Two new tricks
Gigabyte has made a rod for its own back with the £75 Z77-D3H motherboard. This competent all-rounder pokes fun at dearer boards by matching their performance while stripping out features that are, by and large, unnecessary for the mass market. Want a cheap, solid third-generation Intel Core build? The Z77-D3H has all the makings of a decent bedfellow.
But hey, if spending more money was verging on the pointless, God forbid, the enthusiast market would die in a heartbeat. Being the active sort of fellows that they are, Gigabyte UK's marketing team advanced the lovely-named Z77X-UP4 TH for our review delectation on a cold December morning.
This £150 board sits slap bang in the middle of Gigabyte's current Z77 catalogue that spans from £70 to an improbable £300. So why pay the extra over a basic board? The 2012 range is a little confusing to say the least – 21 boards, ahem – but the two performance series are referenced as 'UD' and 'UP'. Guess what, the Z77X-UP4 TH is a 'UP-type' board, should the obvious escape you, and it harnesses the firm's latest technology that we'll distil during a look at the board. Oh, and that TH suffix is worth talking about, too.
A top-down look paints a nice picture. Gigabyte's styling department of 2009 has been shown the door and the latest raft of boards look rather nice, subjectively speaking. But it's substance that you care about, not style, and the first annoyance presents itself with an awkwardly-located 8-pin power connector, sandwiched right by the uppermost heatsink; Gigabyte couldn't have put it in a worse position, especially if you're working with a small chassis.
The two heatsinks close to the CPU area aren't as overt and masculine as other boards', but there's good technical reason for that, according to Gigabyte. The 'UP' boards have the very best power-controlling components available, and they fall under the Ultra Durable 5 geek-speak banner. Oversimplifying it to the extent that we'll get snotty emails from hardworking engineers, Gigabyte adopts IR3550 PowerIRStage ICs that promise lots of current and significantly lower operating temperatures than traditional MOSFETs and chokes. And high efficiency allied with lower-than-normal temperatures is a recipe for better overclocking. You see, that extra money is going somewhere.
The centrally-located mSATA slot remains a favourite, though do be aware that, if used, the physical SATA5 port becomes unusable – they share the same bandwidth allocation. Further investigation reveals the Z77X-UP4 TH is a conservative board, because there's no additional SATA support past that naturally provided by Intel's six ports, of which only two are of the faster 6Gbps variety. Overclocking-friendly options such as a debug LCD, voltage-monitoring points, and a clear-CMOS button are conspicuous by their absence. Heck, you didn't expect all that for £150, did you?
Expansion slots are always worth devoting a few words to. In keeping with the I'm-not-an-enthusiast-board mantra, PCIe 3.0 allocation stems from the Z77 chipset alone. This means the trio of full-length (x16) slots' bandwidth promise is somewhat stunted. Use just one card and the topmost slot'll give you the full 16 lanes of juicy transfers. Add an SLI- or CrossFire-forming card into the long slot below, which is nicely spaced, and bandwidth is bifurcated to two x8.
That slot right at the bottom is x4, and if, and only if, you have a third-generation Core chip in the socket, three-way bandwidth drops to x8, x8, x4. Gigabyte merely plays by the Intel rulebook, to be fair, so no marks lopped-off here. The 'TH board also throws in a trio of PCIe x1 and a solitary PCIc port for good measure. In keeping with other Gigabyte Z77 boards, this one features LucidLogix's Virtu MVP GPU Vitualisation technology.
Remember the TH reference above? Hands up if you guessed it referred to Thunderbolt, that new-fangled interface? Gigabyte ponies up the extra dollars (and then passes them on to you) by including an Intel DSL3510L chip riding off internal PCIe lanes. Said chip powers four channels of 10Gb/s bi-directional bandwidth, and each of the two ports grabs a couple of channels for super-speedy transfers. The DisplayPort-compatible sockets mean one dual-protocol cable can carry video as well as data. Before you get hung-up on the stupid-fast speeds and daisy-chain flexibility of Thunderbolt, the protocol is very much a nascent technology with few devices that can tap into the massive bandwidth on offer.
Having two Thunderbolt ports on the back I/O panel causes Gigabyte to lose real estate. The usual trio of DVI, HDMI and VGA can drive three screens, or if Thunderbolt really is your thing, a trio of displays can be formed with two TB-connected monitors and a third via either VGA or HDMI. And to finish the Thunderbolt story, the combination of two TB ports and Intel's HD 4000 Graphics (with the latest driver) means that a 4K resolution can be spat out for super-high-resolution visuals. Someone just lend us $10,000 for a monitor, please.
The preponderance of Thunderbolt leaves other features in the dark. Gigabyte doubles Intel's four chipset-integrated USB 3.0 ports by using a VIA controller, and an onboard header, suitable for connection to the chassis' front-mounted ports, provides the remaining two. Folks at Realtek get some business thrown their way by Gigabyte's use of the firm's Gigabit networking and audio CODEC products. All standard fare, we might add.
Let's cut to the nitty-gritty. We reckon the Z77X-UP4 TH is, in effect, a quality £100-£120 motherboard with two key additions: the uprated MOSFET technology and two-port Thunderbolt on the IO section. Whether it's enough to warrant a £30-£50 premium is wholly down to how you, the prospective purchaser, views the upgrades.
And if you're wondering about the BIOS, it's in the same format as the UD5H's.