Gigabyte GA-Z77X-UP5 TH
Gigabyte’s exclusive feature for today’s round-up is a dual-port Thunderbolt controller, which also supports two monitors as long as the DVI-D connector is empty. Of course, it also supports two chains of storage devices or whatever else affluent enthusiasts connect to the PCI Express-based external interface. Anyone who would rather hold off on $40 cables might be just as happy with the Z77X-UP5 TH’s selection of four back-panel USB 3.0 ports, HDMI, DVI, and VGA outputs.
We’re still trying to wrap our heads around the presence of VGA output on high-end boards. It's a little easier to explain the lack of two gigabit Ethernet controllers by the fact that Intel's Thunderbolt controller eats half of the Z77 Platform Controller Hub's PCIe 2.0 lanes. In the face of a lot less PCI Express connectivity, Gigabyte's engineers were forced to put all three PCIe x1 slots on a four-lane PLX bridge.
Gigabyte certainly didn’t want to give up any bandwidth for discrete graphics cards, though we probably would have tolerated an 8732 bridge in exchange for more PCIe performance elsewhere. As it is, anyone who wants to populate the bottom x16 slot will find that doing so knocks the board into x8/x4/x4 mode. Don't even bother if you're trying to upgrade a machine with a Sandy Bridge-based CPU; you need an Ivy Bridge-based chip to support that kind of lane division.
With those limitations in mind, PLX Technology's 8732 PCI Express switch looks like it would have been a better move for Gigabyte. And using it would have given the company's designers a lot more flexibility in choosing PCIe x1-based features.
The Z77X-UP5 TH’s layout is good overall, with one of its two USB 3.0 internal headers found above the top graphics card slot where it won’t block anything. The top and middle PCIe x16 slots are also separated by three spaces to assist GPU cooling, and the Port 80 diagnostics display is located by the memory slots where it can’t get blocked by a processor or graphics card heat sink.
On the other hand, the second USB 3.0 internal header is found below the bottom graphics slot, and using it would prevent the insertion of most performance-oriented graphics cards. A SATA 6Gb/s connector placed along the bottom edge seems even more wasteful in light of the fact that mSATA is shared with one of the more conveniently-located forward-facing ports.
Most builders don’t use the top PCIe x1 slot, but Gigabyte gives them a good reason to with its Wi-Fi/Bluetooth card. The Wi-Fi side is PCIe, while the Bluetooth radio unfortunately requires connecting an internal cable to one of the Z77X-UP5 TH’s front-panel USB 2.0 headers.
The Z77X-UP5 TH includes a very nice-looking USB 3.0-to-3.5” external bay adapter, six SATA cables, the Wi-Fi/Bluetooth card with dual antennas, a USB 2.0 link cable for the Bluetooth controller, and a single Nvidia SLI bridge.