To Broadwell-E or not to Broadwell-E. That is the question!

If you're an enthusiast and that Nehalem or Sandy Bridge setup you built years ago is ready for a replacement, you might be considering an X99 motherboard build. The operative question then becomes, "should I wait for Broadwell-E or just buy Haswell-E and be done with it?" After a weekend at PAX East talking to several SIs, Intel employees, and all the other hardware vendors, we were able to get a few bits and pieces of information that may help you make your decision, but first, let's look at some numbers.

Gigabyte pleasantly surprised us at PAX East 2016 with a small set of unreleased motherboards. These boards will likely surface about the time that Broadwell-E is released – keep an eye out over the next month – so that means these are all prototypes and that everything here is subject to change. What we were shown appears to be a refresh of the Haswell-E and Skylake boards that are already on the market with the addition of U.2 support.

U.2 is a connector that the Small Form Factor Working Group (SFFWG) decided to rename in 2015. It was formerly called “SFF-8639,” and most of the people that were aware of it worked with servers. Part of the reason it’s making its way to desktop boards is that the form factor provides M.2 PCIe speed combined with the drive mounting flexibility of the old SATA cable. This means that you can have as many U.2 drives as your motherboard has U.2 connectors.

Broadwell has missed its internally-imposed deadline numerous times now – at least twice publicly, three counting today – and has previously had its tardiness addressed. Back in May, we wrote that Intel promised Broadwell “in time for the holidays,” a period that has come and gone.

There's been a lot of delaying going on in the industry lately. NVidia and AMD have both pushed back launches (Maxwell, Titan Z) on the GPU side, Intel pushed back X99 / HW-E to 3Q14, and even delayed Broadwell into "4Q14 or 1Q15." All of these delays are attributable to fabrication process changes that are sweeping the semiconductor industry right now; we're shrinking the process to a point that it's small enough that new engineering hurdles have arisen -- good news for innovation, but bad for the impatient.

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Z97 motherboards have been floating around for a little while now -- here's our round-up of them -- but we haven't had a chance to actually look at the Z97 chipset as a product. Z97's immediate accompanying CPU is the Devil's Canyon chip that was announced at GDC, but will later host the 5th Gen Broadwell CPUs. Devil's Canyon is due out shortly, though another Haswell Refresh (i5-4690, others) was recently posted that has seen minimal interest thus far; Broadwell is due out in 4Q14 or later and features a die-shrink to 14nm fab process.

sata-expressThis is a SATA Express connector -- effectively dual SATA ports with additional power/ground.

Thus far, we know of Intel's Z97 and H97 chipsets and have heard no news of an "H91" or "B95" equivalent from last generation. For this Intel Broadwell 9-series chipset comparison, we'll look strictly at Z97 vs. H97 for gaming and overclocking purposes; the goal of this guide is to help PC builders determine which chipset will perform best for their objectives while remaining price-scaled.

I wrote a similar chipset comparison for AMD FM2/FM2+ chipsets last week.

As the embargoes are lifted across the web for Z97-equipped motherboards, we see prices and tentative release dates emerging for new platforms. ASUS, Gigabyte, MSI, EVGA, and ASRock have all put out some sort of Z97 board teaser, but thus far ASUS is the first to supply hard pricing data.

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With the Haswell refresh CPUs (Devil’s Canyon) coming out and Broadwell planned for later this year, the latest Intel motherboards for them are slowly being leaked through official and unofficial channels. The most notable feature of the new Z97 chipset is that it supports the latest SATA express interface natively, which features transfer speeds of 10-16 Gb/s and enables much faster transfer speeds for SSDs. While motherboard manufacturers aren't releasing official specs just yet, pictures of these upcoming boards have been released and from them we can find out some details.

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MSI, ASUS, ASRock, Gigabyte, and EVGA have all posted photos and teaser specs of their Z97 motherboards. In this Z97 Broadwell / Devil’s Canyon motherboard specs round-up, we look at the next generation’s Intel board selection specs and features.

Let’s dive into this.

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