We've already covered all of the juicy details of Intel’s Z77 chipset and put a few motherboards through their paces, but there are so many manufacturers with killer boards available based on the chipset, that it’d be a crime if we didn’t round up another stack of them for you.
As always, each manufacturer took their own approach to building boards around the Z77 chipset, offering their own proprietary tweaks, layout, aesthetics, UEFI, and software. All four took full advantage of the features afforded to them by the platform itself, as well, including native USB 3.0 support among a few other things.
If you haven’t yet decided which 7-series motherboard you’re going to build your next Ivy Bridge system on (or if you simply like reading about/drooling over shiny new hardware), read on for the skinny on four more Z77-based mainboards, the ASRock Fatal1ty Z77 Professional, EVGA Z77 FTW, Gigabyte Z77X-UD3H, and Zotac Z77-ITX WiFi.
|ASRock Fatal1ty Z77 Professional|
|First up is the Fatal1ty-endorsed ASRock Z77 Professional, a fine-looking board sporting a black and red color scheme, set off by the gold capacitors dotting the PCB with the Fatal1ty logo emblazoned upon the southbridge heatsink. The heatpipes around the CPU socket are wrapped in black metal heatsinks that are reminiscent of an M16’s barrel grip.
Like all of the other boards in our roundup, the ASRock Z77 Professional supports socket 1155 2nd- and 3rd-generation Intel CPUs, and it also boasts a Digi Power VRM design and 16+8 digital power phases, and it can handle up to 32GB of DDR3-2800 (OC) dual-channel RAM over its four DIMM slots.
Though Intel's integrated graphics are nice for pedestrian tasks, the ASRock Z77 Professional is built for graphics expansion with two PCI-E 3.0 x16, a PCI-E 2.0 x16, a pair of PCI-E 2.0 x1 slots, and two PCI slots with support for up to four-way CrossFireX and SLI, with dual cards running at x8 each.
You’ll find no SATA 3Gbps ports on this board; instead, there are six total SATA 6Gbps ports (two powered by the chipset, four by the ASMedia chip). The back I/O panel has five USB 2.0 ports in addition to six USB 3.0, and a front panel header supports another two USB 3.0 ports. The rest of the ports on the back panel include a PS/2 port, eSATA3 port, FireWire, HDMI, DisplayPort, optical SPDIF, dual LAN, five audio jacks, and a clear CMOS button.
One of the USB ports is the Fatal1ty Mouse Port, which works in conjunction with the Fatal1ty F-Stream software, a utility that lets you overclock and tweak hardware settings including RAM speeds and Fan Control. With a USB mouse plugged into the special port, users can adjust the mouse polling rate from 125Hz to 1,000Hz using F-Stream.
Other ASRock software and utilities onboard include the ASRock OMG (Online Management Guard) Internet curfew service; Rapid Start and Smart Connect utilities to speed boot times and enable email receipt and Web page refreshes while the system’s asleep; CPU EZOC for easy overclocking; ASRock’s XFast 555 technology to boost memory, LAN, and USB performance; and more.
For accessories, ASRock provided a manual, quick installation guide, installation disc, I/O shield, six SATA cables, rear USB 3.0 bracket, front USB 3.0 panel, SLI bridge, a pair of power cable adapters, and a smattering of screws.
|EVGA Z77 FTW|
|The EVGA Z77 FTW showed up wearing basically the same red and black outfit as the ASRock board, but it has much less in the way of heat pipes around the CPU socket, although it does sport an actively cooled southbridge heatsink.
The board features a 7+1 Phase PWM, and although you only need to use one of them, the board has dual 8-pin power connectors for better overclocking capabilities; the POSCAP capacitors and a gold-infused CPU socket are also designed to help with stability when overclocking.
In addition to supporting Intel Socket 1155 CPUs, as you might expect, this motherboard will take up to 32GB of up to DDR3-2133MHz+ memory in its four DIMMs. A high-end mainboard like this one (especially with the E-ATX form factor) should boast strong expansion capabilities, and the EVGA Z77 FTW doesn’t disappoint; with five PCI-E 3.0 x16/x8 slots (and one PCI-E 2.0 x1 slot), the board supports up to four-way SLI or CrossFireX. For increased control, you can disable various PCI-E lanes with onboard switches.
