Along with Intel’s unveiling of its full Kaby Lake product family this morning, Intel’s 200-series chipsets are also making their debut on a raft of motherboards from all the major players. Gigabyte isn’t just introducing new 200-series motherboards this morning, though. It’s using this opportunity to launch its Aorus motherboard brand. Aorus will serve a role in Gigabyte’s motherboard lineup that’s similar to Asus’ Republic of Gamers boards. That means lots of RGB LED lighting, sleek aesthetic touches, and gaming software pack-ins.
The Aorus (say or-rus) motherboard lineup will offer several boards to start with, and we’re saying hello by looking at the $195 Z270X-Gaming 5. This raptor will sit at the base of the Aorus lineup, but it comes with many of the same features as its fancier brethren. That includes a multi-zone RGB LED lighting system that Aorus calls “RGB Fusion.” The accompanying RGB Fusion software can apply a dizzying array of colors and effects to these LEDs, and the pickiest RGB LED fans can even customize different regions of the board to display individual color and animation schemes.
Aorus motherboards also get a major fan-control upgrade. The Gaming 5 (and all other Aorus boards) will come with what the company calls “hybrid fan headers.” These plugs can auto-detect three- and four-pin fans or liquid-cooling pumps and adjust power delivery and speed control accordingly for those devices. This fan-header versatility is often luck-of-the-draw with any given motherboard, so we’re happy to see Aorus boards trumpeting it loud and clear. All five system fan headers on the Gaming 5 will feature this multi-modal intelligence.
With all those RGB LEDs providing visual punch, Gigabyte’s stylists wisely stuck to a neutral palette for the Aorus family. The plastic fascias over the board’s audio circuitry and I/O port block are covered in a fancy matte white finish that subtly reveals a faceted design in the right light. The board’s VRM and chipset heatsinks boast black, white, and silver accents in an eye-catching design that isn’t at all tacky. All this classy-looking jewelry will likely be hard to appreciate inside a case, but it sure looks nice outside of a box. Gigabyte secures the board’s heatsinks with screws for an extra-solid feel.
Kaby Lake CPUs stick to the external voltage-regulation circuitry that made its return with Z170 boards, and Gigabyte’s engineers outfitted the Z270X-Gaming 5 with an appropriately beefy 11-phase system that rings the CPU socket. Gigabyte doesn’t make any particular claims about the lifespan or provenance of the Gaming 5’s power-delivery hardware, but 11 power phases should be more than adequate for a motherboard of this class.
Kaby CPUs also drop into the same LGA 1151 socket that underpinned Skylake, so closely-packed DIMM slots and VRM heatsinks could cause issues with massive tower coolers. The capacitors and chokes that ring the socket are all low-profile enough that our Cooler Master and Corsair liquid coolers had no problems getting comfortable. To give builders a sense of how their hardware will or won’t fit the Z270X-Gaming 5, we’ve taken measurements at a variety of points around the socket to create the illustrations below.
Thanks to the Z270 chipset, the Gaming 5 feeds its PCIe slots, M.2 connectors, and U.2 connector entirely with Gen3 connectivity. Each of the board’s x16 slots is metal-reinforced to prevent damage during transport with an expansion card installed. Even with four additional PCIe 3.0 lanes to play with from the chipset, however, some of those ports and slots have to share connectivity.
Let’s start with the PCIe x16 slots. With one expansion card (a graphics card, most likely) installed in the first PCIe x16 slot, that card gets the full 16 lanes of PCIe 3.0 from the Kaby Lake or Skylake CPU. Install another graphics card or expansion card in the second PCIe x16 slot, and the board will split the CPU’s lanes into a pair of x8 connections.
The third PCIe x16 slot and the bottom M.2 slot (M2P_32G) share four lanes from the Z270 chipset. With no M.2 drive installed there, the third slot gets all four lanes. Install a PCIe x2 storage device in the bottom M.2 slot, and the third slot will still get two lanes to work with. A typical NVMe drive and its PCIe 3.0 x4 connection will deactivate the bottom PCIe 3.0 slot.
The first and second PCIe x1 slots each get one lane from the Z270 chipset. The third PCIe x1 slot shares its connectivity with one of the board’s SATA ports. Now is as good a time as any to talk about how the Gaming 5 allocates PCIe lanes to its storage devices, so let’s get to it.
