The market is awash with inexpensive Z97 motherboards, many of them less than $100. One such example is Gigabyte's entry-level Z97-HD3, the most affordable rung on the firm's Z97 ladder. With a $99.99 street price, the Z97-HD3 is $55 cheaper than the Z97X-UD5H that Geoff reviewed almost a year ago. That savings almost equals the cost of an Anniversary Edition Pentium CPU.
Unlike the mid-range UD5H, which is loaded with features, the HD3 is a decidedly budget affair. You don't get multiple flavors of next-gen storage, dual GigE controllers, or other frills. Instead, the board covers the basics and delivers the essential overclocking support provided by the Z97 chipset. Let's take a closer look.
The first thing that strikes us when looking at the Z97-HD3 is how skinny it is. While its length is full-size ATX, its width measures just 7.5" (19 cm), leaving Gigabyte's engineers with 22% less area than a standard-width board. Despite this, the layout doesn't feel overly cramped.
Compared to Gigabyte's higher-end boards, the HD3 presents a more subdued color scheme, with everything clad in either black or gray. If it weren't for splashes of color on the front-panel header and the handful of Nichicon audio capacitors, you'd be forgiven for questioning whether you were looking at the world through grayscale lenses.
Now is a good time to point out that we're testing revision 2.0 of the board. Revision 1.0, while almost identical, has a bling-on-black color scheme with bright gold heatsinks. It also lacks the Nichicon caps and the LED lighting we'll discuss shortly.
The Z97-HD3 positions the VRM components along the top edge of the board rather than between the CPU socket and the rear I/O ports. This arrangement puts more breathing room between the socket's restricted zone and the DIMM slots.
Another byproduct is that the CPU cooler retention holes are close to the rear I/O ports. This proximity could make it difficult to install cooler retention brackets that rely on thumbscrews. That said, we had no issues installing the bracket and large water block of our Cooler Master Nepton 240M liquid cooler. Beefy, tower-style air coolers can be trickier, so we've provided socket clearance measurements below:
Despite the constraints of its slimmer circuit board, the HD3 maintains a healthy distance between the CPU socket and the DIMM slots. The I/O ports are relatively close, but they're also fairly short.
Looking south, the expansion stack leaves plenty of space for dual double-wide graphics cards:
Like most boards in this price range, the Z97-HD3 sends all the Gen3 PCIe lanes from the CPU to a single x16 slot. In this case, it's the one on the left. The x16 slot on the right gets up to four Gen2 lanes from the chipset. While this grants it sufficient bandwidth for CrossFire configs, SLI remains out of reach.
The secondary x16 slot shares PCIe lanes with the two x1 slots. All four lanes can be routed to the x16, which disables the two x1s, or each slot can get one lane apiece. The ASMedia ASM1440 multiplexer next to the CMOS battery handles the lane switching, which is controlled with a firmware option. By default, installing a card in the second x16 slot disables the two x1s.
Two legacy PCI slots round out the expansion stack. They're fed by an iTE bridge chip connected to one of the chipset's PCIe lanes.
Nestled between the two PCIe x16 slots is the low-profile chipset heatsink. With the Z97 dissipating only 4.1W, the handful of fins is more than sufficient. This heatsink, along with the one on the VRMs, is held in place with push-pins.
Continuing the budget theme, the HD3 forgoes next-gen storage in favor of six standard Serial ATA ports. For M.2 and SATA Express support, you'll have to pony up $5 more for Gigabyte's Z97-HD3P.
Be aware that the second graphics card in CrossFire configs may block access to some of the SATA ports. Although this is an unlikely scenario given the board's price range, the issue could have been prevented if the ports were right-angled and placed along the edge.
The lack of DisplayPort isn't unexpected for a board in this price range. Those looking to tap into Haswell's integrated graphics still get VGA, DVI, and HDMI outputs. Folks with discrete cards don't have to worry about the onboard display outputs, of course.
The Z97-HD3's USB payload is fueled entirely by the chipset, without hub chips or third-party controllers. Four of the rear ports are of the SuperSpeed variant, and two more are available via an internal header. The dual USB 2.0 ports in the I/O cluster are complemented by internal headers for six more. As is usual for boards in this price range, the networking and audio is crab-flavored, with Realtek providing the GigE and codec chips.
An ALC887 codec handles audio duties. Although it's not backed by a dedicated amplifier, the codec is paired with Nichicon's high-end MW series audio capacitors, and the audio circuitry is isolated from the rest of the circuit board. The analog output doesn't produce any unwanted feedback or noise at idle or under load, but audiophiles will still want to use a dedicated sound card. They could also opt for the digital S/PDIF output, though the board can't encode multi-channel audio on the fly. As a result, games are limited to stereo output and virtualized surround sound.
To highlight the onboard audio, Gigabyte has added LED lighting that traces the border of the isolated circuitry.
Although a far cry from the light show put on by Gigabyte's X99-UD4, this simple addition gives the Z97-HD3 some personality. If this personality is a little too flamboyant, the LEDs can be disabled via a firmware switch.
Under the DualBIOS moniker, Gigabyte has been fitting its boards with backup firmware chips for years. The Z97-HD3 is no exception, but it lacks a hardware-based shortcut to enter the firmware. This minor inconvenience becomes much more frustrating with the ultra-fast-boot option enabled, where no amount of key-mashing on boot-up will get you into the firmware. At least Gigabyte provides a software solution via its Fast Boot utility, which has a handy "Enter BIOS Setup Now" button that reboots directly into the UEFI.
The Clear CMOS header is located away from other components, making it easy to access. While you can short this header with a screwdriver, as the manual suggests, you can also connect a two-pin momentary switch like those used for chassis power and reset buttons.
When it comes to DIY-friendly features, the Z97-HD3 comes up a little short. Gigabyte doesn't supply front-panel wiring blocks on any of its boards, though it at least color-codes the pins to give you some hints. Unlike the more expensive UD5H, which comes with a cushioned IO shield, the low-end HD3 has to make do with a traditional metal one. The shield's metal tabs can get caught in the rear I/O ports during installation, and its sharp edges may drain you of some of that excess blood we all carry around.
Along the southern edge of the board, where we usually see a Trusted Platform Module header, Gigabyte has chosen to supply both serial and parallel port headers. However antiquated these interfaces may be, they do occasionally come in handy. My trusty HP LaserJet 4, which refuses to die, just paper-jammed with excitement. You still have to source your own port cables, however.
Now, let's check out the firmware...