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Gigabyte's G1.Sniper 5 motherboard reviewed

Everything but the kitchen sink

like many other high-end products, pricey PC gear has a tricky value proposition. The best bang for your buck usually lies near the middle of the product range. Diminishing returns set in after that: higher prices typically deliver smaller performance gains and less critical added features.

This trend is especially apparent in motherboards. The increased integration of modern CPUs has largely removed performance from the equation. For most applications and games, high-end motherboards are no faster than their budget peers. They may offer more ports and slots, but the underlying interfaces run at the same speeds, and the additional expansion capacity is another example of diminishing returns. These days, even low-end boards have enough connectivity to satisfy the needs of most enthusiasts.

Yet here we are with Gigabyte's uber-expensive G1.Sniper 5.

This Z87-based Haswell board sells for $400—more than double the price of the Gigabyte Z87X-UD3H we reviewed last year. The Sniper doesn't deliver better benchmark scores or smoother gaming frame rates, though, and its mid-range sibling is already sufficiently equipped to host a potent PC. Why spend our time on something that costs so much more?

Because the G1.Sniper 5's integrated audio combines a Creative processor with fancy capacitors, isolated circuitry, and a swappable amplifier chip. That's worth a listen. Also, the board has a smorgasbord of networking options, including a Killer NIC that can prioritize gaming packets. That's a good excuse to spend some time playing Battlefield 4.

And then there's the fact that the G1.Sniper 5 is Gigabyte's flagship desktop board. It's a premium product with all the bells and whistles the company can muster. We want to see what happens when Gigabyte pulls out all the stops. Don't you?

First impressions
The G1. Sniper 5 is more motherboard in pretty much every sense. It even has a bigger footprint than standard ATX fare. The 12" x 10.4" board is 0.8" wider than that form factor allows, pushing it into XL-ATX territory.

Due to its formidable size, the Sniper may not fit into smaller ATX cases. Even those that accommodate it could still crowd the SATA connectors lining its lower right edge. Folks with larger enclosures should be fine, though. We didn't encounter any issues installing the board in a spacious Corsair Obsidian Series 750D mid-tower.

Anyone considering the G1.Sniper 5 probably doesn't have a tiny case. After all, this monster is built to host up to four graphics cards and 10 storage devices—far more hardware than smaller enclosures can take.

The extra SATA ports are nothing special. They stem from a Marvell chip and conform to the same 6Gbps standard as the six ports tied to the Intel chipset. The Z87 chipset's native ports are faster, and they have more extensive RAID support. We've yet to see a third-party SATA controller trump the native implementation in the Z87 Express.

The support for quad CrossFire and SLI configs is more interesting. Most Z87 boards are limited to two-card setups that split the CPU's 16 PCIe Gen3 lanes evenly between a pair of x16 slots. This dual-x8 mode is powered entirely by the processor, and through the miracle of product segmentation, it's available only on the Z87 platform. Motherboard makers sometimes add a third PCIe slot fed by up to eight Gen2 PCIe lanes in the Z87 chip, but this config is only approved for CrossFire. Nvidia doesn't endorse it for three-way SLI.

On the G1.Sniper 5, all four PCIe x16 slots connect to a PCI Express switch chip from PLX. The chip splits 32 lanes of Gen3 connectivity between the slots. The first and third slots get 16 lanes each for dual-card configs, and they also share that bandwidth with the second and fourth slots to enable x16/x8/x8 and x8/x8/x8/x8 setups.

Despite the extra lanes it provides to the x16 slots, the switch is still bottlenecked by its 16-lane Gen3 link with the CPU. However, the switch can pass peer-to-peer traffic between the PCIe slots without burdening the processor. Getting any more PCIe connectivity to the CPU requires stepping up to Ivy Bridge-E, which has 40 Gen3 lanes built in.

In addition to having enough slots for extreme multi-GPU configs, the G1.Sniper 5 has enough space between them to fit beefy coolers. There's enough room for two triple-wide cards and four double-wide ones. Three PCIe x1 slots are included, as well.

High-end motherboards are usually loaded with exotic electrical components, and the G1.Sniper 5 is no exception. The board is populated with Chemi-Con capacitors that have solid-state cores and 10,000-hour lifetime ratings. There are fancy chokes, of course, and PowerIRstage MOSFETs from International Rectifier.

The Sniper uses the same MOSFETs as Gigabyte's other enthusiast-oriented Haswell boards, but it has more of them overall: 16 for the CPU. Like the premium electrical components, the extra phases are meant to smooth power delivery to the CPU and to potentially improve overclocking headroom. The thing is, Intel moved voltage regulation onto the CPU die in Haswell. Fancy power circuitry probably helps less now than it did with previous generations of CPUs, which relied more heavily on the motherboard.

Beefy heatsinks sit on top of the Sniper's power circuitry. There's a tiny fan, too, and it's very quiet... for now. I always wonder how long smaller spinners will maintain a low acoustic profile. At least the fan should come in handy with liquid-cooled setups that generate little airflow around the socket. The VRM coolers have a hollow channel within and barbs on either end, so they can be looped into a liquid cooling system, as well.

All this extra heatsink hardware crowds the CPU socket on three sides. Compatibility with some coolers may be compromised as a result, and we can't test every combination of parts. We can, however, measure the clearances between the socket and other important landmarks.

As on most Haswell boards, the closest source of potential conflict is the DIMM slot next to the socket. Standard-height memory shouldn't be a problem, but taller modules can interfere with wide CPU coolers.

These relatively short VRM heatsinks are unlikely to compromise cooler compatibility, but they can make installation a little awkward, especially if you have short, stubby fingers like mine. The heatsinks leave little room around the screw holes for cooler retention brackets.

Otherwise, the G1.Sniper 5 is free of annoying clearance issues. All of the onboard ports and slots are easily accessible, and so are critical elements like the internal headers, onboard battery, and CMOS-related switches.

There are actually three CMOS switches. Two control access to the board's backup firmware chip, while the third resets the settings for the primary one. The backup firmware is a nice touch that's been available on Gigabyte motherboards for a while. I also like the fact that the CMOS reset switch is an actual button rather than an old-school jumper. That said, I wish the reset button were located in the rear port cluster, where it would be accessible without cracking open the case.

As it stands, the rear cluster has lots of pretty much everything else: one DisplayPort out, six USB 3.0 ports, and pairs of HDMI, S/PDIF audio, Gigabit Ethernet, and USB 2.0 ports. There's even a combo PS/2 jack for keyboard aficionados who refuse to give up the IBM Model M. Too bad the gold-plated audio jacks are devoid of color coding; one must consult the manual to identify which one is which.

Internal headers expand the Sniper's USB payload, but there's a caveat attached. Only the two USB 3.0 ports tied to the primary internal header are connected directly to the Z87 chipset. The remaining two internal ports and all six external ones are routed through a pair of Renesas hubs, each of which splits a single USB 3.0 connection between four ports. That much bandwidth sharing could compromise performance on certain ports if multiple high-speed devices are used concurrently.

We've seen similarly funky USB 3.0 configurations on Gigabyte's other Haswell boards. The G1.Sniper 5's onboard audio is a little more unusual, as we'll demonstrate on the next page.