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.
The Z270X-Gaming 8 offers a wealth of expansion for a mainstream Intel motherboard. Gigabyte outfitted the board with four PCIe x16 slots and two PCIe x1 slots, all of which deliver PCIe 3.0 throughput. Three of the PCIe x16 slots feed from the CPU’s 16 lanes, but only the first slot is wired for x16 connectivity. The second slot is wired for x8 throughput, and the third is provisioned as an x4 slot.
As we’ve come to expect from modern Intel platforms, the Gaming 8 has to split up CPU PCIe connectivity once a bunch of expansion cards enter the picture. The first PCIe x16 slot gets the full 16 CPU lanes with one graphics card installed. Add a card into the second PCIe slot, and the Gaming 8 gives it eight lanes of PCIe 3.0 from the first slot. Fire up the third PCIe x16 slot on top of the first two, and the board further splits the eight lanes of PCIe 3.0 it peeled off the first PCIe x16 slot into two x4 channels.
The lane-splitting fun doesn’t stop with chipset-connected devices. The Gaming 8 has two M.2 connectors and two U.2 connectors. The M2M_32G slot sits directly beneath the CPU socket, and it’s connected to four PCIe 3.0 lanes. Plug any SATA or NVMe device into this slot, and the SATA3 4 and SATA3 5 ports will go dark.
The M2P_32G connector shares its four chipset lanes with the U2_32G_1 connector (the topmost of the two U.2 connectors). Plug a PCIe x4 storage device into the M2P_32G connector, and U2_32G_1 will go dark (and vice versa). Using a SATA device in this slot will cause the SATA3 0 port to become unusable.
The U2_32G_2 connector (the bottom U.2 port on this board) shares its lanes with the last PCIe 3.0 x16 slot (PCIEX4_2). Plug a PCIe x2 device into PCIEX4_2, and the U2_32G_2 will also operate in x2 mode. Plug a PCIe x4 card into the PCIEX4_2 slot or a PCIe x4 NVMe device into U2_32G_2 and the unoccupied port or slot will stop working.
To close out the Gaming 8’s lane-splitting mojo, we turn our attention to the board’s PCIe x1 slots. Plug a card into the PCIEX1_1 slot, and the SATA3 1 port goes dark. Light up PCIEX1_2, and the SATA3 2 port becomes unusable. If you’re as addled as I am at this point, perhaps the following diagram will help:
Thanks to the paltry 16 PCIe 3.0 lanes available from Skylake and Kaby Lake chips, the Alpine Ridge controller that drives the Gaming 8’s Thunderbolt 3 port doesn’t get a direct connection to the CPU. Instead, it hangs off four lanes of PCIe 3.0 from the Z270 chipset, behind the DMI 3.0 bus shared with all of the Gaming 8’s storage devices and some of its PCIe slots. The Killer 1535 wireless adapter relies on a PCIe 3.0 x1 connection from Z270, as well.
For traditional storage, the Gaming 8 offers up to eight SATA ports, although only six of these are drawn from the Z270 chipset. The SATA3 6 and SATA3 7 ports (the leftmost in the shot above) run from an ASMedia ASM1061 controller connected to the Z270 chipset.
While we’ve gotten used to the what-you-see-is-not-what-you-get reality of the flex I/O lanes of Intel chipsets, it’s still a bit disappointing that two of the Gaming 8’s six chipset SATA ports will be disabled from the get-go if a builder installs an increasingly-popular NVMe SSD as their boot drive. Fill up both of the PCIe x1 slots for any reason, and you’re down to just two usable SATA ports from the Z270 chipset. The ports from the ASMedia controller are always available, but picky builders will take umbrage at running their SATA devices off a third-party controller. Storage-hungry builders will have to carefully balance the complement of expansion cards, SATA devices, and NVMe drives they can install all at once with the Gaming 8.
Until just recently, we would have accepted this head-spinning lane-sharing arrangement as the way things had to be, but AMD’s competing X370 chipset has fewer caveats for storage devices (at least as it’s implemented on Gigabyte’s own AX370-Gaming 5). The only hitch with X370 storage devices comes when one installs a SATA device in the AX370-Gaming 5’s M.2 slot, at which point one of the board’s SATA ports becomes unavailable. Builders still get seven SATA ports from X370 with such a drive installed, even if they have fewer potential M.2 slots and PCIe x16 configurations to play with. The expansion story for X370 still isn’t quite as straightforward for AMD as it is with X399’s expansion capabilities, but it’s far less tiresome to discuss than Z270’s flex I/O lanes.
