H55 & H57 Motherboard Roundup Reviewjlqrb -
Price: $74.99 - $199.99
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When Intel launched its Core i5 series, there was a large rush of H55 based motherboards put out to take advantage of the new processors with the latest Intel IGP built right into the CPU package. What you got was a Clarkdale dual core 32nm based processor with the latest Integrated Graphics Processor built on a 45nm process, all in a single package. This implementation seemed to work well for the intended audience and delivered pretty respectable numbers across the board as casual gaming, HD playback and programs that were multi-threaded all showed a benefit. The Intel H57 chipset was also released at this time. What really sets it apart from the H55 chipset that makes it an attractive proposition? This is a question that we should be able to answer with a direct side-by-side comparison of the H55 and H57 based motherboards. In this roundup we will be looking at five different H55/H57 models manufactured by Gigabyte, ASUS and ECS.
Closer Look (Gigabyte H55M-USB3):
The Gigabyte H55M-USB3 comes packaged in a small box that is both stylish and informative. On the front portion of the box you will find the model of the board as well as some of the main features. These features include the use of 2x layers of copper PCB, USB 3.0 support as well as the socket and chipset type. The back of the packaging is also chock-full of information. On this panel you will find a listing of the main features, but unlike the front panel, there are also explanations of how the technologies used are beneficial to the end-user. Once the packaging is opened, you will have access to the included accessories and motherboard. The accessories come on the top portion of the inner packaging and are separated from the board below via a thin cardboard insert. What's included are two SATA cables, rear I/O shield, IDE cable, installation disk, manual and an installation guide. Found below these is the board itself, which comes wrapped in a protective anti-static bag.
The Gigabyte H55M-USB3 motherboard is an mATX form factor board that comes with dimensions of 22x14x12 inches, yet still has a very nice and spacious layout. This includes plenty of room between the dual PCI-E x16 slots as well as decent spacing from the CPU bracket to the memory DIMMs. The spacing will allow for easy installation of all add-on components and prevent the small form factor from being a limitation. Another feature that is evident is the color scheme, which includes the use of multiple shades of blue throughout the PCB along with white IDE, power, PCI and memory slots. One layer of the PCB that is there, but not evident though, is the use of 2oz of copper in the PCB. The copper is found in both the power and ground levels and is used to effectively spread heat to better cool the motherboard. This is part of Gigabyte's Ultra Durable 3 design, which also uses all solid Japanese capacitors, Low RDS(on) MOSFET and ferrite Core Chokes. Beyond just reducing the system's temperature, the Ultra Durable 3 design also improves the board's overall efficiency and stability.
The first thing I noticed about the CPU area is that there is no cooling option for the MOSFETs. This was a bit surprising as the rest of the board uses high quality components and without cooling to this area, it could lead to extra heat while overclocking, thus reducing the OC potential. Aside from the lack of cooling though, the VRM area is very robust and uses all solid Japanese Capacitors, Ferrite Core Chokes and seven phase units. There are four phases for the main CPU. Two are for the integrated memory controller and one for the IGP. Above the VRM area is an 8-pin 12V power connector that supplies power to the processor.
The socket type used on the Gigabyte H55M-USB3 motherboard is an LGA1156 socket that supports Intel 1156 Core i3, i5 and i7 processors and is manufactured by LOTES. Each line of processors utilizes an on-board memory controller. However, the i7 line does not have an Integrated Graphics Processor like the i3 and i5, so if you opt to use an i7 processor, the rear video ports will be disabled. The Integrated Memory Controller is rated to support memory up to 1333MHz, but the Gigabyte H55M specifications show that the board is able to use high rated memory of up to 1666MHz(OC). The memory DIMMS are found to the right of the CPU and are color coded to easily show the user which slots are paired together in dual-channel architecture. The white slots are used as the primary dual-channel slots and the blue should be used when four sticks of memory are installed. Just to the right of these DIMM slots are an FDD connector, an ID connector and the main 24-pin power connector.
The rear expansion area of the Gigabyte H55M-USB3 offers a decent amount of expansion options despite its small form factor. The rear I/O panel consists of a single PS/2 keyboard/mouse port, two USB 2.0 ports, a D-Sub port, a DVI-D port, Optical S/PDIF out connector, HDMI port, DisplayPort, IEEE 1394a port, dual USB 3.0 ports and the rear audio jacks. There are plenty of options for any type of user, but with so many video options on the panel, the HTPC crowd will be the biggest beneficiary. Most of these ports are found on the majority of the H55 line-up regardless of the brand, but Gigabyte has also included an on-board NEC chip for USB 3.0 support, which allows for transfer rates of up to 5Gb/s. The USB 3.0 ports also include Gigabyte's USB Power 3x technology. What this does is supply 3x the power to the USB 3.0 ports to deliver better compatibility and stability to USB devices.
For add-on PCI expansion, the Gigabyte board includes dual PCI-E x16 slots as well as two standard PCI slots. This is a decent amount of expansion for an mATX motherboard. With a dual PCI-E configuration, CrossFireX is an option. However, the second PCI-E slot can only support speeds of up to x4. With this limitation, the bandwidth will be greatly reduced. Also, with the PCI-E lanes being integrated onto the CPU, only Lynnfield processors will support CrossFireX. The top PCI-E slot, however, does run at the full x16 and will support any current high-end graphics card on the market. The two PCI slots are found in the middle of the rear expansion area and can support additional add-on cards such as sound devices and so on. It should be noted though that a dual-slot graphics card will cover the first PCI slot, leaving just one available.
Looking at the on-board headers and SATA ports you can again see that the Gigabyte H55M-USB3 has more than enough options. From left to right on the bottom of the board you have a CD-IN, COM header, 1394 header, three USB 2.0 headers, front panel headers and seven SATA II ports. The SATA ports found on the board all utilize the SATA II interface. However, not all the ports are run off the same chip. The five blue ports go directly though the H55 chipset, but the two white ports are handled by the on-board GIGABYTE SATA2 chip. Unfortunately, the H55 chipset does not come with native RAID support so the five blue ports do not support RAID. However, the additional white ports can be used in RAID 0/1, and JBOD through the GIGABYTE SATA2 on-board chip.
Found just above the SATA ports is Gigabyte's signature Dual BIOS technology. The Dual BIOS comes as two on-board chips with one being the main and the other is the backup. With two chips the board can access the backup BIOS is if there is a problem with the main. This feature has been added to Gigabyte boards for sometime now and it is one of those technologies that I would rather have than not.
With a very nice layout and plenty of support for the latest technologies the Gigabyte H55M-USB3 seems like a very well rounded motherboard. This board retails for $109.99, but can be found for $99.99 with mail-in rebates.