For the new generation of Ivy Bridge processors, Intel has designed a new line of motherboard chipsets - the 7 series. The most high-end of the different chipsets, and therefore the most interesting for hardware fans, is the Intel Z77. This chipset, which can be seen as the successor to the Intel Z68, offers the widest array of features and the best overclocking potential of the entire 7 series.
The new Ivy Bridge processors use the same Socket 1155 processor socket as the current Sandy Bridge processors. The Intel Z77 and the other 7-series chipsets are therefore intended for Socket 1155 motherboards. Additionally, the new platform is both forward and backward compatible. This means that existing Sandy Bridge processors will work fine in the new 7-series chipset motherboards (providing the correct BIOS is created) and also that Ivy Bridge processors will work in existing 6-series chipset motherboards.
This backward compatibility means that we are already able to extensively test the new Z77 boards with a current generation Sandy Bridge processor. Equipped with an Intel Core i5 2500K, we put no less than 20 Z77 mainboards through their paces.
The Z77 makes it possible to extensively overclock K-series processors, just like Z77's predecessors Z68 and P67. On the Socket 1155 platform the PCI-Express controller for the graphics cards is integrated into the processor, instead of the chipset. This remains the case with Ivy Bridge, although PCI-Express has been upgraded from 2.0 to 3.0. Motherboards with the Z77 chipset have the same option as the Z68 chipset to divide the 16 PCI-Express lanes into 2 x 8 lanes, for SLI or Crossfire configurations. What's new is the possibility to split the lanes into 1 x 8 and 2 x 4 lanes. This option exists in order to use the Intel Thunderbolt controller on four PCI-Express 3.0 lanes on future Z77 motherboards. You can read rest of the 20 Intel Z77 motherboards previewed and compared on Hardware.info.