Introduction, Design Features
The X299 Aorus Gaming 9 is the third Intel X299-based board we’ve looked at in recent weeks, and at $499.99, it’s the most expensive of the three. (The X299 chipset was made to support Intel’s new Core X-Series line of high-end CPUs.) The Asus ROG Strix X299-E Gaming comes in at $349.99 and is a solid choice for gamers. But it doesn’t have as many features (nor as much lighting) as Gigabyte’s Aorus-brand flagship board for this platform. And the $229.99 MSI X299 SLI Plus wins the price game among boards we’ve tested so far, but it offers a more modest feature set. Together, the three boards can give you a good sense of what you’ll get by shelling out progressively more cash on an X299 motherboard.
Style has always been an important factor for gaming motherboards, and these days that means LED highlights and eye-catching coverings, namely heatsinks and shields, over key onboard components. The X299 Aorus Gaming 9 has plenty of these accoutrements, but it also has the meat-and-potatoes features that make for a powerful gaming board.
The X299 Aorus Gaming 9 supports Intel Optane Memory, which is designed to boost storage performance when paired with a hard drive. (That support is appreciated, but we are skeptical that many users willing to shell out $500 for a deluxe mainboard will skimp on the storage subsystem to the point where Optane Memory, in today’s form at least, will make much sense.) And because the board has three M.2 slots, you’ll have plenty of room to upgrade. As M.2-based devices (such as storage devices and Wi-Fi add-on cards) have become popular, motherboard makers have been finding new places to squeeze them into their already tight layouts.
Connectivity is a crucial component of the gaming experience, and Gigabyte hit a home run here by adding a Killer Doubleshot Pro networking solution, which features a Killer E2500 Ethernet controller and a Killer Wireless-AC 1535 controller. The Killer chips are designed to prioritize gaming-related network data, and their behavior can be customized via a free Windows-based program. The board also sports an Intel Gigabit LAN controller.
All of these excellent features make for a crowded board, but that didn’t stop Gigabyte from also squeezing dozens of LEDs into what little free space remained. LEDs run between the memory slots, surround the PCI Express slots, and even light up the I/O panel’s shield on the back plate. Of course, you’ll also find LEDs on the I/O and audio covers, not to mention the X299 chipset heatsink.
The heatsink sports a large, backlit Aorus logo. The logo overlay is swappable with other custom overlays, giving DIY users a chance to add some of their own personality to the board. Unfortunately, it might not get noticed as often as you’d like, especially if you have two video cards onboard. Even installing one card, if it’s long enough, could make the heatsink’s Aorus logo hard to spot. (And, of course, with Intel’s Core X-Series CPUs, having a video card is not optional.) That said, we’d rather have the light than not. Surprisingly, the heatsink at the top of the motherboard lacks lighting.
Gigabyte’s lighting system (which the company calls “RGB Fusion”) consists of the onboard lights, headers for light strips, and software. The RGB Fusion software lets users control virtually all of the lighting in a PC, which opens the door to slick effects like music-synced pulsations or waves of color coordinated across compliant components. You can add even more lighting by buying Aorus-branded hardware and peripherals, but we think that will be overkill for many users; this board is its own light show. We also like that Gigabyte offers a free mobile app for RGB Fusion, letting you use a phone or tablet as a remote control.
The top half of the X299 Aorus Gaming 9 looks much like other X299 motherboards, but the sheer number of features on the lower half of the board makes it unique. At the top, eight memory slots flank the LGA 2066 CPU socket. Thanks to the X299 chipset, the board supports up to quad-channel memory configurations, but only with processors that also support the extra channels. Recall that with Core X-Series, Intel offers some CPUs that are built on 7th Generation “Kaby Lake” architecture (for example, the Core i5-7640X) and others based on previous-gen “Skylake” (notably, the Core i9-7900X), and memory support differs between the two. A Kaby Lake CPU, for example, won’t take advantage of the board’s quad-channel support. The slots support up to 128GB of DDR4-2667 memory in quad-channel mode, or 64GB of memory in dual-channel mode.
A bank of power phases sits above the CPU, along with a large heatsink. Below the CPU socket is one of three onboard M.2 connectors. There is just enough space for the connector and its size 2280 (80mm) heatsink. (Gigabyte calls its M.2 heatsinks “Thermal Guards.”) The top PCI Express x16 slot is almost touching it. Interestingly, another M.2 slot sits just below the PCI Express slot, and it’s even closer to the slot. So close, in fact, that the slot’s release tab hangs over the slot’s steel bracing. We told you it was close quarters on this board.
That second M.2 slot is the longest of the three, supporting storage devices up to Type-22110 (110mm long). As with the other M.2 slots, it has a heatsink for your storage device. The third M.2 slot (Type-2280) is just a little harder to spot. Its heatsink looks like part of the heatsink covering the X299 chipset.
