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.