ASUS Rampage III Extreme Black Edition Review

Posted May 6, 2011
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Later this year Intel will introduce an all new platform for its enthusiast segment dubbed the Sandy-Bridge E; “E” for Extreme! With the new platform comes an all new socket: the 2011. Intel has a habit for launching a new socket for every processor line it launches. Though Intel promises that Ivy Bridge series of processor will work with the current p67 line of motherboards, it (Ivy Bridge) will have its own platform controller hub. Intel plans to include enough new features in it to entice existing users into upgrading. This will include native USB 3.0 support and more importantly native PCI-e 3.0 support (probably).

The existing King of Intel processors is the Core i7-990X. A 6 core 12 thread part that fits into a socket 1366.. Launched more than 2 years ago the S1366 has seen off five major mainstream chipsets (P55, H55, P67, H67 & Z68) and still comes out on top (as far as Intel’s marketing is concerned). The chipset that powers these boards is the X58.

For its one final hurrah major manufacturers have launched what can be described as the pinnacle of X58 boards. Asus Rampage III Extreme Black Edition (R3E-BE for short) is one such board. Do we really need another X58 board considering there is not much life left in the platform? Are these boards borne out of a desire to not let the competitors get a one up on them? Or are these genuine parts with genuine features and they deserve to be called the last great Kings of X58? Read on to find out.

The new member of Republic of Gamers clan

Republic of Gamers (ROG) was born (at Asus) about 5 years ago as a platform for enthusiast products. Motherboards that fall under the ‘ROG’ banner include the ‘Maximus’ & ‘Rampage’ brands and are further categorized as ‘Formula’, ‘Gene’ or ‘Extreme’. The Maximus range caters to more mainstream enthusiast products (e.g. those based on the P55 PCH), while the ‘Rampage’ caters to the top of the line products (right now those based on the X58). The Extreme classification is reserved for the ultimate in product features. The Rampage III Extreme represents the 3rd generation of Rampage motherboards. The ‘Black Edition’ is a first for this generation. This time around Asus has aimed for the absolute highest tier in performance for a single socket based board. This is what Asus has to say about the ROG series:

“The Republic of Gamers consists only the best of the best. We offer the best hardware engineering, the fastest performance, the most innovating ideas, and we welcome the best gamers to join in.”

Mother Board At A Glance

This is a E-ATX board folks! You will definitely need a full tower chassis to fit this! Though it is still smaller than the EVGA SR-2 (which requires a extra special over sized case).

Other than that you get all the ROG goodies. What sets this ‘Black edition’ apart from the usual run of the mill Extreme is the inclusion of the special NPU (Network Processing Unit) coupled with audio circuitry dubbed the “Thunderbolt”, wifi, extra power to the processor and some specific features for Liquid Nitrogen over-clocking.

We’ll look at the board and packaging before we delve into what makes the Black Edition stand out from the crowd of other ROG boards.

Packaging – Designed to protect & attract!

The packaging for this product can be described as ‘monstrous’. I have never seen such a massive box for any of the motherboard I have used. The front of the box has a large product logo in the center, with the ROG label at the top. The company’s name is rather diminutively printed at the bottom of the box together with the socket, processor and GPU support logos next to it.

Opening the front lid of the gate fold designed box reveals the motherboard through a transparent protective covering. Salient features of the board are described in some detail on the inside of the lid. It covers all the basic amenities offered by the board; dedicated NPU (with its audio components), ROG specific features, bundled software and over clocking features.

The back of the box pictorially displays the NPU (Thunder bolt), ROG Connect, Blue tooth +HS and the Extreme Engine Digi+. The rest of the back lists the motherboard specifications. At the very bottom the usual company’s email & address, warranty information and safety regulation logos are shown.

The box is so big that it needs a carrying handle. This is something that has been seen before on the P6T Deluxe and several other Asus boards.

Opening the box reveals a cardboard shroud that holds the motherboard covered by a plastic lid. The lid itself has a little niche for the Thunderbolt add in card.

The box certainly tells a lot about the board: It is HUGE! We got the box via courier and despite the damage to the external carton that the box was in, the product itself remained undamaged. The box thus serves its purpose, both to protect and attract!

