Gigabyte offers early peek at Z87 motherboards

An early look at what's to come

Intel's next-generation processor isn't due for a couple of weeks, but that isn't stopping motherboard makers from previewing their wares. We've already seen what Asus has in store for Intel's upcoming flagship Z87 platform. Now, it's Gigabyte's turn to show off. We flew down to Los Angeles last week to check out the company's upcoming boards, and we have much to report.

Gigabyte's Z87 boards are split into three main categories: overclocking, gaming, and everything else. The OC models are really designed for the hard-core overclocking crowd; unless you have a canister of liquid nitrogen in your closet, you should probably look elsewhere. There are some interesting features for competitive overclockers, though.

Most of the new innovations are found on the Z87X-OC, which will be the cheaper of the two OC boards. This is a stripped-down model designed to break records, and Gigabyte says its in-house overclockers were instrumental in its development. Among the new features is an OC Ignition switch that keeps the board powered even when the system is turned off. Any connected fans and pumps will continue to run, including those on graphics cards plugged into the system.

Onboard buttons are popular on overclocking boards, and the Z87X-OC is peppered with more of 'em than I've ever seen. There are buttons to change the multiplier, base clock, and bclk strap. Users can also invoke their favorite settings profile, a pre-baked one of Gigabyte's design, or the last known good settings. There's even a button for switching between high- and low-frequency modes, which should make it easier to benchmark configs that are stable for only brief periods of time.

Both OC boards come with a special brace that holds expansion cards steady when the board is running outside a case. This brace also makes a nice kickstand if you want to prop up the board and take in its neon-Halloween color scheme.

The Z87X-OC Force pictured above drops some of the overclocking-specific goodies in favor of extra connectivity, including a Wi-Fi expansion card that plugs into one of the PCIe slots. The Force is a more traditional high-end motherboard, and it certainly looks the part. So does the gaming-oriented G1.Sniper 5.

The Sniper trades overclocking features for fancier peripherals, including a swanky integrated audio implementation. Under the gold-plated EMI shield sits a Sound Core3D audio processor. Fancy Nichion capacitors are used throughout the audio circuitry, whose traces have received some special attention. The Sniper's power and ground traces steer clear of those running to the audio ports, which should reduce interference that can compromise output quality.

In addition to its discrete audio chip, the Sniper has a dedicated headphone amplifier. It also boasts a second amplifier tied to a separate stereo output at the rear. This amp is socketed, allowing standard op-amps to be swapped in at will. The board will come with two of its own: a Burr Brown OP2134PA and a Texas Instruments LM4562NA. Gigabyte plans to sell a separate kit with three additional op-amps, as well. The op-amps have different characteristics, allowing users to choose one that suits their musical—and personal—tastes.

Socketed op-amps are usually reserved for high-end sound cards, so it's nice to see them pop up on a motherboard. I'm curious to see how the Sniper's integrated solution stacks up against our favorite discrete sound cards. Several other mobo makers have upgraded integrated audio for select Z87 models, and we may have to compare them in some blind listening tests.

The G1.Sniper 5 will be joined by a microATX M5 variant with the same audio implementation. Like its ATX counterpart, the micro board sports a Killer NIC. It doesn't have the secondary Intel GigE controller available on the full-sized Sniper, though. You also miss out on the ATX model's quad PCI Express x16 slots.

Gigabyte's lineup of standard Z87 offerings includes a couple of high-end models with dual Thunderbolt ports. Most of the range has been upgraded to Ultra Durable 5 Plus, denoting the use of all-digital power circuitry and high-end electrical components like International Rectifier power stages and Chemi-Con capacitors. Oversized heatsinks are also part of the Plus package.

Although all of Gigabyte's Z87 boards have matte black circuit boards, there's loads of variety in the accent colors. Orange and green are reserved for the OC and Sniper families, respectively, while different standard models have splashes of blue, red, silver, and even gold. Apart from the bulky heatsinks, the designs look pretty restrained overall.

There are three smaller models in the standard Z87 family: two microATX and one Mini-ITX. The latter looks particularly sweet and offers both integrated Wi-Fi and dual Gigabit Ethernet jacks. Unlike Gigabyte's Z77-based Mini-ITX board, this Z87 variant will have full CPU voltage control. An H87 version will be offered, too, but I wouldn't expect it to have robust overclocking options.

All of the Z87 boards in Gigabyte's lineup will come with company's updated DualBIOS firmware interface. Don't let the name fool you: this is full-fledged UEFI implementation. It's also completely new. Gigabyte wasn't happy with the 3D BIOS interface on its Ivy Bridge boards, so it started over from scratch.

The interface is highly configurable; users can adjust not only the color scheme, but also the background image. They can also switch between high- and low-resolution flavors of the UI. The high-res version surrounds the main settings panel with all kinds of system monitoring information, including real-time graphs of certain variables. Only the main panel persists in the low-res mode, an arrangement that keeps navigation consistent across the two versions.

Within the main panel, users can define custom tabs with their favorite settings. Most settings can be manipulated in multiple ways: there are sliders to drag, lists of options to scroll through, and fields that allow values to be keyed in directly. The interface is responsive when navigating with the keyboard, but the mouse tracking feels a little laggy. It's not as bad as some of the early UEFIs we encountered on Sandy Bridge boards, but there's definitely room for improvement.

In addition to revamping its motherboard firmware, Gigabyte has overhauled the accompanying Windows software. This clean-sheet redesign has been in development for about a year, and it shows. The interface is streamlined, consistent, and reasonably responsive. Unfortunately, it's also modeled after Windows 8 tiles, which means some elements are unnecessarily large. At least the software runs on the desktop rather than in Win8's Modern UI.

The EasyTune tweaking component offers pre-baked profiles for newbies and manual controls for seasoned enthusiasts. No surprises there. The fan controls are similarly segmented, but there are a few new twists. Gigabyte has incorporated a calibration routine that probes the range of rotational speeds supported by each fan connected to the board. There's more granularity in the adjustable fan curves, and temperature-based speed control can be applied to a greater number of onboard headers.

This early look at Gigabyte's Z87 offerings really only scratches the surface. Expect more details when our Haswell mobo reviews start rolling out next month. In the meantime, you can check out some additional pictures of the boards in the gallery below.

Tags: Motherboards

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