Summary: Looking forward to those new Ivy Bridge CPUs? In anticipation of their release later this month, Intel has already unveiled the new Series 7 chipsets designed especially to take advantage of what will be the 3rd-generation of Core processors. In today's article, we take a look at the architecture of the enthusiast variant, the Z77, and how it's used in the Intel Desktop Extreme DZ77GA-70K motherboard. Even if you're not particularly interested in the motherboard itself, you'll probably want to see some of the new features that come along with it, so read on!
Intel DZ77GA-70K motherboard w/ Z77 chipset for 3rd-gen Core CPUs
This week, Intel just launched their new 7 Series line of motherboards and chipsets in preparation for the arrival of 3rd-generation Core processors later this month. These include first- and third-party offerings based on the H77 (mainstream), Z75 (performance), and Z77 (enthusiast) chipsets, made specifically to pair with the new Ivy Bridge CPUs with built-in graphics capabilities. Being that these motherboards are still based on the LGA 1155 socket, though, Sandy Bridge will work in them just fine. Of course, I have an Ivy Bridge chip sitting right here next to me, but I can’t tell you anything about that yet, so an overview of this motherboard and its technologies will have to suffice for now.
It’s important to note that a 7 Series chipset/motherboard is NOT required for Ivy Bridge -- some 6 Series products (including those based on H61, H67, P67, and Z68 chipsets) that launched last year with Sandy Bridge will support the new CPUs once you’ve upgraded the firmware, BIOS, and graphics drivers where applicable. However, there are a few advantages to upgrading, such as support for USB 3.0, which I will get into later. The Z77 is the heart of the DZ77GA-70K Intel Desktop Extreme motherboard we’re looking at today. Here is a block diagram, for those of you that enjoy chipset porn:
Interestingly, the Z77 supports Intel’s Thunderbolt technology, a high-speed method of data transfer that has thus far only been implemented in Apple products. Though the cables are expensive (about $50 for a 6-footer), they provide bi-directional connectivity over a PCI-Express or DisplayPort bus of up to 10 Gb/s. It doesn’t appear to be utilized on the DZ77GA-70K or any other Ivy Bridge board that just launched, but perhaps the business-oriented models will take advantage of it when they arrive later this year.
As always, the theoretical capabilities of a chipset don’t necessarily directly translate into real-world features on the motherboard, whether due to space and cost limitations or the inclusion of supplemental chips. Here’s a run-down of what is actually present on the DZ77GA-70K:
You might have noticed that the block diagram says there is support for up to three PCI Express 3.0 slots for graphics (one x16 and two x8), while the feature list mentions dual x16 slots. What they’ve done is combined the two x8 slots to effectively provide dual 16-lane connections for maximum graphics bandwidth in SLI or CrossFire configurations. On a larger motherboard, the same chipset could easily support three graphics cards using a x16/x8/x8 set-up.
Next up, we’ll delve into some of the major new technologies Intel has integrated into the 7 Series chipsets, including something the overclockers out there are sure to love!
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the new Z77 chipset, at least as far as gamers and other enthusiasts are concerned, is the completely overhauled BIOS interface. Forget that bright blue screen with blocky fonts and abbreviated descriptions (seriously, how were we stuck using that this far into the 21st century?), Intel’s new Visual BIOS is pretty much a Windows application that you can use prior to booting the operating system. It features a full-color UI with graphics and animation, tabs, buttons and sliders, all of which you can navigate using that oft-neglected overclocking peripheral, the mouse! It even has a search bar, where you can type in the name of a setting or feature you’re looking for to pull it up instantly
Pretty cool, right? Now, I’ve seen companies like Gigabyte and ASUS do something like this with higher-end motherboards they released last year -- and pretty much everybody releasing a Z77 board this week has their own version of a GUI BIOS -- but nothing I’ve seen comes anywhere close to how slick and comprehensive Intel’s Visual BIOS is.
