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Gigabyte's Z170X-Gaming 7 motherboard reviewed

Z170 gaming meets Technicolor lighting

The ERA of gaming-flavored everything is upon us, and Gigabyte's motherboards are no exception. The company makes an abundance of boards that combine the Z170 chipset with a full-sized ATX form factor and gaming-friendly features. Gigabyte's 100-series G1 Gaming lineup starts with the entry-level H170-Gaming 3 for $114.99, and it tops out with the ultra high-end Z170X-Gaming G1 at a nosebleed-inducing $499.99.

Today, we're going to look at Gigabyte's Z170X-Gaming 7. At $219.99, the Gaming 7 sits comfortably in the high-end price bracket, and its feature list reflects that fact. Consider its riches: three PCIe x16 slots, two of which hang off the CPU. Dual M.2 slots with four lanes of PCIe Gen3 connectivity each. Three SATA Express ports and two SATA 6Gbps ports. Dual Gigabit Ethernet controllers: one Intel-powered, the other a Killer. Perhaps most unique are the Intel-powered USB 3.1 ports, courtesy of the Alpine Ridge controller. And of course, it's built on the Z170 chipset, with its bevy of USB 3.0 ports, Gen3 PCIe lanes, and support for the NVM Express storage control standard.

The red-and-black color scheme of previous G1 Gaming boards continues with Gigabyte's 100-series products, but Gigabyte has gone for a high-contrast look by adding lots of white, too. The VRM and chipset heatsinks are spruced up with snowy accents, and a large, white plastic shroud adorned with the G1 Gaming logo runs down the left-hand side of the board. The underlying PCB is pure black, and the Gigabyte-exclusive "Durablack" Nippon Chemi-Con capacitors from previous generation boards make an appearance, as well.

That plastic shroud is made up of two separate pieces, the largest of which hangs over the left VRM heatsink and the port cluster. The smaller half sits below, and it's illuminated by the LED Trace Path lighting on the audio section of the board. These pieces are purely cosmetic, so for those who aren't fans of the look, the shrouds can easily be removed using five small screws on the underside of the board. Removing the shrouds could also improve airflow over that left VRM heatsink. We left all of the fancy body kit in place during our testing, though.

Skylake eschews the fully-integrated voltage regulator (FIVR) used by Haswell chips, so it falls to the motherboard's VRMs to supply each of the processor's input voltage rails. The Gaming 7 takes on this challenge with a 12-phase power delivery system hidden under the two VRM heatsinks. These heatsinks are linked with a single heatpipe, and they're both firmly secured to the board with screws, which should ensure that the heatsink makes good contact with the components beneath.

The VRM heatsinks are closer to the CPU socket than we'd like. Thankfully, they're unlikely to cause issues for larger CPU coolers. They're only 29 mm tall at their highest points, and they slope down so that they're even shorter near the socket.

Gigabyte's engineers also put a good amount of distance between the socket and the DDR4 DIMM slots. The company recommends installing DIMMs in the red slots first. For builders who are only installing two sticks, using the red slots gives maximum clearance between the processor's heatsink or water block and the DIMMs. Thanks to DDR4's higher-density modules, up to 64GB of RAM can be installed with all four slots populated. Gigabyte uses slots with locking mechanisms on only one end, which can make life easier when swapping DIMMs in crowded cases.

Since Skylake carries over support for existing LGA1150 cooler mounting mechanisms, our standard caution still applies: if you're using an oversized CPU cooler, be sure to check for adequate clearance around the socket first. Here are some measurements to help you figure out which components can safely fit together on the board:

A PCIe x1 slot in the first expansion slot position puts a healthy amount of room between the CPU socket and the primary PCIe x16 slot. Four fan headers are situated within easy reach of the CPU socket: two CPU fan headers and two more for system fans.

The Z170X-Gaming 7 serves up three PCIe x16 slots. When one graphics card is installed, all sixteen of Skylake's Gen3 PCIe lanes are routed to the left-most x16 slot. Those wanting to partake in some dual-GPU fun should use the left and middle x16 slots. With two cards installed, each one will get eight Gen3 PCIe lanes from the CPU. The third x16 slot on the right in the picture above is fed with four Gen3 lanes. If an SSD is installed in the right M.2 slot above, this x16 slot is disabled, since they both share the same four Gen3 PCIe lanes from the chipset.

This PCIe lane distribution supports two-way SLI setups and, thanks to more lenient bandwidth requirements, up to three-way CrossFire configs. That said, we usually recommend going for the fastest single graphics card you can afford before stepping up to more exotic multi-GPU setups. Peppered around those three x16 PCIe slots, we find three x1 slots fed with Gen3 lanes from the chipset.

The stainless steel shielding on the PCI Express x16 slots isn't just for show. Gigabyte has reinforced these metal shields with extra anchor points on the board. We're told this setup makes the slots 1.7 times stronger in the face of shearing stresses and 3.2 times stronger in retention tests. This setup could help to prevent damage to the slots if you're transporting a system that has a gargantuan video card.

Here's a graphical representation of the Gaming 7's expansion slots that shows how each one is connected to the chipset's PCIe lanes:

The expansion slot layout can handle something as wild as a pair of triple-slot video cards, but in more typical multi-GPU setups, installing a pair of double-slot cards will still allow access to two of the PCIe x1 slots and the rightmost PCIe x16 slot.

Now that we've seen its CPU socket and expansion slots, let's move on to the Gaming 7's storage subsystem.