUs.

GIGABYTE also employs a patented double locking bracket for its expansion slots. These slots all use a one-piece stainless steel "PCIe Armor" shield which reinforces the expansion slots. According to the manufacturer, this allows for increased shearing force resistance and over three times the retention force of conventional slots. While video cards can get extremely heavy, I’m not sure how much of this was born out of necessity and how much of it is marketing gimmicks that are currently being copied all over the industry. Companies like GIGABYTE, ASUS and MSI are almost as bad as firearms manufacturers who try to give everything a tactical edge. The marketing literature for the X99 Designare EX even has a picture of a tank on it where you get to the part about sulfur resistant capacitors.

Article Image Article Image

The I/O panel offers a wide range of connectivity options. This includes the wireless antenna connectors, 1x PS/2 keyboard or mouse port, 5x USB 3.0 ports, 1x USB 3.1 Type-C, 1x USB Type-A, 2x Gigabit RJ-45 ports, 5x mini-stereo headphone jacks and 1x optical output for audio. You may also notice that there is a DisplayPort connection available here. This is odd as there is no integrated GPU support. GIGABYTE’s product page for the X99 Designare EX shows that this is for a future upgrade. This is obviously for Thunderbolt 3 certification, but the certification process is incredibly slow or so I’m told. There is no guarantee that this certification is forthcoming, but the hardware implementation is there for it. A firmware update will be required to enable that functionality should the X99 Designare EX pass certification.

The I/O shield is once again the basic stamped piece of tin that we are starting to see on all the premium motherboards as a cost cutting measure. While nicer I/O shields often seemed under-appreciated, I always liked it when they offered backlit port markings, padding and were actually colored in a way that might match your chassis for a nice OEM look instead of this ghetto piece of tin. In fairness, ASUS is doing this too so it isn’t a surprise that GIGABYTE followed suit. For a $400 motherboard, this would be unacceptable if this were an accessory that was more essential, rather than just cosmetic. It always floors me to see companies spend tons of money on fancy boxes we’ll never see again after the system is built, or including more cables, brackets and gimmicks that we’ll never use while going cheap on something that’s actually going to be the part of virtually every build that the motherboard will be a part of. Open air cases notwithstanding.

Article Image