As generational leaps in motherboards go, the shift from Z270 to Z370 will not go down as a major one. Yes, the revised LGA 1151 socket on these boards offers better power delivery to six-core CPUs in what used to be the domain of four-core parts, but that's not strictly a chipset feature. Z370 itself is, as far as I can tell, a warming-over of the Z270 platform controller hub—they even share the same Intel product specification manual. Z370 motherboards are all about Coffee Lake support, for better or for worse, and motherboard makers aren't being given the most revolutionary canvas to work with to mark the advent of a new platform generation.
What's a mobo manufacturer to do to set itself apart when the primary changes are in a standard component that everybody has to implement? In the case of Gigabyte's Z370 Aorus Gaming 7, its highest-end Z370 board so far, the answer is a healthy dose of fresh styling cues and new construction techniques borrowed from the company's latest Intel X299 and AMD X399 motherboards. Gigabyte has been constantly refining its Aorus boards since the introduction of the brand with the Z270X-Gaming 5 and friends in January, and the Z370 Gaming 7 gets all of the latest improvements from that continued effort up until now.
The $250 Gaming 7 is the most extreme exponent of Gigabyte's Z370 styling trends. Instead of the plain white and black shrouding that we saw on the company's Z270 boards, the Z370 Gaming 7 has a sort of mecha- or cyberpunk-inspired style that manifests as elaborate metal and metal-look accents all over the I/O shroud and heatsinks. Although I quite liked Gigabyte's simple and clean design language in the Z270 generation, this look is distinctive without evoking medieval torture devices or occult rituals. It should stand out in any windowed case.
This board isn't all about flash, though. To supply the necessary juice to Coffee Lake CPUs, Gigabyte taps a 10-phase (8+2) power design incorporating power stages and PWM control circuitry from Intersil, an unusual choice in a high-end space that's been dominated by International Rectifier's PowIRStages of late. Gigabyte taps ten of Intersil's ISL99227B Smart Power Stage modules for conversion duty, and they're controlled by the company's ISL69138 controller chip.
These modules integrate high-side, low-side, and driver circuitry into one package, and they are quite costly: $5.50 each at Intersil's suggested prices. Even if Gigabyte is scoring those power stages in volume, they would still seem to make up a significant part of the Gaming 7's bill of materials. Each unit is rated to deliver 60A, so the VRM array on this board seems more than ready to power any typical enthusiast's overclock.
This VRM array is paired with what Gigabyte calls "server-level chokes" from Cooper Bussmann, and the units so employed are identical to those on the X99-Designare EX I reviewed some time back. This is, again, an undoubtedly high-end power-delivery subsystem more typical of Gigabyte's high-end X299 and X99 boards than those of its mainstream offerings. That's fitting, since the Core i7-8700K straddles the gap between Intel's mainstream and high-end desktop CPUs.
The high quality of the VRMs on this board are let down a bit by the heatsinks that ring the socket. Although they may look bulky at first glance, the Gaming 7's VRM heatsinks are actually spindly blocks of metal capped off with cosmetic fascias. My handy gram scale suggests that there's more metal in these heatsinks to begin with than in those of the Z270X-Gaming 5's, but any air space in the VRM heatsink directly above the socket is largely occupied by wiring and circuitry for the underlying RGB LEDs.
The heatsink over the bulk of the VRMs to the left of the socket is perforated with just six tiny slots in what is otherwise a featureless, smooth surface.
I didn't notice any instances of throttling or other weirdness from overheating VRMs during my stock and overclocked Core i7-8700K testing, but these heatsinks are one of the more extreme example of form over function that I've seen from modern motherboards so far. Gigabyte does snake a heat pipe through the bases of both heatsinks to effect better thermal transfer throughout the system, but I'm not sure that arrangement can compensate for the large amount of surface area given over to cosmetics here. I'll examine VRM temperatures in more depth when we turn the screws on the Gaming 7.
Perhaps because of these constraints, Gigabyte includes a tiny fan for active VRM cooling duties under the I/O shroud. This tiny fan joins similar cooling approaches from Asus on its X399 boards, and I'm not really a fan of these arrangements. Tiny fans like this have the potential to spoil the noise characteristics of a system, and I feel like more effective heatsinks with greater surface area and less decorative bric-a-brac would be a more effective choice to begin with.
Like Z270 boards, the Gaming 7 offers four DIMM slots with support for up to 64GB of RAM. Coffee Lake ups the base DDR4 speed to 2666 MT/s for JEDEC RAM, but the Gaming 7 should offer support for much higher speeds through XMP and manual tweaking. Gigabyte's QVL offers options at insane speeds up to 4166 MT/s. I got my G.Skill DDR4-3600 sticks running on the board without a hitch simply by flipping on the XMP profile in the firmware.
You can also see the Gaming 7's dedicated power, "OC Mode," reset, and Clear CMOS buttons peeking out at the bottom edge of the image above. Although these features may not be missed by folks who build PCs into cases (as most will), they're invaluable to me since I spend 95% of my time with my systems on test benches. Overclockers without the time or inclination to install their boards on anything but a test bench should appreciate these features, as well.
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