Officially launched at the beginning of April, the Z77 chipset represents an original departure for Intel, if only in terms of strategy. First of all there’s the question of the socket and compatibility with processors. For once, Intel has played the compatibility hand with socket 1155, as the cards launched last year at the same time as the Sandy Bridge Core processors are compatible – via a Bios update – with the 2012 generation of Core processors, the Ivy Bridge range, launched this spring. Indeed the compatibility goes in both directions as the Z77 cards that we’re testing here aren’t only reserved for Ivy Bridge processors. They're also compatible with the Sandy Bridge range.
The Z77 also represents a change in segmentation strategy for Intel. As we saw when we tested the Sandy Bridge Core processors, Intel now includes a graphics core in all its LGA 1155 general consumer processors. At launch in January, the Intel segmentation was rather impractical, with on one hand chipsets designed for gamers who wanted to use an external graphics card, the P67, and on the other desktop oriented chipsets allowing use of the graphics part of the processors. These cards, designed around the H67, aimed to replace the big market of motherboards with integrated IGPs, often designed for entry level users. This meant that certain advanced options such as overclocking weren’t available on these chips.
Worse still (and putting games to one side), Intel went against its own processor strategy by preventing the use of the graphics part of the Sandy Bridge for video encoding, a feature targeted more at the enthusiast than the desktop market. This unit allows very fast, though poor quality
encoding. It was however impossible to use the unit with the P67 platform. Intel corrected things later by launching the Z68, a platform supposed to combine the best of two worlds (for comparison you can refer to our review
): overclocking and being able to use the IGP if desired via video outs on the motherboard. To access processor video encoding without having to unplug your screen, Intel pushed a third party application onto motherboard manufacturers, Virtu from LucidLogix (Intel having invested in LucidLogix via its Intel Capital subsidiary). A new version of the software, MVP, is moreover offered with most Z77 motherboards. This is something we have dealt with in a separate article
Launch of the Z77 is now being pursued as follows: there will be no high end P77 type chipset that doesn’t allow you to use the IGP. This doesn’t however mean that there won’t be any new segmentation as Intel has also introduced the Z75 which is limited on two points: the non-support of Smart Response cache technology (an SSD configured like a drive that serves as a cache for a system installed on a standard hard drive), as well as a limit on how the Ivy Bridge processor PCI Express lanes are distributed. Note that the Z75 has been snubbed by most motherboard manufacturers, which probably isn’t a bad thing when it comes to transparency for consumers with respect to motherboard offerings.
Sandy Bridge (and Ivy Bridge) processors integrate what was previously called the northbridge, a chipset which took care of critical motherboard tasks such as the management of memory or PCI Express graphics ports. These features are integrated into the processor which thus has 16 PCI Express lanes which can be used by the motherboard in various ways. Here Intel has segmented the way in which motherboards can use these lanes, even if in practice this segmentation doesn’t have much to do with the chipset chosen (the Z77 is, in old speak, a southbridge, a chip dedicated to the handling of ‘slow’ ins and outs). In comparison to the Z68 motherboards, you can see in the table above an additional mode of functioning with three ports piloted by the processor (as x8/x4/x4). This option, which isn’t exploited by all the motherboards, requires an Ivy Bridge processor. Note that the Z77 motherboards all support PCI Express 3.0, as long of course as an Ivy Bridge processor is being used!
When it comes to innovations linked purely to the chipset, the Z77 simply adds – finally! - native Intel USB 3.0 support. The chipset has four ports which can be used (very) differently depending on the motherboard you’re using. Another change has been introduced with respect to screens with the forthcoming Ivy Bridge processors. These processors will be able to use up to three screens at the same time… under certain conditions. Two of the three must be Display Port screens and be connected directly to the processor without the use of additional chips. This does however mean that you lose compatibility with Sandy Bridge. For these reasons, you’ll see the motherboards in this review only offer at best one Display Port connector. Ivy Bridge or not, these motherboards will only support two screens, whatever configuration you use them in. You will perhaps be able to use three screens at the same time later, on laptop platforms for example, or on motherboards designed exclusively for Ivy Bridge.
Although it may not seem as if the changes amount to a great deal, motherboard manufacturers have brought out new ranges for the launch of the Z77. Today we’ve tested four models from the four main manufacturers on the market, namely:
- ASRock Z77 Extreme6
- Asus P8Z77-V Pro
- Gigabyte GA-Z77X-UDH5
- MSI Z77A-GD65
All these cards are mid-range models, priced between 180 and 200€. We’ll come back to the more affordable models later.
Before looking at the variations in spec, the EFI BIOS, overclocking, energy consumption or the performance of the various additional chips, let’s start by introducing the different models we’re setting up against each other. While the Z77 isn't by any means revolutionary, some motherboard manufacturers have made real efforts to differentiate themselves, or provide solutions to issues we flagged up in our previous review.