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GIGABYTE Z97X-SOC Force Motherboard Review

Subject: Motherboards
Manufacturer: GIGABYTE

Features and Motherboard Layout

Features

Courtesy of GIGABYTE

  • Supports 4th and 5th Generation Intel® Core™ processors
  • Premium 4-way CrossFire™ support with OC Brace
  • Precise digital CPU power design
  • SATA Express support for 10 Gb/s data transfer
  • Exclusive GIGABYTE OC Features
  • Killer™ E2200 gaming networking
  • 2x copper PCB design
  • Realtek ALC1150 115dB SNR HD Audio with Built-in rear audio amplifier
  • New Heatsink design with 8 onboard fan connectors
  • Long lifespan Durable Black Solid caps
  • APP Center including EasyTune™ and Cloud Station™ utilities
  • GIGABYTE UEFI DualBIOS™

Motherboard Layout

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The GIGABYTE Z97X-SOC Force motherboard comes standard with a matte black PCB and orange PCI-Expess x16 and DIMM slots, in addition to orange highlights on the on-board heat sinks. All buttons and capacitors are black colored to blend with the PCB as well. The integrated component placement was carefully planned to allow easy access to all ports and buttons with more than enough room around component so that there are no overly crowded areas on the board.

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The back of the board is almost entirely clear of components and chips, besides the circuitry related to the CPU VRMs on the top-side of the board. The area directly behind the CPU socket is entirely free of components or chips, ensuring that there is no risk of the CPU cooler backplate resting on or crushing any critical board components. Additionally, GIGABYTE designed the DIMM slots connected directly to the top of the board, resulting in no solder points present for those slots on the back side of the board. This slot connection method mirrors that used to connect the CPU socket to the board, maximizing performance potential for memory used with the board.

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GIGABYTE integreated the followign ports into the Z97X-SOC Force's rear panel assembly: a keyboard/mouse PS/2 port, four USB 2.0 ports, four USB 3.0 ports controlled by the Intel Z97 chipset, a Qualcomm Atheros Killer NIC port, an HDMI video port, a DisplayPort video port, a VGA video port, a DVI-D video port, an optical audio port, and six analogue audio ports.

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Courtesy of GIGABYTE

The Z97X-SOC Force motherboard has a total of seven device ports - four PCI-Express x16 slots, one PCI-Express x1 slot, and two PCI slots. For the PCI-Express x16 slots, the board supports full x16 bandwidth with a single card, x8 bandwidth with cards in the primary and tertiary slots with two cards populated, x8 / x4 / x4 with cards populated in the primary three slots, and x8 / x4 / x4 / x4 with cards populating all PCI-Express x16 slots. There is sufficient space in between all PCI-Express x16 slots to accommodate up to dual slot coolers. Note that the fourth PCI-Express x16 slot shares bandwidth with the PCI-Express x1 slot, automatically disabling the x1 slot becoming disabled with a card seated in the fourth x16 slot. The fourth PCI-Express x16 slot is limited to PCIe 2.0 specification because it is controlled by the Intel Z97 chipset, while the primary PCI-Express x16 slots are full PCIe 3.0 slots with their bandwidth controlled directly by the CPU.

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To the upper right of the primary PCI-Express x16 slot is the OC PEG power connector and a 4-pin system fan header. The CMOS battery is directly below the primary PCI slot, in between the secondary and tertiary PCI-Express x16 slots. The OC PEG power connector accepts a six pin video power connector from the system system PSU to provide extra power to the PCI-Express x16 slots when using multiple video cards with the board.

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GIGABYTE placed the audio subsystem onto an isolated PCB, similar to their Gaming series design, to minimize board component-related distortion and ensure audio clarity and fidelity. The PCB separator line is easily visible on the board, but is not illuminated when the board is powered. GIGABYTE also integrated a headphone-specific audio amplifier, located on the right side of the audio PCB (and to the left of the rear panel audio ports), capable of driving up to a 600 ohm load.

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Along the upper left edge of the board are the front panel audio header, the S/PDIF output header, a 4-pin system fan header, and a serial port header.