Surprisingly, that’s not it for M.2 expansion possibilities. The X299 Aorus Gaming 9’s box includes a PCI Express add-on card that supports another M.2 storage device, up to Type-22110 (110mm long). And, like the other M.2 connectors, the add-on card has a thermal strip and a heatsink for cooling your storage device.
The X299 Aorus Gaming 9 has a total of five PCI Express x16 slots, which strikes us as over-the-top, even for a gaming board. (The board supports three-way SLI and CrossFire configurations.) These days, with current-gen Nvidia cards topping out at two cards and CrossFire a ho-hum prospect with AMD’s older cards, two cards will suffice for most gaming-minded users. Gigabyte put plenty of space between the first two slots to accommodate those two potentially bulky video cards. (That’s the gap that houses the longest of the three M.2 slots.)
Adding so many PCI Express x16 slots left Gigabyte without room for any x1 slots on the board. That’s not really a problem, in that x16 slots can accept smaller x1 cards, but reducing at least one of the slots to x1 might have made the board a tad less crowded. The x16 slots are locked tightly to the board, thanks to Gigabyte’s custom double-bracket system. All five slots have been wrapped in steel, as well, to brace them when the system is moved around with heavy cards aboard.
Before we dig into the X299 Aorus Gaming 9’s ports and headers, let’s take a look at the flip side of the board.
Gigabyte took the unusual step of putting a base plate on the motherboard, improving the stability around the CPU socket. The motherboard maker also designed the board to protect your hands by covering much of the underside with a protective shield, as you can see above. Considering the number of nicks and cuts we’ve experienced while building PCs, we don’t have any complaints about that, and it adds rigidity to this board in a big way.
As we mentioned earlier, the X299 Aorus Gaming 9 ships with its LED-backlit I/O shield pre-attached to the rest of the board. We wouldn’t be surprised to see this become a trend, as motherboard makers look for new ways to light up their boards.
The panel features audio jacks (including S/PDIF-out) that are backed up by Gigabyte’s Aorus Amp-Up Audio. Gigabyte opted for WIMA and Nichicon audio capacitors, along with a Realtek ALC1220 audio codec and a series of chips meant to deliver improved audio, particularly for headphones, which are standard gamer gear. Gigabyte pegs the audio package’s signal-to-noise ratio at 127dB.
The back panel sports four USB 3.0 ports, two of which have Gigabyte’s DAC-UP 2 tech, which is designed to provide more-stable voltage for your peripherals. Another USB 3.0 port handles the Q-Flash BIOS tool, which lets you update the BIOS from a flash drive. Gigabyte also put four USB 3.1 Gen 2 ports on the back panel, along with a USB 3.1 Gen 2 Type-C port.
The panel also includes a PS/2 port, the two Gigabit Ethernet ports (helpfully labeled “Killer” and “Intel” to distinguish them from one another) and two connectors for the X299 Aorus Gaming 9’s 802.11ac Wi-Fi antenna.
The edges of the X299 Aorus Gaming 9 are packed with headers, but Gigabyte also squeezed in four small, handy buttons. Two of the buttons are power and reset switches. Another provides one-button overclocking, and the last, marked “ECO,” reduces power consumption. The ECO button doesn’t strike us as an important addition to a power-hungry gaming PC (few buyers will want to pay for a Core X-Series-based rig and then put a leash on it), but the OC and power/reset buttons are welcome.
The X299 Aorus Gaming 9 has a total of eight fan and pump headers, which are spread around the edges of the board. The lower edge features two of those headers, along with headers for an RGB LED strip, audio connectors, a TPM device, and the usual case front-panel connectors. Two USB 2.0 headers and a USB 3.0 header also sit at the bottom of the board. (The other USB 3.0 header sits just below the 24-pin power connector on the right side of the board.)
Gigabyte put a USB 3.1 Gen 2 Type-C connector on the right side of the board, just above the stack of eight SATA 6Gbps connectors. Older PC cases won’t have a front panel port for the USB 3.1 Gen 2 Type-C connector (nor will many new ones), but if you’re building a system in a spanking-new PC case, it may come in handy. Support for this header, which itself looks a little like a USB port, is starting to emerge in some cases from leading-edge case makers such as In Win.
As if the X299 Aorus Gaming 9 didn’t already have enough speedy storage options, Gigabyte provides support for U.2 drives, too. (The main drive on the market today using the U.2 interface is the speedy Intel 750 Series SSD, though we’ve seen a few other U.2 options demoed by storage makers such as Kingston and ADATA. See the 750 Series review for a lot more on U.2.) But rather than put the connector directly on the board, Gigabyte opted to put the U.2 connector on a daughterboard with its own U.2 connector. Plug the U.2 connector’s board into the M.2 connector near the chipset, and you’ll have your U.2 connector in the general location you’d expect to see it on typical motherboards.