GIGABYTE GA-Z170X-SOC FORCE Motherboard Review

GIGABYTE’s GA-Z170X-SOC FORCE is touted as the ultimate Z170 "Super OverClock" solution from GIGABYTE. It also offers an impressive array of features for the enthusiast and gamer alike. 22 phases of digital power, cool new OC Touch buttons, metal shielded PCIe slots, pretty lights, and an impressive set of three PCIe Gen3 x4 M.2 Connectors!

Introduction

GIGABYTE is one of the world’s largest and most well-known motherboard manufacturers on the planet. The company was started back in 1986 and has grown to over 7,000 employees. The company has a diverse product portfolio with products in several areas such as servers, laptops, mobile devices and graphics cards. Even though GIGABYTE has traditionally done well in the markets it has expanded into, it remains best known for its motherboard business. In that regard, GIGABYTE has a wide array of choices in various price points. The motherboard we are looking at in particular today is part of GIGABYTE’s overclocking series.

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The GIGABYTE GA-Z170X-SOC FORCE motherboard boasts an impressive feature set. However in some ways, the motherboard has a less-is-more approach which is something we tend to value here at the HardOCP. However, the Z170X SOC Force isn't exactly stripped down in terms of features either. The GA-Z170X-SOC FORCE, as the name implies is based on Intel's Z170 Express chipset and is compatible with socket LGA 1151 CPUs. Via the chipset and included Alpine Ridge controller, the GIGABYTE GA-Z170X-SOC FORCE motherboard supports USB 3.0/3.1, GbE LAN, SATA 6Gb/s, SATA Express, M.2 support with the capability of booting to NVMe devices.

In addition to what the chipset has built in, the GIGABYTE GA-Z170X-SOC FORCE offers a 22 phase, digital power delivery system using PowIRstage ICs, built-in PWM water block, OC Touch controls, ambient LED lighting, metal reinforcement on the PCI-Express x16 slots, and dual BIOS ROMs. What truly makes this motherboard interesting however is the ability to run three M.2 devices and potentially put these in a RAID configuration. Even more impressive is that the GA-Z170X-SOC FORCE motherboard also supports 4-Way SLI and Crossfire multi-GPU technologies, which requires 4x PCIe x16 slots (x8 electrical) slots. This is all accomplished through the inclusion of a PLX PEX 8747 controller.

Unfortunately, what isn’t widely known is that such chips don’t actually add PCIe lanes to the platform the same way the PCH does. 16 PCIe lanes come from the Skylake CPU, while the other 20 are provided via the Z170 Express PCH or platform controller hub. This allows for a possible PCIe lane pool of 36. Four PCIe x8 slots for 4-Way SLI would take 32 lanes alone to achieve. The platform simply lacks the available PCIe lanes to do that even with the Z170 PCH’s 20 lanes. Also, graphics cards are limited to the PCIe lanes that come from the CPU specifically as these would prove to be too much for the DMI 3.0 bus to handle. That’s not even getting into the issues that would arise due to the latencies added by such a solution. Therefore, a PLX chip multiplexes or splits out the 32 lanes it provides to the slots, but it goes over the 16 lane link to the CPU. It’s like a splitter in effect. You still have the same 16 lane "bottleneck."

Despite the lack of bandwidth on paper, such solutions have generally proven to be relatively capable. In the real world as GPUs rarely saturate the PCIe bus completely. 4-Way SLI or Crossfire scaling is also fairly inefficient and therefore I doubt many people would bother using more than two or three cards. Even if they did, you will see diminishing returns on each card added, and therefore the lack of PCIe lanes is really the least of your problems.

PLX chips have other benefits as these act as switches and allow for dynamic lane allocation to the PCIe slots. This enables the system to use the graphics cards in a 16x16 or 8x8x8x8 multiGPU configuration. The key here is leveling the amount of bandwidth available to each card to ensure the best possible gaming experience. I’ll leave such testing to the GPU guys, but from a motherboard perspective, the feature set is both impressive and ambitious for a "mid-range" platform such as Z170 Express / LGA1151.

Main Specifications Overview:

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Detailed Specifications Overview:

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Packaging

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The box for the Z170X SOC FORCE lacks all the red, black and white G1 series logos and things that generally adorn gaming focused or oriented motherboards. This motherboard is part of the Super OverClock series and has a focus on overclocking above all else. This motherboard targets those who would use water cooling or LN2 to achieve record benchmark results under those more extreme cooling conditions. The box itself is standard fair, albeit on the higher end of the spectrum. It has a box flap with some art work and a clear window show casing the included motherboard. Inside the box there is a rich assortment of accessories.

Most of the accessories are standard, albeit abundant. The most interesting item is the bracket which enables the user to support up to 4x graphics cards on an open test bench without such support included. This is one of the many facets of the bundle and motherboard design which truly show you what this motherboard is all about. There are overlapping features with other GIGABYTE offerings like the Z170X Gaming G1, but that extra attention to detail is focused on overclocking performance. The user’s manual is actually very nice. It’s written in good English and offers a ton of useful information. The only thing it’s lacking is a proper block diagram, but everything else you’d expect to see is included. There are even comprehensive instructions for the included software applications, although these may not be accurate as such software is subject to change and frequently does throughout the life cycle of a product.

