Date: Wednesday, March 28, 2018
GIGABYTE was founded in 1986. Interestingly enough, the late 80s saw the birth of many motherboard manufacturers. Other manufacturers to appear in this time include ASUS and MSI. There have been many other motherboard manufacturers that have come and gone over the years. Yet, GIGABYTE has remained successful and even flourished in an otherwise tumultuous market that’s not exactly known for having high profit margins.
The company sports an impressive product portfolio which includes motherboards, graphics cards, desktops, laptops, peripherals, and various PC components. Despite its diversification, GIGABYTE remains predominantly known for motherboard manufacturing. The company also has several brands under its belt. Most of the additional branding is relatively new. The G1 Gaming family, Ultra-Durable, and Overclocking series have been around for some time. Aorus, is analogous to ASUS’ Republic of Gamers brand. It’s its high end gaming focused "sub-brand," in which all of its products have a single focus. However, GIGABYTE also recently introduced its "Designare" lineup. Unlike its other brands, you can’t simply search for it on the product website by family or brand-name. The Designare family seems to be part of Ultra Durable as evidenced by the product page. That said, the product family doesn’t show up there either. I do search by socket and chipset in order to find it. This might simply be an oversight on its part, but my sense is that the "Designare" family is simply positioned in an odd place and the marketing team may not know exactly what it’s doing with the products sporting the name just yet.
GIGABYTE is doing some obvious product rearrangement right now as it seems to be moving away from certain families and consolidating these. Regardless, the Designare family seems to fit this niche in between the Aorus gaming line and a prosumer or professional type product. The Designare motherboards have always had a prosumer type feel to them while retaining some aspects of the gaming product line. So far, there haven’t been too many offerings in the Designare family. What’s strange, or not strange depending on how you look at it is the fact that GIGABYTE only produces two socket TR4 models at present. The X399 Aorus Gaming 7 and the X399 Designare EX. The latter is the motherboard we are looking at today. I’ve sometimes been asked why there are so few X399 models on the market today. The answer is somewhat simple. The X399 chipset and socket TR4 processors were released unexpectedly, as the Ryzen architecture performed better than anticipated. It seemed like a logical choice for AMD to break into the HEDT market segment. Unfortunately, this platform launched at a time when Intel launched two of its own platforms alongside AMD’s X370, socket AM4 platform.
I think the lack of X399 motherboards comes down to two things. The first, is that there was insufficient time to design a massive lineup of motherboards based on this chipset. Adding to that, the HEDT market isn’t like the mainstream market. Products in this market are more expensive and much more feature rich than their mainstream counterparts usually are. Second reason, comes down to motherboard manufacturers being somewhat gun shy about a platform they weren’t sure could succeed in the market. It’s been over 10 years since AMD charged a "thousand dollars" for CPU. Even charging half that for an AMD processor seemed like a gamble in this market. Therefore, no one wanted to spend a ton of R&D money and time to come up with dozens of models for something that ultimately may not sell in large numbers. While I think TR4 has been successful for AMD, I still don’t think it sells well enough to justify a massive product lineup the way Intel’s HEDT platforms do. There is less product overlap for AMD than there is Intel as Intel offers ridiculous CPU’s like the Core i7 7740X which in my opinion, no one should ever buy.
When you analyze the situation, companies like GIGABYTE making a medium high end and an ultrahigh end motherboard for Threadripper CPUs seemed only logical. While we may never know for certain, it’s also possible that motherboard manufacturers knew that X399 might be relatively short lived in the market as it’s successor wouldn’t be too far away. Then again, AMD finally learned to keep secrets over the last couple of years and that might have been a mystery to AMD. In some ways, it’s platform is still playing catch up to Intel’s HEDT platform, despite having a few obvious advantages on paper. In reality, the advantages AMD possesses are fewer than you might think.
