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Six $220-280 Z77 Express-Based Motherboards, Reviewed

Intel's Mainstream Z77 Express Goes High-End

The divide between Intel's mainstream and high-end platforms continues to confound enthusiasts. If you go with Intel's latest and greatest architecture, you're limited to four cores and 16 lanes of PCI Express 3.0 connectivity. Those specs seem pretty meager compared to Sandy Bridge-E's six cores and 40 lanes of 8 GT/s PCI Express. But, of course, Sandy Bridge-E centers on an older core design. So, in some apps, the Ivy Bridge-based Core chips are faster. In others, Sandy Bridge-E comes out ahead. How's that for a conundrum?

Gamers simply want their favorite titles to run better. And the Ivy Bridge architecture's better per-clock performance helps make that happen (not to mention dramatically lower prices). The 22 nm process Intel uses to manufacture those chips also helps cut power consumption. And while on-die HD Graphics engine is all but useless for 3D, its Quick Sync functionality facilitates great video transcoding acceleration. Ivy Bridge-based chips seem to hit similar overclocks, but with far more conservative cooling requirements. And the architecture's biggest limitation, a scarcity of PCI Express connectivity, is hardly a problem for power users building systems with one or two graphics cards.

The PCI Express on one of the boards we're reviewing today even has a repeater function that helps overcome the tiniest of Z77 Express' weaknesses in SLI or CrossFire configurations.

This platform's battle for enthusiast market share doesn’t end with basic specifications, however. Motherboard vendors must also convince their customers that Z77 Express-equipped platforms have the features and stability to match high-end X79 Express-based offerings. We received six motherboards that attempt to prove this point (though one of the products no longer qualifies for our final analysis).

Motherboard Features
ASRock Z77 OC FormulaAsus Sabertooth Z77ECS Z77H2-AX
PCB Revision1.031.021.0
ChipsetIntel Z77 ExpressIntel Z77 ExpressIntel Z77 Express
Voltage Regulator14 PhasesTwelve Phases15 Phases
BIOSP1.00 (07/30/2012)1504 (08/03/2012)120424 (04/24/2012)
100.0 MHz BCLK100.0 (+0.00%)100.30 (+0.03%)99.78 (-0.22%)
I/O Panel Connectors
P/S 21NoneNone
USB 3.0644
USB 2.0444
IEEE-1394NoneNoneNone
NetworkSingleSingleSingle
eSATANone22
CLR_CMOS ButtonYesNo (flash button only)Yes
Digital Audio OutOptical OnlyOptical OnlyOptical Only
Digital Audio InNoneNoneNone
Analog Audio565
Video OutHDMIHDMI, DisplayPortVGA, HDMI
Other DevicesNoneNoneBluetooth, WiFi
Internal Interfaces
PCIe 3.0 x162 (x16/x0 or x8/x8)2 (x16/x0 or x8/x8)3 (x16/x16/x0, x16/x8/x8)
PCIe 2.0 x161 (4-lanes from PCH)1 (4-lanes from PCH)None
PCIe x1/x42/03/02/0
Mini PCIeNoneNone1
USB 2.03 (6-ports)3 (6-ports)1 (2-ports)
USB 3.01 (2-ports)1 (2-ports)1 (2-ports)
IEEE-1394NoneNoneNone
SATA 6.0 Gb/s644
SATA 3.0 Gb/s443 (includes 1x mSATA)
4-Pin Fan261
3-Pin Fan512
FP-Audio111
S/PDIF I/OOutput OnlyOutput OnlyOutput Only
Power ButtonYesNoYes
Reset ButtonYesNoYes
CLR_CMOS ButtonNoNoNo
Diagnostics PanelNumericPass/Fail LEDsNumeric
Legacy InterfacesSerial PortNoneSerial, 2x PCI
Mass Storage Controllers
Chipset SATA2 x SATA 6Gb/s 4 x SATA 3Gb/s2 x SATA 6Gb/s 4 x SATA 3Gb/s2 x SATA 6Gb/s 2 x SATA 3Gb/s 1 x mSATA 3Gb/s
Chipset RAID Modes0, 1, 5, 100, 1, 5, 100, 1, 5, 10
Add-In SATA2 x 88SE9172 PCIe 4 x SATA 6Gb/s RAID 0/12 x ASM1061 PCIe2 x SATA 6Gb/s 2 x eSATA 6Gb/s2 x ASM1061 PCIe2 x SATA 6Gb/s 2 x eSATA 6Gb/s
USB 3.0EJ188H PCIeIntel Z77 IntegratedASM1042 PCIeIntel Z77 IntegratedTUSB7320 PCIeIntel Z77 Integrated
IEEE-1394NoneNoneNone
Gigabit Ethernet
Primary LANBCM57781 PCIeWG82579V PHYRTL8111E PCIe
Secondary LANNoneNoneNone
Audio
HD Audio CodecALC898ALC892ALC892
DDL/DTS ConnectNot SpecifiedNot SpecifiedNot Specified
WarrantyThree YearsFive Years3-yr Parts, 2-yr Labor

