GIGABYTE Z97X-Gaming G1 Black Edition Review

Author: AkG
Date: May 9, 2014
Product Name: Z97X-Gaming G1 Black Edition
Part Number: Z97X-Gaming G1 Black Edition
Warranty: 3 Years
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The Z97 Chipset; The Evolution Continues

By now nearly everyone is familiar with Intelís tick-tock strategy where every die shrink of a previous microarchitecture is succeeded by a new architectural revision. Hence the recent 22nm Haswell will soon be replaced with Broadwell, a family of chips based on Haswellís design but built using a 14nm manufacturing process. This pattern of constant updates is realistic within the CPU world but the processorís partner chipsets have always seemed to lag behind. Many will come to this conclusion when looking at Intelís latest chipset, the LGA1150-based Z97.

Z97 actually presents an interesting case study in how certain key elements in a motherboardís toolkit have moved forwards while others have retained the status quo since Z87 was rolled out in 2013. In the course of a year graphics and networking interfaces just havenít evolved while storage technology has been given a boost of adrenalin through the ratification of SATA 3.2. This means in its most basic form Z97 and its associated H97 sibling are identical to their predecessors but have some additional storage compatibility bolted on to keep pace with current trends.

One interesting aspect of Z97 is its launch timeframe which was pulled forward. Instead of being introduced alongside Broadwell in Q4 of this year, Z97 can be considered a mid-life refresh that preempts (and fully supports) Intelís upcoming Devil Canyon CPUs. Broadwell compatibility is built in as well.

To many of you the block diagram above will look eerily similar since itís nearly identical to the one posted in our Haswell / Z87 article. Every Z97 board will board full backwards compatibility with 4th generation Haswell and 5th generation Broadwell processors as well as the upcoming Haswell refresh, code named Devilís Canyon. This grants the board access to 16 PCI-E 3.0 lanes which can be split into two x8 lanes for SLI and Crossfire support or a one x8 and two x4 setup for applications that require more accessory PCI-E lanes. Thereís also the usual 1600MHz DDR3/3L compatibility alongside a display output for multi monitor support from the processorís integrated GPU core.

The Processor Graphics communicates with and ultimately outputs its display signals to the PCH via the FDI or Flexible Display Interface. This runs in parallel with the DMI interface, a link between the CPU and the PCH that features four bi-directional PCI-E lanes that can operate at speeds of up to 2 GB/s. This results in 4 GB/s of aggregate bandwidth if both upstream and downstream lanes are used to their theoretical maximum. These features have been staples within Intelís chipset design for years now.

Moving down to the PCH itself, we have the usual capabilities for up to six SATA 6Gbps ports, six USB 3.0 ports (or 14 USB 2.0) and up to eight PCI-E 2.0 lanes. The ďup toĒ designation is derived from Intelís use of a purpose-built Flexible IO interface which weíll talk more about on the next page. In short, Flex IO allows four of the PCHís PCI Express lanes to be used for either PCI-E or SATA / USB 3.0 functionality depending on a motherboard manufacturerís design goals.

While the integrated 10/100/1000 MAC, its partner Ethernet connection and the Intel HD Audio controller arenít anything new, the addition of Intelís Rapid Storage Technology support for PCI Express storage devices is a pretty major addition. With it, PCIe-based SSDs will now have access to RSTís broad support toolkit which includes everything from RAID implementation to power management and other key features. Typically many of these were gained through ad hoc drivers from PCIe SSD manufacturers but now Intel is adding compatibility at the chipset level.

The H97ís layout follows very much the same guidelines as Z97 but with features that are targeted towards system integrators and corporate clients rather than enthusiasts. The main differentiators here are a lack of dual graphics card support and no integrated backbone for the optional Extreme Tuning Utility but the addition of Intelís Small Business Advantage Platform and Identity Protection Technology. Motherboards based around the H97 PCH will likely be seen at significantly lower price points than those using Z97.

Most clients will likely look at both of these platformsí primary capabilities and overlook a key option being added by Intel this time around: Device Protection Technology. This feature may be optional for motherboard manufacturers but we hope to see it being implemented on more systems. Device Protection and its associated Boot Guard institute a boot block at the hardware level against malware attacks. This prevents repurposing of the platform to run unauthorized software but is only available on Devilís Canyon CPUs rather than existing Haswell processors.

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