Articles: Mainboards

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PCB Design and Functionality

The color scheme of ASRock Z77 Extreme9 is a little dark, and only golden-colored solid state capacitors and decorative heatsink covers brighten it up a little bit. By the way, one of these covers has white LEDs underneath called “LED Heatsink Design”. Gigabyte mainboard has somewhat livelier color choices, but a tasteless skull sticker on the chipset heatsink doesn’t seem to fit in, while ASRock product looks serious and stylish. But, we are not at an art show, and therefore should proceed to the actual features rather than stick to the exterior looks of the two products in question.

The voltage regulator circuitry on ASRock Z77 Extreme9 is implemented via digital Digi Power system working as 8+4. The components of the voltage regulator that tend to warm up during work are covered with a large heatsink connected to the central heatsink with a heatpipe. All heatsinks on the board, including the third chipset heatsink are fastened using reliable screw-on retention. Just like the heatsink on Gigabyte G1.Sniper 3, the central heatsink on ASRock Z77 Extreme9 is not a decoration, but a mere necessity. It cools the PLX PEX 8747 bridge providing additional PCI Express lanes for the graphics cards. This controller significantly expands the list of possible PCI-E lanes distribution layouts for the existing graphics card slots. Not only a single graphics card may work at full PCI Express speed, but also both cards in a 2-Way configuration, and in case of a 4-card system each of them will work at x8 speed. Everything is the same as on Gigabyte G1.Sniper 3 mainboard, but there are way too many graphics card slots – ASRock Z77 Extreme9 has six of them. One of these slots uses PCI-E lanes from the chipset and therefore works only at x4 speed, but why did they leave us with five more slots if only four graphics cards could actually be installed?

Gigabyte mainboard has a very simple and intuitive layout of the graphics card slots, because there are four PCI Express 3.0/2.0 x16 slots. One of two graphics cards work at full speed, and once you add another card the speed will be shared between pairs of slots. Five slots on ASRock mainboard require a much more complicated layout. A single graphics card should be installed into the second slot, two graphics cards – into the first and fifth slot, the third card is added into the third slot, and the fourth – into the seventh slot.

As a result, Gigabyte is the winner here, because all of its slots, besides four PCI Express 3.0/2.0 x16, can be used. It also has two PCI Express 2.0 x1 slots, one PCI slot and one micro-SATA slot. There was no room left on ASRock mainboard because of an “extra” PCI Express 3.0/2.0 x16 slot that is why there are no PCI slots, no mSATA slots, although there is a mini-PCIe connector, which is already taken by the Wi-Fi/Bluetooth Atheros AR5B22 card. Moreover, ASRock mainboard is equipped with not very convenient graphics card locks: these aren’t the latches that automatically lock the card in place, but slider locks. They need to be shifted to free the card and to secure the card in place. Since contemporary graphics cards are pretty bulky and the sliders are fairly small, it is pretty hard to do it, especially when more than one or two graphics cards are installed.

However, ASRock mainboard does have its own advantages. Intel Z77 Express chipset can offer a limited number of PCI Express lanes, which are sued not only for the expansion card slots, but also for numerous additional controllers. As a result, after a long list of additional connectors and expansion cards we can often see a note printed in small font. It may state that PCI Express 2.0 x4 slot in fact works at x1 speed and if you set it to work at full speed, then all other PCI Express 2.0 x1 slots on the board will get disconnected. Moreover, additional SATA and USB 3.0 controllers may also stop working in this case. All this occurs because of insufficient number of free PCI-E lanes. To avoid situations like that and allow all additional connectors and controllers to work simultaneously, they equipped ASRock Z77 Extreme9 with PLX PEX 8608 hub that adds another eight PCI-E 2.0 lanes. We have already seen this solution on ASRock Fatal1ty Z77 Professional. Similar controllers with fewer additional lanes are also installed on Asus P8Z77-V Deluxe, Intel DZ77GA-70K and Intel DZ77RE-75K.