Accessories

The board comes chock full of extra goodies. Apart from the usual disks, manuals, cables and the customary ROG sticker the board is bundled with some nifty extras. We will talk about the specific accessories after covering the basics

SATA Cables
The board comes with 3 pairs of SATA 3Gbps cables and a pair of SATA 6Gbps cables. If you happen to have a 6Gbps device you will have to use this cable to take advantage of the extra bandwidth offered by the SATA 6Gbps ports.

Multi GPU Cables
You get the X-Fire cable, an extra long SLI cable and a 3 way SLI bridge with the board.

IO plate/ module/ Q-Connectors
The board is bundled with Asus “Q” accessories. These help “Q”uicken the installation time. The board also comes with a E-SATA and USB 2.0 module to allow for enhanced connectivity beyond what is provided at the rear of the board. There is a cut-out sticker sheet to label SATA ports and cables.

Thermal Sensor Cables
There are 3 thermal sensor cables that can be placed on either heat sinks or basically anywhere you would want them to be placed. These help monitor temperature. Personally I’d put them behind the in-take and in front of the exhaust fans to see how much heat is being generated and extracted from the system.

North Bridge Fan
A 40mm fan comes with the board for (extra) Northbridge cooling.

ROG specific accessories: Wi-Fi Antennae
The board supports wifi-n standard and comes with a pair of antennae.

ROG Specific Accessories: ROG connect cable
This cable allows another computer to control over clocking features of the board.

ROG Specific Accessories: Thunderbolt

Thunderbolt is Asus’s fusion of a high quality NIC, the Killer 2100 from Bigfoot and a sound card based on C-media chip. It offers amplified output for headphones with an optical SP/DIF connectivity option.
Thunderbolt comes in the form of a PCI-e x1 plug-in card. The PCB itself is covered in black plastic and carries the Thunderbolt and Xonar logos. The latter is Asus’ brand for audio products.

Manauls/ Disks/ Misc.
There is the usual manual and the DVD disk with drivers and other software. There is a ROG sticker as well as a Audio precision report which highlight the functionality of the thunderbolt network and audio card.

Impressions

As you can see Asus has included everything that every other board manufacturer would and added enough goodies to make the R3E BE stand out from the crowd. If the wifi connectivity does not interest you, the Thunderbolt network & audio solution will. With the inclusion of the BEST Nic around together with specialized audio hardware for headphone use, Asus has included a very useful accessory with the board.

R3E Black Edition Motherboard –LOADED!

The motherboard is all black with bits of red on the X58 heatsink. As has been mentioned before, this is an E-ATX board and this somewhat larger than the usual ATX boards. We’ll talk about the motherboard and move onto specific features that make this board ‘special’

Back Panel

The IO section of the motherboard features all the usual USB 2.0 (7 ports, with one ‘extra’ port for ROG connect). There are the audio jacks, E-SATA ports and a combo PS/2 mouse/ keyboard port.

Also on the back panel is a ROG connect on/off button, USB 3.0 ports and connectors for the wifi antennae.
Despite the board featuring a Killer 2100 Nic, the board also utilizes an Intel Nic on the back panel as well. It is possible to use both the interfaces together.
A clear CMOS switch completes the back panel.

With a mix of usual and un-usual the back panel section adds extra connectivity options (wifi) that is specific to the black edition.

Socket Area

The board comes with a Lottes manufactured LGA 1366 socket. If you go back a couple of years, to the launch of the socket, you might recall the ‘issues’ with the socket manufactured by Foxconn. Those days are long gone, but the memory still lingers. The socket is surrounded by X58 heat sink (left) and power regulation circuitry heatsink (rear). In front of the socket are the 6 DDR3 memory slots.

The heat sinks should not interfere with exotic air cooling setups. The first memory slot might not be able to incorporate an extra-tall heat sink equipped module if a large air cooler is used.

The power regulation circuitry uses the military grade components ensuring operation at high ambient temperature and long life. They also have the ROG logo on it.

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X58 NORTHBRIDGE/ ICH 10R SOUTHBRIDGE

The Northbridge (though not in the strictest sense of the word) is covered by a black heat sink with red highlights. It has a red ROG logo which lights up when powered. The heatsink can be augmented with a 40mm fan bundled with the board.

The board relies on the X58 for all of its PCI-e 2.0 lanes. There is no NF200. This restricts the bandwidth available when all 4 x16 slots are occupied (to x8 speeds). The real world impact might not be that much, but when you are offering such a complete package at a premium price, one would expect it to be complete. The addition of NF200 would have been welcome.

