Motherboard: Asus Rampage III Formula
By: Sam Finch
Ed: You'll have to pardon this little gem missing out on the gift guide photo shoot. As luck would have it, its services were required on the test bench in Bakersfield as the fun was going down in Culver City. That's right--the Rampage III Formula is actually a workhorse in our primary lab. Work before play, as they say.
As chipsets go, Intel's X58 is approaching its golden years as a technological senior citizen. That doesn't mean it's time for this platform to head over to the shuffleboard court, though. Although Intel's 2+ year-old flagship chipset is at the age when most high-end components are put out to pasture, it will remain at the forefront of Intel's enthusiast lineup until LGA 2011 emerges in the second half of 2011. That'll make it nearly three years old!
We already know Sandy Bridge will be here early January, so what about that? Intel’s focus there is going to be the mid-range market. While we'd hold off on buying any LGA 1156-based boards or CPUs until then, it's still open season on X58, as far as we're concerned, for the folks who need more than 16 lanes of integrated PCI Express 2.0 connectivity. We've tested a lot of revised X58 motherboards lately, and one of our favorites is Asus' Rampage III Formula.
As much as our hearts say “Core i7-980X; you'll only sleep on the couch for a week,” our wallets say “Core i7-950; she's going to take half.” This is where the Rampage III Formula starts to look like a solid choice for the enthusiast with overclocking aspirations. Granted, it'd be overly optimistic to expect a processor overclock to make up for Gulftown's two extra execution cores and 4 MB of shared L3 cache. However, we've seen plenty of -950s running in excess of 4 GHz, which is still a very nice place to be when you're rocking four cores, eight threads, three channels of DDR3 memory, and enough PCIe lanes to support a pair of graphics cards at x16 data rates. Big, impressive heatsinks cover the chipset and voltage regulation circuitry, and a heatpipe crisscrosses the motherboard, linking them together. To ensure your components receive plenty of clean power, the Rampage III Formula offers eight CPU power phases, three-phase power for the QPI/DRAM, and a pair of phases each for the northbridge and memory. There’s ample potential here to take a relatively affordable Core i7 and overclock it tune it into a high-end hero.
Beyond that, the Rampage III Formula has plenty of features for hardcore tweakers who want to monitor every tenth of a volt, and the higher temperatures that aggressive overclocking tends to result in. ProbeIt is the Rampage III Formula’s series of eight labeled voltage measurement points, translating into the most accurate real-time measurements, without playing hide and seek with dangerously-close solder points on various points of the motherboard. ROG Connect, a marquee feature on a number of Asus’ enthusiast motherboards, funnels POST code (plus hardware vitals) through a dedicated rear USB port to a connected laptop. You can adjust clocks and save profiles from the laptop, too. There’s an extra BIOS chip in the event your overclock flies a little too close to the sun, and a Q Reset button that kills power to the CPU in the event of a freeze.
The slick-looking, black and red Rampage III Formula has three PCI Express x16 slots and supports three-way SLI or CrossFire; two graphics cards will both run at x16 speeds, although, without an onboard NF200 switch, the board is forced to throttle the second and third slots to x8 connections in a three-card configuration. There are six DIMM slots to support up to 24 GB of DDR3, and you can jack that memory up 2200 MT/s if your modules can handle it. As Intel still doesn't have a southbridge capable of enabling USB 3.0 or SATA 6 Gb/s, Asus turned to third-party vendors (NEC and Marvell, respectively) to supply controllers for the Rampage III Formula’s two USB 3.0 and two SATA 6 Gb/s ports. Add niceties like a SupremeFX X-Fi 2 audio codec and Asus’ GameFirst network bandwidth allocation software, and it’s easy to see why we want the Rampage III Formula under our tree this year.