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It seems that AMD was on the right track (at least as far as Intel is concerned) when it released its 4x4 platform (ak.a Quad FX), which is a motherboard with two CPU sockets and four graphics card slots. At the time, it was AMD's solution for quad-core computing, but it was an exciting prospect as it meant that in the future it could be upgraded to support up to eight CPU cores (see our review of the ASUS L1N64-SLI WS). Unfortunately, with all the delays in releasing its quad-core chips, the 4x4 never really gained traction, not even as a quad-core solution. However, Intel is harnessing the same concept for its Skulltrail platform, which uses new quad-core CPUs to perhaps provide the ultimate in workstation and high-end consumer computing.
Ultra-keen gamers and developers will appreciate the Skulltrail's ability to run either SLI or CrossFire configurations on the same platform, while users who run multithreaded software will love the 8-core CPU support.
Essentially, the Skulltrail platform is Intel's new desktop motherboard – the D5400XS. Like the 4x4 platform, the Skulltrail has two CPU sockets and four graphics card slots, but it will run two quad-core CPUs to provide a total of eight cores. That's a hell of a lot of multitasking capability. The CPU sockets differ slightly from the standard LGA775 socket we're used to seeing for Core 2 Duo CPUs; instead, the Skulltrail uses two LGA771 sockets, which will only support CPUs based on the LGA771 socket, such as the Xeon and the latest Core 2 Extreme X9775. This is similar to what AMD did with the 4x4, which wouldn't accept AM2-based CPUs, but instead required Socket F-based (1207-pin) CPUs – commonly used for its Opteron line of CPUs.
The Skulltrail also uses a new chipset – the Intel 5400 – and can accommodate up to 16GB of DDR2 800MHz memory, rather than DDR3 memory. We tested it with 2GB of RAM, which were 800MHz engineering samples supplied by Intel, and two Core 2 Extreme X9775 CPUs. The board will only accept buffered memory modules, which are used in servers due to their superior error correction capability. The X9775 is a quad-core CPU with a 3.2GHz frequency, a 1600MHz front side bus and 12MB of cache. It consumes about 150W, and with two of these CPUs, and if all of the motherboard's memory and graphics slots are to be populated, too, the Skulltrail might require a power supply capable of delivering over 1400W!
We tested the Skulltrail in an Antec P190 case with dual-power supplies (for a total of 1200W) with an ATI Radeon X3850-based graphics card and a 750GB Seagate Barracuda ES2 hard drive. We were expecting impressive results, and we got them. In our WorldBench 6 benchmark, it produced a score of 131, which is the fastest we've seen from a stock-standard system, although this score has more to do with the 3.2GHz frequency of the CPUs, rather than the multiple cores. In multithreaded applications, the Skulltrail will be very fast. We used Blender to conduct a 3D rendering test. One thread took 1min 45sec to render, two threads took 55sec, four threads took 29sec, while eight threads took 16sec. Its eight-thread score is only slightly slower than what Xeon-based machines have recorded in this benchmark.
For professionals who need a machine to render 3D or video projects, the Skulltrail is an option, but whether professionals will consider it as a serious option is another story. Perhaps professionals who are also super-keen gamers (or indeed game developers themselves) will find the Skulltrail an interesting proposition because it can run either SLI or Crossfire graphics card configurations – or you can use it to connect eight displays via four dual-head graphics cards.
Either way, if you plan to build a system based on this board, you'll need a large case (the board uses the Extended ATX form factor, which is longer than the regular ATX form factor) as well as a large power supply. Connectivity is standard: you get six USB 2.0, two eSATA and one gigabit Ethernet ports on the rear panel. On the inside, the board has an active cooler on its chipset and, conveniently, it also has power and reset switches built into the board.
First impression on unpacking the Q702 test unit was the solid feel and clean, minimalist styling.