Hardwired: Second time’s the charm! (or: how the ASRock X299 Extreme4 alleviates the biggest issue with Intel’s Extreme Edition Core i9 CPUs)
Not long ago, I had the opportunity to review the ASRock X299 Taichi motherboard. At the time, it was one of many offerings which had support for Intel’s new-generation Core i9 and Core i7 products (formerly Skylake-X).
Aside from being the platform and chipset revision that ushered in 12-core CPUs and higher, it signified a number of key changes in how Intel develops CPUs. We saw the change from a ring bus to a mesh structure. We saw a sizeable reduction in L3 cache sizes, but an increase in L2. We got a better memory controller that allowed DRAM frequencies of 4GHz and new ways in which the CPU’s internal clock was controlled for optimum performance.
With all these changes, things were bound to get a little tricky for vendors. After all, the events that took place a number of years ago with the X79 chipset haven’t been forgotten. That was easily the most troubled chipset launch I’ve ever witnessed, and I’m still not sure if it was Intel at fault or the board vendors. Regardless of who was to blame, it was anything but a well-matured platform, and it effectively resulted in only one vendor making a handful of useful boards throughout the chipset’s entire existence. The rest, plainly stated, were atrocious.
The HEDT platforms have traditionally posed more problems for vendors (and in turn the end users) than their desktop counterparts (the Z- and P-series chipsets). It seems that the X299 platform has had a smoother ride with this than previous attempts, but as always it’s been marred by one major issue (at the very least) which hasn’t been communicated all that well.
The ASRock X299 Extreme4 is precisely the motherboard to use which illustrates this issue, as well as the difference a bit of time can make with regards to hardware quality, even on the same platform. It’s the perfect example of why you should look for what I’d term a “second-generation” motherboard. There’s nothing wrong with earlier models, but if you’re looking to use a Core i9 7920X and higher, you should insist on the newer motherboards like this one.
For anyone using the Core i9 7900X and lower, however, you’re unlikely to see much of a difference, and whatever you own right now will still suffice.
So, how do second-generation boards differ from their earlier counterparts?
Well, it’s all based in how power is delivered and made available to the CPU. What you may not know (because it was never widely publicised, for obvious reasons) is that many of these CPUs have trouble maintaining suitable performance levels under heavy loads. Simply put, the power-delivery system and circuitry simply aren’t good enough, and that could be because of inadequate cooling, or simply failing to provide enough power, or a combination of the two.
This was made explicitly clear with the release of the Core i9 7980 Extreme Edition CPU, which doesn’t deliver the expected performance. Even at 4GHz, it draws incredible amounts of power (over 300 watts). While many boards could handle the power draw, they couldn’t maintain it for an extended time, as the VRM would eventually run far too hot and in order to protect itself, the system would throttle performance. At a glance, the clock frequency would seem correct – but the real-world performance would be far from ideal. You could set 4GHz, for example, and end up with a resultant level of performance lower than what you’d get at 2.6GHz. Believe it or not, this was very common.
Motherboard vendors simply hadn’t anticipated the amount of load the Core i9 7980XE CPU would place on the VRM, and by the time this was widely known, thousands of motherboards had already shipped, including many which still find themselves on retail shelves today. Technically, these older boards aren’t suitable for use with the Core i9 7940/60/80 Extreme Edition CPUs, but given their high cost, there simply aren’t enough of them in the wild for this to become a major PR headache for all involved. If this issue affected the more common 4- and 6-core CPUs, it’d be a different story – but it doesn’t, so it isn’t.
As a result, these first-generation X299 boards are sold alongside the newer, second-generation ones, often at a premium price – even though these second-gen boards are far more valuable. If you’re planning on using one of the affected CPUs, it’s best to pick one of the newer motherboards such as the ASRock X299 Extreme4. It may be a low-end offering by comparison, but for all intents and purposes it has everything that you actually need from a motherboard. It’s got Wi-Fi and Bluetooth connectivity, up to three M.2 devices can be installed, it supports DRAM frequencies of 4GHz, and it has better support for the higher core count of Core i9 CPUs, which ensures reliable, predictable, consistent performance. The VRM heatsink still gets very hot, and I’d advise (I would say it’s actually a requirement) that you get some airflow over it, but in general it works as it should.
That’s basically what the ASRock X299 Extreme4 is about. It doesn’t explicitly state it on the box or anywhere else, but those with a keen eye will notice that the VRM cooling has been beefed up, and that there’s also two 12V CPU connectors instead of one. This allows for higher power and current, which is at the heart of this issue.
This becomes fairly apparent in benchmarks, because the Extreme4 seems to offer better performance than the original X299 Taichi board. The margins aren’t major, but they’re more consistent, and the Extreme4 comes out on top every time. Interestingly, if you disable hyper-threading, reducing the Core i9 7980XE to an 18-thread CPU, these power issues are largely mitigated (you can expect a direct comparison in application performance between the two different modes at some point). Doing so causes the Extreme4 and the Taichi board to perform similarly, and any deviation is well within the margin of error.
What ASRock and other vendors (GIGABYTE’s X299 AORUS Gaming 7 Pro, for example) are offering with these new boards is a second attempt at getting the X299 platform right, by sorting out the one major issue that’s plagued many of the earlier boards. In their defence, they couldn’t have foreseen that Intel would release an 18-core, 36-thread behemoth and as such, the motherboards simply weren’t designed for such intense power and current draw.
If you’re looking for a motherboard to pair with a CPU with such a high core count, make sure you buy a newer motherboard such as the ASRock X299 Extreme4. At the very least, it’ll help ensure your CPU operates as intended. Don’t be misled by the price: the Extreme4 is a far more capable board than slightly older models that cost twice as much.