X79 Extreme9 Firmware
Early on, we figured out why so many of ASRock’s competitors were unwilling to send a sample this soon. Most companies spent months developing firmware for Intel’s C0-stepping pre-production processors, only to uncover overclocking issues after installing the retail C1 versions of the same model CPU.
We've heard that changes in thermal and possibly current protection have made Intel's C1 processors more difficult to overclock, and have even seen some of this in the particularly bad sample delivered to us by Intel. Even at a moderate 1.35 V core and modest sub-60° (Celsius) temperature, the processor did not want to go past 4.4 GHz. The Extreme9 made tuning even more difficult by not rebooting when set to any multiplier beyond those supported by the Core i7-3960X' stock Intel Turbo Boost scheme.
Ed.: Prior to this story going live, I took an ASRock X79 Extreme4-M motherboard and updated it to firmware version 1.4, which makes an update to the board's CPU code. Dialing in a 4.3 GHz overclock, just as a test, was as easy as picking a 43x CPU multiplier. It seems that the same overclocking issue affecting the X79 Extreme9 might have already been fixed on some of ASRock's other platforms.
Further complicating matters was that we did not find any explicit boot strap controls. This was something we discussed with ASRock prior to this piece, but it wasn't until after it went live that we learned this feature operates automatically. Jumping straight to a 125 MHz base clock normalizes the PCI Express and DMI buses. The same goes for 166 MHz. It turns out that the boards are set to increase boot strap automatically to 125 MHz when BCLK is set beyond 112 MHz, and to 166 MHz when BCLK is set to 150 MHz. Now that we've documented it, ASRock promises to as well.
ASRock does offer a good selection of power and ratio controls that lay the foundation for future firmware improvements however, and it even equips the board with dual EPS12V connectors to handle the extra load. We could have given up and used the C0-stepping CPU that we know works very well, but that wouldn't have made any sense because it’s not available for purchase. We instead were forced to start with a 125 MHz BCLK and work with lower CPU multipliers to achieve our final overclocking results.
A full set of voltage controls help users to push the limits of their processors. We found that Load-Line Calibration level 4 kept our voltage consistent, while lower-numbered settings forced higher-than-set voltages under load.
Primary and secondary timings can be keyed in directly, eliminating the former annoyance of having to dial in manual mode first.