The storage subsystem
The Z270X-Gaming 5 gives builders six SATA 6Gbps ports, all housed in SATA Express connectors. The main storage block in the lower-right-hand corner of the board also offers a single U.2 port. Between the SATA Express connectors and the U.2 connector, the Gaming 5’s storage port block is sort of a portal to a weird parallel universe where those connectors achieved relevance. The only widely-available NVMe drive that connects to U.2 so far is Intel’s 750 Series 2.5″ SSD, and even Intel has thrown in the towel on U.2 by including an M.2 adapter with those drives. Other big players in the NVMe space, like Samsung, seem to have little interest in making U.2 SSDs.
Given those market forces, we sort of wish that Gigabyte had chosen to skip the U.2 port on the Gaming 5. The company took four of the chipset’s precious PCIe 3.0 lanes and devoted them exclusively to this narrowly-useful port. As we already noted when talking about the board’s third PCIe x16 slot, it’s the M.2 and SATA connectors that pay the price for this decision on the Gaming 5. We’d have much preferred it if Gigabyte had devoted those four lanes to one of the M.2 slots instead.
We have to take what we’re given, though, so here’s how the tug-of-war of lane allocation plays out between the SATA Express ports and the M.2 slots on the Gaming 5. Install any M.2 device in the top M.2 slot (M2M_32G), and the SATA3 4 and SATA3 5 ports on the board are disabled. We repeat ourselves, but install a PCIe x2 storage device in the bottom M.2 slot (M2P_32G), and the third slot will still get two lanes to work with. A typical NVMe drive and its PCIe 3.0 x4 connection will deactivate the bottom PCIe 3.0 slot. Finally, plug a PCIe expansion card into the bottom PCIe x1 slot (PCIEX1_3), and the SATA3 1 connector in the block above will be disabled.
All told, builders who want to keep as many of the Gaming 5’s SATA ports operational as possible will want to use the bottom M.2 slot, so long as the third PCIe x16 slot isn’t needed. That slot also makes a good choice for temperature-sensitive NVMe devices because of its distance from the primary PCIe x16 slot. Those who can live with Intel’s 750 Series 2.5″ SSD can take advantage of the U.2 port and leave all of the board’s SATA connectivity intact, as well. We’re still grousing about Gigabyte’s lane allocation choices here, but only the most storage-hungry folks should have to compromise with the Gaming 5.
Plug it in, plug it in
Flipping around to the Z270X-Gaming 5’s port cluster reveals a wealth of peripheral and network-connectivity options.
Let’s move from left to right. The twin yellow USB 3.0 connectors in the Gaming 5’s cluster are blessed with Gigabyte’s USB DAC-Up 2 feature, meaning they provide dedicated clean power and voltage-droop compensation to connected devices. Gigabyte says these ports are best suited for use with power-hungry devices like DACs or large bus-powered storage devices, as well as lengthy USB cable runs. They work just fine as regular USB 3.0 ports, too. The USB 3.0 connections for these ports come directly from the chipset.
Next up are the Gaming 5’s display outputs. In the unlikely event you’re using the integrated HD Graphics IGP from a Kaby Lake or Skylake CPU, the Gaming 5’s DisplayPort supports the 1.2 standard, while the HDMI out supports version 1.4 of the standard. If you need to drive a 4K display at 60 Hz from the CPU for whatever reason, the DisplayPort out is the way to go.
The stacked red USB 3.1 Type-C and Type-A ports derive their high-speed connectivity from an ASMedia USB 3.1 controller. Unlike some of Gigabyte’s other high-end boards with Intel Alpine Ridge USB 3.1 controllers, the Gaming 5 will need to rely on a Thunderbolt 3 expansion card for compatibility with that next-gen, do-it-all port.
The black USB 2.0 connectors come directly from the Z270 chipset. They’re topped with a Gigabit Ethernet jack powered by Rivet Networks’ most recent Killer E2500 Gigabit Ethernet controller. If you rely on Killer’s client-side traffic-management software, the E2500 port could be a boon. Folks with congestion elsewhere on the network won’t be saved by the Killer software, though.