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 2×2 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 4096×2304 and 60 Hz. That unusual resolution encompasses Ultra HD (3840×2160) and DCI 4K (4096×2160). 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.
Whatever we might think of them, arrays of RGB LEDs have become central features of most every modern motherboard. We’re long past the point where protesting the presence of these blinkenlights would be useful. They are well and truly ubiquitous, and they’re not going away. If you can’t stomach them, the answer is simple: turn them off. As reviewers, our main concern now is making sure motherboard makers are making RGB LEDs easy to configure and manage across a system. Given the ranges of color, animation, and synchronization available from modern RGB LEDs, the potential complexity of lighting management is daunting, and it’s a major challenge for motherboard makers to rein in that complexity in software.
The Z270X-Gaming 8 has RGB LEDs scattered all across its surface: two separate lighting zones in the translucent strip over the I/O port cluster, another two zones in the strip above the audio components, a trio of LEDs beneath the second PCIe slot, another strip in front of the chipset heatsink, a lengthy strip in the top-right corner of the board that’s covered with a plastic diffuser, another set of illuminated and diffused LEDs between the DIMM slots, and three LEDs nestled among the power-delivery circuitry. The rear I/O shield is RGB LED-illuminated, to boot. Each of these zones can be configured separately in Gigabyte’s RGB Fusion software. If the onboard lighting isn’t enough, Gigabyte includes two RGBW strip headers on the bottom edge of the board, too.
The RGB Fusion utility gives users two routes to Technicolor bliss. The Basic mode offers eight preset lighting configurations. Static allows the user to set one color and brightness level for the entire board. Pulse gently illuminates and darkens the board in one color at one of three available speeds. Music blinks out a one-color light show in sync with any audio that’s playing through the Gaming 8’s outputs. Color Cycle takes the whole board through the standard rainbow sweep that defines RGB LED lighting for many. Flash blinks every LED on and off at one of three speeds. Random, well, randomly illuminates each of the board’s zones with different colors in an unpredictable swirl. Wave sends a rainbow of color down the board’s “armor LEDs,” or the plastic shrouds over the I/O block and audio circuitry.
If none of those presets strike your fancy, RGB Fusion’s advanced mode offers per-zone control over all 10 of the Gaming 8’s lighting areas. Advanced Mode can apply the “Flash,” “Static,” and “Pulse” modes from the board’s preset palette to each zone, or owners can dive deep into a custom color-cycle mode that allows each zone to shift through as many as seven different color stops. Each of those stops can further be configured to remain static after a transition or to blink or pulse at each stop. Gigabyte only allows users to set the duration of the transition between stops and the hold time at each stop as low as five seconds, however, a limitation that might hamper those looking for a truly rave-inducing experience.
RGB Fusion is a powerful utility for RGB LED tweaking, but the lights that it controls don’t always follow its lead. I often had to toggle all of the board’s LEDs on and off to get them all to display the same static color after choosing a new hue, for example, and similar bugs scurried out when I switched among other preset lighting effects. I observed some zones flashing out of phase with others in the “Flash” preset, for example, and some zones required multiple applications of lighting settings to show the same color as the rest of the board. At least the RGB LEDs are all reasonably close in color reproduction when a single color is applied across the whole board.
RGB Fusion also doesn’t have the same syncing mojo as some competing RGB LED implementations. Our G.Skill Trident Z RGB DIMMs aren’t tied into the software yet, so they remained stoically solid-colored even in some of the Gaming 8’s crazier lighting modes. Happily, RGB LED DIMMs from Corsair are certified for operation with RGB Fusion, so LED-obsessed builders have at least one choice that can sync up with Gigabyte’s software. Perhaps G.Skill will join up with Gigabyte to bring its DIMMs into the fold soon.
Unlike some competing Z270 motherboards I’ve used, Gigabyte also provides some rudimentary control over the Gaming 8’s RGB LEDs in firmware. The UEFI lets builders choose solid-color lighting for the whole board, as well as the pulse, flash, and color cycle animations. The RGB Fusion Windows utility remains the best place to tweak RGB LEDs, but for those who’d rather just set and forget some basic lighting across the board, the firmware stands ready. You can also turn the lighting off entirely from here and never worry about it again, if you like.
