GIGABYTE Aorus Z270X Gaming 9 Motherboard Review

GIGABYTE’s Z270X Gaming 9 is one of the most feature rich and ultra-high end offerings you’ll see for the Z270 chipset this year. We were super fond of last year’s similar offering and as a result, the Z270X Gaming 9 has very large shoes to fill. With its massive feature set and overclocking prowess, it is poised to be one of the best motherboards of the year.

Introduction

GIGABYTE is one of the most well-known and respected motherboard manufacturers in the industry today. Following suit with its competition, GIGABYTE has recently started its "Aorus" brand to target the gamers and some enthusiasts who can appreciate the gaming focused aesthetic qualities common to motherboards in that market. The Z270X Gaming 9 is part of the Aorus family, and it is the premiere LGA 1151 entry. Make no mistake about it, this is not positioned as a value motherboard. At the time of this writing this monster comes in at $499.99. There are a lot of reasons for this and in a sense, it is a value option because of all that comes with it, but its cost is no doubt at the very ceiling of what you’ll see in the "mainstream" gaming motherboard market. I’ll expand more on this point later, but I think a few of you will come to see this motherboard as a good deal if you planned on buying many of the devices included with the motherboard.

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Aorus Z270X Gaming 9 is based on the Intel Z270 Express chipset and supports all the technologies that come with that. It is designed to support Intel’s 6th and 7th generation Core i5 and i7 CPUs. This includes both Skylake and Kaby Lake CPUs. This includes support for Intel’s Optane memory technology, M.2, U.2, SATA 6GB/s, 64GB of DDR4 DRAM, PCI-Express 3.0, and so on. The Z270X Gaming 9 is also unique or at least very rare in the market for several reasons. For starters, the Z270X Gaming 9 uses the Alpine Ridge controller for USB 3.1 support. The Z270X Gaming 9 is also Thunderbolt 3 certified passing Thunderbolt 3 signals over the USB 3.1 Type-C connector using the "alternate" mode USB 3.1’s specifications allow for. Thunderbolt 3 can in theory be used for many things such as external graphics hardware, storage enclosures and displays. Another way the Z270X Gaming 9 differentiates itself from other options on the market is by its integrated audio solution which is based on the Creative SoundCore 3D processor. Effectively, GIGABYTE included a SoundBlaster ZXR in the Z270X Gaming 9. This variant of the "card’ is called the "ZXRi." Its specs are ahead of many Realtek based solutions which again puts the Z270X Gaming 9 ahead in the market. Due to its gaming focus, GIGABYTE also included two Killer NIC E2500’s and their Wireless AC1535. It doesn’t stop there. GIGABYTE’s robust feature set includes many of its own features such as USB DAC-UP2, RGB Fusion with multizone LED lighting, Smart Fan 5, and a EKWB G-Frost Hybrid water block. Other features or design elements include but are not limited to: Turbo-B clock, DualBIOS, Q-Flash, and onboard power, reset, and overclocking buttons.

The Turbo-B clock generator should probably be worth talking about on its own as it is one innovation that allows for a great deal of overclocking flexibility. Unfortunately, being able to adjust the base clock between 90MHz and 500MHz is something I see as being of limited value because most of the overclocking done on these motherboards is done via turbo-frequency adjustment rather than by base clock. Still, it’s worth noting that if base clock manipulation factors into your plans that GIGABYTE has you covered as well as anyone else and better than most. This feature is a result of Skylake and Kaby Lake switching back to an external clock generator. Older processors such as Haswell and Devil’s Canyon had an internal clock generator that the motherboard manufacturers and the user had no real control over.

Perhaps the most amazing design decision GIGABYTE made was the inclusion of a PLX PEX8747 chip. As many of you already know, the PEX8747 is used to multiplex the PCIe lanes effectively doubling the number of available lanes. The PEX8747 uses all 16 lanes from the CPU but returns 32 lanes on the other side. You still have the same 16 lane pipe to the CPU, but you gain flexibility on the other side allowing for PCIe slots to have far more varied lane configurations. Ordinarily you’d get an 8x8x4 type of configuration. With 32 available lanes, you get far more options which comes in handy when using multiple GPUs. There are two main reasons why these chips aren’t used that often. The first of which is cost. The PEX8747 isn’t cheap and causes a substantial increase in the price of the motherboard. I do not know precisely how much GIGABYTE pays for these chips but it is one of the many reasons why the Z270X Gaming 9 is $499.99 at the time of this writing. The second issue is that the PLX chip’s benefits are arguable at best. The lane allocation is more flexible as I stated earlier, but you still have the same 16 lane constraint to the CPU. There is no real difference between an SLI system with an 8x8 configuration and a 16x16 lane configuration via a PLX chip. Again, the CPU’s lanes are the bottleneck. Because of how the PEX8747 works, there is a small latency penalty introduced into the system as well. While minimal, its measurable. With no real performance benefit it’s not hard to see why these chips are relatively rare.

