It’s not news that Gigabyte makes motherboards that are “overclocker friendly” and that may be deemed an understatement by many. What is news is that the Gigabyte X58A-OC is specifically built for overclocking and maybe more to the point, extreme overclocking. The board is described as being “designed by overclockers, for overclockers” and this marks something significant. While there are many boards out there that overclock, all are produced with the widest market in mind, naturally. From a manufacturer standpoint, it certainly makes sense to ensure the most possible sales by targeting the widest possible pool of potential buyers. A sub-section of those users that may actually be considered somewhat mainstream these days, are gamers. Right now, many of the “gaming” motherboards are considered high-end or overclocking motherboards and they generally include different color schemes, larger sinks, maybe a larger or stronger VRM setup and more PCI-e slots for graphics cards. People definitely pay a premium for all of that, sometimes quite a large premium. While the “gaming boards” are seemingly quite popular today, they too were once a niche market and a roll of the dice for the manufacturers to produce motherboards for such a specific audience.
Delving into the even smaller and more specific market of overclockers, Gigabyte has taken the opportunity to build a motherboard that is truly built with overclockers in mind with the X58A-OC. There is no denying that countless numbers of Gigabyte’s previous and current motherboards overclock very well, but they have gone further with the X58A-OC by taking input from overclockers themselves and then actually producing a motherboard based on that input . In doing so, Gigabyte has moved away from the run-of-mill to accomplish what is seen here today and the fact that it is a reality is no small statement from Gigabyte.
Some people may ask why this board and why now. It’s a bit late in the game for a new socket 1366 board, but stepping back to look at the larger picture, this may be the perfect time for it. P67 (SandyBridge) boards, in and of themselves, don’t overclock very much right now and are a totally different animals in the demands placed on them, so there is little question in my mind why a board like this is being put out as socket 1366. Besides, if Intel wants to put out one more Extreme Edition Core i7 (990X), why not test out a new niche overclocking motherboard to go with it (or any 1366 Core i7 for that matter)?
So let’s take a look at the Gigabyte X58A-OC and see what they’ve come up with specifically for overclockers.
Even at a glance, there will be no confusing the X58A-OC with any of Gigabyte’s other motherboards or almost any other manufacturer’s motherboards for that matter. Gigabyte’s socket 1156 and 1366 motherboards are familiar to most by their blue PCBs with blue and white slots. The X58A-OC is strikingly different from that norm with its high-contrast matte black PCB and orange color scheme. Love it or hate it, there is no mistaking it. The X58A-OC has bold look, to be sure, but what exactly does an overclocker want in a motherboard? Some features are immediately apparent: there are a lot of big buttons, there are four PCI Express slots, there are large heatsinks, where are all the big silver capacitors we’re so used to seeing and are those SATA power connectors on the board?
Personally speaking, as an extreme overclocker, the top of my list for a motherboard would be (in no particular order):
- Easy to insulate
- Power circuitry that delivers more than enough clean juice without breaking a sweat
- 2/3/4-way capable for video cards
- On-board switches for power, reset and CMOS clear
- On-board debug LEDs
- Easy access to read points for the more important voltages
- BIOS with lots of options
- Back-up BIOS in case I trash the first one
Gigabyte has checked off everything on that list and added quite a few more.
The Gigabyte X58A-OC is, of course, an X58-based, socket 1366 motherboard that is ready to roll with any LGA 1366 processor, including the recently released Intel Core i7 Extreme 990X. The X58A-OC utilizes many of Gigabyte’s technologies that one would expect on their recent motherboards, along with some new ones. 2x Copper PCB, On/Off Charge for charging devices with the system off, 333 Acceleration (USB3.0, USB Power 3x, SATA3.0) and Dual CPU Power are likely familiar features to anyone who has seen or used a Gigabyte board recently, but what makes this board special to overclockers are some new design features and components.
