Gigabyte Aorus Z270X-Gaming 9 Oversized-ATX Motherboard Review

Featuring Four-Way SLI, Killer DoubleShot-X3 Pro networking, Creative Sound Blaster ZxRi audio, and an EKWB water block covering its 22-Phase CPU voltage regulator, can the Aorus Z270X-Gaming 9 design and firmware live up to its lofty specs?

The Triple Quad Miracle?

There isn’t really anything astounding about a high-end motherboard, since it’s technically possible to continue adding features until you run out of ideas, rather than space. The ATX specification is large enough to throw just about any single CPU configuration into, and manufacturers are able to either spread out beyond the standard depth or add more layers of circuits when too many traces are packed too closely together. Gigabyte opts for the former in its Aorus Z270X-Gaming 9, extending the front edge an extra 0.5” (12.6mm) beyond ATX spec to a final 10.375” (263.5mm) depth.

The extra space means that we’re not even witnessing a packaging miracle.

Designed to fit most ATX cases and requiring only the ATX-standard nine standoffs, the Aorus Z270X-Gaming 9 is still endowed by Gigabyte with the E-ATX label. This deviation is sure to cause arguments among builders, which is why I’ve brought back my previously-discussed ATX+ label. The + is not an official form factor but instead indicates that this board is larger than ATX, and that builders should actually read the dimensions. Since it’s far closer to ATX than to E-ATX, it’s more accurate to say that it’s oversized ATX rather than undersized E-ATX.

The Triple part (from our section heading above) comes from the three Killer Network controllers that are able to work together as a team, intelligently placing the most demanding apps (usually game packets) on the lowest latency connection and using packet prioritization to assure that they’re first to be processed. In a configuration dubbed Killer DoubleShot-X3 Pro, the controllers include two Killer E2500 Gigabit Ethernet and one Killer 1535 802.11ac, all connected via PCIe. Other rear-panel connections include Thunderbolt 3 over Type-C, USB 3.1 over the same connector, USB 3.1 Type A, five USB 3.0 (aka USB 3.1 Gen1), DisplayPort, HDMI, Digital Optical audio, analog audio, and PS/2 serial.

Audio is provided by Creative’s Sound Blaster ZxRi chip, fed through three upgradable Op-Amps (OPA2134 front, NJM2114 left and right rear), using both Nichicon and WIMA capacitors. A pair of gain switches select 2.5x or 6x for front-panel and rear-panel headphones, and the circuit is Sound Blaster certified by Creative to produce at least a 120:1 decibel signal-to-noise ratio.

Opposite the audio section is the overclocking section, with a set of voltage detection points along the top edge, and a set of buttons along the front edge. The nondescript buttons are CLR_CMOS and Reset, and two digital panels display debug codes and programmable status readings such as CPU temperature. Another set of LEDs indicate initiation of the CPU, DRAM, graphics, and boot process. Also visible in the photo is one of two 2-pin jacks for included thermal sensor leads.

The Z270X-Gaming 9 is packed with M.2 slots, two U.2 ports, and eight SATA ports. Six of those SATA ports are even paired up to a PCIe 3.0 lane for SATA-Express. While all of that connectivity sounds fantastic by Z270 standards, it’s important to remember that all of the bandwidth is shared over a four-lane interface to the CPU. Furthermore, these can’t be filled simultaneously, as the upper M.2 slot steals resources from SATA ports 3 and 4, while the lower M.2 slot shares its SATA interface with SATA port 0. The lower M.2 slot also shares two PCIe lanes with the upper U.2 connector, dropping both to x2 mode. And there’s no free lunch on the two SATA ports added via ASMedia’s ASM1061, since both of those ports share the controller’s single PCIe 2.0 x1 interface.

Around the bottom corner from the U.2 ports, a pair of BIOS mode switches allow users to disable Gigabyte’s dreaded auto-reflash function and instead select manually between two firmware ROMs.

The Z270X-Gaming 9 uses a PEX8747 to repeat the CPU’s 16 PCIe 3.0 lanes to two slots, after which a set of automatic lane switches allows the board to support four cards in x8 mode across its four PCIe x16-length slots. The controller’s “Multicast” function repeats data to two or four cards without running into any bandwidth sharing concerns, since all of the cards in an SLI or CrossFire array require identical data. The same can’t be said for the board’s second PCIe switch, the ASM1184e, which splits one PCIe 2.0 lane across both PCIe x1 slots.

