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Gigabyte's Z97X-UD5H motherboard reviewed

An enthusiast's board through and through

Gigabyte's Z97 lineup is split between three main factions. The gaming-specific boards have tweaked peripheral payloads designed to appeal to gamers. The overclocking-oriented models are optimized for competitive benchmarking and sub-zero cooling. And then there's the classic Ultra Durable family, which is perfectly suitable for gaming and loaded with plenty of options for more conventional overclockers.

The Ultra Durable series follows a more traditional mold for enthusiast-focused motherboards, and the Z97X-UD5H is a particularly loaded example. This upper-mid-range offering hangs a trio of PCIe x16 slots off the CPU, boasts a full complement of next-gen storage interfaces, and includes extra Ethernet, Serial ATA, and USB connectivity. At $189.99 online, it's not too expensive, either.

Competitively-priced, feature-packed boards are kind of Gigabyte's thing. But how do those features pan out in the real world, and what's it like to actually use the board? We spent a couple of weeks with the UD5H to find out, and we learned a few interesting things along the way. Let's take a closer look.

Yep, Gigabyte is doing the bling-on-black thing for its Ultra Durable boards this year. The gold is a little gaudy for my tastes, but it doesn't look too bad when combined with the matte board and largely blacked-out components.

If you prefer something a little more understated, the Z97X-UD5H has an evil twin with black heatsinks and only a hint of gold trim. Apart from the tinting, this Black Edition variant is physically identical to the standard UD5H. However, it undergoes a week-long stress test before leaving the factory, and it's covered by a five-year warranty instead of the usual three-year deal. The Z97X-UD5H-BK also commands a stiff premium; it's selling for $45 more than the standard version right now.

Gigabyte freely admits that its oversized heatsinks are more about marketing than cooling. The UD5H's billboard-like chipset heatsink at least stays out of the way, but the VRM heatsinks crowd the area around the CPU cooler retention holes. Cooler installation can be more difficult as a result, especially if the retention bracket relies on thumbscrews.

The VRM heatsinks should be short enough to avoid bumping into larger aftermarket coolers. Graphics cards installed in the top PCIe x16 slot shouldn't interfere with larger CPU coolers, either, but taller memory modules might get in the way. Like other Haswell boards, the Z97X-UD5H puts the DIMM slots right next to the socket. We can't test compatibility with every combination of cooler and memory, but we've have detailed socket clearance measurements later in the review.

Clearances are sometimes a factor for multi-card graphics configurations, but not on the UD5H. The board can accept three double-wide cards or dual triple-wide beasts. Dual-double-wide setups leave one slot's worth of space between the cards, which should help airflow to the GPU cooler on the first one.

All three x16 slots get their Gen3 connectivity from the CPU. The lanes are split in x16/x0/x0, x8/x8/x0, or x8/x4/x4 configs depending on the number of cards installed. Three-way setups are only supported for CrossFire, though. Nvidia's SLI endorsement only applies to two-card rigs.

The rest of the stack is populated by dual PCIe x1 slots via the Gen2 controller in the Z97 chipset, plus dual PCI slots that connect through a PCIe bridge chip. The M.2 slot in the upper-left corner also connects via the chipset's PCIe interface, through dual lanes reserved exclusively for next-gen storage devices. That 1GB/s link is shared with the SATA Express port on the edge of the board.

The M.2 and SATAe interfaces share the chipset's dedicated storage bandwidth, but the relationship is more of an either/or proposition. Users can choose to run one M.2 PCIe drive or one SATA Express device. Populating the M.2 slot even disables the dual 6Gbps SATA ports in the SATAe connector. A couple of extra SATA ports from an auxiliary Marvell controller pick up the slack, but they're slower than the Z97 ports, and they can't participate in the same driver-managed RAID arrays.

That power connector next to the SATA ports has nothing to do with storage, by the way. It provides a little extra juice to the PCIe x16 slots for power-hungry CrossFire and SLI configs.

Six USB 3.0 ports line the rear cluster, but only two of them are attached directly to the Z97. The rest pass through a four-way hub linked to just one of the Z97's SuperSpeed ports. Folks who are running a lot of high-bandwidth devices will want to avoid those shared ports. Too bad Gigabyte doesn't identify which ones are which. At least the manual clarifies that the front-panel USB 3.0 ports have a direct line to the chipset.

Apart from a DisplayPort out, the rear cluster covers all the important bases. One of the GigE jacks is backed by a tried-and-true Intel chip, while the other is fueled by a Qualcomm Killer NIC with packet prioritization mojo. The Killer NIC exhibits higher CPU utilization (4.2% vs 8.5% during our throughput test), so it's nice to have the Intel alternative.

Like other boards in this price range, the Z97X-UD5H has a high-end Realtek codec, a separate amplifier chip, and isolated traces for the audio circuitry. The Realtek drivers offer speaker virtualization support, but they can't encode multi-channel bitstreams for digital output. We'll discuss the audio in a little more detail in the performance section of the review. There's more ground to cover before we get to that, including some of the UD5H's smaller, builder-friendly features.

The cushioned I/O shield pictured above simplifies motherboard installation while also cutting down on the potential for blood loss. Traditional shields are lined with sharp slivers of metal that can get caught in the rear ports and slice fingers easily.

A bunch of other little touches can be found around the memory slots. The UD5H has onboard buttons for power, reset, and clearing the CMOS. The POST code display is handy for troubleshooting, and there are voltage probing points for obsessive overclockers. Backup firmware chip? Check.

Gigabyte did miss a few important details. Connector blocks are nowhere to be found, making front-panel wiring needlessly difficult. There's no way to cold boot directly into the firmware, a feature we've used frequently on the other Z97 boards we've tested. Also, the system fan headers are all along the bottom edge, leaving the auxiliary CPU_OPT header (pictured in the top-right corner above) as the only convenient place to attach a rear chassis exhaust. These may seem like minor things, but the quirky little details are what increasingly separate the best enthusiast boards from the rest.

The firmware interface is another big differentiation point, so let's tackle that next.