Looking for the perfect partner for that new
Ivy Bridge CPU? We tested eight Z77 motherboards to find the best
Alongside its new Ivy Bridge CPUs , Intel has also launched an accompanying chipset architecture. Codenamed
Panther Point, it will form the basis of all Intel’s 7-series chipsets, and it
adds new features to help get the most from an Ivy Bridge system, including
on-board PCI-E3 and USB 3 support. The Z77 flavour is the new top-end
chipset, boasting the largest and most advanced feature set for enthusiasts.
However, as always, every major motherboard
manufacturer is jumping on the Z77 bandwagon in the hopes of netting a place on
your upgrade list, making the competition fiercer than ever. With Ivy Bridge
CPUs running even faster than their Sandy Bridge predecessors, making the right
choice is vital if you want to squeeze the maximum performance from your chip.
The ranger of extras offered varies hugely too, and not all the additional
features are worthwhile. With so many boards now available, we’ve pitted eight
Z77 motherboard, ranging from just $114 to $270, against each other in order to
find the best Z77 board for your next build.
The Z77 chipset
While last year’s Z68 chipset was a fairly
minor update to P67, Z77 is a much more meaningful step forward. Not only does
it unlock Intel’s HD graphic chip for use with hybrid graphics, but it also
adds Intel’s Ready Boost technology, Z77. It’s also backwards compatible with
Sandy Bridge CPUs such as the Core i5-2500K or Core i7-2600K, although not all
the features will work with these older chips.
PCI-E 3 and USB 3
The most important new addition is PCI-E3
support. This first step forwards for the PCI-E standard is more than seven
years uses an identical slow design to that of PCI-E2, and is fully backwards
compatible with PCI-E2 cards. The improvement comes from an effective doubling
in maximum bandwidth from PCI-E2 to 32GB/sec, with each of a 16x slot’s lanes
offering 1GB/sec of bandwidth in each direction.
We’ve seen motherboards with PCI-E3 support
before via the use of additional controller chips, but Z77 is the first to
support it natively on the chipset; this offers potential improvements to 3D
graphics performance, as well as GPU-compute and data transfer speeds. However,
as the PCI-E3 bus runs directly into the CPU, you’ll currently only active the
extra PCI-E3 bandwidth when using Intel’s compatible Ivy Bridge CPUs.
Another new feature is native USB 3
support. Again, USB 3 has been available on motherboards for some time, but
only via additional controller chips, with the benefit much improved USB
transfer speeds. The Z77 chipset allows for up to four native USB 3 ports.
A second Z77 addition that requires an Ivy
Bridge CPU (and its Intel HD 4000 Graphics component) is the ability of the
integrated graphic processor (IGP) to output to three screens without a
discrete GPU installed. The technology isn’t as advanced as AMD Eyefinity or
Nvidia Surround, which output to three (or more) displays as a single large
surface, but the ability for on-board graphics to output to multiple displays
is useful in circumstances where a discrete GPU isn’t an option.
While Z77 motherboards use the same
dual-channel DDR3 layout as P67 and Z68 boards, Ivy Bridge CPUs now offer
support for higher memory frequencies. For a start, 1,600MHz DDR3 is now
officially supported, but the smaller memory frequency granularity also allows
for a greater number of possible memory frequencies, topping out at a mighty
Exclusive to Z77 (in so far as 7-series
chipsets are concerned) is Intel’s Smart Response Technology for SSD caching.
This feature debuted in Z68, combining the storage benefits of a hard disk with
the speed of an SSD by caching frequently used files to the SSD. In Z68, we
found it a chore to set up, but Intel has significantly improved this aspect
with Z77. It’s a niche feature, especially as SSD prices are really tumbling
now, but it’s still a neat addition.
How we tested
We tested with an Intel Core i7-3770K (see
p36) and Corsair H100 liquid cooler. This was joined by a GeForce GTX 680 2GB,
8GB ( 2 x 4GB) of Corsair DDR3 1,600MHz RAM (CL9), a 1.05kW Enermax Revolution
85+ PSU and a Patriot Wildfire 128GB SSD.
Tests were performed using our own Media
Benchmarks, as well as our own Arma II: Operation Arrowhead benchmark, Shogun
2: Total War’s built-in CPU benchmark and ATTO disk benchmark to test SATA
speeds. For stock performance, each board was reset to factory defaults and
then had its memory set to 1,600MHz. For overclocked performance, we left the
memory at 1,600MHz, but aimed to reach the 4.8GHz speed of which we know the
CPU is capable of reaching before running our test again.