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…
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 1024×768 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.
With so many former chipset features now on the CPU die and few alternatives to the third-party peripheral controllers that dominate the scene, we rarely see meaningful performance differences between motherboards fitted with the same components. That said, we still test performance, if for no other reason than to ensure everything is functioning correctly.
Gigabyte’s Z97-HD3 was tested against another budget Haswell board, Asus’ Z97-P. The highlights are below, with the full descriptions of the test system and procedures on the next page.
The Z97-HD3 consistently trails the Z97-P, but only by very small margins. Gigabyte’s entry-level Z97 board pulls out a definitive win in our cold boot tests, though. It gets to the Windows desktop in just 12 seconds, a full three seconds faster than the Asus board.
Unlike performance, power consumption can vary a fair bit from one motherboard model to the next. We measured total system power draw (sans monitor and speakers) at the wall socket with our test system idling for a period of five minutes on the Windows desktop, and then under a full load combining Cinebench rendering with the Unigine Valley graphics demo.
Both boards have modest power circuitry, minimal third-party silicon, and a complete absence of auxiliary storage controllers. As such, it’s unsurprising to see only slight differences in power consumption between them.
The Z97-HD3’s idle power consumption is lower than the Z97-P’s, even when the latter has Asus’ EPU power-saving feature enabled. However, this difference only amounts to a single watt.
The following page is loaded with detailed motherboard specifications, system configurations, and test procedures. If you’re worried that you won’t be able to fully appreciate and absorb all the tables of data with the excitement of the conclusion lingering in the back of your mind, feel free to jump straight to the last page.
We’ve already given you a deep dive on the Z97-HD3’s high points, but for completeness, here’s the full spec breakdown.
|Platform||Intel Z97, socket LGA1150|
|DIMM slots||4 DDR3, 32GB max|
|Expansion slots||1 PCIe 3.0 x16 via CPU
1 PCIe 2.0 x16 via Z97 (x4, shared with x1 slots)
2 PCIe 2.0 x1 via Z97 (shared with second x16 slot)
2 PCI via Z97 and iTE IT8892E PCIe-to-PCI bridge
|Storage I/O||6 SATA RAID 6Gbps via Z97|
|Audio||8-channel HD via Realtek ALC887
Surround virtualization via Realtek drivers
|Ports||1 PS/2 keyboard/mouse
1 VGA via CPU
1 DVI-D via CPU
1 HDMI 1.4a via CPU
4 USB 3.0 via Z97
2 USB 3.0 via internal header and Z97
2 USB 2.0 via Z97
6 USB 2.0 via internal headers and Z97
1 Serial/COM via internal header and iTE IT8620E Super I/O
1 Parallel/LPT via internal header and iTE IT8620E Super I/O
1 Gigabit Ethernet via Realtek RTL8111F
1 analog mic in
5 configurable analog ports (center, rear, side, line in, line out)
|Overclocking||All/per-core Turbo multiplier: 8-80X
Uncore multiplier: 8-80X
CPU gear ratio: 1, 1.25, 1.66, 2.5X
Base clock: 80-266.66MHz
Host/PCIe clock: 80-133.33MHz
GPU clock: 400-4000MHz
DRAM multiplier: 8-29.33X
CPU external override voltage: 1.0-2.4V
CPU voltage: 0.5-1.8V
iGPU voltage: 0.5-1.7V
CPU ring voltage: 0.8-1.8V
System agent voltage: -0.3 – +0.4V
CPU IO analog voltage: -0.3 – +0.4V
CPU IO digital voltage: -0.3 – +0.4V
DRAM voltage: 1.16-2.1V
PCH core voltage: 0.65-1.3V
PCH IO voltage: 1.05-1.9V
|Fan control||1 x CPU (DC and PWM), 2 x SYS (DC and PWM):
Predefined silent, normal, and full speed profiles
Manual profile with five temp/speed points per fan (software)
Manual profile with PWM/°C slope (firmware)
1 x SYS (DC and PWM) with no fan speed control
Our testing methods
As a reward for not skipping this page, you may now feast your eyes upon our test system:
Performance testing and overclocking was carried out on an open-air testbed. We also built the machine up inside Antec’s P380 full tower case, which Jeff reviewed just recently. Here’s what the system looked like assembled and powered on:
We used the following configurations for testing:
|Processor||Intel Pentium G3258 Anniversary Edition|
|Cooler||Cooler Master Nepton 240M|
|Motherboard||Asus Z97-P||Gigabyte Z97-HD3|
|Platform hub||Intel Z97|
|Audio||Realtek ALC891||Realtek ALC887|
|Memory size||8GB (2 DIMMs)|
|Memory type||Adata XPG DDR3 SDRAM at 2400MHz|
|Graphics||Sapphire Radeon HD 7950 Boost with Omega 14.12 drivers|
|Storage||OCZ ARC 100 120GB|
|Power Supply||Cooler Master V750 Semi-Modular|
|Operating System||Microsoft Windows 8.1 Pro x64|
Thanks to Adata, Antec, Cooler Master, and OCZ for providing the hardware used in our test systems. Thanks, also, to the motherboard makers for providing the boards.