The GIGABYTE X399 Designare EX is based on AMD’s X399 chipset and is compatible with socket TR4 based Threadripper CPUs. When you look at all the available specifications for both GIGABYTE’s X399 offerings, you can see that both are almost equally high end. Upon closer inspection, I realized that these motherboards are in fact, almost identical in terms of PCB layout and feature sets. Many facets of these designs are in fact the same. This includes identical MOSFET cooling hardware, precisely the same locations for I/O ports, expansion slots, storage, and more. When you look at the two side-by-side, it really seems like the only difference between the two his color. The only real difference is that the X399 Designare EX has dual network controllers, an integrated I/O shield and fewer RGB LEDs.
When you dive into the reasoning behind this, it starts to make sense. The HEDT market already occupies a gap between gamers and prosumers. Therefore, solutions marketed to each of those groups only need slight variations between them to meet the demands of those specific markets. The Aorus X399 Gaming 7 has more RGB LEDs, and a single Killer NIC E2500 instead of dual Intel i211AT NICs. Both use the same wireless network modules and all the other features and functions I could find are basically the same. The X399 Designare EX is a feature packed solution. When you start to look at the list of features and the build quality of this thing, you can start to understand the $372 price tag.
GIGABYTE advertises things like 4-Way GPU support, server class digital power, gold-plated connectors, NVMe RAID support, dual BIOS ROMs, Ultra-Durable PCIe Armor, durable, solid black electrolytic capacitors, server level chokes and more. But frankly, list of features as long and many of those features are common features with clever marketing names applied to them. I will talk about these features in detail as we go through the various sections of the motherboard and its various components but ultimately it is a feature-rich solution with a lot to offer.
Main Specifications Overview:
Detailed Specifications Overview:
The packaging for the X399 Designare EX is what we’ve come to expect from a high-end GIGABYTE motherboard. The packaging has a silver color scheme with tasteful box art. The back of the package highlights product information and specifications. Inside the box, you will find an anti-static foam insert with a plastic cover that holds the motherboard in place. Our sample arrived intact, with a ton of included accessories. As you can imagine, a motherboard in this price bracket tends to come with a ton of accessories and this motherboard doesn’t disappoint. Inside the box you will find the following accessories: Driver disc, user manual, Velcro straps, thermal sensor cables, multi-lingual installation guide, stickers, wireless antenna RGB extension cables, CPU installation tool, 4-Way SLI bridge, SATA cables, G-connectors, a U.2 to M.2 adapter card, and a package of screws for the M.2 device slots.
The general layout is exquisite. I have very few possible complaints with the layout of the X399 Designare EX. What little I can complain about is really nitpicking. I don’t particularly care for the fact that the power, reset, and clear CMOS buttons are so close together. To make this even worse, the reset switch is a different color than the clear CMOS and power switches. If anything, the clear CMOS button should be a different color and it should be located farther away from the other two rather than being equidistant with the others. Location of the motherboard power cables for the CPU are somewhat annoying. Because of the heat pipe that connects both MOSFET coolers, you will find that disconnecting these cables once connected can be very difficult as the heat pipe blocks the locking tab.
There are few other issues, which simply arise from the high level of integration the number of features found on a single PCB in the ATX form factor. As a result of this compromise, the M.2 slots are positioned in such a way that they sit underneath installed GPUs. Furthermore, the third slot only supports drives up to 80mm in length rather than the 110mm the other slots support. There are eight fan headers located across the surface of the motherboard. One of which is dedicated to the CPU, while the other is a dedicated AIO pump header. All eight of the four pin fan headers support PWM and DC mode control. Ports and headers are labeled nicely on the PCB, the silk-screening easily visible with only a moderate amount of lighting. On the bottom of the motherboard you will find a large steel cover which adds rigidity while protecting the underside of the motherboard from damage. Because of the heavy heat sinks, MOSFET cooling hardware and the steel cover on the bottom of the board, the X399 Designare EX is easily one of the heaviest motherboards I’ve ever physically handled. I don’t consider this a problem, but it is something worth noting if overall system weight is a concern for you.
