It has been several weeks since we had an opportunity to review a Z170 board from our friends at GIGABYTE, but, I have to imagine the wait will be worth it. We (and by ‘we’ I mean Mattno5ss) previously reviewed a mid-range offering, the Z170X UD5 which turned out to be quite a good board. This time around, we get to focus on their flagship overclocking board, the venerable, Z170X SOC Force.
If you know the pedigree of the SOC (super overclock) line of boards from GIGABYTE, you will recall it was focused on overclocking, particularly sub-ambient cooling, with all of the “OC Touch” features it sports, but most certainly could game with the best of them. The latest version aims to combine its advanced overclocking abilities as well as being a well-rounded performer. It’s time to put my warm winter socks on, head to the basement, and test this thing out!
Specifications and Features
Below is a list of specifications and features we sourced from the Z170X SOC Force Product Page. At a high level, the board has a total of four DIMM slots running in Dual Channel supporting up to 64GB of system memory and speeds of up to 3866 MHz (OC). The SOC Force also supports ECC UDIMMs running in non ECC mode.
In case you are rocking the integrated GPU on your CPU of choice, there are a total of three outputs: DVI-D, Mini-DisplayPort (1.2), and HDMI (1.4a).
The audio on this motherboard is handled by the common, and pretty good sounding, Realtek ALC1150 CODEC supporting up to 7.1 surround and includes a S/PDIF output. This solution should be all most will need unless you are an audiophile with a good set of cans/speakers or need additional inputs for recording and mixing.
Network duties are handled by the Intel Gbe NIC card supporting up to 1Gbit speeds. It is not the latest Intel NIC (I219-V), but I highly doubt it is necessary for most users.
The Z170X SOC Force supports up to four way SLI and Crossfire X with FOUR cards (not two dual cards, or duel for those across the pond). This magic trick is accomplished on the Z170 platform by GIGABYTE’s use of the PLX PEX8747 chip which spits out 32 lanes of PCIe3.0 goodness for the GPUs to use. If you are looking at the PCIe slots from top to bottom it will break down in this manner:
As a side note, all 1x slots get their lanes through the PCH. Please see the “expansion slot” section below for more details the breakdown of the lanes.
When I initially looked at this board, I noticed there were three, yes three, M.2 slots nestled between the PCIe slots. I do not recall other boards supporting so many, even on the HEDT (X99) platform. However, after looking around a bit on Newegg, I see there are two other Z170 based boards seem to have three also. These slots all receive the full PCIe3.0 x4 32Gbps treatment. In addition to the three M.2 slots, we have a total of eight SATA 6Gbps connectors (six on the Intel controller and two handled by an ASMedia controller) and three SATA Express ports. These support RAID (0, 1, 5, and 10).
Other notables on the board are a slew USB ports. Two USB3.1 G2, one using the Type-C connector (other Type-A), five USB 3.0/2.0 on the back panel, eight total USB2.0 ports with two on the back, and two up front by the SATA ports (great for open air benching stations so you don’t have to reach around the rig to plug it in). There are a total of eight fan headers, six of which are controlled by the UEFI BIOS (4 pin can control by voltage/PWM) and the other two run full tilt with no control, 3 pin). One of the last features, standard on this type of board, are the dual BIOS chips. This of course allows one to flash at will on one BIOS, while keeping a known good BIOS on the other.
Please check out the full specifications list below for more details:
|GIGABYTE Z170X SOC Force|
(Please refer “CPU Support List” for more information.)
|Chipset||Intel® Z170A Chipset|
|Memory||4 x DDR4 DIMM sockets supporting up to 64 GB of system memory|
* Due to a Windows 32-bit operating system limitation, when more than 4 GB of physical memory is installed, the actual memory size displayed will be less than the size of the physical memory installed.Dual channel memory architecture: Support for DDR4 3866(O.C)/3733(O.C)/3666(O.C) /3600(O.C.) /3466(O.C.) /3400(O.C.) /3333(O.C.) /3300(O.C.) /3200(O.C.) /3000(O.C.) /2800(O.C.) /2666(O.C.) /2400(O.C.) /2133 MHz memory modules Support for ECC UDIMM 1Rx8/2Rx8 memory modules (operate in non-ECC mode)Support for non-ECC UDIMM 1Rx8/2Rx8/1Rx16 memory modulesSupport for Extreme Memory Profile (XMP) memory modules(Please refer “Memory Support List” for more information.)