On the default home page, pictured above, you have instant access to your boot device order and Intel’s overclocking assistant, plus various buttons and tabs that will take you to all the other sections such as advanced CPU settings, installed SATA and other devices, temperature monitoring and fan controls, etc. The ability to use the mouse to navigate alone makes it way easier to use than the traditional BIOS, but the higher resolution allows for more information to be displayed at once while also making it easier to read.
As a result, the Visual BIOS not only makes it easier for newbies to get into having this level of control over their computer’s hardware, but it’s a breath of fresh air for those that already know their way around. Once you dig a little deeper into the menus, you’ll find the same breadth of options available for tweaking, including voltage levels, RAM timings, toggles for on-board peripherals, and temperature thresholds for fan speeds, all presented in a much more visually-pleasing manner. Not to mention the implementation of slider bars and drop-down menus, which are a lot easier to manage than a 60-item list you have to scroll through using the arrow keys…
I know seeing pictures of this thing doesn’t fully express how awesome it is, so to give you a better idea, I’ve made this short video for you to see it in motion. Please excuse the crappy quality; I know my old camera is horrible for video, but it still serves to show why this really is “the future of BIOS:”
“System responsiveness” is actually more of a descriptive term Intel uses to encompass their trio of features meant to make your everyday computing experience faster and -- of course -- more responsive. It looks like they were developed primarily for use in netbooks and high-end laptops, but they’re coming to the solid state disk-equipped desktop computer via the 7 Series of chipsets.
First you have Intel Smart Response, which capitalizes on a cost-cutting but performance-enhancing technique that many of us have begun taking advantage of already. That is, you use a traditional high-density platter hard disk drive for masses of cheap storage, while putting your most-used applications and data on a small solid-state disk to speed up application launches and game loading times. What they’ve developed is an application that automates and streamlines this process, merging your HDD and SSD into a single virtual drive. It then monitors your usage habits and caches your most frequently used data to the SSD portion, while everything else goes on the slower HDD. By doing so, it’s supposed to boost your system boot and application load times by up to 50%, compared to using a standard hard drive alone.
There’s also Intel Rapid Start, which uses a solid-state disk drive to supercharge Windows’ existing power saving and session resume features. Hibernation normally works by copying your system memory to the hard drive before powering down, so when you turn the machine back on, it can restore everything you had open. Rapid Start enables that same process to work much more efficiently, with resume times as low as around five seconds from a near-zero power state. Basically, using that instead of shutting down will let your computer turn itself on in about the time it takes you to sit down in your chair. Previously, that kind of response has only been seen when returning from Sleep mode, which is a low-power standby, not a complete power-down.
Finally, something that probably isn’t nearly as useful to those of you reading this is Intel Smart Connect. It’s aimed more at the tablet or all-in-one computer, especially those using Windows 8. This feature will wake a turned-off system into a low-power state for a short time to automatically update and sync with relevant cloud storage systems, social media networks, email, and the like, then turn itself off again. All it does is save you from waiting a few seconds per application, waiting for it to download updates at start-up like you normally would.
So there you have it, a rather comprehensive look at Intel’s new Z77 chipset and one of their first-party motherboards that utilizes it, the DZ77GA-70K. That and several other offerings from the usual vendors including ASUS, Gigabyte, ASRock, MSI, and Biostar are available now. However, I imagine a lot of you who already have Sandy Bridge aren’t necessarily interested in upgrading motherboards again… No, you’re just waiting for the new Ivy Bridge CPUs, which will be arriving before month’s end. As I mentioned earlier, most of those older boards will be able to support the new processors with BIOS updates, which is good.
Stay tuned to FiringSquad in the coming weeks for a full-blown features and performance review of the most powerful Ivy Bridge chip, including CPU and graphics benchmarks in some of the latest and greatest games. How well does the integrated GPU fare compared to discrete add-in boards? How far can you overclock it? What’s the power usage like? All of that, and more, will be revealed!
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