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7th Gen Kaby Lake Z270 Motherboard Roundup

Intel 7th Gen CPUs are here and that means new motherboards. The 200-series chipset is the companion to the 7th Gen Kaby Lake silicon, so we’re here with a quick rundown of the new boards to hopefully help you on your way.

Back To Basics

Now, the premium type of board we’ll be discussing is a Z270 motherboard. The 270/250/210 numbers are Intel’s nomenclature for different flavors of boards and features -- before Z270 was Z170 and Z97 before that and back and back to before the dinosaurs.

The “Z” of Z270 refers to motherboards that allow you to overclock your CPU. There are also H, B and Q boards, but those are much less common.

Now, if Z270 boards are for overclocking, how do you know if you can overclock your CPU? Well, if your chip has a “K” after it then you’re golden. So the new top dog i7-7700k is unlocked to allow for overclocking. The i7-7700 is locked and doesn’t allow overclocking. It’s also cheaper.

Compared to Z270, the H270 and B150 boards dial back the features, like PCIe lanes and M.2 storage, as well as skip on overclocking. If you don’t need all the features, H and B boards are perfectly fine for builds, though the Z270s get all the attention and fancy features.  

New CPUs

First, the Intel 7th Gen CPUs all start with a 7. So the i7-7700k is 7th Gen while i7-6700k is sixth gen. Pretty basic, right?

Also, let’s talk names. 6th Gen was Skylake while 7th Gen is Kaby Lake. Kaby is pronounced “Kay Bee” like the letters KB, not “cabby lake” like “taxi driver lake.”

After Kaby Lake will be the offshoot Coffee Lake and then 8th Gen Cannon Lake. Not making these names up. Kaby and Coffee are both 14nm while Cannon jumps to 10nm. Smaller is better when talking processors and shotgun gauges. Release date? Intel is cagy about these things, but Cannon will probably be late 2017.

The new kid on the block is Aorus which takes over GIGABYTE’s premium mobo lineup. The Aorus line includes Gaming 9, 8, 7, K7, 5 and K5. All the previous GIGABYTE G1, Designare, Phoenix, OC and other lines are now being wrapped up into the Aorus brand.

For performance, 7th Gen gets a rough 10% bump in clock and corresponding performance at the same rough street price. Basically, Kaby is buffed Skylake.

Kaby also brings native USB-C support which means 10gbps transfer speeds. Previously, Skylake required a separate chip to use USB-C. Thunderbolt 3, which is also Intel technology, can hit 40Gbps, but that requires motherboards with Thunderbolt 3 bits installed.

Kaby also features native HEVC (aka Pied Piper from HBO’s Silicon Valley) codec support and other video optimization enhancements. These features don’t benefit the desktop CPUs as much as the mobile variety which sees battery life get an instant couple extra hours.

Optane Is Here! This Fall!

The other big news with 7th Gen and Z270 mobos is the arrival of Optane. Actually, the arrival of Optane-ready products because Optane won’t actually see our grubby gamer hands until fall.

What is Optane, you ask? Other than the biggest hype train this side of quantum computing, Optane is a very real, very exciting new SSD/RAM technology.

Without getting into the weeds, Optane basically combines your SSDs and RAM sticks into one solution. After all, you have GBs of RAM and hundreds of GB of storage. Why not just, I don’t know, combine it all?

Why not indeed. In fact, hard core performance-seekers have been creating “RAM disks” for years now. A RAM disk essentially turns a portion of your RAM GB into a storage GB.

Why do this? Well, RAM is insanely fast compared to even the latest uber fast PCIe SSDs with NVMe tech.

So where a traditional SSD running on the SATA port will get around 500mbps, a top NVMe SSD will get 2000-3000mbps, RAM disks can hit over 6,000 read and 10,000 write. Fast.

So Optane, which is both a software and hardware solution (known as 3D Xpoint), essentially creates giant RAM disks.

What this means for you is the potential for a single M.2 or DIMM Optane SSD/RAM stick. Buy a 512GB Optane drive and you have up to 512GB of RAM (not including OS and, ya know, apps and gifs) compared to the peasant 64GB max you have now.

And when you’re not using all 512GB RAM, it just acts like insanely fast SSD storage and reduces all latency and bottlenecks between the CPU and its silicon siblings.

Of course, this is the ideal scenario. In reality, the first Optane products will arrive in the form of 32GB cache drives that plug into your M.2 slots and bridge the gap between your RAM and SSDs. No RAM DIMM slots for Optane as of yet.

And it’s still months and months away and all speculation, so what market-ready products will proudly display the Optane badge is a big unknown.

Regardless, your new Z270 boards are Optane ready! Yay future!

The Motherboards

We received a handful of motherboards from ASUS, Aorus (GIGABYTE’s brand), MSI and one from ASRock.

The new kid on the block is Aorus which takes over GIGABYTE’s premium mobo lineup. The Aorus line includes Gaming 9, 8, 7, K7, 5 and K5. All the previous GIGABYTE G1, Designare, Phoenix, OC and other lines are now being wrapped up into the Aorus brand.  

For ASUS, they’ve consolidated their offerings into ROG, Strix, TUF and Prime. Prime replaces the low end Pro Gaming while Strix fills out the middle.

MSI is also simplifying their offerings, or trying to, at least. On the top ios the Enthusiast Gaming boards, which features the top Titanium (seen on X99), and Master Gaming which includes the M7, M5 and M3. The masters are MSI’s top gaming boards while Titanium goes more for overclocking than flash.