Since most graphics cards have double-slot brackets, four-way SLI configurations typically require eight-slot cases. Two-way SLI is an easier fit, and users benefit from the added space it provides for graphics coolers up to 3.1” (78mm) thick.

Layout concerns are few and minor, such as the front-panel HD Audio header being located in the bottom-rear corner, just barely beyond reach of the cables of certain poorly-configured cases. Placing a graphics card in the lower slot will conceal several switches and headers, but the cables that go to those headers can usually be smashed flat without breaking the connection. Fan cables often have longer plastic ends, but the two affected headers are pushed all the way to the front of the bottom edge. And since the wires of USB 3.0 cables can’t be bent over, those headers are both located above all the expansion cards.

The EKWB water block that covers the CPU voltage regulator and PEX8747 multicast PCIe switch is also designed to work with air-based cross-draft CPU coolers, just in case you don’t have an open loop yet.

The Z270X-Gaming 9 includes a lighted I/O shield, two RGBW case-LED extension cables, an Aorus case badge, a G-Connect front-panel cable clip, HDMI and DisplayPort dust plugs, an alternative LED cover for the motherboard’s forward edge, six SATA cables with braided sleeves, two cable straps, a CrossFire bridge, SLI bridges in HB, 4-way, and 3-way configurations, a Wi-Fi antenna, two temperature monitor cables with thermistor tips, a variety of cable stickers, a “keep out” doorknob card, and a full set of printed documentation.

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OWC ThunderBay 4 Mini

The OWC ThunderBay 4 Mini is a professional-grade storage device that aims to make data transfer between you PC and the hard drives it contains extremely quick.

It achieves this through a number of ways. First of all, it’s built with solid state drives in mind and comes with four 240GB SSDs included. Because solid state drives have no moving parts, they can write and read data much faster than traditional hard drives.

The OWC ThunderBay 4 Mini comes with four easily-removable trays to install 2.5-inch drives in to take advantage of RAID. In certain configurations, such as RAID 0, you can use multiple disks at the same time, as if they were one drive. 

This can drastically speed up data transfers, and is useful for video and image processing. However, RAID 0 doesn’t offer data redundancy, so if one drive fails, you lose your data. 

Other forms of RAID, such as RAID 1, mirrors the data across drives, so if one drive fails, you have a backup of the file on three other drives. The disadvantage is that you cut down on storage space – instead of 960GB of space, we’d only have 240GB of space. 

What type of RAID array you choose will depend on what you want to use the OWC ThunderBay 4 Mini for – as super-fast storage or for backing up your data. Thankfully, the included SoftRAID software makes it easy to set up the RAID solution – though it must be noted that it’s only compatible with Mac machines.

The 1TB version of the OWC ThunderBay 4 Mini is priced at £350 (around $440, AU$570), though you can also buy it in larger capacities.

Thunderbolt

The OWC ThunderBay 4 Mini comes with two Thunderbolt 2 ports, which are much faster than USB 3.0 – four times faster in fact, with twice the throughput of USB 3.1. 

Our Thunderbolt 2 vs USB 3.0 vs eSATA guide goes into more detail over the benefits of Thunderbolt 2 (20Gbps vs 10Gbps). This increase in bandwidth means you can transfer large files, such as 4K video files, to the OWC ThunderBay 4 Mini, while simultaneously playing the video file on a Thunderbolt-connected monitor.

If you have a recent Mac or MacBook (from around late 2013) such as the MacBook Air, 5K iMac or the 2013 MacBook Pro Retina, then you should have a Thunderbolt 2 (or even Thunderbolt 3 if your Mac is very recent) port included.

Earlier Macs from between 2011 – 2013 may have an original Thunderbolt port, which can still be used with the Thunderbolt 2 connection of the OWC ThunderBay 4 Mini, but transfer speeds won’t be quite as fast.

Non-Mac PCs also sometimes come with Thunderbolt ports, though these are rarer. This means that the OWC ThunderBay 4 Mini is probably of more interest to Apple owners than Windows users, though with its focus on fast speeds for storing large media files, this may not limit its target audience, as many creatives favor Apple devices.

The Thunderbolt 2 support also allows you to daisy-chain up to six ThunderBays together, allowing you to easily (though expensively) expand your storage

Features and specification

As well as Thunderbolt 2 and RAID support, the OWC ThunderBay 4 Mini comes with a sturdy aluminum case that will keep the drives (and the files you store on them) secure. The case can also be locked (a key is provided), which will help protect your data against all but the most determined thieves.

