What is a buyer to do after breaking the budget on a new Intel Skylake CPU? Perhaps Gigabyte’s low-cost Z170-HD3 could solve your financial woes...
Intel hasn’t exactly made it easy for budget-restricted performance enthusiast to get “up to speed” with the latest technology, previously making buyers pay for the highest CPU models simply to get a CPU that wasn’t explicitly locked-out of overclocking. That changed a little with the “Anniversary Edition” Pentium G3258, but even this concession to the bottom-rung left buyers in the lower-middle-range looking for more cores and cache. And more recently, the promise of overclockable “non-K” Skylake processors vanished when Intel decided to delay all but the top two models.
Saving money in other places is always an option, but not always a good one. The price of DDR4 has nearly dropped to per-gigabyte parity with DDR3, but not quite, and even then there isn’t much to be saved by picking the cheapest vs next-rung parts. Other cut-rate parts are even more cringe-worthy, as low-end power supplies make us think of the word “Poof” followed by a cloud of smoke. However, most builder can use an old case at little to no cost, and then there’s the motherboard. Before you start thinking once again about that cloud of smoke, let us assure you that the days of “Capacitor Plague” are far behind us, and at least one manufacturer is willing to produce a fully overclockable Z170 motherboard with a full three year warranty that’s priced below $115.
Gigabyte is even bold enough to put its Ultra Durable brand on the low-cost Z170-HD3, which begs the question what was left out to get this board down to its target price? You’ll notice that it has a full range of slots including M.2, quad DIMMs and dual PCIe x16. Digging deeper into the specs reveals this model has a dual BIOS, with a recovery feature in case the user renders main firmware unbootable. It even has a pair of front-panel USB 3.0 headers, just in case you’d like to use this low-cost board with an expensive chassis. What it visibly lacks are any 10Gbps USB 3.1 ports or a DisplayPort connector.
The reason there aren’t any “USB 3.1 Gen 2” ports is that the board doesn’t have that extra controller. In fact, it doesn’t have any extra controllers. A single network controller and audio codec are basic necessities, not extras.
The Z170-HD3 doesn’t even have the PCIe pathway switches needed to go from single x16 to dual x8 graphics modes, nor is it locked into dual x8 mode, so SLI certification would have been impossible. Instead, the second x16-length slot is fed by four of the chipset’s PCIe 3.0 lanes, but remember that the total bandwidth of this chipset’s CPU link is already limited to that same 32Gbps bandwidth as the second slot.
There’s also the six-phase voltage regulator, which will limit how much power can go into the CPU and thus prevent insane overclocked frequencies, at least at full CPU load. We’re anxious to see where its power limit kicks in.
All those feature reductions have allowed Gigabyte to significantly shrink the Z170-HD3 below the standard ATX specification — down to 7.8” front-to-back. Slots are still spread across the full ATX slot panel, though.
Proving that Gigabyte takes criticism extremely well, the firm has moved both USB 3.0 front-panel headers to the upper half of the Z170-HD3, where many of its previous products had at least one of those headers situated under a graphics slot. They’ve also slid the front-panel audio header forward by about a quarter-inch, which might make a few of those “too-short” front panel cables long enough.
The M.2 slot is slid up close to the CPU socket, which means that it'll probably be difficult to access with a large CPU cooler installed. We rarely need to access our M.2 slots anyway, so this was probably a good choice. Sliding it this close to the CPU socket means that there’s room for a PCIe x1 slot in the top position, rather than below the graphics card where it would get blocked by the GPU cooler.
Gigabyte was even courteous enough to put SATA-Express connectors on all six SATA ports, though you’ll lose one of those ports if you happen to be using a SATA-based M.2 drive.
Lacking any serious concerns regarding motherboard layout, we turn to the Z170-HD3 installation kit and find no worries again. Gigabyte includes only two SATA cables, but that should be forgivable for any motherboard that uses a Z-series chipset and costs only $115. At this price, the target market has but two drives.
Gigabyte App Center provides a handy popup menu for individually installed applications, such as 3d OSD programmable system status display for 3D applications, @BIOS firmware updating utility with web-server retrieval, AutoGreen standby mode controls, USB Blocker password app for USB-connected peripherals, Home Cloud client and Cloud Station server for serving files between devices over the internet, Easy RAID and Fast Boot utilities to access Windows RAID and fast boot settings, Platform Power Management controls, and Smart TimeLock controls for limiting user internet access on the local machine.
Gigabyte System Information Viewer has limited functionality with the Z170-HD3, showing only such basic details as system clock, CPU, DRAM and fan speed. Hidden within are advanced fan controls. System Information Viewer failed to detect this motherboard’s voltage levels, though we assume that Gigabyte will have this fixed in relatively short order — this is a new platform, after all.
Gigabyte EasyTune works far better than the above SIV, and is probably far more important to performance enthusiasts. Basic adjustments include an ECO mode that saves 18W under load via reducing CPU voltage by approximately 100mV, an OC mode that locked our CPU to 4.4GHz regardless of the number of cores used and cost only 1W idle/20W full-load in energy, and an AutoTuning that caused our system to lock up without saving the results.
