I/O and audio
Befitting its decked-out demeanor, the Gaming 8's port cluster features some of the most up-to-date connectivity options around. The fun starts with two yellow USB 3.0 ports. These ports are imbued with Gigabyte's USB DAC-UP technology, meaning that each port gets its own dedicated power supply from the motherboard's circuitry. DAC-UP also lets builders slightly boost the voltage level from each port to compensate for droop from lengthy USB cables for power-hungry devices. Whether these features make a difference to the average user is up for debate, but picky users should be able to rest assured that the DAC-UP ports will deliver clean power to sensitive devices. A PS/2 combo port sits above these USB ports.
Directly to the right of these audiophile USB ports, we find the pair of wireless jacks that feed radio signals to the Killer Wireless-AC 1535 NIC. This card offers a laundry list of fancy features, including 2x2 MU-MIMO with transmit beamforming technology, a pair of external 5 GHz signal amplifiers for what Killer calls its ExtremeRange technology, Bluetooth 4.2 for wireless peripherals, and Killer's client-side traffic-shaping technology. Since the Gaming 8 has one of Killer's E2500 Gigabit Ethernet NICs on board, this mobo can take advantage of Killer's DoubleShot Pro software to send traffic over the interface the utility believes is best suited to the task.
Although it may go unappreciated on a board that many will pair with a discrete graphics card, Gigabyte went to the trouble of adding a MegaChips MCDP2800 protocol converter between the CPU's integrated graphics processor and the HDMI port. That means the Gaming 8 can output HDMI 2.0 signals for 4K displays running at up to 60 Hz. The gold-plated DisplayPort connector supports DP 1.2 for displays at up to 4096x2304 and 60 Hz. That unusual resolution encompasses Ultra HD (3840x2160) and DCI 4K (4096x2160). If you're one of the handful of people looking for the best implementation of HDMI with Intel's processor graphics, the Gaming 8 merits a look.
Two plain old USB 3.0 ports from the Z270 chipset are the next stop on our tour, but they're merely a waypoint on the trip to the most interesting ports in the Gaming 8's cluster. As I noted in the introduction, the USB Type-C port hiding under the Killer E2500-powered Gigabit Ethernet port is a pathway to the Gaming 8's unusual Thunderbolt 3-certified Intel Alpine Ridge controller. We won't rehash its benefits here, but the do-anything port is a welcome sight.
Further down the port cluster, we get another Gigabit Ethernet port powered by an Intel controller, a white USB 3.0 port from the Z270 chipset, and a red USB 3.1 Gen 2 Type A port powered by the Intel Alpine Ridge controller. The white USB 3.0 port supports Gigabyte's handy Q-Flash Plus feature. Q-Flash Plus lets builders update the firmware of compatible boards with a USB 2.0 flash drive (yes, really) and a power supply. Q-Flash Plus can also restore the board's firmware if both of its dual BIOS chips become corrupted. Check out the Gaming 8's manual for full details of how to use Q-Flash Plus, but the short story is that it's a welcome feature on any tinkerer's motherboard. The red USB 3.1 Gen 2 port beneath draws its bandwidth from the Intel Alpine Ridge controller.
Finally, we come to the Gaming 8's audio output block. Thanks to its Creative underpinnings, this audio block has a slightly different configuration than most motherboards. Moving down from the top left, the Creative ZxRi offers a line-in or mic jack, a line-out jack for stereo sound, an optical S/PDIF connector, a center or subwoofer jack, a rear speaker jack for 5.1 surround setups, and a specially amplified rear-panel headphone jack.
I tried to conceal my excitement about the ZxRi in the intro to this review, but I'll let it all out here: this is simply the best on-board audio suite I've ever heard from a motherboard, ever. Even the highest-end Realtek-powered onboard audio tends to range from "functional" to "satisfying" when it starts pumping out the jams, so I wasn't expecting much from Creative's codec.
Plugging my Sennheiser Game One headset into the ZxRi's amplified headphone out immediately made me take notice, though, especially after I dialed in my preferred EQ curve. The depth of the bass, the separation of individual instruments, and the stereo imaging of Gigabyte's Creative implementation are unlike anything I've heard before from on-board audio. The deep, powerful bass of this board lends an especially visceral punch to loud, chaotic shooters like Doom, and I even found myself noticing environmental audio effects in the game that I'd never picked out before.
Creative uses the same Sound Core 3D chip in many of its discrete audio cards, and I don't think it's a stretch to say the ZxRi is like having a discrete audio card built right into the motherboard. Considering that Creative's highest-end sound cards use this same chip (if not the same analog audio chain), the ZxRi goes at least some of the way toward justifying the Gaming 8's price tag. Having onboard audio of this caliber keeps PCIe slots free for other uses, too.