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TekSpek Motherboards
Intel Z97 Chipset

Intel Z97 Chipset

Date issued:

In June, 2013, Intel launched an assemblage of new 'Haswell' Core series processors presented in the LGA 1150 form factor. Inherently different to the LGA 1155 form factor it succeeded, LGA 1150 spurred the release of a new chipset family known as the 8-series.

The entire formation of Haswell chipsets is extensive; Z87, B85, Q87, Q85, H87 and H81. Each chipset serves a distinct market with Z87 remaining the choice for enthusiasts thanks to its top-draw specifications and overclocking support with Intel's unlocked Core Series processors.

With an anticipated wait of up to a year for Haswell's desktop-successor, Broadwell, the status-quo for the PC market has set in. Intel Z87 motherboards can be had for a surprisingly low cost, just £65, and as such Intel has stipulated that a new 9-series chipset is needed to prevent stagnation.

For enthusiasts this means Z97 is the direct successor to Z87 and, not surprisingly, Z97 will phase-out Z87 as Intel sees no reason for the two chipsets to co-exist when they serve the same purpose. In fact, all 9-series chipsets are designed to replace their 8-series counterparts with an updated feature-set. The pressing question for many consumers is, why should I opt for an Intel Z97 motherboard?

The answer is surprisingly conservative; in fact, existing Z87 owners may find no reason at all to make the jump to Z97. The key differences for Z97 compared to Z87 entail support for M.2 and SATA Express storage devices as well as support for upcoming Devil's Canyon CPUs.

M.2 SSDs

M.2 is the snappier name for next-generation form factor (NGFF) and it is designed to replace the mSATA interface which has failed to gain a strong foothold in the market. M.2 is versatile in that it can make use of PCI Express or SATA bandwidth to function. Such versatility means motherboards with M.2 already exist and some SSD manufacturers have already released M.2 SSDs soldered onto PCI Express expansion cards.

The Z97 implementation of M.2 runs off a pair of PCI Express Gen 2.0 lanes with the potential for 10Gbps of bandwidth; that's 67 per cent more than SATA III. Even so, 10Gbps is somewhat disappointing given that current SSD controllers, such as the SandForce SF3700, can make use of up to four PCIe lanes. Common sense indicates that Intel has limited M.2 to just two PCIe lanes to avoid running out of usable PCIe lanes on the Z97 chipset.

Some motherboard vendors have averted the two-lane limitation by tapping into the 16 PCIe 3.0 lanes provided by Haswell CPUs. So-called 'Ultra M.2' slots provide up to 32Gbps of throughput, over three times as much as a standard M.2 port. This does, however, limit the number of PCIe lanes available for multi-GPU configurations and other PCIe-based storage standards, like SATA Express.

SATA Express

SATA Express draws similarities to M.2 in that it can use either regular SATA or PCIe bandwidth. The physical layer (PHY) is integrated into the Z97 chipset and routed out to SATA Express-compatible ports. At present, the main limitation to SATA Express is the availability of compatible drives. Even if Z97 were to spur rapid SATA Express adoption in storage infrastructure, this only becomes relevant if storage vendors launch compatible drives.

ASUS has already revealed SATA Express on select Z87 motherboards by partnering with ASMedia. It comes as no surprise then that ASUS will be implementing SATA Express in tandem with Intel's Z97. Technical difficulties are present; bridging PCIe to SATA needs to overcome PCIe's reference clock of 100MHz. SATA Express circumvents this obstacle by using a separate reference clock with independent spread-spectrum clocking (SRIS). In effect, PCIe is 'clockless' as it relates to SATA Express in Z97.

Devil's Canyon CPUs, plus extra protection

To complement the release of new 9-series motherboards Intel is releasing a new premium range of faster-clocked Haswell CPUs. Codenamed 'Devil's Canyon' these CPUs should have launched alongside the new chipset but have fallen behind schedule. Intel claims said chips will only work with 9-series boards, implying Z97 will be the go-to chipset for enthusiasts needing the most performance. Whether motherboard vendors manage to engineer Devil's Canyon support into 8-series motherboards with a BIOS update remains to be seen.

Z97 is an incremental feature update for Intel's mainstream platform, rather than a complete overhaul. In addition to the aforementioned storage form factors there's also additional security via the Intel Device Protection with Boot Guard. As its wordy name might suggest this is a business-class security feature being imported into consumer chipsets for the first time. Intel Device Protection with Boot Guard marries software and hardware together in a way that decreases the chance of malware and rootkits taking hold in a system.

Sound advice is that anyone contemplating an upgrade to Z87 may well benefit from waiting for Z97's release in a few weeks' time. In addition to the new chipset-related features that have been outlined, motherboard vendors may also use the new chipset launch as an opportunity to introduce new features of their own, like improved audio or networking. In short, Z97 motherboards should be better equipped than their Z87 counterparts at similar price points.

As always, Scan Computers will be selling a wide range of Intel Z97 chipset-based motherboards from today.