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Roundup: entry level Z77 Express motherboards from AsRock, Asus, Gigabyte and MSI
by Guillaume Louel
Published on December 28, 2012

After giving you a review of the mid/high end in a previous article, we wanted to look a little further down the manufacturers’ ranges at some of the less expensive models.

These cheaper boards do nevertheless have many features in common with those further up the ranges. From the BIOS to the design, the similarities are often very strong. On the other hand there are also often very significant differences, whose importance varies according to what users want their mobo for.

We’ve chosen one entry level ATX format model (or almost!) from each of the four main manufactuers, all with similar features and limitations ie. the handling of the PCI Express lanes in the processors.

To recap, Intel Sandy Bridge and Ivy Bridge processors have a 16-lane PCI Express controller that can be used in several ways. With Sandy Bridge, these sixteen lanes can be divided into two, which means a motherboard can have two PCI Express ports cabled in x8 mode. Via the use of switches, motherboards then allow you to choose the mode – x16/x0 when you’re using just one graphics card or x8/x8 if you're using two. Ivy Bridge allows you to partition these lanes into three and also introduces PCI Express 3.0. This means that there can be up to three slots connected to the processor running in any of the following modes: x16/x0/x0, x8/x8 ou x8/x4/x4.

Things are simpler on our entry level range: the sixteen processor lanes can be linked to just a single x16 port. This doesn’t mean that there isn’t another physical x16 port on these boards, as we’ll soon see. It’s just that these ports will be connected to the chipset, often in x4 mode, or sometimes x1. This means that Nvidia’s multi GPU (SLI) won’t be supported on these boards, though Crossfire will be as it can function on asymmetric configurations, even if this isn’t recommended.

Multi GPU setups don’t however concern most PC users. Other limitations do exist on these motherboards and are sometimes hard to quantify. The simplest of them concerns the disappearance of numerous additional chips. When it comes to serial ATA controllers, firewire and additional USB 3.0s, the entry level boards are very often simplified to a maximum and you’re limited to the features afforded by the Intel chipset.

The most complex limitation concerns the power supply systems and this is something we’re now going to take a closer look at.

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