As mentioned earlier, Gigabyte has stepped way from the run-of-the-mill with the the X58A-OC and the power circuitry is clear evidence of that. The VRM is a new design for Gigabyte that features POSCAP Tatalum capacitors, 50A MPFC (Max Power Ferrite Core) chokes and high-tech Driver MOSFETSs. Put it all together and this VRM setup is able to deliver high-current power to the CPU with better efficiency and lower temperatures than one with traditional components. In addition, for those that use sub-ambient cooling, the POSCAPs are surface mount and relatively short, making insulating around the socket very easy no matter which method is used. There is no having to work around the small spaces between the socket and the always too close banks of cylindrical-shaped traditional caps that stand about 1/2″ tall. The Gigabyte X58A-OC uses POSCAPs in lieu of traditional caps throughout the entire board, so even insulating around PCI-e slots for extreme cooled graphics cards is a snap by comparison.
So what does all the fancy VRM components and design get you? Aside from being way easy to set up for extreme cooling, power input is up to 1500W via the two 8-pin CPU power connectors according to Gigabyte. Spreading the load across two inputs on the board will reduce stress and if the power supply used draws on different rails for each 8-pin molex, load will be more evenly spread on the PSU as well. Output to the socket is boasted as being up to 1200W, excellent for those extreme 12-core overclocks.
Sounds good so far, but there’s still more to the OC-VRM, namely, adjustable PWM frequency that can be changed on-the-fly. Adjustable PWM frequencies aren’t new, but being able to do it in real-time outside of BIOS is definitely a nice touch. Changing the PWM frequencies alters how power is supplied to the processor and real-time adjustment allows tweaking the power delivery for the most stable benchmarks and highest overclocks for a given load, such as individual tests in benchmarks. Controlling PWM frequencies is definitely a detail tweak, but when every fraction of a frequency and point counts, it can make all the difference.
PWM dip switch combinations can be set to produce 400K, 600K, 800K and 1000K, though the X58A-OC manual warns that 800K and 1000K settings “are for LN2 overclocking and extreme overclocking only”. The sliders are rather small, so a small screwdriver or even a DMM probe (since most users considering this board will likely have several within an arm’s length) will be handy for adjusting them. Some may frown a bit on the placement of the dip switches (and the CMOS reset button next to them) which is an area sure to be insulated, but notching insulation around these will leave them accessible and only a very small area open. Having to deal with these two small components is next to a non-issue given the work involved in insulating around banks of capacitors, which just doesn’t need to be done on this board. Gigabyte has specifically taken steps to make this board easy to setup for extreme cooling, so working around the button and PWM slides is a very minor thing to deal with in the scheme of things.
After talking about just how much power is possible and extreme overclocking, it seems anti-climatic to turn around and talk about power savings, but component life is something that effects us all and since this board can certainly be used for a daily rig too, Gigabyte hasn’t stripped everything to make race weight. Much like today’s gas-guzzlers that turn off a couple cylinders in the engine until you press on the accelerator, Gigabyte has included some power-saving features that can be used when you’re not going full blast with the X58A-OC (which will be almost never me thinks). The X58A-OC features 12-phase power with “Dual CPU Power”. The Dual CPU Power effectively allows the VRM into split into two banks that work in tandem, allowing one set to rest while the other handles the load. The banks alternate working and resting so half of the phases are resting at any given time when not needed, which means less heat and longer life for the components. In a separate, but related feature, “Power Phase Boost with Multi-Gear Switching” uses the Dynamic Energy Saver application to allow the board to further reduce stress, heat and increase component life span by completely turning off half of the phases and running only six total during normal load and ramps up all twelve for heavy loads.
Enough about “normal loads” and saving electric bills though, this is an overclocker’s board…
The next feature for this board is OC-Touch. Standard overclocking methods can still be used of course (BIOS, desktop applications, etc.), but the bank of on-board buttons, known as OC-Touch, allow adjusting both the CPU multiplier and BCLK frequency in real-time. This is nothing short of a very handy tool for overclocking, particularly for benchers where overclocks that will complete tests can vary from test to test within a benchmark. OC-Touch is also a very quick way to set a higher post-boot overclock without having to open a single application.