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Along the lower left of the fourth PCI-Express x16 slot are a serial port header, a USB 2.0 header, a USB 3.0 header, and a 4-pin system fan header.

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The on-board USB 3.0 header, two 4-pin system fan headers, the front panel header, the CMOS clear jumper, and the CMOS battery clear button are located in the lower left corner of the motherboard. The CMOS battery clear button resets all saved CMOS info to factory defaults, essentially doing something akin to removing the CMOS battery from the board without having to remove the CMOS battery.

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The Intel Z97 Express chipset is covered by a large, low profile heat sink just below the PCI-Express x16 slots. The heat sink is orange colored with black highlights, featuring a the GIGABYTE corporate logo on the lower portion of its surface.

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GIGABYTE integrated a total of four on-board SATA 6 Gb/s ports and one SATA Express 10 Gb/s port located just under the chipset cooler, all tied to the Intel Z97 chipset controller. Note that the primary and secondary SATA ports are located at the left side of the port block. Additionally, two USB ports are located to the left of the SATA ports, sitting parallel to the board's surface for easy access when using the board in an open-air case or on a test bench.

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GIGABYTE integrated four DDR3 memory slots into the board, located just below the CPU socket. Dual Channel memory mode is enabled by seating memory modules in like colored slots with the primary slots being the oranged-colored slots. The board supports up to 32GB of memory running at a maximum speed of 3300MHz. Note that memory speeds above 1600MHz are considered overclocked speeds and are outside of the official Intel stock memory speed specifications.

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To the lower left of the DIMM slots are the 24-pin ATX power connector, a 4-pin system fan header, the OC PEG (PCIE_SW) and OC DIMM (DIM1_SW) switch blocks, and the OC Ignition, OC Tag, and OC Turbo buttons. The OC PEG switches can used to disable the the four orange colored PCI-Express x16 slots, while the OC DIMM switches are used to disable individual memory channels. Note that disabling a memory channel will disable both slots tied to the disabled channel. The OC Ignition button (lightning symbol) provides power to system devices and fans without powering up the board or CPU. The OC Tag button forces loading of settings tied to the Tag profile in the BIOS after a CMOS clear event. The OC Turbo button enables the BIOS-moderated overclocking engine, loading overclocking settings optimized for your system configuration.

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To the lower right of the DIMM slots are the 2-digit diagnostic display, the Dual BIOS (SB), the active BIOS (BIOS_SW), and OC Trigger (TGR) switches, voltage measurement points, and power, reset, CMOS clear, Memory Safe, Settings Lock, Direct to BIOS, OC Gear, CPU base clock up/down, and CPU ratio up/down buttons. The diagnostic LED display can be used in conjunction with the table provided in the user manual to identify and troubleshoot board boot-related issues. The voltage measurement points allow for direct board voltage measurement using a volt meter in conjuction with the included connector cables.

The Memory Safe button forces the board into a memory fail-safe mode, ensuring system boot regardless of the memory in use.  The Settings Lock button stores the last successfully booted board settings even after a CMOS clear.  The stored settings are enacted on pressing this button.  The Direct to BIOS button forces the system to boot into the UEFI BIOS on next system boot.  The Gear button changes the base clock stepping from 0.1 MHz to 1 MHz intervals. The CPU ratio is controlled by the + and - buttons to the left of the OC Gear button. The CPU base clock speed is controlled by the + and - buttons to the right of the OC Gear button. The OC Trigger switch forces the board into safe mode when set to the 2 position (right) with BIOS or application regulated settings enforced in default mode (left). In safe mode, the board reverts to default process ratio and base clock settings, regardless of the active BIOS settings. The active BIOS switch is used to switch between the primary and backup BIOS. With the switch set to the 1 position (default), the main BIOS is active. In the 2 position, the backup BIOS is activated. The Dual BIOS Switch is set to enabled (the 1 position) by default. Dual BIOS is disabled with the switch in the 2 position.

