A new generation of Intel Extreme processors with a new socket (LGA 2011-3) means a new batch of motherboards to go along with them, and Gigabyte has a whopping eight X99 boards aimed at the PC gaming elite. To test out Intel s $1050 Core i7 5960X, Gigabyte sent me the GA-X99-Gaming 5, which sits in the middle of that eight motherboard pack. At $295, it s a bit cheaper than a couple other variants, like the wi-fi equipped Gaming G1 Wi-Fi and the overclocking oriented SOC Force. Despite not being Gigabyte s premiere overclocking board, I was able to clock the i7 5960X at a stable 4.1GHz on the Gaming 5, and it was an effortless process thanks to Gigabyte s great UEFI BIOS.
After I hit 4.1GHz so easily, I had to push it even further—but more on that later.
The Gaming 5 is the first X99 board I ve tested, and it s interesting to see what $295 gets you for an Extreme processor motherboard. The average Z97 board costs $100 - $200, and most of the additional features on the X99 Gaming 5 come from the X99 chipset. Compared to Gigabyte s $145 Z97X Gaming 5 motherboard, the X99 board has these big advantages:
- Support for DDR4 rather than DDR3 RAM.
- Two x16 PCI Express slots at x16 and two PCI Express slots at x8, compared to one PCI Express slot at x16, one at x8 and one at x4. The extra slots are made possible by more PCIe lanes on the Extreme CPUs.
- Four additional SATA 6 Gb/s ports from the chipset.
- Two additional USB 3.0 ports from the chipset.
Otherwise, the two motherboards are extremely similar. The most important feature with X99 is the extra PCIe slot and the added bandwidth available to PCIe devices, which enables quad-SLI or Crossfire if you have a suitable number of graphics cards on hand. But Gigabyte s added some smart touches here and there that make the X99 motherboard pleasant to use, both in terms of hardware and software. Let s dive in.
To test the Gigabyte-X99-Gaming 5, I built a system with the following components:
- Corsair 750D full tower case
- Gigabyte-X99-Gaming 5 motherboard
- Intel 5970X processor
- Enermax Liqtech 240 closed-loop liquid CPU cooler
- 32GB Crucial DDR4-2133 RAM
- Adata 256GB m.2 SSD
- Enermax 1500 watt power supply
- Nvidia GeForce GTX 980 reference graphics card
First, the important features: the board s four PCIe slots can support up to four graphics cards, while many other motherboards only support up to three-way SLI. Four-way only works with a CPU that has enough PCIe lanes to communicate with that many devices. The 5960X and 5930K both have 40 PCIe lanes, enough to support four graphics cards. The 5920K processor, however, has only 28 lanes, which means it can only support three-way SLI or CrossFire.
The X99 Gaming 5 also has a dual M.2 slot for an SSD and a Wi-Fi card. The M.2 socket isn't the fastest around—it tops out at 10 gigabits per second, whereas both ASUS and Asrock make X99 motherboards that use a PCIe x4 lane to achieve up to 32 gigabit per second data speeds. The latter method shares bandwidth with one of the PCIe sockets, which is a deal-breaker if you plan on running four-way SLI; the boards can serve the M.2 socket or the PCIe lane, but not both. Gigabyte's implementation, while definitely slower, doesn't have that limitation.
10 gigabits per second works out to 1250 megabytes. Because the Adata M.2 SSD I m using has max speeds of about 770 MB/s, I didn t have any bottleneck issues. But there are SSDs out there right now butting up against that speed limit, which could make Gigabyte's M.2. implementation a limiting factor in a year or two.
Gigabyte s motherboard has a few interesting extra features: a header for an add-in Thunderbolt card, an upgradable OP-AMP that audiophiles may choose to change out instead of installing a separate sound card, and ambient LED lighting around the board and I/O ports. I was surprised to find that the LED lighting was my favorite bit. On the board itself there s a bit of red LED trim that lights up, but that has no functional purpose. The purple LED glow around the I/O ports, on the other hand, makes it much easier to read the labels around the ports, even in a well-lit office. Stuffed under a desk in a dark room, the light would be wonderfully useful.