Firmware and Windows software
Gigabyte’s current mainstream firmware isn’t much changed from the one that debuted aboard the X99-Designare EX and Aorus Z270X-Gaming 5. The company has stripped out the vast majority of fluff from its firmware in favor of a refreshingly straightforward interface that exposes most of what tweakers want to see and little else. If you’d like to learn more about it, you can read the firmware sections of those reviews for more info. We’ll be doing just a brief recap here.
Invoking the Gaming 8’s firmware at start-up will drop users straight into the MIT screen, where settings for CPU frequency, memory frequency and timings, and voltage live. I’ve enjoyed how easy it is to get in, do what’s needed, and get out of the firmware thanks to the front-and-center presentation of MIT, even if Gigabyte hasn’t taken my suggestion to rename some of its voltage-control modes using industry-standard terms.
Some of Gigabyte’s default choices in the Gaming 8’s firmware remain frustrating. The company leaves Intel’s Speed Shift feature disabled by default, and our experience shows that it stealthily applies an all-core overclock to the CPU it’s hosting. To curtail this behavior, one would need to manually set the proper Turbo multipliers for each cores-active state—not the easiest thing to do when Intel doesn’t publicize the Turbo tables for its CPUs. There’s no simple “on” or “off” switch for this automatic overclock as there is in competing motherboards, nor does Gigabyte’s firmware ever disclose that such a setting is in effect.
I’ve never approved of this kind of stealth overclocking, and I wish Gigabyte would stop doing it. This practice might lead to improved performance in benchmarks for the uninitiated, but it can also unduly stress cooling hardware and components when builders aren’t expecting it. Give builders the option, sure, but don’t make it the default.
I’m not sure whether I simply missed this feature in earlier Gigabyte firmwares or whether it’s a new addition in recent updates, but the company offers users choose mouse sensitivities in the BIOS tab of the Gaming 8’s settings. Crank the sensitivity up to 3X, and the low-speed sensitivity problem goes away entirely. Sure, the pointer gets a bit twitchier with higher pointer speeds, but it’s easy to compensate for that extra sensitivity when the firmware isn’t ignoring mouse movement entirely or registering it intermittently. I can be a bit more cautious with my mouse movements in exchange for those movements being consistently recognized.
In Windows, Gigabyte builders still have to rely on two separate utilities to control every feature the motherboard exposes: System Information Viewer and Easy Tune. System Information Viewer offers a quick overview of thestatus of a system, as its name suggests, but its primary purpose in life is fan control. Builders can choose from several pre-baked global fan profiles or set individual fan curves in the Advanced tab. We’ll talk more about this board’s fan-control features in a moment.
Easy Tune is Gigabyte’s Windows-based overclocking software. Here, builders can set a couple of pre-baked overclocking profiles, and they can also tweak a variety of manual parameters for overclocking the CPU and memory. Easy Tune is straightforward enough to use, but the settings one can change in it are still affected by the state of the board’s firmware. I’ve found Easy Tune useful for a quick look at temperatures, voltages, and clock speeds, but I’ve always preferred to do my tweaking in Gigabyte’s firmware itself. The only essential overclocking feature in Easy Tune is Gigabyte’s Windows-based automatic overclocking utility.
One of our biggest nitpicks for motherboards in the past few years has been their ability to detect and control any common type of fan. Some boards do fine with PWM fans and fall flat on their faces with voltage-controlled (or three-pin) fans. Others cheap out and only include three-pin fans. Getting true plug-and-play fan control no matter what types of spinners one installs is a luxury that sets better motherboards apart.
For its part, Gigabyte has made universal fan compatibility a headlining feature of its Aorus motherboards. The Smart Fan 5 branding on the Gaming 8 means that each of its six system fan headers can automatically sense the type of fan that’s plugged in and control them. Two of the board’s headers can detect liquid-cooling pumps, as well. The only necessary user intervention is if a builder wants to configure fan curves of their own, and that requires diving into the Smart Fan 5 interface.
Builders can set up custom fan control settings on Aorus boards through the firmware or the System Information Viewer utility in Windows. The firmware fan control interface gives builders access to practically every tweaking parameter available from the Gaming 8. Each of the board’s fans has a five-point speed curve to tweak, and Gigabyte offers two prebaked curves (normal and silent) per fan header.
