Gigabyte’s Z170X-Gaming 7 motherboard reviewed

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.

 

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.

Got that?

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.

 

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 1024×768 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.

 

Overclocking

A given processor’s maximum stable frequency is mostly determined by the limitations of the particular chip on hand and the CPU cooler one straps on top. Still, whether your particular CPU is the golden child of the wafer or the runt of the litter, you want a motherboard that makes the process of finding out as painless as possible.

We put Gigabyte’s Z170X-Gaming 7 through its paces using our Core i7-6700K CPU, cooled with Cooler Master’s Nepton 240M. The Nepton has a 240-mm radiator and a $110 asking price, so it’s probably at the high end of the range of coolers that might be seen in a system built around the Gaming 7. That said, it should do a good job of keeping our four Skylake cores from feeling the heat as we push clock speeds as far as they can go.

We first turned to Gigabyte’s firmware. Advanced Frequency Settings, under the M.I.T. menu, 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. No matter. I didn’t have to understand how the options were named—I merely had to use them.

With a 20% Performance Upgrade, the firmware supplied our CPU with 1.32V. All Turbo multipliers were set to 43x and the base clock remained at 100MHz. This amount of voltage seemed a bit heavy-handed for only a 300MHz overclock, but this collection of settings was completely stable in our Prime95 stress test. We saw no signs of any throttling and temperatures maxed out at 78° C.

Our quest for more speed brought us back to the Performance Upgrade firmware option, this time for a 40% upgrade. Rebooting into Windows, we found that the firmware was still supplying 1.32V to the processor, while Turbo multipliers were set to 44x. Our Prime95 torture test was completely stable at 4.4GHz, and the Nepton was keeping temperatures in check with a maximum of 80° C. We repeated this same process with the 60% and 80% Performance Upgrade options and both were stable for our Prime95 run with clock speeds of 4.5GHz and 4.6GHz, respectively. The board supplied 1.32V to our processor in both cases. Temperatures rose slightly here, with maximums of 82° C and 85° C during the Prime95 run. In both cases we were free from any thermal throttling.

Things weren’t as rosy for the 100% Performance Upgrade option, however. In an attempt to secure a stable 4.7GHz clock speed, the firmware supplied our chip with 1.332V. Prime95 instantly spat out errors regardless, leaving our hopes of attaining 100% of something dashed.

In our attempt to leave no overclocking stone unturned, we moved on to the firmware’s CPU Upgrade option. This second automatic overclocking method has settings for the Core i5-6600K and Core i7-6700K. We tried all three of the pre-baked profiles for the Core i7-6700K: 4.4GHz, 4.5GHz and 4.6GHz. All three set the Turbo multipliers to 44x, 45x, and 46x, and all three fed the CPU with 1.32V. Unsurprisingly, given our previous testing, these settings were completely stable in our Prime95 test with no signs of throttling.

At this point, we turned to Gigabyte’s Easy Tune application. Easy Tune complements a pre-baked overclocking profile with an auto-tuning feature that increases clock speeds bit by bit, testing stability along the way.

Enabling Easy Tune’s OC profile, or pressing the onboard OC button, gave us a 4.4GHz clock speed at 1.32V. This combo was completely stable in our Prime95 stress test. It also yielded the same configuration as the 4.4GHz CPU Upgrade firmware option. Enabling Easy Tune’s OC profile also caused the OC button to illuminate.

Next, we tried Easy Tune’s auto-tuning feature. Once we clicked through the obligatory warning screen, it popped up a 30-second countdown timer. After debating whether I should make some popcorn during the remaining 27 seconds, the auto-tuner kicked off. The utility started out at 4.5GHz and steadily increased clock speed in 100MHz increments, running stress tests at each point along the way. During the stress test for 4.9GHz, the test system BSODed and rebooted. On re-entry into Windows, Easy Tune greeted us with an Auto Tuning completion window to let us know what it had achieved.

Despite the heady clock speeds that we saw during the auto tuning process, the final result was 4.4GHz, with all turbo multipliers at 44x, and a core voltage of 1.32V. This somehow equated to 26% of something. Testing with Prime95 showed the system to be perfectly stable with no throttling, and CPU temperatures peaked at 81 °C. For those curious, the whole process lasted only a few minutes—not really enough time to get through a bag of popcorn anyway.

