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

While all the manufacturers offer entry level models, they aren’t all designed in the same way or with the same care. Of course, when it comes to mobos priced at under €100, they all have to work within the same restrictions. First of all in terms of functionalities, the additional controllers that you see on high and mid-range boards are reduced to the minimum (network and audio). Only two manufacturers exceed this, with Gigabyte including a USB 3.0 controller and ASRock a Serial ATA controller.

Another functionality on which manufacturers have economised is the PCI Express ports. Here, a single x16 port is connected to the processor. Multi-GPU solution enthusiasts will have to turn to other models, as will those who want to use specific mobo extensions. For everyone else, the vast majority of users, this won’t necessarily be an issue.

Concessions have also been made with the power supply circuits, varying from one manufacturer to the next. The number of phases is only one indicator. The quality of components used and their implementation on the board are at least as important and should be taken into account when deciding whether your mobo will be getting standard usage or also doing some overclocking.

The ASRock Z77 Pro4 illustrates this well as while the board does fine in standard usage, it doesn’t handle overclocking well. By cramming its VRM circuits in, one beside another at the top of the board while other manufacturers space out their VRMs to the left of the socket and on the top, the board struggles as soon as you up the clock. The temperatures of the VRMs go up, their yield drops and energy consumption rockets.

However this doesn’t mean that you can’t overclock using entry level models. The Asus P8Z77-V LX and the MSI Z77A-G43 reached 4.8 GHz relatively easily and the Gigabyte GA-Z77-D3H even managed 4.9 GHz. Of course, in comparison to the mid-end models, the VRMs are hotter on these models and energy consumption at equal clocks is higher, but these boards were nevertheless capable of handling the potential of the processor used for this test, which doesn't exceed 5 GHz with air cooling.

If we take price into consideration, two models stand out. The ASRock and Asus boards are available at around €115-120 but this pricing isn’t justified by what you get out of these boards and the MSI and Gigabyte boards are much better positioned at around €100-105.

Each of these two models has its advantages and disadvantages. The MSI mobo is the most economical in terms of energy consumption and gives a good overclocking performance. On the downside, apart from the design of the BIOS and a rather useless software offering, the absence of an S/PDIF connector will be a problem for some users. Once again, note the misleading labelling used for the phases by MSI which indicates 4+1 phases while the board is in reality 3+1+1. In practice the three phases that supply the Vcore are very efficient and do well in comparison to the 4-phase configurations used on other boards.

The Gigabyte board offers a decent compromise. Better in terms of overclocking, it also has a BIOS that, while not perfect, is a bit more practical than the one used by MSI. We also like the inclusion of the backup BIOS and while the EtronTech USB 3.0 controller and mSATA port probably won’t be seen as giving much extra, this mobo does have an S/PDIF out, which might tip the balance in its favour.

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