Top-end firmware at low-end prices
The Z97-HD3 has the same UEFI as Gigabyte's other 9-series boards. Users are presented with three firmware interfaces: a novice-friendly Startup Guide, an enthusiast-oriented Smart Tweak UI, and an old-school Classic Mode.
While I won't rehash Geoff's coverage of Gigabyte's 9-series UEFI firmware from our Z97X-UD5H review, I will reiterate some of his gripes.
At first glance, the firmware appears to let users choose between the Smart Tweak and Classic Mode interfaces. Smart Tweak doesn't cover all the available options, though. To adjust platform variables related to storage and I/O, plus CPU features like virtualization, you have to use Classic Mode.
After spending time in the 1080p Smart Tweak UI, having to swap back to Classic Mode's 1024x768 resolution and choppy cursor tracking feels more than a little jarring. It's reminiscent of the feeling one gets when switching between Windows 8's
Metro Modern UI Settings app and the more familiar Control Panel.
Gigabyte's stance is that Smart Tweak is only for overclocking, but the beautiful interface is so good—and so much better than Classic Mode—that it would be nice to have all the options available with the same high-res goodness. Fingers crossed that the current state of Gigabyte's firmware interfaces is an artifact of compressed development schedules rather than a deliberate design choice that will be carried forward in future boards.
Apart from that gripe, the firmware is very pleasant to use. Newbies will appreciate the basic Startup Guide, and seasoned enthusiasts will be right at home with the myriad tweaking options that the Smart Tweak UI affords them.
With software along for the ride
Just as with firmware, the Z97-HD3's suite of tweaking and monitoring software carries over from Gigabyte's other 9-series boards almost unchanged. For full coverage of the Windows software, check out Geoff's Z97X-UD5H review. I'll spend this section of the review focusing on how the HD3's software differs from what's available on that board.
The biggest difference lies with the Easy Tune utility. Folks with keen eyes will notice that the Easy Tune software is missing the 3D Power tab normally found on the left side. The HD3's basic VRM isn't tweakable like the power circuitry on some of Gigabyte's pricier Z97 boards.
Despite losing some power adjustment options, Easy Tune still delivers a full complement of CPU tuning controls.
Although it looks like Easy Tune could be used to tweak individual memory timings for each channel, those UI panes are effectively read-only on the Z97-HD3—you can look but you can't touch. The memory multiplier and XMP profile options work perfectly, though, as does the memory voltage control, which is somewhat confusing located on the Advanced CPU OC tab.
The rest of the HD3's software is the same as on Gigabyte's other 9-series boards. This includes the fan speed controls available through the System Information Viewer utility and the remote management functions in the Cloud Station app.
Cloud Station turns Android and iOS devices into the motherboard's trusty sidekick. Among other functions, it can monitor and tweak system settings. With the Z97-HD3, users can keep tabs on a handful of voltages, fan speeds, and temperatures. It would be nice to have the ability to set alarm thresholds for those variables, but monitoring is a good start. On the tweaking front, the remote app offers pertinent multiplier, clock, and voltage options.
A given Haswell CPU's top stable frequency is mostly determined by the limitations of that particular chip and the cooling method employed. One's choice of motherboard doesn't usually play a large role. It does, however, have a huge impact on whether your overclocking journey is fun and easy, or arduous and painful.
Given the Z97-HD3's price tag, the most likely overclocking candidate is Intel's Pentium G3258 Anniversary Edition. We took that CPU, strapped on Cooler Master's Nepton 240M water cooler, and turned the screws. The Nepton has a 240-mm radiator and $130 asking price, so it's an unlikely mate for a budget chip like the Pentium AE. However, the robust cooler should at least ensure that thermals don't limit our overclock.
We first turned to Gigabyte's firmware. The Smart Tweak UI provides a Performance Upgrade option with five different presets: 20%, 40%, 60%, 80%, and 100%, which correspond to clock speeds of 4.3GHz, 4.4GHz, 4.5GHz, 4.6GHz, and 4.7GHz, respectively. Oddly, those percentages don't correlate with the associated increases over the stock speed of our chip. Perhaps they indicate the proportion of CPU samples that aren't expected to overclock to that level, or maybe Gigabyte is using a branch of mathematics that I'm not familiar with.