Integrated Graphics Processor-Intel® HD Graphics support:
1 x DVI-D port, supporting a maximum resolution of 1920×[email protected] Hz
1 x Mini-DisplayPort, supporting a maximum resolution of 4096×[email protected] Hz
1 x HDMI port, supporting a maximum resolution of 4096×[email protected] Hz
Support for up to 3 displays at the same time
Realtek® ALC1150 codec
High Definition Audio
2/4/5.1/7.1-channelSupport for S/PDIF Out
|LAN||Intel® GbE LAN chip (10/100/1000 Mbit)|
|Expansion Slots||2 x PCI Express x16 slots, running at x16 (PCIEX16_1, PCIEX16_2)|
* For optimum performance, if only one PCI Express graphics card is to be installed, be sure to install it in the PCIEX16_1 slot; if you are installing two PCI Express graphics cards, it is recommended that you install them in the PCIEX16_1 and PCIEX16_2 slots.2 x PCI Express x16 slots, running at x8 (PCIEX8_1, PCIEX8_2)
* The PCIEX8_1 slot shares bandwidth with the PCIEX16_1 slot and the PCIEX8_2 slot with PCIEX16_2. The PCIEX16_1/PCIEX16_2 slot will operate at up to x8 mode when the PCIEX8_1/PCIEX8_2 is populated.3 x PCI Express x1 slots
(All of the PCI Express slots conform to PCI Express 3.0 standard.)
|Multi-Graphics Technology||Support for 4-Way/3-Way/2-Way AMD CrossFire™/NVIDIA® SLI™ technology|
3 x M.2 Socket 3 connectors (Socket 3, M key, type 2242/2260/2280 SATA & PCIe x4/x2/x1 SSD support)
3 x SATA Express connectors
6 x SATA 6Gb/s connectors (SATA3 0~5)Support for RAID 0, RAID 1, RAID 5, and RAID 10
ASMedia® ASM1061 chip:
2 x SATA 6Gb/s connectors (SATA3 6~7), supporting AHCI mode only
Chipset+Intel® USB 3.1 Controller:
1 x USB Type-C™ port on the back panel, with USB 3.1 support
1 x USB 3.1 port on the back panel
5 x USB 3.0/2.0 ports on the back panel
8 x USB 2.0/1.1 ports (2 ports on the back panel, 2 ports onboard, 4 ports available through the internal USB headers)
Chipset+Renesas® USB 3.0 Hub:4 x USB 3.0/2.0 ports (available through the internal USB headers)
|Internal I/O Connectors|
1 x 24-pin ATX main power connector
1 x 8-pin ATX 12V power connector1 x 4-pin ATX 12V power connector
1 x OC PEG Power Connector
|Back Panel Connectors|
2 x USB 2.0/1.1 ports
1 x PS/2 keyboard/mouse port
1 x optical S/PDIF Out connector5 x audio jacks (Center/Subwoofer Speaker Out, Rear Speaker Out, Line In, Line Out, Mic In)
|I/O Controller||iTE® I/O Controller Chip|
System voltage detection
CPU/System/Chipset temperature detection
CPU/CPU OPT/System fan speed detection
CPU/System/Chipset overheating warning
CPU/CPU OPT/System fan fail warning
CPU/CPU OPT/System fan speed control
2 x 128 Mbit flash
Use of licensed AMI UEFI BIOS
Support for DualBIOS™
Support for Q-Flash Plus
PnP 1.0a, DMI 2.7, WfM 2.0, SM BIOS 2.7, ACPI 5.0
|Unique Features||Support for APP Center|
* Available applications in APP Center may vary by motherboard model. Supported functions of each application may also vary depending on motherboard specifications.