Although there are four SATA 6Gbps connectors on board, EVGA also saw fit to include ten additional SATA 3Gbps ports (two of which are eSATA) as well, just in case you need to connect fourteen SATA devices at once. The USB situation is similar, with a total of ten USB 2.0 ports (six in back, four onboard) and six USB 3.0 (four in back, two onboard). It may seem a bit overkill to have so many ports--especially older-generation ones--but hey, it’s a big PCB, so the more the merrier.
In addition to the aforementioned USB and eSATA ports, the rear I/O panel includes a PS/2 port, dual LAN ports, clear CMOS button, mini-DisplayPort, optical port, and five audio jacks; there are physical power, reset, and clear CMOS buttons on the board, as well. Other physical features include a “dark mode” jumper that lets you easily shut off all the LEDs as well as a toggle switch to select between up to three BIOS versions.
Overall, the EVGA Z77 FTW is very well marked, which is a small but welcome design element. For example, there’s a sticker over the DIMM slots indicating which ones to use depending on your memory configuration, and most of the headers have a black plastic cover with clear red lettering so you can tell at a glance which are for USB 3.0, USB 2.0, or FireWire. The large visual guide poster included in the box is most helpful for figuring out which components are what, too.
EVGA kept the software and utilities list short and sweet, keeping it primarily limited to the EVGA E-LEET tuning tool. Not so with the included accessories though--as usual, EVGA provided a cornucopia that consists of a manual, an installation guide, drivers and utilities installation disc, rear I/O shield, four SATA cables, two SATA power adapters, 2- and 3-way SLI bridges, a FireWire port bracket, USB 2.0 bracket, and USB 3.0 bracket.
|Gigabyte’s mainboards are rarely accused of being too gaudy, and the Gigabyte Z77X-UD3H certainly isn’t. The black PCB is highlighted by black slots and tasteful metallic blue heatsinks, and aside from the big red power button and Debug LED, the board is a no-frills, all-business affair.
Gigabyte built the Z77X-UD3H with an all-digital VRM and PWM design and gave users control over the voltage, phase, and frequency controls via its 3D Power utility, and there are plenty of hardware monitoring tools and software on board if you need to reign in your settings.
The board can handle all Intel Socket 1155 Core i3/i5/i7, Pentium, and Celeron chips, as well as 32GB of DDR3-2666 (OC) system memory. On the graphics side of things, the Z77X-UD3H sports a D-Sub port, DVI-D port, HDMI port, and DisplayPort, and the board is ready for up to 2-way SLI/CrossFireX with three PCI-E x16 slots (one at x16, one at x8, and one at x4), three PCI-E x1 slots, and a PCI slot.
The board wants not for USB ports, with four USB 3.0 and six USB 2.0 available, along with another four rear USB 3.0 ports powered by the VIA chip; the rest of the rear I/O panel includes a PS/2 port, optical S/PDIF, Gigabit LAN port, and six audio jacks. In addition to the aforementioned big red power button, the Z77X-UD3H has physical reset and clear CMOS buttons as well as a BIOS toggle switch and a Debug LED.
Gigabyte was downright Spartan with the accessories--our mainboard came with just the manual, installation guidebook, drivers and utilities disk, I/O shield, SLI connector, and a few SATA cables--and incongruously generous with the included software and utilities. In addition to the requisite Intel software (Rapid Start, Smart Connect, Smart Response), Gigabyte packed in its @BIOS and Q-Flash BIOS technology; Xpress Install and Xpress Recovery2; EasyTune and X.H.D. overclocking tools; 333 Onboard Acceleration to boost USB and SATA performance; and more.
|Zotac Z77-ITX WiFi|
|The Z77-ITX WiFi is a nice motherboard, but Zotac gets bonus points for color-coordinating consistency; the PCB is predominantly black with yellow DIMM slots and black heatsinks, and even the SATA cables and 8-pin power extender in the box match the color scheme.
This board stands out in our roundup(s) as it’s the only one in the bunch in the mini-ITX form factor, but it boasts plenty of strong features, starting with support for all Intel socket LGA 1155 processors.