Board Layout

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The layout of the GA-Z170X-SOC FORCE motherboard is exquisite despite the sheer volume of features packed into it. The only thing problematic in my opinion are the locations of the M.2 slots. However, without going to vertical slots, there really isn’t a better way for GIGABYTE to handle three M.2 slots. Unfortunately, this means that your SSDs may get baked sitting under graphics cards. This problem only gets compounded if you use three or four GPUs with the GA-Z170X-SOC FORCE. Great care in setting up the chassis airflow would be advised for using all the features and connectivity the GA-Z170X-SOC FORCE motherboard has to offer.

The PCB is thick and the motherboard feels robust when you handle it. The solder joints are well done and there isn’t any sloppy work in the physical build quality of our test sample. There is a multitude of four-pin fan headers on the motherboard. The various headers and power connectors have thoughtful placement which should satisfy most users.Aesthetically, I rather like the GA-Z170X-SOC FORCE. The orange and black color scheme may scream "Halloween" to many Americans, but to me it’s a pleasant departure from the red and black color combination that plagues the industry today.

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The CPU socket area looks to be a tight fit. With some coolers it might be as the MOSFET coolers border on enormous. These coolers are fairly serious in more ways than one. These are all copper hybrid heat sinks which are designed for either air or water cooling. They have embedded heat pipes as well as passages for water cooling. Both banks of power phases have heat sinks connected by a shared heat pipe. There are threads for 1/4" fittings for water cooling. These heat sinks are well made and the finish on these is nice. There aren’t any sloppy tool marks or sharp edges that I could see or feel while handling the motherboard. These add to the premium product feel when handling the GA-Z170X-SOC FORCE and should give the price of the motherboard. You can see multiple power phases from International Rectifier and 10k hour rated black solid electrolytic capacitors from ChemiCon that flank the CPU socket.

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There are four 288-pin DDR4 DIMM sockets with a single sided locking tab for module retention. These are color coded, alternating between black and orange coloring. This denotes proper dual channel memory mode operation. Memory speeds up to DDR4 3866MHz are supported via overclocking.

In front of the DIMM slots GIGABYTE has placed what it refers to as the "OC Touch Panel." These are onboard controls which offer a great deal of functionality. The OC Ignition button allows you to power on the system fans, water pumps, and accessories without powering up the actual system. According to GIGABYTE this feature provides enough power to prevent a device like the i-RAM from losing data. Other controls include the memory safe feature, which relaxes timings to increase memory compatibility. Another is the settings lock button which will retain successful boot settings even after clearing the CMOS. There is a dedicated clear battery button, clear CMOS button, OC trigger switch, DualBIOS switch, DTB or Direct to BIOS switch, and an OC PCIe switch. The latter allows individual PCIe slots to be deactivated for testing or other purposes.

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The chipset is cooled via a large, flat heat sink sporting the GIGABYTE and SOC FORCE / OC logos. The chipset cooling was more than adequate and comparable to anything I’ve seen on the market today. During our testing, the chipset cooling hardware never exceeded a temperature of 95F. Directly in front of the chipset you’ll see a huge block of SATA express ports and two USB ports. These USB ports are designed for use by people using open air test benches for overclocking. PCI-Express auxiliary power is connected in this area via a six pin PCI-Express power connector which GIGABYTE calls the "OC PEG" port. For the record, I don’t like this as someone who has often used three and four GPUs in their system. The native 6 and 8-pin PCIe power connectors are at a premium and I dislike using adapters for these. Diverting one to the motherboard isn’t desirable as far as I am concerned. I much prefer seeing SATA power or 4-pin Molex cables used for this purpose.

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The expansion slot area is well thought out. There are four PCI-Express x16 slots, each supporting at least x8 PCIe lanes. These are reinforced via metal brackets to help prevent the weight of some of today’s massive GPUs from damaging the motherboard. In addition, there’re are three PCI-Express x1 slots. The GA-Z170X-SOC FORCE also supports 4-Way SLI and Crossfire multi-GPU technologies in configurations of 16x16 (2-Way) or 8x8x8x8 (4-Way). In between the x16 slots you will find 3x M.2 slots each supporting up to an 80mm long PCI-Express M.2 drive. As I said before, this could be problematic depending on the system configuration as the SSDs may over heat underneath GPUs.

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The I/O panel is full of connectivity options There are 5x USB 3.0 ports, 2x USB 2.0 ports, 2x USB 3.1 ports (1x Type-A, 1x Type-C), 1x PS/2 keyboard or mouse port, 1x RJ-45 port, 1x optical output, 5x mini-stereo jacks, 1x DVI-I port, 1x HDMI port, and 1x mini-DisplayPort.