Advanced CPU controls include BCLK, CPU VCore and DRAM voltage that all worked according to our meter and CPU-Z, plus an Advanced DDR OC menu that required a reboot to set DRAM multiplier via firmware. Though other functions such as DDR timings were non-functional, EasyTune does offer overclocking profile saving and retrieval.
Other applications include Smart Keyboard macro programming and Gigabyte’s Smart Switch Windows 7-style boot menu.
The Z170-HD3’s M.I.T. (Motherboard Intelligent Tweaker) menu is slightly more than a placeholder for overclocking submenus, as it also includes basic clock and core voltage reports.
Both the CPU and DRAM ratio can be adjusted through the Advanced Frequency submenu, along with the BCLK that affects both of these things. The “Performance Upgrade” option at the top of this submenu includes a so-called 20% upgrade at 4.3GHz and 1.26V, a “40%” upgrade at 4.4GHz and 1.3V, a “60%” upgrade at 4.5GHz and 1.26V, an “80%” upgrade at 4.6GHz and 1.26V, and a “100%” upgrade at 4.7GHz and 1.26V. Those higher modes (60% and higher) didn’t work at all due to the low core voltage, and we’re pretty sure that 4.7GHz is not 100% faster than 4GHz.
We were able to reach 4.5GHz and DDR4-3466 with our Intel Core i7-6700K and G.Skill DDR4-3600 samples. Motherboard over-current protection was the most likely reason our CPU didn’t clock to its customary 4.6GHz, and using the above “Percent upgrades” as a baseline didn’t help. Noting that 4.5GHz at 1.26V had already proven stable using the built in “60%” mode above, this motherboard sample wouldn’t push this CPU any higher when coupled with a 1.3V core setting.
Notice that the main memory overclocking submenu has a “normal” setting under Memory Enhancement. The Z170-HD3 automatically chose “Enhanced Stability” mode when the memory’s XMP profile was initially selected, dropping DRAM performance by around 30% in SiSoftware Sandra bandwidth.
The Advanced Voltage Settings submenu opens to an annoyingly large array of submenus, each with just a few settings such as “Loadline Calibration”, an adjustment that helped keep CPU core voltage stable, but didn’t allow it to clock any higher. DRAM voltage levels are adjustable in 20mV steps, and while the 1.34V setting produced a 1.347V output that nearly matched our target, the next setting (1.36V) was too high to use in an apples-to-apples comparison.
Other submenus include a system status page with most of the readings that I originally wanted to see in the SIV software interface. The Z170-HD3’s firmware is far better than its software at this point.
How We Tested
Test System Components
We’re using our standardized test system, minus its LGA 2011 motherboard, CPU and DDR4-2400, to measure the performance of every LGA 1151 test board. Replacements for those parts include today’s Z170-HD3 motherboard, Intel’s Core i7-6700K, and G.Skill’s overclockable Ripjaws V DDR4-3600.
|Chipset||Intel INF 10.0.27|
|3DMark 11||Version: 22.214.171.124, Benchmark Only|
|3DMark Professional||Version: 126.96.36.199 (64-bit), Fire Strike Benchmark|
|PCMark 8||Version: 1.0.0 x64, Full Test|
|SiSoftware Sandra||Version 2014.02.20.10, CPU Test = CPU Arithmetic / Multimedia / Cryptography, Memory Bandwidth Benchmarks|
|Battlefield 4||Version 188.8.131.52, DirectX 11, 100-sec. Fraps "Tashgar"|
Test Set 1: Medium Quality Preset, No AA, 4X AF, SSAO
Test Set 2: Ultra Quality Preset, 4X MSAA, 16X AF, HBAO
|Grid 2|| Version 184.108.40.20679, Direct X 11, Built-in Benchmark|
Test Set 1: High Quality, No AA
Test Set 2: Ultra Quality, 8x MSAA
|Arma 3||Version 1.08.113494, 30-Sec. Fraps "Infantry Showcase"|
Test Set 1: Standard Preset, No AA, Standard AF
Test Set 2: Ultra Preset, 8x FSAA, Ultra AF
|Far Cry 3|| V. 1.04, DirectX 11, 50-sec. Fraps "Amanaki Outpost"|
Test Set 1: High Quality, No AA, Standard ATC, SSAO
Test Set 2: Ultra Quality, 4x MSAA, Enhanced ATC, HDAO
|Adobe After Effects CC||Version 220.127.116.114: Create Video which includes 3 Streams, 210 Frames, Render Multiple Frames Simultaneosly|
|Adobe Photoshop CC||Version 14.0 x64: Filter 15.7MB TIF Image: Radial Blur, Shape Blur, Median, Polar Coordinates|
|Adobe Premeire Pro CC||Version 7.0.0 (342), 6.61 GB MXF Project to H.264 to H.264 Blu-ray, Output 1920x1080, Maximum Quality|
|iTunes||Version 18.104.22.168 x64: Audio CD (Terminator II SE), 53 minutes, default AAC format|
|Lame MP3||Version 3.98.3: Audio CD "Terminator II SE", 53 min, convert WAV to MP3 audio format, Command: -b 160 --nores (160 kb/s)|
|Handbrake CLI||Version: 0.99: Video from Canon Eos 7D (1920x1080, 25 FPS) 1 Minutes 22 Seconds|
