This year was the first year we have a Golden Mic winner in the motherboard category and it is time for this gem to shine. The Z87N is an mITX board build for the Socket 1150 or Haswell platform. It offers all the performance the Haswell platform brings in a small form factor package. Taking a cue from their excellent Z77N lineup, Gigabyte has kept the design along the same lines as the previous model and then added some nice new features.
(Quick apology to everyone, in my haste to get to the testing I seemed to have neglected to get board shots. Rather than take apart the system it is right now I will be using stock photos from Gigabyte.)
If this baord layout looks familiar to you, it should. The basic layout is pretty much identical to the H77N and Z77N boards from Gigabyte. This is actually a very good move for consumers and for Gigabyte. For consumers it means the design is one that is tested and proven to be reliable and stable. For Gigabyte it means they do not have to spend a bunch of money of developing a new design and this helps keep consumer costs lower.
For internal connections the Z87N has a USB 3.0 and 2.0 Header, Four SATA 3.0 connections as well as dual channel DDR3 slots, a PCIe x16 slot and two PWM fan headers. The board sports a full rear IO panel;
- PS2 port for either a mouse or keyboard
- Dual HDMI and a DVI for video connections if you choose to use the onboard Intel graphic
- full 7.1 surround sound options
- Wireless N support with a hi-gain antenna connection
- Dual Gigabit LAN Connections
- Two USB 2.0 and Four USB 3.0
To all these features Gigabyte was sure to include their particular extras Bluetooth connectivity and their ultra durable design. This design makes use of a modified PCB to increase durability, heat removal and even humidity protection. It also uses solid capacitors and the power system is designed to be more efficient and work cooler. Add to this a dual BIOS to make sure your protected from bad flashes or failures and you have a motherboard built the way we have come to expect from Gigabyte.
The bacos however come when we start using this motherboard. The first thing you will notice is that Gigabyte has designed their UEFI BIOS and it is a stunner. Do not adjust your settings this is the BIOS! The home screen as you can see offers a wealth of information including real time updates while you are making adjustments. This is an amazing improvement over the previous BIOS setup, so much so that I found myself spending double or more the time I normally spend in a BIOS just to admire it.
Gigabyte also redid their in Windows tweaking software. This software makes it easy to see how the system is working as far as temps and voltages. It has a special section just to let you customize the various temp, fan and voltage alerts you can received, meaning you can have your system warn you when you think it should. The Fan controls software is similar to software we have seen other companies use for a few boards now but a welcome addition to Gigabyte boards. It will allow you to adjust how the CPU and System respond to temperatures in your system, meaning when you want it to be your system is all but silent.
Finally we come to the overclocking options using Smart Quickboost. you are given a number of options here. The basics for a light, medium and extreme overclock. You then get the options for the system to auto tune and advanced to allow you to manually adjust. One additional option that I have never seen before is for energy savings where it actually down clocks the chip.
For our testing we are using an Intel i7 4770K provided to us by Intel. With a Thermaltake Water 2.0 Extreme cooler hooked up I decided to see that the auto tune could do. This makes the system begin stepping through various overclock settings with stability testing being done at each step. The final settings for out setup was able to get to 5.0 GHz, that is letting the motherboard decide the settings.
Priced at $135 on Newegg, this is the lowest cost mITX Z87 board available, and at the same time one of the best made. Packed with features, a great new BIOS design, good software package and all these with a value pricing, the Z87N is a great choice for anyone building an Intel based ITX system. We got to look at quite a few motherboards this year with our efforts at small form factor building and this board stood a head above the other closest choice to win our Golden Mic Award for 2013.
- Good value
- Solid feature set
- good overclocking
- excellent construction
- amazing new BIOS interface
- great software tweaking pack
- Header placement all on one side of the board, could be hard to work with in some case designs
- Wish they would kill the dual LAN and PS2 ports to allow for more USB
Thank you Gigabyte for allowing us a chance to test this motherboard.
Review Segment as aired the weekend of August 17th.
AMD has a history of filling a product line when they do a processor. I mean look at all the model and speed choices we got with the Phenom II and Athlon II. So when we looked at the A8-3850 6 months ago I fully expected us to see a full product line up of these value based Fusion processors to shortly follow. What followed however was 2 A6 and 2 A4 models and that was it, the line up seemed to stall there. This was really odd because as I said AMD is known for a full product line. However we now see two new A series chips, the A8-3870 and the A6 3670.