System Information Viewer
USB BlockerSupport for Q-FlashSupport for Smart SwitchSupport for Xpress InstallSupport for GIGABYTE HW OC
* Please download the app from Google Play or App Store to your smart phone/tablet device.
|Form Factor||E-ATX Form Factor; 30.5cm x 26.4cm|
GIGABYTE includes their “OC Brace” in the accessory stack. The brace helps to stabilize graphics cards which are not running in a case where you have a structure to mount them to. It helps ensure proper connectivity to the board/PCIe slot.
An exclusive on GIGABYTE boards are their use of the Intel powered USB3.1 ports. The Intel controller works off of two PCIe3.0 lanes giving you a total of 16Gb/s bandwidth which is twice the bandwidth when compared to the previous generation. On this board you can use the latest Type-C connector, or the more common Type-A connector, for increased compatibility with devices currently saturating the market.
To put it simply, the SOC Force is a board made for overclocking. You may remember the Z97 had the “OC Ignition” feature which is an area on the motherboard, between the DIMM slots and the 24 pin ATX in the upper right hand corner, which has overclocking buttons, switches, and voltage read points. This is now called OC Touch. GIGABYTE took this area and improved upon its aesthetic and put a shroud over the buttons giving a much cleaner look. All the functionality on the Z97, and more, made its way to this latest version. I will go into more details on this a bit later in the review.
The Skylake and the Z170 chipset brought some fun back into overclocking Intel chips with untieing their BCLK from the rest of the buses. This allows you to freely raise the BCLK well past the extremely limited values of previous generations. In order to do this, board manufacturers are putting on their own BCLK IC’s to make this happen. With GIGABYTE’s implementation, named Turbo B-Clock, we are able to adjust from 90 MHz all the way up to 500 MHz (depending on the CPU and cooling of course)! While there are not too many performance gains in doing so, this does allow for greater flexibility with both memory speeds and CPU speeds to help get the last little bit squeezed out of your system.
Continuing on the overclocking features theme, the next item below is the Hardware OC App. With this mobile device based app (both Android and iOS), you are able to overclock and change a multitude of voltages from the BIOS level without having to leave your existing session.
Next up, like many OEM’s are doing on their mid-range boards on up, we are seeing some additional support added to the PCIe slots. GIGABYTE calls it their Ultra Durable PCIe Metal Shielding. This should take any worry you may have about the PCIe slot holding these heavy GPUs.
GIGABYTE adds a cool feature for flashing your BIOS without a CPU or memory needing to be installed. Using the EC Controller, the BIOS will be updated using Q-Flash Plus, even if your system is unable to boot! Next to the EC controller on the motherboard is an LED which tells you the process is complete. A great addition to this type of motherboard for sure.
The last feature I want to present here is the massive 22 phase digital power delivery design. It uses 4th generation International Rectifier digital power controllers, and 3rd generation PowIRstage ICs using Isense technology, which will give you more precise current sensing accuracy. This will help evenly distribute thermal loads between the PowIRstage ICs to prevent overheating of any individual IC. This should translate to a longer lifespan and better reliability. While this power design is likely overkill, I do expect something along these lines for an overclocking board.
To look at all the features, please check out the overview webpage for the Z170X SOC Force!
Retail Packaging and Accessories
The slideshow below gives us a few glamour shots of the retail packaging for this motherboard. Those familiar with the SOC Force line will recognize the black and orange theme on display. On the front of the package is what looks to be a Formula 1 type Indy car in the background as well as the name of the board, its OC heritage, CPU support, and the Ultra Durable badging. The back of the box gets into some features (most mentioned above) and requirements. This box, like many flagship offerings have, is a flip open panel. On this panel is a closeup shot of the incredibly robust VRM area and on the right it shows the board under a plastic shell.
Opening up the package will show the board resting in a bed of form fitting foam holding it in nice and snug in transit from its birth, into you PC. Below the motherboard is where all the accessories are stored. There is a long list of accessories including the OC Brace, SATA cables, SLI/CFx bridges, some voltage read point plugs and much more.
