Motherboards with Intel’s new Z77 chipset are all the rage these days and Biostar has sent us their new overclocking oriented board, the TZ77XE4! It’s new, it’s shiny, it has bright orange heatsinks and lightning bolts on the box. Sounds like a good start to me.
The most obvious feature of this motherboard is the new Intel Z77 chipset and all it brings with it. Primarily that means full support for the Ivy Bridge Intel CPUs. Other highlights include full PCIe 3.0 support (though this does require an Ivy Bridge CPU), Lucid Virtu MVP and a pretty serious looking CPU power section. Naturally, we’ll go through a more complete list in a moment here.
Direct from Biostar’s product page:
Virtu Universal MVP Virtu Universal MVP, is an optimized Lucid Virtu GPU virtualization software that makes your PC look better, respond faster, process video and media smoother, all within a low power environment, Virtu Universal MVP has many of the same features as the popular Virtu software, but with a twist – the addition of the optional Hyperformance feature for intelligent reduction of redundant rendering tasks in the flow between the CPU, GPU and display. THX truStudio PRO THX TruStudio Pro is specially designed to bring the same great audio experience found in live performances, films, and recording studios – to the PC. THX TruStudio Pro provides the latest groundbreaking technologies that are products of years of collective experience and research by Creative and THX. Together, these technologies deliver the fullest audio experience for music, movies and games, while remaining true to the source and intention of the artists who created it. USB 3.0 Experience Fastest data transfers at 5 Gbps with USB 3.0–the new latest connectivity standard. Built to connect easily with next-generation components and peripherals, USB 3.0 transfers data 10X faster and backward compatible with previous USB 2.0 components. 13 Phase Power Phase Design 13 phase power design enables the best delivery of power to supercharge your system, giving extreme users unparalleled overclocking ability and the lowest temperatures to reach maximum performance levels. 100% Solid Caps With armor-plated Biostar Technology, all capacitors are placed with 100% solid capacitors that have a lasting life cycle, durability and stability for crucial components. BIO-Remote 2 BIO-Remote2 Technology is featuring users a better Home Theater environment. Users who own either Android mobile or Apple goods are able to access and control your PC remotely; At this moment, you’re smart device became a intelligent and functional remote controller; more than that, BIO-Remote2 also includes both function of mouse pad and power point presentation mode. Charger Booster Charger booster is the best and efficient charger solution for apple devices such as iPad, iPhone. Basically, Charger booster Technology is able to boost the charging time to be more efficiency and faster once any apple goods connecting to our Motherboard. With charger booster technology, you are able to charge your apple devices up to 42 % faster. Puro Tone – 110d Excellent multi channel surround sound audio backed by a proprietary converter that which is able to achieve a 110dB noise ratio (SNR) playback quality. This means that users will enjoy a better audio experience with lower levels of noise and hiss when enjoying the latest HD content.
If that isn’t enough don’t worry, there’s more!
Intel Z77 chipset Intel Z77 is the first chip to use Intel’s 22nm tri-gate transistors, which will help scale frequency and reduce power consumption. It features an integrated GPU and it is backwards compatible with previous LGA-1155(Sandy Bridge) motherboards. The Intel Z77 chipset also supports USB 3.0 natively and Intel’s Smart Response Technology (SRT, aka SSD caching). Intel LGA 1155 3rd Generation Intel Core™ Processor support Intel 3rd generation processor “Ivy Bridge” is the codename for Intel’s 22nm of the Sandy Bridge microarchitecture. The first to use tri-gate(“3D”) transistors, it is also backwards-compatible with the Sandy Bridge platform requiring a BIOS/firmware update. Intel LGA 1155 2nd Generation Intel Core™ Processors support 2nd Generation Intel® Core™ Processors with New 32nm Intel® micro architecture / Impressive leap in energy-efficient performance / Optimized Intel Turbo Boost Technology and Intel Hyper-Threading Technology / Significant advances in visual and 3D graphics capabilities / New Intel RAVX instructions for enhanced floating point intensive application performance. Dual Channel DDR3 2400 Delivering native support for DDR3 memory of up to 1333MHz, motherboards allow users to easily reach higher memory frequencies at lower voltages thus, achieving higher memory performance. NVIDIA SLI Technology The advanced NVIDIA® SLI® technology delivers the best gaming performance. Experience the fastest performance imaginable on new killer gaming machines. Surround yourself with amazing 3D performance, remarkable physical effects, and accelerate your most performance-driven applications. ATI CrossFire X™ Technology ATI CrossFireX™ is the ultimate multi-GPU performance gaming platform. With game-dominating power, ATI CrossFireX technology enables two or more discrete graphics processors to work together to improve system performance. It supports up to four ATI Radeon™ HD graphics cards, making it the most scalable gaming platform ever! SATA 6Gb/s
High Efficiency of Data transfer rateSATAIII 6Gbps provides a higher bandwidth to retrieve and transfer HD media. With this super speed data transfer, SATAIII allows an incredible data boost which is 2x faster than the SATA 3G.