After thoroughly exhausting the board’s automatic overclocking features, we turned our attention to manual tuning in firmware. We started by tweaking the multiplier alone, with all the voltages at “auto.” We got all the way to 4.6GHz this way using a 46x multiplier with the standard 100MHz base clock. At this speed, the firmware was supplying our CPU with 1.32V. This config proved to be stable during the Prime95 run. We saw no signs of throttling, and temperatures topped out at 85° C.

Kicking things up a notch, we turned to manual voltage adjustments. With this extra level of control, we made it to 4.7GHz on 1.38V. Prime95 was completely stable with no throttling, but our Nepton was feeling the heat, with CPU temperatures topping out at 97 °C.

4.8GHz was out of the question. Prime95 found errors on one of the worker threads instantly.

This final 4.7GHz result is 100MHz higher than what we achieved on Asus’ Z170-A, so things are right where they’re supposed to be for multiplier overclocking on this CPU and cooler combination.

Z170-based boards feature a revised reference clock architecture that decouples the PCIe and DMI bus speeds from the base clock. This setup allows one to tweak the base clock without having to worry about running other system devices out of spec. While it’s much easier to overclock using multipliers alone, we ran a quick test to see how the Gaming 7 fared when overclocking with base clock tuning.

Feeling overly confident after achieving 4.7GHz on our Core i7-6700K, we tried for a 150MHz base clock, leaving everything else on “auto”. We quickly ended up in the board’s boot failure guard. After some trial-and-error, we found the missing piece: we couldn’t leave the memory multiplier on “auto.” Instead, we needed to reduce it to keep our DDR4 DIMMs humming along at or near 3GT/s. Once we’d worked out this snag, overclocking by increasing the base clock was smooth sailing.

One reboot and a few clicks later, our CPU was sitting at 4.2GHz using a 200MHz base clock. Ignore the CPU voltage in CPU-Z, though. I’m not sure what was up with its ability to monitor core voltages on the Gaming 7, but the figure was all over the place. Thankfully, Gigabyte’s own monitoring tools were accurate.

A 250MHz base clock was out of the question, though—that setting caused an immediate POST failure. As for 233MHz, we were greeted with the firmware splash screen, but the system got stuck at the very early stages of the Windows boot process. Still, a doubling of the base clock is impressive.

Overall, overclocking on the Z170X-Gaming 7 was a breeze. The pre-baked profiles in the firmware worked surprisingly well, and they left only 100MHz of clock speed on the table for our particular chip. This last morsel of speed was easily achieved using manual tuning through the firmware. Easy Tune’s auto tuning feature also provided a stable, although somewhat conservative, automatic overclock. While I would have liked to have control over the stress tests that the auto-tuner uses, I’m glad it erred on the conservative side.

Now that we’ve had our fun with tweaking, let’s see how the Gaming 7’s performance stacks up.

 

Performance highlights

Since many chipset functions now reside on the CPU die, and considering that there’s only a handful of third-party peripheral controllers out there these days, we rarely see meaningful performance differences between motherboards anymore. That said, we still test system performance when we review motherboards, if for no other reason than to ensure everything is functioning correctly.

When it comes to testing motherboard performance, we’ve usually gathered benchmark results using the CPU’s peak stock memory multipliers. Since DDR4 is so new, however, and Skylake’s 2133MHz maximum stock DDR4 speed is so conservative, we’ve continued a practice we began with our X99 reviews. We test our Z170 boards with the memory clocked at the highest speed we can attain while keeping the CPU at its stock clocks.

We tested Gigabyte’s Z170X-Gaming 7 against Asus’ Z170-A and MSI’s Z170A Gaming M5. All the boards were able to clock our DDR4 DIMMs up to 3000MHz while maintaining stock CPU clocks, so the results below were gathered with these settings.

Gigabyte’s Z170X-Gaming 7 mostly matches the performance of its two rivals, sometimes tying for the top, sometimes splitting the difference between its competitors. The one exception was our gaming test, where it’s approximately 2% slower than the other two Z170 boards we’ve tested. With small differences like these, though, it feels a little pedantic to call out one board over the other. Boot times are similarly close:

Power consumption

Unlike our performance results, one’s choice of motherboard can have a notable impact on power consumption. 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 at the Windows desktop. We then repeated the test under a full load of Cinebench rendering with the Unigine Valley demo running at the same time.