Some other folks will say “no way, no how” to any Ethernet controller that’s not Intel-powered, and the Z270X-Gaming 5 lets them have things their way with an Intel I219V-controlled Gigabit Ethernet jack sitting atop another pair of USB 3.0 ports from the Z270 chipset.
The Gaming 5’s audio block sings with the help of Realtek’s brand-new ALC1220 audio codec. Documentation for this chip will likely be released soon, but the company isn’t offering any details of it just yet. Regardless, the Gaming 5 supports stereo, 5.1-channel, and 7.1-channel surround, as well as optical S/PDIF out for compatible devices.
When I plugged in my ultra-sensitive Bose QuietComfort noise-canceling headphones, the Gaming 5 treated me to glorious silence. With that bar cleared, I cued up some of my favorite tracks to see how the ALC1220 performs. Gigabyte’s implementation of the ALC1220 codec on the Gaming 5 is serviceable, but it has a more nasal, congested sound to it than the Asus Xonar DG in my main system. We’ll have to see how the ALC1220 sounds across the many other implementations it will doubtless receive from other motherboard makers with time.
For front-panel connections or other devices that demand USB headers, the Z270X-Gaming 5 provides four more USB 3.0 ports and four more USB 2.0 ports from the Z270 chipset through internal headers.
In keeping with the Gaming 5’s gaming DNA, Gigabyte bundles Creative’s X-Fi MB5 software surround-sound utility. Much like Asus’ Sonic Studio, this software also lets the user choose from some game-optimized equalization and DSP presets for both in-game sound and voice transmission.
We unfortunately didn’t have time to play with this software before our departure for CES, but for folks who enjoy Creative’s audio mojo, X-Fi MB5 could be a useful addition to the Gaming 5’s toolbox.
Gigabyte also throws in a license for the Xsplit Gamecaster and Broadcaster utilities, as well as a license for TriDef SmartCam, which performs background removal for game overlays without the use of a green screen. Those could be handy add-ins for streamers and Let’s Players.
While our board is a pre-production unit, it still included Gigabyte’s G-Connector for easy front-panel wiring and a padded I/O shield. Those are the kinds of in-the-box extras we want to see for builders for a board of the Z270X-Gaming 5’s caliber.
Now that we have a basic understanding of the Z270X-Gaming 5’s bones, let’s take a look at some of its flashier features and the software that controls them.
Light ’em up
One of the Aorus brand’s signature features will be lots and lots of highly-customizable RGB LEDs, because gaming, or something. We figure that RGB LEDs are best enjoyed in glorious excess, and the Z270X-Gaming 5 certainly delivers. This board’s “RGB Fusion” implementation includes a set of diodes between the DIMM slots, another set with a customizable diffuser next to the DIMM slots, a set underneath the VRM heatsinks, a set along the audio path, and two groups beneath the board’s two primary PCIe x16 slots. Those with RGBW 5050 LED strips can control them from the board using an included extension cable, as well. Gigabyte advises that strips with up to two amps of power draw and up to two meters long will work with the Gaming 5.
The RGB Fusion software offers builders eight separate modes, including the usual color-cycling, flashing, and “wave” modes. The software can also adjust the board’s lighting in response to parameters like CPU and motherboard temperatures, wherein it’ll shift through green to yellow to red as the given parameter increases.
We tried RGB Fusion’s basic animation modes and color-selection tools and came away mostly impressed with its power, although we’d still prefer a hex entry field or 0-255 ranges for the red, blue, and green channels. RGB Fusion at least displays a hex value for each color and a 0-255 value for its primary channels, so builders can at least land on the color they want through trial and error.
For the truly obsessed, RGB Fusion also lets builders control the color spectrum, animation duration, and animation style for each of the regions we laid out above, including compatible Gigabyte graphics cards. While this fine-grained control is a neat idea, we couldn’t quite get it to work. Selecting any region applied the chosen lighting style to the entire board while shutting off the graphics card’s LEDs. Trying to modify the graphics card’s lighting style alone switched the rest of the board’s LEDs to a random dim blue color. To be fair, this is early software, and we expect it’ll function better with time.
True to its Gigabyte roots, the Aorus Z270X-Gaming 5’s Windows software revolves around the App Center interface. Gigabyte provides over a dozen distinct utilities with this board, but we unfortunately only have time for a highlight reel.
