When we shop for motherboards, the TR staff tends to be a pretty conservative bunch. Give us a fully-featured midrange board for $150 to $200 or so, and we're happy campers. Motherboards in that price range tend to have everything the average user needs and nothing they don't, so it only makes sense that those are the boards we buy for ourselves.
I say this every time we write a motherboard review because the argument for $200-and-up motherboards has rarely been convincing. Motherboard makers often add in features on their range-topping boards that the vast majority of us have no use for in this day and age. Expensive PLX PCIe switches for quad-SLI or Crossfire configs are perhaps the most ready example of this kind of expensive, power-hungry excess, but liquid-cooling blocks for VRMs, vast E-ATX PCBs, and more power phases than could fit in a box of donuts are typical of the breed, as well.
Gigabyte's Aorus GA-Z270X-Gaming 8 is a bit different than the usual throw-in-everything-and-the-kitchen-sink mainstream Intel board, though. Make no mistake: this is an uber-expensive board (or was, when it was widely available), at about $389.99. The only more expensive Intel Z270 board in Gigabyte's lineup is the GA-Z270X-Gaming 9, which does employ the aforementioned PLX switch and EK water block that we typically find on the most exotic of boards. You'll pay $500 for the privilege of those features—well into the territory of glorious excess. I think the Gaming 8 has three standout features that make it worthy of its price tag without going truly overboard.
First and foremost, the Gaming 8 boasts a fully-enabled Intel Alpine Ridge USB 3.1 controller with Thunderbolt 3 certification. This versatile port lets the Gaming 8 offer the full menu of Thunderbolt benefits, including a high-bandwidth connection for external storage enclosures, graphics devices, displays, and high-speed port replicators.
The Z270X-Gaming 8's USB Type-C port also works with the Power Delivery 2.0 standard, which might be the most interesting feature of Thunderbolt 3 for desktop users. Compatible USB devices can draw up to 100W from the Gaming 8's USB Type-C port, a feature that folks with Thunderbolt 3-equipped laptops might find especially handy. Instead of fumbling with a power brick, those users might be able to leave their chargers in their bags and simply plug their laptops into a compatible USB Type-C cable that they keep on their desk. Even cell phones could benefit from this port's extra juice as USB Power Delivery support becomes more common in smartphones. Qualcomm's Quick Charge 4.0 fast-charging technique supports USB Power Delivery, meaning that upcoming high-end smartphones could charge faster than average off the Gaming 8's Thunderbolt 3 port.
The Gaming 8's onboard audio setup is also a cut above the usual Realtek codec. Gigabyte teamed up with Creative to bring the evergreen audio firm's Sound Blaster ZxRi hardware and software suite to this board. The ZxRi setup uses one of Creative's Sound Core 3D chips in tandem with a high-end trio of op-amps: two JRC NJM2114 chips for the left and right analog channels from the rear pannel, and a TI Burr-Brown OPA2134 for the front-panel headphone out. Gigabyte also includes a complement of high-end Wima and Nichicon capacitors in the board's analog audio path, as well. The company claims this setup is good for a 127 dB signal-to-noise ratio, a figure that rivals some of Creative's own discrete audio cards. We'll put this system to the test in a moment, but it's not a stretch to say that the Gaming 8's onboard audio really is like having a discrete sound card baked onto the motherboard.
The Gaming 8 is liquid-cooling-ready thanks to a beautiful custom water block from Bitspower. The block uses chrome-plated copper for its main body, and it's coupled to the board's 11-phase VRM circuitry using thermal pads. Bitspower has been making boutique liquid-cooling parts since 2001, and the company's gear is commonly spoken of in the same breath as EK and other industry luminaries. This isn't a cheap component that was added to tick a marketing check box—it's specificially developed for and paired with the Gaming 8. The only downside I can see to this low-profile block is that even those who would shop for a $400 motherboard may not hook it up to a liquid-cooling loop. Gigabyte claims the Bitspower block will offer cooling performance matching or exceeding that of conventional VRM heatsinks when it's run dry, even without fins or other passive heat-radiating structures.
The Bitspower block is certainly low-profile, but it snugs up quite close to the CPU socket. That could pose some issues for large CPU coolers with elaborate mounting systems. We've measured some of the most likely obstructions around the CPU socket to give builders an idea of the coolers they can use with the Gaming 8 and similar motherboards:
I imagine most builders eyeing a motherboard this expensive will prefer a liquid cooler like the Corsair H115i we use on our test bench at the very least, and similar all-in-one coolers should have no trouble fitting onto the Gaming 8's socket area. Even monster air coolers should have no trouble with the Gaming 8's low-profile VRM heatsink as long as their mounting brackets don't interfere with the VRM water block.
The DIMM area of this board offers dedicated reset and Clear CMOS buttons, as well as hard controls for the board's baked-in OC and Eco clock profiles. OC will try to dial in a 4.7 GHz all-core speed on compatible CPUs, while Eco drops clocks for lower power consumption. With its four DIMM slots, the Gaming 8 can support up to 64 GB of RAM, and it has multipliers for DDR4 running at speeds up to 4133 MT/s.