Most new Intel chipsets are brought along in part with a new socket design. LGA1366 brought us X58, LGA1156 gave us the P55. We've had P67/Z68/Z77 with the LGA1155. X79 with LGA2011 and the current Z87 on the Haswell LGA1150.
So the big option that didn't change the socket too is the hugely successful Sandy Bridge and Ivy Bridge LGA1155 CPUs which are so incredibly popular that almost everyone we know has one in their rig. The adjustments between those three chipsets were very much incremental ones with the Z68 sweeping the P67 B3 revisions under the carpet and the Z77 finally refining the whole process.
The latest range of motherboards are now seeping their way into the UK, so whilst we're limited on what we can tell you about the specifics, we can at least show you the motherboards. The Z97 chipset is a refinement of the Z87, bridging the gap between the 4th Generation of Intel CPU's and the 5th Generation, which are the main reason for these motherboards existence. Let's start with the Gigabyte Z97X SOC, or Super Over Clock.
Regular readers, or those of you who follow these things closely, will be peering intently trying to discover what exactly is new on the SOC FORCE. Support for the 5th Generation of Intel CPU's is the most obvious change second to the inclusion of SATA Express. Otherwise the specification list doesn't scratch the surface of what the Gigabyte Z97X SOC has to offer.
The box art for the Z97X SOC offers two of my favourite things, orange colour schemes and motor racing. So it's no surprise that whilst we were all drawing lots to preview it, I just ran off with it.
There is no question that the SOC is aimed squarely at the high-end overclockers, as all the Gigabyte orange motherboards are. If you're in any doubt of its intentions then opening the front flap dispels them all, with a shot of the Z97X completely frost-covered. We want that as a wallpaper, it looks so cool.
The top half of the motherboard is understandably dominated by the LGA1150 socket. As well as being gold-plated to 15 microns, there is a huge amount of space around it to cope with the more exotic cooling solutions that the board almost demands. At the top left is a 8+4 pin CPU power input to ensure the maximum amps to your CPU. The area to the right of the DIMMs is so complicated we'll look at it below, and on a subsequent page.
The SOC supports 4 way CrossFire and 2 way SLI. There is plenty of space between the main PCI Express slots to ensure your graphics cards keep cool. Below the CMOS battery are the Gigabyte DualBIOS chips and LED indicators to remind you which you're using at a glance.
This collection of buttons, switches and monitoring points is the 'OC Touch', and it's the heart of the Gigabyte Z97X SOC. Starting at the bank of dip switches and working to the right we have, in order : DIMM switch buttons. It's becoming more common for high-end motherboards to allow you to turn the PCI lanes on and off with a dipswitch, but we think the SOC is the first to allow you to diagnose RAM problems without having to remove the sticks. A boon to serious overclockers. Next to that is the PCI lane switches, then OC Ignition, OC Tag, OC Turbo, OC Gear, BCLK adjustments, CPU Ratio +/-, power button and finally the 7 segment error display.
Below those are the buttons to toggle which BIOS you're using, jump straight to it after a OC failure and a range of other buttons that ensure your overclocking experience is as hassle free as you could imagine.
Next to the SATA 3 connections is the SATA Express which allows for transfer rates up to an eye-popping 10Gb/s. Just stop and think about that for a moment. 1GB a second from a non-RAID device. We can't wait. Finally we have two internal USB headers for BIOS updates and settings backup/restore when the reverse of your system isn't readily to hand.
Overclocking is all about power and as well as the 8+4 CPU arrangement there is, just below the main heatsink, a 'OC PEG' which allows for further power in multi-card setups.
In comparison to the main motherboard the IO area is relatively standard with plenty of USB ports (although the left hand ones are sadly still USB 2.0), display outputs which include 4K support, the Realtek ALC1150 audio and the KillerNIC E2200 LAN controller.
We'll start with the more standard elements of the Gigabyte Z97X SOC. The main point of interest is native 4K support. We know that 4K displays are still hugely expensive, but it's a testament to how quickly the price is dropping that the latest Intel chipset supports it by default.
Most of us don't change our CPUs very often but it shows how much of a focus Gigabyte are putting towards the extreme overclocker by doubling the thickness of the gold plating on the CPU socket. If you're looking for world record overclocks you're going to have to change your CPU dozens and dozens of times searching for the best possible starting point, so doubling the thickness of the gold ensures the most stable contact at all times.
We can't wait for the hardware to filter through that supports the SATA Express 10Gb/s port. Or perhaps the SATA 3 ones already see a benefit from the increased bandwidth. Without testing we don't know, and even if we had tested we can't tell you yet. Exciting though.
When we showed you the motherboard itself it was clear how much potential was available to overclockers with the Gigabyte SOC. They've thought of things we certainly hadn't realised we wanted. It's a common theme in hardware that moves the goal-posts. It takes a visionary to make you want things you hadn't considered, and certainly if you're one of the, admittedly limited, people who use exotic sub-zero cooling we know that you'll be salivating at the thought of getting to play with all these toys. The more mortal of us will have to make do with being excited at the ability to power our water-cooling loop and LEDs without having to fiddle about with jumpers on the power supply, or even turn the system on at all.
Power and Software
Finally, having the ability to have so many tools at your disposal is pointless if the quality of the power delivery isn't clean and consistent, and the Z97X SOC certainly has all of the high end CAPs and MOSFETs you could hope to find thanks to the PowIRstage and black 10K CAPs.
Other features, as if what we've seen so far isn't enough to whet your appetite, are the customisable UEFI BIOS we first saw on the 8 series motherboards and a ton of additional software to allow you as much control from the desktop as you have in the BIOS. They've even brought back the start menu to Windows 8.1.
We can't wait to bring you a full review of the Gigabyte Z97X SOC. Let us know your thoughts in our Forums.