Articles: Mainboards

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By mid-summer we have already checked out the features and functionality of about half a dozen mainboards for LGA 1155 processors built on the new Intel Z77 Express chipset. We started our review series with Asus P8Z77-V Deluxe, followed with a review of ASRock Z77 Extreme4 and ASRock Z77 Extreme6. After that we talked about a gaming Gigabyte G1.Sniper 3 and MSI Z77A-GD65. This way we covered the products from many of the largest mainboard makers, but definitely not all of them. Very often DIY users do not take mainboards from Intel into consideration when building their systems. Although they have become dramatically different from the Intel boards we saw just a few years ago. The design and appearance, electronic components, technical specifications and functionality of the contemporary Intel mainboards are just as good as those of the mainboards from the leading makers. And even if you are into overclocking and system fine-tuning, you will now have almost a full set of options and features to play with. Therefore, unless you are familiar at least with a couple of mainboards from Intel, you can’t claim that you are up-to-date on all contemporary trends and tendencies in the mainboard field. So, today we are going to talk about two new mainboards from Intel Corporation that belong to the “Extreme” series – Intel DZ77RE-75K and Intel DZ77GA-70K.

Design and Functionality

The model names of all Intel mainboards for desktop systems start with the letter “D” (Desktop). Both mainboard models to be discussed today are based on Intel Z77 Express chipset that is why it is not surprising that their model names as well as the model names of a few other products from the same family start similarly. Judging just by the model name, it may seem that there should be no more similarities between Intel DZ77RE-75K and Intel DZ77GA-70K, but a closer comparison reveals that these two mainboards are not just related, but are built around the same layout.

Intel DZ77GA-70K

Intel DZ77RE-75K

The major feature distinguishing Intel DZ77RE-75K from its younger sister is the support of Thunderbolt technology, which was originally known as “Light Peak”. A little below the audio-jacks on the mainboard back panel there are a corresponding connector and controller, while Intel DZ77GA-70K has empty spots instead of them. The current implementation of this new technology allows transferring data and video using PCI Express and DisplayPort protocols with up to 10 Gigabits per second speed, which is twice as fast as USB 3.0 can offer.

Thunderbolt technology uses “Plug and Play” concept, in other words, it doesn’t require any special drivers. All you need is to connect the device and you will be able to start using it immediately.

The only problem is that there is really nothing to connect at this point and at the time of this review we didn’t have the device that could allow us to test the functionality and performance of the Thunderbolt technology. The first company to implement this new technology in their products was Apple, but only until recently there was only one monitor and a few external RAID stations even for the MAC OS users. However, things have significantly changed for the better by now and the list of compatible products is constantly updated with new names and models. Besides Intel, mainboards with Thunderbolt support have been launched by Asus and MSI, Thunderbolt connectors are now put into multiple notebooks from Acer and Gigabyte. The more support this new technology gets, the more peripheral devices with the new interface will come to the market and the sooner actual performance numbers will hit the online community. In fact, we have just received a Thunderbolt MiniStation from Buffalo, so stay tuned for our upcoming review updates and new articles.

Getting back to our today’s heroes, Intel DZ77RE-75K and Intel DZ77GA-70K, we have to point out another difference between them, which also appeared as a result of Thunderbolt support implementation in the top model. Both boards have two PCI and two PCI Express 3.0/2.0 x16 slots on each. The graphics card slots work as 1x16 or 2x8 allowing to build AMD CrossFireX or Nvidia SLI graphics configurations. However, the Thunderbolt controller requires four PCI Express lanes therefore Intel DZ77GA-70K mainboard has two PCI Express 2.0 x1 slots and one PCI Express 2.0 x4 slot, while on Intel DZ77RE-75K mainboard all remaining three slots are PCI Express 2.0 x1.