We used the following versions of our test applications:
- 7-Zip 9.20 64-bit
- TrueCrypt 7.1a
- Chrome 40.0.2214.115
- x264 r2431
- DiRT Showdown demo
- Fraps 3.5.99
- Cinebench R15
- Unigine Valley 1.0
Some further notes on our test methods:
- All testing was conducted with motherboard power-saving options enabled. These features can sometimes lead to slightly slower performance, particularly in peripheral tests that don’t cause the CPU to kick into high gear. We’d rather get a sense of motherboard performance with real-world configurations, though; we’re not as interested in comparing contrived setups with popular features disabled.
- DiRT Showdown was tested with ultra detail settings, 4X MSAA, and a 1920×1200 display resolution. We used Fraps to log a 60-second snippet of gameplay from the demo’s first race. To offset the fact that our gameplay sequence can’t be repeated exactly, we ran this test five times on each system.
- Power consumption was measured at the wall socket for the complete system, sans monitor and speakers, using a Watts Up Pro power meter. The full-load test combined Cinebench’s multithreaded CPU rendering test with the Unigine Valley DirectX 11 demo running with extreme settings in a 1280×720 window. We reported the peak power consumption during the Cinebench run. Our idle measurement represents the low over a five-minute period sitting at the Windows desktop.
- Our system build was done using all of the hardware components listed in the configuration table above. Completing this process as our readers would allows us to easily identify any pain points that arise from assembling a system with this particular motherboard.
The tests and methods we employed are publicly available and reproducible. All tests except power consumption were run at least three times. Unless otherwise indicated, we reported the median result for each test. If you have questions about our methods, hit our forums to talk with us about them.
The budget Z97 landscape is incredibly crowded. Motherboard manufacturers are vying for your dollars with at least one, if not multiple offerings at slightly different price points. Gigabyte, for example, has six Z97 boards priced at or below $115 on Newegg right now. Among those, the $100 Z97-HD3 is the most affordable ATX model.
Unfortunately, the board has difficulty recovering from overly ambitious overclocks. This issue shouldn’t hinder seasoned tweakers, whose tendency to increase multipliers and voltages gradually should avoid the extremes that bring out the behavior. However, the problem has the potential to frustrate novices, especially since some of the board’s own auto-tuning profiles forced us to reset the CMOS manually.
The Z97-HD3’s lack of M.2 and SATA Express is also disappointing, but both next-gen storage options are available on the HD3P, which otherwise offers the same basic layout and features for only $5 more. Unless you’re really strapped for cash, we think the future-proofing is worth the premium.
Otherwise, the Z97-HD3 is a solid entry-level board that manages to pack in a few perks: a gorgeous firmware interface for overclocking, a second PCIe x16 slot with enough bandwidth for CrossFire configs, and upgraded onboard audio with isolated circuitry, fancy capacitors, and LED lighting. Gigabyte has also kept its eye on future CPUs. All of the company’s Z97 and H97 boards, including the HD3, have already received a firmware update that support upcoming Broadwell chips.
While the Z97-HD3 provides a good foundation for budget-conscious enthusiasts, we recommend spending a little bit more for the HD3P’s expanded storage support. Just be mindful of the limitations. The boards are a better fit for experienced overclockers who intend to boost speeds manually rather than relying on auto tuning options.