Ivy Bridge’s debut is still a few weeks away, but Intel has decided to launch its new 7 Series (codename Panther Point) ahead of the CPU’s ship date. The new Panther Point chipset family is the follow-up to the 6 Series that debuted 14 months ago, and it’s very much an evolution of that initial design. As some of you may recall, the 6 Series was plagued with a major product recall and significant positioning problems; enthusiasts were asked to choose between using Intel’s integrated GPU and impressive QuickSync video transcoding technology (available on the H67) and being able to overclock the CPU (only an option with P67-based boards). The later Z68 combined these features and added a few new options of its own, but lacked integrated USB 3.0 or Thunderbolt technology.
Z77, aka Panther Point, adds a number of features that the 6 Series lacked and includes the PCIe 3.0 support that was previously confined to the high-end X79 chipset. Intel’s DZ77GA-70K board that we’ve reviewed today also offers a gorgeous UEFI interface, and improved fan controls that are far more accessible than the company’s previous products. Is the Z77 a drop-in successor and easy upgrade choice? Let’s find out.
The Z77 chipset offers 16 lanes of PCIe 3.0, which can be split into two x8 lanes for a dual-GPU configuration. This is the first Intel desktop chipset to support Thunderbolt (if an appropriate controller is on-board) and the first to offer USB 3.0 support integrated into the chipset. DDR3 speeds move up to 1600MHz (Z68 only officially supported DDR3-1333) and the chipset is capable of driving up to three simultaneous displays.
The PCIe 3.0 support, however, may come with a caveat. According to Intel’s DZ77GA-70K documentation, PCIe 3.0 is only supported if an Ivy Bridge CPU is installed. Presumably, that’s a limit of the platform rather than this specific motherboard, which means one of the motherboard’s most attractive bullet points isn’t applicable if you want to re-use a Sandy Bridge processor. Intel buried this point in the engineering documentation for the board and in a single footnote on the actual motherboard box — it’s not mentioned anywhere in the other tech documents or press briefings the company distributed, which is why it missed our notice until the last moment.
This brings us to another problem. The Intel board we were sent, the aforementioned DZ77GA-70K, is, in our estimation, half-baked and not ready for launch. The only available BIOS listed on Intel’s website is the same BIOS the company shipped us. To be bluntly honest, this product shouldn’t be on the market yet. This is a remarkable departure from form for Intel; the company’s motherboards have a long-earned reputation for stability and solidity, even when they’ve skimped on the features and options that most appeal to enthusiasts.
Intel’s list of known issues for the board include limitations on BIOS flashing, limited keyboard functionality in BIOS, and specific information on how to install an operating system to a particular SSD/HDD. Even following the company’s recommendations, we were unable to configure an HDD and optical drive in a configuration that would allow the optical drive to boot and install an operating system. Neither hardware swaps nor SATA port reconfigurations were able to fix the problem.
We got around that issue by loading an OS on an Intel Series 6 board, then moving it to the DZ77GA, but the existence of said errata make testing problematic. We’ve included some preliminary results but will revisit the question in more detail when IB launches in a few weeks.
Let’s look at the board itself.
Intel’s board layouts are typically clean and well thought out; the DZ77GA is no exception. The two blue slots are PCI Express 3.0 ports; there’s a brace of PCIe x1 ports and a legacy PCI slot in between them. Below the second GPU slot is another legacy PCI and an x4 PCIe 2.0 slot. This last is handy for PCI Express Flash drives, given that such devices can overheat if stuffed between a pair of GPUs in a high-end rig. The LEDs across the top of the board indicate how many process VR phases are active (fewer active phases means better power efficiency at idle). Other features, like the on-board power/reset switches, will appeal to anyone who spends a lot of time testing equipment.
One welcome addition to the DZ77GA is the number of USB 3.0 ports the board offers. Up until now, 2-4 USB 3.0 ports has been the rule; the DZ77GA ups that to a total of eight and includes a front-panel USB 3.0 header just in case you’re missing one. One thing we don’t much care for is the way SATA ports are arranged. Intel stacks its own SATA 6Gbps ports at the top right, which makes them difficult to access if you’ve got a GPU installed inside a case. We’re not disputing that it makes sense to stack them this way as far as customer expectations and port assignments, but we wish there was a way to shift them to somewhere other than directly to the right of the graphics card.