We usually consider reliable screw-on heatsink retention an advantage, but both Intel mainboards use plastic push-pins with springs for that matter. However, we will not label it a drawback this time, because the heat dissipation is low and despite their low-end retention, the heatsink do their job just fine. Intel Z77 Express chipset provides the boards with two SATA 6 Gbps ports (blue connectors) and four SATA 3 Gbps ports (black connectors). Each of them also has an additional Marvel 88SE9172 controller that delivers another pair of SATA 6 Gbps ports (gray connectors), and one more controller like that is responsible for an eSATA 6 Gbps port on the back panel.

The back panel of the Intel DZ77RE-75K mainboard has the following ports and connectors:

  • Universal PS/2 connector for keyboard or mouse;
  • Four USB 2.0 ports, two of which are High Current ports for charging external devices (yellow connectors), another six ports are laid out as three onboard pin-connectors, the yellow one being the High Current one;
  • IEEE1394 (FireWire) port implemented via Texas Instruments TSB43AB22A controller, a second port is available as an onboard pin-connector;
  • eSATA 6 Gbps port implemented via Marvell 88SE9172 controller, a second controller like that provides support for two internal SATA 6 Gbps ports;
  • Glowing “Back to BIOS” button;
  • Four USB 3.0 ports (blue connectors) and two onboard pin-connectors for another four USB 3.0 ports, which are implemented via the Intel Z77 Express chipset functionality and two Genesys Logic GL3520M hubs;
  • Two local network ports (network adapters are built on Gigabit Intel WG82579V and Intel WG82574L network controllers);
  • HDMI Video Out;
  • Optical S/PDIF and five analogue audio-jacks provided by eight-channel Realtek ALC898 codec;
  • Thunderbolt port.

Intel DZ77GA-70K has the same exact set of ports and connectors in the back except for the Thunderbolt port. Both these mainboards are among the top models in the lineup, they are intended to be used with a discrete graphics card and maybe even with a couple of those that is why only one HDMI Out in the back is quite justified. By removing all the diverse video outputs, which cannot be used simultaneously anyway, Intel managed to free the precious space for other ports and connectors. I would also like to specifically point out that the boards come with a PCI Express PLX PEX 8606 hub. It allows using numerous expansion card slots and controllers all at the same time. We have already seen the same solution implemented in Asus P8Z77-V Deluxe.

As we continue with our discussion of the boards’ features and functionality, we should definitely mention glowing Power On and Reset buttons and a POST-code indicator. There is a row of LEDs a little above the top heatsink, which indicates the number of active phases in the processor voltage regulator circuitry. There is another row of LEDs called “Board Status LEDs” right at the bottom of the PCB. The first diode in it indicates the drives activity, the next two will signal if the CPU or its voltage regulator get overheated, and the remaining LEDs light up one after another as we go through the startup procedure indicating initialization of the CPU, memory, graphics card, etc.

The mainboards we received weren’t retail units, but OEM samples, that is why they didn’t come with all the accessories you would normally get with a retail board. However, Intel’s web-site lists all the accessories you will get with your new DZ77GA-70K mainboard:

  • Four SATA cables;
  • MS-3871 WiFi/Bluetooth module and a USB cable for it;
  • A hard bridge for Nvidia 2-Way SLI graphics configurations;
  • I/O Shield for the back panel;
  • A module with two USB 3.0 ports for the 3-inch bay of the system case;
  • Integration Guide – colorful poster with brief assembly instructions;
  • Configuration label – connector layout sticker to go on the inside of the system case panel;
  • POST code decoder card;
  • DVD disk with software and drivers.

The list of accessories accompanying Intel DZ77RE-75K mainboard is exactly the same, except for the bridge for 2-way Nvidia SLI graphics card configurations. Note that both mainboards are bundled with a module delivering two additional USB 3.0 ports to the front panel as well as MS-3871 WiFi/Bluetooth module. The latter establishes wireless connection via Bluetooth v.2.1 protocol at up to 3 Mbps speed, while the WiFi 802.11 n Ralink RT8070 controller will ensure connection at up to 300 m with up to 150 Mbps speed. Moreover, we expect retail mainboard packages to also contain Extreme-series specific goodies such as stickers, door tags and mouse pads with skulls on them.

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