The Intel Haswell platform has taken its own sweet time to enter the markets. Intel announced its flagship Haswell processor, the Intel Core i7-4770K, back in June at Computex, but we had already begun seeing Z87 chipset-based boards being released much before that. The Intel Z87 chipset will be seen on all mainstream and high-end Haswell boards along with other chipsets such as H87, H81, 087, 085 and B85, each of which have different feature sets. This month we take a look at Z87-based motherboards.
The first thing that you need to know is how exactly the Z87 chipset is different from the previous generation Z77 chipset. To put it bluntly, someone who is already running a system based on the Z77 Ivy Bridge chipset won’t find much of a difference by upgrading to the Z87 Haswell platform. However, there are some additions which we will discuss below.
First and foremost you have to consider the completely new socket design: the LGA 1150. Intel Z87 motherboards are not backwards compatible and will only work with new Haswell processors. The Voltage Regulator Module (VRM) is one of the major changes. This module helps down-convert the 5V and 12V supplied by the power supply unit to the much lower voltages required for CPU components. It used to be found on the motherboard, but it has now been moved onto the processor. The Z87 chipset supports 1600MHz RAM natively as opposed to the 1333MHz RAM support on the Z77 chipset. Z87 boards also natively support six SATA 6Gbps ports as opposed to Z77 boards, which supported only two ports. It also supports six USB 3.0 ports. We received around 16 boards, all of which come with UEFI BIOS. Some companies have revamped both their BIOS layouts and utilities. We also received more micro ATX boards this time vis-a-vis our last motherboard comparison. The boards also vary in their prices and cater to both casual users and professionals.
TEST PROCESS The motherboards were categorised into two segments based on the price bracket entry-level to mid-range motherboards priced up to Rs 16,000, and enthusiast-class motherboards priced above Rs 16,000. Our test process was based on the following parameters:
FEATURES The capabilities and performance of a motherboard depends on its feature set. Hence this section was given the highest weightage. We logged the technical specifications of each motherboard and noted the maximum amount of memory supported, types of video outputs, the types and number of expansion slots, the number of USB 2.0 and 3.0 ports, multi-GPU support, number of SATA ports, etc. We also took into consideration certain features that are found in some high-end motherboards, such as the presence of Bluetooth and Wi-Fi adapters, voltage check points and OCR buttons. Thus, support for 3-way and 4-way GPU setups, a large number of SATA and USB ports, and multiple video outputs contributed to a higher score. Presence of new features, such as on-board headphone amplifiers and isolation of the audio circuitry for better sound quality, also deserved extra points. Finally, we assessed the package contents and awarded points for the number of bundled SATA cables, USB and 3.0 brackets, and multi-way GPU bridges.
BIOS AND OC UTILITIES In this section, points were awarded to features such as the presence of a home page in the BIOS, which makes accessing i mportant sections easy. We also noted features like dual BIOS, the ability to back-up profiles, and if a utility for updating the BIOS was bundled. In addition to the intuitiveness of the OCR utility, we noted features such as BCLK and multiplier settings, fan control, memory settings, GPU overciocking, and automatic overciocking.
LAYOUT As the placement of RAM slots, SATA ports, on-board headers and power connectors are vital for cable management and air flow, we noted how well the board was laid out. Clearance around the CPU socket was also logged, since the CPU fan should have ample room. Lastly, the quality of the heatsinks provided for voltage regulators and the chipset were also assessed.
PERFORMANCE Before testing, we updated the BIOS and loaded optimal settings and XMS profiles for the memory. The true performance of a motherboard reflects with the best hardware and feature set. In this case, all boards performed almost equally well and so the scores are for reference only. SYNTHETIC TESTS: Each of these tests si mulates real-world scenarios to evaluate the overall performance of the processor, memory and graphics. We ran SiSoft Sandra 2013, 3DMark 11 and CineBench R11.5.