I mentioned it on our Google+ page while taking pictures for this review – I have no problem saying that the Z68XP-UD4 is one of the most beautiful motherboards out there right now. Behold:
(note that you can view any of these pictures in higher resolution by clicking on them)
Even with layout notwithstanding, that is one gorgeous piece of hardware. We have seen ‘black’ motherboards before, but this one has a matte finish that sets it apart. And unlike most ‘black’ motherboards, it doesn’t look ‘brown’ when you really look at it. This is because Gigabyte uses an extra layer of PCB, so you don’t see any hint of the copper underneath the top layer. I also like that they used a black CPU retention mechanism – that one little touch just sets the whole thing off.
My only wish is that they had been able to use capacitors with grey tops instead of blue. Although I suppose it would be easy enough to go over them yourself with a felt pen. This is certainly just a personal preference type of thing, but the monochromatic colour scheme just does it for me these days. I think it would look great equipped with some of the Kingston HyperX modules we looked at while finding the best memory for Sandy Bridge.
With that bit of gushing out of the way, let’s take a closer look at the layout of the board:
First up, we have the expansion ports. You can see from the pins in the PCI-E slots themselves that you will only get one full length slot with full X16 bandwidth. The second full-length slot only has a maximum of 8X lanes (and when that second slot is used, the top one gets knocked down to 8x as well). This is a limitation of the Sandy Bridge platform – for full dual X16 capability, you’ll have to go with Sandy Bridge-E if you want to stay on Team Blue, or get a motherboard with an Nvidia NF200 chip which can split 8 lanes into 16. With today’s video cards though, 8x is plenty.
In addition to those main slots, you get a pair of 1x slots (one of which will almost certainly be blocked by the graphics card) and a pair of old-school PCI slots (again, one of which will be blocked if two graphics cards are installed).
I prefer the method Gigabyte employed with the Z68A-D3H-B3, which put a 1x above the top graphics slot, and another full length slot below. This way, you at least have access to two PCI-E slots when SLI is used, instead of just one.
Moving to the bottom of the board, we get to the header connectors. As usual, Gigabyte has installed every single header at the very bottom edge of the board, which is extremely efficient. There are three USB 2.0 headers, one of which has high power output enabled (we’ll get to that later). In addition, there is a USB 3.0 header, which required Gigabyte to add a second controller chip to the board (today’s USB 3.0 controllers only have two outputs). This allows you to use those nifty USB 3.0 ports on your case if they support them, since the new header layout is incompatible with USB 2.0. Finally, the front panel connector is clearly labeled and colour-coded, which I always like to see.
Gigabyte also does a great job of colour-coding and clearly labeling their SATA ports. This is a good thing, because the Z68 chipset only has two ports that are capable of SATA 3.0 speeds, and you will definitely want to make sure you plug your shiny new über fast SSD into the correct one! They have also added a Marvell chip for four extra SATA ports – two internal and two external. As you’ll see though, you won’t want to use these ports for anything other than optical drives or really old hard drives.
From this vantage point, you can also see that the DIMM tabs are placed at a nice distance from the top PCI-E slot, which makes installing and uninstalling RAM easy with a graphics card installed. Finally, the PCH heatsink is low profile, and stays neatly out of the way.
Finally, at the top of the board, you will find no issues here with heatsink clearance. The DIMMs are pretty much as close to the CPU area as possible though, which is a rough combination if you are using a dual-fan tower cooler and RAM with tall heatsinks. To be fair though, that is probably a horrible idea on any motherboard that is not E-ATX width.
Since the DIMM slots are not colour-coded, it’s a good thing that they are at least arranged in ‘pairs’ and decently labeled on the PCB. If you are a novice system builder, I can see this being a slight issue. Still, sometimes aesthetics takes precedent over pure function, and in this case, it’s not too much of a compromise.
The rear panel is far more robust than the last Gigabyte board we looked at. You get seven high-voltage USB 2.0 ports, an extra one via the e-SATA combo port, and a pair of high voltage USB 3.0 ports. This is achived by using expensive low-resistance fuses for many (but not all) of the USB ports. USB 2.0 spec calls for 500 mV per port, which is increased to 1500 mV here. USB 3.0 calls for 900 mV, and this board provides 2700 mV. Gigabyte hasn’t skimped out on the audio connectivity this time either – you get six ports of analog, and two digital outputs, which is an improvement over the skimpy audio output found on the last Gigabyte board we reviewed.
Video output is supported via a single HDMI port. Gigabyte is probably correct in assuming that most people who buy a $200 motherboard won’t be using integrated video very much, so they decided use the space which would have otherwise been wasted on a DVI and RGB port to allow the robust connectivity you see above. In our testing with LucidLogix’s Virtu software, you don’t lose nearly as much performance by virutalizing the onboard GPU (to use its media encoding capabilities) as you do going the other way. So if you have a discrete video card, it’s always best to use it for your main video output.
They do include an HDMI > DVI adapter in the box. Speaking of which, here is what you get with your Z68XP-UD4:
Four SATA cables (two that are angled 90 degrees which sometimes helps and sometimes doesn’t), and not much else. Again, this board is less about flash and more about substance, which you’ll see on the next page as we take an even closer look at all the components that make the Z68XP-UD4 tick.