The Intel Z97 chipset was announced in the beginning of this month. But as is the case with an Intel platform refresh, the Z97 chipset announcement was not complemented with a new CPU release. We will most likely see the Haswell Refresh and Devil’s Canyon CPUs at Computex in June. But this hasn’t stopped board makers from coming out with their line up of Z97 boards.
Last week we saw the ASUS Z97-Deluxe board. Today we take a look at Gigabyte’s high end Z97 boards - the gaming series Gigabyte GA Z97X Gaming G1 Wi-Fi Black Edition board.
Board Layout and Design
Gigabyte GA-Z97X-Gaming G1 WIFI-BK comes in an all-black design with red accents on the heatsink. The heatsink around the voltage regulator modules are connected via a heat-pipe. The heatsink below the socket is meant to cool the PLX PEX 8747 chipset which provides additional PCIe lanes. This heatsink is connected to the Z97 chipset heatsink via a heat-pipe. The VRM heatsinks have provision for liquid cooling as well, but since the top heatsink block is isolated from the PLX and chipset heatsink block, the liquid cooling will only benefit the VRM section. The chipset heatsink has a cool eye-shaped embossed design on a smooth metallic surface.
There is sufficient clearance around the socket region, although the placement of the CPU fan pins is quite strange, cornered as it is by the RAM slots, the heat pipe and the PLX chip heat sink. On the right hand side beside the socket, you have the four DIMM slots, beside which you have the dedicated large red power button and the smaller reset and CMOS buttons. Beside the power button you have the 2-digit POST code debug LED.
The 24-pin ATX power port is placed next to the the USB 3.0 connector and the extra ATX pin for PCIe power. Going down along the right hand edge, you have four SATA ports followed by the SATA Express ports and then two more SATA ports. Along the bottom edge you have the front panel header, followed by BIOS switches and three USB 2.0 headers.
There are four PCIe Gen3 x16 slots, each separated by a single PCIe x1 slot. On the left hand edge, you have an electromagnetically isolated audio section which comprises the audio codec, dedicated Nichicon capacitors, switches to adjust the audio gain and finally an audio op-amp which can be exchanged for another audio op-amp of your liking. This feature is a direct lift from the Z87 generation’s Gaming series board which had a similar feature.
On the back panel IO you have six USB 3.0 ports, two USB 2.0 ports, dual LAN ports, a 5.1 channel audio port. On the display front you have gold-plated DVI, DisplayPort and HDMI ports. The board layout is quite good and well thought out, except maybe for the CPU fan port around the socket.
Gigabyte Z97X Gaming G1 board is their flagship board in the Black edition line-up. It has an LGA 1150 socket which can taken in Haswell processors, the upcoming Haswell refresh, Devil’s Canyon as well as the 5th gen Broadwell processors which are expected to come out later in the year. This board is an enthusiast board targetted mainly at gamers and performance system builders. To that end, Gigabyte has taken care that all the major features expected from a top-of-the-line board are found on the Z97X Gaming G1 Black edition.
The four PCIe x16 slots are neatly placed in a way that none of them will be blocked by a graphics card. The Z97X Gaming G1 allows you to attach up to four graphics card in SLI or Crossfire. The presence of the PLX PEX 8747 increases the PCIe 3.0 lanes at your disposal - from the default 16 to 32 - which is helpful while you are setting up a multi-GPU system. The bandwidths across the four PCIe slots based on the number of graphics cards used are x16; x16/x16; x16/x8/x8 and x8/x8/x8/x8.
For the electromagnetically isolated audio section Gigabyte has used a Creative SoundCore3D quad-core audio processor. The AMP-UP technology which was seen with the Z87 generation boards makes a reappearance with the Z97X G1. You have an option to replace the bundled operational amplifier with one which you prefer for its sound output. You will also notice two gain-boost switches in the audio section. It is kept to 2.5x mode by default, but in case you have high impedance speakers or headphones, you can switch it to 6x mode as well.
The board misses out on the M.2 port which is one of the additions on the Z97 boards. It has the SATA Express port though. Considering this board is mainly targetted at gamers, the absence of the M.2 port shouldn't be that much of an issue. With the SATA ports, the four gray coloured ones are supported by two Marvell 88SE9172 controllers whereas the SATA ports in black are supported by the Intel Z97 chipset.
Considering this is a gaming board, Gigbayte has employed two LAN ports - one is backed by an Intel chipset and the other is supported by Qualcomm Atheros Killer E2200 chip. It also bundles in an Intel 7260 WLAN module (802.11ac Wi-fi + Bluetooth 4.0 module) on a PCIe x1 board. An external antenna is also provided.