The board’s backplate is also well-designed. There’s a single legacy PS/2 header, a pair of high-powered USB 2.0 ports for charging tablets or driving certain modern peripherals, one Firewire 1394a, two standard USB 2.0 ports, an eSATA port, four USB 3.0 ports, dual LAN controllers (both based on Intel hardware) and an HDMI 1.4a-compatible output with a maximum resolution of 1900×1200. The audio block uses Realtek’s ALC898 and can output up to 8 channels simultaneously.
Using UEFI instead of BIOS is something we’ve seen from Asus and other motherboard manufacturers, but this is the first Intel board we’ve tested that offered the feature. It makes a difference; the board is much easier to configure and offers a wealth of information in a much more accessible way. The shift to UEFI is emblematic of the Z77 family as a whole: It improves and streamlines what has come before, but doesn’t really push the envelope.
Board performance: P67 vs. Z77
We compared the DZ77GA-70K against the Series 6 Intel DP67BG motherboard. Both boards used a Core i7-2600K, 240GB OCZ Vertex 3, Radeon 7950, and 16GB of DDR3-1333. USB 3.0 testing was done using a Seagate BlackArmor 500GB HDD, Windows 7 SP1 64-bit was installed on both systems with all patches and downloads applied. ATI’s Catalyst 12-3 series was used, with texture quality set to “High Quality” and anisotropic filtering forced on at x16 in the driver.
PCMark 7 is designed to test general system performance, which makes it an effective first stop in measuring the benefit of one platform against another. Performance-wise, there’s not much to see here — the two systems are in a dead heat against each other.
The individual test results break down just like the aggregate. There’s no area where the Z77 shows a marked gain over its predecessor.
For a check of GPU performance, we opted for 3DMark 7 and again didn’t find much. PCIe 3.0 isn’t expected to offer much of a benefit to modern cards in any case, but keeping a Sandy Bridge chip installed means the DZ77GA is limited to PCIe 2.0.
USB 3.0 is one area where we thought we might see a marked performance difference. Early USB 2.0 controllers were notoriously finicky, prone to high CPU utilization and lackluster performance. The DP67 motherboard’s USB 3.0 support comes courtesy of a Renesas D720200 chip, but the board has a number of problems with USB 3.0 connectivity, as documented and confirmed at Intel’s own forums. This is one area where the DZ77 could distinguish itself.
The good (or bad) news, depending on your perspective, is that Renesas’ D720200 chip appears to offer very strong performance compared to Intel’s chip. Power consumption and CPU usage were both equal, though there’s some evidence at other sites that the Intel solution is better when connected to an external SSD. For conventional users, either chip appears to do the trick.
The preliminary bad news is that the DZ77 may have exactly the same sort of BIOS problems that plagued the DP67 last year. We’re not willing to conclude that yet — not with the board’s BIOS clearly unfinished and with just a single device to test with. In both cases, we had to plug the HDD back in following every reboot in order for the device to be recognized and initialized in Windows. Even this didn’t always work — occasionally the system would report an error initializing USB 3.0 and required a further reset.
We’ll reserve final judgment until we’ve gotten our hands on a more finished BIOS and are able to test an SSD in addition to a conventional hard drive, but we’re not thrilled with the current state of things. Even if the Intel USB 3.0 controller distinguishes itself when combined with a solid-state device, the majority of external drives are going to continue to be built around conventional hard drives. That’s good news for folks who’ve already invested in a board with an NEC solution, less great for anyone hoping Intel’s controller would deliver a benefit when combined with a mechanical drive.
Given that both chipsets are built on a 65nm process, we didn’t expect to see much benefit from moving to Z77 as opposed to P67 — and we didn’t.
Finally, there was audio quality. We put the two Intel boards head-to-head using Rightmark’s Audio Analyzer. The P67 board’s overall audio performance isn’t as good as some of the integrated solutions from the likes of Asus and MSI; we’d hoped the Z77 would offer more on this front.
Again, there’s not much difference between the two. Some of the individual subtests that go into Rightmark’s final score tilted towards the Z77, but others favored the P67.
DZ77 final verdict must wait for Ivy Bridge
Between the DZ77GA’s unfinished state and the fact that certain features aren’t accessible without an Ivy Bridge processor installed, it’s impossible to give a final opinion on the board or the chipset. What we can say is that the Z77′s features are solid, but not necessarily all that compelling if you already own a Sandy Bridge CPU and motherboard. We’re still glad to see Intel implementing full backwards and forwards compatibility for both boards and CPUs, but it’ll be system builders (both individuals and businesses) who primarily benefit from the increased flexibility such options allow.
We’ll be back to take a second look at the DZ77GA in two weeks, but for now, we’d say don’t buy it. It’s got the makings of a great product, but right now, it’s a great product that needs more time in the oven.