Intel Skulltrail Platform test

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Page 2 - Specifications & Hardware


Skulltrail is a platform based on workstation-class Xeon hardware, but unlike that first effort, it will include a motherboard designed by Intel to cater to the wishes of PC enthusiasts. Intel's Skulltrail platform basically consists out of three items we see in servers. LGA 771 Processor, mainboard and FB memory. Obviously you are free to pick which graphics card(s) you like to use on the platform, Both multi-GPU solutions ATI Crossfire & NVIDIA SLI are supported. Let's walk through Processor, mainboard and memory after which we'll explain our choice in graphics cards.

The spirit of Skulltrail: the CPU
Over the the past weeks Intel slowly introduced their high end 45-nm based processors from the Penryn family. Today we'll be making use of two of the fastest Penryn Quad-core processors that money can buy. At a 1600 MHz FSB and a total of eight logical CPU cores we'll make use of two QX9775 processors with one difference; they are based on LGA771 Xeon CPU server sockets.

These processors offer us the performance we need to build the"uber-rig", not only do they have extreme clock-for-clock performance, but the compared to the last-gen processors a better performance-per-watt ratio and thus also very nice overclocking potential.

When you compare it to the previous generation products the L2-cache has been increased significantly. For dual-core processors you'll see a move from 4 towards 6MB. The new Penryn quad core processors have gotten a lovely upgrade from 8 towards 12 MB L2 cache. Intel also added the long awaited instruction set SSE4 which in the future will guarantee a huge speedup for a good number of multi-media applications. Think here in en/decoding DiVX in HD and what not compression wise. Obviously you can choose other Core 2 processors as well, yet today we will not look at budgets and simply go for the best.

The pretty much similar QX9770 processor we however already tested (review here), so let's move on towards the infrastructure that needs to manage it all .. the mainboard.

Intel Skulltrail tested
You'll get a pretty big smile on your face the first time you'll see that there are really 8 logical CPU cores active.


The infrastructure of Skulltrail: the Intel D5400XS Mainboard's content is being served over no less than five servers. Recently we added a new Dual Xeon database server which immediately made me think about the D5400XS when I first saw it. These server boards look equal to the D5400XS. And that's not so strange, as indeed Intel adapted the layout and design from their Seaburg-platform, a memory controller hub or north bridge chip code-named Seaburg. Seaburg supplants a pair of existing products, the server-oriented Blackford MCH and the workstation-class Greencreek MCH. Consumer names for the chipset are the Intel 5400 Memory Controller Hub (MCH) and Intel 6321ESB I/ controller hub. The MCH provides interfaces to the processors, memory, and the PCI Express bus and the Intel 6321ESB I/O Controller Hub is a centralized controller for the boards I/O paths.

We'll not go too deep into the chipset though but the chipset features 44 PCIe lanes, PCIe 2.0 support, and four channels of DDR2 FB-DIMMs at 800MHz. The Seaburg chipset obviously also supports dual 1600MHz front-side buses which comes in handy with the processors we are using today ;) The big shocker on Skulltrail has to be SLI functionality.

Last year you could have read on our news-pages that some sort of agreement was established with NVIDIA regarding SLI support. Until today nobody really know for what Intel based products this was intended for, well look no further. The D5400XS mainboard offers NVIDIA SLI support.

To enable SLI support, Intel embeds two NVIDIA nForce 100 MCPs on the mainboard which act as a PCIe to PCIe bridge. The nForce 100 MCPs will provide bandwidth to drive four graphics cards, and thus the mainboard has four PCIe-x16 slots. This is how SLI is being supported on Skulltrail.

An interesting fact is that Skulltrail will not solely be limited to NVIDIA graphics cards, no you can make use of multiple AMD GPUs as well as there is no limitation to use AMD ATI Crossfire cards. 

We lack 100% info but we think two of the four PCIe slots are based on the new 2.0 standard, bringing with it significant boosts to the PCIe interface. The total capacity of the PCI Express 2.0 bus will be 5Gbps, twice the old standard, and an x16 connector will now be able to achieve transfers as high as 16Gbps. It will be backwards compatible with PCIe 1.1 cards, making it simple for motherboard manufacturers to transition to it in the future. Various other improvements were also made, including dynamic link speed alteration and more interactive features of the bus in communicating with software. Cool stuff, yet it's so high-end that at this time you will just not notice a performance difference between PCIe 1.0 and 2.0 anyways.

Given the fact that this platform is targeted at enthusiast consumers, Intel will also address plenty of overclocking options in the design. Intel has bested the power regulation for both CPU and memory. Power delivery to the CPU is adequate even when running at higher voltages. Thats right guru's ... Intel has embedded Skulltrail with a very tweakable BIOS. We'll take a look at some BIOS screenshots later though.

Other than that (and we'll look into the board guided with photo's on the next pages) the D5400XS has all the usual features one can expect, I/O wise the board has six internal SATA ports, a single IDE port, and headers for additional USB and Firewire ports. On the IO plate the first thing you'll notice is the lack of legacy connectors, it does come with six USB ports, dual eSATA ports, single Firewire and Gigabit Ethernet jack, analog and digital HD audio inputs / outputs.

Even though final prices of the D5400XS motherboard was not yet disclosed we estimate something in the range of $500. We expect the majority of Skulltrail systems to be sold to premium PC manufacturers such as HP (VoodooPC) and Dell (Alienware). But good news for you guys, Intel will also be offering the motherboard alone to allow DIYers to build their own ultimate gaming machine.

Now if you are not filthy rich and you plan an upgrade path for your next PC ... here's a tip; the D5400XS board will operate just fine with only one processor installed. Same goes for graphics .. build a box with one CPU and one graphics card. Then when the times comes add a second CPU later. And then perhaps another graphics card ?


The Brains of Skulltrail: Fully Buffered DIMM memory

I already mentioned the basis of a server mainboard a couple of times. With Skulltrail also comes a new type of memory; guys meet the FB-DIMM (Fully Buffered DIMM). Now don't misunderstand me, as FB-DIMM memory has been around for a long time, the thing is .. it's server memory and I for one wish it would go mainstream for consumers as well. As FB-DIMM memory was created in order to increase the memory speed but most of all maximum memory capacity of a PC or server.

The big difference between FB-DIMM modules and regular DIMM modules is that on FB-DIMM the communication between the memory controller (chipset) and the module is serial, in the same way that occurs with PCI Express, while on standard DIMM modules this communication is parallel. Simply put FB-DIMM means that it is a stick of ram that with a bridge chip. It acts as a central unit interpreting what the RAM is communicating as well as acting as a central hub for the data to travel to. Now is a good time for you to ask.. why does this matter? Very simple .. it limits the number of places the data has to travel to since it is a point to point approach. There by lowering latency, improving signal strength. Less wires are needed, more ram can be placed on the DIMM. FB-Dimm is advertised to consist of these three benefits, density, speed and reliability.

By choosing a fully-buffered design, the Skulltrail PC will run more efficiently with larger memory capacities (16GB and beyond). Peak bandwidth is rated at 28.4 GB/sec due to support for 800MHz memory. Latency however remains an issue, and as our article will show FB-DIMMs will perform slower than today's DDR2 and DDR3 memories.

That, and the other big downside .. it's still expensive, though prices are coming down and it's now at DDR3 price levels. But hey .. we don't look at budget's in this article.

Intel Skulltrail tested

Okay as stated, I don't want to go to deep into the technology today, let's move onwards to our photo-shoot followed by some BIOS screenshots, our tests, overclocking and obviously the conclusion.

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