Of course, the big red button is power, the “Gear” button allows for changing the resolution of BCLK steps to .3 or 1 to allow overclocking as close to the edge as possible and the “4G” button produces an automatic 4GHz overclock on the next reboot. Also seen in the picture above is the blue restart button, the always useful debug LEDs and the on-board voltage measurement module. The voltage measurement module allows manually checking and monitoring key voltages with a multi-meter. Anyone that has poked around trying to find read points for several different voltages “somewhere” in a vast sea of SMTs will certainly appreciate the labeled “company front” placement of the read points. Multi-meter leads can either be touched to the open pads for quickly checking voltages or plugged into the supplied molex leads for constant measurement. Seven header leads are included, one for each voltage read point available. The module bank includes read points for QPI PLL, VMCH Core, CPU PLL, DDR Vtt, Vdimm, QPI Vtt and Vcore.
Gigabyte has incorporated Dual BIOS on a lot of their motherboards for a long time and it has saved more than one board from being bricked during some of those “overclocking gone wrong” moments (or BIOS modding gone wrong a few times in my case). In a new feature for Gigabyte, rather than simply having a backup BIOS on the board that couldn’t really be accessed except in times of disaster, the X58A-OC includes a switch to allow manual access and use of either BIOS chip on the board. An LED in front of each BIOS chip indicates which chip is currently in use.
In addition to being a backup BIOS, new BIOSes can be tested prior to making the change permanent or say if one BIOS is found to be better for 2D benchmarks and another for 3D benchmarks, install one on each chip and flip to the better one for the benches to be done on this boot at the flick of the switch. Utilizing both BIOS chips allows for a total of 16 profiles to be saved, so there is plenty of space for saving specific overclock settings. Gigabyte has effectively doubled their normal available number of profiles that can be saved, made it easy change from one chip to the other and also know which one is active at a glance.
Yet another potentially very useful feature that is implemented in a unique way is OC-PEG. This is a feature that is sure to benefit those with more graphics cards than any one person really needs. OC-PEG is comprised of two SATA power plugs on the motherboard that independently supply power to the PCIe slots. That’s correct, they are NOT power supplied from the motherboard to SATA devices, they are external power inputs from the PSU to the PCI-e slots via SATA power connectors. While this can definitely be of benefit for 3 or 4-way overclocked graphics cards, the independent power could potentially even help single-card overclocking depending just how extreme the overclocks are on everything. While anyone running a 2/3/4-way graphics card setup will more than likely make use of at least one OC-PEG connector anyway, it is actually a requirement on 4-way setups. Per the manual, at least one OC-PEG connector must be used for a 4-way Crossfire setup on this board to avoid possible over-current on the main 24-pin ATX.
Last and definitely not least, OC-Cool is comprised of the oversized LED-lit heatsinks for the “Northbridge” (IOH) and Southbridge, along with a whopping seven, count them, seven 4-pin PWM fan connectors, all controlled by Smart Fan settings in BIOS. If that weren’t enough, there is also one more 3-pin header between first two PCI-e slots. One thing for sure, there is no shortage of places to plug in fans on this board to keep things OC-Cool.
That about covers the special “overclocking” features for the X58A-OC, so let’s take a look at the rest of the board.
In an effort to save space, board resources and possibly reduce potential hang-ups with overclocking, Gigabyte has foregone any excessive use of ports on the rear I/O in lieu of the “bare essentials”. Quite a reasonable number of the things that are necessary are all that remain and more USB ports are still available via the internal headers if needed. As seen in the photo above, a PS/2 mouse and keyboard port are available in case all USB functions want to be turned off for added stability at super-high overclocks. A gigabit LAN (Realtek RTL8111E) is present to submit your scores or boast on your favorite forum while benching, 2x USB2.0 ports, audio ports (Realtek ALC889) and 2x USB3.0 ports (Etron EJ168) round out the rear panel. The dual 8-pin CPU power connectors can be seen between the rear I/O ports and OC-Cool sinks.
