With all manufacturers releasing refreshed boards due to Broadwell-E launching we see a new contender from Gigabyte, their X99 Designare EX. Like me, I’m sure the first new feature you’ll notice about the Designare is the RGB lighting, but they have added plenty more than just lights. DIMM shielding, a PLX chip, dual U.2, and a few other features also add performance benefits. Pull up a seat, don your reading glasses, and we’ll dive in to this board!
Specifications and Features
What can I say… it’s loaded! Tons of storage connectivity, a PLX chip allowing x16/x16/x16 on a 28-lane CPU, and support for 256GB of DDR4 (RDIMM required). Also we see dual LAN, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, all packed into a standard ATX form factor; simply impressive.
All specifications in the table below are provided by Gigabyte.
|Gigabyte X99 Designare EX Specs|
|CPU||Support for Intel® Core™ i7 processors in the LGA2011-3 package|
|Chipset||Intel® X99 Express Chipset|
|Memory||8 x DDR4 DIMM sockets supporting up to 128 GB of system memory
* Support for up to 256 GB of system memory when using Registered DIMMs.
* Due to a Windows 32-bit operating system limitation, when more than 4 GB of physical memory is installed, the actual memory size displayed will be less than the size of the physical memory installed.
– 4 channel memory architecture
– Support for DDR4 3600(OC) / 3400(OC) / 3333(O.C.) / 3200(O.C.) / 3000(O.C.) / 2800(O.C.) / 2666(O.C.) / 2400(O.C.) / 2133 MHz memory modules
– Support for non-ECC Un-buffered DIMM 1Rx8/2Rx8/1Rx16 memory modules
– Support for Registered DIMM 1Rx8/2Rx8/1Rx4/2Rx4 memory modules (operate in non-ECC mode)
– Support for Extreme Memory Profile (XMP) memory modules
|Expansion Slots||3 x PCI Express x16 slots, running at x16 (PCIEX16_1~3)
* The PCIEX8 slot shares bandwidth with the PCIEX16_1 slot. When the PCIEX8 slot is populated, the PCIEX16_1 slot operates at up to x8 mode.
* The U2_32G_2 connector shares bandwidth with the PCIEX16_2 slot. When the U2_32G_2 connector is populated, the PCIEX16_2 slot operates at up to x8 mode.
* The M2_32G connector shares bandwidth with the PCIEX16_3 slot. When the M2_32G connector is populated, the PCIEX16_3 slot operates at up to x8 mode.
1 x PCI Express x16 slot, running at x8 (PCIEX8)
(The PCIEX16 and PCIEX8 slots conform to PCI Express 3.0 standard.)
1 x PCI Express x16 slot, running at x4 (PCIEX4)
* The SATA_EXPRESS connector shares bandwidth with the PCIEX4 slot. When the SATA_EXPRESS connector is populated, the PCIEX4 slot operates at up to x2 mode.
1 x PCI Express x1 slot
(The PCIEX4 and PCIEX1 slots conform to PCI Express 2.0 standard.)
1 x M.2 Socket 1 connector for the wireless communication module (M2_WIFI)
|Multi-GPU Support||– Support for NVIDIA® Quad-GPU SLI™ and 3-Way/2-Way NVIDIA® SLI™ technologies
– Support for AMD Quad-GPU CrossFireX™ and 3-Way/2-Way AMD CrossFire™ technologies
|Storage||1 x SATA Express connector
6 x SATA 6Gb/s connectors (SATA3 0~5), supporting RAID 0, RAID 1, RAID 5, and RAID 10
4 x SATA 6Gb/s connectors (sSATA3 0~3), supporting IDE and AHCI modes only
(An operating system installed on the SATA3 0~5 ports cannot be used on the sSATA 0~3 ports.)
