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TekSpek Motherboards
Intel X99 Chipset

Intel X99 Chipset

Date issued:

Intel's X99 is a long-overdue platform upgrade for the high-end consumer market. Despite delivering an incremental CPU upgrade from Sandy Bridge-E to Ivy Bridge-E, Intel determined the supporting X79 motherboard needed no such upgrade.

That decision was surprising given that some Z87 motherboards were coming to market during mid-2013 with better storage options and features than dearer X79 counterparts, Intel could have rectified this with the release of a new motherboard chipset alongside Ivy Bridge-E in late 2013, but it chose not to. Z97 further compounded the problem resulting in some vendors taking it upon themselves to release refreshed X79 motherboards - the ASUS Rampage IV Black Edition being a case in point.

Three years on and Intel has answered the prayers of the enthusiast community with the new X99 chipset. The headlining feature is the inclusion of native DDR4 memory support yet the addition of more storage options needn't go unnoticed either. X99 deserves its high-end status, laying down the foundations to create a super-fast system.

Like the chipset it succeeds, X99 makes use of Intel's LGA 2011 socket, although it should be noted that the LGA 2011-v3 socket implemented on X99 is not compatible with X79. The absence of compatibility between both platforms is physical and electrical. Haswell-E CPUs (X99) will not fit in X79 boards due to the alignment of notches and grooves on the CPUs and sockets. Furthermore, even if you could get a Haswell-E CPU to fit into an X79 board it would not work since it possesses a DDR4 internal memory controller (IMC) that's incapable of supporting the DDR3 memory used in X79 boards.

While it seems somewhat questionable to use a quasi-identical socket it also makes sense from the perspective of cooling solutions. Much like how the transition from LGA 1156 through LGA 1155 and LGA 1150 preserved mainstream cooling compatibility, the transition between LGA 2011 and 2011-v3 allows end-users to reuse existing air- and liquid-cooling setups. Cooling manufacturers will appreciate that there is no need to redesign watercooling blocks and mounting mechanisms.

DDR4 Memory - The Big Thing

DDR4 is best described as a progression of existing DDR3 memory. Key improvements are summarised below in tabulated form.


Low-voltage variant
Per-chip Density
2Gb to 16Gb
512Mb to 8Gb
Form Factor
Module width
Chip Stacking
Price for 16GB

DDR4 enables the use of higher density memory chips than DDR3 which should enable larger-capacity kits to hit the market. Those higher densities are simultaneously paired up with lower operational voltages - a standard 1.2V for desktop DDR4 or 1.05V for mobile and low-voltage DDR4. From a consumer perspective the power savings from reduced voltages are negligible, however the lower voltages do mean there should be significant overclocking headroom on kits that ship with a nominal 1.2V.

The drop in voltage on DDR4 memory is achieved through a variety of advanced techniques. A major one of these is a process called data-bus inversion which reduces the amount of data being transmitted by inverting bytes primarily made up of zero bits. The end result is reduced data transmission resulting in lower power consumption, and a similar technique was adopted in the short-lived GDDR4 memory standard.

DDR4 delivers other benefits, too, primarily aimed at the server market, but implemented across all DDR4 memory modules. Cyclic Redundancy Checking (CRC) handles error-checking functionality... and improved reliability, availability and serviceability (RAS) is also applied.

DDR3's successor isn't flat out superior on every front. Elevated frequencies, starting at 2,133MHz as standard, result in typically higher latencies; 15-15-15-38 or worse. Applications that require frequent access to system RAM may suffer as a result of this.

At present DDR4 is available in speeds up to 3,000MHz or so, but over time that should comfortably surpass 4,000MHz and beyond. Right now top-end DDR3 has similar frequencies to DDR4, but during any memory transition there is a period of overlap. Intel fully capitalises on DDR4's increased bandwidth with its quad-channel memory controller that supports native JEDEC 2,133MHz memory. Ivy Bridge-E's (X79) memory controller is officially limited to quad-channel DDR3 1,866MHz.

As is the case with most new technologies, early adopters pay a premium for the benefits. DDR4 memory is eye-wateringly expensive. A simple 16GB quad-channel 2,133MHz kit retails for £40 more than its DDR3 equivalent, pushing up the costs of an already-expensive platform. Expect entry-level X99 motherboards to be specified with four memory slots while mid-range and high-end models are likely to deploy all eight.

The Other Stuff

The X99 chipset also gets a fully revamped array of storage options. In terms of SATA the number of ports is bumped up to a healthy 10 with all of those supporting 6Gb/s transfer speeds and six supporting RAID. Six USB 3.0 ports are integrated natively into the chipset whereas X79 had no native USB 3.0 ports available, and motherboard vendors had to add them using third-party controller chips.

Haswell-E CPUs bring Thunderbolt 2 compatibility to the table, as well, something that X79 also lacked. Rounding off the storage options Intel has added a similar quality of PCIe storage to what is present on current Z97 motherboards. Resultantly, M.2 and SATA Express storage options are available for motherboard vendors to implement, if they so desire.

For the advanced user Intel's X99 paves the way for up to five-way PCIe configurations through the use of additional clock generators. In more realistic use cases the 40 PCIe lanes on offer from the better processors enable users to equip up to four-way graphics configurations with enough PCIe lanes left-over to run some PCIe storage devices like an M.2 or SATA Express SSD. There is, however, a caveat to take note of with the way PCIe lanes are allocated. Only the Core i7-5960X and Core i7-5930K allow full access to all 40 lanes; the Core i7-5820K is limited to 28.

Scan is selling a wide range of Intel X99-based motherboards. Please head over to here to peruse our offerings.