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.
When Intel released the Sandybridge platform users had a choice of two different motherboard chipsets for their build. They could choose a platform that made use of the onboard graphics but was lacking in overclocking options and go with the H series or they could be forced to use discrete GPUs and gain better options with the P series. This choice BTW has been something we have seen for some time from both AMD and Intel with the user being forced to choose between these two levels of motherboards.
Intel however finally seemed to get a clue when it had this amazing epiphany, all of our new chips have graphics onboard! OMG how did they miss that!? Seriously folks if all your chips have graphics onboard does it not make sense to make sure that feature can come into play?
Thus, with this amazing realization in hand, enter the Z68 series. The idea is simple and one that I wish Intel would FULLY adopt and AMD would consider. Essentially you take the ability to use onboard graphics and then add the performance oriented features plus give the board maker the tools to add the luxury level features and now you have a single, full purpose platform for your PC.
Intel however, god bless them, was not content with just putting these features together, no they wanted this new breed to be more than the sum of it’s parts so they added a couple of extra.
First up we have Virtu, basically a system to allow the user to make full use of their powerful gaming video card when gaming but using the integrated graphics when not. There is a two fold purpose for this, the first was to allow the multimedia functions Intel built into the Sandybridge chips to continue to be used even with an add-on card in place. The second is the idea that when the user is not gaming the higher power usage of the discrete video card could be reduced and the integrated card used in it’s place.
Now I could show you a long list of benchmarks and give you lengthy explanations of the technology as so many have but lets face it, waiting through that crap is even more boring than watching Baseball or Golf. The simple breakdown is that this feature does not work as advertised. From a gamer perspective the Virtu system gives a performance hit, not a huge one mind you but a hit none the less, meaning less FPS during game play. From the “green”, power consumption perspective the effect is useless. Intel must not be paying attention to the discrete GPU world because these monsters already power themselves down to mere trickles of what they do under load and can work all day like this in basic tasks. The only area where this feature works as it claims is in allowing the use of the media functions on the Intel chip. This is nice if you use transcoding software a lot but seriously, NO ONE uses transcoding software a lot.
The second new feature is Intel Smart Response. The idea is simple, you take a smaller SSD, anything up to 64 Gig, and pair it with a regular HD, spay a nice 1 TB drive. Smart Response will use that SSD as a large cache for the most frequently used files to give your system a massive speed boost in everyday use. This sounds very neat and promises in the hype to give an experience similar to that of just using an SSD. Well lets not get carried away just yet.
For testing I used a Caviar Blue 320 Gig and a Kingston (Thank you Kingston for the drive) V100 64 Gig. I did an install of the system on the Caviar and did some work as well as run a few simple benchmarks. After a day of use I put in the Kingston and enabled Smart Response. Now this is not a plug and play operation, I mean seriously why would this be simple right? You have to go into the BIOS and enable the controllers to RAID and then use the Intel software to setup the Smart Response.
However this is where Gigabyte shines, making things easier. The EZ Smart Response that Gigabyte has included with the UD3H takes out all the work that you need to do and automates the process. I did my original testing doing the setup manually and then rebooted as it where and let Gigabyte do it for me the second go around, it was flawless and painless.
Now since this is in effect a massive system cache I did not test the performance right away, the cache needs time to fill. So I let the system get used normally for 24 hours and then started to take a look at performance.
Good news, the Intel Smart Response feature works as advertised, but I suggest reading the fine print. The system is a cache and so the speed up for operation will come into play with software you use a lot. For example IE opened instantly as did my email software. Champions Online, my current game of choice also opened much faster. However there was no speed increases for apps I opened less often. In fact in some cases it felt slower.
The reason for this is simple, some apps do not use all their features all the time. The cache does not cache everything, just what you use. So if a feature is seldom used but the program is often used what will happen is that during general use the program will have that hyper snappy feel that comes with using an SSD until that specific seldom used feature is put into play and then the system will seems to stall. For most users this will not be an issue but this does mean that while offering a huge system boost this does not match up to just using an SSD as a drive and not as cache.