The smaller than usual (these days) area of the rear I/O leaves more space for air to flow out of the rear panel from OC-Cool sinks and Gigabyte takes advantage of that by including a vented I/O shield. It’s attention to details like that which show Gigabyte has put thought into every aspect of the X58A-OC. Even an otherwise “insignificant” item like the rear I/O shield that could otherwise be left untouched has a pro-overclocking idea put into it.
Of course, the Gigabyte X58A-OC is an X58 board, which mean triple-channel DDR3 is on tap and six slots are available for up to 24GB of memory with support for DDR3 1066-2133MHz+. The “+”, of course, meaning however high the sticks being used will actually run, but there are high enough memory ratios to run even 2400MHz memory at a quite default 133 BCLK. There is no shortage of room for high-speed memory to stretch its legs in this board.
Another feature of the X58A-OC that hides in plain sight is the physical design and placement of components to reduce path lengths between components. If someone didn’t know the reasoning behind it, they might actually comment that the DIMM slots are oddly closer together than “normal”. There is a reason for that and shorter spatial designs are found among other connections as well: power delivery to the CPU, data path from CPU to memory and from CPU to the IOH.
Don’t think that all the “closeness” built into the design means that everything is a tight fit. To the contrary, the X58A-OC seems to have more room where it’s needed compared to most motherboards. There is plenty of room for large air coolers, waterblocks, DI/LN2 pots and evaporators. The placement of the DIMM slots in particular leaves more room that “usual” to install or remove memory sticks while a graphics card is installed.
Most recent motherboards, especially those with 4-way PCI-e slots, do have rather close placement between the primary PCI-e slot and the DIMM slots. With an extended length graphics cards, and even some standard length cards, that almost always means that the graphics card has to be removed to install or remove memory modules. If it’s one graphics card, that may not a big problem, but with 2/3/4 graphics cards installed, all of them must be removed in most cases to get the card in the primary PCI-e slot out. That’s more of an issue. As mentioned before and as seen in the picture above, the Gigabyte X58A-OC has no such problem with DIMM slot spacing in regard to the primary PCI-e slot and an extended graphics card installed. With the DIMM lock tabs open, it is clear that there is more than adequate spacing to remove or install memory while having the primary PCI-e slot populated.
Moving around to the internal SATA ports, six SATA2 (3GB/s) ports are available via the Intel ICH10R Southbridge with support for RAID 0, 1, 5 and 10. Two SATA3 (6GB/s) ports are available via the Marvell 88SE9182 controller with support for RAID 0 and 1, all handy for system benchmarks, among other things.
The Gigabyte X58A-OC is an ATX sized board (263.5 x 304.8mm) that supports 4-way graphics card setups. Four PCI Express 2.0 slots support 2 and 3-way SLI and 2/3/4-way Crossfire. As is normal on X58 with no pricey third party controller, the two primary PCI-e slots (first and third) run at 16x when populated, but the remaining two slots share bandwidth with the primary slots, so all slots run at 8x when all four a populated.
Aside from the four PCI-e slots, a lone PCI slot is all that’s left to round out the internal expansion slots and it can be seen in this photo just how easily the board can be insulated around the slots for extreme cooling of graphics cards. Relatively speaking, the PCB area around the slots is, well, as flat as a board. The POSCAPs do leave a very flat surface to work on. Having just the PCI-e slots and single PCI slot leaves a lot of room to insulate easily between 3 out of 4 slots. Most boards would of course have more expansion slots stuck between all of the PCI-e slots, along with tall capacitors and chokes, that make insulating this area infinitely more difficult on those boards.
