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Intel Sandy Bridge Extreme Core i7 3960X Review

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Closer Look:

It seems that with each successive launch of a new chipset, Intel's motherboards have gotten better. With the DX58SO, the overclocked speeds possible were limited by a weak BIOS and massive vdroop on the vcore. Socket 1156 Kingsburg boards saw an increase in scaling with less vdroop and the socket 1155 Burrage board really hit the mark for use with the K-SKU Core i7 2600K and Core i5 2500K processors. For the socket 2011 launch, Intel has equipped the DX79SI (Siler) motherboard with a full feature set, great overclocking tools, and looks that are decidedly top shelf. The packaging for the DX79SI takes a page out of the aftermarket book. The front cover shows the skull emblem that has become a hallmark on Intel boards over the last few launches. The eyes peer all the way into the inside of the package to show a glimpse of the DX79SI. The front also shows the Intel branding and lists some of the basic specifications. The front panel lifts up to show the area around the CPU socket and quad-channel DIMM sockets. On the rear of the package is a view of the DX79SI in its entirety with some features pointed out, such as the Back To BIOS switch, BIOS vault technology, USB 3.0, and quad-channel memory support. Intel equips the board with a solid three-year warranty. Multi-GPU solutions from both NVIDIA and AMD are supported.















Inside the package, the DX79SI is in a large plastic shell with the accessory bundle stored underneath. The bundle may not be full retail in size, but it includes what is needed for the testing of the board. Highlights are a temperature sensor, mousepad, and dual- and tri-SLI bridge connections.



Pulled out of the packaging, we can finally get a look at the DX79SI. Intel used a black and blue theme that is pretty popular at this point in time. The DX79SI is an ATX form factor motherboard built around the Intel X79 PCH chipset and LGA2011 socket, supporting socket 2011 Core i7 and Xeon processors. On the back side of the DX79SI is the large socket retention plate. Its large size is needed due to the size of the LGA2011 socket. Screws hold on the heat sink package for a secure mount.



The trip around the DX79SI begins with the I/O panel. Much like the last four boards I have looked at from Intel, Intel has done away with the PS/2 ports for use with a keyboard or mouse and are strictly USB now. At the left is the Back to BIOS switch to get you out of trouble when a bad batch of settings has been applied. This button only works to force a default parameter boot into the BIOS maintenance menu without writing over the saved settings in the BIOS. There are two USB 3.0 ports, six USB 2.0 ports, a pair of Gigabit RJ-45 LAN ports, a single IEEE 1394 port, and the analog and digital ports for the 8-channel RealTek ALC892-based sound solution. Expansion ports come in the form of three 16x PCIe 3.0 slots (two 16x and one 8x, electrically), two 1x PCIe, and a single PCI slot.



Across the bottom of the board are the connection points for the front panel audio, one of the four fan headers that feature PWM control, on-board power and reset buttons, an IEEE 1394 header, front panel connectivity for the power and reset buttons, as well as the HDD and Power LEDs, a single USB 3.0 header, BIOS jumper, and four USB headers that bring the total USB 2.0 ports on board to fourteen. Above the power and reset buttons, Intel has installed a debug LED to help with diagnosing boot problems.



On the right side of the PCB are four black SATA 3Gb/s that support RAID 0, RAID 1, RAID 0+1 (or RAID 10), and RAID 5. Just above the 3Gb/s ports are a pair of SATA 6Gb/s ports followed up by another of the 4-pin PWM-controlled fan headers. Past that is the 24-pin ATX power connection and four of the eight DDR3 dimm slots.



Across the top of the PCB there is not much to see with the exception of the 8-pin auxiliary power connection and 4-pin fan header.



Surrounding the LGA 2011 socket on the DX79SI are a total of eight 240-pin DIMM slots that support up to 64GB of DDR3 memory. Single, dual, triple and quad channel configurations are supported with speeds of 2400/2133/1866/1600/1333/1066 MHz DDR3 SDRAM DIMM. To reach the higher speeds, you will need modules that have the overclocking margins and a good memory controller on the processor. XMP 1.3 performance profile support is available for memory speeds above 1600 MHz. Intel has worked with the market and all the big names will have memory available at launch. Voltage support is 1.65v and lower, down to 1.35v. The recommended voltage level is the JEDEC spec for DDR3 memory of 1.5v.


As large as the Second Generation Core i7 3960X is, the LGA 2011 is correspondingly huge. All LGA 2011 processors are supported, from the four-core i7 3820 to the six-core i7 3960X, all of which support overclocking. Instead of a single-release lever, the package uses dual-release levers to ensure even pressure to the pins in the socket. The release mechanism is keyed so that to release one the other has to be released. Marked on the retention plate is the sequence that the levers must be opened and closed. The retention mechanism is manufactured by LOTES. Heat sink retention is much different than in the past. Instead of small holes through the PCB, a series of four threaded bosses are used to attach the heat sink, from the lowly $20 Intel air cooler to the upper end air and liquid cooling solutions.




The heat sink package used by Intel is spread over the board and covers the power circuits of the DX79SI, as well as the X79 PCH. A three part solution is used with each heat sink held on with spring-loaded screws. The PCH heat sink is interconnected via a heat pipe for more efficient operation with airflow from the installed CPU cooling solution.



Intel has put together a fully featured board that leverages the technologies of the CPU package with plenty of tools for the enthusiast to increase the performance over and above that delivered by Intel's Turbo Boost technology. Intel's overclocking assistant in the BIOS makes this process even easier if tweaking for performance and the BIOS options are a little much. By contrast, those who do tweak can use the tool to find some good baseline starting points for overclocking based on the data that Intel has acquired through its testing of the platform.

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