1 x M.2 connector (Socket 3, M key, type 2242/2260/2280/22110 PCIe x4/x2 SSD support)
2 x U.2 connectors
* When an i7-5820K or i7-6800K CPU is installed, the U2_32G_1 connector becomes unavailable.
|LAN||2 x Intel® GbE LAN chips (10/100/1000 Mbit)
Support for Teaming
|Wireless||Wi-Fi 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac, supporting 2.4/5 GHz Dual-Band
Bluetooth 4.2, 4.1, BLE, 4.0, 3.0, 2.1+EDR
Support for 11ac wireless standard and up to 867 Mbps data rate
* Actual data rate may vary depending on environment and equipment.
|Audio||Realtek® ALC1150 codec
High Definition Audio
Support for S/PDIF Out
|USB||Chipset+Intel® USB 3.1 controller:
1 x USB Type-C™ port on the back panel, with USB 3.1 support
1 x USB 3.1 Type-A port (red) on the back panel
Chipset+Renesas® USB 3.0 Hubs:
8 x USB 3.0/2.0 ports (4 ports on the back panel, 4 ports available through the internal USB headers)
1 x USB 3.0/2.0 ports on the back panel
4 x USB 2.0/1.1 ports available through the internal USB headers
|Back I/O Ports||1 x PS/2 keyboard/mouse port
1 x DisplayPort In port
2 x SMA antenna connectors (2T2R)
1 x USB Type-C™ port, with USB 3.1 support
1 x USB 3.1 Type-A port (red)
5 x USB 3.0/2.0 ports
2 x RJ-45 ports
1 x optical S/PDIF Out connector
5 x audio jacks (Center/Subwoofer Speaker Out, Rear Speaker Out, Line In, Line Out, Mic In)
|Internal I/O Ports||1 x 24-pin ATX main power connector
1 x 8-pin ATX 12V power connector
1 x M.2 Socket 3 connector
2 x U.2 connectors
1 x SATA Express connector
10 x SATA 6Gb/s connectors
1 x CPU fan header
1 x water cooling fan/water cooling pump header (CPU_OPT_PUMP)
2 x system fan headers
1 x system fan/water cooling pump header (SYS_FAN3_PUMP)
1 x front panel header
1 x front panel audio header
1 x S/PDIF Out header
2 x USB 3.0/2.0 headers
2 x USB 2.0/1.1 headers
1 x Thunderbolt™ add-in card connector
1 x Trusted Platform Module (TPM) header
1 x RGB LED strip extension cable header
1 x Clear CMOS jumper
|OS Support||Support for Windows 10/8.1 64-bit
Support for Windows 7 32-bit/64-bit
|Form Factor||ATX Form Factor; 30.5cm x 24.4cm; 12in x 9.6in|
The next table lists the high-level feature set of the X99 Designare EX. All images and descriptions provided by Gigabyte.
The immediate thought in my head once I opened the shipping package was color. Gigabyte designed some bold packaging for the X99 Designare EX, but it absolutely catches the eye. The front displays an open cockpit racecar in an RGB gradient, a few high level features, and the brand/model. This front panel also flips open. The rear has in depth features and specifications, along with a picture of the motherboard itself.
Opening the outer box, we find an inner box holding the motherboard safely in a foam shell. One of the safest ways to package a motherboard I’ve ever seen. Digging further down is a box holding all the non-cable accessories (manual, CD, etc), with the cables kept in a separate divider under the motherboard.
Here we see part of the accessories in the box; the manuals, CD’s, case badges, and G-Connector.
The rest of the accessories from the box; I/O shield, 3-way solid SLI bridge, HDD/SSD cable labels, and Velcro cable ties. There are some non-typical accessories here, it’s a nice touch to see cable management being thought of by Gigabyte with the sheer number of drive connections on the X99 Designare EX.
These are all the accessories not in the box; DisplayPort cable, RGB LED strip cable, Wi-Fi antenna, 2x SLI bridges, 6x braided SATA cables, and a one to three ATX 12V cable. You may be wondering, as I am, what a DisplayPort cable is doing as an accessory for a motherboard without graphics support. Gigabyte states this about the DisplayPort Input connection “DisplayPort feature is currently limited. Visit GIGABYTE website for future updates.”
The X99 Designare EX
As typical, we take a look at the front of the motherboard first. Immediately we see a slew of heatsinks and shrouds in a white with blue/silver trim. The board itself is black with some silver accents. Turning the board over to its back we see all heatsinks and shrouds are attached with screws. This is highly preferred over pins. We can also see the separation of the audio section from the rest of the motherboard. PCIe slots 1, 3, and 5 are soldered in at x16, slot 6 is soldered as x8, slot 4 is soldered as x4, and slot 2 is soldered as x1.
