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Three Z97 Express Motherboards, $220 To $280, Reviewed

Gigabyte Z97X-Gaming GT Hardware

Gigabyte doesn’t play around with fake slots on its Z97X-Gaming GT, instead placing four PCIe x16 slots cable of at least PCIe 3.0 x8 mode and filling the spaces between with PCIe 2.0 connectivity. The I/O panel is similarly filled up with six USB 3.0 and two USB 2.0 ports. Gigabyte even classes that area up with gold-plated audio and video connections.

The word “Gaming” is strategically placed in its name, so Gigabyte’s cheapest four-way SLI-capable board also boasts a replaceable TI OPA2134 op-amp to help gamers push their high-impedance headphones. A row of DIP switches provides hardware-level custom gain control.

Spaced to place four double-slot cards in an eight-slot case, the Z97X Gaming can also put two triple-slot cards in a standard ATX seven-slot chassis, gaining access to one of the PCIe x1 slots in that configuration. Unlike ASRock's board, this one doesn’t shift a pair of cards down to x8 bandwidth whenever an Ultra M.2 drive is present, mostly because it doesn’t support Ultra M.2. All sixteen PCIe 3.0 lanes are permanently connected to graphics slots, with the PEX 8747 bridge repeating those sixteen lanes of data to two PCIe x16 cards simultaneously. As with Gigabyte’s competitor, smaller two-lane switches allow the second and fourth graphics slots to steal half the lanes from the first and third slots in three- or four-way CrossFire/SLI.

Gigabyte knows its automatic Dual BIOS can be either a blessing or a curse (depending on what problem activates the feature), so it allows owners of its premium products to switch that feature off. Another switch lets you choose between firmware ROMs in single-BIOS mode.

Moving to the front edge, we find a connector that looks large enough to hold up to six ports, but actually only hosts four. It’s SATA-Express, so the rest of the space is dedicated to a PCIe x1 lane. The two SATA connectors to the left of that connector interface with the chipset, while the two ports on the right use an added-in 88SE9172 controller from Marvell.

Gigabyte adds a USB 3.0 hub to one of the chipset’s lanes, sharing a single port’s bandwidth between four of the I/O panel ports, while simultaneously losing one of the chipset’s other USB 3.0 ports. The four remaining are divided between two I/O panel connectors and a front-panel header that’s conveniently located above the top graphics slot, along the Z97X-Gaming GT’s front edge.

Overclocking is tied to the gaming theme with a row of voltage detection points near the top corner of the X97X Gaming GT’s front edge. Most gamers won’t have easy access, but overclocking exhibitionists typically use open test beds. Those enthusiasts will also appreciate the nearby power, reset and CLR_CMOS buttons, along with the board's two-digit status code display.

What could be wrong with a layout this nice? Perhaps some users will experience the “I can’t believe my cable is too short” realization when connecting front-panel audio jacks to the board’s bottom-rear-corner header, but those folks should point their fingers at case makers first. While we like that some motherboard designs move this header slightly forward, we can’t blame platform vendors for a chassis designer's poor decisions.

The Z97X-Gaming GT includes four SATA cables (two have a single 90° end), two-, three-, and four-way SLI bridges and a CrossFire bridge.