BIOS and Utilities
The welcome screen of the UEFI BIOS of the Gigabyte Z97X Gaming G1 board has been reworked from its previous generation boards whereas the Advanced mode still has the blue-themed user interface. On the welcome page, you have a 3x3 matrix of options which can be changed from this screen itself. These options include boot sequence, system language, SATA controller, security and so on. In short, unlike the ASUS welcome page, you can’t really do a lot with the home screen and will most likely have to enter the Advanced mode to perform overclocking related changes. The Motherboard Intelligent Tweaker (MIT) tab in the Advanced mode is the one to look out for overclockers as it’s here that you can adjust the clock frequencies, voltages, activate the XMP mode and so on.
There is a Smart Tweak mode that has a much better layout and minimal design approach than the Advanced mode and looks after the need of the overclockers. To put it simply, the Smart Tweak mode is taking the MIT tab in the advanced mode and breaking it up into multiple sections across the page. Smart Tweak mode allows you to changes frequencies, voltages, memory settings and other things. It has a Home page where in you can add your own sections, ones that you frequently use, thereby allowing you to customise how the BIOS looks.
The bundled utilities are similar to what we had seen with the Z87 boards. The Gigabyte App centre helps give all the utilities a single design approach and makes them look uniform. It has utilties such as @BIOS, USB Blocker, Cloud Station, EasyTune, Live Update and so on. @BIOS is a tool to update the BIOS from a pen drive or from the Gigabyte servers or from a file on your system.
USB Blocker gives anyone with the Administrator rights to decide what kind of USB device can be allowed by the OS. Easy Tune app allows you to change the mode of operation depending on your workload. So for simple tasks you can keep the system settings at Light mode, if you want to overclock then you can either select the Medium or Extreme setting.
You can further get into the advanced overclocking mode which allows you to tweak settings such as multiplier, base clock, voltages and so on. Apart from the CPU, you can also overclock the RAM. Live Update basically lets you update drivers from the App Center. Cloud station allows your smartphones, tablets to communicate, share resources and control the desktop via a wireless connection.
Processor: Intel Core i7 4770K
Motherboards: ASUS Z97-Deluxe, Gigabyte Z97X Gaming G1, ASUS Maximus VI Impact, Gigabyte Z87X UD3H, ASRock Z87M Extreme 4
RAM: 2x 4GB GSkill Ripjaws @ 1600MHz
PSU: Cooler Master 800W Silent Pro Gold
OS: Windows 7 Ultimate 64-bit
Monitor: BenQ GL2250
We flashed the Gigabyte GA Z97X G1 Gaming Wi-fi BK board with the latest BIOS and installed all the latest drivers before starting the testing. We ran our regular suite of tests, which is a mixture of synthetic and real life tests. We could overclock the Gigabyte GA Z97X board to 4.5GHz on air using the EZ Tune utility as well as with the BIOS.
We use three real-world testing scenarios, to check how well the processor performs with regular tasks. In the 7-zip file compression test, we compress a 100MB assorted file folder using a 4-character encryption. In the POV-ray test we render a 800×600 pixel scene with 0.3 anti-aliasing. Finally, in the video encoding test, we convert a 1 min MPEG file to x.264 MPEG-4 using AVIDemux. All these tests are timed and the lower the score, the better the processor.
We also tested the integrated Intel HD4600 graphics on the board. Naturally with such a board you will most likely add an external graphics card, which will vary from person to person. But we wanted to see what kind of variance is expected from different Z87 boards with three different games.
Verdict and Price in India
The Gigabyte Z97X G1 Gaming Black Edition board is clearly aimed at gaming enthusiasts. The board impresses on most fronts - great layout with well-designed heat sinks, four PCIe x16 slots with dedicated PLX chip to increase PCIe lanes for multi-GPU systems, isolated audio section, on-board buttons and notches to ease up navigational steps, great bundled utilities, on-board 802.11ac Wi-fi and so on. Although the M.2 port is missing, you do get the SATA Express port. All in all, a package that is expected from a top of the line board.
The market pricing of Rs 26,000 is expected for this class of board. But like we said with the ASUS Z97 board, it is still early times for the Z97 boards. A lot also depends on how soon manufacturers can have SATA Express or mSATA drives in the market at competitive prices. For those already on the Z77 and Z87 platforms, upgrading to the Z97 board will not add much of a performance boost. From a future-proofing perspective, the board does make sense.
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