Both of these chips are 100 MHz bumps over the chips that preceded them, so it is hard to get excited about the performance bump. AMD however took the initiative and did something more, both chips are Black Edition, which means they are fully unlocked for overclocking. So while the 100 MHz bump is not all that exciting the overclocking holds the promise of more. For our testing AMD sent us the A8 3870K, so lets throw it into our Fusion system and see what we get.
A quick refresher the Fusion APU is a traditional CPU with a Parallel Co-Processor, or GPU on the same die. This extra unit means the chip can perform all the graphic functions the computer needs for display and is also fully usable by APIs such as Direct Computer and OpenAL for GPU computing.
The A8-3870 is the current flagship of the APU lineup clocked at 3.0 GHz with GPU portion running at 600 MHz. For defining the GPU performance level AMD has listed this as a 6550D. For our testing we used the same system as our original A series review, all we did was swap the processor and began our testing.
First we established baselines at stock speed in comparison to the A8 3850 and as expected the performance was so close as to be un-noticeable in difference. Remember though this was only a 100 MHz speed bump so stock performance was not were we expected to see a difference. This chip is unlocked however so overclocking should be easy. So we started by overclocking the 3850 we had and was able to achieve a stable overclock with no tweaking at 3.3GHz. Firing up the 3870 I was hoping for more but hit 3.4Ghz and would have been forced to start tweaking voltages and such to go further. The result was not as much as I had hoped.
However the CPU portion is only the beginning, with the 3850 we where unable to get any overclock on the GPU portion but with the 3870 we where able to pull some nice boost. We where able to take the speed up to 775 MHz without any tweaking and this resulted in a 3D Mark 11 Performance score boost of about 28%, pushing it close to the Performance score of a 6570. Next we paired the overclock chip with a 6670 and watched the performance go up more netting us another 17% above the performance we saw with the stock speeds and the 6670 is Crossfire.
While the overclocking we got gave a nice little speed bump, overall it is a very limited overclock. These chips are just pushing the envelope with stock speeds it seems and overclocking them is a neat exercise but any real bumps are just not going to happen without a lot of effort. This is a bit disappointing considering how well other Black Edition chips have overclocked historically for AMD.
What does this mean for you? Well we where able to run Skyrim at High Detail at 1440×900 and it was butter smooth throughout our game play session. Further I could play Champions Online at max detail at 1440×900 and run pretty high frame rates, easily high enough to make lag from the hardware a none issue. This chip will not win any performance marks out of the game but take this chip with a sub $100 video card and you get some really solid performance that will easily meet a budget gamers needs.
The system when running the 6670 in crossfire can push into 1080 resolution game play but you need to start backing down some settings. I did most of my testing at 1440 because this is a realistic resolution for the price point with details levels as high as possible.
Sadly however this may be Llano’s, the codename for this chip, last hoorah. Trinity based APUs were on display at CES in their mobile version and the desktop is likely not far behind. These next generation APUs will be based on Piledriver and be of a completely different architecture so the performance we will see compared to Llano is up in the air until we can get one. The 3870 and 3670 could very well be the only refresh we see on the first run of APUs.
If you are a hardware tinkerer and want to do a low budget build with some gaming potential the APU platform is really a must look at for your first choice. With even the onboard video and overclocking you can get fair performance for basic gaming at 1440×900. Drop in a low cost video card and you can game decent at 1080 or great detail levels at 1440. These unlocked APUs are a neat chip to look at but at the end of the day will be a minor blip on the APU radar as this phase of the APU is pushed out of the way by Trinity.
The FM1 Socket APU however has done it’s job and made it’s note in history. The first real APU design this chip has shown that an integrated graphics solution CAN be done and done well, not just basic functionality. The ability for it to be used outside the graphics area and as a full parallel co-processor is it’s most important contribution in my eyes. So with my Fire and Ice reference I think it is fitting that instead of going quietly into that good night as Trinity comes along, Llano should go out with a last hoorah and take the Black. Heading to the wall to give us our start into a new kind of chip.