There are just two memory slots, but you can plug in up to 16GB of dual-channel DDR3-2133MHz (OC) memory if you use a pair of 8GB sticks. By dint of the motherboard’s size, graphics capabilities are limited somewhat by the presence of just one PCI-E x16 slot, although the integrated Intel graphics that come by way of a Sandy or Ivy bridge CPU support a pair of HDMI ports and mini-DisplayPort. There’s also a mini-PCI-E slot; it’s occupied by the included WiFi card, but in a pinch it wouldn’t be difficult to swap that out.
The Z77-ITX WiFi sports a pair each of SATA 6Gbps and SATA 3Gbps ports along with an mSATA port, and Zotac somehow fit support for a dozen USB ports on board as well--four USB 3.0 and eight USB 2.0. Six of them (two of the former, four of the latter) made it onto the rear I/O panel.
In addition to the above, the I/O panel has a PS/2 port, dual gigabit LAN ports with LED indicators, dual antennae ports for the 802.11n + Bluetooth WiFi module, optical S/PDIF, six audio ports, and a clear CMOS button. There are physical power and reset buttons on the board, as well as a Debug LED.
Belying the Z77-ITX WiFi’s diminutive size, the small box includes a surprising amount of accessories including the driver installation disc, manual, quick installation guide, four SATA cables, 8-pin power extender, USB 3.0 header (with an optional low-profile bracket), I/O shield, the two WiFi antennae, and a mini-DisplayPort to DisplayPort adapter.
|UEFI Comparison and Overclocking|
|Both the ASRock Fatal1ty Z77 Professional and Gigabyte GA-Z77X-UD3H have graphically impressive UEFIs (Unified Extensible Firmware Interfaces) to replace tired text-only BIOSes, as do most motherboard makers these days. Both have two ways of interacting with the BIOS--a straightforward, familiar menu enhanced by tastefully subdued graphics and navigable by both mouse and keyboard and a “3D” image of the motherboard that makes it a little easier for users to find the area they want to tweak--they just mouse-over various areas and click the menus that pop up.
ASRock Fatal1ty Z77 Professional UEFIThat is where the similarities end. We were initially excited to use Gigabyte’s 3D Bios when it first debuted on the company’s X79 boards but found it somewhat lacking. It was relatively slow, and it was sometimes impossible to navigate accurately. We gave Gigabyte a mulligan because the 3D BIOS was so new, but it hasn't matured well with their Z77 boards. The performance problems persist, and the cool photorealistic 3D image of the motherboard--one of the few saving graces of the UEFI--is now mostly a plain gray. Not to beat a dead horse or seem cruel, but there are even typos littering the UEFI. (Have fun looking for them. You get a nickel for each one you find.)
ASRock’s UEFI by contrast is snappy and intuitive, and although past versions have been fine, the addition of the motherboard image is a nice touch that provides users with another means to interact to certain settings.
Although EVGA’s BIOS doesn’t exactly look much like a UEFI, it is indeed navigable by mouse and performs well. The company kept the menu options fairly concise, and the overall design, look, and color scheme matches EVGA’s website exactly. Despite the somewhat subdued look of the UEFI, there are plenty of options for tweaking and fine-tuning this board to keep even hardcore overclockers happy. Actually, the lack of a flashy interface makes for a nicely uncluttered space with few distractions that some overclockers may prefer.
Like Gigabyte until recently, Zotac was one of the last holdouts in terms of implementing a UEFI. Now, the company has a simple, nice-looking UEFI, and although there’s still no way to navigate the menus and submenus with a mouse, it’s a fine upgrade from the old blue and gray, text-only BIOS we saw on Zotac’s Z68 boards. It’s easy enough to find your way around, and there’s nothing flashy to distract you.
It's not overflowing with overclocking options, but there's no need; this is a board designed more for HTPC applications than gaming, so users are more likely to want to check temperatures and adjust fan speeds (which are conveniently located under the PC-Health tab) than push the CPU and memory clocks and voltages to their limit.