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To the upper right of the DIMM slots are the CPU fan header, the secondary CPU fan header (CPU_OPT), and a system fan header. All fan headers are of the 4-pin variety.

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Courtesy of GIGABYTE

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Courtesy of GIGABYTE

GIGABYTE did a good job in keeping the CPU socket clear of obstructions with only a single VRM heat sink just above the CPU. The Z97X-SOC Force was designed with a total of 8 digital power phases, which are more than sufficient to keep the board stable under all operation conditions. GIGABYTE was able to reduce the amount of required power phases through the use of specialized VRM chips from IR, the PowIRstage chip. The PowIRstage chip combines multiple MOSFETs and the controller chip into a single package, reducing the board space needed as well as the thermal footprint of the power circuitry.

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For powering the CPU, GIGABYTE integrated wot ATX12V power connectors into the Z97X-SOC Force - an 8-pin and a 4-pin connector. Both connectors are located to the upper right of the CPU socket.

June 11, 2014 | 07:52 AM - Posted by eddie (not verified)

fix the pricing section

June 11, 2014 | 08:01 AM - Posted by Morry Teitelman

Fixed, thanks for pointing this out...

June 11, 2014 | 07:55 AM - Posted by eddie (not verified)

What i want to see is a truly striped down board that is meant to do nothing but overclock. I mean why would you need audio on an OC board, just fill it with PCI-e slots and plx splitters, same thing goes for the onboard video. Get rid of everything that is not needed.

June 11, 2014 | 08:04 AM - Posted by Chaitanya Shukla

I agree on no need for integrated audio, but on these consumer sockets gpu is embeded into cpu so they cannot be removed by board manufcaturers. Also there really is no need of plx chips on oc oriented boards.

June 11, 2014 | 07:55 PM - Posted by eddie (not verified)

don't see why they could not ditch the ports on the back though, put something like more usb or something there. Also plx chips would be nice of you wanted to bench 4 way gpus not by amd.

June 11, 2014 | 02:20 PM - Posted by Anonymous (not verified)

Morry, I noticed in the Conclusions you noted that the CMOS battery placement was a strength. If I am running Crossfire or SLI, the CMOS battery placement in my opinion sucks, especially if I have my video cards water cooled. What exactly is an ideal place for the CMOS battery and why?

June 11, 2014 | 02:55 PM - Posted by Morry Teitelman

Theoretically, you could run SLI or CrossFire with the board without impacting the battery.  Ideally, the best place for the battery is by the DIMM slots in the the lower left corner of the board, both locations which remain accessible most of the time.

If you start talking about dual or tri-card mode, there are quite a few components that become hard to get to especially when using full sized cards...

June 11, 2014 | 10:55 PM - Posted by Oubadah (not verified)

Vs it's predecessor's battery placement, it's definitely an improvement.

June 12, 2014 | 08:32 AM - Posted by D1RTYD1Z619

WHY WHY WHY DO THEY CONTINUE TO PUT PCI SLOTS?!

June 18, 2014 | 07:42 PM - Posted by Anonymous (not verified)

There are not enough PCI-E slots from the chipset to allocate a 1x slot to each board position. Therefore the motherboard makers have a choice of using a PCI-E 1x to 2x PCI bridge which allows for using all seven slots in the ATX spec or leaving one of the slots blank on the board. I can see why they don't want to leave blank slots, but the slot next to the primary GPU is almost always useless anyways. Some boards also leave the first slot blank and put the primary GPU in the second slot which makes more room for the CPU cooler. and GPU backplate.

June 12, 2014 | 07:32 PM - Posted by Oubadah (not verified)

Why, oh why, did Gigabyte replace the perfectly good Intel NIC with this killer rubbish? When you ran the network tests, did you have the killer bloatware installed, or just the driver? Also, how exactly was the CPU utilization measured? Does your percentage include the CPU overhead from the simultaneous disk I/O too?

June 13, 2014 | 06:03 AM - Posted by Morry Teitelman

For the network testing, the Killer software was installed in addition to the driver.  For measuring CPU utilization, Windows Performance Monitor was used with the average measured from that taken as the reported average...

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