While Gigabyte’s board is the most efficient at idle, besting the Asus by 5W and the MSI by 9W, that advantage shrinks under load, where its power draw falls between the two competitors. These deltas are too small to have a dramatic impact on system temperatures and noise levels inside a typical desktop rig.

The following page is loaded with detailed motherboard specifications, system configurations, and test procedures. There’s a lot of data there, but you’ll get a breather between tables with a couple of pictures of our test system. If you feel the conclusion calling, remember you can always go back and soak in those tables of data afterwards.

 

Detailed specifications

Sit back, grab some popcorn, and be prepared to take in all the tables and bullets below. We’ve already gone over the Z170X-Gaming 7’s most important details, but for completeness, here’s the full spec breakdown.

Platform Intel Z170, socket LGA1151
DIMM slots 4 DDR4, 64GB max
Expansion slots 2 PCIe 3.0 x16 via CPU (x16/x0 or x8/x8)

1 PCIe 3.0 x16 via Z170 (x4, shared with second M.2 slot)

3 PCIe 3.0 x1 via Z170

Storage I/O 3 SATA Express via Z170

2 SATA 6Gbps (ASMedia ASM1061)

2 M.2 up to type 2280 from the Z170 chipset (SATA and PCIe)

Audio 2/5.1-channel HD via Creative Sound Core3D (CA0132 chip)

TI Burr-Brown OPA2134 op-amp (upgradable)

Support for Creative Alchemy and Sound Blaster Recon3Di

Wireless NA
Ports 1 PS/2 keyboard/mouse via iTE IT8628E Super I/O

1 DisplayPort 1.2 via CPU

1 HDMI 2.0 via CPU (and MegaChips MCDP2800)

5 USB 3.0 via Z170

2 USB 3.1 (1 Type A and 1 Type C) via Intel Alpine Ridge USB 3.1

4 USB 3.0 via internal header and Renesas uPD720210 hub chip connected to Z170

4 USB 2.0 via internal headers and Z170

1 Gigabit Ethernet via Killer E2400

1 Gigabit Ethernet via Intel I219-V

1 Serial/COM via internal header and iTE IT8628E Super I/O

1 line in/mic in

4 analog out ports (front, center, rear, headphone)

1 digital S/PDIF out

Overclocking All/per-core Turbo multiplier: 8-127X

Uncore ratio: 8-127X

Base clock: 80-500MHz

CPU graphics slice ratio: 10.00-30.00X

CPU graphics unslice ratio: 10.00-30.00X

System memory multiplier: 8.00-41.33X

CPU voltage: 0.6-1.80V

CPU graphics voltage: 0.6-1.50V

CPU IO voltage: 0.8-1.30V

CPU system agent voltage: 0.8-1.30V

CPU core PLL overvoltage: +15-+225mV

DRAM voltage: 1.0-2.0V

PCH core voltage: 0.8-1.30V

Fan control 1 x CPU (PWM), 1 CPU_OPT (DC), 3 x SYS (DC)

Predefined silent, normal, and full speed profiles (firmware)

Manual profile with PWM/°C slope (firmware)

Predefined quiet, standard, performance, and full speed profiles (Windows software)

Smart Fan Mode profiles with five temp/speed points per fan (Windows software)

RPM Fixed Mode to set fan speed at a fixed RPM (Windows software)

Our testing methods

As a reward for making it this far, you may now gaze upon our test system:

Performance testing and overclocking were carried out on an open-air testbed. We also installed the machine in Antec’s P380 full tower case, which Jeff reviewed a while back. Here’s what the system looked like assembled and powered on:

We used the following configurations for testing:

Processor Intel Core i7-6700K
Cooler Cooler Master Nepton 240M
Motherboard Gigabyte Z170X-Gaming 7 MSI Z170A Gaming M5 Asus Z170-A
Firmware F5e 1.20 0601
Platform hub Intel Z170
Chipset drivers 10.1.1
Audio Creative Sound Core3D (CA0132) Realtek ALC1150 Realtek ALC892
Memory size 8GB (2 DIMMs)
Memory type Corsair Vengeance LPX DDR4 SDRAM at 3000MHz
Memory timings 16-18-18-39-2T
Graphics Sapphire Radeon HD 7950 Boost with Catalyst 15.7 drivers
Storage OCZ ARC 100 120GB
Power Supply Cooler Master V750 Semi-Modular
Case Antec P380
Operating System Microsoft Windows 8.1 Pro x64

Thanks to Antec, Cooler Master, Corsair, 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:

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, which we ran with extreme settings in a 1280×720 window. We then recorded 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 performed 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.