It s the thoughtful kind of user experience refinement computer cases have been getting for years, like sliding HDD trays, that make building or using a PC a more pleasant experience. I wish Gigabyte had given the Gaming 5 the same kind of care on the body of the board itself—it s noticeably lacking an on-board POST code display, power button, or reset button, which are nice features to have on a high-end motherboard. I don t think that s unreasonable to expect from a $300 board, but you ll have to upgrade to the $350 SOC Force X99 board to get those from Gigabyte.
On the next page: UEFI, overclocking, and wrapping up.
Software and UEFI
Like most motherboard makers, Gigabyte has its own desktop software suite offering user-friendly GUI interfaces for overclocking and BIOS upgrading. Before doing a manual overclock, I tried out Gigabyte s auto tune feature on the desktop. In addition to a few static clock speed options, the autotune option is meant to test your processor at various speeds until it lands on a fast, stable overclock.
Unfortunately, I couldn t get it to work. After trying twice and letting the autotune sit on a stability testing screen for about 20 minutes, I stopped the process and found it reverted to the CPU s 3GHz base clock.
Thankfully, Gigabyte s UEFI is easy to use and absolutely packed with information. The default UEFI screen shows some simple options like boot priority, enabling fast boot—the basics you need if you re not going to be doing any major tweaking. Navigate over one screen to the left and you re greeted with a well-organized selection of tabs for tweaking CPU speed, voltage, memory—everything you d expect for overclocking or fine-tuning your system.
I especially like that Gigabyte surrounds the edges of the screen with live-updating data about the system, like CPU temperature and fan speeds. The nicest touch is the bit of descriptive text that appears for every setting. If you don t have any experience overclocking, you shouldn t go around changing settings at random, but Gigabyte s UEFI can help you learn what does what and prevent you from changing the wrong settings.
Performance and overclocking
As I mentioned above, I started with a nice, stable 4.1GHz overclock of the 5960X the Gaming 5. At the same time, I also overclocked Crucial s 2133 MHz DDR4 RAM up to 2400 MHz, which booted up just fine after a restart. Neither RAM nor CPU showed any signs of instability when I ran the demanding Prime95 stress test.
After those stable settings, it was time to push things a bit further. Without manually adjusting voltage or timing, I couldn t boot the computer with RAM overclocked past 2400 MHz.
On the CPU side, I was able to push beyond 4.1GHz no problem. At a (fairly conservative) 1.225 volts, I got the CPU up to 4.4GHz, which booted fine, but couldn t hold up to punishing stress tests. The system never crashed or rebooted, but I did encounter errors after several minutes in the Prime95 and OCCT stress tests. Intel recommends against using these tests for creating such a strenuous (and unrealistic) workload, so it may hold up fine under prolonged normal use, or with a bit more voltage.
Another note: Enermax s Liqtech 240 cooler performed excellently throughout my benchmark testing. Even at 2.25 volts and 4.4GHz, the CPU stayed in the low 70C range while running Prime95, with the liquid cooler s fans set on their medium speed setting.
4.4GHz represents a 46% overclock, which makes for an incredibly fast Haswell-E chip. Given how well the Gaming 5 handles overclocking, you d have to be chasing huge clockspeeds to need to upgrade to their $350 SOC Force board, or really want those power/reset/overclocking buttons and POST LED.
If you re after a motherboard for a Haswell-E processor that can do four-way SLI, the Gigabyte X99 Gaming 5 is a great choice. It s a bit cheaper than Gigabyte s top-end boards, and doesn t give up much—one Ethernet port instead of two, and a few other bells and whistles are all that s really missing. The LED illuminated I/O port is a great bonus that I expect to see standard in a few years time.
The M.2 SSD speed being capped at 10 Gb/s, as opposed to the 32 GB/s some other motherboards support through x4 PCIe, is the biggest drawback. It s a necessary trade-off to be able to support four-way SLI, but if you never plan to shove four graphics cards into your case at once, consider a step-down model from Gigabyte or an Asrock motherboard for an X99 build. Alternatively, Gigabyte s $350 SOC Force X99 board uses PCIe lanes to bump M.2 speeds up to 20 GB/s. You can pick one up for less than $250.