The ICH 10R is covered with a extra large flat heat sink. The heat sink does not interfere with the use of extra long video cards.

Memory Slots

Like almost all X58 boards (barring the original DX58SO from Intel for example), the black edition comes with 6 DDR3 memory slots. The board can take up to 48 GB of RAM and supports over-clock speeds of 2200 MHz. This is higher as compared to the 1066 MHz that the processors that fit into these sockets officially support.

As the Core series of processor that are compatible with the board have a triple channel memory controller, you will need three stick to get the maximum benefit. The memory slots come in two shades of ‘black’ to indicate which slots work in unison to provide triple channel connectivity.

Power Connectors

The board is chock full of power connectors. There is the usual 24 pin main power connector, 2 8pin CPU power connectors (EATX 12V compliant). There is also a 4 pin molex connector next to the PCI-e slots to provide them with extra power.

Expansion Slots

The board has 2 PCI-e x1 connectors. If you connect the Thunderbolt card that leaves one x1 slot free. Using the Thunderbolt also implies that it won’t be possible to use three double slot cooler cards in 3 consecutive x16 slots.

There are 4 PCI-e x16 slots which can work in various bandwidth modes depending on the number of slots occupied

For three cards it is possible to do x16; x16/x16. But if you use all four slots the bandwidth is reduced to x8/x8/x8/x8. This is because that the board relies on the X58 for its lanes rather than including an additional NF200 chip.

The board is capable of doing 3 way SLI or 4 way XF.

Storage

There are 8 SATA ports, 6 of which are SATA 3.0 Gbps (controlled by the ICH 10R) and offer Raid 0,1,5 and 10 support. Next to these are 2 SATA 6.0Gbps ports (grey), handled by the Marvell 9182 PCIe controller.

There are usual USB 2.0 connectors (2 connectors for 4 ports) on the board as well as a USB 3.0 connector along the front edge (for 2 USB 3.0 ports). The USB 3.0 connectivity is provided by a NEC controller.

Specialized ROG Features

Extreme Digi+
Though not unique to the Extreme series (it is found on the P67 boards by Asus), the components used in the DIGI+ voltage regulation modules for this board do make this stand out from the rest of the Asus crowd. This board has an 8 phase power regulation to the processor , 3 phase regulation to the memory, X58 power and QPI. Some might be surprised to learn that the power regulation on the plain vanilla X58 boards from Asus have a 16+2 design. What gives? The answer is quiet simple! The components used on this board can regulate more power than the run of the mill components found on other boards. Thus the 8+3+3+3 design either meets or exceeds the performance of the 16+2 design used on other boards. The digital architecture reduces signal noise and energy consumption.

Overclocking Zone & Other overclocking friendly features

The right front edge of the board (next to the 24pin power connector) has several special features that make up the “over-clocking zone”.

The area starts off with a “GO” button that initiates the Mem OK! algorithms. This helps in the use of un-supported memory.

Next to this are 4 on/ off rocker switches that control PCI-e x16 slots. This makes diagnosing a dead video card easier. It is possible to turn individual slots off to figure out which of the cards is not working. This is a very welcome feature and one that Asus should include on all ROG boards. There is a reset as well a power switch. Below these is the probelt area. This has individual points to measure voltage to various board components. Those who like to get their hands ‘dirty’ can use these points to accurately calculate voltages supplied. A 2 digit LED debug display is also included. This is in contrast to the LCD solution bundled with the Rampage II Gene. Just above the reset switch is a LN2 jumper. This allows the user to bypass the cold boot bug when using exotic cooling solutions like LN2.

A series of LEDS, located below the 24 pin power connector, the “Q-LEDS” show component activity. It can help diagnose a ‘dead’ link in the system.

There are LEDs for the Northbridge, CPU, memory and other components which can denote the state of voltage, temperature of these parts (Voltminder LEDS).

There is also a ‘Q reset’ button next to 8 pin power connectors. This temporarily breaks the power feed to the CPU and helps it recover from a frozen condition when using LN2 for cooling.

The ROG connect and iDirect allow either wired or wireless control of over-clocking respectively. It is possible to use mobile devices like iPod to control and tweak over-clocks.