Meet the GIGABYTE Z170X SOC Force
Our first picture of the board should bring back some great memories of the SOC Force of the past with its familiar black and orange theme. This time around, GIGABYTE took the liberty to dress it up more than the previous generation by installing shrouds for the back I/O, audio section, SATA ports, and even the OC Touch area around the buttons. Overall its a pretty cool looking board with a lot of the “ugly” parts of a motherboard covered up. The orange and black theme may not please everyone but with GPU manufacturers adding RGB LEDs to their cards, fitting in with the board’s theme shouldn’t be a huge issue.
Flipping around to the back side of the board, there is nothing to be terribly excited about here. The PCIe slot breakdown (electrical) is shown with slots 1/3 full 16x, while slots 2/4 are a maximum 8x. Also visible in the picture is the line which separates the the audio portion of the motherboard from the rest of it allowing for reduced EMI.
A Closer Look
Looking a bit closer at the board, on the left is the shielded audio section featuring the Realtek ALC1150 CODEC and high quality caps. This combination of features produces a S/N ratio of 115db rivaling many discrete solutions. Unless you have a good pair of speakers or headphones, or need more inputs/outputs for recording, the on-board solution should be fine for most users.
We talked about the PCIe slots a bit earlier, but here you get a closer look at all four of the dual slot spacing glory! Wedged in between each full length PCIe slots are three 1x slots. To the right of those are your three PCIe3.0 4x M.2 slots.
The PCH heatsink is adorned with the GIGABYTE name as well as the OC logo.
The DIMM area, boy is there a lot going on here on this board! As is the norm with most Z170 motherboards, we see the four DIMM slots capable of handling up to 64Gb of DDR4 ram. The 24 pin ATX is still found here along with a couple of front panel USB3.0 headers.
Instead of going over the dozen or so items around this area of the board, I will leave you with an image from the GIGABYTE website to explain everything. But this is where the extreme overclocker will spend a lot of time. Some of the more obvious items here are buttons for quick overclocking (Turbo) and the ability to change both BCLK and CPU multiplier right from the OC Touch panel. There are voltage read points as well as reset CMOS, power and reset buttons. PCIe switches… I could go on, but, I did say I would let the last picture in this grouping do the talking. Please open it up for more details on the rest of the buttons, switches, and voltage read points.
The CPU socket is surrounded by a massive 22 phase VRM. The VRM consists of high-end International Rectifier parts to make sure you are getting the most accurate and stable voltage. While the amount of phases are overkill for the platform, I would certainly rather have too much than too little on a board made for overclocking. The amount of clean power getting to the CPU will not be an issue with this board. The power to the CPU is fed by an 8 pin ATX plug for normal overclocking (read: ambient). In addition to the 8 pin, there is a supplemental 4 pin for use when you get really aggressive with CPU overclocking, typically under sub-ambient conditions.
The VRM heatsink tasked to cool all these power bits is actually a hybrid solution. You can run it on air, or use the pre-routed water cooling ports (standard G1/4″). I’m not entirely sure it is needed, but I bet it looks cool when they are in use, and it couldn’t hurt. Even when I was running the CPU at 4.7 GHz for the benchmarks, they barely were warm to the touch on an open test bench with hardly any airflow.
Checking out where the SATA ports are, we can see its pretty busy here too! There are two USB2.0 ports which really help when the system is on a test bench, no more reaching over the top and plugging it in the back! To the right of it, is a 6 pin PCIe plug. This is used to give additional power to the PCIe lanes and is particularly useful with multi-GPU setups.
As far as the SATA ports, we see a total of eight on the board. Six of those are controlled by the Intel chipset, while the other two are managed by an ASMedia controller. You can also see three SATA Express ports. Note when you use the SATAe ports, you will lose the SATA ports next to it.
For the I/O on the back, we see a typical compliment of USB2.0, USB3.0, and USB3.1 G2 ports (Type-C and Type-A). The white USB port is where you plug in the USB when flashing the BIOS sans CPU and memory. There are a couple of options for video out when using the iGPU on your processor (DVI, HDMI, and Mini-DisplayPort). A complete list can be found in the specifications table earlier in the review.
