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What you need to know about Intel's new X299 platform

By Koh Wanzi - 23 Jun 2017

What you need to know about Intel’s new X299 platform

This is the successor to X99

Updated on 6 July 2017: Added information on CPU cooler compatibility. Long story short, most X99 coolers should work with X299.

Originally published on 23 June 2017:

The high-end desktop market (HEDT) market is on fire. Intel announced X299, codenamed Basin Falls, at Computex 2017, finally replacing the company’s aging X99 chipset. X299 is to be paired with Intel’s new Core X family of processors, comprising both Kaby Lake-X and Skylake-X parts.

We’re used to seeing Intel dominate at the high-end and charge hefty premiums on its enthusiast chips, but AMD’s own HEDT platform is just around the corner as well, and the company hopes to make a splash with its X399 motherboards and Threadripper CPUs. And if the mainstream Ryzen processors are anything to go by, there’s a good chance that Threadripper will also undercut Core X on price.

That said, Intel’s strategy with X299 and Core X represents a departure from its regular strategy of slapping premium price tags across its entire HEDT range. For the first time, there are Core i5 and Core i7 Kaby Lake-X chips that cost the same as their mainstream Kaby Lake counterparts, and there are so-called entry-level X299 boards that will make it a lot more affordable to buy into Intel’s ultra-enthusiast line.

It’s safe to say that the HEDT space has almost never been so competitive. But until AMD officially launches Threadripper, here’s what you need to know about Intel’s latest chipset.


DMI 3.0, HSIO lanes, and more chipset PCIe 3.0 lanes

Intel X299 block diagram

Intel X299 represents quite a big departure from X99. For the first time, it implements Intel’s concept of high-speed I/O (HSIO) lanes, which was first introduced on Z170. X299 offers up to 30 HSIO lanes, the same as on Z270, but up from the 26 on Z170.

HSIO lanes essentially allow the chipset a far greater degree of flexibility than before, and board makers can now choose and pick which features they want to implement. So while X299 technically supports up to eight SATA 6Gbps ports, 10 USB 3.0 ports, and 14 USB 2.0 ports, board makers get to control what combination of these they want to offer.

The link between the CPU and PCH has also been upgraded to DMI 3.0, and X299 now supports up to 24 PCIe 3.0 lanes from the chipset, compared to just eight PCIe 2.0 lanes on X99.

X299 sports significantly improved I/O capabilities over X99. (Image Source: Intel)

Six of the HSIO lanes are permanently allocated to USB 3.0 connections, so these 24 PCIe 3.0 lanes are really leftover HSIO lanes that can be configured to provide additional USB 3.0, SATA, PCIe storage, or Gigabit Ethernet connections.

This means that board makers don’t have to borrow PCIe lanes from the CPU for PCIe SSDs anymore, which can compromise support for multi-GPU setups. 

In sum, you can look forward to richer functionality, such as high-performance 10G networking ports, more storage expansion options, and less hindrance to extreme multi-GPU configurations.


Bootable RAID arrays

ASUS Hyper M.2 X16 card

One overlooked feature is something called Intel Virtual RAID On CPU, or VROC. This will probably only appeal to the most hardcore of enthusiasts, but it can enable staggering storage performance if taken to its extreme.

When ASUS demonstrated this on one of its new X299 boards using eight Intel M.2 600P SSDs, it achieved a sequential read speed of nearly 12,000MB/s.

If paired with one of the new Core i9 processors, X299 can enable up to 20 drives in a bootable RAID partition. This utilizes PCIe 3.0 lanes from the CPU – Core i9 is capable of offering up to 44 – and theoretically eliminates the bottleneck of data passing through the chipset.

There are a couple of big caveats. You’ll have to use an Intel SSD, and VROC will only work on a Skylake-X CPU. Furthermore, there is a hardware key – this plugs into a dedicated header on the motherboard – that you’ll have to buy from Intel to unlock support for RAID 1, 5, or other RAID arrays with redundancy (only RAID 0 is offered by default).

All things considered, VROC looks to have limited applicability for consumers, seeing as third-party SSDs are also not supported. That said, it may make X299 more appealing for more enterprise-focused customers.


HEDT and mainstream consumer platforms are closer than ever

MSI X299 Tomahawk

As it turns out, X299 is closer to Z270 than to X99, and there are few practical differences at the chipset level between the two. If you discount the extra PCIe lanes offered by a higher-end Skylake-X processor, the few advantages X299 has include support for eight USB 3.0 ports compared to six on Z270, and support for DDR4-2666 memory with select chips.

Intel’s HEDT chipset has traditionally trailed their mainstream platform in terms of the newest features, partly because they were based on data center platforms that were updated less frequently. But X299 is not derived from Intel’s upcoming Purley server platform, and this shift may signal more frequent updates in the future.

Then there’s the inclusion of the four-core Kaby Lake-X chips as part of the ultra-enthusiast line-up. Priced similarly to their mainstream counterparts, they’re now a feasible option for someone who would usually only be considering a mainstream Core i5 or i7 processor.

More importantly, someone who buys a Kaby Lake-X would now have the option to upgrade to a higher-end Core i9 CPU further down the road.

This convergence suggests interesting things for the future, where we could eventually see more overlap between the mainstream and high-end.

The high-performance market continues to be a bright spot in the PC industry, driven by gaming and virtual reality, and it stands to reason that Intel sees a path toward enticing the upper-end of the mainstream segment with an easier upgrade route to its top-end silicon.


You probably don't need a new CPU cooler

This is a small but crucial detail, and is a welcome convenience that means you can likely reuse your existing X99 CPU cooler. X299 uses exactly the same mounting mechanism as its predecessor, so existing LGA2011-v3 coolers will work. There will be no need to buy bracket replacements or any other extra accessories to ensure compatibility.

Brands like Cooler Master, Cryorig, Fractal and Noctua have also confirmed that their existing LGA2011-v3 coolers can be used with X299. 

With that said, there's far more to Intel's new platform than just the chipset, and you can check out the story stream below for more information on the Core X chips and new X299 motherboards.

Everything related to the Intel X299 platform 

Memory Masters @ Computex 2017: ADATA, G.Skill and Team Group

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