Storage, ports, and buttons
Our tour of the Gaming 7's storage-connector payload begins in the bottom right-hand corner of the board.
Here we find not one, not even two, but three SATA Express connectors, with two more standard SATA ports thrown in for good measure. The three SATAe ports and their six embedded SATA 6Gbps ports are driven by the Z170 chipset, while the two plain SATA ports come courtesy of an ASMedia ASM1061 controller that's connected to a single PCIe lane from the chipset. In total, the Gaming 7 has eight SATA 6Gbps ports. We would only use the ASMedia-powered SATA ports only if all the others are occupied, though. This auxiliary storage controller is slower than its chipset-based counterpart.
All of these ports are right-angled to make for easier cable insertion with longer graphics cards installed.
The next-gen storage connectivity show continues with two M.2 slots: one on either side of the primary PCIe x16 slot. SSDs installed in the first M.2 slot, labeled M2D, are caught between two potentially large heat producers: the CPU and the primary video card. For systems with multi-GPU setups, drives installed in the second M.2 slot will end up sandwiched between two video cards. This heat could cause some M.2 SSDs to get too toasty—Samsung's SM951 PCIe SSD already throttles itself even without a graphics card in play, for example. We've already noted that if the M.2 slot on the right is populated, the third PCIe x16 slot is disabled. That M.2 slot is labeled M2H.
As for potential storage bandwidth, the two Gen3 lanes that feed each SATA Express connector provide up to 16 Gb/s, while each M.2 slot's four Gen3 lanes are good for up to 32 Gb/s. Those are some impressive numbers, to be sure.
That said, not all of the storage connectivity can be used at once. The Z170 chipset shares its flexible PCIe lanes among different storage ports, which puts some constraints on which ports can be used at the same time. To help explain which ports are unusable in which scenarios, here's a graphical representation of the SATA ports with labels:
Here's how the sharing breaks down. A SATA-based SSD installed in the M2D M.2 slot will disable SATA port 3 and its accompanying SATA Express port, because they both share the same chipset link. Similarly, if you populate the M2H M.2 slot with a SATA-based SSD, SATA port 0 becomes unusable.
The situation becomes even more complicated with PCIe SSDs. A four-lane PCIe-based SSD installed in the M2D M.2 slot will disable all the SATA ports on the bottom row—ports 0 through 3. Enable RAID mode, and you'll lose SATA port 5 and its corresponding SATA Express port, as well. A two-lane PCIe SSD installed in the M2D M.2 slot will disable SATA ports 2 and 3 and the SATA Express port they're embedded in. Enable RAID mode, and you'll lose those two ports along with SATA port 5 and its corresponding SATA Express port.
Since the M2H M.2 slot shares its PCIe lanes with the third PCIe x16 slot, installing a PCIe-based SSD in this slot while the controller is in normal mode doesn't cause you to lose any SATA ports. Like the M2D M.2 slot, though, setting the controller to RAID mode and installing a PCIe-based SSD in the bottom M.2 slot will disable SATA port 5 and its corresponding SATA Express port.
SATA ports 6 and 7 don't have to play by any of these sharing rules, because they're connected to the ASMedia SATA controller.
With those two M.2 slots and the Z170's support for RAID arrays across PCIe SSDs, the Gaming 7 is primed for ludicrous storage bandwidth. Builders may find that the DMI link between the chipset and the processor is the next bottleneck, though. Despite this link's upgrade to PCIe Gen3 speeds (versus the Gen2 speeds used by the DMI2 link of the Z97 chipset), it's still based on just four PCIe lanes, so it has a maximum potential bandwidth of 32 Gb/s (4 GB/s).
The Gaming 7's rear port cluster looks fairly standard at first glance, but several multi-colored USB Type-A ports, a USB Type-C connector, and the gold-plated audio jacks let us know that there's more here than meets the eye.
First up, the two USB 3.0 ports under the PS/2 port are yellow because they feature isolated power. As a result, the 5V output from these connectors may be cleaner than average. Gigabyte claims this isolation results in two times less line noise than regular USB ports. While this feature is included primarily for users with USB DACs, cleaner power in general can hardly be seen as a bad thing. Without the help of an oscilloscope to verify these claims, we'll have to take Gigabyte's word for it. These two ports, along with the three blue USB 3.0 ports, are connected directly to the chipset.
Four more USB 3.0 ports are available by way of two internal headers, although these four ports are connected to a Renesas uPD720210 hub chip fed from one of the Z170 chipset's USB 3.0 ports. Four standard USB 2.0 ports are available via internal headers, too, located at the bottom of the board.
Gigabyte outfits the Z170X-Gaming 7 with both a Type C USB 3.1 port and a Type A USB 3.1 port, decked out in red. Unlike most other motherboard manufacturers, Gigabyte uses Intel's own Alpine Ridge controller for USB 3.1 connectivity rather than an ASMedia chip. Gigabyte endows the controller with a very wide pipe directly to the chipset made up of four Gen3 PCIe lanes offering 32 Gb/s of bandwidth. The Alpine Ridge silicon itself supports both Thunderbolt 3 and USB 3.1, but this implementation uses the chip as a USB 3.1 controller only.
