It took us a little while to get to Intel's Z77 reference board — mainly because the pre-production sample we had was quite unstable. The retail kit is another matter, and it operates as well as one would expect.
Ever since Skulltrail, Intel's had a thing for the skeletal bit that sits inside most heads, and the motif lives on here, both on the box and the chipset heatsink.
As the reference board for the Z77, Intel has packed up the DZ77GA-70K with quite a few features above standard fare.
You generally don't see dual Ethernet these days on anything but the highest of the high-end boards, and, being an Intel product, this one comes with dual Intel gigabit ports. One is an 82574L (on the left); the other an 82579V. The major difference is that the L supports NC sidebanding, while the V does not. In a home environment, you'll never need to worry about such things.
There are also four USB 3.0 ports on the back, with another four provided internally via header. Before you get excited at having more Intel-controlled ports than usual, this is achieved through the Genesys GL3520, a port multiplier. This means that bandwidth-wise, it's sharing what's usually reserved for four ports across the eight ports instead.
There's also a FireWire port at the back, a FireWire header and an extra pair of 6Gbps SATA ports courtesy of the Marvell 88SE9172. There are also headers for transmit and receive IR connectors.
If there's one thing this Intel board will be able to help with, it's figuring out boot issues. A tiny piezo speaker on the board does what has long been lost amongst modern cases: it beeps when the machine POSTs or there's an error. There are diagnostic POST lights on one side, and power phase LEDs on the opposite. A hexadecimal readout further assists in troubleshooting.
Accessories are fancy, too, with a USB Bluetooth and 802.11n RALink adapter, mouse pad and a 3.5-inch drive bay module featuring two USB 3.0 ports.
One of the odder audio implementations we've seen.
(Credit: Craig Simms/CNET)
Finally, the rear audio stack only has five 3.5mm jacks, replacing the sixth with optical audio — those who use 7.1 systems will have to give up their microphone or use a USB microphone instead.
There's a push button nestled between the USB 3.0 and eSATA ports — push it in, and it locks down and glows red. Those wags at Intel decided this wasn't enough of a feature, so when depressed it also enters the BIOS at reboot.
It's really only useful if for some reason your keyboard doesn't respond at boot time, as whenever you make a change and exit the BIOS, the board tells you to press the button off and restart the machine. More useful would be to allow booting to Windows, but entering the BIOS at each subsequent reboot until turned off, so that you could tweak slightly with each reboot. There's an option in the UEFI that gets close to this, pausing the POST at each reboot so you don't have to hammer the keyboard. F2 then loads the BIOS, while Esc proceeds to Windows.
There is, of course, the standard Z77 fare: a pair of Intel 6Gbps SATA ports, four 3Gbps SATA ports, a PCI-E 3.0 x16 slot, a PCI-E 2.0 x8 slot and a PCI-E 2.0 x4 slot. The latter is both physically and electrically x4, rather than being an x4 in an x16's body. Two PCI-E 2.0 x1 slots and a single PCI slot complete the set.
There are four USB 2.0 ports at the rear, two of which are high current (as indicated by their yellow colour), and therefore suitable for charging devices. There's an eSATA port, but video out is limited purely to HDMI — this is a board that's intended for use with a discrete card.
Intel's UEFI implementation is one of the nicer ones we've used, displaying a huge wad of useful information and making the mouse a first-class citizen, rather than employing the "oh look, there's a pointer in the BIOS" method.
There are live running graphs for temperature, voltage and fan speed, for a start. Then there's drag-and-drop boot order, and highlighting individual SATA devices actually shows which physical port the drive is plugged in to, which is something we love. CPU, memory and integrated graphics all have single-slider overclocking, although it tends to be on the conservative side — our 3770K was locked to a 4.5GHz maximum, for example. To push further, you'll need to dump into "classic" mode and dial up the "Burst Mode Power Limit" first. It's not particularly intuitive, and we'd imagine overclockers would ply their trade elsewhere.
All the fan headers can be speed controlled, and temperature thresholds can be set for individual components. Voltages can also be modified, but they're a little strange compared to the 0.005V increments that Asus and Gigabyte implement, instead opting for values that end with x.xx0, x.xx2, x.xx5 and x.xx7.
The DZ77GA-70K is going to appeal to a specific subset of people: those who are looking for expandability and features more than anything else. Only Gigabyte's Z77X-UD5H and AsRock's Fatal1ty Z77 offer dual Ethernet at the AU$269 price point, and the Intel board uses two Intel chips, rather than Broadcomm or Atheros.
FireWire support and the included accessories just sweeten the deal, and the board is information heavy as far as diagnostics and UEFI are concerned. Overclockers will likely look elsewhere, though, so they can really get down to the nitty gritty — Asus and Gigabyte simply make it easier.