To begin with, a Thermaltake Frio was mounted to check fitment. Like most of the current high-performance air coolers, it’s large and despite being close to the on-board heat sinks, it does fit without any interference in the “East-West” orientation. In the “North-South” orientation, the sink itself is a bit too wide, but this type of one-way fitment is a common issue on just about any motherboard, so it’s certainly not unexpected or out of the norm. With no fan on the memory side of the air cooler, all six DIMM slots can be populated without any problem whatsoever, but as with most large aftermarket air coolers, the DIMM slot closest to the CPU socket is blocked when a fan is installed on that side, however, the 25mm thick fan does fit without causing any issues to the first Channel-A slot, which is the second slot in. Memory with short sinks or no sinks at all could potentially fit under the fan in the first slot, but clearances will vary with different coolers and memory sticks.
The one-touch overclock is an interesting option and makes for a very quick default overclock. With the “4G” button activated (lit) on the OC-Touch panel, an automatic 4GHz overclock is preset on the next boot. The overclock settings are mild and just about any Core i7 1366 processor, cooling and memory should be able to handle the settings with ease. As seen in the screen above, the preset 4GHz overclock amounts to 20x 200 BCLK with less than 1.30V each for Vcore and Vtt. Uncore is set low at 3200MHz and the memory is set for 1600MHz 6-7-6-22-88-2T using 1.66Vdimm. Suffice it to say, the automatic 4GHz overclock settings should be easily accomplished no matter what hardware or cooling is being used.
The “Gear” button sets the resolution of BCLK adjustments for the OC-Touch FREQ buttons. When enabled (lit), the Gear button produces BCLK increments of .3 when pressing the FREQ Up or Down buttons. When disabled, BCLK moves in increments of 1 when using the FREQ OC-Touch buttons. The Ratio Up and Ratio Down buttons raise or lower the multiplier of the processor and of course, some Core i7 1366 processors have more multipliers available than others.
Both the FREQ and Ratio buttons adjust the clocks in real-time. This is a particularly handy feature for those who live to benchmark, but it’s just really cool in my book to be able to clock at the press of a button no matter what. Since it’s so easy to overclock with OC-Touch, don’t get carried away with it. There must still adequate voltages and cooling for adding clocks and the included EasyTune application is a quick way to adjust voltages from the desktop without having to reboot and enter BIOS. Overclock settings made with OC-Touch aren’t saved to BIOS, so it’s easy to set a base overclock to boot with and then raise clocks via OC-Touch after the operating system loads.
|CPU:||Intel Core i7 Extreme 980X|
|Cooling:||Thermaltake Frio / 2-stage cascade|
|Memory:||3x2GB Corsair Dominator GT 2000C7|
|Graphics card:||GTX 580|
|Power Supply:||Gigabyte Odin 1200W|
Right out of the box is the ambient BCLK test. As if I don’t know what the limit is with this 980X already, I still feel the need to check whenever it’s dropped into a new board. As is pretty standard, with a few manual settings for Vcore, Vdimm and memory speed/timings, the X58A-OC boots to the desktop with utter ease at 220 BCLK on air and with a decent overclock on the CPU and memory. The board does 220 BCLK easily on AUTO voltages too, but they are actually higher than necessary.
While there was insufficient time to take pictures of every BIOS screen available, suffice it to say that as usual for Gigabyte, the BIOS is well laid out and loaded with options that can keep any overclocking tweaker busy for days. As standard on most of their motherboards, there are a full range of settings available and maximum voltage limits that can make even an extreme overclockers a little uneasy.
While real life has limited seat time and prevented a whole slew of overclocks and benchmarks to be done on this board as of this writing, here are some all-air 3D benchmarks for the time being. There were no tweaks and only the one OS was used. Clearly, neither the overclocks nor the benchmark settings are optimized, these were to at least get some ambient tests done.
