We’re about three weeks away from two things – one is the launch of Intel’s Haswell refresh processors and the 9-series chipset for LGA150 motherboards and the other is knowing which political party we’ll be complaining about for the next five years (if you’ve forgotten already, 7 May 2014 is election day). Intel’s launch seems much more appealing because the 9-series chipset brings some interesting features along with it as well as future support for Broadwell processors which will continue to use socket LGA1150 but likely won’t work in existing 8-series motherboards.
To drive up hype for the launch Gigabyte has revealed some of the high-end Z97 motherboards they’ll be unleashing in a few week’s time. Hit the jump for your daily dose of hardware porn.
The four motherboards pictured below are all based on the Z97 chipset and all feature at least six native SATA 6Gb/s ports and three PCI-Express 16x slots complying with the 3.0 standard. Z97 is Intel’s first chipset to have both these two features as native. There are a handful of Z87 motherboards that can have three PCI-E 3.0 slots running with 8x/4x/4x lanes electrically, but this requires more engineering than most vendors are willing to apply to cheaper products. Having six native SATA 6Gb/s ports is also a welcome change as this was previously only found on AMD products with AM3+ and FM2+ sockets.
Oddly, Gigabyte doesn’t put M.2 PCI-E connectors on all of the boards shown here. Only the Z97X-UD5H has it and that limits the adoption of M.2-based solid state drives among enthusiasts. If you wanted that kind of connectivity and speed as standard, perhaps something from MSI’s Gaming range would be better suited.
The Z97X-SOC Force has a very bright orange and black colour scheme that gigabyte has used before and it is a very clean design. Its reminiscent of ASRock’s OC Formula family and carries on Gigabyte’s new tradition of putting buttons to control overclocking on the board itself, so you never need to dig that far into the BIOS when you’re already doing tests inside Windows. There’s an extra two SATA 6Gb/s ports courtesy of a Marvell controller, Realtek’s ALC1150 coded with a USB amplifier shielded from other components using a small “moat” in the circuit board, status LEDs for everything you can imagine near the RAM slots, a 6+2 phase layout and four PCI-E 3.0 slots for quad-SLI or Crossfire.
The PCI-E layout is significant because this is the first motherboard seen based on the 9-series chipset that has a PLX bridging chip which gives it the extra PCI-E connectivity. The board otherwise features no niceties and no M.2 connector, it’s just built for speed and nothing else. It does feature a Bigfoot Killer ethernet port, however, although I’m not sure how much use that will be to overclockers who will disable it anyway.
One step down is the Z97X-UD7 TH. It too has a 6+2 phase layout near the CPU, two Marvell chips adding on four more SATA ports (for a total of ten) and switches out the overclocking buttons for power and reset switches and a small grouping of status LEDs. The PLX bridging chip disappears, leaving the board with three PCI-E 3.0 slots capable of operating in 8x/4x/4x mode for triple SLI or Crossfire. Handily, there are two front-panel USB 3.0 headers on the front mid-board section.
Although the Z97X-UD7 TH has the audio circuitry shielded from the rest of the components as well as the ALC1150 codec from Realtek, it doesn’t have a M.2 connector either. The board somewhat makes up for that with a Thunderbolt controller, which is still not a native part of Intel’s chipset. At least you’ll have Wiz Khalifa’s “Black and Yellow” song stuck in your head every time you have to peek inside your chassis.
This is the first paint change for the G1 family and Gigabyte wanted to differentiate itself somewhat from the other red-and-black colour schemes used by MSI’s Gaming family and the ASUS ROG boards. It features a single heatpipe design connecting up the waterblock covering the VRM phases to the chipset heatsink, which aids in the even distribution and dissipation of heat. Its visually similar to MSI’s M-Power series and is the only 9-series motherboard revealed so far to use or accommodate custom water-cooling loops.
Layout-wise its a mixture of the UD7 and the SOC Force, packing in a PLX bridging chip to give you eight PCI-E 3.0 lanes on all of the slots. It also has ten SATA 6Gb/s ports, dual front-panel USB 3.0 and the ALC1150 codec from Realtek, shielded from the rest of the board with a small moat in the PCB and with a USB amplifier. There is some gold plating on the ports on the rear I/O panel, but it’s mainly for aesthetic purposes.
The Z97X-UD5H-BK is the only board in today’s lineup that gets it all right for the average Joe who will be buying a board based on features and not overclocking capability. It has three PCI-E 3.0 slots, so it lacks the PLX bridging chip. It still has ten SATA 6Gb/s ports with four powered by two Marvell controllers. It still has shielded audio circuitry and lots of status LEDs.
But it’s also the board with the best hardware configuration. There’s a M.2 connector right at the top near the PCI-E 1x slot, ideal for a Wi-Fi card. There are a total of twelve phases in a 10+2 layout cooled by adequate heatsinks and all the 4-pin PWN fan headers are located along the edges of the board for easier cable routing. If you were looking for something to aim at to prepare for the Haswell refresh or Broadwell when it launches, this is a good board to be stuck with.