Sapphire and ECS X79 Motherboard ReviewBluePanda - September 3, 2012
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Recently I've had reviews for video cards from Sapphire, and though I see it as a well doing company I still tend to forget Sapphire as a motherboard manufacturer. Sapphire does have an interesting line of motherboards and today we'll be looking at the Sapphire Pure Black X79N, one of its higher end boards and likely one of the more expensive X79 boards on the market today. The box is a black and chrome-esque style that attempts the premium look. Some circuitry drawings pull from the edges of the box to the center where they meet up with a Black X79N shield. The bottom edge of the box runs through the standard Intel support, chipset support, PCIe support, etc. The back of the board continues with the black and chrome-esque look as it outlines some of the "PURE" Features with an icon and brief description. The standard big blue Sapphire logo takes the lower right corner of the box. This is a box that begs to be opened – it looks elite without bragging about it on the box, and only a little flashy bling.
Opening up the box, as with any motherboard box, you are led to yet another box to open; this one is black and simple. Opening it up there's a neat bundle of cables, a USB 3.0 bracket, a back I/O panel cover, some Sapphire literature as well as a X79N Manual. Beneath all that is the board! However, with a "Pure Black" edition board, I was kind of expecting to not see a lot of color. There seems to be a bit of Sapphire Blue on this Pure Black design. I hate to say it but it's harder and harder to find another all-black board after retiring my Gigabyte 990FX board last year; at least the PCB appears to be all black.
Pulled out of the packaging we can get a closer look at the goodies that came inside. The manual and driver CD sit with the Sapphire ad that will eventually go unfound months down the road. The manual is something good to hang on to if you can – figuring out the right plugs for your chassis I/O panel is not a fun guessing game. The I/O panel is well labeled to help you out when at the back and aren't exactly sure what you're doing – I was expecting this to be black though, yet it's on the back so no one will see it. There are eight black SATA cables included all with clips to keep them securely in place while you wire your mess up. The USB 3.0 mount comes in a bracket to be installed in a 5.25" bay; however, if you don’t want to muddle up the front, nor have the space, it comes with an additional bracket to install it in a rear expansion slot.
The I/O panel cover is a little more interesting than most. If you look at it closely it has a little bit more to it than just a pressed metal piece. It actually has a layer of EMI foam; it reduces the electrical noise between the motherboard and your outputs. I'm not sure exactly how great it will work but it is an interesting concept.
With the board out of the static bag it most definatly isn’t the "Pure Black" board I was imagining. The lighting even gives a tinge of brown to the PCB with blue slots and red SATA connectors. But this review isn't all about how it looks, though I find that a strong selling point often – it is more about what this board has to offer and how well it performs. It has the standard X79 socket as expected and dual-channel memory settling two sticks on either side of the CPU. There are six PCIe slots that run the length of the board, a southbridge fan, and cooling on the MOSFETs. There's definitely a lot here and a lot to talk about – we'll get more into it with some close ups. As far as the back of the board goes – there isn’t too much to really look at, pretty bare, except for the LOTES back plate. You can see the holes in the board for any 2011 socket style CPU cooling mount and you know with a metal backing plate you won't break it or wear it out.
If we rotate the board around a bit we can get an up close look at the I/O panel. You start up with your typical PS/2 keyboard/mouse combo port, six USB 2.0 ports, four USB 3.0 ports, an S/PDIF Coaxial output, an optical output, dual gigabit LAN, two e-SATA ports, Bluetooth 2.1, and six audio outputs. Now that was a mouthful of features; not shorted at all. Moving down the side of the board, need you reminding, there are six full PCIe slots; three at x16 and three at x8 (I'll explain more how this works later). What you need to know now is this board appears to be nothing but a beast!
There is a 6-pin power connector on the board sitting below the left RAM slots and just above the six PCIe slots. As you guessed it is additional power to feed the semi-unhealthy video card purchases you may make. It is right in the middle of the board so other than having an ugly cable job, it shouldn’t be an issue to get a cable to reach. Back down to the PCIe slots let's discuss a little how the x8 versus x16 works. There are six total expansion slots that all utilize the PCIe x16 interface. However, only three of the slots support the full x16 bandwidth while the other three run at half that, x8. Looking at it slot by slot: Slot 1 runs at x16, Slot 2 runs at x8, Slot 3 & 5 run at either x16/x8, while Slots 4 & 6 run only at x8. Filling this setup would be pretty difficult but as a work machine you could have several CUDA cards or perhaps RAID cards to fill it up. For now video wise you are limited to CrossfireX for multi-card use (limited to 3-way as well) as there is still no support for SLI. Just keep that in mind when setting up your monster rig with this one.
Looking at the bottom edge of the board we can see the input and output buttons and headers. There is a display for POST codes to help troubleshoot the hardest problems, a COM1 header, and a 3-pin fan connector (shown in the second picture below). The third picture below further shows off the onboard power and reset buttons as well as the CMOS reset button – no need for correctly connecting case I/O pins or jumping pins to get what you need; it’s a nice setup. You can also see the optional BIOS select tool so if you do manage to mess up – you've got a backup. To the other edge of the board you have your typical USB 2.0 and 3.0 headers as well as a color coded and labeled front I/O chassis header.
There are eight total right angle SATA ports onboard. Six of the ports are controlled by the chipset while the other two are controlled by an on-board Marvel chip. The red ports utilize the 6Gb/s interface while the black feed from the 3Gb/s interface – so be sure you pick the right one to go fast during your setup. As for RAID, there is native support for RAID 0, 1, 5, and 10.
Moving up near the socket and dual-channel RAM we've got a bit more to cover. Looking at the top corner there is your usual 24-pin connector right next to one of the mounting points of the board (a nice sturdy point). There are six jumpers each corresponding to a PCI slot on the board to allow you to enable or disable each individually (you can see this at a couple different angles below). There are also nine test points on the board for voltage checks via a multimeter. Hold the ground and one lead on the component you wish to check and you can see exactly what problems you may be having or causing. Looking behind the tall Sapphire VRM heatsink you’ll find the 8-pin board connector that you’ve probably been trying to find in all these pictures – well here it is, don’t forget to plug it in. Overall there is a lot going on around the socket here on the board but the cooling is sufficient and looks to be ready for a little abuse.
Looking a little closer at the cooling options here on the board I wanted to leave you with a couple close ups. The VRMs are extensively cooled by a neat little heatpiped heat sink that sits nicely above the socket. The southbridge not only has its own little heatsink on it but has its own fan cooled heat sink to keep temperatures down low. I'm not sure why they decided to put a fan here – it just creates noise. I would have rather seen a full heatsink to dissipate heat rather than a small fan, which tends to be whiny and often doesn't have a long life.
Overall this is a beast of a board. It has a few flaws here and there, but I've yet to see the "perfect" board. It comes down to exactly what you need from a board that makes it perfect from one build to the next. The appearance of the board was a disappointment for a "Pure Black" but again this isn't all about looks – let's get on to seeing what this board can handle.