MSI also has Performance with the Carbon and Krait boards, Arsenal is a step down with their Tomahawk and finally the budget Pro Series boards.

ASRock is also hitting it big with number of boards and names. The top board is the Z270 SuperCarrier, followed by a variety of Professional Gaming, Fatal1ty and Pro boards. The Taichi brand also makes a reappearance, making their lineup even more confusing.

Biostar is also in the game with their Racing “for esport” board with 6 PCIe slots.

Finally, EVGA is noticeably absent from the Z270 launch. EVGA typically takes their time with motherboards but the Z270 launch was delayed by months (due to Intel delaying Kaby Lake months) so it’s a bit surprising EVGA doesn’t have new black-on-black offerings ready.

Colors

Nearly every single motherboard has been drained of the color. Why is it all black/white/gray? Because basically every board has become an RGB light show. Since the introduction of LEDs and RGB software as well as the 12v LED strip headers, PC color is no longer dictated by the motherboard, GPU, etc.

That is, except ASRock with its Fatal1ty line of red/black boards.

Liquid Cooling

We’re also seeing more motherboard liquid cooling this year. Both ASUS Formula and Aorus Gaming 9 have EK waterblocks installed. The Aorus Gaming 8 swaps the EK for a Bitspower.

Also, many of the latest boards have dedicated pump headers and DC/PWM fan headers with included software. Some boards, like the ASUS ROG lineup, include liquid temp sensors and much more for really custom cooling and performance.

LED Acrylic Strips

Out of all the boards, the Aorus Gaming 9 with its customizable LED strips and incredibly bright LEDs with double 5 pin RGB headers is clearly on the top of the pack for LED light shows.

I’m betting the Aorus acrylic strip theme will start showing up in other boards -- it just looks damn cool. Basically, you can etch out patterns or logos in the acrylic strips and the mobo will light them up.

Also, Aorus’s two-tone shroud LEDs will probably start showing up elsewhere. The effect of blue/green or red/purple looks damn cool and takes away from the flashy gamer LEDs.

M.2 SSD Coolers

M.2 SSDs tend to get hot, especially on motherboards snuggled under GPUs and performance can become an issue. MSI is including their patent-pending M.2 shields with thermal pads to, they claim, offer “up to 40% better performance.”

Now, it’s no question M.2 drives have heat issues -- the new Samsung 960 Pro has a copper sticker/plate to help with the heat.

So our guess is included thermal pad heat sinks will start appearing on more mobos. After all “patent pending” doesn’t mean “patented” and heat sinks is really nothing new. How will Optane M.2 handle the temps? Unknown but we’re betting the mobo manufacturers will try to squeeze out every last bit of performance when it arrives.

USB-C 3.1 Headers

Z270 means native USB 3.1 on motherboards, typically in the form of USB-C and USB-A ports. Also typically in bright red (even though teal is the USB-A 3.1 color). Of course, having two competing ports for a single protocol is incredibly annoying, not to mention the confusion over USB-C 3.0, USB-C 3.1 Gen 1, Gen 2, Thunderbolt 3, etc. But here we are.

Now, one area that has been left out is USB-C ports on the front of PC cases. ASUS in partnership with Intel is pushing the development of front USB-C headers on mobos. Most of the new ASUS boards have front USB-C headers to connect to the latest gen cases with USB-C.

MSI also has a USB-C header (which they’re also claiming is an “exclusive world’s first” but other adoption in this generation is scant.

Thunderbolt 3

What about Thunderbolt 3, you ask? Only the high end Aorus boards have Thunderbolt 3, mirroring the Z170 lineup where GIGABYTE rolled out Thunderbolt 3 adoption across their line.

ASUS continues their Thunderbolt 3 solution in the form of a PCIe card with a host of cables. Hardly elegant but a way for ASUS to keep the cost of boards low by making Thunderbolt 3 optional.

VR-Ready USB Ports

Interestingly, MSI is pushing VR-exclusive USB ports on their motherboards. VR-Ready USB? MSI claims traditional USB ports suffer signal drops and impact performance. MSI’s “VR Boost” tech is said to “sustain 3 meter+ cables” reduce jitter for “lag free VR.”

What this means in the real world is unknown but I’m curious to test it out.

Rear Audio Upgrades

Previously, only the audio headers on motherboards connected to the front of a PC chassis provided the best audio off a motherboard -- the back headphone jack didn’t receive the fancy DAC and amplification.

Now, ASUS and MSI have have given the lonely back jack the amplification love. This means the premium ESS Sabre DACs and other amplification solutions will be tied to the back of the mobo.

Also, audio software like ASUS’s Sonic Suite work to detect headphone impedance to correctly match the amplifier power to the headphones.

Where's U.2?

Like the X99 lineup of motherboards, most Z270 boards are including U.2 ports to replace the aging SATA ports. U.2 is like M.2 but, ya know, for desktops and not laptops.

Strangely, ASUS is missing from the U.2 club, which is really bizarre since they were on top of U.2 at the beginning, with their Z170 Impact ITX board being the only ITX mobo to include U.2.

Of course, the U.2 NVMe drives available right now include the Intel 750 and that’s it. Maybe ASUS is thinking Optane will replace the need for U.2 SSDs. Or U.2 belongs in the extreme X99 class, rather than consumer-grade PCBs.

Overall

The latest crop of Z270 mobos are really dang impressive and bring some color sanity to the game (looking at you GIGABYTE orange and ASUS Strix pink).

Photos By: Denise Damian