System Information Viewer (SIV) lets builders get an at-a-glance look at critical parameters of their PCs, like temperatures and voltages. Its biggest job, however, is to serve as the interface for the Z270X-Gaming 5’s Windows fan controls. We remain pleased with the quality and configurability of Gigabyte’s Windows fan utilities.
There’s a new wrinkle with this Z270 board’s fan controls if you choose to configure a fan curve in SIV, though. On system start-up, there’s a pop-up that appears in the bottom-right corner of the desktop advising the user that the fan curve in the BIOS doesn’t match the custom curve configured in Windows and offering to override… well, one of the two curves with the other. Since we didn’t want to lose our custom fan curve in Windows, we always clicked “Cancel” on the dialog.
Easy Tune exposes the Gaming 5’s Windows overclocking features and also serves as the switchboard for the board’s baked-in overclocking profiles. If the Z270X-Gaming 5’s firmware has a knob or slider related to overclocking, tweakers will find it here. The controls available through Easy Tune will depend on the settings you’ve configured in the firmware, though, so it’s possible that the occasional slider will be grayed out. You can see an example of that in the Dynamic VCore setting above.
Though it may sport Aorus branding, the Z270X-Gaming 5 inherits the same next-generation Gigabyte firmware that made its debut aboard the X99-Designare EX. For full details of that firmware, check out our Designare-EX review. Here, we’ll be doing a brief recap.
Gigabyte’s latest firmware drops users right into the Advanced Mode interface. While we like the clean presentation of essential settings that this firmware offers, the version aboard the Z270X still suffers from the same self-referential tooltips and uncertain interaction between CPU voltage settings that we pointed out in our Designare-EX review.
Builders will still need to use Page Up and Page Down in each field to discover its range of settings, and some settings will remain grayed out until one stumbles upon the proper combination to enable them. The Z270X-Gaming 5’s manual still doesn’t shed enough light on what many of the board’s settings do, either.
As we dug into the board’s firmware options in preparation for our Core i7-7700K review, we noticed one rather strange decision. By default, the Gaming 5 switches off Intel’s Speed Shift feature. If you’re not already familiar with it, Speed Shift is the tech that allows Skylake and Kaby Lake chips to handle their own performance state, or P-state, management in tandem with Windows 10. Win10 actually hands over control of P-states to Skylake and Kaby Lake CPUs, and that hand-off allows for finer-grained frequency control and much faster P-state transitions. In theory, the feature leads to a more responsive and power-efficient system, since the processor can reach its peak frequencies faster and return to an idle P-state sooner. The only downside is that Speed Shift won’t work with older versions of Windows.
Given Windows 7’s continuing dominance of the Windows-version pie, perhaps this decision makes sense. However, that’s a trailing indicator, and we’d expect that most new PCs, and new gaming PCs especially, will be running Microsoft’s latest Windows version. Windows 10 is the only way to get access to the DirectX 12 API, among other things, and we’ve long recommended it as the default OS choice in our System Guides.
Folks who aren’t aware of Speed Shift might be left wondering why their Windows 10 PCs aren’t as snappy as Intel’s advertising might promise, and only a careful dive into the firmware would ever indicate that anything is amiss. Personally, we’d have enabled Speed Shift by default and left its deactivation to the holdouts who feel the need to install Windows 7 on the Gaming 5.
Perhaps we didn’t notice it as much with the X99-Designare EX, but the Gaming 5’s firmware also exhibits a strange lagginess or downright unresponsiveness to mouse input. Move the mouse too slowly, and the board ignores the input entirely. Move the mouse quickly enough for the board to register, and it’ll take about half an inch of actual movement before the pointer itself starts to move.
This lagginess might go unnoticed when selecting text fields, but it’s quite annoying for fine-grained tasks like fan-curve adjustments and color picking. It’s been over five years since the EFI generally started making its appearance on enthusiast motherboards, so we’re not sure why this mouse-lag issue is making an unpleasant reappearance now. Regardless, we hope Gigabyte can get to the bottom of this issue in a future firmware update.