eSATA One or Two external SATA 3Gb/s ports connectivity with minimal host overhead and host to device latency. HDMI 3D Visual The HDMI 3D Visual provides a level of interoperability for devices designed to deliver 3D content over the HDMI connection. The latest HDMI Specification adds key enhancements to support the market requirements for bringing broadcast 3D content into the home featuring key enhancements for 3D applications including the addition of mandatory 3D formats for broadcast content. SRT(Intel Smart Response Technology) Intel Smart Response Technology is an Intel Rapid Storage Technology (RST) caching feature that improves computer system performance. It allows a user to configure computer systems with an SSD used as cache memory between the hard disk drive and system memory. This provides the advantage of having a hard disk drive(or a RAID volume) for maximum storage capacity while delivering an SSD-like overall system performance experience.
A some of the features are built in to the Z77 chipset and can (hopefully…) be found on any motherboard using it. Plenty more are specific to this board though. The features that stick out at me are the audio setup, the “Bio-Remote 2″, 13 phase power, Virtu MVP and DDR3-2400 support. The DDR3-2400 I’m going to do my best to test, but my best RAM is only 2133 stuff so we’ll see how that goes. There are actually even more features listed on the Biostar web page, but this features section is starting to get out of control! The key bits that aren’t listed here are the T-Overclocker software for overclocking in windows, the UEFI BIOS (we’ll get to that) and a BIOS resurrection utility. Hopefully you will never need to resurrect your BIOS, but if you do this will save you from having to buy an entire new EEPROM chip. It is also worth noting that the BIOS EEPROM on this board is socketed and easy to replace, much nicer than soldered in chips.
(Also courtesy Biostar)
|CPU SUPPORT||Intel® Core™ i7 LGA 1155 Processor
Intel® Core™ i5 LGA 1155 Processor
Intel® Core™ i3 LGA 1155 Processor
Maximum CPU TDP (Thermal Design Power) : 95Watt
|MEMORY||Support Dual Channel DDR3 2600(OC)/2400(OC)/2133(OC)/1866(OC)/1600/1333/1066 MHz
4 x DDR3 DIMM Memory Slot
Max. Supports up to 32GB Memory
|EXPANSION SLOT||2 x PCI-E x16 3.0 Slot (SLI / CFX x8)
1 x PCI-E x16 2.0 Slot (x4)
1 x PCI-E x1 2.0 Slot
2 x PCI Slots
|STORAGE||4 x SATA2 3Gb/s Connector
1 x eSATA Connector
Support SATA RAID: 0,1,5,10
Support Intel Smart Response Technology
4 x SATA3 6Gb/s Connector
|USB||2 x USB 3.0 Port
1 x USB 3.0 Header
4 x USB 2.0 Port
2 x USB 2.0 Header
|GbE||Realtek RTL8111E – 10/100/1000 Controller|
|MULTI GRAPHICS||AMD CrossFireX
|INTEGRATED VIDEO||By CPU model
|CODEC||Realtek ALC898 8 Channel Blu-ray Audio|
|REAR I/O||1 x PS/2 Keyboard
1 x eSATA Connector
2 x USB 3.0 Port
4 x USB 2.0 Port
1 x HDMI Connector
1 x Display Port
1 x DVI Connector
1 x VGA Port
1 x RJ-45 Port
6 x Audio Connector
|INTERNAL I/O||1 x USB 3.0 Header
2 x USB 2.0 Header
4 x SATA3 6Gb/s Connector
4 x SATA2 3Gb/s Connector
1 x Front Audio Header
1 x Front Panel Header
1 x S/PDIF-OUT Header
1 x CPU FAN Header
2 x System FAN Header
1 x Serial Header
1 x CIR Header
|DIMENSION||ATX Form Factor Dimension: 30.5 cm x 24.4 cm ( W x L )|
|OS SUPPORT||Support Windows XP / Vista / 7|
|ACCESSORIES||4 x SATA Cable
1 x SLI Connector
1 x CrossFire Connector
1 x I/O Shield
1 x DVD Driver
1 x User Manual