 

Conclusions

There’s a lot to like about Gigabyte’s Z170X-Gaming 7. The board makes full use of the resources the Z170 chipset offers. Plenty of next-gen storage connectivity, thoughtfully spaced PCIe 3.0 slots, dual Gigabit Ethernet controllers from Killer and Intel, and Creative onboard audio with an upgradable op-amp make for quite the feature-packed board. Those PCIe slots are reinforced with metal shielding to prevent damage from stress and strain, and Gigabyte’s customizable LED lighting spices up the Gaming 7’s already spiffy appearance. Gigabyte also has us rejoicing by including a front-panel cable block.

There are some negative points, though. Right now, the Gaming 7’s firmware only offers Gigabyte’s Classic Mode interface. While it’s certainly functional, this UI leaves a lot to be desired. Its 1024×768 resolution and general style make the board seem dated. This situation will hopefully change when Gigabyte finishes work on the Startup Guide and Smart Tweak interfaces. What may not change, however, is the firmware’s fan speed controls—or lack thereof. Gigabyte’s Windows software has such excellent fan speed controls that it’s a real shame the UEFI-based fan tools are so limited.

Even so, overclocking our Core i7-6700K on the Gaming 7 was a breeze, and we even managed to best the overclocking results from our previous Z170 motherboard reviews by as much as 200MHz. That’s a pretty significant margin based on a motherboard change alone. The board’s most unique feature—its Intel Alpine Ridge USB 3.1 controller—is something we sadly haven’t had a chance to properly put to the test yet. If Intel’s controller produces a measurable performance gain over competing USB 3.1 controllers, its inclusion here could certainly push the Z170X-Gaming 7 towards the top of many folks’ wish lists.

At $219.99, the Z170X-Gaming 7 does ask more of builders’ wallets than other gaming-focused boards. If you’re after a top-end mobo with Intel’s Alpine Ridge USB 3.1 controller hooked up to four PCIe Gen3 all its own, the Gaming 7 is a good choice. For those on a more modest budget who still want Alpine Ridge, Gigabyte’s own Z170X-Gaming 5 could also be a compelling option for $169.99. Some important differences between the Gaming 7 and the Gaming 5 are that the Gaming 5’s Alpine Ridge controller is fed with only two Gen3 PCIe lanes from the chipset, and the Gaming 5 uses a Realtek ALC1150 audio codec rather than its fancier cousin’s Creative audio solution. Still, it retains many of its beefier brother’s fancy features for those who can’t shell out 220 clams.

Comments closed
    • ol1bit
    • 4 years ago

    Great Review! My G7 is on it’s way, and 6700k, + 32GB ram.

    Time to replace My Bloomdale 950 on my Asus SaberTooth X58, that system is going to my 13 year old son. Lucky Boy, as it’s still fairly fast.

    • CuriouslySane
    • 4 years ago

    [quote<]A four-lane PCIe-based SSD installed in the M2H M.2 slot will disable all the SATA ports on the bottom row—ports 0 through 3.[/quote<] I think this is incorrect. Page 32 of the [url=http://download.gigabyte.us/FileList/Manual/mb_manual_ga-z170x-gaming7_e.pdf<]manual[/url<] shows that M2H doesn't interfere with any of the chipset SATA in AHCI mode except for #0 when a SATA M.2 drive is installed. It's the M2D (closest to the CPU) slot that has all the exceptions, most notably--as you called out--that in x4 mode 4 of the SATA ports are disabled. But props for even trying to explain the whole mess in the first place. It's actually only through reading this review that I was able to finally understand what the official manual was saying. Honestly, the list of compromises with these boards is bad enough, but the process of identifying them is excruciating. I wish there were a standard way of concisely expressing these specifications. Manufacturers are eager to tell you how many ports and options they have, but less so to detail exactly how they can (or can't) all be used together.

