Intel Z77 Express Chipset
Intel's launch of their latest desktop platform in the first half of April 2012 began with board products. The Intel Z77 Express platform is an incremental upgrade from previous platforms. It adds additional features and provides a wider level of functionality with full support for the 3rd Generation Core i5/i7 family of CPUs commonly called Ivy Bridge in enthusiast circles.
The Ivy Bridge CPUs are made using a new 28nm process technology that lowers power consumption and gives a bit more performance-per-clock over previous Intel 2nd Generation Core i5/i7 products. Also changed is the onboard GPU that's part of the Ivy Bridge silicon, now taking up more of that slice of silicon that sits under the integrated heatspreader.
The integrated PCIe bus on the CPU has also been upgraded. It can, compared to the two devices and PCIe 2.0 connectivity that are found inside Sandy Bridge products, be split differently from SandyBridge CPUs, with IvyBridge natively supporting three devices over a single bus with 16 lanes of PCIe 3.0 connectivity. Taking advantage of that added PCIe functionality requires a motherboard design change from previous Sandybridge-supporting motherboards. Backward and forward component compatibility for both SandyBridge and IvyBridge platform products, including CPUs and chipsets, is still possible with updated firmware for older Socket 1155 board products, but using a new IvyBridge CPU with an older P67 Express or Z68 Express motherboard may limit PCIe functionality. PCIe functionality would, naturally, with SandyBridge only supporting two devices, be limited. The tertiary slot provided on some Z77 Express boards will not work with some products when a SandyBridge CPU is installed.
Gigabyte definitely adds their own twist to the Intel Z77 Express platform. Most products take advantage of nearly every feature offered – most notably mSATA support. The Gigabyte Z77N-WiFi does not include mSATA support, and this is the first time that I have - in recent memory - had a Gigabyte product without such, but it offers huge networking capabilities instead, including Intel's own WiDi connectivity. I know many of you won't have heard of Intel WiDi, but it might have crossed your path with CES taking place as I write this review, and for good reason. Intel's WiDi is a method of transmitting video signals wirelessly, which not only allows for less of a rat's nest behind your entertainment unit, but also added display connectivity mainly intended for business signage duties. And yes, you CAN use Lucid's Virtu software with a discrete VGA for REAL wireless gaming. WiDi is admittedly still a baby on the market, but its potential is great, and Intel is actively working on improving things with new technologies making their debut during CES this week.