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Gigabyte's Z87X-UD3H motherboard reviewed

Thinking outside the board

Intel's much-anticipated Haswell microprocessor has arrived, and desktop users are a little underwhelmed—rightfully so. In most games and applications, the Core i7-4770K is only slightly faster and more power-efficient than its Ivy Bridge predecessor. When overclocked, Haswell appears to require beefier cooling than Ivy. And socketed desktop users don't get a taste of more exotic configurations with integrated Iris graphics and embedded DRAM.

While desktop Haswell derivatives might not seem like dramatic upgrades over their Ivy peers, the accompanying motherboards have taken a larger step forward. The enthusiast-oriented Z87 Express platform has more native connectivity than the old Z77: three times the number of 6Gbps SATA ports and 50% more USB 3.0 connections. Motherboard makers continue to add new features, too, and some have completely overhauled their firmware and software interfaces.

Maybe I'm a bit biased, being TR's resident mobo monkey, but the current crop of Z87 boards might just be the most exciting thing about Haswell on the desktop. We've already seen Asus' Z87-PRO in action. Today, it's Gigabyte's turn under the microscope. Say hello to the Z87X-UD3H.

Oh, black and blue, where would enthusiast-oriented motherboards be without you? At least Gigabyte isn't using the same tired old color scheme across its entire lineup. Black circuit boards permeate the firm's 8-series family, but the accent colors differ based on the model. The PCB is also a departure from the norm; it has a matte coating rather than the glossy finish found on blacked-out boards from Asus and MSI.

The stealthy look is aided by black Chemi-Con capacitors rated to run for 10,000 hours at 105°C. These swanky caps are part of an Ultra Durable 5 Plus package that also includes high-end digital power circuitry from International Rectifier. Intel added on-die voltage regulation to Haswell, so I'm not sure if exotic motherboard power circuitry is really necessary. Surely the accompanying heatsinks are overkill.

Chunky heatsinks wall off two sides of the socket. The fin-less hunks of metal have relatively little surface area for heat transfer, though. Modern motherboard heatsinks seem to be more about form than function. They've become branding billboards, and the UD3H's massive chipset cooler is a perfect example.

At least the chipset heatsink stays out of the way. The ones around the socket crowd some of the screw holes used by CPU coolers. Depending on your cooler's retention bracket, the close proximity of the VRM heatsinks might make installation a little more difficult.

Provided you can wrestle their mounting hardware into place, larger CPU coolers have room to breathe on the UD3H. The images below highlight the distances between the socket and potential sources of clearance conflict.

Even at their peak, the VRM heatsinks are barely more than an inch tall. Pay attention to the distance between the socket and the DIMM slots. Most Intel boards put the memory slots in a similar position, and taller modules can easily interfere with aftermarket CPU coolers.

Despite having lots of surface area, the chipset heatsink is short enough to provide ample clearance for longer expansion cards. If you're going to be running two graphics cards, Gigabyte recommends supplying a little extra juice to the PCIe x16 slots via that SATA-style power connector on the edge of the board.

The first two PCI Express x16 slots, which are to the right in the picture above, are linked directly to the CPU and can be arranged in an x16/x0 or x8/x8 config. The other x16 slot stems from the Z87 platform hub and offers four lanes of bandwidth. Those lanes are shared with the second and third PCIe x1 slots from the right. Only the x16 slots connected to the CPU offer gen-three connectivity; all lanes connected to the Z87 are limited to PCIe 2.0.

All eight of the Serial ATA ports support 6Gbps speeds. The black ports are tied to the Z87, which can arrange drives in RAID arrays and accelerate hard-drive performance with SSD caching. Initially, enabling hot-plugging kicked the Intel ports down to 3Gbps speeds on our board. An updated beta firmware (version F6G) resolved the issue, but that revision isn't available to the general public. We're told the update should be available online by the end of the week.

The grey SATA ports on the left come from an auxiliary Marvell controller. That chip can feed the two internal ports or a pair of eSATA connectors in the rear port cluster.

Six USB 3.0 ports dot the cluster, and they're backed by internal headers for four more. Most of the SuperSpeed connectivity is fed by a pair of four-port Renesas hubs that split the USB 3.0 ports coming off the Z87 platform. The only ports with a direct line to the chipset are the two associated with the primary internal header.

A Realtek codec feeds the audio ports, including the digital S/PDIF output. Sadly, the board doesn't support real-time encoding for multichannel digital output. Digital surround sound is limited to content with pre-encoded tracks, such as movies. Gamers who want surround sound will need to use the analog outputs. If you can get by with pseudo surround sound, the Realtek drivers support virtualization for stereo playback.

In addition to the Realtek chip, the UD3H sports a Texas Instruments amplifier capable of driving headphones up to 600 O. The amp is soldered on, so the arrangement isn't as slick as the socketed OPAMPs available on some of Gigabyte's higher-end Haswell boards.

Gigabyte kicks in a handful of other onboard goodies. Clustered with the usual mix of power, reset, and CMOS-clearing buttons are switches that toggle between the primary and backup firmware chips. The edge of the board is also lined with voltage probing points for obsessive overclockers. POST code display? Check.

The only separate accessory of note is the I/O shield, whose padded internal surface is much nicer than the usual array of sharp, pokey bits of metal. This shield will not only save your fingers from being sliced, but also prevent metal tabs from getting caught up in the ports as you slide the mobo into your system.