The case of the OWC ThunderBay 4 Mini has also been designed to keep the drives inside cool when under load, with a vented front that allows cool air to flow through the device. A 60mm fan also helps with air flow. The case also includes anti-vibration feet, which along with the design of the drive bays, helps eliminate noise when it’s in use.

Performance

So how does the OWC ThunderBay 4 Mini perform? To test it we plugged it in to a MacBook Pro with Thunderbolt 2 ports, and configured the drives using the included SoftRAID software as RAID 0 – the fastest RAID array, though also the least secure as it doesn’t feature data redundancy.

In our disk speed benchmarks we saw write speeds of 845MB/s and read speeds of 1112.5MB/s. These are very good speeds, and show what a performance increase RAID 0 provides. With these sorts of speeds you’ll be able to move, open and edit large files on the OWC ThunderBay 4 Mini pretty quickly, with the speed feeling like the drives were installed in your Mac, rather than in external housing.

We also ran the benchmark tests with the drives in RAID 5. This RAID setup is recommended for people who want to use the OWC ThunderBay 4 Mini as a secure backup location for irreplaceable files, as it sacrifices speed and storage space for data security and redundancy. But how much of a sacrifice does it make? Quite a bit, as it turns out, at least when it comes to write speeds, dropping to 413MB/s (with read speeds dropping to 890MB/s).

Because of these results, we’d recommend the OWC ThunderBay 4 Mini as a way of expanding your Mac (or Windows PC equipped with Thunderbolt 2 ports) storage, rather than as a bullet-proof backup solution.

The SoftRAID software is decent enough, and makes setting up the drives in a RAID array easy, and the interface is straightforward and clear.

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Best free iPhone apps 2017

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Samsung mulls iris scanners on Galaxy phones to log into Windows PCs

Soon, your Samsung phone may be able to recognize your iris and log you into your Windows PC.

Iris-scanning via phone is not yet a feature available for Samsung’s latest Galaxy Book 2-in-1s, which were announced at Mobile World Congress. But the company wants to quickly bridge the gap between its Galaxy smartphones, which run on Android, and its Windows PCs and 2-in-1s.

Software called Samsung Flow links the company’s Android smartphones to Windows PCs. Samsung and Microsoft are looking to collaborate on logins via Windows Hello—designed to use biometric authentication to log into PCs—and one big Flow feature is the ability to use Galaxy smartphones to wirelessly log into the new Galaxy Book.

Samsung is providing the ability to log into its Windows 10 PCs with Galaxy smartphones for convenience and security. For example, users will be able to bypass Windows Hello and keep retina scan information on a smartphone once that feature is available.

Otherwise, a user now can swipe a finger on a Galaxy smartphone or use pattern authentication to log into Galaxy Book. That’s a unique feature and independent of Windows Hello. The Galaxy Book doesn’t have a fingerprint scanner, so the smartphone is needed for that. An NFC connection is established for smartphone-based logins into Windows PCs.

Samsung is working with Microsoft to integrate more advanced authentication features, said Eric McCarty, vice president of mobile product marketing for Samsung Electronics America.

Samsung has some unique biometric authentication technology on its handsets that could be used to log into Windows PCs. The now defunct Galaxy Note 7 had an iris scanner, which could make it to future Galaxy handsets.

In addition to its efforts on authentication, Samsung is trying to figure out ways to better link up its Android handsets, Windows PCs and Tizen OSes. There is a considerable gap between Samsung’s Windows PCs and devices with Tizen, like smartwatches and TVs. Samsung Flow links the Galaxy Books only to Android handsets, not Tizen devices.

Sony Nears 1 Million PSVR Headsets Sold After Just Four Months

Sony Interactive Entertainment’s global chief executive, Andrew House, recently sat down with the New York Times and confirmed that the PSVR is selling better than the company had expected: over 900,000 PSVR headsets in just four months.

If you were to believe the counter-hype in mid-January, you’d think Sony’s PlayStation VR was already a failed product. Multiple outlets ran stories suggesting that Sony may have given up on the PSVR headset before giving it a real shot. Of course, that suggestion didn’t make any sense. Why would Sony spend nearly a decade developing a product only to bail on it three months later?