That said, GIGABYTE has a lot of integrated hardware on the Z270X Gaming 9. With the proliferation of M.2 slots and other PCIe lane consuming features additional flexibility is a valid reason to integrate a PLX chip. It also gives multi-GPU users the ability to pick and choose which slots they prefer to use rather than being forced into a specific pair of slots or suffer reduced bandwidth. Because of the PLX chip, the Z270X Gaming 9 is one of the very few options on the market for using a 4-Way SLI or Crossfire configuration should you wish to do so. I won’t argue the validity of such a configuration but if that’s what you are looking for you might as well order this motherboard now. It’s practically the only game in town if you want to build a Kaby Lake based 4-Way SLI or Crossfire system. One could easily argue that X99 starts to make sense if 4-Way SLI is desired and I’d agree but Kaby Lake with its higher clocks and relatively poor scaling with additional cores in games, I think Z270 is a valid consideration for such a system when a PLX chip is employed.

Main Specifications Overview:

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Detailed Specifications Overview:

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Packaging

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The packaging is basically the same as what we’ve seen for several product generations now. The box artwork is sparse, sporting only an Aorus logo and a few markings. Most of which are brand logos from companies like Intel. The motherboard itself is packed in anti-static foam with a hard-plastic cover that helps secure the motherboard and keep it visible inside the packaging. Inside the box you’ll find the following items and accessories: GA-Z270X-Gaming 9 motherboard, Motherboard driver disk, User's Manual, Quick Installation Guide, Six SATA cables, I/O Shield, One Wi-Fi antenna, One Wi-Fi antenna retention cover, One GC-SLI23P SLI bridge connector, One 3-Way SLI bridge connector, One 4-Way SLI bridge connector, One 2-Way CrossFire bridge connector, Two RGB (RGBW) LED strip extension cables, One Accent Lighting LED Strip, Two thermistor cables, One G Connector, Two Velcro Cable Ties, One pack of back I/O dust covers.

Board Layout

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The layout of the motherboard is solid but there are a few issues with it. In part the main issues stem from the fact that the motherboard has more integrated features than a PCB of this size probably should have. Perhaps my biggest problem with this motherboard’s layout is that the RAM slots are too close to the expansion slot area and for whatever reason, GIGABYTE chose not to use the single-sided locking tabs for module retention. This is the precise scenario those slots were designed to deal with. The motherboard’s M.2 slots are placed where any installed drive will get baked by the heat of your expansion cards. If you go with a single GPU solution for graphics, then the secondary M.2 slot is nice and out of the way. Unfortunately, this is only an 80mm slot. The 110m slot is directly under where the primary GPU would go. In other words, using a 110mm M.2 drive leaves you with no choice but to place it in the worst spot possible. One other lingering issue I have with GIGABYTE year after year is the ridiculous placement of the Clear CMOS button next to the reset button. What makes this worse is that these aren’t marked incredibly well so if you ever forget, you might have an issue figuring things out without consulting the manual.

It's not all bad though. The location of the CMOS battery is fine. The locations of other ports and headers are well thought out with no obvious oversights. There is an impressive amount of fan headers and thermal sensors onboard. You’ll find 7 temperature sensors scattered over the PCB and 8 fan / water pump headers. 2 of these headers support 24w (2Ax12v) water pumps with over-current protection. There are also two headers for external temperature sensors. I like the way the expansion slot area is configured and storage ports are all located where I felt they should be. GIGABYTE continues to use a 2oz copper PCB and 10k rated, ultra-low ESR black solid electrolytic capacitors. Recently, GIGABYTE started using sulfur resistant resistors and the Z270X Gaming 9 includes these as well.

The Z270X Gaming 9 is an aesthetically pleasing design. It’s simple compared to previous, similar offerings from GIGABYTE. The high contrasting black and white color scheme looks good. RGB lighting provides nice accents in the color of your choice.

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GIGABYTE used a 15ยต, gold plated CPU socket which resists corrosion and ensures maximum conductivity with the CPU. The CPU socket area seems a bit crowded by the large MOSFET cooling hardware. In truth, it is somewhat crowded but the clearances should still allow for the mounting of most cooling solutions without any major issues. The Z270X Gaming 9 sports an astonishing 23 power phases. 16 of these phases are dedicated to the CPU. These are produced through a process known as "phase doubling" which is a common practice on motherboards. There are eight "true" power phases doubled to 16. The IR3599 used for phase doubling can also quadruple the power phases but that’s not what GIGABYTE chose to do.

The CPU socket area has a large cooling system for the MOSFETs. This is an EK designed G-Frost Hybrid water block not unlike what’s on the ASUS Republic of Gamers Maximus IX Formula. This "hybrid" design is both an air cooler and a water block. The exterior is made of conventional aluminum while an interior made of copper is used for the water cooling. This cooling solution encompasses the massive amount of power phases as well as the PLX PEX8747 chip. The "Turbo-B" clock generator can be seen just in front of the PLX chip above the primary PCI-Express x16 slot.

