An early look at Gigabyte's P67A-UD7 motherboard

Intel's new line of Sandy Bridge processors will soon be upon us. The chip giant has already confirmed that its next-gen CPU architecture will launch on January 5, just over one month from now. Motherboard makers aren't waiting for the new year to show their Sandy Bridge wares, though. Earlier this month, we got an early look what Asus has in store for Intel's new hotness. Today, it's Gigabyte's turn. Late last week, the company's high-end P67A-UD7 motherboard arrived at my door, and while I don't yet have a CPU to pop in, I was able to snap a stack of pictures of the board.
The first thing you'll notice about the UD7 is that it eschews the shade of turquoisey blue that has been a hallmark of Gigabyte motherboards for as long as I can remember. Black is the new turquoise, at least in this case, and the fresh aesthetic is nicely complemented by heatsinks draped in pewter and gold tones. I dig the new artistic direction, although part of me misses the distinctiveness of the old color scheme. Strip Gigabyte's name from the board, and one could easily mistake it for something from Asus, MSI, or just about any other motherboard maker.
The start of the show is obviously the 1155-pin socket required for Sandy Bridge CPUs. Around it, Gigabyte circles a whopping 24 power phases. More phases lead to cleaner power delivery and higher overclocking potential, or so the marketing literature says. More interestingly, the board is capable of switching into a 12-phase mode that alternates between two sets of a dozen power phases each. The UD7 will switch phase groups each time it's booted, spreading the load for folks who don't need all 24 phases active at once, which is pretty much everyone who isn't sitting next to a canister of liquid nitrogen. Gigabyte's usual brand of demand-based power-phase scaling works with both 12- and 24-phase modes, and the power delivery system as a whole meets Intel's latest VRD 12 specification.
Although they're hidden by heatsinks in the picture above, I should point out that Gigabyte is using fancy new MOSFETs on the UD7. Usually, discrete high- and low-side MOSFETs are accompanied by a separate driver chip. On the UD7, so-called "driver MOSFETs" consolidate that three-chip combo on a single piece of silicon. In addition to saving board real estate, this approach is said to improve efficiency and lower temperatures. Gigabyte claims a drop in MOSFET and choke temperatures of 16° and 27° Celsius, respectively.
We don't yet know how the memory controller embedded in Intel's Sandy Bridge CPUs performs, but it's definitely a dual-channel design. Each of the UD7's DDR3 DIMM slots can accept up to 4GB of memory, and the manual says memory speeds are supported up to 2133MHz.
To the left of the DIMM slots sits a row of Serial ATA ports, half of which conform to the latest 6Gbps SATA spec. Starting from the left, the first four ports are actually old-school 3Gbps ones tied to the P67 chipset. Intel's new chipset only has dual 6Gbps SATA ports, which appear here in white. To their right sits a couple of additional 6Gbps SATA ports fed by a Marvell controller. A second Marvell chip is also tasked with supplying next-gen SATA connectivity to the dual eSATA/USB jacks that populate the rear port cluster.
That port cluster is pretty loaded, and as you can see, it's got all kinds of SuperSpeed USB connectivity. There are a total of 10 USB 3.0 ports onboard: six here, plus internal headers for another four. All of them are fed by a pair of two-port NEC controllers, although there's obviously a considerable amount of sharing going on. Each NEC chip has a direct line to one of the rear USB 3.0 ports. The second USB port on each NEC chip is connected to one of two VIA hubs that split things four ways. One of those hubs supplies the rest of the rear ports, while the second feeds the onboard headers.
Gigabyte hasn't forgotten about USB 2.0 or FireWire, which are split between the rear cluster and additional onboard headers. Realtek supplies the hardware behind the Gigabit Ethernet ports and the audio jacks.
Speaking of auxiliary silicon, an Nvidia NF200 PCI Express switch chip can be found tucked under one of the UD7's heatsinks. The NF200 takes PCIe lanes from the CPU and divides them evenly between a pair of full-bandwidth x16 slots. The NF200 can also spread the lanes across all four of the board's physical x16 slots, giving them eight lanes of connectivity apiece.
Oddly, the NF200 isn't being used to fuel four-way CrossFire and SLI configs; Gigabyte says the board is limited to three-way setups. However, the NF200 does have another trick up its sleeve: Turbo USB 3.0 mode. Normally, the board's USB 3.0 controllers are linked to PCI Express lanes attached to the P67 chipset. As such, they must share limited interconnect bandwidth with other devices, such as Ethernet and Serial ATA controllers. Turbo mode sidesteps that potential bottleneck by moving the USB controllers over to PCIe lanes branching off the CPU.
That's about all I can say for now, which brings an end to our early look at Gigabyte's P67A-UD7. Rest assured that this is but the first in what will no doubt be a torrent of new motherboards to arrive at the Benchmarking Sweatshop in the coming weeks. You can expect more in-depth motherboard coverage, complete with all sorts of benchmarks and performance analysis, when Sandy Bridge arrives in January.