Sapphire Pure Black 990FX Review
Reviewed by: formerstaff
Reviewed on: November 4, 2012
Last year, in a bit of an odd move, the 990/950 AMD AM3+ motherboards built for the Bulldozer CPUs were released a few months ahead of the CPUs themselves, and the 990 AM3+ boards were roundly reviewed. About the same time that talk and speculation about the release of the second generation Piledriver CPUs was being discussed, there were rumors of a new 1090/1050 chipset that would accompany the new release. The new chipset did not come to fruition, whether it was actually never on the map or pure speculation from the get go nobody seems to know, but It does bring the 990FX motherboards back into play with what initially appears to be a successful release of the Vishera Piledriver CPUs.
The main reason for the release of the 990FX boards was stated as the new CPU architecture needed a beefier and more stable power delivery phasing, as only the higher end 890 chipset motherboards were made backwards compatible with a BIOS update. Perhaps with the Vishera being more efficient with its power requirements, the need for the alleged 1090/1050 was dropped as being redundant.
Today we have the Sapphire 990FX Pure Black motherboard on our bench; the company's one and only entrance into the AMD AM3+ high end category. As with all of the 990FX boards, Sapphire touts the Pure Black as being the choice for the enthusiast, heavy overclocking user with all the signs and features for those who push their chps to the limit. Let's have a look, heat it up, and see if it belongs with the big dogs.
Sapphire has packaged the Pure Black in one of the better looking retail boxes I have seen. As a matter of fact, you could call it understated sitting on the shelf next to screaming, "look at me first " packages; the Pure Black is just that, a good looking Black box with the main features of the board lined up along the bottom third of the box. While not much is to be gleaned from the sides of the box other than the serial number, SKU, and part number. The other side hosts a specification list in what is bordering on micro print. The back of the box goes into a bit more of the Pure Black philosophy. This consists of three ideals: Pure speed, Pure features, and Pure reliability. Popping the box open you get the first glimpse of the accessory bundle and the board in a static resistant bag secured tightly in a form fitting box and sitting atop a black foam insert.
The bundle for the Pure Black is to the average/slim side with a conspicuous missing item. You get half a dozen SATA cables, driver disc, rear I/O plate, a 3.5" USB 3.0 bay with an alternate rear knockout plate, and a quick-start guide. What is missing is a full manual. The QS guide is multi-lingual and enough to get you up and running if you are a more advanced user, but only ten pages are dedicated to the board setup with nothing regarding the BIOS or setup. This presents a few problems if, for example, you need the post debug code when your machine won't post, have a memory incompatibility, or HDD/SSD that is not being detected. You can download a full manual in PDF form from Sapphire's website of course, but if you are setting up your only machine, or don't have access to another during setup, you're kind of out in the cold. I actually ran into this during the setup of this test rig when I had an SSD MBR/GPT issue, and had I not known how to solve it, I would have been stuck.
Well that's what we have to work with hardware and accessory wise. Let's have a look at the board, aesthetics, and build quality.
The Pure Black is a full ATX board measuring in at 304x 244 mm. It is impressive that Sapphire managed to get a full featured, six PCIe slot, nine SATA, 14 USB port motherboard into a standard 12" x 9.6" ATX form factor with no interference issues.The board is covered with very attractive blue anodized heat sinks. The very large VRM and Northbridge are connected by a centered heat pipe. Both Northbridge and Southbridge heat sinks have a sliver aluminum plate emblazoned with the Sapphire name and logo and are very attractive. They look as if they should be up to the task of cooling quite well, and have the superior screw mounting system as opposed to the plastic push pin system. The board is laid out well with no interference issues. Sapphire uses a multilayer dark brown PCB like many manufacturers use for 'black' boards.' If you don't have to many lights in your case, it will appear black; if you have a well lit case, it will look brown. Sapphire also uses all high quality Japanese capacitors and Black Diamond chokes for its 8+2+2 phase CPU and DIMM power delivery.
The I/O panel has all the connectivity you will find on other boards of the same generation plus the addition of a Bluetooth v2.1 port that works at speeds of up to 3Mb/s. Also on the I/O panel are one PS/2 port, eight USB 2.0 ports, one coaxial S/PDIF out connector, one Optical S/PDIF out connection, oneeSATA port, dual RJ45 LAN ports, two USB 3.0 ports, and the standard array of six audio jacks supporting 8-channel High Definition audio using the Realtek ALC892 codec. Expansion opportunities include six PCIe x16 gen 2.0 slots double spaced for triple Crossfire at x16/x8/x8. The lower image is a better look at the Bluetooth transmitter in the I/O array. Overall the Pure Black gives you great USB connectivity with 12 USB 2.0 ports and four USB 3.0 ports (two on-board and two in the rear I/O panel).