Audio: PCM-S16, 48000 Hz, 2-Channel, to Video: AVC1 Audio: AAC (High Profile)
|TotalCodeStudio 2.5||Version: 22.214.171.12477: MPEG-2 to H.264, MainConcept H.264/AVC Codec, 28 sec HDTV 1920x1080 (MPEG-2), Audio: MPEG-2 (44.1 kHz, 2 Channel, 16-Bit, 224 kb/s), Codec: H.264 Pro, Mode: PAL 50i (25 FPS), Profile: H.264 BD HDMV|
|ABBYY FineReader||Version 10.0.102.95: Read PDF save to Doc, Source: Political Economy (J. Broadhurst 1842) 111 Pages|
|Adobe Acrobat 11||Version 126.96.36.1999: Print PDF from 115 Page PowerPoint, 128-bit RC4 Encryption|
|Autodesk 3ds Max 2013||Version 15.0 x64: Space Flyby Mentalray, 248 Frames, 1440x1080|
|Blender||Version: 2.68A, Cycles Engine, Syntax blender -b thg.blend -f 1, 1920x1080, 8x Anti-Aliasing, Render THG.blend frame 1|
|Visual Studio 2010||Version 10.0, Compile Google Chrome, Scripted|
|WinZip||Version 18.0 Pro: THG-Workload (1.3 GB) to ZIP, command line switches "-a -ez -p -r"|
|WinRAR||Version 5.0: THG-Workload (1.3 GB) to RAR, command line switches "winrar a -r -m3"|
|7-Zip||Version 9.30 alpha (64-bit): THG-Workload (1.3 GB) to .7z, command line switches "a -t7z -r -m0=LZMA2 -mx=5"|
No news is great news in synthetic benchmarks, which primarily show if a board is either misconfigured or secretly overclocked. The latter was formerly a problem when companies were trying to win benchmark shootouts by cheating, but has become much less common since Intel integrated most of its control components.
The only noticeable exception is memory, where companies can attempt to optimize timings for performance while not pushing the RAM so hard that the system crashes. The ASRock Z170 Extreme6 fell slightly behind with its beta firmware, while retail firmware motherboards such as today’s Z170-HD3 test subject finish in a dead heat.
The recently-tested Z170-Claymore stumbled in a few games, and the beta-firmware Z170 Extreme6 excelled by a similar amount in a single game setting, but the Z170-HD3 plowed through the entire gaming suite without incident.
The Z170-HD3 finished our Adobe Premiere workload a little quicker than its competitors, but any major advantages should have popped up in other applications. A difference this small in a single application hardly warrants an in-depth investigation, and we should note that each motherboard’s driver package differs slightly based on its onboard controllers (or lack thereof).
Power, Heat And Efficiency
The Z170-HD3’s power profile looks fairly ordinary compared to most competitors, though resting above ECS’ exceedingly poor power numbers helps the Z170-HD3 appear a little better in the chart. It’s actually the second-worst at full CPU load, and second-best at idle.
The previous ECS test sample consumed enough power to pull the entire group's average down. Gigabyte’s Z170-HD3 scores 3.9% above-average in the summary chart, but that only puts it in the middle.
Overclocking, Value And Conclusion
Overclocking is usually the most-difficult feat for a low-cost motherboard, but the Z170-HD3 did fairly well. We reached the highest 4-DIMM memory overclock and the second-highest 2-DIMM overclock with this board, but came up 100MHz shy of the CPU’s achievable 4.6GHz.
Overclocking ease was due to a well-developed firmware, while the slight deficit in CPU core overclocking was most likely due to its smaller voltage regulator. I’d like to put this to the test with the Core i5-6600K, since the lack of hyperthreading reduces its maximum wattage load, and the Z170-HD3 further looks like an excellent overclocking board for future, low-cost processors that will likely consume even less energy when overclocked.
The purpose of the DDR4-2933 bandwidth chart is to determine what happens when memory is overclocked. Tighter timings offer better performance with less stability, while looser timings have the opposite effect. On some motherboards, memory overclocking results in lower than stock performance!
The Z170-HD3 nicely produces better than stock memory performance when overclocked, bearing in mind disclaimers within this article’s firmware discussion. Setting XMP mode enables “Enhanced Stability Mode” timings, which reduces bandwidth to around 20GB/s, and the only way to find sought gains is to return that setting to “Normal Mode”.
This is the last time I’ll personally use this version of the “Performance Per Dollar” chart in a motherboard article, because it reflects price without consideration for the cost of features. I’m looking for a better way to chart value — and taking your suggestions. Still, the chart is relevant to anyone who’s looking only for a basic Z170 motherboard and is only concerned with price.