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Every now and then a company has to invest in fixing its image. EVGA has had a decent run the last couple years with its motherboards, but they have had issues, mostly with the BIOS. The boards have been solid, but the BIOS has been a) behind, without a decent UEFI to speak of and b) buggy with a capital B.
Even when they’re not too bad (see our EVGA Z77 Stinger review), they have bugs. In that case, an inability to run RAM at the speeds it’s capable of. Aside from that it was a solid board, but it was an issue that should have been fixed. Still to this day it has trouble running high speed RAM and the BIOS has been updated only once since that review.
So, EVGA has a small but noticeable blemish on its reputation – its BIOSes have been buggy and their lack of updates make one wonder about the support you’re getting from the BIOS team. The last very solid, nearly flawless board they had was the X58 Classified.
EVGA’s most public overclocking face – Vince “k|ngp|n” Lucido – has said they’re going to change all of that, starting with the EVGA X79 Dark. In a post at the Kingpin Cooling Forums, he basically admits that recent EVGA boards haven’t been up to snuff (“…an older resource scarce interim engineering team that well, lets just say wasn’t making the boards the best they could be.”) and says they’ve turned the page on that book. “EVGA put together a different engineering team and brand new bios team to make better boards =/> than X58 CLASSIFIED.” Further, “Along with titan and soon 780, it now holds almost every single major modern benchmark world record.”
The X58 Classified left some big shoes to fill. It was the premier X58 motherboard. Saying the Dark is equal to or even greater than that board is a big statement. Today we dig into the Dark and find out what EVGA has done – and whether it is able to fill those large, if aged, shoes.
Packaging & First Look
EVGA goes simple with packaging and that can be a good thing. It’s what’s inside that counts. The board is well protected and all the relevant specs/features are right on the box.
Ahh, the X79 Dark. We’ll get the board photos out there first thing. This board is dead sexy. Aside from minimal red highlights, it is all black, befitting its Dark name. EVGA kindly includes several stickers to indicate RAM positioning and voltage warnings as well as a handy little instruction manual for inserting a CPU in the 2011 socket.
Now that those stickers are off, let’s look at the board itself. I really like this look; plain and powerful looking.
Ok, so we know it looks good, let’s find out what it’s made of.
Specifications & Features
EVGA doesn’t give massive specification lists, they just list the Very Important items and let their products do the talking. These specs & features are pulled from the X79 Dark product page.
- Based on Intel X79 chipset
- 8 x 240-pin DIMM sockets
- Maximum of 64GB of DDR3 2400MHz+
- 6 x Serial ATA 300MB/sec (4x Internal + 2x E-SATA) with support for RAID 0, RAID1, RAID 0+1, RAID5, RAID10 and JBOD
- 6 x Serial ATA 600MB/sec (6x Internal) with support for RAID 0 and RAID1
- 5 x PCIe x16/x8, 1 x PCIe x4
- Audio connector (Line-in, Line-out, MIC)
- 8 Channel High Definition (Realtek ALC898)
- 2 x 10/100/1000 (Intel 82579/82574)
- E-ATX Form Factor
- Length: 12in – 304.8mm
- Width: 10.375in – 263.5mm
Aside from the board, there are plenty of accessories accompanying it. As this was a before-IVB-E release, the two primary BIOSes (there are three) had SNB-E BIOSes, but the third one gives instant IVB-E compatibility. Of course, any time there’s a new CPU out, you’ll want to update that BIOS to the latest release ASAP.
There is alo your standard EVGA fare – motherboard manual, driver disc, case badge & board quick-reference poster.
There are three SLI bridges included, for two, three and four-way SLI. There is also an I/O cover that makes the board look even better when it’s mounted in a case (or on a bench).
In case the plentiful USB options on the rear I/O aren’t enough, you get four additional USB 2.0 and two additional USB 3.0 ports via included PCIe brackets.
The rear I/O cover is (as usual) self-explanatory. They have also included an alternate socket backplate in case your chosen heatsink/water block/extreme cooling pot don’t take advantage of the built-in socket 2011 screw holes.
There is plenty of cabling included, with two SATA 6Gb/s and two SATA II cables and two MOLEX-to-SATA power adapters, one of which is even sleeved.
On the right you can see the plug for monitoring voltages via multimeter probes (which can just be plugged in and forgotten thankfully). There are also four included GPU Link wires. Looking around for documentation, it’s a little sparse for the time being, but these are designed to control certain aspects of your GPU (i.e. GPU voltage, vMEM voltage, etc) from inside the board’s BIOS. They are intended for advanced users who aren’t afraid to manually solder wires onto their GPUs to link them to the board.