Happily, the Gaming 5 also inherits Gigabyte’s excellent new fan control options and a basic RGB LED control feature in its firmware, so folks who don’t want to mess with those features using Windows software don’t have to. The company’s Windows software does offer finer-grained control, though.
One of the main attractions of Intel’s Z-series chipsets is the ability to turn up the clocks with its unlocked CPUs, so we put the Z270X-Gaming 5’s various paths to higher clocks to the test.
During our initial testing of the Gaming 5, we discovered that the board wants to feed the Core i7-7700K with 1.38V of juice to hit 4.5 GHz under our Prime95 Small FFTs load. At those clock and voltage settings, our chip throttled under our Corsair 280-mm liquid cooler—not an encouraging experience. It seems this may be a consequence of Intel’s conservatism with the stock VID it bakes into K-series chips to account for production variances, however, not a fault of Gigabyte’s firmware.
Just for kicks, we dove into the firmware at this point and set a 1.2V fixed Vcore with stock multipliers left intact. Even though the chip wasn’t stable at those settings, it didn’t put nearly as much of a strain on our CLC, reaching about 70° C. We then set load-line calibration to High and re-ran our 1.2V test, at which point the chip was stable. As a baseline, the stock VID Intel baked into our chip wasn’t especially useful.
Given our manual overclocking results in our Core i7-7700K review, it only made sense to start out with the board’s “i7-7700K 4.8 GHz” CPU Upgrade profile. However, our board wouldn’t even successfully boot to Windows with that pre-baked profile enabled. We reset the firmware to its optimized defaults and decided to move onto the company’s Easy Tune Windows software.
We kicked off Easy Tune’s iterative overclocking feature from within Windows. After a reboot, Easy Tune set a 47x all-core Turbo multiplier and successfully completed its built-in stress test. The utility didn’t tell us the voltage it chose to get there, however, so we dug into Easy Tune and found that the auto-OC tool chose an eyebrow-raising 1.4V Vcore for the Core i7-7700K.
Though we’d generally be making a run for the “default settings” button with anything above a 1.35V Vcore on a 14-nm Intel chip, we decided to trust the board’s instincts and fired up our Prime95 Small FFTs torture test. Strangely, the Vcore value dropped way beneath Gigabyte’s 1.4V choice during that test, hovering more in the 1.28V-1.3V range. At those (possibly Vdroop-induced) values, our chip had no trouble staying cool or stable. Removing the Prime95 load took the Vcore back up to that concerning 1.4V value, though, so we returned the Easy Tune software to its defaults.
With all of Gigabyte’s automatic overclocking profiles exhausted, we returned all of the board’s software and firmware settings to their defaults (save the XMP profile for our DDR4-3866 memory) and started tweaking manually. After some trial and error, we arrived at a 4.8 GHz overclock with a fixed 1.32V Vcore and a High load-line calibration setting. Higher clock speeds resulted in instability, and though our chip would certainly boot at 4.9 GHz, no amount of voltage made it stable under our Prime95 load before we ran into thermal throttling.
Setting a fixed voltage isn’t ideal for long-term use of a PC, though, since it increases power usage and heat production at idle. We much prefer adaptive voltage control during overclocking. In this mode, the motherboard can dial in more voltage as needed under an overclocked load with a user-configured offset value. At idle, it can still dial back voltage to save power. Gigabyte has at least clarified how to enable voltage offsets in the Gaming 5’s firmware tooltips (set Normal in the CPU Vcore field), but it’s still not clear to us what relationship the word “Normal” has with adaptive voltage control. For rank amateur overclockers, this obfuscation might prove confusing. We much prefer Asus’ and MSI’s standard lingo for these voltage modes: “manual,” “offset,” and “adaptive.”
Still, once we had the CPU Vcore parameter set to “Normal,” it was easy enough to dial in a -0.060V offset from the board’s 1.38V stock value to hit our 1.32V stable Vcore. We didn’t even need to dial in any load-line calibration at these settings.
We also should praise the Gaming 5’s stability with the exotic DDR4-3866 memory that G.Skill sent us to pair with the Core i7-7700K in our review. We only had to flip on that kit’s XMP profile to get blazing-fast memory speeds with perfect stability. That’s impressive for such a high-speed DDR4 kit. As far as we could tell, the Gaming 5 didn’t goose the Core i7-7700K’s multipliers when we enabled our memory’s XMP profile, as well—a welcome improvement.
