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Gigabyte's Z77X-UD3H motherboard
Like Asus, Gigabyte has a dizzying selection of Z77 boards. And, like the P8Z77-V on the prior page, the Z77X-UD3H is sort of the standard model. Gigabyte's approach is quite different, a fact that's illustrated in not only the hardware, but also the firmware and software that comes with the board. Alas, it seems Gigabyte couldn't resist sticking to the same tired palette being overused by every other motherboard maker for their enthusiast-oriented products.

To Gigabyte's credit, the UD3H is a black heatsink swap away from the murdered-out look that seems to be popular with kids these days. If blue is a must, it should at least match the turquoisey shade that defined the company's entire motherboard lineup for so many years. Perhaps that would help the UD3H from looking so generic. The chunky, bright red power button is all kinds of awesome, though.

The UD3H gets by with a single heatsink for its voltage regulation circuitry, which is all-digital, of course. Digital VRMs are the new solid-state capacitors. Nine power phases feed the CPU, while two keep the memory juiced.

With such a barren socket area, there's loads of room for aftermarket coolers that bulge out like finned-aluminum muffin tops. The lone heatsink is only about an inch tall, and everything else in the region stays low to the board.

The socket area isn't as empty as it looks. Over to the right in the picture above sits an mSATA slot designed for mini SSDs like the kind one might find in an ultrabook. mSATA drives have a low enough profile to avoid creating clearance problems for the PCIe x1 slot. The appeal for ATX systems with plenty of room for standard SSDs seems a little dubious, though. mSATA drives tend to be more expensive than their 2.5" counterparts, and they typically have lower performance ratings.

The mSATA slot shares a link to the Z77 platform hub with one of the 3Gbps SATA ports. That's a good thing, because it allows mini SATA drives to serve as Smart Response caches or boot drives for Intel's Rapid Start tech. Those luxuries wouldn't be available if the mSATA slot were tied to an auxiliary SATA controller. The Z77X-UD3H has one of those, too, but it supplies the eSATA ports in the rear cluster.

Gigabyte follows a similar expansion slot layout to Asus with one exception: there are three PCIe x1 slots but only a single PCI slot. The x1 slots share bandwidth with the lowest (left-most in the picture above) PCIe x16 slot, which gets either one or four lanes of connectivity, depending on whether the x1 slots are needed. Those PCIe lanes come from the chipset, while the other two x16 slots are fed directly by the CPU. If you're going to be running a pair of graphics cards, Gigabyte recommends hooking a SATA power connector to the auxiliary plug located next to the SATA ports. That'll purportedly improve system stability for CrossFire and SLI setups by providing more power through the PCIe slots.

Blue USB 3.0 ports pepper the rear cluster, but it's hard to tell which ones are connected to the Z77 chipset and which branch off the board's auxiliary VIA controller. The manual isn't much help, either. We had to check the Device Manager to sort out which ports were routed where, details that somehow didn't make it into my notes. Sorry. Four of the ports are definitely connected to the VIA controller, because half of the Z77's USB 3.0 ports are reserved for the front-panel headers.

The Z77X-UD3H's use of a VIA USB controller isn't uncommon. However, it is unusual to see a VIA audio codec on a modern enthusiast board. The implementation isn't that exciting, to be honest. There's no support for surround-sound virtualization or on-the-fly multichannel encoding.

Gigabyte scores more diversity points by using a Gigabit Ethernet chip from Atheros. Most mobo makers are migrating towards Intel networking chips, and we'll see in a moment how the Atheros one compares.

When the first 6-series motherboards hit the market, Gigabyte's offerings were conspicuous for their lack of next-generation firmware. The old-school BIOS remained, and it was rather slow. Thankfully, Gigabyte's 7-series motherboards feature the 3D BIOS firmware interface that debuted with the company's X79 boards. It makes all the difference in the world.

Were it not for the slightly laggy mouse input, Gigabyte's firmware would feel more advanced than the Asus EFI that has been the benchmark for more than a year. One may click on areas of the motherboard to bring up related variables, which are tuned with sliders rather than punching in numbers. The interface feels more like a Windows app than a firmware interface. There are still some rough edges, like settings windows that block the user's view of the monitoring panel, but Gigabyte is on the right track.

The 3D interface is easy to navigate with the mouse, but it's faster to flip through the firmware's secondary interface, which puts a coat of fresh paint on a more familiar arrangement of tweaking options. There are more options here than in the 3D interface. The feature parity between them is impressive, though, especially considering the limited scope of Asus' EZ interface.

To be fair, the Gigabyte EFI does have some limitations. The fan controls confine users to setting the slope of the fan speed curve. It's possible to set a different slope for the CPU and three system fans (which are governed by a single profile), but that's about it. At least the temperature-based speed control works with both three- and four-pin CPU fans.

Gigabyte's EasyTune6 software offers somewhat more fan control functionality in Windows. Still, there are only two points to adjust on each fan control curve. If only motherboard makers put as much effort into their fan controls as they do into overclocking or, most recently, power tweaking options.

So important is power tuning that Gigabyte came up with a whole new 3D Power application just to handle it. The app is admittedly much improved over the early version we used when testing one of Gigabyte's X79 boards, but the interface still feels clunky, and the sluggish transition animations don't do the app any favors. You're better off tweaking the power settings in the firmware.

At the Consumer Electronics Show earlier this year, Gigabyte told us it plans to offer a more cohesive collection of tweaking utilities with its motherboards. There's certainly plenty of room for improvement, and Gigabyte would do well to draw inspiration from its latest EFI interface rather than expanding on 3D Power.