First look: Asus’ new X58 motherboard for Core i7

Intel’s Core i7 (formerly known by its codename Nehalem) is a month away from official release; but when it does arrive it’ll bring with it a completely new range of motherboards. The Core i7 architecture demands a new type of CPU socket and a new chipset known as X58.

Asus has given us a sneak preview of its first X58-based board, the P6T Deluxe. As the name implies, it’s a premium board with high-end features like SAS and dual Gigabit Ethernet – after all, early switchers to Core i7 aren’t likely to be on a tight budget.

The version we looked at even comes with an Asus ‘OC Palm’ module – an external console that can be used as a secondary display and for dynamic overclocking and temperature monitoring.

Aside from the luxuries, the P6T looks a lot like existing boards. It’s powered by a standard 24-pin ATX connector, with a 4/8-pin CPU power socket. It has a single IDE interface, six SATA ports, and on the backplate you’ll find the usual array of connectors.

New socket: LGA 1366

But look more closely and you’ll find some interesting new features. The first is the CPU socket (pictured below), which is the new LGA 1366 design, also known as Socket B. It’s based on the same ZIF concept as LGA 775, with contacts sticking up from the socket, but it’s divided into two symmetrical sections with pins pointing in different directions.

It’s held firmly in place by a metal plate on the reverse of the PCB, and while the lever-based insertion mechanism is basically the same as older chips, the housing has changed shape so you’ll need an i7-specific heatsink.

Three-channel RAM

Moving around the board, the six DDR3 DIMM slots look unremarkable – until you notice the colour coding. With the Nehalem microarchitecture, the memory controller is moved out of the chipset and onto the CPU itself – and the Core i7 uses a novel three-channel RAM system rather than the dual-channel arrangements we’re used to. That means matched DIMMs can be installed in threes rather than the more familiar pairs. It’ll be interesting to see how this affects performance.


Multi-GPU support

There’s a third notable feature too, though it’s hidden away in the X58’s core logic. The board’s three PCI-E 16x sockets are compatible with both SLI and CrossFireX – the first time a single board has supported both technologies. Note that there are only 32 PCI 2.0 lanes to divide up between the slots, so if you splash out on three cards you’ll be using a 16x / 8x / 8x arrangement. But in practice that’s unlikely to be a serious bottleneck.

For now, the P6T Deluxe is a luxury car without an engine. Until Core i7 chips materialise, we won’t be able to see what X58 can really do. But the mere fact that boards are ready so far in advance of the Nehalem launch date proves the technology is ready to hit the ground running.

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