|FEATURES||Supports uEFI GUI Interface BIOS
Supports THX TruStudio Pro
Windows 7 Compatible
Supports 100% Solid capacitor
Supports Rapid Switch2
Supports Rapid Debug3
Supports HDMI Audio Ready
Supports Toverclcoker OC software
Supports Charger Booster
Supports BIOS Online Update
There’s an awful lot going on here, I feel like we’ve seen enough text for the moment though so we’ll check out the actual motherboard itself.
Box and Packaging Photos
I like the box, it strikes a pretty nice balance between getting all the certifications and features listed and turning the box into a garish disaster of logos and colors. I do have to say that I really hope not to involve this board in lightning, regardless of what the box looks like.
Once the box is opened there are four things that caught my eye, in no special order:
- Solid PCB SLI bridge.
- Cool looking motherboard heatsinks.
- Faraday cage on the motherboard.
- Velcro type strappy cable management thing, I love these.
The solid SLI bridge is interesting, I can’t really think of much pro/con wise on it. The motherboard heatsinks are BRIGHT orange, not subtle! The faraday cage on the motherboard we’ll talk about later. Lastly, there is a cable management strap that comes wrapped around the SATA cables, it’s a hook+loop strap and is easily my favorite method to keep cables under control in a case.
If you’re hoping to get a better look at the motherboard you’re in luck, as that happens to be next on the list here.
We’ll take a closer look at the various non-IC things before we get really up close and personal, starting with the PCIe slots. Note the location of the top x16 slot, it is quite close to the CPU socket. This concerns me somewhat.
The rear I/O area has an awful lot of options for connecting a monitor, it seems a bit excessive to me really. It is worth noting that the Z77 chipset can run up to three displays, making the four display outputs make more sense. You’d still need rather odd combination of monitor inputs.
PS/2 keyboard, four USB 2.0, two USB 3.0, DisplayPort, HDMI, VGA, DVI, eSATA, Gigabit ethernet, and sound ports on the rear end here. Four monitor connection methods uses up a lot of space, but the odds of having a monitor that isn’t supported are mighty slim. We’ll continue the I/O kick with more photos.
Whew, that was intense. The audio Faraday cage intrigues me, it’ll have to come off. Its job is to give the audio chip a “quiet” environment from the perceptive of EMF and various forms of radiation. In theory this means less distortion and static in the audio. I can’t test that as I lack the high end speakers/headphones to be able to tell the difference. The concept appeals to me though. I’m happy to see a serial port header for those of us who still have serial devices. Also nice to see are the buttons and the POST LED, both are quite useful for serious overclocking. As a bonus feature the POST LED shows the CPU package temperature once the POST sequence is completed. I haven’t seen a POST LED used for this before, I really like it! The buttons light up as well, you’ll see what I mean in the installed photos section.
Now it’s time to get intense, we’ll go on a tour of the important ICs on the board and see what they have to say for themselves.
So many things! Thankfully we don’t have to worry much about them in operation, nor do we have to spend four hours swapping jumpers around assigning IRQs. I feel old now.