      • loophole
      • 4 years ago

      Good pick up! That ‘H’ was supposed to be a ‘D’. I’ve made that change now.

      Things certainly do get convoluted trying to understand all the sharing between ports and slots. With great [s<]power[/s<] chipset flexibility comes great [s<]responsibility[/s<] confusion 😉 I really wanted a diagram, but couldn't come up with something that was markedly better than that wall of text. I'll keep trying. Thanks for the correction!

    • continuum
    • 4 years ago

    Was Alpine Ridge’s performance done in a different review, or did I miss it in this review?

      • loophole
      • 4 years ago

      No, you didn’t miss it. We haven’t had a chance to test Alpine Ridge yet.

    • Freon
    • 4 years ago

    Thanks for providing another Z170 board review. I’m still wading through options so this definitely helps my thought process.

    I like the m.2 placement. At least the second slot is a bit below the primary GPU slot, so it seems it has a fighting chance–maybe some room for an aftermarket heat spreader if nothing else.

    The m.2 / SATA tradeoffs are almost mind numbing, but it makes me think that third party add-on SATA controller might be a nice-to-have as I try to look over dual m.2 boards.

    I think I want to find this board but without the Killer NIC and with the standard ALC1150 chip… Maybe the UD5?

      • auxy
      • 4 years ago

      Killer NIC is no big deal, you can load the regular Atheros driver and it works great. I’m doing that now on my own “killer NIC”. It’s just a AR8161. (*‘ω‘ *)

    • brothergc
    • 4 years ago

    sorry but I would prefer a board without all the bling , and that color sceme , eek ! drop the white . I am sure that some will like it as looks are subjective .
    but I buy a board for what is ment to do , be a motherboard , not a christmas ornament LOL !

      • Chrispy_
      • 4 years ago

      Does all the plastic shrouding bling actually do anything other than raise the price of the board?

      It’s not for cooling and it doesn’t seem to be protecting anything; 100% superfluous waste of money and clearly not everyone even likes the look of it.

      • Deanjo
      • 4 years ago

      It would look right at home in a NZXT case.

      [url<]https://www.nzxt.com/product/detail/34-phantom.html[/url<]

    • webkido13
    • 4 years ago

    Excellent review. I got this board along with a i7-6700k about two weeks ago and can confirm everything written. I was surprised not to find fan controls in the firmware, but the supplied software is excellent so that is not a negative point for me. The board has been rock-solid and a pleasure to work with.

    Interestingly enough, i7-6700k prices have increased so I managed to get a “deal” at about USD340 at the current exchange. Right now prices are around USD370.

    • auxy
    • 4 years ago

    [quote=”the article”<]There are some negative points, though. Right now, the Gaming 7's firmware only offers Gigabyte's Classic Mode interface. While it's certainly functional, this UI leaves a lot to be desired. Its 1024x768 resolution and general style make the board seem dated. This situation will hopefully change when Gigabyte finishes work on the Startup Guide and Smart Tweak interfaces. What may not change, however, is the firmware's fan speed controls—or lack thereof. Gigabyte's Windows software has such excellent fan speed controls that it's a real shame the UEFI-based fan tools are so limited.[/quote<]Really? This is a negative? (´・ω・`) Does ANYONE ever use the "basic mode" or "fancy mode" or (as I like to call it) "casual mode" of these new UEFI mainboards? I always find myself changing it to "advanced" or "classic" mode immediately. Well, maybe it is just a matter of familiarity. ('ω')

      • derFunkenstein
      • 4 years ago

      I’ve got a Z170A Krait Gaming, and it seems MSI’s firmware is quite a bit different from Gigabyte’s. A singular, unified interface with all the easy stuff at the top and quite a bit to dig through down below. I don’t know that it’s any “better” or “worse” than Gigabyte’s, but it’s at least different. The fan speed controls contained within the firmware are a far sight better than what Mark writes about here, too.

        • auxy
        • 4 years ago

        I’ve used motherboards from every vendor on recent platforms and I have yet to see any advancements in firmware/UEFI control that I would actually want. I mean it seems like the old AMIBIOS configuration screen had it pretty darn well in hand; I don’t know that there are a lot of changes to be made really. I guess they have to do something to differentiate themselves, though. (;’∀’)

          • derFunkenstein
          • 4 years ago

          Yeah, I guess nothing is really definitively better all-around. The fan controls in the MSI are a [url=https://techreport.com/review/28938/msi-z170a-gaming-m5-motherboard-reviewed/3<]nice addition[/url<], though. I also like that when you hit F10 to reboot, it tells you exactly what's changed and what it was.