The firmware also lets owners choose the input one of several temperature sensors to control fan speed. Instead of relying on just one motherboard temperature sensor in an indeterminate location, the Gaming 8’s headers can respond to changes in CPU temperatures, chipset temperature, and VRM temperatures, among other inputs. Overall, Gigabyte’s latest firmware fan control interface is excellent, and it almost negates the need for Windows software entirely.
The only thing the firmware can’t do is detect the speed ranges of system fans. One has to venture into the Smart Fan 5 Advanced tab of the System Information Viewer utility to do that. System Information Viewer offers a clean and modern fan-control interface, and its calibration routine works well enough. Curiously, though, this interface is missing the ability to manage the variety of temperature inputs that the firmware version of Smart Fan 5 affords. Competitors’ Windows software condenses these features into one interface, so Gigabyte’s software team still has some work to do on System Information Viewer to make it as convenient.
Every CPU has different overclocking potential as a consequence of the vagaries of semiconductor production. The job of the motherboard, then, is to make it as easy as possible to extract the maximum performance potential of each chip in a straightforward and understandable manner without causing undue risk to the hardware at hand. Most modern motherboards also offer a suite of automatic overclocking tools to let even novices try their hands at pushing frequencies to the moon, and the effectiveness of those features could tip newbies’ favor to one board over another.
I started my overclocking expedition on the Gaming 8 with the easy road. Gigabyte offers builders two methods of automatic overclocking on the Gaming 8: a set of pre-baked voltage and frequency profiles in the firmware, and an automatic Windows overclocking utility available through the Easy Tune software. Our particular Core i7-7700K isn’t a standout in the silicon lottery. It’ll do about 4.8 GHz on all cores at around 1.32V. We don’t expect to exceed that figure with the Gaming 8, but it at least gives us an idea of what to expect.
I first tried the company’s pre-baked profile for 4.8 GHz from the firmware. Under our Prime95 torture test, the CPU was stable, but it asked for a 1.356V Vcore that spiked CPU temperatures to 99° C and flirted with thermal throttling on our Corsair H115i cooler. This profile might be fine for establishing a baseline for later tweaking, but I wouldn’t want to use it 24/7 thanks to its rather high Vcore setting.
Next, I called up Gigabyte’s automatic overclocking utility in Easy Tune. The software iterated through a 4.7 GHz setting and a stress test before settling on the 4.8 GHz figure we expected to see. However, that overclock didn’t prove stable under Prime95, probably because it wasn’t feeding the chip enough voltage. After I exhausted Gigabyte’s automatic overclocking, it was time to try my own hand at configuring the board’s settings.
Gigabyte’s voltage-control modes continue to use the same opaque names that I’ve complained about in past reviews. The offset mode I prefer to work with is still hidden behind the befuddling term “Normal,” a term that bears no relation to what the mode actually does in practice. Since I’ve used a variety of Gigabyte boards in the past, I know what it actually does, but I still wish the company would use more descriptive language in its firmware and documentation. With the offset mode dialed in, I set a 48X multiplier and got to work.
During my manual overclocking efforts, I was surprised by the aggressiveness of the Gaming 8’s dynamic Vcore implementation at higher levels of load-line calibration. Combined with a voltage offset in the board’s “Normal” voltage mode, the “High” and “Turbo” load-line calibration settings often pushed anywhere from 1.37V to 1.39V (or even more) through our Core i7-7700K—values well in excess of the generally-accepted-as-safe 1.35V for Intel’s 14-nm silicon.
On top of potentially endangering CPUs, these high voltages lead to heat production that’s difficult for even the 280-mm Corsair H115i to dissipate. Perhaps these load-line calibration modes are tuned for the kind of overclocks that involve cryogenic fluids. In any case, they’re clearly not for mere mortals. Don’t expect to casually max out LLC with the Gaming 8—you will need to pay attention when using this feature.
Thankfully, the Standard load-line calibration setting proved enough for casual overclocking, and it offered the most predictable voltage behavior in my testing. Even in Standard mode, I had to dial in a negative voltage offset to avoid exceeding that rule-of-thumb “safe” voltage—not something I’ve found myself doing often with motherboards from other vendors. With a minor negative offset applied, I reached a 4.8 GHz overclock with 1.308V on the Vcore—about as good as we’ve gotten from our Core i7-7700K on other motherboards.