Despite of feelings great age I pressed the Biostar TZ77XE4 into service as my 24/7 motherboard for a couple weeks of sustained testing. The system in question is comprised of the following:
- Intel Core i7 2600k CPU
- Biostar TZ77XE4 Motherboard
- G.Skill RipjawsX 2133 RAM
- MSI 6970 reference design GPU
- OCZ Revodrive 3 X2 240 GB
- Antec HCP-850 PSU. (click for my review of the unit)
- Thermaltake Overseer RX-I case
- Thermalright Ultra-120Extreme CPU cooler with JouJye LV fan
It’s a decently sized case, a fairly large cooler and a fairly large GPU, we’ll see how it all fits together.
The placement of the USB3 port makes using the bottom PCIe slot a bit tricky, if the car you’re planning to use is longer than the slot it stops being tricky and starts being difficult at best. Other than that everything went together quite well. The speed and port number labels on the SATA plugs are excellent, much better than the standard color coding arrangement. I also really like the LED under the audio chip’s Faraday cage and the color coded power/reset/clear CMOS buttons.
There is a distinct shortage of room for CPU heatsinks wider than the unit I used, I have maybe 1/4 inch of room there. The MSI 6970 has a solid aluminum backplate so if it touches it isn’t an issue, but a standard GPU would not enjoy touching the CPU cooler in the slightest. Oriented horizontally the CPU cooler would cover both of the nearest RAM slots and force single channel mode to be used with the RAM. On the other hand using the topmost slot for a full PCIe x16 does leave room for two GPUs that use double slot coolers AND a third PCIe card at x4. In the above pictures you’ll see a Revodrive 3 X2 240 GB if you look closely.
The BIOS (Sorry, UEFI)
Biostar is known for having unique BIOS layouts, they generally make sense if you think about them, but if you’re expecting a “normal” layout you’ll generally be in for a surprise. This UEFI BIOS is closer to “normal” than some previous Biostar boards I’ve used, but it definitely still has the Biostar flavor to it. Before I go any further I would like to state that I do not consider this a bad thing! Quite the opposite really, as Biostar gives access to a number of things that are very rarely user accessible. If I have to learn a completely new BIOS layout to get access to them that is just fine with me. Just don’t expect it to look like the standard Asus/Gigabyte type setup. Having worked with this BIOS a fair bit now I rather like it.
You get a main page for setting the time/date and viewing some version information, then the usual suspects for adjusting chipset and motherboard feature settings, plus the O.N.E. page with all the overclocking settings. Almost all, at least. A few are hidden in a CPU Settings page (not very well hidden, really) elsewhere. The overclocking page is quite long, but you can use the page up and page down keyboard keys to go up/down a page, which is great. This sounds like a silly thing to be happy about, but some manufacturers (I’m looking at you, Gigabyte) have very long pages, no scrollbars, and the page up/down keys change the settings rather than moving the screen.
When overclocking fails the board does a good job of recovering, I only managed to get it into an indefinite bootloop once via horrendously incorrect RAM settings. A quick punch of the clear CMOS button fixed that right up. Other than that the most restarts I managed was three, not bad at all for working at extreme overclocking a 2600K. One downside is that the BIOS does not notify you that overclocking failed, it just POSTs with default frequencies (but not voltages!) and boots as normal.
One thing that I found very odd is the setting labeled “LoadLine Calibration”. Load Line Calibration, or LLC, is used to reduce the amount of vcore droop between idle and full load. Generally, you are given a choice between disabled (lots of vdroop), a couple middle stages, AUTO (whatever that might be) and EXTREME, or something along those lines. The higher the numbers the less vdroop there is.
