GIGABYTE Z170X Designare LGA1151 Motherboard Review

GIGABYTE has continually impressed us with its offerings as of late. GIGABYTE’s Z170X Designare is poised to continue that trend and add another motherboard to the budding Designare legacy. We are still not fully sure of what exactly "Designare" actually is, but at this point, we see it as GIGABYTE building a solid new brand.

Introduction

Unless you are totally new to the DIY motherboard market, GIGABYTE should stand out as one of the most prolific and innovative brands on the market today. Like most motherboard manufacturers, GIGABYTE started out with motherboards but diversified into many other areas. I won't bore you with a list of all the stuff GIGABYTE has their hands in today, but suffice it to say you can build a PC using almost all GIGABYTE parts with only a few things that would have to come from other brands.

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From the enthusiast's perspective, this is a cut throat market. For many years the major players in this market have all been relatively close with one or the other having models that stand just a little bit higher in a given price point or niche. GIGABYTE, like any other company has had its share of remarkable products and a few that were less so. Despite GIGABYTE's penchant for using weird names lately, the company has had an impressive motherboard track record for the last couple of years. In my opinion GIGABYTE has made a few motherboards that stand as examples of some of the best offerings money can buy. A few of these products eclipse their competitors by a large margin in some cases. The X99 Designare EX was one motherboard I really liked as did Kyle. It even won our Gold Editor's Choice award making it one of only two X99 refresh motherboards to do so. It is even rarer among the entirety of X99 motherboards we've reviewed to date. Because of my stellar experiences with GIGABYTE as of late that I eagerly anticipated working with the Z170X Designare. The Designare family is kind of new and while this is only the second motherboard to use that moniker, so far I'm a fan of the line.

The GIGABYTE Z170X Designare is a bit of a contrast compared to the X99 Designare EX. The Z170X is a "less is more" type of design. I wouldn't call it stripped down, but it isn't as feature packed as many of GIGABYTE's other models. It isn't exactly the Z170 version of the X99 Designare EX either. It supports all the latest technologies and features such as SATA Express, SATA 6Gb/s, M.2, U.2, NVMe, PCI-Express 3.0, USB 3.1 Type-C, Thunderbolt 3, and the list goes on. Perhaps the most interesting feature I haven't seen too much of is Power Delivery 2.0 allowing up to 100 watts of power over USB 3.1 Type C ports. IT is even capable of handling two 4K displays over the integrated graphics or one 5K display. Naturally ambient RGB LEDs are part of the motherboard's aesthetics. Like it's X99 counterpart, the Z170 Designare is certified for NVIDIA's Quadro family which makes it a unique option bridging the gap between consumer and workstation hardware.

For the overclocking enthusiast, GIGABYTE's got you covered. The Z170X Designare has an external clock generator called the Turbo B-Clock tuning IC. This IC allows for base clock adjustments between 90MHz and 500MHz. GIGABYTE normally over builds its power delivery subsystem. In this case GIGABYTE uses custom GIGABYTE branded chokes with the GIGABYTE logo actually on them. The Z170X Designare uses a 4+3 power phase system that goes through phase doubling to become an 8+3 phase power system. This is accomplished by increasing the number of MOSFETS on each driver by two. This is a common practice these days, so I’m not overly concerned with it. As usual GIGABYTE uses 10K rated solid electrolytic capacitors for durability and long life under even heavy usage conditions. Like the X99 Designare, the Z170 version utilizes GIGABYTE’s anti-sulfur resistor design.

Unfortunately, there is some cost cutting going on with this motherboard. First and foremost, the PCB feels thin. This isn’t a big deal and we’ve given plenty of motherboards a pass on this. The PCB is fairly straight and it utilizes all the "armor" on the stress points to reduce the likelihood of sustaining damage. The cooling subsystem for the motherboard isn’t anything special with the heat sinks being fairly generic in their appearance and with regard to quality.

Main Specifications Overview:

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Detailed Specifications Overview:

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Packaging

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The packaging did a good job protecting the motherboard on the way to us as it arrived intact, and fully functional. Aesthetically speaking, the packaging is reminiscent of the X99 Designare EX which had an RGB race car on an otherwise plain black box. There aren’t any flaps, windows or other nice details either. I don’t mind this as that package cost is passed to the customer somewhere down the line. The motherboard could arrive in a plain brown or white box for all I care. Still the package isn’t without some touch of class, but remains relatively basic. Inside the box you’ll find a comprehensive bundle of accessories for this price point. Inside you’ll find the following items: SATA cable labels, multilingual installation guide, user guide, driver disk, G-Connectors, case badge, Velcro straps, SATA cables, SATA cables, RGB extension cable, and an I/O shield.