Take that with a grain of salt, though, because each board has plenty of overclocking options to toy with, so with a little patience and tinkering, and better cooling, all four boards should easily be able to hit higher overclocks and please all but the more hardcore overclockers.
|Test Setup and PCMark 7|
|Test System Configuration Notes: When configuring our test systems for this article, we first entered their respective UEFI menus and set each board to its "Optimized" or "High performance Defaults". We then saved the settings, re-entered the BIOS and set the memory frequency to the maximum officially supported speed for the given platform. The hard drives were then formatted, and Windows 7 Home Premium x64 was installed. When the Windows installation was complete, we updated the OS, and installed the drivers necessary for our components. Auto-Updating and Windows Defender were then disabled and we installed all of our benchmarking software, performed a disk clean-up, cleared temp and prefetch data, and ran the tests.
Futuremark's PCMark 7 is the latest version of the PCMark whole-system benchmarking suite. It has updated application performance measurements targeted for a Windows 7 environment and uses newer metrics to gauge relative performance, versus the older PCMark Vantage.
Below is what Futuremark says is incorporated in the base PCMark suite and the Entertainment, Creativity, and Productivity suites, the four modules we have benchmark scores for you here.
The PCMark test is a collection of workloads that measure system performance during typical desktop usage. This is the most important test since it returns the official PCMark score for the system
As we saw with our first round of Z77 boards, there's no meaningful difference in the scores these motherboards put up. The consistency is of further interest because of the differences between the boards in our roundup in terms of form factor and individual add-on features.
|Cinebench R11.5 and POV-Ray|
|Cinebench R11.5 is an OpenGL 3D rendering performance test based on Cinema 4D from Maxon. Cinema 4D is a 3D rendering and animation suite used by 3D animation houses and producers like Sony Animation and many others. It's very demanding of system processor resources and is an excellent gauge of computational throughput. This is a multi-threaded, multi-processor aware benchmark that renders a 3D scene and tracks the length of the entire process. The rate at which each test system was able to render the entire scene is represented in the graph below.
Although the Zotac's scores are a bit lower compared to the rest of the field, it's within a tenth of a point of the leader in the multi-threaded test. In the single-threaded test, though, it actually did a smidge better than the EVGA board, whose score was comparatively poor.
POV-Ray , or the Persistence of Vision Ray-Tracer, is an open source tool for creating realistically lit 3D graphics artwork. We tested with POV-Ray's standard 'one-CPU' and 'all-CPU' benchmarking tools on all of our test machines and recorded the scores reported for each. Results are measured in pixels-per-second throughput; higher scores equate to better performance.
For the most part so far, consistency is the name of the game. The scores here are remarkably close, although as in the Cinebench test, the Zotac board lags behind slightly, and the EVGA board came up just a little lame in the single-threaded test.
|LameMT and SunSpider|
|In our custom LAME MT MP3 encoding test, we convert a large WAV file to the MP3 format, which is a popular scenario that many end users work with on a day-to-day basis to provide portability and storage of their digital audio content. LAME is an open-source mid to high bit-rate and VBR (variable bit rate) MP3 audio encoder that is used widely around the world in a multitude of third party applications.
In this test, we created our own 223MB WAV audio file and converted it to the MP3 format using the multi-thread capable LAME MT application in single and multi-thread modes. Processing times are recorded below, listed in seconds. Shorter times equate to better performance.
Oddly, in a series of tests in which a group of motherboards could hit a range of scores, we've seen very close groupings, but in a test where the scores are usually identical, we see a bit of variation. Granted, there isn't much--a second or two here and there--but the two-second gap between the ASRock and EVGA boards is notable.
All of the systems were testing using the latest version of Internet Explorer 9, with default browser settings, on a clean installation of Windows 7 Home Premium x64.
Each motherboard scored within about 6ms of one another in this test. Note that lower scores are better in SunSpider, so the EVGA board once again brought up the rear, although it continues to do so by about the same margin--which is to say, a minute one.The ASRock board bested the field, although the tiny Zotac Z77-ITX WiFi was a close second.
|Low-Res: Gaming Tests|
|For our next series of tests, we moved on to some more in-game benchmarking with Crysis and Enemy Territory: Quake Wars. When testing processors with Crysis or ET:QW, we drop the resolution to 1024x768, and reduce all of the in-game graphical options to their minimum values to isolate CPU and memory performance as much as possible. However, the in-game effects, which control the level of detail for the games' physics engines and particle systems, are left at their maximum values, since these actually do place a load on the CPU rather than GPU.