Not so Biostar and the TZ77XE4! In this case it is exactly the other way around, setting the LLC to “disabled” gives you a gain in voltage between idle and load, 25% gives you almost the same vcore at idle and load, 50% is a small droop, 75% a larger one, 100% a larger droop still and last AUTO, which gives a larger droop still. Why reverse the standard labels? I have no idea, but I do like the options you are given, especially the 25% setting as it gives you a nice smooth voltage level from idle to load and back again. I did some testing on an easy 4 GHz 1.35 vcore overclock and used CPUz to acquire the vcore voltage at idle and with eight threads of Prim95 Large FFTs. I got the following results:
|LLC Setting||Idle Vcore||P95 L. FFT vcore|
Despite the odd labels the LLC system works quite well, Biostar did a good job with it.
I did have one issue with the UEFI BIOS, my mouse did not function well with it. Moving the mouse down clicked, up jumped sideways, the down scrollwheel moved the cursor down, clicking did nothing, moving the mouse side to side did nothing or gave random movement. I have no idea what the issue was. Really though I prefer to use the keyboard anyway, so it didn’t slow me down at all.
Stock Clock Speed Performance
This first set of performance numbers is with everything set to stock clock speeds, I loaded optimized defaults in the BIOS, selected my RAM’s XMP profile, manually returned the VCCIO to stock (1.05 V) from the 1.22 V the XMP profile set it to (why is beyond me, VCCSA is the memory controller) and left everything else on AUTO. This resulted in the clock speeds and performance in the following pictures. Note that the TZ77XE4 correctly sets my RAM to run at 1t, this is the first LGA1155 motherboard I have used that has done so.
It made me happy to see Turbo working correctly and 1t set correctly on the RAM. The bclk is a bit low, costing 0.21% clock speed. Not exactly a huge deal. How about some performance numbers?
Solid performance, the correctly functioning turbo means that a full four core eight thread load only runs at 3.5GHz. Some boards cheat and run everything at the maximum turbo multiplier of 3.8 GHz. Not surprisingly that beats 3.5 GHz.
The maxxmem result is quite good for stock clocks on this CPU with this RAM, best of any of the motherboards I’ve tested. Now it’s time for some overclocking!
Overclocking and Performance
I decided to limit myself to 1.45 vcore for the overclocking testing as that is as much as I would want to use on a daily basis. If you’re planning on just running a few benchmarks and have plenty of cooling more vcore can be used, but I don’t think it is a good idea on a daily basis. We’ll talk a bit about the more suicidal voltage levels in a bit. In the meantime, I set the vcore to 1.45 in fixed mode with a LLC of 25%.
At this voltage level I could not convince the 46x multiplier to function, nor any higher multipliers. 104.5bclk was the most that would POST and 104.25 was the highest that would boot. 4.7 GHz is not bad at all for 1.45 vcore, it beats the pants off all of my results from p67 and z68 motherboards with this CPU.
Most of the results scaled about as expected with overclocking, the Cinebench and Maxxmem results are showing some serious efficiency however. This is my best Maxxmem result to date.
Next, I applied rather more voltage in the hopes of getting up to and past 5 GHz. I was not able to do it. Static voltage gave out with the 45x multiplier regardless of how much voltage I fed the CPU! If I switched to offset voltage, I gained the use of 46x and 47x, but no higher. Disabling two cores and HyperThreading plus going into the 1.6+ vcore range gained 48x and 49x, but 50x remained out of reach. It felt very much like a BIOS issue rather than a hardware issues. I suspect that the board is rather specifically built for the third generation Intel Core processors (SandyBridge being the second generation). For SandyBridge CPUs this board overclocks quite nicely for 24/7 use, but unless a BIOS update is released that fixes the problems I had with very high multipliers attempting to bench SandyBridge chips on this board will be frustrating. I have heard rumors that the next generation of Intel Core chips are a totally different story on this board (The story being, they overclock like mad with extreme volts and cooling, though you have to do a hardmod for PLL if you want to run subzero cooling), but I do not have one and have not tested one personally, this is pure rumor mill stuff.
Bundled Software and Features
I did some testing of the Virtu MVP system. I couldn’t get it to work with 3DMark03 at all, Unigine Heaven DX11 lost a few FPS, 3DMark06 gained a lot of FPS at the cost of a lurch every second or so. I expect it will improve with time and it is entirely possible that it works better on games than on synthetic benchmarks.