Enough with air cooling, time to prepare for cold. Everyone does it differently, I use insulation which takes more time than other methods. First, a template needs to be created and then the layers need to be cut out. The benefit is that the insulation is reusable nearly indefinitely and it’s actual insulation, not just a physical barrier like eraser or Vaseline, but creating the insulation layers is obviously more work and the more things that need to be cut around, the longer it takes. It has taken anywhere from 30 minutes to over an hour to complete insulation just around the CPU socket on other boards depending how intricate the layout had to be because of components around the sockets. On the Gigabyte X58A-OC, it took approximately 10 minutes and that included stopping to take pictures. It’s so quick and easy to prep this board well for extreme cooling, it’s ridiculous.
The first step was to remove the CPU retention bracket and back plate. This allows insulating right up to the socket itself. Next, no template is even needed since it’s basically a rectangle. Simply eyeball the size, cut it out and then trim to fit as needed. Cut out the socket area and notch for the CMOS reset and PWM adjustment. For all intents and purposes, this first layer is always the hardest part of insulating and this wasn’t difficult by any stretch of the imagination.
Reinstall the back plate and CPU retention bracket right over the insulation. Install the CPU. Cut another quick rectangle for the second layer of insulation and cut out the area for the CPU. Since there are no traditional capacitors, there is also no need for the third layer that I normally use to match their height and create a flat surface for the evaporator/DI/LN2 tube “donut” insulation. Two layers and the socket insulation is done. Slap one or two layers of insulation on the back of the board and push the mounting bolts for the evaporator/DI/LN2 tube through. Done.
Note that the first layer of insulation was cutout around the CMOS reset and PWM adjustment and the second layer goes right over the top of them. They are covered and to access them, the top layer is just pulled up and then laid back down when done. Easy.
All that’s left to do is apply TIM, mount the waterblock for chilled water, the evaporator or DI/LN2 tube and it’s ready to rock. It simply doesn’t get any easier than this to prep for cold.
Not to leave you with just a teaser picture of the evaporator mounted and wondering what happened, here are some random benches from this setup. The 980X used is a very average processor. Despite it’s lack of being a spectacular overclocker, these are still the highest overclocks it has ever reached in any board on any cooling. Several of the best 2D benchmark scores from it were improved upon and of course, with the new GTX 580 installed, 3D benchmarks produced some really nice scores as well.
While the 980X processor used here is not a “6GHz special” by any stretch of the imagination, all the benchmarks run were done at the highest overclocks this particular 980X has ever been able to bench at. That includes having been in many motherboards, with higher voltages and on LN2 many times in the past. Real life has managed to cut into the time that was available to “play” with the board prior to sitting down and writing this article, but rest assured, that I am running back to bench with it as soon as the last period is put on this article. There will definitely be more coming from me and others with the Gigabyte X58A-OC motherboard, but in the time spent with it so far, it can best be summed up by saying that I am already looking forward to using it again every time I turn it off, and that is saying a lot.
The Gigabyte X58A-OC is full of features and designs that are truly helpful for overclocking and extreme-cooled, power-hungry 12-core, multi-graphics card, hardcore overclocking and benchmarking at that. In addition to being a true “overclocker’s motherboard”, it retains features and the utility that could easily allow it to be used for a daily rig, a crunching machine or a gaming setup should it be needed for those duties. The X58A-OC has overclockers dead in its sights and hits somewhere close to a bullseye in my opinion. If this is the first step in the beginning of a new class of motherboards catering specifically to overclockers, one can only imagine what might be seen down the road. The significance of this board should not be lost on anyone. With an expected retail price of $379.99, it’s perfectly in line with pricing for a high-level X58 motherboards. In addition to getting a great X58 board, buying a Gigabyte X58A-OC would cast a vote to tell Gigabyte, and all manufacturers for that matter, that we, as overclockers, appreciate this kind of attention and will want to continue seeing more of the same in the future.
On behalf of all the overclockers out there, especially the extreme overclockers, I say thank you to Gigabyte for taking a step in this direction.
NOTE: Some images used courtesy of www.gigabyte.com.