The one motherboard in today’s line-up with a 48-lane PCIe 3.0 bridge is ECS’ Golden Z77H2-AX. Unfortunately, this platform climbed $40 beyond the budget limit of today’s round-up in the time we've been reviewing it. We're tired of seeing board vendors playing pricing games based on our review schedule (this isn't the first time we're seeing a curiously-timed price move). So, since we put the work in to review ECS' submission, we're including our already-gathered data and simply withholding the board from any award candidacy.

The only other $220-280 board with PLX's 48-lane PCIe swtich is also out of contention because its manufacturer chose to focus on a different high-end feature. But what other $40 feature could be worth its cost to the end user? Here's a hint: Zeus.

Motherboard Features
Gigabyte Z77X-UP5 THIntel DZ77RE-75KMSI Z77A-GD80
PCB Revision1.0011.0
ChipsetIntel Z77 ExpressIntel Z77 ExpressIntel Z77 Express
Voltage RegulatorTwelve PhasesTen Phases14 Phases
BIOSF9 (08/23/2012)0049 (07/13/2012)V1.1 (06/12/2012)
100.0 MHz BCLK100.10 (+0.10%)99.78 (-0.22%)100.0 (+0.0%)
I/O Panel Connectors
P/S 2None11
USB 3.0442
USB 2.0224
IEEE-1394None1None
NetworkSingleDualSingle
eSATA11None
CLR_CMOS ButtonNoBack To BIOSYes
Digital Audio OutOptical OnlyOptical OnlyOptical+Coaxial
Digital Audio InNoneNoneNone
Analog Audio556
Video OutVGA, DVI-D, HDMIHDMIHDMI, VGA
Other DevicesDual ThunderboltThunderboltThunderbolt
Internal Interfaces
PCIe 3.0 x163 (x16/x0/x0, x8/x8/x0, x8/x4/x4)2 (x16/x0 or x8/x8)3 (x16/x0/x0, x8/x8/x0, x8/x4/x4)
PCIe 2.0 x16NoneNoneNone
PCIe x1/x43/03/04 (two shared)/0
Mini PCIeNoneNoneNone
USB 2.02 (4-ports)3 (6-ports)3 (6-ports)
USB 3.03 (6-ports)2 (4-ports)1 (2-ports)
IEEE-1394111
SATA 6.0 Gb/s244
SATA 3.0 Gb/s4 (1 shared w/mSATA)44
4-Pin Fan543
3-Pin FanNoneNone2
FP-Audio111
S/PDIF I/OInput and OutputOutput OnlyNone
Power ButtonYesYesYes
Reset ButtonYesYesYes
CLR_CMOS ButtonYesNoNo
Diagnostics PanelNumericNumericNumeric
Legacy Interfaces1 x PCI2 x PCISerial Port
Mass Storage Controllers
Chipset SATA2 x SATA 6Gb/s 4 x SATA 3Gb/s2 x SATA 6Gb/s 3 x SATA 3Gb/s 1 x eSATA 3Gb/s2 x SATA 6Gb/s 4 x SATA 3Gb/s
Chipset RAID Modes0, 1, 5, 100, 1, 5, 100, 1, 5, 10
Add-In SATA88SE9172 PCIe1 x SATA 6Gb/s1 x eSATA 6Gb/s2 x 88SE9172 PCIe2 x SATA 6Gb/s 1 x eSATA 6Gb/sASM1061 PCIe (Shared w/FireWire)2 x SATA 6Gb/s
USB 3.0Intel Z77 Integrated 2x VL-810 4-port HubIntel Z77 Integrated 2x GL3520M 4-port HubZ77 Integrated Only
IEEE-1394NoneTSB43AB22A PCIVT6315N PCIe (Shared w/SATA)
Gigabit Ethernet
Primary LANWG82579V PHYWG82579V PHYWG82579V PHY
Secondary LANNoneWG82574L PCIeNone
Audio
HD Audio CodecALC898ALC898ALC898
DDL/DTS ConnectNot SpecifiedNot SpecifiedNot Specified
WarrantyThree YearsThree YearsThree Years

Three of the motherboards in today’s line-up include Thunderbolt technology, and one even has Intel’s $40 DSL3510 dual-channel controller. Choosing between its three-way SLI-capable and dual-port Thunderbolt-equipped products must have been difficult for Gigabyte, but we’re sure storage geeks like our own Andrew Ku will applaud its decision.