A Closer Look
Zooming in on the lower portion of the board we can see the metal support/shielding which Gigabyte uses to protect the PCIe slots on the X99 Designare EX. The spacing between the upper most x16 slots is very good, this will help with multi-GPU solutions utilizing large heatsinks. Again, you can run x16/x16/x16 on a 28-lane CPU due to the inclusion of a PLX chip. Across the bottom we see what appears to be an endless supply of connectivity. There are two USB 3.0 headers, two USB 2.0 headers, the front audio header, an S/PDIF output connector, a PWM system fan header, an RGB LED strip connection point, and a TPM connection. Also nestled between the upper PCIe slots, under the shroud, is a 110mm M.2 connection which utilizes PCIe 3.0 x4. Your typical M.2 device is 80mm, so supporting 110mm allows for larger than standard devices.
Picking up where we left off, on the bottom edge connectivity, the lower right corner of the board has a PWM fan/pump header, front panel connectivity, and starting up the side we see the storage connectivity. Also in this corner is the X99 chipset, normally covered by a large heatsink. The storage connections on this board are seemingly limitless. We already covered the M.2 slot, but this corner of the board has 10x SATA III ports, a pair of which can be used for SATA Express, and two U.2 connectors. If you have more drives than this board supports, get an add-in card!
Taking a peek at the top of the board we see the eight phase VRM, eight DDR4 DIMM’s with shielding like the PCIe slots, the 8-pin CPU power connector, and three PWM headers of which one is pump/fan and two are for fans. Looking specifically at the top right we get a close look at the DIMM shielding and also see the 24-pin ATX power connector. This section is decidedly simple compared to the connectivity we saw along the bottom of the board.
For rear connections on the X99 Designare we see a blast from the past, a PS/2 connection! I’d prefer to see this used for space to add two more USB ports. The USB connections include five USB 3.0 ports, one USB 3.1 Type-A port (red), and one USB 3.1 Type-C. For network there are two Gigabit LAN ports and two Wi-Fi antenna connections, audio has five 3.5mm jacks and an S/PDIF port, and last there is a DisplayPort input on the back. Gigabyte says the DisplayPort connection is for “future feature upgrade”, not sure what they have up their sleeve here.
Stripping the X99 Designare EX
Looking at the VRM we see eight phases. The CPU power connector is incredibly close to the VRM, with a choke and four caps to filter it before hitting the phases. Each phase has its own IC, choke, and capacitor. Gigabyte is calling the chokes “server level”, the power delivery design is fully digital PWM, and all IC’s/controllers are from IR. Top notch.
The controller for the VRM is an International Rectifier 3580 which is an 8-phase fully digital, single output, PWM controller. This drives the entire CPU VRM by itself, it should be plenty for topping out any ambient cooling.
The heatsinks and shrouds on this board are plentiful, to say the least. All the thermal paste and thermal pads made great contact with their intended components. The two heatsinks are linked with a very long heat pipe to assist in cooling. The I/O cover has an RGB LED strip attached on the underside, the audio cover and M.2 cover have clear/slotted sections to allow SMD RGB LED’s from the motherboard to shine through. All heatsinks and covers are attached with screws, not push pins.
Digging into the audio section in detail, Gigabyte did a great job isolating it from the rest of the motherboard. The ever popular Realtek ALC1150 Codec is in use here and, in combination with Nichicon capacitors, produces a 115dB SNR.
The Ethernet controllers for the X99 Designare are both Intel based, one i218 and one i211. As mentioned earlier, these are each rated for Gigabit throughput.
Below are some thumbnails, click for a bigger view, of the other miscellaneous integrated circuit chips on the X99 Designare EX.
The slideshow below provides a few examples of the colors you can produce with the RGB LEDs on the X99 Designare. Every color I tried was very bright and true to the intended color. The BIOS and Gigabyte software (seen in the next section) allow you to choose to have the color be on/off, flash, sweep through colors, or even have a breathing effect. The board’s lighting is synchronized with the RGB LED strip connector we saw earlier as well.
UEFI BIOS and Overclocking Software
In the first BIOS slideshow we find all the main screens of the BIOS. When you boot first the X99 Designare will go to the MIT tab in Advanced Mode. Moving the mouse to the right or bottom will bring out two toolbars. One contains links to the Easy Mode, Language, Q-Flash, and Smart Fan portions of the BIOS.
Further exploring the MIT tab we get in to Advanced Frequency, Memory, and Voltage settings. There are also pages for PC Health and Miscellaneous Settings. In these screens are all the overclocking and tweaking controls you could want or need, to my knowledge.