Want a gaming board, but can't decide between a Killer NIC and an Intel GigE controller? Or, maybe you've seen how Killer's chips seem to divide folks and you want to cut through the noise and conduct some tests to decide for yourself? In either case, the Gaming 7 has you covered by providing dual ports: one controlled by a Killer E2400 and the other by an Intel I219-V.
The Killer NIC comes with traffic prioritization software that aims to improve ping times under conditions where multiplayer games are competing with other applications for bandwidth. While packet prioritization is nice in theory, it doesn't help if the network congestion is occurring at some point outside of the PC.
For buyers looking to use Skylake's integrated GPU, the Gaming 7 offers a DisplayPort 1.2 output and an HDMI port. HDMI support comes courtesy of MegaChips' MCDP2800 DP-to-HDMI converter, which supports HDMI 2.0. Folks with discrete graphics cards don't have to worry about the onboard display outputs, of course.
Time for a colorful diagram to graphically tie up all of the above words:
As part of this board's gaming chops, Gigabyte has beefed up the Gaming 7's onboard audio components. Underneath the Sound Core3D-emblazoned EMI shield lies a Creative CA0132 audio chip. This chip contains the audio codec and four independent DSPs that Creative's software stack uses for various voice and audio effects.
Creative's chip runs analog audio through an upgradable op-amp that drives the gold-plated rear audio jacks. An onboard switch adjacent to the op-amp selects between a 2.5x or a 6x audio gain, which can be useful for high-impedance speakers or headphones. High-quality audio capacitors from Nichicon's MUSE MW series, seen above, round out the audio hardware.
All of this hardware adds up to an onboard audio implementation that my pleased my ears. I couldn't hear any interference at system load or idle conditions, and hissing and pops were pleasantly absent.
Over at the bottom right-hand corner of the board we find a first for Gigabyte—a detachable front-panel wiring block, which Gigabyte calls a "G-Connector". This DIY-friendly add-on makes the finicky job of wiring up the front-panel header much more pleasant. It sure beats fumbling with a flashlight in a dimly-lit case.
To the left of the front-panel header are the two SPI flash chips that put the "dual" in Gigabyte's DualBIOS redundant firmware setup. Yes, motherboards may have moved to UEFI-based firmware, but the DualBIOS name is here to stay. Gigabyte's boards have been fitted with backup firmware chips for years, and the Z170X-Gaming 7 is no exception. If for some reason you want to disable DualBIOS functionality, you can do so by moving the switch shown above from position 1 to position 2.
On the topic of firmware, Gigabyte has unfortunately chosen not to endow the Gaming 7 with support for Q-Flash Plus. Although it's not a feature that gets used every day, the ability to update the firmware with nothing more than a USB thumb drive and a power supply can save you from having to borrow a supported CPU to update the board's firmware.
Unlike some of Gigabyte's top-end motherboards, the Gaming 7 lacks a hardware-based shortcut to enter the firmware. This omission is a little irksome. With the ultra-fast-boot option enabled, no amount of key-mashing on boot-up will get you into the firmware. Thankfully, Gigabyte provides a software solution via its Fast Boot Windows utility, which has a handy "Enter BIOS Setup Now" button that reboots directly into the UEFI.
The top right hand corner of the board has buttons. Buttons aplenty. The big red power button shown above illuminates, so it doubles as a handy way to see whether the board is connected to power. To the left of the go button, we have two smaller clickers: a white reset button and a black clear-CMOS button. Finally, a pair of buttons that enable either OC Mode or ECO Mode round out the dedicated controls. Once they're activated, these buttons glow red and green, respectively. To the right of these is a two-digit diagnostic display that shows debug codes when the system boots. This readout can be handy if you're trying to solve issues that occur very early in the boot process.
Voltage monitoring points can be found on the right-hand side of the DIMM slots. While this feature may be of limited use to most builders, it's certainly not a negative to have them included. Speaking of features of limited use, the Gaming 7 also includes a lone serial port header at the bottom of the board. This port and the PS/2 jack on the rear cluster are the only legacy interfaces that the board supports.
Another builder-friendly perk that the Gaming 7 includes is a high-quality cushioned I/O shield. This ain't your daddy's I/O shield, though. Those four wires let the motherboard control the RGB LEDs embedded within. Not only can the Gaming 7 put on a light show, it can do so in seven different colors. For those who can't settle on just one color, it can cycle among all seven, too.
Like Gigabyte's previous incarnations of these lighting effects, three different modes can be selected. Beat mode lights up the I/O shield and LED Trace Path lighting in time with any audio piped through the onboard stereo output. Still mode provides a bright, solid glow, which could also serve the functional purpose of lighting the way to a particular port at the back of your PC. Finally, pulse mode does just as its name suggests—it pulses the color you've chosen. If all of this lighting is too much to stomach, it can be completely disabled, too.
Here's a video that Geoff took showing Gigabyte's "Beat Mode" in action on the X99-UD4:
Now, on to the firmware.