In what is becoming a strange trend of late, Intel has officially lifted the lid on the Z77 chipset without a sign of the accompanying CPUs. The chipset is a key part of its next generation platform, designed to pair up with the upcoming Ivy Bridge CPUs. Despite the fact that these CPUs aren’t rumoured to arrive until the end of April, you can buy the motherboards now.
Because the Z77 features Socket 1155, it is backwards compatible with Sandy Bridge processors. So from now on the Z68 chipset is effectively old hat. If you can't wait a few weeks for the expected performance bumps that will come with Ivy Bridge, then you could happily build a system with a Sandy Bridge CPU and Z77 chipset right now.
We’d heartily suggest that you don't. Even less advisable is rushing out and buying a Z77 motherboard to upgrade your Sandy Bridge system with. As much as we inherently want newer tech the moment it is available, the benefits in the Z77 just don’t make it worthwhile.
This comes down to a combination of factors. Z77 brings only one new technology into the chipset, USB 3. We have lamented the lack of chipset-based USB 3 for some time, and its lack was exacerbated by the fact that for a long time only Renesas had a certified third party controller chip for the technology, one only capable of driving two ports.
But in the past six months we’ve seen the emergence of other players in the controller chip market, like Asmedia, which has meant more and more USB 3 ports have been appearing on motherboards.
Odds are that if you have a Sandy Bridge CPU you’ll have at least two, if not more USB 3 ports on your motherboard already. Intel has slapped four USB 3 ports into its Z77 chipset, and motherboard manufacturers have added even more with third party controllers and hubs, but the vast majority of USB ports controlled by the chipset are still USB 2.
If you look beyond the tentative benefits of onboard USB 3.0 then there are few benefits to running a Sandy Bridge CPU on a Z77 motherboard. There is the same number of native SATA 6Gbps channels as there are on the Z68. The RAID controller and accompanying Smart Response SSD caching is effectively the same as the Z68.
The reality is that as Intel has brought more and more traditional chipset functions onto its CPUs, the importance of the chipset has diminished. PCI-E Generation 3.0 support is only available with a supporting controller, which happens to be built into the CPU (PCI-Gen 3 support on motherboards means that the switches and circuits between the CPU and GPU are capable of carrying the signal).
DirectX 11 support is only available with Ivy Bridge, and there is even a x4 PCI-E 3 connection on most Z77 motherboards that will only work when Ivy Bridge is used.
Wonder why we haven’t seen any Thunderbolt motherboards in this first batch of retail products? Just look at this chipset diagram – the four PCI-E lanes needed for Thunderbolt are on the CPU.
The take-home message is that while the Z77 is a solid chipset, and incrementally better than what has come before, it won’t shine until Ivy Bridge arrives. Unless your existing Z68/P678/H67 motherboard explodes in a warranty-voiding fashion then there is no reason to make the leap to the new chipset if you want to keep your Sandy Bridge CPU.