From left to right on the bottom we have a 4-pin standard Molex for additional 5v and 12v power when using multiple graphic cards to stabilize high current draw and demand when running multiple high end GPUs. This is not something that your machine won't run without, but helps to stabilize the GPUs when using an intense graphic program. Next we have a red button that is an onboard clear CMOS button. Next to that a pair of onboard power and reset buttons great for use while building your system or chassis-less benchmarking builds. Lastly a BIOS select switch for the dual BIOS feature. With this you can flip over in the case of a bad BIOS flash, or try out a new or beta BIOS.
On the right bottom of the board we have the system speaker that blurts out all of those Morse-like codes we all love so much, a pair of USB 2.0 connections, and a system fan 3-pin header. Next is the Diagnostic LED that provides a two digit post code to help troubleshoot boot failures. After the system successfully boots it displays the current CPU temperature. Next and last are the color-coded standard front panel connectors for power, reset, and HDD LED.
On the right side of the board we have the drive connectivity that consists of eight SATA 3.0 ports. Another ninth SATA port is mounted vertically behind the I/O panel in between the VRM heat sink. This is a great location for a rear accessed eSATA port. S1-S3 are controlled by the AMD SB950 chip and work at speeds up to 6Gb/s. These ports support RAID 0, 1, 10, and 5. The S4-S5 are controlled by the Marvell 9172 chip and also work at 6Gb/s speeds and support RAID 0 and 1. Moving up the board we have a 20-pin USB 3.0 connector next to the 24-pin ATX power connection. Up on the top of the right side we have the four dual channel 240-pin DIMMS that support up to 32GB of 1.5v DDR3 1066/1333/1600 and 1866MHz RAM (higher frequency supported with OC).
At the top of the board we have the 8-pin CPU power connection and the ninth SATA 6Gb/s connection tucked away among the beefy heat sinks I mentioned earlier. There are also two fan headers, a 3-pin and a 4-pin PWN header and the black AM3+ socket with the standard slide lever pin retention plate. In the bottom left corner of the second image you can see the voltage test pads for getting ultra accurate voltage readings for the critical components of the board. In typical AMD layout, the DIMMs are located very close to the socket area for latency purposes, so take notice when using very large heat sinks where the fin array starts low on the heat pipes. This is typically not a problem with the lower voltage and lower profile RAM available today.
The bright blue heat sinks are a star feature of the Pure Black motherboard. The cooling is a three part, blue anodized aluminum solution. The VRM heat sink sits firmly held down by screws atop the MOSFETs and is connected to the Northbridge heat sink with a nickel plated heat pipe. The Southbridge heat sink is also anodized and is standalone from the VRM and Northbridge. Both the Northbridge and the Southbridge have Sapphire emblems on bright aluminum plates. Although looking the part size-wise and being screwed down firmly, the VRM heat sink seems to run very warm for some reason sitting above 60 °C at idle in 22 °C ambient temperatures. The thermal pad being used was like cement when I removed it and temperatures dropped by 17 °C - 20 °C when I applied a quality thermal compound.
So we have a motherboard with high quality components and features that should be in the running amongst the higher end AMD overclocking motherboards.
Sapphire has adopted a kind of hybrid UEFI BIOS called QBIOS. There is nothing about navigating it in the quick start guide, but fortunately it is rather intuitive.
The main section of the QBIOS is where you will find the BIOS version information, total system memory, and access level status. You can see at the bottom of the screen there are three sections that monitor frequencies, voltages, and system temperatures. These windows are at the bottom of all the BIOS tabs and update every two seconds. The changes made do not appear here until after a change is made and the system is restarted.
The performance tab is where the majority of overclocking settings are made. From here you can set and control the CPU frequency, memory dividers and timings, and the system voltages.
The advanced section of QBIOS is where you will find PCI subsystem settings, ACPI settings, CPU configuration as well as the IDE and USB configurations. The HW monitor tab will give you real time temperature and voltage readings and the thermal settings limit. In this section you will also find the power saving schemes and the ability to enable or disable them. You can also enable or disable one core per module.
