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Classic firmware
Gigabyte's previous-generation X99 and Z97 boards shipped with three firmware interfaces: a novice-friendly Startup Guide, an enthusiast-oriented Smart Tweak UI, and an old-school Classic Mode. One of my complaints about this situation was that while Smart Tweak UI was a spiffy looking high-res interface, it only supported overclocking options. To adjust some of the more mundane, platform-level options, you had to head back to Classic Mode.

Now that Gigabyte's 100-series boards are here, I was excited to see whether we would be given a beefed-up Smart Tweak UI that would encompass all of the config options available. That was the optimist inside me. The pessimist expected nothing to change.

It turns out they were both wrong. Behold Classic Mode, in all its 1024x768 glory.

On previous boards, starting the firmware for the first time would drop you into the Startup Guide interface, at which point you could fire up the Smart Tweak UI and set it as the default interface. Hunting around for the hotkey to toggle an interface switch, I came away empty-handed. Gigabyte tells us that they're still working on the Startup Guide and Smart Tweak interfaces for the board. Right now, Classic Mode is the only game in town.

Classic Mode on the Z170X-Gaming 7 is essentially identical to the experience it offers on Gigabyte's X99-based boards, complete with the aesthetic of "I'm a UEFI-based firmware, but I just don't look like one yet." While this look may appeal to those folks who yearn for days gone by, when men were real men, women were real women and small furry creatures from Alpha Centauri firmware interfaces didn't support mouse input, Classic Mode leaves us a little underwhelmed. It also means the firmware lacks any simple interface for newbies.

The most troublesome "feature" of the firmware is that if you enable an XMP profile or change the memory multiplier, the CPU is automagically overclocked by applying the highest turbo multiplier—normally only used if one core is busy—to all turbo states, no matter how many cores are active. For a Core i7-6700K, this tweak means that if more than one core is active, you'll be running at 4.2GHz rather than 4.0GHz. A lot of modern boards play games like these with multipliers, but what makes the Gaming 7's behavior particularly nefarious is that the firmware shows the default non-overclocked Turbo multipliers while actually using the overclocked ones. To make matters worse, there's no single config option, say "Enhanced Turbo," that disables this behavior. Instead, you have to set the four turbo multipliers to their proper values of 42, 40, 40, and 40 manually. Nasty.

Another complaint is that the fan speed controls available in the firmware are extremely lacking. Gigabyte only gives us predefined profiles for silent, normal, and full fan speeds, or a manual option where a PWM/°C slope can be adjusted.

That's a shame, especially considering that the software-based controls that we'll examine in the next section are so good.

Apart from these gripes, the firmware interface definitely has enough knobs and dials to satisfy all but the most hardcore tweakers. A smorgasbord of multipliers, voltages, timings, and power and voltage regulator settings is available. There's even a full complement of integrated graphics slice and unslice options.

Given that Classic Mode was the only firmware interface that allowed access to all of the possible configuration options, I understand the decision to prioritize development effort here. But I do hope it doesn't take Gigabyte's firmware engineers too long to complete the Smart Tweak UI and Startup Guide interfaces. Having just the Classic Mode interface makes the UEFI feel dated—more dated than a modern Z170 board should be.

Fresh software
Gigabyte's software stack has gotten a complete makeover for the 100-series boards. It's also grown, with new utilities alongside the familiar staples. As has been the case with Gigabyte's Windows software for the last couple of generations, the various utilities live within the Gigabyte App Center, and there's a lot of them to go over.

Let's start with Easy Tune. This utility has been a part of Gigabyte's software offerings for well over fifteen years. It's changed a lot in that time, and it's gotten a lot better than the very early days. Yet it still performs the same role it always has: to let users tweak their systems from the comfort of the Windows desktop.

Gigabyte has completely remodeled Easy Tune's user interface. Gone is the old black theme, replaced by a clean white look. Along the top of the window, five buttons toggle between the utility's various functions. Real-time stats line the bottom of the window, showing current CPU speed, memory frequency and GPU frequency, alongside the motherboard model and firmware version.

Easy Tune provides three pre-baked tuning profiles: ECO, Default, and OC. Enabling the OC profile gives a 4.4GHz clock speed by setting all Turbo multipliers to 44x. Default, unsurprisingly, returns the CPU frequencies to their stock values. ECO presumably puts the system into a more power-efficient state. We didn't measure any difference in power consumption with ECO mode enabled, however. The ECO and OC profiles in Smart Boost are the software counterparts to the onboard buttons of the same name.

The Advanced CPU overclocking tab gives access to individual core multipliers, the base clock speed, and voltages for the CPU, memory, and chipset. Settings can be applied to two profiles, and the profiles themselves can be saved and loaded as XML files.

The Advanced DDR overclocking tab allows for changes to the memory frequency multiplier, as well as enabling or disabling an XMP profile. Individual memory timings are displayed, but they can't be altered.

Advanced Power gives control over load-line calibration for both the CPU cores and the integrated graphics, and this setting can be toggled between Standard and High. Values can be keyed in directly for the various configuration options, too, which can speed up the tweaking process for power users. Finally, the Hotkey function allows builders to associate hotkeys with the two profiles on the Advanced CPU overclocking tab, as well as one saved profile of your choice.

System Information Viewer provides a lot more functionality than its humble name suggests. This utility provides real-time hardware monitoring and recording of system voltages, temperatures, and fan speeds. System alerts can be created based on key voltages, temperatures and fan speeds. The software will then warn the user if these parameters deviate from the defined range.

System Information Viewer is also your go-to app for fan speed controls. The user can configure an ideal fan response curve here by adjusting five points on a graph of "fan workload" (or speed) versus CPU temperature. There's also a calibration function that ensures each fan has an accurate profile by measuring the actual speed ranges of the fans connected to the board.

A fixed-RPM mode, as its name suggests, spins the fan at a constant RPM—at least until CPU temperatures reach 70°C, at which time the fans will run at full speed. Gigabyte also bakes in a handful of pre-defined profiles for quiet, standard, performance and full speed fan operation, which round out the available fan speed control options. All in all, this fan control functionality is excellent, and miles ahead of what's available for fan speed controls in the Gaming 7's firmware. Hopefully, we'll see this level of control migrate to the firmware in future Gigabyte boards.

Gigabyte's 3D OSD is a handy little utility that can overlay real-time stats like the CPU and GPU load, temperatures, and frequencies, along with an FPS counter and more, on games.

Modern motherboards often include a mobile app for one's smartphone. Like Gigabyte's 9-series boards, the Z170X-Gaming 7 supports Cloud Station, Gigabyte's entry into the smartphone app race.

With Cloud Station Server running on the host system, the mobile Cloud Station app turns an Android or iOS device into your motherboard's trusty sidekick. It can monitor and tweak system settings, among other functions. With the Z170X-Gaming 7, the tuner options let users modify settings like the memory speed, CPU multiplier, and some pertinent voltages, while the monitoring options let users keep an eye on a handful of voltages, fan speeds, and temperatures. It would be nice to have the ability to set alarm thresholds and notifications for those variables, but simple monitoring is a good start.