Board Layout

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The layout of the Z170X Designare is excellent for the most part. The only complaints I have are minor at best, and even then they almost aren’t worth mentioning. Headers and ports are generally well thought out with regard to placement. As usual GIGABYTE marks the port’s purpose inside the port so looking straight down into it reveals its purpose. GIGABYTE made really good use of the space allotted to the ATX form factor. Aesthetically, the motherboard has a black PCB with light gray hash marks that adorn the surface. On the heat sinks you’ll find blue and silver pin striping which adds just a touch of contrast to the otherwise mostly black motherboard. The gray and silver parts are also complimented by the stainless steel armoring on the expansion slots and memory slots. Overall it’s a good looking board with a thoughtful layout.

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The CPU socket area is well designed. In general, one shouldn’t have any trouble with the installation of larger CPU coolers and most memory modules. Taller modules could have clearance issues with some heat sinks, but that’s no surprise. The MOSFET coolers don’t exactly have a high quality or polished look to them. They are basic, but look good at a glance. The nice thing about them is that GIGABYTE did screw these in place so they feel solid and seem to make excellent contact with the MOSFETs. Interestingly, GIGABYTE has once again chosen to position the M.2 slot near the CPU slot, above the primary PCI-Express expansion slot. This isn’t the most ideal placement in my opinion, but it’s one of the better options. The only way I can see this being done better requires the use of an E-ATX footprint, so I think GIGABYTE made a good choice here in keeping with the regular ATX form factor.

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There are 4x 288-pin DIMM slots supporting up to 64GB of DDR4 DRAM at speeds up to DDR4 4000MHz through overclocking. These slots use single sided locking tabs which weren’t necessary given the clearance between the memory slots and the PCI-Express expansion area. However, I find these slots more convenient and they’ve almost entirely replaced more traditional double-locking tab slots on all the DIY motherboards. The slots themselves have a single piece stainless steel bracket which GIGABYTE calls Ultra Durable Memory Armor. This prevents plate bending and PCB distortion during installation.

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The chipset is cooled with a flat heat sink which is poorly secured to the motherboard. It rocks back and forth quite easily and even rattles a bit when you take the motherboard out of the box. The profile is low enough as to avoid conflicts with the expansion slot area. The heat sink maintained a temperature of around 95F during all my testing while overclocked or running stock. I don’t think the Z170 Express chipset really needs excessive cooling so this heat sink is probably more than adequate, but I felt disappointed by the mounting solution. It makes the board feel like a more budget oriented solution while physically handling it. In front of the chipset you will find 2x SATA Express connectors, 6x SATA 6GB/s connectors and a single U.2 port. Additionally, there are two vertical SATA ports on the motherboard. I’m not a fan of these in general. My OCD demands better symmetry than that. It’s one of my few complaints about this motherboard. It likely won’t bother most people unless they plan on using all the SATA ports in which case it may make the cabling look awkward.

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The expansion slot area is extremely well thought out. The M.2 slot sits above the primary PCI-Express expansion slot and thus supports type 22110 (110mm) M.2 devices. This placement is key as such drives become more common and generate more heat. Heat can cause controller throttling and impact performance. This is a very real problem in cases where an SSD gets to be the filing in a video card sandwich. The expansion slots themselves are all PCI-Express 3.0 compliant. PCI-Express x16 slots are armored with a one-piece stainless steel bracket. This bracket is designed to resist sheering forces and maintain retention. GIGABYTE’s design is probably the strongest in the industry and is significantly stronger than the designs of its competitors. The expansion slots support 2-Way SLI, 2-Way Crossfire, Quad-SLI and Quad-Crossfire. Configurations of 16x0, 8x8, or 8x8x4 are supported. There are also 3x PCI-Express x1 (Generation 3.0) slots. The PCI-Express x1 slots do not have the same "armor" as the PCI-Express x16 slots do. The audio subsystem utilizes the usual PCB isolation which can most clearly be seen on the back of the motherboard. Audio grade capacitors are integrated into the design.

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The I/O shield is a cheap piece of tin which isn’t my favorite thing in the world. The back panel I/O on the other hand is a bit more remarkable. There are two USB 2.0 ports, 4x USB 3.0 ports, 2x RJ-45 LAN ports, 1x PS/2 keyboard or mouse port, 1x optical output and 5x gold plated mini-stereo jacks for analog audio. What makes this motherboard remarkable is the display outputs. On the back panel you will find 1x mini-DisplayPort, 1x DisplayPort, 1x HDMI port, and two USB 3.1 Type-C ports which can pass VESA display information via Thunderbolt 3. According to GIGABYTE, the Z170X Designare supports up to two 4K displays or one 5K display via the onboard GPU. A third display can be connected if its analog. There is some open space which corresponds to a vent on the I/O shield for exhaust. The shield around the I/O back plane on the motherboard is really quite excellent and feels extremely sturdy.