This is billeted as an inexpensive way to get a performance boost similar to that of using an SSD. A quick look on Newegg shows that 30/32 Gig SSDs are going for around $80 and yet a 60 Gig can be had for about $100 and a 64 Gig for about $110. Anything smaller would not give enough room for any but the most basic user to get a meaningful level of cache and at these prices why by a 30/32 gig? So we are looking at about a $100 cost for using this feature over and above traditional costs. However for a lot of people a 60 Gig SSD will provide enough room to function as a primary drive. I refer you back to my article on SSDs in Laptops. I found in that article that a 60 Gig actually holds a lot of data, easily enough for most apps people use regularly as well as a few games.
In the end the 60 Gig drive provides a better performance boost used as a primary drive than as a disk cache system. Anyone with enough apps that 60 gigs will not hold them likely would not get the full effect of the Smart response anyway. This is NOT to say however this is a bad feature. This offers the ability to use the SSDs as an upgrade without the need to move the OS or do a complete system build again on the SSD.
Enough however about what features the Z69 offers, what about what Gigabyte brings to the table with this board. A full sized ATX board this product is prized at the high end of the “performance” line-up as we judge items here on the show. Like the P68 we reviewed before Gigabyte has forsaken the ugly light blue and gone with the sexy black board, trimming it with dark metallic grey heatsinks. The board has two PCIe full slots and is able to support Crossfire or SLI.
The boards construction is what we have come to expect from Gigabyte with full solid capacitor design as well as some great real world features, such as their On/Off USB power. There is the usual assortment back panel connections with 4x USB2 and 2x USB3 as well as a Firewire and ESATA. The driver CD includes the usual set of Gigabyte utilities for monitoring the hardware and software based overclocking. Overall just a well featured and build motherboard but then we have come to expect nothing less from Gigabyte.
Other companies have begun to move their BIOS interfaces over to a more graphical design, Gigabyte has not done this yet. The reason I have heard actually makes sense. Gigabyte feels that the people that use the BIOS are so used to and comfortable with the current design they should not play with it. However that does not mean Gigabyte is going to be left behind. In an effort to leave our comfortable text BIOS in place for us old school folks and still offer the graphical option for those who want it, Gigabyte has created their Touch BIOS.
This is a functional BIOS control interface that runs within Windows. You can make the BIOS adjustments you want while in Windows and then tell the system to reboot. It is not quite as full featured as the regular method of getting into the BIOS but the basic functions are there, even for some overclocking. You can even access the Hardware Monitoring section of the BIOS to get temperatures and fan speeds.
I am personally torn on this matter. As an old school tech I will admit to being comfortable with the old BIOS layout however I like new whiz-bang features like the graphic interface. However lets be real, NO ONE spends a lot of time in their BIOS. I mean once you get the system up and running you use it. Oh sure a few tweakers might think of the BIOS as a game but they are a minority. At the end of the day for me this is a who cares matter. I do however like the fact that Gigabyte has given me the ability to check a BIOS setting from within Windows.
Okay lets sum all this up. If I am building an Intel system I think there is no reason to use any other platform than the Z68 right now. Z68 based boards are going for as little as $90 and as much as $350. Gigabyte, as always is offering a huge range of boards with models ranging in price from $110 to $350 and all manner of features. The UD3H fits right in the middle of that pack with a price tag right now of $169. The board has a great feature set, is well made and looks nice to boot. If the Z68 is the only chip I will use for building an Intel system, the UD3H is currently at the top of my list for boards to choose.
Segment Aired 17 July 2011
You know this show usually has it’s focus squarely set on mainstream products. However we sometimes get the opportunity to take a peek at the other side of the tracks as it where, the luxury end of the PC world. When we approached Gigabyte about getting a board to explore the world of the Intel Sandybridge they where happy to help but then Intel issued a recall. Gigabyte told me to be patient that they would get me one of the new boards as soon as possible and they rewarded that patience with the P67A-UD4.