The chipset tab provides information and control over the Northbridge and Southbridge settings. Included in the Northbridge settings are memory bank interleaving, channel interleaving, and memory hole mapping. In the Southbridge settings you have the controls for different SATA modes.
Under the Boot tab you have all of the settings for the type of boot devices, number of them, and the order and priority. You can also enable Fast Boot, which skips some of the POST checks for a faster boot provided your computer has no hardware conflicts such as memory problems or incompatibilities.
Security is simply where you set the administrator and user passwords, if you wish to have one.
The Exit tab allows you to make or discard changes before leaving the BIOS to boot. Here you can restore defaults, use optimized defaults, or save your overclocked changes.
I like the updated look of the QBIOS from Sapphire. It can feel a bit clunky at times and the voltages set in the BIOS don't always show up correctly or are off quite a bit at times, but it is mostly intuitive and gives you plenty of control for an overclocking environment. On the next page have a look at the specifications and then we'll load it up and put the screws to it.
Supports AMD Socket AM3+ FX™/ AM3 Phenom™ II/ Athlon™ II/ Sempron™ 100 Series processors
AMD™ 990FX + AMD™SB950 Chipset
AMI BIOS, 16Mb Flash ROM
16 GB Max.
Dual Channel 240 pins DDR3 up to 1866/1600MHz, non-ECC, Unbuffered memory
2 x PCI Express 2.0 x16 slots
2 x PCI Express 2.0 x8 slots
2 x PCI Express 2.0 x4 slots
9 x Serial ATA III 6Gb/s connectors
Supports HDDs with RAID 0, 1,5,10 functions
Supports HDDs with RAID 0, 1 functions
Realtek ALC892 HD Audio CODEC with 8-Channel
Dual Marvell 88E8057 PCI-Express Gigabit LAN
Rear Panel I / O
8 x USB 2.0 port
2 x USB 3.0 port
1 x SPDIF Coaxial OUT
1 x Audio I / O ports
1 x SPDIF Optical Out
1 x Supporting Bluetooth® 2.1 + EDR by Atheros AR3011
1 x e-SATA port
PS/2 KB/MS combo port
Dual RJ- 45 Gigabit LAN with ESD
Internal I / O
4 x USB 2.0 headers
4 pins CPU PWM Fan connectors
3 Pin Chassis Fan connectors
24-pin ATX Power connector
8-pin ATX 12V Power connector
Control (Front) panel headers
4-pin ATX 12V Power connector
2 x USB 3.0 headers
Audio I/O (Front) header
SPDIF out header
CMOS clear Button
Dual BIOS select switch with indicator LED
ATX, Size 304x 244 mm
Windows 7 (32/64) bit
- Onboard diagnostic 7-Segment LED with CPU temperature display
- Onboard buttons include Clear CMOS, RESET and POWER
- Supports Windows based OC utility ‚Trixx and Win7 HW monitor gadget tool
- USB power charge utility
- Supports all USB ports under Windows 7
Testing the Sapphire 990FX Pure Black will involve running it through OCC's test suite of benchmarks, which includes both synthetic benchmarks and real-world applications, to see how each of these products perform. The gaming tests will also consist of both synthetic benchmarks and actual game-play, in which we can see if similarly prepared setups offer any performance advantages. The system will receive a fully updated, fresh install of Windows 7 Professional 64-bit edition, in addition to the latest drivers for each board and the latest AMD Catalyst drivers for the XFX HD 7970. To ensure as few variables as possible, all hardware will be tested at their stock speeds, timings, voltages, and latencies – unless otherwise stated. Turbo Boost is disabled to make a fair comparison without skewing results.
- Processors: AMD FX-8150
- CPU Cooling: Corsair Hydro Series H100
- Motherboard: Sapphire Pure Black 990FX
- Memory: Mushkin 993997 Redline PC317000 9-11-10-28 8GB
- Video Card: XFX HD 7970 Black Edition
- Power Supply: Corsair AX1200
- Hard Drive: Corsair Force GT 240GB SATA 3
- Optical Drive: Lite-On Blu-Ray
- Case: Corsair Obsidian 650D
- OS: Windows 7 Professional 64-bit
- AMD FX-8150 @ 4.6GHz (200 x 23)
Overclocking on the Sapphire Pure Black was a challenge despite having all the controls and an unlocked multiplier. What seemed stable during one boot up suddenly became unstable or even unbootable the next. I started to notice that the BIOS readings in several cases were up to 70MHz higher than read by CPU-Z. The voltage settings also seemed to not want to take hold, keeping in mind that all of the power saving features and states were disabled.
