Brace yourself, because a batch of new motherboards based on Intel’s next-gen chipsets is just around the corner. Gigabyte is prepping no fewer than 37 different models, almost all of which will be available stateside. I got a closer look at a bunch of them at a press event earlier this week. I can’t divulge certain details just yet, but I can tell you about some motherboard-specific features. And I can show you pictures—lots of pictures.
The new boards are split into four families, each with a different focus. There are the standard versions, of course, plus gaming-specific mobos, SOC variants optimized for hardcore overclockers, and a whole new line of Black Edition products with longer warranty coverage. Let’s start with the G1.Gaming series, which ditches the green theme of Gigabyte’s previous gaming boards in favor of a black-and-red aesthetic that looks eerily familiar.
Every major motherboard maker seems to be using a similar color scheme for its next-gen gaming gear. They’re not necessarily copying each other, though. According to Gigabyte, system integrators requested the color scheme because it’s easy to match with other components, such as graphics cards and memory.
System builders are partly to blame for the oversized VRM heatsinks, too. Most boards can get by without these coolers, Gigabyte says, but the massive hunks of metal are included for show. Boutique builders apparently think motherboards with smaller heatsinks look too pedestrian, and they’re not interested in them as a result.
Gigabyte claims the market for so-called gaming motherboards is more interested in appearances than hardware specifications. A lot of PC enthusiasts probably don’t share that mindset, but enough people do that all the big mobo makers now have gaming-specific brands. At least the G1 boards are separate from Gigabyte’s more traditional enthusiast fare.
The G1.Gaming line comprises 12 members in all. It has everything from an ultra-high-end monster that supports four-way SLI to a compact Mini-ITX offering that isn’t ready for the spotlight just yet. Get this: the top-of-the-line board actually has two PLX switch chips. One divides the CPU’s Gen3 PCI Express lanes for multi-GPU configs, while the other shares the chipset’s Gen2 connectivity between all the onboard slots, peripherals, and ports.
We don’t yet have a complete feature matrix detailing which features are available on which boards. Expect the gaming stuff to sport Qualcomm Killer networking chips and upgraded integrated audio, though. The G1 flagship pairs Creative’s Sound Core3D audio processor with high-end Nichicon capacitors and a replaceable OP-amp. Realtek codecs replace the Core3D chip in the middle and lower tiers, but you still get a handful of perks via Creative SBX ProStudio software. Amplified audio outs are available even on some of the cheaper offerings, as well.
Some of the gaming boards feature separate power circuitry for a couple of their rear USB ports. These dedicated lines purportedly deliver cleaner power to USB DACs, and there are probably picky audiophiles out there who swear they can hear the difference. Obsessive-compulsive types with self-powered DACs also have the option to cut power to the “DAC-UP” ports, leaving only the audio signals behind.
For hardcore overclockers, Gigabyte is prepping a pair of SOC boards that borrow super-overclocked branding from the company’s hot-clocked graphics cards. If your cooling solution doesn’t employ liquid nitrogen, the SOC boards are probably overkill. But they do a few interesting things for competitive overclockers seeking benchmark records. Individual DIMM and PCIe slots can be disabled via dip switches, for example, and the memory lines have been subtly massaged. There are more than two dozen onboard buttons, and I couldn’t tell you what most of them actually do. But I know it’s related to running at the ragged edge, where sub-zero temperatures are required and systems need to be stable only long enough to run a benchmark and capture a screenshot.
Gigabyte’s premium OC offering for the 8-series generation uses a PLX switch to provide enough PCIe connectivity for four-way SLI configurations. That chip apparently has a bit of associated latency that can reduce benchmark scores, so Gigabyte dropped it to improve performance with single- and dual-card configs. Quad setups just aren’t popular in extreme overclocking circles, at least among people who buy their own motherboards.
Thanks to firmware tweaks, the SOC boards can be overclocked on the fly within the UEFI, with no need to reboot. This real-time overclocking capability is set to be available on all of Gigabyte’s next-gen boards—or at least on the ones that support CPU overclocking, anyway.
More traditional fare… with a twist
While the SOC and G1.Gaming camps are somewhat specialized, the standard Ultra Durable clan should have broader appeal. These boards are supposed to offer the best combination of features and pricing. Some of them borrow features from the gaming family, but they’re largely more straightforward overall.
Speaking of borrowing, the color scheme for this bunch is familiar from Asus’ 8-series boards. The tone is richer, and it’s at least limited to the heatsinks. I’m not surprised to see it again. Multiple mobo makers have told me the black-and-gold look is popular in China, a country that now represents over half of Gigabyte’s global business.
By now, eagle-eyed readers will no doubt have noticed some M.2 slots and SATA Express ports in our pictures.
The arcane rules attached to this particular product embargo forbid me from commenting on the origin of those connectors, but you can probably guess. A certain next-gen chipset has long been rumored to support both standards. Note that it’s a “next-gen” chipset. The name is verboten, but the math isn’t difficult. Look, the secret combination of alphanumeric characters is clearly written on the motherboards I’m allowed to show you:
Last, but not least, we have the Black Edition breed.
Apart from their mostly murdered-out color schemes, these boards are physically identical to products in the standard and gaming families. However, they undergo a week-long burn-in test before shipping to customers, which should cut down on DOA boards and premature failures. They’re also covered by a five-year warranty.
Gigabyte spent more than a million bucks building a dedicated Black Edition test lab at its factory in Nanping, Taiwan. The lab is capable of hammering 3,000 systems simultaneously, and once it’s up to speed, it should be one of the largest Litecoin mining operations in the world. Yep, Gigabyte is going to use cryptocurrency mining to stress not only Black Edition motherboards, but also a new line of graphics cards. The exact test config hasn’t been finalized yet, and it’s unclear whether the onboard storage, networking, and other peripherals will be targeted.
Gigabyte hasn’t decided what to do with the proceeds from the operation, either. Charity is one option—just think of the children. Another is giveaways exclusive to Black Edition owners. I wonder how the virtual cash generated by the lab will compare to the cost of running it. On top of the power consumption and cooling requirements, maintaining a few thousand PCs running at full tilt will require some manpower, especially since the boards and graphics cards will all be swapped out weekly.
In the U.S., Black Edition boards are expected to command about a $10 premium. That doesn’t seem like too much to ask for additional testing and longer warranty coverage, though registration is required for the latter. Registering will also grant Black Edition owners access to a private website and possibly even live video streams from the test lab.
There are new firmware and software features to accompany the updated motherboards, of course. Gigabyte’s updated UEFI supports 19 different languages. It also sports an intro screen and setup guide for newbies, plus a Smart Tweak mode optimized for keyboard-only navigation. The fan controls may be improved, as well, but I didn’t get a definitive answer on that front.
On the software side, EasyTune’s integrated hardware monitor has left the tweaking utility to pursue a solo career as a separate application. The two apparently couldn’t agree on matters of system polling. Gigabyte has also added Game Controller software that lets users program a range of hotkey functions on keyboards that don’t have built-in macro support. There’s even a sniper mode that decreases the mouse sensitivity for precise headshots.
I haven’t played with the new firmware and software yet, but the changes sound more evolutionary than revolutionary. The same goes for the motherboard tweaks. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, though. Gigabyte’s 8-series boards are pretty good, and small refinements can have a big impact on the overall user experience. We’ll have a full report on what it’s like to actually use Gigabyte’s new hotness soon. In the meantime, you can peruse some additional board shots in the image gallery below.