The Toverclocker software gives good control over voltages, though it is slow going to make large changes. Also interesting is that it applies your changes right when you hit the adjustment button, rather than waiting for you to push an Apply button.
As far as actual overclocking goes the software was not interested in letting me adjust anything but the bclk, I’m not sure why. I feel like there should be more options with adjustment bars. On the plus side, it did let me go from 100bclk all the way up to 104.7bclk in Windows, that’s far better than most.
The GreenPowerUtility works well and gives you some interesting stats, I like it.
I like the stats. Power savings are great if you don’t run distributed computing apps 24/7 (Folding@Home, WorldCommunityGrid, Rosetta@Home, SETI@Home, that sort of thing). If you do run them then you’ll be running at full power low efficiency all the time anyway and G.P.U. won’t have much effect. Tracking energy consumed may still be useful though. Regardless, I like this utility.
Lastly, I played with Lucid Virtu a bit. I tested Futuremark’s 3DMark Vantage 3D tests (DX10) as well as HWBot’s version of Unigine Heaven DX11 (extreme preset). Standard results are on the left, Virtu MVP results are on the right.
The improvement in Vantage is staggering, a 120% gain! That’s even more than the marketing materials claim. On the down side there were lurches every second or so, for a benchmark that isn’t an issue but it would drive me nuts in a game.
Heaven DX11 showed a much more modest 6.5% performance gain and no lurching. It is worth noting that a large part of Heaven’s GPU load comes from tessellation, which Virtu MVP does not assist.
Virtu MVP is a very interesting and potentially useful utility, it is definitely worth trying if you get your hands on this motherboard. Whether it will work smoothly and effectively for your specific game and setup I don’t know. I expect that Virtu will figure out the lurch problem and fix it at some point, right now it is an issue in both Z77 motherboards I have worked with in some benchmarks.
Final Thoughts and Conclusion
The Biostar TZ77XE4 is a nice motherboard, I like it. The board layout is pretty good, though a CPU cooler wider than a TRUE could be a real issue. The MOSFET heatsinks look great and work quite well, this is a refreshing change from some boards that have heatsinks designed for looks rather than functionality. A heatsink should get rid of heat, if it looks cool while it does it that is a plus, but looking cool and not getting rid of heat is an issue! Biostar seems to agree with me on this point.
Overclocking results at reasonable voltage levels were quite good, memory efficiency is excellent. Extreme overclocking did not prove to be possible with this BIOS revision and CPU. The oddly named LLC options work wonderfully, though the functionality is backwards from how I expected it to be.
I’m a sucker for LEDs and lit buttons, most boards with power/reset/clear cmos buttons have backlight LEDs that are all the same color or they are unlit. This board each button has its own color, very cool. The POST LED is great as well, I especially like how it shows core temperatures.
The software DVD works well and lets you pick and choose what you install. The drivers page is intelligent enough to not offer you drivers for parts you have turned off in the BIOS (UEFI, whatever) as well.
Virtu works nicely in some situations and lurches in others, it is definitely worth testing if your board supports it.
All told there are quite a few pros:
- Great low to medium vcore overclocking.
- Well designed heatsinks run cool even at sustained full CPU load overclocked.
- Memory efficiency is excellent.
- Different LED backlight colors for each onboard button.
- POST LEDs make me happy. POST LEDs that are useful even after POST make me very happy.
- I like the color scheme.
- Tons of display output options on the rear panel.
- Faraday cage over the audio chip is my kind of overkill. The LEDs inside looks fantastic, too.
As I tend to, I found some cons too:
- High vcore extreme overclocking did not prove to be possible with my Sandy Bridge 2600K.
- Primary PCIe slot is awfully close to the CPU.
- Internal USB3 header may make for awkward cable management in some cases.
- Rear IO panel is a bit short on USB ports.
- UEFI BIOS and my Logitech mouse do not appreciate each other much.
All told I am quite happy with the Biostar TZ77XE4 and definitely approve of it!