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Intel Z370 Motherboard Buyer's Guide

By Steven Bassiri from Jan 17, 2018 @ 18:00 CST

Storage Considerations


Storage comes in many shapes and sizes. The standard SATA6Gb/s connection has been made obsolete with the advent of the M.2 slot, which offers up to 32Gb/s. However, SATA devices are easier to cool and are widely popular for HDDs, since the M.2 form factor is very small. SATA Revision 3 is what you find on Z370 motherboards, it's rated for 6Gb/s, so I call it SATA6Gb/s. The best M.2 slots support both SATA (6Gb/s) and x4 PCI-E 3.0 (32Gb/s).




Let's start with SATA6Gb/s. Almost all motherboards offer at least six SATA6Gb/s ports, although there are some boards with only four. If you find more than six SATA6Gb/s ports, then the extra ports need to come from a 3rd party controller connected to the PCH (chipset) through a PCI-E lane.


In the image above, the motherboard has six ports connected to the PCH boxed in blue and two connected to an ASMedia ASM1061 SATA6Gb/s controller boxed in red. You also see a USB 3.0 right-angled internal connector. These right-angled connectors offer a better look, but check your case to ensure you have enough clearance because internal USB 3.0 wires are bulky.





The Intel ports are better than the ASMedia, but most of the time, SATA6Gb/s ports share bandwidth with M.2 slots. One M.2 slot can be connected to the PCH directly and not interfere with SATA ports, but if you have more than one M.2 slot, it's possible that one or two of those share bandwidth with at least one SATA port.


Your manual will tell you what configurations are allowed. It's very rare, but sometimes you might find re-drivers for SATA ports. On the board above we found two ASMedia ASM1467 re-drivers that are meant to improve SATA signaling, either because it was degraded after going through switches (share with M.2), or because the vendor wants to offer stronger signaling. Either way, it's great to see them because it's a cost vendors can't easily market.




Not all M.2 slots are the same, not all of them offer SATA support as well as PCI-E support. PCI-E support is there by default, and most M.2 slots offer x4 PCI-E 3.0 (32Gb/s). M.2 cards are very fast, but many of them have controllers that heat up, so vendors have added heat sinks. I like the heat sinks from the vendor above a lot, and that's because it has mass and is super simple to install since the screw is held in place for you.




Some vendors even include heat sinks for all three M.2 slots. No motherboard has more than three M.2 slots soldered on the motherboard, but some of them come with PCI-E cards that come with M.2 slots on them. One vendor has taken a different approach to M.2 drive cooling.


The vendor on the right has implemented a technology called DIMM.2. So basically, it moves M.2 slots to a daughterboard that plugs into a modified DDR3 slot. The purpose of moving the M.2 cards into the RAM area is for cooling. You can easily mount a fan to blow down on the cards while not interfering with the GPU real-estate, or you can use a RAM fan to cool the RAM and M.2 drive(s). A heat sink isn't mandatory by any means, but some people like to keep things as cool as possible.


USB Considerations


There are many different types of USB ports. First, let's talk about the new naming convention for USB 3.0. USB-IF has renamed USB 3.0 and USB 3.1 to USB 3.1 Gen 1 and USB 3.1 Gen 2 because USB 3.0 and 3.1 specifications are very similar except in regards to speed.




USB 3.1 Gen 1 (USB 3.0) is rated for 5Gb/s and typically are full-bodied blue. USB 3.1 Gen 2 (USB 3.1) is rated for 10Gb/s and typically comes in the color red (MSI and GIGABYTE) or light blue (ASRock and ASUS). Type-C ports can offer USB 3.1, USB 3.0, or even ThunderBolt 3. Some custom ports exist as well, such as the yellow ports you see above that are USB 3.0 with power modification. We also still find USB 2.0 ports on the motherboard, they are typically black.




So far, we only find ASMedia USB 3.1 controllers on motherboards. The ASMedia ASM1042 offered two USB 3.0 ports, and then the ASM1142 replaced it offering two USB 3.1 ports. The ASMedia ASM2142 then came on the market, and offered two USB 3.1 ports, but it allowed for two PCI-E 3.0 ports to connect to it, providing much more bandwidth for two USB 3.1 ports.


