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Picking The Right High-End Z77 Board

Six $220-280 Z77 Express-Based Motherboards, Reviewed
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Today’s motherboard comparison has two distinct groups of platforms: those with and those without Thunderbolt technology. Of the boards without Thunderbolt, ECS had the best features.

Unfortunately, ECS' Z77H2-AX falls completely outside of today’s budget range. The company simply wasn’t able to maintain its temporarily-deflated price until after our review got published. Asus and ASRock are our remaining non-Thunderbolt choices, and both are fairly well matched for features and stability, yet Asus's five year warranty trumps the three years of ASRock.

All of the Thundebolt boards are heavily compromised due to the scarcity of PCIe lanes inherent to Intel's Ivy Bridge architecture. The worst-compromised board lacks the PCIe switch needed to activate all of its interfaces at once, but comes in cheaper than even the non-Thunderbolt-equipped boards. If your needs are almost completely addressed by Intel's Ivy Bridge processor design, third-gen PCIe x16 graphics, and a single Thunderbolt port, MSI’s Z77A-GD80 looks like a good value.

Gigabyte beats Intel in Thunderbolt support by offering two connectors, but lacks Intel’s secondary gigabit Ethernet controller. The Z77X-UP5 TH is also $30 cheaper than the DZ77RE-75K, and few of use would pay $30 for the extra network controller. Both boards also include Wi-Fi/Bluetooth combo modules. From a pure value perspective that doesn’t account for any specific user’s specific needs, Gigabyte’s dual-Thunderbolt-equipped Z77X-UP5 TH appears to offer more features per dollar.

In fact, the difference in price between Gigabyte and MSI solutions is only $5, and Gigabyte’s solution also includes the PCIe switch needed to activate all of its features simultaneously. That switch is worth more than the $5 price difference. MSI also lacks any Wi-Fi or Bluetooth capabilities, which we think are worth about four times the price difference. Add in the fact that the Z77X-UP5 TH has twice as many Thunderbolt connectors, and Gigabyte takes the value lead away from MSI in spite of the $5 price difference.

While Asus relied on an extended warranty to put its Sabertooth Z77's ahead of ASRock's Z77 OC Formula in value, hardware differences made it easier to pick a leader between various Thunderbolt solutions. Gigabyte leads that features-per-price battle without making any serious concessions in performance or overclocking, so the Z77X-UP5 TH earns its value award.

Our attempt to work out the value award mathematically assumes that Thunderbolt technology is worth as much as it costs, something that should be a safe assumption for anyone who thinks they might use this new technology within the next few years. But anyone who doesn't use that technology during the life of their next build will find no value in it, and anyone who's prone to motherboard failure will find exceptional value in Asus' extended warranty. Because both of these exceptions will likely apply to a large number of buyers, the Sabertooth Z77 also gets our stamp of approval.

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