High-End Intel Z87 Motherboard Shootout

High-End Intel Z87 Motherboard Shootout


In June last year, Intel launched their 4th generation Intel Core processors that are also popularly referred to by their codename "Intel Haswell". We understand that some sharp observers have questioned the exact changes behind Haswell's CPU microarchitecture as it is still based on the same 22nm process technology with 3D Tri-Gate transistors as that used on the previous generation "Ivy Bridge" processors.

The Intel Core i7-4770K processor boasts of an updated microarchitecture that brings about better power efficiency. It also has an updated Intel HD 4600 graphics core that enough features and firepower to put all entry-level discrete graphics cards out of business.

Actually, the major improvement brought about by the Haswell processor is the improved graphics engine core. The top-end Intel Iris Pro Graphics 5200 graphics core engine is currently exclusive to Intel Haswell mobile and non-socketed desktop SKUs; however, this will change in the near future with the impending arrival of the 14nm Intel Broadwell processors. From our review of the performance of the integrated graphics engine (Intel HD Graphics 4600) of the Intel Core i7-4770K CPU, we found that there were marked improvements over the previous generation Ivy Bridge processors' IGPs. Hence, it is ideal for system builders looking to build a mid-range desktop system without the need for a discrete graphics card (depending on the processor chosen). Also, the new graphics engine's API support has been expanded to include Direct X 11.1.

In addition to graphical compute performance, the other important improvement pertains to power efficiency due to several small enhancements made by the updated Haswell microarchitecture. The CPU voltage regulation phase, which was traditionally handled by the motherboard, has been integrated into the Haswell CPU. This allows for more fine-tuning of the power management aspects of the processor. This feature is actually more to the advantage for mobile Haswell CPUs as the top-end Intel Core i7-4770K desktop Haswell CPU is rated at 84W, which is 7W higher than the Core i7-3770K (Ivy Bridge), possibly due to the more advanced graphics engine.

However, the desktop Haswell CPUs do bring with them a new LGA 1150 socket and the Intel 8-series chipset. In the following section, we will take a quick look at the different chipsets that make up Intel 8-series, and in particular, the Intel Z87 chipset.


Making Sense of the Intel 8-Series Family

The Intel 8-series is made up of the Z87, H87, and H81 Express. There are also the Q87, Q85, B85 Express chipsets that are meant for corporate desktop systems. For end-users, the Intel Z87 Express chipset is the only one in the entire range that will allow you full access to the overclocking features of the K-series Haswell CPUs. However, power users may be let down by the fact that the interconnectivity between the CPU and the chipset is still powered by DMI 2.0. This has remained unchanged over the last two mainstream desktop platforms that Intel had brought to us (these are the Intel Z68 and Z77 Express chipsets).

The block diagram of the Intel Z87 Express chipset.

Like the previous generation Intel Z77 chipset, the Z87 has native support for PCIe 3.0 that translates to more bandwidth for expansion cards, primarily graphics cards. Thus, the Z87 chipset offers support both AMD CrossFire and NVIDIA SLI multi-GPU configurations. This is a result of dividing the 16 PCIe lanes from CPU among the corresponding PCIe 3.0 slots. An improvement is its support for I/O port flexibility that allows some I/O ports to be finalized at the time of design. This means board manufacturers are able to decide which of these ports can be configured as USB 3.0, PCIe, or SATA 6Gbps, allowing manufacturers to have better product differentiation for their different SKUs.

The Z87 chipset supports up to six native USB 3.0 ports and six SATA 6Gbps connectors. The H87 and H81 variants can be considered as mainstream chipsets, intended for the average user. The former is very similar to the top-end Z87; however, it lacks support for CPU overclocking. It also officially supports only up to two graphics cards (plenty enough for most users). The H81 chipset is suitable for small form factor systems as it only supports a single discrete graphics card. It is also has limited support for SATA 6Gbps and USB 3.0; it only drives up to maximum of two SATA 6Gbps devices, and two USB 3.0 ports.

Faced with a rather uninspiring selection of Haswell desktop socketed CPUs, the motherboard manufacturers have to pull out different tricks in order to differentiate their Intel 8-series wares. For starters, despite the official lack of support for unlocked K-series Haswell processor, some board makers like ASUS and MSI who are offering ther versions mainstream H87 boards that will allow system builders to overclock their processors; however, these boards don't support NVIDIA SLI configurations. Therefore, only AMD CrossFireX setups are officially supported by the H87 boards. As such, the Intel Z87 boards are highly recommended for power users and hardcore gamers.

With that in mind, we move ahead with our round-up of five top-of-the-line Intel Z87 motherboards from ASUS, ASRock, ECS, Gigabyte and MSI. Of the five boards, we've featured three of them in a video preview last year, so check it out to get acquainted with them quickly:-

Take note that this article is an extended version of the motherboard shootout article which was published in February 2014 edition of HWM (the sister publication of HardwareZone). As such, actual testing of these boards were done late in 2013.

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