Once I got comfortable with the Gaming 8’s overclocking behavior, achieving the 4.8 GHz that seems like the upper limit of our particular Core i7-7700K was simple enough. I didn’t find the Gaming 8’s firmware overclocking controls the friendliest that I’ve ever used, and I had to carefully monitor the board’s voltage-control behavior to find a load-line calibration setting that I was comfortable with. Gigabyte’s automatic overclocking utility topped out at the same 4.8 GHz that we reached in manual overclocking, but it ultimately didn’t remain stable under our Prime95 testing load.
My experiences suggest that overclocking on the Gaming 8 (and other Gigabyte Z270 motherboards) is ultimately best suited for experienced hands. Novices may not find the amount of hand-holding or documentation they need to dip their toes into overclocking for the first time, and a one-click overclock from Gigabyte’s software may not end up producing a stable or reliable result. I expect the best results from the Gaming 8 and similar boards will come from careful, incremental tuning, just as it’s always been. If you’re OK with that, the Gaming 8 has all the knobs and dials you need.
The TR staff is stubbornly skeptical of uber-expensive motherboards built on Intel’s mainstream chipsets, and we’ve been that way for a long time. It takes a lot for a $200-plus board to justify more than a passing glance from us, because those boards usually serve more as halo products than anything. Gigabyte’s Aorus Z270X-Gaming 8 is different, though. It’s expensive, sure, at nearly $400, but its high price tag comes from connectivity, audio, and cooling options that the most demanding PC builders might find useful, not from spendy PLX switches and multiple dozens of power phases that only serve to inflate spec sheets and price tags.
That doesn’t mean the Gaming 8 is perfect. Gigabyte’s firmware remains the major source of frustration with its 200-series motherboards, even months after the launch of the platform. I had to crank up the firmware’s mouse sensitivity manually to avoid the lag and inconsistent input I’ve run into in past Gigabyte firmware revisions, and I still think the company could serve to use industry-standard terms when referring to the Gaming 8’s voltage-control modes. The board also seemed to apply a stealthy all-core overclock to our Core i7-7700K, a behavior that doesn’t have an immediately-evident off switch. We’ve protested this kind of stealth clock bump for years, and we’ll continue to do so until someone bravely steps up and stops.
On most every other point that we care about, the Z270X-Gaming 8 delivers an experience that’s clearly above and beyond that of the average midrange board. Creative’s ZxRi onboard audio suite is, bar none, simply the best analog audio experience I’ve had from any mobo, and I say that having used a discrete sound card in my main PC for years. Some may still balk at Killer’s networking gear, but the Wireless-AC 1535 radio on the Gaming 8 consistently delivered high throughput and reliable connectivity on the 5GHz band, even with the included antenna and in a room that’s far from my router. With some patience, I was also able to extract an overclock at least equal to that of the best we’ve achieved with our Core i7-7700K in the past, too. Overall, I didn’t find myself wanting anything from the Gaming 8’s performance.
Gigabyte also outfits this board with some of the finest connectivity options around, including a do-it-all Thunderbolt 3 port powered by Intel’s Alpine Ridge controller chip. Dual M.2 slots, dual U.2 ports, and a bevy of PCIe slots make the Gaming 8 more than ready for anything one might want to add to a mainstream PC, and the wide range of high-quality integrated components means builders won’t waste any of those slots making up for other boards’ shortcomings in audio, networking, or peripheral I/O.
In one of the harder tests for any piece of PC hardware, I’ve been using the Z270X-Gaming 8 as the foundation of our Z270 test bed for months now, and I’ve never had a single issue with the board in use. Even after a gauntlet of CPU changes, DIMM removals and reinstallations, BIOS updates, and a rotating cast of some of the hottest and most power-hungry graphics cards around, the Gaming 8 hasn’t complained once. This board may not bear the “Ultra Durable” mark, but it certainly lives up to that name.
Motherboards this expensive aren’t for everybody, to be sure. It’s plenty possible to get by with a more basic mobo and add in a fancy sound card or wireless network card of your own. At the end of the day, though, getting a discrete sound card, a wireless card, a Thunderbolt 3 card, and a VRM water block to match the Gaming 8’s built-ins would cost just as much (if not more than) the $400-or-so price tag this board has demanded until recently. If you’re looking for one of the finest platforms around for one of the finest gaming CPUs around, the Z270X-Gaming 8 comes darn close. The rumor mill suggests a new generation of Intel mainstream motherboards is around the corner, and we hope Gigabyte infuses at least one of them with a similarly top-shelf spec sheet.