Bluetooth V3.0 +HS
By employing the 802.11 layer of the new blue tooth standard, the board supports high speed data transfer over Bluetooth protocol. This is used for iDirect connectivity.

Audio

Apart from the Audio connectivity provided by the Thunderbolt, the board features a RealTek audio solution. Asus uses its license from Creative to provide X-fi audio features including EAX 5.0. However unlike the X-fi hardware based processing all the EAX calculations are done in software.

Fan Connectors
There are a total of 8 fan connectors featuring PWM control. There are 2 CPU fan connectors, 3 chassis fan connectors and 3 optional fan connectors. They feature Q-fan control for noise/ performance balance.

Network
Apart from the Bigfoot Nic, the board also features an Intel based Nic on the board itself.
BIOS

The board comes with two BIOSes. It is also possible to flash the BIOS with only a flash drive and nothing more! The BIOS flash back switch on the motherboard is there for this purpose.

Unlike the recent P67 series of boards, this board does not use EFI, but the good old bios. No mouse driven GUI here. Apart from that there is no shortage of over-clocking options in the Extreme tweaker menu. There are enough parameters to satisfy the most curious of the tinkerers!

Design Impressions
Had Asus included a Coffee machine the package would have been complete! Seriously folks this is one very complete motherboard. Had Asus included a NF200 chip to add extra PCI-e lanes and maybe another PCI-e x16 slot it would have been the board. But even as things stand this is a very attractive bundle.

The essential CPU-Z shot

Bundled Software

The board includes the usual array of Asus software & drivers. Their all in one AI Suite combines several functions including over-clocking, monitoring and system information:

Anyone buying this board will probably only use the over-clocking utility to fine tune rather than setup over clocks. This is not to say that the tool does not work, it does; it is really not for purists but for beginners. And beginners are probably not going to buy this board!

Test Setup

Processors

Core i7-2600K

Core i7-920

Boards

Asus Sabertooth P67 (Core i7-2600K series)

Asus Rampage III Extreme BE(Core i7-920)

Asus P6T Deluxe V2 (Core i7-920)

Memory

Corsair DDR3-1333MHz 2×4 GB. Total 8 GB

Corsair DDR3-1333MHz 3×2 GB. Total 6 GB (920)

Video

ATi 6950-2GB

Hard Disk

Seagate ST31000528AS

Power Supply

Corsair HX620

Cooler

Thermal Right HR-02 (No fans)

OS

Windows 7 x64

Test Suite

Synthetic

Sandra 2011, X264 Benchmark (HD V3)

Cinebench, 3Dmark11 –Physics Test

Real World

7-Zip

IO Performance

SATA –HD Tune, USB –Crystal Mark 3

Gaming

Far Cry II, Crysis Warhead

Legend

X58BE

Core i7-920 + X58 (Rampage III Extreme BE)

X58

Core i7-920 + X58 (Asus P6T Deluxe V2)

S67

Core i7-2600K + P67 (Sabertooth P67)

Testing Methodology

Testing motherboards is not an easy task, and testing one designed specifically with tons of over-clocking features is even tougher. Not all processors over-clock equally and thus unless a processor’s limit is known it would be unfair to put the blame on the motherboard. Fortunately we have our hands on a Core i7-920 whose limit we know well (around 4.0 GHz, not earth shattering, but measurable!). We will test the board’s over-clocking potential using this particular chip. We will also compare the board to one other LGA 1366 platform (the Asus P6T Deluxe V2) and one Sandy Bridge platform (Asus Sabertooth P67 paired to a Intel Core i7-2600K).

We will use a mix of synthetic and real world benchmarks to judge performance.

*All results rounded off to the nearest round figure. % Scores shown

Sandra 2011
Sandra is a multi-purpose utility that offers benchmarking of multiple parameters.

The two X58 boards are neck and neck; the P67 is in a different league altogether

X264 Benchmark HD V3
This benchmark measures the encoding performance of the system.

The tests are pretty much a carbon copy of the previous tests.

Cinebench R11.5 TEST
Cinebench is based on Maxon’s Cinema 4D. It is used to compare graphics as well as processor performance.

Much closer, but same old, same old.

3D Mark ’11

As an ATi card was in use, physics test reflects motherboard-CPU performance more than the total score. Here again the two X58 boards perform around the same.

Real World
Some might argue against using 7-zip’s compression and decompression benchmark as a ‘real world’ test. But if you try and think about it for a minute, the benchmark does show how fast the program will either compress or decompress, while negating the impact of disk transfers.