The CPU socket area is as clear as one can expect for this type of socket and form factor. Due to limitations imposed by the ATX form factor, and the size of the CPU socket the motherboard seems like it has very little room for anything. However, the X399 Designare EX is no worse off than any other motherboard I’ve seen which supports the Threadripper CPUs. I rather like the socket and the design of the mounting hardware for thermal solutions. Once you get the hang of that I find the socket very easy to work with. As with all TR4 sockets, NEVER touch the over 4,000 pins down in the socket.
There are eight 288-pin DIMM slots supporting a total of 128GB of DDR 4 RAM. The slots all feature a single sided locking tab for memory module retention. Additionally, each of the DIMM slots features GIGABYTE’s Ultra-Durable memory armor. Each slots’ "armor" consists of a one-piece stainless steel bracket which reinforces the PCB. This prevents PCB distortion, plate bending and damage due to ESD. Unfortunately, these slots are not color-coded to denote proper dual or quad channel memory mode operation. This is likely done for aesthetic reasons, rather than any practical consideration. That’s par for the course today as most high-end motherboards are built in this manner.
Through overclocking, the X399 Designare EX supports memory speeds up to DDR4 3600MHz at the time of this writing. Your actual results may vary of course, as this depends on the chosen memory modules. The QVL of current production motherboards is evolving, so these values are subject to change without notice.
The chipset is cooled with a flat, silver colored heat sink which features embedded RGB LED lights and the Designare logo. To the left of the chipset, you will find the shortest of the three M.2 slots. There is a heat sink cover on the M.2 slot which is modeled after the chipset heatsink. The M.2 heat sink cover features a captive screw, which is a nice touch. To the left of the M.2 slot will find the front panel header and diagnostic LCD which displays POST codes. In front of the chipset, you will find eight right angled locking SATA 6Gb/s ports.
The expansion slot area is a thing of beauty. There are five PCI-Express x16 slots, each with GIGABYTE’s Ultra-Durable PCIe Armor. While the armor itself is somewhat of a marketing gimmick, it’s nice to see all five slots using it for aesthetic reasons. Of course, PCB warping, can be an actual problem however we’ve gotten along for decades without slot armor. GIGABYTE claims up to 4.8x more retention force and upwards of 1.7x more shearing resistance for these slots. Given the way these are designed, I don’t doubt it. That’s not to say I think this is necessary, but rather than it seems technically true. The stainless-steel plate on the bottom of the motherboard adds additional rigidity making the PCIe armor even more redundant than it already is.
There are two M.2 slots underneath heat sinks modeled after the chipset cooler. Unfortunately, these slots would place M.2 devices underneath a single GPU, or under two if you had more than one GPU installed. In theory, the heatsinks should dissipate some of the heat generated by the SSD storage devices. In practice this is debatable. The expansion slots support multi-GPU configurations with up to 4x physical cards or utilizing 2x dual GPU graphics cards. Both 4-Way SLI and Crossfire configurations are supported. The X399 Designare EX supports PCIe lane allocation for these slots in a x16/x8/x4/x16/x8 configuration. All the PCIe x16 slots, excluding the x4 slot are PCIe Gen 3.0 compliant while the x4 slot is only Gen 2.0 compliant.
The I/O panel is new design for GIGABYTE. It features an integrated I/O shield, similar to what we’ve seen ASUS use lately. The very industrial looking I/O shield is a nice touch. It features some ventilation and adds an air of quality to the X399 Designare EX. On the back panel you will find a single clear CMOS button which is recessed. There are also 8x USB 3.1 Gen 1 ports. Two of which are USB DAC UP 2 ports which have isolated power circuitry to reduce noise or distortion. There are also dual RJ-45 jacks and two antenna connections for wireless networking. A single USB 3.1 Gen 2 Type-A and 1x Type-C port can also be found here. Lastly, there is a single optical output and 5x gold plated mini-stereo jacks for analog audio output.