Intel Z77 Chipset motherboard Reviewccokeman - April 9, 2012
Price: Gigabyte $169, MSI $189
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Back in November, Intel delivered a refresh for the Extreme lineup with the move to socket 2011 and their Sandy Bridge Extreme Second Generation Core i7 processors. The X79 PCH chipset was used and gave us a glimpse of where the mainstream offerings would go. The socket 1155 Z68/P67/H67 chipset motherboards for the mainstream when coupled with the Second Generation Core i7, Core i5 and Core i3 processors such as the 2600K, 2500K and 3120 are still pretty potent performers. In the guise of moving forward Intel is releasing their 7 Series chipset board for the mainstream user well ahead of their upcoming 3rd generation Core series processors due later this year. Along with the Z77 Panther Point 7 Series chipset, Intel is releasing a total of 10 different chipsets for both the mobile and desktop user. For the desktop you get the H77 for the mainstream consumer, Z75 for the mainstream performance user and Z77 is the full enthusiast package that supports a wealth of new features. I will be looking at a couple new offerings from Gigabyte and MSI to see which feature sets have been implemented in anticipation of the next processor launch from Intel.
Motherboards that use the Z77 and 7 Series chipset are designed for use with Intel's 2nd and 3rd generation Core i7/i5/i3 processors using the LGA 1155 socket for the mainstream segment. The Z77 chipset is what I will focus on for this quick look as it is the chipset that is labeled as being the one that supports "Ultimate Performance Tuning." The block diagram shows 16 PCIe 3.0 lanes broken down into 1x 16x, 2x 8x, 1x 8x+1x 4x+1 x 4x with Intel Thunderbolt supported. Three independent displays are supported with one as VGA with the other using DP or HDMI 1.4. Up to 14 USB ports are available with a maximum of four being USB 3.0. Intel integrated Gigabit LAN connectivity is used and has been a prominent feature on many of the latest Intel-based motherboards released lately. A new management engine firmware is used with the 7 series chipsets with Intel Extreme Tuning as a supplementary feature. DDR3 speeds of up to 1600MHz are officially supported while motherboard manufacturers are listing speeds of up to 2666MHz (OC). Connectivity to and through the Z77 PCH is through a DMI (Direct Media Interface) 2.0 and FDI (Flexible Display Interface) pathways that carry both data and the integrated graphics information. Intel's Rapid Storage and Responsiveness technologies are supported to improve the user experience. Six SATA ports are supported from the Z77 PCH with a maximum of two being SATA 6Gb/s with RAID support. An additional eight PCIe 2.0 lanes are dedicated through the Z77 PCH.
There are already motherboards on sale through e-tailers and offer a way to upgrade the feature set with an existing processor SKU or move up to the next generation when it becomes available. I will be looking at a few examples from several manufacturers showing what is available currently. From MSI there is the Z77A-GD65, and from Gigabyte the Z77X-UD3H. Each with an expansive feature set that takes advantage of the tools available on the Z77 PCH for use with Intel's 2nd and 3rd Generation Core series processors.
Let's see what each of these boards have to offer in terms of feature set and performance.