Next I took off the heatsinks to show what is going on underneath and to make sure they made good contact. One of the first things my eyes go to are the 22 phases of IR goodness now exposed. I’m not sure if hardware can really be sexy, but this is trying its best to do so! Moving your eyes down to the middle of the board above the PCIe slot, you will see the PLX PEX7847 chip used to make the additional PCIe lanes required for this board to work its magic.
As far as heatsink contact goes, everything was fine there as well.
Below are a couple of IC’s the board uses for power, the PLX, as well as monitoring and control.
UEFI BIOS / Windows Monitoring and Overclocking Software
Below I captured some screenshots from the BIOS. It’s been a little while since I reviewed a GIGABYTE motherboard, the Z170X Gaming 7, but it appears they have done away with the ‘simple’ interface for this board and you enter right into “classic” mode. Not much changed there outside of the amount of options available in this board versus the Gaming 7. But across the top you have M.I.T (where all your overclocking options, voltage adjustments, and memory adjustments are found), System Information (shows what is in the board as far as CPU, Memory, BIOS version, etc), BIOS Features (adjust boot order and boot options), Peripherals (control LEDs, SATA, Super I/O configuration), Chipset (enable/disable LAN, Audio, Vt-d on applicable CPUs, etc), and finally Save and Exit (Self explanatory, but you also load and save your BIOS profiles here).
Below are screenshots from the M.I.T section for all of our overclockers.
Overall the BIOS was really easy to get navigate. Mouse movements were smooth and without delay or jutter. It is not my favorite UEFI BIOS from the major brands, but there isn’t really anything to pick on it about either. I am just used to the other brands as I use them more overall.
Last but not least is the Easy Tune software. This has gone through a tremendous change from just a couple of generations ago to this modernized interface. The ET software is able to monitor the motherboard’s temperatures, voltages, and fan speeds as well as overclocking the system in general. The one drawback, at least for me, is you cannot install this, or any other Windows-based application in their suite, without installing App Center. This isn’t a big deal, but just something I prefer differently than how they have their suite configured (they are not alone certainly). With the OC Touch part of the motherboard, and the Hardware OC App, I likely would not have to use it anyway.
Performance and Benchmarking
|CPU||Intel 6700K @ Stock (4.0 boost to 4.2 GHz) and 4.7 GHz O/C|
|Motherboard||GIGABYTE Z170X SOC Force|
|RAM||2×4 GB DDR4 G.SKILL Ripjaws 4 @ 3000 MHz 15-15-15-35 2T 1.35 V|
|Graphics Card||AMD R7 260|
|Solid State Drive||OCZ Trion 100 480GB|
|Power Supply||SeaSonic SS-1000XP (80+ Platinum)|
|Operating System||Windows 7 x64 (Fully Updated)|
|Graphics Drivers||Crimson 16.1 Hotfix (latest at the time)|
Memory Bandwidth and Throughput
- Cinebench R11.5 and R15
- PoV Ray R3.73
Single Threaded CPU Benchmark
- Super Pi 1M and 32M
Multi-Threaded CPU benchmarks
- WPrime 32M and 1024M
- 7Zip (Compression)
- Intel XTU
If you have read my past reviews and looked at the comparison between motherboards, there is hardly a difference between them in most cases… the theme continues on here. I compared the board with some of the higher end offerings we reviewed and dropped off the lower end. These graphs are getting a bit difficult to read as they stand! Just know in the end this board fit right in with the rest through all the testing.
