By Edward Crisler
Well another CPU has come out, this time from Intel so that means we see new motherboard designs. However in the past we often saw, on the Intel side, the new boards working only with the new chips. The Z77 based motherboard uses the standard Socket 1155 platform which means these boards will except the new Ivybridge based chips or the previous generation, Sandybridge. This go around we have again been given a chance to look at Gigabytes mainstream offering, in this case the Z77X-UD3H.
The board we have is a mainstream, middle of the price point board, at least when it comes to Z77 boards. Priced at around $150 this board is geared toward the DIY Enthusiast, as such it comes featured loaded with some great overclocking options. The price point is reasonable for what we get and when you see what we get I think you will agree.
This board has the ability to handle up to 4 sticks of DDR3 and supports speeds as high as DDR3 2400. The board is designed for dual channel and can support a maximum of 32 gig. There is also full support for Intel’s XMS, this means no trying to figure out the best settings for your RAM, the board can do it for you.
The board with three PCIe x16 slots but only the first one can be used at x16 speeds. When the first and second are populated the slots run at PCIe x8 but both support for PCIe 3.0. There is a healthy number of PCIe x1 slots for expansion, however I am not sure why the PCI slot was added. The old standard is all but done and I think the board with have been better served with addition PCIe x1 slot.
For storage we have six SATA connections with 2 of them offering SATA 3.0 and the other four being SATA 2.0. There is also located next to the CPU socket a connection for a mSATA drive. These drives are meant to be used in conjunction with Intel’s Smart Response and Rapid Start technologies. These small, specialty SSDs will give a system a nice performance boost while still using traditional spindle drives for the mass storage needs.
Moving to the back of the board we find what we have come to expect from Gigabyte, a ton of connection ports. We have USB connectivity covered with four each of USB 3.0 and 2.0 connections. We get full 7.1 sound from the on board audio provided by a VIA chip and codec. We also have onboard video connection using VGA, DVI, HDMI and Displayport. These are powered by the GPU built into the Ivybridge and Sandybridge chips. Finally we have 2x eSATA connections and the gigabit LAN connection as well as a PS2 connection that can be used for mouse or keyboard.
While this board is designed with the Ivybridge CPU in mind the truth is that it is fully functional for the Sandybridge as well. For purposes of our testing I did my work using an Intel i5 2500K and an Intel i5 3570. This allowed me to see the board in action with the Ivybridge chip and to also compare it directly to a Gigabyte board using the older Z68 chipset. For testing I ran various games and other programs to see if any real difference in performance could be seen and in direct comparison to the Z68 motherboard, we used the Gigabyte Z68X-UD3H-B3. The result of the test was no noticeable difference in performance when running the i5 2500K between these two boards. In fact the only time the Z77 outshone the Z68 was when it was using the Ivybridge chip but this I attribute more to the new graphics engine than anything else.
What we have is a nice motherboard that is a refining move forward from the Z68 board rather than a real upgrade. Gigabyte did live up to our expectations with a high quality board that worked flawless right out of the gate. The extras that Gigabyte has put on continues to impress. We get always on USB charging which is great if you charge your mobile devices from your PC. The UD series have a number of nice features in the construction of the board that is hard to quantify but will mean the board is stable and have a long life.
The BIOS on this motherboard uses the new 3D BIOS from Gigabyte. Now I will tell you I am NOT a fan of the graphic BIOS and think we could spend development in a lot of other areas of the motherboard that would have a bigger benefit, but of the graphic BIOS I have looked at I like this one the best. Since you cannot screen shot a BIOS screen and my camera skills are limited I decided the best way to show the BIOS was the video done by Gigabyte.
One last area I wish to touch on is the Lucid Virtu MVP. This is essentially a program that allows the computer to use the onboard graphics of the Intel CPU in conjunction with a discrete graphics card. Now this has two functions the first and the one we saw on the Z68 based boards is the use of the Intel GPU for working with multimedia files. This is useful if you do a lot of video transcoding. The other use that Lucid claims is being brought to the table this time is the ability of using the onboard graphics to enhance the performance of the discrete video solution in gaming. This sounds really cool, the premise is that the Lucid software will offload some of the graphical chores to the onboard GPU thus freeing the discrete GPU for the primary work loads and enhancing the games performance.
In principle this sounds very cool but in practice it is a placebo at best. The software is limited to only games it has developed specific drivers for. In other words it is not an open driver to enhance the games performance but a cheat as it were for specific games to make benchmarks look better. Now it does do this, in the benchmarking we did with software supported by the Virtu software the numbers were higher. However once we started to play games we did not see any kind of performance difference in the gaming experience. The use of the Virtu did not allow me to raise detail level or resolution and use the performance gains to enhance to looks of the game. To be fair this should NOT detract anyone from the motherboard itself, Gigabyte did not do this an add-on company did.
The Z77 chipset and the Ivybridge CPU face a tough uphill battle because at the end of the day they are a refinement of the excellent Sandybridge and Z68 design. This put’s Intel and it’s partners like Gigabyte in a tough spot because all things being equal the price at the end of the day not the performance is a big determining factor. The Ivybridge and it’s platform costs more money but does not deliver a lot over the Sandybridge. In this case specifically when I compare the Z68 and Z77 from Gigabyte I see two great board, either of with offer great computing experiences. However I see the Z68 at $20 less.
Now do not get me wrong I think the Z77 from Gigabyte is a great board and as we have come to expect it is really well made with a great feature set. However I have to say that if I am building a new system today I am torn. If I found the Z77 and the Z68 priced within just a buck or two of each other I would go with the Z77 to get some of the newer features and the future forward support. However with a current price difference of over $20 the Z68 wins for now.
Again let me be clear, the Z77X-UD3H is a great board at a reasonable price. If you are looking to build a new system and have your heart set on an Ivybridge platform this you cannot go wrong with this board. However right now the Z77 much like the Ivybridge suffers from the fact that is is just another great platform from an already great platform. Sandybridge, as prices fall is just to good a buy to suggest looking elsewhere.