Motherboards for All Budgets (Part 2) - Gigabyte GA-990FXA-UD7, Gigabyte GA-Z77X-UD5H-WB, Asus Rampage IV Extreme

11/14/2012 9:33:11 AM

High-performance AMD motherboards tend to top out slightly lower than their Intel counterparts, purely because the CPUs do just that, but that's not to say that AMD boards are off the table for high-performance computing. Indeed, their relative modesty means it's substantially cheaper to buy a top-of-the-range AMD motherboard for gaming and overclocking, safe in the knowledge that you're being sold the best in the line. The GA-990FXA-UD7 is Gigabyte's first foray into Bulldozer-based gaming motherboards, and a close relative of the GA-990FXA-UD3 seen earlier.

Although it has many of the same features as its younger sibling, the main difference is that the GA-990FXA-UD7 supports four-way SLI and CrossFireX, as opposed to the dual-card support that the UD3 offers. That alone should tell you that the UD7 is aimed at gamers eager to get the most fluid, high-resolution graphics out of their machines, and indeed, that is what it delivers under such a setup.

There are six SATA 6Gbps ports available, an amount equal to both the UD3 model and Asus' equivalent motherboard, the Sabretooth 990FX. Again, you get six PCIe slots and a PCI slot, with four USB 3.0 ports in addition to the board's fourteen USB 2.0 ports, three of which support the power-boost device charge mode. A standard four memory banks might seem like a disappointing oversight when compared to the Rampage IV's eight, but it's still a reasonable number, even for gamers. Form-wise, it's a little larger than a standard ATX, but shouldn't require much additional space.

Description: Gigabyte GA-990FXA-UD7

Gigabyte GA-990FXA-UD7

In terms of performance, there are a few weak areas. In particular, benchmarks show that the USB 3.0 ports perform a little more slowly than those on similar models from rival manufacturers, but the UD7 claws back some credibility by overclocking comfortably beyond its normal range. Coupled with water-cooling, you could end up with a seriously more powerful system than you've paid for at no extra cost. If you're willing to take the risk, there are potentially great rewards to be reaped, and that's what makes this a board for serious gamers.

$240-$320 (Intel): Gigabyte GA-Z77X-UD5H-WB

If you're in the market for an Ivy Bridge motherboard. Gigabyte's GA-Z77X-UD5H-WB model is one of the most feature-rich, and that makes it a great choice for those with the cash to spend.

Qualities you can expect to see include USB 3.0 support, SATA 6Gbps, support for up to three monitors on integrated graphics alone, SLI and CrossFireX support, PCI Express 3.0 support, and (for the WB model only) a boxed-in expansion card with dual Wi-Fi antennae and a Bluetooth 4.0-ready adaptor. Throw a stone and you'll hit something impressive.

Description: Gigabyte GA-Z77X-UD5H-WB

Gigabyte GA-Z77X-UD5H-WB

That said, of its many impressive features, perhaps the most interesting is the LucidLogix Universal MVP software. This allows you to instantly switch between your on-board GPU and any expansion GPUs without having to physically manipulate the hardware meaning you can tweak power efficiency to an extra degree - use the on-board chip for basic use, then fire up your graphics card when it's time to do some gaming. The system can do this automatically, and can even make your on-board and expansion GPUs work together, helping to eliminate redundancies and optimize performance. It's truly astonishing stuff (if a little complicated to set up initially).

The GA-Z77X-UD5H-WB has Gigabyte's own 3D UEFI BIOS which gives users a full-color, mouse-enabled graphical interface to help you alter your system settings, whether you're an amateur dabbler or a hardened overclocker. The built-in support for Windows 8 means it can boot Microsoft's latest OS in a matter of seconds, if you're running it (and let's face it, you're likely to be before long). Smart Response Technology lets you use an SSD drive as cache for a larger mechanical hard drive, which is a nice feature to help ease the transition we're all facing between SSDs and HDDs.

The only down side is the price, but even that's dropping fast. If you can find it for under $272, you have a deal on your hands.

$320 and over (AMD): None!

If you have a motherboard budget of over $320 and want to get the best AMD board out there, well, you have either good or bad news, depending on how you look at it. The good news is that no AMD board costs more than $320, and the Gigabyte GA-990FXA-UD7, which falls into the $240-$320 category, is the most appropriate motherboard for any gamer or enthusiast building an AMD-based system.

The bad news? Well, if you were hoping to spend more than $320 on a board to get access to the extra frills and enthusiast-specific features that the likes of the Asus Rampage IV line offers Intel owners... you simply can't. The hardware doesn't exist. If that's the sort of PC you're building, the only useful advice we can give is that you switch to an Intel platform instead.

$320 and over (Intel): Asus Rampage IV Extreme

Forget Ivy Bridge for the moment - Intel's Sandy Bridge E platform is the one aimed at 'enthusiasts', which if you're not common with computing lingo, means the sort of person who likes benchmarks enough to notice the improvement you'd get from a $481 motherboard.

At least until the launch of Ivy Bridge E, the Asus Rampage IV Extreme is still the fastest chipset around for enthusiasts and overclocking fans.

Description: Asus Rampage IV Extreme

Asus Rampage IV Extreme

The Rampage IV Extreme's distinctive Red and Black styling proves it means business before you've even switched it on. The board's large width means that it falls quite decisively into the larger. Extended ATX category of form factors, so it's worth checking in advance if you have the space, and not just for the board, but for the water-cooling system it so desperately needs to make the most of its capabilities. The board comes with a single fan, not because it doesn't need more, but because it assumes you have something specialist in mind for cooling. As if to hammer the point home, there's even a 'slow mode' switch on the board for use during nitrogen-cooling benchmarks.

Practically speaking, it's got more features than you can shake a stick at. Eight SATA ports (two of which are SATA 6Gbps), twelve USB 2.0 ports and eight USB 3.0, and five PCIe slots, a massive four of which can be run together in SLI. Eight DIMM slots allow for up to 64GB of RAM, which is enough for virtually anyone - at least for the foreseeable

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