I ran several instances of OCCT stress test and noticed some bizarre and drastic voltage drops from time to time. By wild I mean beyond what would I would consider "normal" for a motherboard without LLC. I traded out power supplies to eliminate this as a suspect but came to the same result. After several more boots this finally stopped and I was able to achieve a stable overclock of 4.6GHz on the FX-8150. Not bad by any means, but it is on a CPU that has shown to carry a 5.0GHz stable OC on motherboards equipped with LLC. I am not sure if this has anything to do with the board being updated to the latest BIOS, and perhaps this will be stabilized with subsequent updates as this does not seem to have been the typical experience with this board. I have been dealing with Sapphire products for a long time and find them to be top shelf quality. I lean towards this being an isolated event that may have involved a peripheral incompatibility or that will be fixed with a BIOS update for the new CPUs, but I will leave that determination to the reader.
Sapphire has included a utility called TriXX. TriXX gives you limited control of various voltages and CPU in an FSB or HT clock. Oddly though it does not let you adjust the unlocked multiplier of AMD FX CPUs. TriXX also monitors critical system voltages and temperatures.
Each CPU and motherboard has been tested for stability at the clock speeds listed when in an overclocked state. These clock speeds will be used to run the test suite and will show the performance increase over the stock settings in the overclocked scoring.
Scientific & Data:
- PCMark 7
- HD Tune 5.0
- AIDA64 2.50
- Sandra 2012 SP6
- HandBrake 9.8
- ATTO 2.47
- 3DMark 11
- DiRT 3
- Battlefield 3
PCMark 7 is the latest iteration of Futuremark's popular PCMark system performance tool. This version is designed for use on Windows 7 PCs and features a combination of 25 different workloads to accurately measure the performance of all PCs from laptops to desktops.
The two boards trade places at the top by slim margins when tested at stock frequencies. The UD7 however comes out in the lead in every overclock test due to its better overclocking ability.
HD Tune measures disk performance to make comparisons between drives or disk controllers.
AIDA64 Extreme Edition is a software utility designed to be used for hardware diagnosis and benchmarking. I will be using the CPU Queen test that looks for the solution for the "Queens" problem on a 10x10 chessboard. This tests the branch-prediction capabilities of the processor. The FPU Mandel test measures double precision floating point performance through computation of several frames of the "Mandelbrot" fractal.
The two boards trade places again or run dead even until the overclocking portion, where the UD7 takes top spots again.
SiSoft Sandra is a diagnostic utility and synthetic benchmarking program. Sandra allows you to view your hardware at a higher level to be more helpful. For this benchmark, I will be running a broad spectrum of tests to gauge the performance of key functions of the CPUs.
X.264 Benchmark: This benchmark is used to measure the time it takes to encode a 1080p video file into the x264 format. The default benchmark is used with an average of all four tests on each pass taken as the result.
HandBrake 9.5 is an open source application used to transcode multiple video formats to an h.264 output format. The test file size is a 4GB full length movie that is reduced in size to a 1.5GB file.
The same tune here. The UD7 seems to have an advantage at stock speeds but nothing substantial until the 250MHz+ overclock takes over.
Moving data to and from an external device is something we all do as a means of backing up sensitive data, whether it be family pictures, movies, music, or projects. The speed with which this transfer occurs is measurable and can improve with different tools. I will be using ATTO version 2.47 to measure an external drive's read/write performance through the USB 3.0 interface. The default test algorithm is used for this test.
These results surprised me a bit. I would have guessed that one of them would have been better at one end of the range. Instead they are near dead even at all the tested block sizes.
3DMark11 is the next installment for Futuremark in the 3DMark series, with Vantage as its predecessor. 3DMark11 was designed solely for DirectX 11, so Windows Vista or 7 are required alongside a DirectX 11 graphics card in order to run this test. The Basic Edition gives unlimited free tests on performance mode, whereas Vantage only allows for a single test run. The Advanced Edition costs $19.95 and unlocks nearly all features of the benchmark, while the Professional Edition runs for $995.00 and is mainly suited for corporate use. The new benchmark contains six tests, four of which are aimed only at graphical testing – one that tests physics handling and one that combines graphics and physics testing together. The open source Bullet Physics Library is used for physics simulations and although not as mainstream as Havok or PhysX, it still remains a popular choice.