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There are four 288-pin DDR4 memory slots boasting Optane memory compatibility and supporting clock speeds up to DDR4 4133MHz. The memory subsystem utilizes a 3+2 phase power design and features GIGABYTE’s "Memory Armor" system. A one-piece steel reinforcement prevents PCB bending and warping during RAM installation. I never considered this a must have feature but I can’t deny that it works well to prevent PCB bending. After getting used to this, motherboards lacking the feature feel a little cheap to me when installing memory.

Just below the memory slots, you’ll find the power, reset, clear CMOS, OC, and ECO buttons. GIGABYTE also decided to improve the debug display. Instead of a single double "8" display there are two. These are also ideally located for viewing with the case open or from an open-air test bench. There are also front panel USB 3.0 headers near the RAM slots which place them closer to the top of the chassis where these are likely to connect to. Often, cases use cables for front panels that are too short, so GIGABYTE seems to have put some thought into this.

One of the keys to supporting features such as XMP properly is memory validation often known as a process called "QVL" testing. GIGABYTE boasts over 1,000 validated modules on its website that have been tested with the Z270X Gaming 9. Validation lists that large are unusual and it shows that GIGABYTE put a lot of time into testing the Z270X Gaming 9 to get it right for the market.

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The chipset has a passive, low profile heat sink on top of it for cooling. This doesn’t interfere with the installation of expansion cards. The machine work is nothing to write home about and in fact the brushed metal texture is somewhat inconsistent. The black and white color scheme looks great and compliments the motherboards aesthetics well. Directly in front of the chipset are three SATA Express ports or 8x SATA 6GB/s ports. Two U.2 ports can be found to the left of the SATA ports. The motherboard’s front panel header is color coded although not particularly well marked aside from the color coding. A pack of "G-connectors" is included in the box for making installation of these front panel cables easier. Switches for the BIOS ROM and the clear CMOS toggle are found just to the left of the chipset as well, just to the side of the CMOS battery.

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The PCI-Express expansion area is configured the way I’d expect it to be for a multi-GPU system. There are 4x PCI-Express x16 slots and 2x PCI-Express x1 slots. These all conform to the PCI-Express 3.0 standard. Thanks to the inclusion of the PLX chip, the Z270X Gaming 9 supports configurations of 16x16, or 8x8x8x8 allowing the use of 2-Way, 3-Way, 4-Way or Quad-SLI and Crossfire multi-GPU configurations. The PCIe slots all use GIGABYTE’s double locking bracket for superior strength. This protects the motherboard during expansion card insertion as it prevents PCB warping or bending. Sheering forces are also reduced while heavy graphics cards are installed.

As stated earlier, the M.2 slots are my only beef with this part of the motherboard. The primary M.2 slot supports drives up to 110mm in length while the secondary only supports 80mm and smaller devices. Sadly, these are placed poorly for use in a multi-GPU system as they will sit underneath today’s modern and very hot GPUs. This can lead to controller throttling and lost NVMe drive performance. Directly behind the expansion slots you’ll find the Creative ZXRi audio system. This features premium ELNA dedicated audio capacitors and three replaceable OP-AMPs. The PCB is isolated so it’s almost like having a separate audio controller without having to give up an expansion slot.

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The I/O panel uses a very thin, stamped piece of tin to protect the audio ports. It has some markings to denote what the ports are. For a $499.99 motherboard, this turn me off a bit. I’ve seen less expensive motherboards that do this better. A cheap I/O shield makes an otherwise premium build feel just a bit cheaper. It’s not the end of the world as few people look at the back panel too closely, but I still feel as though GIGABYTE should do better here on such an expensive motherboard. I fully expect subsequent generations to take a page of the Republic of Gamers book and start using integrated I/O shields. It’s a fantastic idea and I’m surprised no one came up with it several years earlier.

On the back panel, you’ll find a multitude of connectivity options. Oddly, there isn’t that much in the way of rear USB ports. We have 1x PS/2 mouse and keyboard combination port. Dual RJ-45 LAN ports, 2x antenna connections for the built in wireless adapter. There are 5x USB 3.1 Gen 1 ports, 2x USB 3.1 Gen 2 ports, 1 of which is a Type-A, the other is a Type-C port. There are 5x mini-stereo headphone jacks and 1x optical output. We’ve also got one DisplayPort 1.2 port and 1x HDMI 2.0 port. HDMI 2.0 and DisplayPort 1.2 are not part of the Kaby Lake and Z270 specification. This is achieved via the MegaChips MCDP2800 controller which GIGABYTE added to the Z270 Gaming 9 to support these standards. GIGABYTE is one of the few motherboard manufacturers doing this and it’s a nice touch despite the high probability that few people will use the onboard video for anything other than supplementary displays, if at all.