A quick look at Intel's DZ77GA-70K motherboard

The Z77 Express as Intel intended it

Rumor has it Ivy Bridge is just around the corner. The Z77 Express motherboards designed to accept Intel's new hotness are already selling online, and we took an in-depth look at three of 'em last week. Since then, Intel's own enthusiast-oriented Z77 board has made its way into the Benchmarking Sweatshop. There hasn't been time to run the DZ77GA-70K through our exhaustive motherboard test suite because it's been busy with, ahem, other things. However, I've spent enough time with the board to get a reasonably good sense of what it has to offer.

DZ77GA-70K doesn't exactly roll off one's tongue, but its Gasper codename isn't much better. Indeed, there is nothing about this board that would cause seasoned PC enthusiasts to gasp. Intel isn't known for flashy surprises. It has, however, built a very nice Z77 board.

The skull on the chipset heatsink is the most obvious clue that Gasper means business—that, and the obligatory "Extreme" reference on the VRM heatsink. Then there's the black-and-blue color scheme, which seems to be the outfit of choice for enthusiast boards these days. To be fair, Intel was the first to use that particular combo. Who could have thought it would be such a trend-setter in the realm of motherboard aesthetics?

While others have followed Intel's palette, the chip giant has clearly been tracking recent trends in the industry. Gasper has all the features one might expect on a high-end board from one of the big Taiwanese motherboard makers, including numerous auxiliary peripheral chips, an overclocking-friendly graphical firmware interface, and wireless functionality.

Although the DIMM slots are a few millimeters closer to the socket than on most of the Z77 boards we've measured, the rest of the clearances are similar. The low-profile VRM heatsinks shouldn't interfere with larger aftermarket coolers. I count ten power phases nestled under the anodized chunks of finned aluminum.

The DZ77GA-70K has a mix of PCI and PCI Express expansion slots. Both of the PCIe x16 slots are fed by the CPU and offer gen-three connectivity. There's also an open-ended x4 slot with four lanes of PCIe 2.0 linked directly to the Z77 platform hub. Three of the Z77's remaining PCIe lanes are dedicated to integrated peripherals: dual Intel Gigabit Ethernet controllers and a Marvell 6Gbps SATA chip. The final PCIe lane goes to a PLX switch that spreads the bandwidth between multiple devices, including the PCIe-to-PCI bridge that powers the old-school expansion slots and FireWire silicon, a second Marvell SATA controller (for the eSATA port), and the PCIe x1 slots. 

I'm not crazy about sharing bandwidth between devices, but it's a reasonable trade-off to ensure that the x4 slot gets enough lanes for high-end SSDs, and the like. The x4 slots on most of the boards we've seen enjoy four lanes of bandwidth only when certain onboard x1 slots or PCIe peripherals are disabled.

Employing an auxiliary Marvell controller gives Gasper four internal 6Gbps SATA ports to go along with four 3Gbps ones. There are dual internal headers for front-panel USB 3.0 ports, as well. Intel hasn't employed third-party USB controllers, instead opting to use a couple of hub chips from Via. The motherboard block diagram indicates that two of the Z77's USB 3.0 connections are tied directly to physical ports (one external and one internal), while the remainder feed the Via hubs. Unfortunately, there's no indication of which ports are shared and which ones get a direct link to the platform hub.

The rear port cluster doesn't provide any clues, but it does highlight the high-current USB 2.0 ports in yellow. The high-current front-panel connector receives the same treatment, allowing users to connect compatible devices via rear or front-panel ports.

All of the Z77 boards we've seen to date offer a wide range of display outputs for the processor's integrated graphics. The DZ77GA-70K features only a single HDMI output, which suits me just fine. This is the sort of board one would expect to be paired with a discrete graphics card. Even when running Lucid's Virtu software, you're going to want to be in d-Mode, which requires the monitor to be connected to the discrete GPU.

Squeezed between the eSATA and USB 3.0 ports is Intel's Back to BIOS button. Rather than resetting the CMOS, the button allows users to modify firmware settings after an unsuccessful boot attempt. The board will also detected a failed boot attempt and invoke the feature automatically.

Our DZ77GA-70K came with a nice bundle of extras, including a mouse pad, a 3.5" drive bay insert with two USB 3.0 ports, a Bluetooth dongle, and an 802.11n Wi-Fi card that fits into one of the PCIe x1 slots. The Centrino-branded wireless card supports Intel's Wireless Display tech, but it appears to be an optional extra rather than something that comes with the board by default. The online listings we've seen for the DZ77GA-70K don't include the Wi-Fi card.

We were curious to see what Intel would do with its next-generation firmware, and Gasper doesn't disappoint. I've had to censor the interface shots to keep a few details under wraps, though.

The firmware greets users with an "easy" interface equipped with basic overclocking and monitoring tools. The mouse cursor moves smoothly, and the interface is very snappy. Intel makes liberal use of sliders and pull-down menus, although I wish more values could be keyed in directly, especially for the system voltages.

Voltage control is available in the advanced mode, which has a similar look but provides more tweaking options. Everything is neatly organized into tabs, and there's even a search function if you're having a hard time finding a specific setting. The only thing missing is a screenshot feature that allows reviewers to show a pristine shot of the GUI. Such a feature has admittedly limited utility for end users.

Everyone should benefit from Gasper's extensive fan speed controls, which offer independent settings for all four onboard headers. Users can set target temperatures in addition to minimum and maximum fan speeds. It's also possible to adjust how aggressively the speed control responds to changes in temperature. This is the most extensive array of firmware-based fan controls we've seen on a motherboard. Bravo, Intel.

I could go on, but there's still much testing to be done between now and Ivy's official arrival. We'll have more to say about the DZ77GA-70K then. Perhaps its price will have dropped, as well. Intel tells us the board's estimated street price is $220-240, and it's already selling at the high end of that range.

Tags: Motherboards Chipsets

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