The actual results are below in thumbnails:
Pushing the Limits
I decided to take this board under LN2 since I had the time (and finally, the ability to get out of my driveway/development after all the snow here in the DC area). This is the first time I took Skylake cold but after playing around a bit and learning the quirks of the platform (a special thanks goes out to our benching team leader, Johan45, for some tips). I was able to achieve a maximum frequency of 6.013 GHz. At this clockspeed, I was able to bench PiFast and Super Pi 1M with four cores enabled. There is probably a bit more left in the tank on a single core for a CPUz validation which I forgot to take (I started benching around 8PM Saturday and stopped at 3:30AM Sunday). I had to enable LLC to Extreme to eliminate vdroop (was sitting around 1.6-1.7V). With this CPU sample, I was able to pass 3DMark Extreme at 5.5 GHz, but likely could have run 5.6 or so. By this point I was just trying to get some solid results in and really not pushing it for the low end card I was using (R7 260).
I liked using the OC Touch buttons to help with overclocking in Windows. I would use the Tag button to boot around a “stable” clock, then the OC buttons to raise the rest in Windows… easy breezy. Speaking of Easy(Tune!), I had some issues with EasyTune not wanting to set a voltage without freezing the system so I set it in the BIOS. I was unable to use the HW OC App. It downloaded to my phone, I enabled USB tethering, and when loading the app it would just sit there and say “please wait.” I will keep at it, but not sure what may have happened there. I don’t see many complaints so it is likely on my end. Outside of this minor issue, things worked just fine for this board and great to use LN2 with, though I would have appreciated having those items working on my system to make things a bit easier.
For those who scrolled down to see the conclusion, get your eyes back up the page and see what you missed! I couldn’t possibly write all the things I would like to here without completely boring you or turning this into a dissertation. If you did read all about it, you know GIGABYTE has taken their mainstream Z97 SOC Force and improved upon it in many ways. First off, they made the VRM area more robust using high quality International Rectifier power bits and upping the ante to 22 phases. Sure, it’s really overkill, but come on, do you really want to buy a track car with a governor on it people? Didn’t think so. They have expanded the buttons on the motherboard by the DIMM area now calling it OC Touch. Here you have control over overclocking from BCLK to CPU multi, voltage read points, BIOS switch, etc. They even have ‘an app for that’ in their Hardware OC App! Just tether your device to the specific USB port, enable tethering on your device, install the app, press the button on the back I/O, and have control at your finger tips! To put it another way, it is chock full overclocking options.
But the GIGABYTE Z170X SOC Force is not a one trick pony either. It has the solid Realtek ALC1150 CODEC with its AMP-Up Audio, as well as an Intel NIC LAN. As expected, I had zero issues gaming with this board. If you would like four GPUs for your high-end gaming setup, or for benchmarking, GIGABYTE has you covered thanks to the PLX chip creating more PCIe lanes. Need fast storage? Covered there too in the form of three PCIe3.0 4x M.2 slots nestled between those four PCIe slots. How about watercooling the motherboard? Go for it as the heatsinks can do both and have standard fittings to make easy to connect.
I haven’t really run across anything bad we could blame on the board. To be completely transparent though, I did have a curious issue when I would boot to the BIOS, my USB ports would drop and I wouldn’t have keyboard or mouse functionality. The workaround was to switch ports or put a Flash drive in and they would all “come alive” again (worked with GIGABYTE on this and they were not able to replicate the issue, so it is not likely to be a widespread problem). After my benchmarking for the review, I took the board off the benching table for its photoshoot, put it back on the benching table, VOILA the problem was gone! I would guess a grounding issue or something, but regardless it was not repeatable and the internet didn’t turn anything up about it either. The OC App and EasyTune issues were easily circumvented, but not sure if it was specific to my system or not.
Pricing on the Z170X SOC Force comes in at $399.99 at Newegg.com. This is on the high end of the Z170 platform, but you are getting A LOT with this board, particularly for the extreme overclocker. If you compare it directly with other overclocking boards (ASRock OC Formula @ $230 and/ ASUS MVIIE @ $485) it lands in between them (leaning towards the more expensive side). Is it worth it? Well, it is up to you and your wallet really. It has a plethora of features both for the extreme overclocker, enthusiast, and even the gamer so its a well-rounded board. Regardless if you are gaming or into sub-ambient overclocking, the GIGABYTE Z170X SOC Force has something for you!
– Joe Shields (Earthdog)