Bringing up the rear with the third and final slideshow of the BIOS we find the System, BIOS, Peripherals, Chipset, Power, and Save & Exit tabs. Things such as boot order, SATA settings, RGB LED controls, and more can be found here.
Here’s a look at some of the software available with the X99 Designare. One gripe here, you have to download and install each piece of software individually, but only after installing App Center. It would be better to include it all in one install package, but allow the user to choose which pieces to install. EasyTune allows system tweaking, even with an “AutoTune” for automatic overclocking. It’s worth noting the AutoTune function did not properly overclock my system, it simply crashed part way through the stress test and didn’t save the settings.
Test Setup, Benchmarks, and Overclocking
Listed below is the test system used for benchmarking.
|CPU||Intel 6800K @ Stock (for the motherboard – 3.4 GHz), 4.5 GHz for Overclocking|
|Cooler||CoolerMaster Glacer 240L|
|Motherboard||Gigabyte X99 Designare EX|
|RAM||4×4GB DDR4 GSKILL RipJaws4 @ 3000MHz 15-15-15-35 2T 1.35v|
|Graphics Card||EVGA GTX 750Ti FTW|
|Solid State Drive||Samsung 850 Pro 256GB|
|Power Supply||EVGA SuperNova G2 850W|
|Operating System||Windows 10 x64|
We’ll perform our usual set of benchmarks which tests rendering, memory performance, and single/multi-threaded CPU performance. For 2D benchmarks we’ll use SuperPi 1M and 32M, wPrime, and Intel XTU. For rendering it’s Cinebench R11.5 and R15. Memory performance is checked against AIDA64. For encoding, we use x265 (HWBOT Version) and PoV Ray. A more real-world test is included in 7zip. Stock testing is performed with the BIOS as you get it out of the box, which will vary from motherboard to motherboard. When overclocking, a CPU speed of 4.5GHz will be used for testing purposes. Memory speed is unchanged.
Memory Bandwidth and Throughput Benchmark – AIDA64
CPU Rendering Benchmarks – Cinebench R11.5 and R15
Single Threaded CPU Benchmarks – Super Pi 1M and 32M
Multi-Threaded CPU Benchmarks – WPrime 32M and 1024M, x265 (HWBOT Version), PoV Ray R3.73, 7Zip, and Intel XTU
Overall, the results seemed to be in line with the expected performance of a top-tier motherboard and results I’m seeing around the web. Currently there are no graphs to show, I normally would do so here, but later X99 motherboard reviews will include a more in-depth comparison.
Pushing the Limits
The X99 Designare EX hit 4.66GHz (46 x 101.5MHz) on the CPU. It seems to be fairly stable at this level, running Cinebench R15 without issue. Voltage is definitely outside my comfort for 24/7 usage, note. Booting 4.7GHz (47 x 100MHz) happened, but I couldn’t complete R15 at this speed.
As is typical, I’ll start with some cons in the conclusion. I was quite disappointed when, after hooking up the board, I found no debug display (forgot my 8-pin power it turned out) or power/reset switches (shouldn’t need to use a screwdriver on a motherboard of this caliber). The BIOS isn’t my favorite, but it works and has a ton of tweaking options, even if it isn’t the fastest I’ve used. Revisiting the bundled software, it would be great to have one download package which allows you to choose the components to install instead of multiple downloads.
On the positive side, the motherboard is a very attractive design. The features list is quite astounding, really, but I do wish we knew what the DisplayPort Input would add to the mix. Gigabyte’s design of the VRM is plenty to push a CPU to the limit of ambient cooling. Built in RGB lighting and the ability to control an RGB strip off of the same software is a nice addition we’re seeing on a few top-end motherboards. The PLX chip can save you a bit of cash by allowing multi-GPU arrangements while using cheaper CPU and not losing performance.
Now, on to the wallet-harming truth, the $418.99 MSRP of the X99 Designare isn’t going to win any awards for budget board of the year, but the $200 price jump of a higher lane CPU greatly offsets this for anyone who is going to utilize the PLX chip. Current market pricing on the board is MSRP at Newegg and Amazon. This board gets the Approved stamp, even though it isn’t the most convenient on an open bench (let’s be honest, how many people won’t put this board in a case anyway).
Click the stamp for an explanation of what this means.