With a 20% Performance Upgrade, the firmware supplied our CPU with 1.26V in an attempt to secure stability at 4.3GHz. Unfortunately, this wasn't sufficient, and our test system failed to boot into Windows. At 40%, the board attempted a higher frequency with the same 1.26V, and it again failed to boot into Windows. The 60% option was even more unstable—we couldn't even get into the firmware to check the applied voltage. At this point, we cleared the CMOS and started fresh.
Gigabyte's UEFI provides a second automatic overclocking method, the CPU Upgrade option, but it only has settings for the Core i7-4770K and 4790K. Given the Z97-HD3's budget price, it would have been nice for Gigabyte to provide profiles for less expensive processors, like the Pentium AE and K-series Core i5s.
Using the Core i7 profiles with our Pentium AE produced nothing but BSODs on boot. Just as with the firmware's other auto-overclocker, CPU Upgrade's presets for 4.3GHz and 4.4GHz applied 1.26V to the CPU, which isn't enough for our chip.
At this point, we turned to Gigabyte's Easy Tune application:
Easy Tune complements pre-baked overclocking profiles with an auto-tuning feature that increases clock speeds iteratively, testing stability along the way.
The Light profile tried for 4GHz clock speed, but it didn't supply enough voltage to successfully boot into Windows. The Medium profile gave us 4.2GHz on 1.26V. This combination proved stable, with temperatures maxing out at 64ºC during our Prime95 stress test—and no thermal throttling. The Extreme profile shot for 4.6GHz, which was too much for our Pentium AE to handle. Making it to the Windows desktop was completely off the table, and even booting into the firmware was too much to ask. Once again, it was time to clear the CMOS.
Having exhausted the overclocking profiles, we turned to Easy Tune's auto-tuning feature. Hitting the big red
launch missile start button seemed to kick off the process. A few moments later, though, up popped a dialog box alerting us that the utility was "Unable to find the specified file." Clicking OK seemed to placate the auto-tuner, which proceeded to reboot the system at its chosen speed.
After satisfying itself that the system was stable, the auto-tuner proclaimed victory at 4.2GHz. The 42X multiplier and 100MHz base clock were the same as the Medium profile, but with a higher CPU voltage of 1.376V. Thanks to our Nepton cooler, this combination was stable with no signs of throttling. Temperatures peaked at 76°C during our Prime95 stress test.
While we had some success with the Z97-HD3's auto-overclocking features, they quite often led to instability. This isn't entirely unexpected. In comparison to the Pentium AE that Scott reviewed, my CPU is far more stubborn, with less overclocking headroom and the need for more voltage at its peak. A chip like this is only going to play nicely with the most conservative pre-baked profiles.
Having thoroughly exhausted the board's automatic overclocking features, we turned our attention to manual tuning via the firmware. We started by tweaking the multiplier alone, with all the voltages left at "auto" defaults. Unfortunately, we didn't make it very far. 3.8GHz was stable, but the system rebooted almost instantly under load at 3.9GHz. The firmware's "auto" defaults only fed the CPU a stock 1.068V when we requested a 39X multiplier.
With manual voltage adjustments, we made it to 4.5GHz on 1.43V. Prime95 was stable, with no throttling detected, but our Nepton was feeling the heat, with core temperatures hovering at 84°C. 4.6GHz was out of the question; Prime95 caused reboots no matter what CPU voltage we supplied. We hit the same ceiling on Asus' Z97-P motherboard.
The Z97-HD3 is supposed to detect and recover from boot failures, but that doesn't always happen with unsuccessful overclocking attempts. Overly ambitious overclocks, and particularly those based on Gigabyte's own profiles, put the system into a state where it isn't wasn't stable enough to even enter the firmware. This left us with no choice but to clear the CMOS manually.