In many ways, the launch of Intel’s Z77 chipset has been the messiest in recent memory. We actually pulled a motherboard review at deadline last month because we couldn’t get a clear answer on when the official NDA date lift was, and it hasn’t been made any clearer in the intervening month.
Part of this problem is that despite the fact it that the Z77 chipset is here and ready to go, the accompanying Ivy Bridge CPU refresh isn’t. The harsh reality is that it isn’t compelling enough to upgrade to from the Z68, and though it has some interesting new features like PCI-Express 3 support and USB 3, there is nothing that makes it a must-have offering, or at least nothing a Sandy Bridge CPU and a Z68 motherboard doesn’t already offer.
Even for overclocking, the Z77 won’t really sing until Ivy Bridge. We were recently shown a slide during a presentation at MSI headquarters in Taiwan that indicated it had managed to get a 3.5GHz Ivy Bridge CPU running at 7.007Ghz on a GD-65 motherboard, although the specifics were blanked out. ASUS won’t allow us to talk about any of the Ivy Bridge aspects of its Z77 boards, and neither will GIGABYTE (although we have heard whisper of it getting DDR3 RAM running over 3GHz on one of its Z77 boards).
That isn’t to say Z77 brings nothing to the table. Far from it; it is full of incremental upgrades and a few new features that are really quite valuable. But they are, by and large, quality of life improvements that are not a radical leap over existing chipsets. Like the Z68, Z77 supports the use of Intel’s processor graphics as well as overclocking of CPU, GPU and RAM. It also supports Intel Smart Response technology, enabling SSD caching – although with Z77 we expect to see much more usage of mSATA support to enable this caching.
One of the biggest things that the Z77 introduces is chipset support for USB 3. It has four native USB 3 ports (and ten USB 2 ports) on-chip. Support for Serial ATA is unchanged from the Z68, with two SATA 6Gbps and four SATA 3Gbps ports. The Z77 also officially supports PCI-Express 3, but this requires both a PCI-E 3 Graphics card and a PCI-E 3 CPU (Ivy Bridge again), and won’t deliver a noticeable benefit to end users in its current state.
We’ve had a look at some of the more interesting Z77 offerings from the big three motherboard manufacturers this month, but we don’t feel that it is correct to review them based upon Sandy Bridge performance. Check back next issue when we’ll have full reviews of Z77 chipset boards, the way they are meant to be. That means Ivy Bridge CPUs and a whole lot of overclocking, benching and other Atomicy goodness.