There are definitely plenty of accessories to get the board up and running. I might want a few more SATA cables, at least enough to fill up the ports because most people are going to buy one board and won’t have an extra six SATA cables on-hand. Aside from that minor shortcoming, everything is solid.
Up Close & Personal
Now it’s time to get up in the Dark’s grill, so to speak.
The back side of the PCB is as you’d expect the back side of a PCB to look, clean and without any bad soldering to be seen.
The front side is where the action is, starting with the now almost two year old Socket 2011. Intel didn’t change anything here and the retention mechanism is the same two-lever hold-down that’s needed for such a large CPU.
There are dual 8-pin CPU power inputs on the Dark for pushing your CPU to the absolute max under extreme conditions.
In the far upper left of that photo you can see the header where you plug in the ProbeIt dongle. Neither the plug nor the wires are labeled (there isn’t really room), but thankfully EVGA has a helpful diagram.
In the upper right of the board resides your control center. Here you’ll find onboard power, reset and clear CMOS buttons, the POST code indicator, the CPU fan header and ports for the GPU Link wires seen earlier.
Moving a little further down you can see EVGA’s exclusive 90° 24-pin ATX power connector. This can be a blessing or a curse, depending on how close your case’s wire management hole is. Just to the left of the connector you can see the removable BIOS chip socket and toggle switches for disabling PCIe lanes. These are very useful for troubleshooting when you’re running multiple GPUs and for running multi-GPU configurations when benchmarking. Unfortunately they reside underneath the first GPU, so their usefulness is hampered significantly.
There are plenty of I/O connectors on the bottom of this board. Left-to-right we have the 6-pin PCIe supplemental power (highly recommended for running this board), front panel audio connection, onboard speaker (many boards don’t have those now-a-days; it’s handy to have audio confirmation of POST), two fan and two USB 2.0 headers, followed by the USB 3.0 header, front panel switch headers, yet another fan header and the triple BIOS toggle switch. To its right, there is yet another fan header!
Moving in a little closer, you can see EVGA went with ASMedia’s ASM1042 USB 3.0 controller.
There are plenty of storage connectors on this board. There are six SATA 6 Gb/s ports and four SATA II ports. The six 6 Gb/s ports are split between two native SATA 6Gb/s ports and four controlled by a Marvell 88SE9320 SATA 6 GB/s controller.
Continuing our controller tour, the rear I/O uses another Marvell controller for the two eSATA (SATA II) connectors and another ASMedia ASM1042 for the four rear USB 3.0 ports.
Audio comes courtesy of Realtek’s ALC898 and LAN courtesy an Intel controller.
There is plenty of connectivity on the rear I/O. You have built-in bluetooth, six USB 2.0 ports, four USB 3.0 ports, dual LAN and your standard digital/analog audio out. Additionally on the left are a port for EVGA’s EVBot as well as another clear CMOS button, which is very handy since you can use it to clear CMOS with your board inside a case.
Under the Hood
Removing the heatsinks the X79 Dark gets even Darker, losing its read highlights present on the heatsinks.
Speaking of heatsinks, contact was good and the heatsinks seem to do their job well, wicking away and dissipating the heat without issue. It was nice to see normal thermal paste on the PCH heatsink too, as opposed to that horrid stuff ASUS uses.
Both heatsinks have red accents and both look good. They fit the board well, giving it a splash of color in an otherwise nondescript, mostly black motherboard.
Here we have the now somewhat aged X79 platform controller hub (PCH). It’s not EVGA’s fault the PCH is old, that’s all on Intel. They’re doing the best they can with the hand they’re dealt, adding the necessary controllers to compensate for what the X79 PCH lacks.
The power section on this board is a thing of beauty. Those dual 8-pin CPU headers (only one is required for operation) feed a very strong twelve-phase CPU power section. There is plenty of power here to torture your CPU, whether it’s on air, water or liquid nitrogen pushing crazy voltages at or near 2.0 V.
The board itself is killer, no doubt. That hasn’t ever been EVGA’s problem. Their boards from a hardware standpoint have been impeccable for years now. The X79 Dark is no different and is built like a tank.
The BIOS, however, has been EVGA’s Achilles heel in recent years. They know it and they have been working to fix it. With the most recent public release for Ivy Bridge-E, I’m happy to say EVGA has done just that. Aside from a couple minor annoyances (like reporting higher-than-received CPU voltages, which you can monitor with a multimeter anyway), the X79 Dark’s BIOS is ready for prime time and rock solid stable.
When you first go into the BIOS, EVGA doesn’t mess around, dropping you into the Overclock menu, where you can tweak and overclock your CPU & RAM to your heart’s content.
The CPU Menu gives you every option you could ever want with regard to CPU power saving, thermal management and power control.
