What’s New: Intel Z97 Motherboards

What’s New: Intel Z97 Motherboards

By Olin Coles

Back in 2007 Intel established a Tick-Tock model that predicted that following a micro-architectural process technology die shrink (tick) that a new micro-architecture would be introduced (tock). They’ve kept to this processor model for seven years, but no such model exists for their board chipset architecture. Instead, every tick update and new tock architecture receives a fresh LGA (land grid array) CPU socket: Nehalem brought LGA 1366 and later LGA 1156, Sandy Bridge introduced LGA 1155 followed by LGA 2011, and Haswell delivered LGA 1150. But what’s new in 2014 with Intel Z97 Express?

Intel plans to debut a full lineup of refreshed 4th-generation 22nm Haswell desktop processors later this year (code named Devil’s Canyon: faster speeds, improved thermal interface material), but ahead of that release they’ve set the groundwork for 5th-generation processors with Z97. Intel Z97 Express uses the same LGA 1150 socket, and supports both existing 4th-generation and upcoming 5th-generation Intel desktop processors (code named Broadwell-D, 14nm, expected Q1-2015).

Depending on the board partner, support for PCIe M.2 Socket 3 and/or SATA-Express functionality may be added. More SuperSpeed USB 3.0 ports may be included, but are still an add-in feature using third-party chips. Beyond CPU support and board partner enhancements, the Z97 chip(set) update is barely qualifies as a refresh over Z87.

Intel Z87 Chipset Diagram

Intel Z87 Chipset Diagram

In comparison to the Intel Z87 Chipset Diagram illustrated above, the hard architecture remains identical. The Intel Haswell desktop CPU still delivers up to 16 PCI-Express 3.0 lanes for direct GPU connectivity, and includes an additional 4 PCI-Express 2.0 lanes. Intel Z97 Express doesn’t deliver additional PCIe lanes beyond what Z87 did, nor does it deliver native USB 3.0 support. Z97 offers the same 5GT/s bandwidth for up to 8 PCI Express 2.0 lanes. Intel Z97-based motherboards still allow PCI-Express 3.0 ports to be configured as 1 x16, 2 x8, or 1 x8 and 2 x4 lanes.

As you may recall, Intel announced its departure from the desktop board market shortly after the 2013 CES. Their planned three-year wind-down towards total departure by the end of 2016 is well underway, and due to reduced demand it could be accelerated into 2015. Removing themselves from the marketplace will put them on par with AMD, where they (and desktop PC enthusiast) will be dependent on board partners such as ASUS, MSI, ASROCK, and GIGABYTE for functional innovation.

In the next few weeks you’ll begin to see details emerge for desktop motherboard products from these manufacturers. Typically, ASUS and MSI lead the way for quality and features while ASROCK and GIGABYTE offer colorfully edgy design renditions. Benchmark Reviews will be covering many of the upcoming options, and show you what can be done with the latest desktop technology. One thing is certain: the onus of innovation has been placed directly on the backs of Intel’s board partners, and profit will determine how long they carry that torch.

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