Less than a month after we reviewed the Gigabyte GA-P35-DQ6 , Gigabyte sent us a retail ready version of its successor based on the newly launched Intel X38 chipset. Using their already established Ultra Durable 2 and DQ6 designs, Gigabyte is banking on their first to market advantage to meet early adopters that have been waiting for the X38. Basically, this means that not much has changed between the new GA-X38-DQ6 motherboard and the GA-P35-DQ6, as you will see later in this review.
The main reason to be excited however, is the Intel X38, Intel's first attempt to re-introduce an enthusiast class chipset since the Intel 975X Express two years ago. The Intel X38 is part of the 3 Series (Bearlake) chipset family and thus shares the same architecture as the P35, which was launched in the second quarter of the year. Like all Intel chipsets to date, X38 based solutions will still be formed by combining the X38 MCH (Northbridge) and the existing ICH9 series Southbridges, so there will be no feature enhancements over the P35 besides the MCH. For a quick refresher, you can check out our original review of the MSI P35 Platinum right here , which also details the basic features that the 3 Series chipsets share.
As the enthusiast chipset in the 3 Series family, the X38 will feature some significant Northbridge improvements in a while. Firstly, the X38 will improve upon the dual PCIe x8 support of the 975X Express and feature native dual PCIe x16 rails this time around, which will make full speed CrossFire configurations a reality with an Intel chipset. As yet, NVIDIA's SLI is still not officially on the table for any chipset outside of NVIDIA's own. In addition to the two PCIe x16 lanes, the X38 will also mark the introduction of the new PCI Express 2.0 specifications. Even then, it is important to note that PCI Express 2.0 is only available to the two PCIe x16 lanes on the MCH. Since there haven't been changes to the ICH9 Southbridge, all other PCIe devices other than the GPU slots will still be based on PCIe 1.1.
So what does PCI Express 2.0 bring to the table? Basically, PCI Express 2.0 doubles the maximum bandwidth from 2.5Gbps to 5Gbps. A single x16 connector will now be able to achieve up to 16Gbps (8Gbps each way) total transfer rate. The PCI Express 2.0 specification also allows for dynamic link speed control as well as power limit redefinition. This theoretically allows PCIe 2.0 slots to support higher power devices, but looking at the way graphics cards are going, we don't think there is going to be any change on the requirement for external power input. At the moment, there aren't any retail graphics cards that can take advantage of the PCIe 2.0 standard yet, so readers shouldn't be expecting any boost in graphics performance just by upgrading to the X38. For those concerned of compatibility with existing PCIe graphics cards, the PCIe 2.0 standard is fully backward compatible with the existing PCIe specifications and cards based on either of these standards would work on either of kind of PCIe slots as well.
The second feature of note is the introduction of what Intel calls Extreme Memory Profiles, or XMP for short. XMP allows for a secondary set of timings and parameters outside of the SPD, used to boost system performance when used with supporting hardware. Sound familiar? NVIDIA launched an identical technology more than a year ago with their nForce 500 series chipsets called NVIDIA SLI Memory or Enhanced Performance Profiles (EPP).
Of course, NVIDIA's EPP and Intel's XMP will be mutually exclusive and non-compatible. This means you will see normal memory modules, EPP enhanced memory modules and XMP enhanced memory modules in the market, forcing users to tailor their memory purchase to match their motherboards if they want to maximize performance. We don't like it one bit, but that seem to be how the market is playing out. One thing is for sure though. With Intel's giant hand behind this new memory specification, XMP will gain ground much faster than EPP did. Already major enthusiast manufacturers like Corsair, OCZ and SuperTalent have pledged XMP support even before the chipset has been launched.