7-Zip Compression

7-ZIP Decompression


The compression tests are more indicative of processor power. More of the same déjà vu experience!

IO Tests

USB Tests
USB performance was compared between boards. As our Asus P6T Deluxe V2 X58 board only features USB 2.0 ports no USB 3.0 tests could be performed on it. Thus it serves as a comparison between USB 2.0 and USB 3.0 performance characteristics. Crystal Mark V3 was used in conjunction with a USB 3.0 compliant Kingston Data Traveler (Ultimate 16 GB)

The compression tests are more indicative of processor power. More of the same déjà vu experience!

Both the boards with USB 3.0 perform on par. They both use the same controller thus produce identical results.

SATA Performance
HD Tune was used to assess SATA performance.

The P67 platform proves to be the fastest. The Black Edition does better than the P6T Deluxe.

Gaming Benchmarks

Crysis –Warhead

Gaming tests show that X58 platforms perform the same, while the P67 platform comes on top.

Exploring Thunderbolt
We wanted to see if the Killer NIC was better than Intel NIC when it came to network performance. We used speed and ping tests on both to see if there was any advantage of using the Killer NIC over the Intel NIC

Despite the entire hubbub, both the products produce similar results. Though in an ideal situation the Killer NIC (NPU) with all of its processing power will provide better results, but in live testing this is just not so. The reason being the number of variables in an internet connection. Had we tested these two in a LAN gaming the results would probably have favored the NPU.

Testing –Impressions
All the tests, except those based on I/O show that the two X58 platforms perform on the same level. The I/O tests paint a different a picture as the black edition has USB 3.0 and SATA 6Gbps. These new technologies help the black edition produce significantly better results.

Overclocking
Using a Core i7-920, whose over-clocking limit has been established (4.0GHz) we set out to test whether the Black edition could reach the same.

Not only did the black edition reach the same limit, it did so while applying slightly less Core and QPI/DRAM Voltage.

Conclusion

If you jumped straight to the conclusion (without reading the rest of the article), I urge you to at least look at the benchmark charts. The black edition is a niche product. It is not for those who are looking for a decent stable over-clock. There are other motherboards that will offer this and cost much less.

The benchmarks show that this board performs on par with other X58 boards as long as features that are similar are being compared. It does better when using features that are specific to it (like USB 3.0 and SATA 6Gbps), which our other X58 board did not have. The only setup that does better than this is the P67.

And this brings us back to the point made initially: product placement. You will only benefit from the features on the black edition if you can utilize them: LN2 cooling specific features; multi GPU features and so on. Otherwise you can do everything on a ‘run of the mill X58 board’.

What about comparison to the new Sandy Bridge platform? Well as the benchmarks show that newer is better! But again that won’t deter the diehard purists from buying this board. Sandy Bridge is a mainstream platform. It does not offer true x16/x16 connectivity (for multi GPU use) or triple channel memory controller. Granted that the latter shows no benefit in gaming (relevance to ROG lost!) and the former only shows minor performance benefits in 90% of applications. But we are talking about improvements and they can be enough to deter those who want to remain in the top tier of hardware hierarchy. Right now if you want the best in multi GPU technology the X58 is the way to go, (irrespective of performance benefits) over the P67.

Comparisons will also be drawn to the Gigabyte Assassin G1. The latter board offers real Creative X-fi DSP, Killer NIC, Hybrid EFI bios, front panel USB/eSATA connector box. It does however require a larger case as it is an oversized ATX board (ATX-XL). They both use the same Marvel controller for SATA 6Gbps, and no NF200 chip. The front panel box is probably the greatest difference I see between the two. The performance can only be compared once we have the actual product. Until then both look pretty similar on paper.

If you have the capacity to utilize the extra features on the black edition, you will certainly get your money’s worth. If you have money to spend you will be the envy of your geek crowd. This is after all the Ferrari of the motherboard world and you must be in the right place to enjoy it to its full potential

PROS

  • Features Galore
  • Even More Features
  • Killer NIC
  • Dedicated Headphone output
  • Exotic Over-clocking solutions
  • Excellent Over-clocking options
  • Price! (A definite bragging point)

CONS

  • No NF200
  • Killer NIC (you will see performance difference only under certain situations)

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