Once we figured out how to control the Z270X-Gaming 5’s core voltage in our preferred manner, overclocking proved easy and stable. Folks who’d rather let the motherboard do all the work, whether through an iterative overclocking process or through pre-baked profiles, may come away disappointed by this board. Amateurs may also have trouble deciphering Gigabyte’s confusing names for common voltage-control modes, as well.
The Aorus Z270X-Gaming 5 has a lot riding on its wings. As the ambassador for a new Gigabyte motherboard brand and a new Intel chipset all at once, the Gaming 5 needed to make a good impression. It also served as my test platform for the Core i7-7700K CPU that Intel just unveiled this morning, and there’s no harder gauntlet for a motherboard to run. On first blush, the solid build quality and clean style of the Gaming 5 impressed us, and we were eager to get down to business with this board.
Despite the hardware’s virtues, the Z270X-Gaming 5’s firmware still uses the same confusing terminology for its CPU voltage control features that we encountered with the GA-X99-Designare EX. The board’s manual isn’t as clear about what those settings do as it could be, either. We also should not be talking about mouse lag in motherboard firmware over six years since the EFI started to take off, yet the Gaming 5 still has enough goo in its mouse response that fine adjustments to things like fan curves are a chore. There’s simply no excuse for that lagginess in 2017. Some features of Gigabyte’s RGB Fusion LED control utility don’t work with the Gaming 5 yet, either.
We were also bemused by some of the Z270X-Gaming 5’s default firmware settings. Intel’s Speed Shift processor-managed voltage and frequency-scaling technology is a headlining feature of Skylake and Kaby Lake chips when paired with Windows 10, but Gigabyte disables that feature out of the box. Folks who don’t know any better may not notice that a major feature of their chip isn’t working.
We also don’t think it was the best choice to make the Z270X-Gaming 5’s U.2 port the only NVMe storage connector on the board with an exclusive hookup to four PCIe 3.0 lanes. M.2 drives have clearly won the NVMe format war, and we’d much rather have a no-questions-asked M.2 slot or two instead of a U.2 port that’s really only useful with one make and model of SSD.
Even with those bumps in the road, Aorus really nailed the design of the Z270X-Gaming 5. Seasoned PC builders might reflexively wince at hardware with “gaming” emblazoned on the box, but the Gaming 5 lets its owner be as mild or as wild as they want in the bling department. The board’s basic black-and-white color palette, matte-white fascias, and brushed-aluminum accents form a harmonious whole, and they won’t clash with more colorful components like custom cable kits or liquid-cooling loops. Folks who want to go wild from there will like the board’s extensive RGB LED lighting and the fine-grained control for those blinkenlights from the board’s firmware and Windows software, while folks who don’t can just flip an off switch and enjoy the board’s understated looks.
We were further pleased to find that the Z270X-Gaming 5 didn’t seem to mess around with our Core i7-7700K’s multipliers when we enabled the XMP profile for the exotic DDR4-3866 RAM we used in our review of that chip. Even better, the board didn’t need any further tweaking to behave with that hyper-speed RAM and our Kaby Lake chip. It remains to be seen whether this behavior is a broader trend among Gigabyte and Aorus’ next-gen motherboards, but if it is, Gigabyte’s firmware engineers have made the right choice.
With its $195 price tag, the Z270X-Gaming 5 is taking dead aim at the entry-level boards in Asus’ ROG lineup, and its numerous Aorus brethren will duke it out with the even more expensive Republic of Gamers boards further up the line. The problem for Aorus may be that in the roughly-$200-and-up bracket, motherboards really begin setting themselves apart through easy-to-use firmware, high-quality Windows software, and automatic overclocking intelligence.
Gigabyte’s first salvo of Aorus hardware definitely has what it takes to get in that game, but the company’s EFI and Windows software still need a bit more time at training camp to earn a spot in the starting lineup. Happily, software and firmware are malleable, and if Gigabyte gets those ducks in a row with its Aorus boards, the rest of the high-end mobo market should take notice. For now, though, we’d wait to see just how Z270 motherboards from all the major players shape up before taking flight aboard the Aorus Z270X-Gaming 5.