IN CHINESE MOVIES, the smallest martial arts fighters are often the most agile, but does the same apply to mainboards? Recently, the microATX form factor has received a fair amount of attention from the high end of the market. The board format has all of the same overclocking and feature bells and whistles as its full-sized, high-end brethren, just minus two or three slots.
I took a look at two top-of-the-line microATX X58 boards for Intel's top-end desktop CPU, the Core i7. Both the Asus Rampage II Gene and the DFI LANPartyJR X58-T3H6 delight by offering a full feature set in a home-theatre form factor: massive overclocking, full SLI and Crossfire support, 6 DIMMs at up to DDR3-2000 DIMM speed achievable (even for all six modules if you're willing to substantially overvolt the unicore DRAM controller).
And, smooth 4GHz operation at a 30X multiplier with the Core i7 965 processor is possible with these boards, by using the usual air cooling - either a Thermaltake BigTyp14 Pro giant heatsink-fan (HSF) or a Thermalright 120mm HSF with its fan upgraded to a 2,700 RPM Thermaltake unit. Yes, that move from 1,600 to 2,700 RPM actually cuts up to 2 degrees C off the CPU temperature. Kingston's ultrafast HyperX DDR3-2000 6GB triple-channel DRAM kit, using those fancy Elpida dies with potential even beyond that, made for happy memories pretty well.
To cut the story short on the benchmark side: at the same clock and memory settings, both boards showed about the same Sandra 2009 CPU and memory results within 0.5% tolerance - about the same results we'd had in our original Core i7 965 test with Asus P6T Deluxe. There was a slight difference at the very top end: Asus could boot the board to BIOS and into Windows - but only in safe mode - at multiplier 32X, that is, 4.27GHz, while DFI could muster that only at 31X or 4.13GHz. Both boards passed all the usual Windows benchmarks at a 30X multiplier for 4GHz at 1.4 volts, but not a bit lower - 1.38 volt settings didn't complete either the 3DMark Vantage CPU test or the Sandra CPU benchmark - the higher voltage was needed.
Rampage II Gene Boot Screen
On the memory side, both Asus and DFI could run six Kingston modules at DDR3-1866 with CL 7-7-7-18 settings at 1.64 volts. However, with an adjustment to BCLK, we did manage to get the DFI mainboard to run at DDR3-2000 with CL 7-8-7-20 settings at 1.68 volts, which wasn't possible on the Asus.
I'd have one comment for the manufacturers about both boards. Remove the on-board sound, and just add an extra PCIe X1 slot in place of those audio outputs, to plug in a sound card like either a Creative X-Fi Titanium or an Asus Xonar ESX. The extra slot wouldn't be blocked by the GPU slots even if using twin dual-slot cards for SLI or Crossfire.
Both vendors also have interesting microATX offerings in the P45 space. The Asus Maximus II Gene and DFI LANPartyJR P45-T2RS can both give you some Core 2 Quad overclocking fun in a small space. I did play with the DFI part, and managed to get - using a never announced E1-step flavour of Core 2 Quad Q9770 (no, it doesn't exist in shops, trust me) - 4.27GHz with FSB2133 using water cooling at 1.37 volts. Fantastic! The problem? It's a DDR2-only mobo, so some of the bandwidth benefit is gone.
Keep in mind though that the vendors will still hold some of the important features for their larger mainboards, even at the midrange. In the case of Asus, its P5Q Pro Turbo P45 mainboard - standard ATX - has an "Xtreme Phase" 8-phase power design with conductive polymer capacitors rated to last 5,000 hours even at a very unlikely consistent 105 degrees C. Not bad for a midrange overclocking board, but only seen at the very top end in microATX size.
In summary, yes, the microATX format has finally grown out of its low-end media centre niche. These two X58 mainboards both excel, but - as the chipset and surroundings are pretty similar, as well as the size-related engineering constraints - their performance and limitations are about the same too. If you want a good midrange - less than $200 - PC mainboard with decent overclocking potential, then it's not there yet in microATX format. Stick with normal size instead, at least for now.
And, a message for DFI. These are lovely boards, but please do make their names a bit more attractive - they sound too much like a naming competition for R2D2's offspring right now.
Check out the pictures, below. µ
DFI LANpartyJr X58-T3H6 Bare
DFI LANpartyJr X58-T3H6 Loaded
Rampage II Gene
DFI LANparty 45
Asus P5Q Pro Turbo