Speaking of additional interface controllers we should say that ASRock Z77 Extreme9 and Gigabyte G1.Sniper 3 have the same number of them onboard, only the chips models are different. Intel Z77 Express chipset provides the board with two SATA 6 Gbps ports and four SATA 3 Gbps ports, while two ASMedia ASM1061 controllers add another four SATA 6 Gbps ports. The only downside is that all six SATA 6 Gbps ports are of the same gray color, while the ports on Gigabyte board are easily distinguishable: white for the chipset ports and gray for the additional ones. One of these four additional ports is combined with an eSATA 6 Gbps on the back panel. Moreover, numerous video outs take a lot of space on the back of the Gigabyte G1.Sniper 3 board, although they are absolutely unnecessary for a multi-GPU system. The back panel space is used more efficiently on ASRock Z77 Extreme9, which allowed to lay out not only an eSATA port, but also an IEEE1394 (FireWire) port, a Clear CMOS button  and ten USB ports, compared against only six USB ports on the Gigabyte board.

Overall, the back panel of ASRock Z77 Extreme9 has the following ports and connectors:

  • Universal PS/2 connector for keyboard or mouse;
  • Eight USB 3.0 ports (blue connectors), four of which are implemented via EtronTech EJ188H controller, and another four ports are supported by the Intel Z77 Express chipset. The second EtronTech EJ188H controller provides two internal pin-connectors for four additional USB 3.0 ports;
  • “Clear CMOS” button;
  • HDMI video out;
  • Two local network ports (network adapters are built on Gigabit Broadcom BCM57781 network controllers);
  • IEEE1394 (FireWire) port implemented with VIA VT6315N controller, a second port like that is available as an onboard pin-connector;
  • One eSATA 6 Gbps port implemented via ASMedia ASM1061 controller and combined with one of the internal SATA 6 Gbps ports also implemented through the same controller;
  • Optical S/PDIF and five analogue audio-jacks provided by eight-channel Realtek ALC898 codec.

We summed up all the technical specifications of ASRock Z77 Extreme9 in the following table:

ASRock Z77 Extreme9 and Gigabyte G1.Sniper 3 mainboards have a lot in common, and the existing differences do not allow us to name the winning product. Both boards use digital processor voltage regulator circuitries built with high-quality components, both use the PLX PEX 8747 bridge to take maximum advantage of the multi-card graphics configurations. On the one hand, Gigabyte board seems to be better because it doesn’t have the “excessive” PCI Express 3.0/2.0 x16 slot, but has PCI and microSATA slots instead, but on the other hand, ASRock mainboard has an additional PLX PEX 8608 hub and a PCI express 2.0 x16 (x4) slot. Both boards have four additional SATA 6 Gbps ports, two Gigabit network controllers, eight-channel sound, IEEE1394 (FireWire) support. However, the back panel of ASRock mainboard seems to be laid out in a more optimal way, and Gigabyte board boasts hardware and software goodies from Creative Technology and Bigfoot Networks.  Z77 Extreme9 mainboard has a total of twenty USB ports, twelve of which are USB 3.0, while G1.Sniper 3 has ten USB 3.0 ports out of a total of fourteen.

Both boards support wireless technologies using mini-PCIe Atheros AR5B22 card, which offers dual-band 2.4 and 5 GHz connection with 802.11 a/b/g/n support as well as Bluetooth 4.0. Some may prefer a discrete card with two external antennas, some – an integrated card with internal antennas. Some will favor a module for the 3-inch system case bay with two USB 3.0 ports, while others will choose ASRock Wi-SB Box for the 5-inch bay with two additional slots for 2.5” drives. Both boards have Power On, Reset, Clear CMOS buttons and POST-code indicators, both allow adjusting the rotation speed of three-pin processor fans, both use 2 oz copper PCBs. Gigabyte has two BIOS chips with the switching option and special voltage control points for manual voltage monitoring. The G1.Sniper 3 board is designed in an E-ATX form-factor (264 mm wide), while Z77 Extreme9 managed to remain whtijn the standard ATX dimensions.

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