The hysteria about Sony abandoning the PSVR stemmed largely from the lack of units on store shelves and limited holiday marketing, but that is a false equivalency. Sony didn’t need to spend large sums on advertisements for the PSVR because the kits are selling out everywhere. In fact, Sony Interactive Entertainment’s top brass said that people are “lining up outside stores” to wait for shipments to arrive.

House told the NYT that consumer demand is outpacing Sony’s internal sales goals for the PSVR. He said the company anticipated selling 1 million PSVR units in the first six months, but consumers have already snatched up 915,000 headsets in four months. At this point, and at this rate, besting that estimate is probably a foregone eventuality. (Those sales numbers are from February 19, so there could be 1 million PSVR in the wild already.)

The high volume of sales resulted in a shortage of hardware, which could continue for two more months if consumer demand doesn’t wane, and we wouldn’t expect it to. Titles like Resident Evil VII are driving more people to consider PlayStation VR every day. House told the NYT that the supply of headsets will increase in April. It sounds like Sony is preparing to double down on VR, not give up on it.

The Sony PlayStation VR connects to your PlayStation 4 console to play virtual reality games. The headset is available as a complete bundle with PS Move controllers and a PlayStation Camera for $499. You can also get the headset as a standalone device for $399, but you need a PlayStation camera to use the headset. Read our review of the bundle package here.

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13 best new tablets coming in 2017

Best new tablets coming in 2017: Apple iPad Air 3 & two new iPad Pros

Having abandoned its traditional iPad launch event in October 2015, when we heard there would be an iPad announcement in March 2016 we were hoping to see a new iPad Air 3. In fact we got the smaller iPad Pro 9.7. The iPad Air 3 was also a no-show in Apple’s September and October 2016 events, but that doesn’t rule out the possibility of an iPad Air 3 coming our way soon, and Apple has not confirmed the death of the Air line.

Indeed, analysts are speculating that in 2017 there will be three new iPads: a 9.7in model that will be the new entry-level model, replacing the iPad Air 2; a 10.5in iPad Pro to replace the 9.7in iPad Pro, and a new 12.9in iPad Pro. The entry-level tablet should go into production in the first quarter, and the two Pros in the second quarter, but it’s possible that all three will be held back until the second half of the year.

Further evidence to suggest this is the case comes from Digitimes, which says sources have claimed these tablets may not be announced or even released in the market until the second half of 2017.

Nevertheless, our sister site Macworld UK predicts that we will see the new iPad Air 3 in March 2017, with the tablet going on sale around 10 days later with an estimated RRP of £399-plus.

While the entry-level 9.7in iPad will get an Apple A9 processor, the 10.5- and 12.9in models will allegedly get the Apple A10X. These Pro models will also get an upgraded Apple Pencil.

Some rumours circulating on a new iPad Air 3 suggest it will feature a Smart Connector on the left edge for connecting a Smart Keyboard, as well as Apple Pencil compatibility. Other changes might include a thinner 7000-series aluminium body (without reduced battery life) and faster performance with a processor upgrade. Expect it to come in silver, gold, space grey and rose gold, potentially with a new LED flash for the rear camera. Could we also finally see an increase to screen resolution, perhaps matching the 401ppi of the iPhone 7 Plus?

Read more iPad Air 3 rumours here.

Read more iPad Pro 2 rumours here.

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Russian tech giant wants to kill Blu-ray with 1TB optical disc

A major Russian tech firm has announced the discovery of a new plant-based storage medium which it claims is set to make Blu-ray (and indeed other optical discs) irrelevant.

Rostec notes that its new technology utilises principles of photonics to record and store data on a film-like medium. Check out the image above – the piece of glass contains multiple layers of this photosensitive film (you can see three pieces of the film in the dish below).

The layers comprise of a substance known as chromones (formed in plants), and the resulting storage device beats out Blu-ray in terms of not just capacity but also on the performance front.

Super speedy

Rostec is saying that the potential capacity we’re talking about here is up to 1TB – 10GB of data can be stored in a single functional layer – with transfer rates of up to 12Gbps being claimed at this point.

At the moment, this is still very much in the early stages of development, with the initial sample having been created, and the tech to be licensed in due course. So there’s no news on pricing yet, although the company is saying that the new media will be cost-effective.

As well as the field of storage, Rostec has its hand in many technological pies including telecoms, optics, security systems, robotics and more.

So while details are relatively thin on the ground at the moment, this is a development which is clearly worth keeping an eye on.

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