Sometimes a few FPSes here and there can make a big difference in the user experience of a game, but not when you're hitting them this high. All the motherboards blazed through these tests, and although (surprise!) the scores were closely clustered, the Gigabyte board edged out the field in both tests. In ET:QW, it's worth noting that the difference between the Gigabyte board and the ASRock board was over 9FPS, though.
|Total System Power Consumption|
|Before bringing this article to a close, we'd also like to talk a bit about power consumption. Throughout all of our benchmarking and testing, we monitored how much power each of our Z77 Express-based test systems was consuming with a power meter, and compared them to the reference systems used throughout our benchmark tests.
Our goal was to give you an idea as to how much power each configuration used while idling at the Windows desktop and while under a heavy CPU workload. Keep in mind, this is total system power consumption being measured at the outlet and not the the individual power consumption of the motherboards alone.
One thing you can count on with a little mainboard like the Zotac Z77-ITX WiFi is that it's just not going to drink as much power as a bigger board, and indeed, it pulled just 73W at idle and 145W under load, as opposed to the three larger boards that had similar power requirements. This is the only test we've seen in this roundup where one contender really stands out.
|Summary and Conclusion|
|Performance Summary: In our first Z77 roundup, the cadre of motherboards were strikingly similar in design and posted commensurate benchmarks; this time around, we have a much more diverse group, yet there’s still very little in terms of performance that set them apart. However, those similarities were due in large part because we used the same components for testing each board, so it’s important to take into account the expandability of each motherboard when making a decision about which would best suit your needs. Note that all four of these motherboards were rock-solid stable as well.
ASRock Fatal1ty Z77 Professional: Although this is a fancy pro gamer-branded board, the price tag doesn’t seem to be inflated by it; considering what you get, $229.99 isn’t a bad deal at all, especially given the somewhat compelling extra Fatal1ty-branded features. The Z77 Pro can handle big-time graphics with quad-SLI/CrossFireX support, and we like the dual-LAN with teaming capability as well. It’s a little light on ports, with just six SATA ports and six USB ports (eight USB if you count the front header), although they’re all next-generation SATA 6Gbps and USB 3.0, respectively. The board's also got an excellent UEFI and it was a decent overclocker. If you're looking to build an Intel-based system for gaming, the ASRock Fatal1ty Z77 Pro is a great option.
ASRock Fatal1ty Z77 Professional
EVGA Z77 FTW: At a steep $329.99, the EVGA Z77 FTW is by far the priciest board in the roundup, and it’s hard to justify the cost--unless your a hardcore overclocked, that is. The thing is definitely built for graphics superiority with support for four-way SLI/CrossFireX, and there’s clearly an impressive amount of overclocking headroom to spare. The EVGA Z77 FTW was the best overclocking board of the bunch and allowed us to take our particular CPU to its highest frequency yet. Although it doesn’t have as many next-gen SATA and USB ports as the ASRock board, it’s got way more than enough in total: sixteen USB and fourteen SATA, with dual LAN ports.
Gigabyte Z77X-UD3H: The Gigabyte Z77X-UD3H is a more budget-friendly option than the Z77X-UD5H, and it’s the steal of the group at just $159.99. Though all the boards posted similar scores in our tests, the Gigabyte board was usually a hair better than the rest. True, it doesn’t have quite the expandability options of some other boards, but it can still run a pair of graphics cards and has a strong array of onboard display output options. Further, it has an mSATA port, so users can give a system built on this board a bump in performance using Intel's SRT for very little extra dough.
Gigabyte Z77X-UD3HThe Gigabyte board's UEFI leaves something to be desired in light of the other options, but the board is certainly stable, so unless you really like to spend time in the BIOS, you can probably live with the jankiness until an update fixes the issues we've mentioned.
Zotac Z77-ITX WiFi: Zotac continues to amaze with what it can cram into a mini-ITX motherboard; for its size, there’s a reasonable number of ports onboard, including two HDMI ports and a mini-DisplayPort, and the mSATA port makes for a nice performance-boosting option. It’s also impressive that the Z77-ITX WiFi has dual LAN ports in addition to the WiFi + Bluetooth module. The limited expansion capabilities ensure that this little board is relegated to only certain use cases, and considering that, $199.95 might be a tad pricey despite its many excellent features and solid performance.
EVGA Z77 FTW
Zotac Z77-ITX WiFi