            • auxy
            • 4 years ago

            That’s kinda neat! Although old systems of yore used to do that too by listing all the vital specs every time you rebooted. I kinda miss that old ASCII box o’ info. Hehe. (*‘ω‘ *)

            Fan controls, huh. There are people who don’t just leave all the fans at 100%? ( *´艸`)

            • derFunkenstein
            • 4 years ago

            lol yeah I like to keep things low to keep the system quiet. Because my old build didn’t have those automatic controls, all my case fans are plugged into the 3-way switch on the Define R4. I keep it turned down until it’s time to play, and then flip it to the high position. It’s not THAT loud but you can hear it when recording acoustic instruments or vocals on sensitive microphones.

      • Krogoth
      • 4 years ago

      I don’t understand it either.

      It is just an UI that barely gets any use. You only need to use it when you start up the system or tweaking a setting or two.

      A simple and non-sense UI makes the most sense. Leave the eye candy for your OS and applications.

      • flip-mode
      • 4 years ago

      The lack of BIOS fan controls is a negative for sure.

      As for various interface modes – I’d rather they just provide a single mode and then polish the hell out of it.

        • auxy
        • 4 years ago

        Why polish? I find too much polish often makes software dramatically less usable, like compare EVGA Precision X and MSI Afterburner to the old Rivatuner. They’re absolute clusterf–ks, UI-wise.

        Just gimme a box full’o text with toggles and text input boxes, geez. (/・ω・)/

        • Krogoth
        • 4 years ago

        Fan controllers enthusiast get a real hardware controller.

        Personally, I never understood the appeal of fan controllers. If you want near-silence. Just get large, low-RPM units with a decent chassis and be done with it. The loudest part in a modern system build is the HSF on your performance GPU when it is loaded.

          • f0d
          • 4 years ago

          ok what fan controller would YOU recommend?
          i have tried loads of fan controllers and there are very few options

          your basic external fan controller (5.25/3.5 bay etc)
          -can not control fans based on CORE cpu temp
          -requires messy temp sensors to be placed in areas around your motherboard
          -limited auto fan control (for example its either minimum or maximum rpm depending on temp)

          newer advanced controllers like the corsair commander mini (which i have)
          -limited products to chose from at a decent price (as far as i know the only ones are aquacomputer / nzxt / corsair)
          -corsairs software is borked, you can only control fans on one of its external temp sensors, the software forgets things all the time like how you want the fan to ramp etc
          -nzxt’s controls all the fans at once so if you plug in 4 fans then all 4 fans will ramp the same way
          -aquacomputer’s controller is great but massively expensive

          good motherboard fan controller
          -can control fans depending on a wide variety of motherboard and cpu sensors
          -can ramp up smoothly/gradually from min to max rpm
          -no need for messy sensors
          -usually has better software than the advanced controller (even though we are talking about bios fan controls i thought i would throw this in anyways)

          i like a good fan control so i can have both a quiet computer and a high performance/high overclocked beast all in one (5ghz 3930k – massive watercooling [url<]https://techreport.com/forums/viewtopic.php?f=16&t=108775)[/url<] with low rpm fans i cant have the performance and with high rpm fans its too noisy all the time with decent fan controls i have the best of both worlds but then again krogoth will be krogoth

          • insulin_junkie72
          • 4 years ago

          [quote<]Fan controllers enthusiast get a real hardware controller. [/quote<] I think you're a couple of years out-of-date on that statement. While once true, the SPCR-type crowd has moved on, with ASUS boards generally having had the lead in that area the last few years.

            • auxy
            • 4 years ago

            I have a real hardware fan controller. I think you’re mistaken. (‘ω’)

    • omf
    • 4 years ago

    Anyone heard anything about when the Thunderbolt-enabled GA-Z170X-UD5 TH is showing up in stores?

    • anotherengineer
    • 4 years ago

    The TL;DR

    It’s white and red, you know it’s going to be awesome just because of those colors 😉

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