The new benchmark comes with two new demos that can be watched; both of which are based on the tests, but unlike the tests, contain basic audio. The first demo is titled "Deep Sea" and involves a number of vessels exploring what looks to be a sunken U-Boat. The second demo is titled "High Temple" and displays a location similar to South American tribal ruins, with statues and the occasional vehicle. The demos are simple in that they have no story, but really demonstrate testing conditions. The vehicles have the logos of the sponsors, MSI and Antec, on the sides, helping to make the Basic Edition free. The four graphics tests are slight variants of the demos. I will use the three benchmark test preset levels to find the performance of each card. The presets are used because they are comparable to what can be run with the free version, so results can be compared across more than just a custom set of test parameters.
- Default test settings
- Entry test: 1024 x 600
- Performance test: 1280 x 720
- Extreme test: 1920 x 1080
DiRT 3 is the third iteration of this series. Published and developed by Codemasters, this game uses the EGO 2.0 game engine and was released in the US on PC in May of 2011.
- 8x MSAA
- Ultra Settings
Battlefield 3 is a first-person shooter video game developed by EA Digital Illusions CE and published by Electronic Arts. Battlefield 3 uses the Frostbyte 2 game engine and is the direct successor to Battlefield 2. Released in North America on October 25, 2011, the game supports DirectX 10 and 11.
- Game settings = Ultra
With the exception of the Performance and Extreme preset in 3DMark 11, the overclock really played no part in separating the two boards.
Taking a look or relook and evaluation of the AMD 990/950 chipset motherboards has been an interesting experience. CPU dies shrink and transistor density have gone into the billions with ever lessening voltage to send the on/off signals to all of them at ever increasing speed. The focus for these motherboards really turns to better and more efficient power delivery. Overclocking stopped being a "cheat" and something for only the most advanced users to toy with quite a few squares back. In fact, it can be confidently said that taking that extra performance holed up in these always improving and evolving pieces of silicon is the number one selling point of most any motherboard you care to consider these days. Despite the usual warning against overclocking, companies provide you every possibility to obtain the highest overclock you can get with minimal effort. This leaves me at a loss at times when reviewing some of these motherboards.
The Sapphire Pure Black 990FX is a beautifully crafted motherboard with a great layout and is made for the high end enthusiast who wants to stack up two or three big GPUs and and clock their CPU to maximum frequency. It is full of top notch solid capacitors, ferrite 'Diamond' chokes and a long row of transducers with 8+2+2 phase power delivery. With Bluetooth and dual LAN in the back, and heat sinks that look like they could cap off Chernobyl on the front, this really great board is missing one crucial feature to truly fulfill its intended purpose of being an overclock powerhouse. It needs Load Line Calibration or Control. While I was able to obtain a respectable overclock on the FX-8150 of 4.6GHz, the silicon will be stable at 5.0GHz on a board with LLC. It is a feature that I cannot explain the absence of on high end enthusiast boards today.
The Sapphire Pure Black is loaded with connectivity and features that rival the best boards out there. With onboard power/reset buttons, dual BIOS, and an onboard switch makes life easy for the enthusiast while trying out the latest BIOS update or overclock settings. The six PCIe x16 slots are among my favorite features for building a graphics monster build. The Sapphire Pure Black also has a feature I would like to see on more boards of this caliber: dual Ethernet ports. For the enthusiast, voltage pads can be found at the upper outer edge of the board for taking readings of important system voltages throughout the components.
It's also littered with nice indicator features for status and troubleshooting. The two digit post code debug LED will give you a code as to why the system is not passing POST. A three LED indicator to the right of the memory DIMMs lets you know when the system is functional, powered on, and/or in standby mode. The third LED indicator is found near the Dual BIOS chips and comes on yellow when the secondary BIOS is in operation and green when the primary BIOS is being used. Very nice features that speed up troubleshooting as well as alerting you to problems.
Although I personally prefer that "black" PCBs be jet black and not dark brown, the Sapphire Pure Black is really a handsome board. The black and blue color scheme is really made with the blue anodized heat sinks topped off with silver insignia plates. This board is one of the reasons that side windows were invented for on a case and would look great in concert with a liquid cooling system.
- Great looks
- Great board layout
- 6 x PCIe slots for Tri-fire
- Hybrid BIOS
- Bluetooth 2.1 + EDR
- Lack of LLC
- Northbridge runs warm
- Some BIOS settings don't translate to actual readings