The Dark has plentiful RAM timing options, allowing those that tweak sub-timings to go to town. There are even several RAM presets for use in tweaking RAM with certain ICs.
The fan control leaves a bit to be desired. It’s there, but isn’t necessarily all that extensive. EVGA is a bit behind in fan control, especially when you consider ASUS’ FanXpert and its control over both 3-pin and 4-pin fans.
In the Save & Exit menu, there is one feature of note – the ability to save up to eight BIOS profiles.
The rest of the BIOS is pretty standard fare and we won’t do much in detail here; you can check out the rest of the screenshots in a slideshow below. One thing noticeably missing is the ability to update the BIOS from within the BIOS itself. You have to either make a bootable USB thumb drive with DOS, or update from within Windows. I chose the latter and have done so several times without issue – just be sure you do so with a completely stable system! Crashing during a flash would be catastrophic for that BIOS.
With its simplistic looks based on the very well known CPUz software, E-LEET is about as easy to use as it gets. It has everything but fan control (which is the one thing EVGA is very lacking on).
The first three tabs are pretty standard CPUz type fare, showing the same system specs you’ve come to expect out of CPUz over the years.
The fourth tab starts to look like its own software, with plenty of monitoring – voltage, temperatures & fan speeds are all present and accounted for.
The overclocking and voltage tabs are arguably the most important in the program. Everything you need to push your system from within windows is right here in an easy to use format.
Last up, we have the processes and options tabs. In processes you can set different programs’ affinities to various cores. This could be useful to distributed computing buffs as well as benchmarkers. Most folks won’t use it, but it’s a nice value add for those that will. The options tab has a couple small options but the big takeaway from this tab is the overclocking profiles.
Eleet is a solid overclocking program on a solid motherboard. The only thing missing is fan control. To me that doesn’t matter – I always use separate fan controllers – but some people don’t have that type of control and motherboard fan control is a must have. This is the one area where the Dark (and, indeed, pretty much all of the EVGA motherboard lineup) is lacking. Aside from that, you won’t see any complaints about Eleet from me.
Overclocking for Stability
When overclocking our i7 4960X sample, it made it to a respectable 4.6 GHz, fully stable. You saw that in the 4960X review though, so it’s no surprise.
There won’t be any comparison benchmarks today; you already saw all of them in the Intel i7 4960X – Ivy Bridge-E CPU review. We left out a Pushing the Envelope section though, because the early beta BIOS needed a little tweaking. Verison 2.04 fixed everything and allowed us some more headroom.
Pushing the Envelope
With the most recent, ready for primetime release BIOS (version 2.04), EVGA has improved the PLL overvoltage option and allowed greater overclocks. Using this BIOS on water cooling, I was able to push our CPU to 4.8 GHz for multi-threaded WPrime testing.
Even better, it was able to run single-threaded SuperPi testing at 4.9 GHz.
Last, but not least, we were able to validate the CPU at 5.0 GHz before the OS crashed and burned.
Final Thoughts & Conclusion
There is a lot to like about this motherboard. The most obvious is its look. While totally subjective, personally this board is one of the best looking boards I’ve worked with. It screams power and has just enough red accents on the heatsinks to make it pop. Two thumbs up for aesthetics.
The X79 Dark is also built like a tank. From the plentiful power input connectors (dual 8-pin CPU and supplemental 6-pin PCIe bus power, which is very well placed I might add) to the strong, 12-phase power section those 8-pin connectors feed, this thing is built to beat up on your CPU.
The biggest sticking point with EVGA boards of late is their BIOS. I’m happy to report, in this reviewer’s opinion, they have gone over and above to address their past issues. This new UEFI looks great, it’s rock solid stable, it has everything you need to push your system to the limit and it allows you to overclock as far as your CPU and cooling will let you. The only hiccup is voltage monitoring and you can use a multimeter if total accuracy is important to you. Their new BIOS team is strong and doing a great job with this board.
Of course, all this goodness will cost you. The EVGA X79 Dark retails for $399.99 on Newegg. As feature-packed, extreme-oriented X79 motherboards go, that’s not too bad. ASUS’ Rampage IV Extreme costs $429.99 and nobody knows what the Rampage IV Black might cost when it comes out. So the Dark, while expensive, is priced where it should be.
At the beginning of the review, I mentioned that legendary overclocker Vince “k|ngp|n” Lucido said this is the rebirth of an X58 Classified-style, take no prisoners motherboard. You can see his phenomenal results on HWBot using the X79 Dark (and a golden 4960X CPU) – #1 in the world in 3DMark Vantage & #1 in the world in 3DMark 11 are two good examples. After using it for the better part of a month in testing out Intel’s latest CPU, I’m inclined to agree.