At $190 this is not the most expensive board out there but it is definitely in the luxury category on pricing. Based on the P67 chipset, this board is designed to use discrete video and opens up the overclocking options of the Sandybridge processor lineup. As the box cover shows the board comes featured packed with Gigabytes Ultra Durable 3 design, 12 Phase power, a 3 year warranty and Gigabytes 3x USB power which allows for their On/Off Charge system.
Opening the box we are greeted bay a beautiful black schemed motherboard. Gone is the baby or powder blue design of the typical Gigabyte board design. The black board is highlighted nicely with an anodized grey on the various heat sinks and a metallic blue accent.
There are 3x PCIe x1 slots, 2 PCIe slots (x16/x8) and two standard PCI slots. The spacing on the PCIe slots is nice, using the X1 slots to open the area a bit if you plan to use dual video cards.
Gone are any kinds of connectors for old school floppy of PATA storage, these are not missed. However for some reason an old school COM port connection is available using an optional expansion slot cover. The traditional USB headers are present as well as the red one denoting the front USB On/Off powered ports. An interesting addition between the USB 2 and the front panel connection is a connection labeled for USB3. This is the first internal USB connection I have seen and have feelers out to see if this means new cases will not feature a real USB 3 hook up rather than the rigged out the back cabling.
There are six SATA connections, the two white ones are the SATA III and the 4 black the SATA II. Since this is a B3 series board that means the Intel glitch with the SATA III connectors has been fixed and these can be used without worry. Finally note the 4xDDR3 slots and 24 pin and 8 pin power connectors.
Moving around to the back we see the expected connectors. We have 8 USB2 ports, 2 USB3 ports, 3 ESATA, unversal PS2 and various sound connections. The USB ports all are active using On/Off Charging which means in any power state these ports can provide power to recharge devices.
The overall build is pretty typical fair but just upped a notch in quality. The extra features with the exception of the On/Off are mostly hidden in the quality of the build. The board comes with a standard BIOS that has been modified for 3TB and bigger drives. While this might not be as exciting as the new graphical systems it has the advantage of being a comfortable design and is easy to use.
Besides the hardware this board comes with some nice software. Xpress Recovery 2 is a backup program that makes it easy to image your system once you have a solid base install. Since it is built into the BIOS there is no need for a recovery disk. Easy Tune 6 is a great program to take the guess work out of your overclocking. In just a second I was able to quickly take an i5 2400 to 3.6Ghz. The nice thing is that ET6 sets everything in BIOS so after a reboot you are all set and can even remove the software and retain your overclock. Smart 6 is a multi-tool utility that allows for easy backup, a method to store important dates and password in BIOS and a few other tricks.
All of this does not matter however if your CP does not work so we fired this beats up using an i5 2400 to see what it could offer. For cooling we are using an Antec Khuler 620 and the case is a One Hundred. Memory was Kingston 8 Gig (2×4) 1600 and an EVGA GTX 460 for video.
Build was flawless from the start, no stability issues or strange quirks as I did the build and OS install. Stability was outstanding, not just at stock speeds but with some overclocking as well. Using the ET6 program I was able to quickly take the i5 to 3.6GHz and with a quick BIOS tweak I was at 3.9 GHz without changing any settings except the multiplier. Not a single hiccup or twitch was found after hours of running as hard as I could push the system. The heat sinks on the board did their job well, being cool to the touch after hours of heavy running.
Based on the pricing this is obvious a luxury level board meant for the overclocker or power user. The build quality on this board is outstanding and the layout plus feature set a definite plus. It does everything I asked it to do and never once faltered, what more can you ask for?
Well how about we throw on the Bacos and mention that only is it an outstanding board with great features but it is drop dead sexy. The ONLY real complaint I have had with Gigabyte over the years is the baby blue look they tend to use. This move to black is elegant and just really attractive. If you have a side windowed case you will appreciate this board, especially if your case has a black interior. As I was building this system up for testing I found myself stopping to admire how nice the board looked in the case.
Great features, super quality, stable as a rock and a drop dead sexy look. THIS is what a luxury board should be. If you are going the Intel route with your build and want to put on the ritz inside your PC, this is the board I would choose.