The ASMedia ASM3142 is the most common USB 3.1 controller on mid to high-end Z370 motherboards, and it offers power consumption reductions and slightly better performance. We do find the ASMedia ASM2142 on a few Z370 motherboards such as the one on the left, while the ASM3142 is more common (board on the right). While providing output to two USB 3.1 type-A (normal USB) ports doesn't require a switch chip, the new Type-C ports do require a switch. The most common USB type-C port switch is the ASMedia ASM1543, it offers type-C CC logic and switching capabilities. However, even those switch chips have variations.




The best USB 3.1 implementation I have seen so far was for an internal type-C header. It uses the ASMedia ASM1543 switch/CC logic controller (the Texas Instruments TPS65982 also adds better power delivery but is not typically found on Z370 motherboards, but it is on a few X299 boards), two Pericom PI3EQX USB re-drivers, and uses an ASMedia ASM3142 controller. I also find implementations with the ASMedia ASM3142, but with a Texas Instruments HD3SS3220 type-C switch.




Earlier we saw two yellow ports on the rear IO of a motherboard; the ports were yellow because that vendor implemented a feature where you control the power level provided to the USB ports. The implementation uses a Richtek RT8288A to provide voltage levels above 5v (for very long cables) or to cut off all USB power and only provide data (for an external DAC).


Some motherboards also feature USB re-drivers, the most common is the ASMedia ASM1464. The re-drivers improve signals that are a far away from the PCH, or to provide better signal integrity for internal headers. Most vendors will advertise these features with the words power or something along the lines of a better VR experience.




The same vendor produced both of the motherboards you see pictured above. They both have USB type-C internal headers, but the one on the left has a USB 3.1 internal header while the one on the right has a USB 3.0 internal header. You will notice that the naming of the port on the PCB is different, but if you didn't look closely you might think all USB type-C internal headers are USB 3.1, but they are not.




While the motherboard offers a lot of USB 3.0, most of that is routed to the rear IO, and often you don't have four leftover ports for two internal USB 3.0 headers (each header produces two ports). Vendors typically use a USB 3.0 hub to expand one or two ports into four. They can either route one port to the hub and get four out, or route one port direct and one to a hub that gets expanded to three more ports for a total of four. The former (1:4) is more popular (than 1+1:3).


The ASMedia ASM1074 is the most common USB 3.0 hub, but there are some from Realtek such as the RTS5411. The TPS65982 is a very nice, but expensive, USB 3.1/ThunderBolt 3 type-C controller chip and is almost never used for USB 3.1 on the Z370 platform. The picture above was taken from a motherboard with ThunderBolt 3, and while we have seen this chip used for just USB 3.1 on some X299 motherboards, we haven't seen it yet on a Z370 motherboard (at least not to our knowledge).



Other Connectivity Considerations




There are three Alpine Ridge series ThunderBolt 3 controllers you might find on a Z370 motherboard. The DSL6540 uses x4 PCI-E 3.0 and provides two ThunderBolt 3 (type-C) ports, the DSL6340 uses x4 PCI-E 3.0 and provides one ThunderBolt 3 port, while the JHL6240 (controller pictured above) uses two PCI-E 3.0 ports and provides one ThunderBolt 3 port.


Most motherboards also offer HDMI and DisplayPorts on the rear IO panel, but the CPU's iGPU doesn't offer HDMI 2.0. If you want HDMI 2.0 from the iGPU's rear IO panel ports, you need a chip such as the MegaChips MCDP2800 DP to HDMI 2.0 level shifter, which takes digital video signal from the iGPU's output and produces an HDMI 2.0 port. There is also a Parade chip that you might find for HDMI 2.0.




We have also found PCI-E hubs around on a few boards. These are typically an ASMedia ASM1184e, and it provides multiple PCI-E 2.0 lanes to devices that are low bandwidth such as WIFI or SATA controllers. HDMI isn't native to the iGPU, so if a motherboard has HDMI or DVI, you will also find a level-shifter, such as the NXP PTN3360 or the ASMedia ASM1442K. Although most people buy discrete GPUs, some people still rely on the internal GPU to hold them over until they can upgrade to a discrete GPU.

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