Roundup: Z77 Express motherboards from AsRock, Asus, Gigabyte and MSI - BeHardware
Written by Guillaume Louel
Published on April 18, 2012
Officially launched at the beginning of April, the Z77 chipset represents an original departure for Intel, if only in terms of strategy. First of all there’s the question of the socket and compatibility with processors. For once, Intel has played the compatibility hand with socket 1155, as the cards launched last year at the same time as the Sandy Bridge Core processors are compatible – via a Bios update – with the 2012 generation of Core processors, the Ivy Bridge range, launched this spring. Indeed the compatibility goes in both directions as the Z77 cards that we’re testing here aren’t only reserved for Ivy Bridge processors. They're also compatible with the Sandy Bridge range.
The Z77 also represents a change in segmentation strategy for Intel. As we saw when we tested the Sandy Bridge Core processors, Intel now includes a graphics core in all its LGA 1155 general consumer processors. At launch in January, the Intel segmentation was rather impractical, with on one hand chipsets designed for gamers who wanted to use an external graphics card, the P67, and on the other desktop oriented chipsets allowing use of the graphics part of the processors. These cards, designed around the H67, aimed to replace the big market of motherboards with integrated IGPs, often designed for entry level users. This meant that certain advanced options such as overclocking weren’t available on these chips.
Worse still (and putting games to one side), Intel went against its own processor strategy by preventing the use of the graphics part of the Sandy Bridge for video encoding, a feature targeted more at the enthusiast than the desktop market. This unit allows very fast, though poor quality encoding. It was however impossible to use the unit with the P67 platform. Intel corrected things later by launching the Z68, a platform supposed to combine the best of two worlds (for comparison you can refer to our review): overclocking and being able to use the IGP if desired via video outs on the motherboard. To access processor video encoding without having to unplug your screen, Intel pushed a third party application onto motherboard manufacturers, Virtu from LucidLogix (Intel having invested in LucidLogix via its Intel Capital subsidiary). A new version of the software, MVP, is moreover offered with most Z77 motherboards. This is something we have dealt with in a separate article.
Launch of the Z77 is now being pursued as follows: there will be no high end P77 type chipset that doesn’t allow you to use the IGP. This doesn’t however mean that there won’t be any new segmentation as Intel has also introduced the Z75 which is limited on two points: the non-support of Smart Response cache technology (an SSD configured like a drive that serves as a cache for a system installed on a standard hard drive), as well as a limit on how the Ivy Bridge processor PCI Express lanes are distributed. Note that the Z75 has been snubbed by most motherboard manufacturers, which probably isn’t a bad thing when it comes to transparency for consumers with respect to motherboard offerings.
Sandy Bridge (and Ivy Bridge) processors integrate what was previously called the northbridge, a chipset which took care of critical motherboard tasks such as the management of memory or PCI Express graphics ports. These features are integrated into the processor which thus has 16 PCI Express lanes which can be used by the motherboard in various ways. Here Intel has segmented the way in which motherboards can use these lanes, even if in practice this segmentation doesn’t have much to do with the chipset chosen (the Z77 is, in old speak, a southbridge, a chip dedicated to the handling of ‘slow’ ins and outs). In comparison to the Z68 motherboards, you can see in the table above an additional mode of functioning with three ports piloted by the processor (as x8/x4/x4). This option, which isn’t exploited by all the motherboards, requires an Ivy Bridge processor. Note that the Z77 motherboards all support PCI Express 3.0, as long of course as an Ivy Bridge processor is being used!
When it comes to innovations linked purely to the chipset, the Z77 simply adds – finally! - native Intel USB 3.0 support. The chipset has four ports which can be used (very) differently depending on the motherboard you’re using. Another change has been introduced with respect to screens with the forthcoming Ivy Bridge processors. These processors will be able to use up to three screens at the same time… under certain conditions. Two of the three must be Display Port screens and be connected directly to the processor without the use of additional chips. This does however mean that you lose compatibility with Sandy Bridge. For these reasons, you’ll see the motherboards in this review only offer at best one Display Port connector. Ivy Bridge or not, these motherboards will only support two screens, whatever configuration you use them in. You will perhaps be able to use three screens at the same time later, on laptop platforms for example, or on motherboards designed exclusively for Ivy Bridge.
Although it may not seem as if the changes amount to a great deal, motherboard manufacturers have brought out new ranges for the launch of the Z77. Today we’ve tested four models from the four main manufacturers on the market, namely:
- ASRock Z77 Extreme6
- Asus P8Z77-V Pro
- Gigabyte GA-Z77X-UDH5
- MSI Z77A-GD65
All these cards are mid-range models, priced between 180 and 200€. We’ll come back to the more affordable models later.
Before looking at the variations in spec, the EFI BIOS, overclocking, energy consumption or the performance of the various additional chips, let’s start by introducing the different models we’re setting up against each other. While the Z77 isn't by any means revolutionary, some motherboard manufacturers have made real efforts to differentiate themselves, or provide solutions to issues we flagged up in our previous review.
Review: ASRock Z77 Extreme6
ASRock Z77 Extreme6
With ten models at the time of writing, the ASRock Z77 range has gone from being quite spare to very rich.
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The Z77 Extreme6 comes just below the two very high end models from which it has taken some aspects of its spec. For example, it has the same power stage as the Extreme9. In terms of additional chips, note that ASRock has almost entirely gone with Broadcom chips for the network controller. In addition – and this isn’t something that is only an ASRock policy – Asmedia (an Asus subsidiary) components are very widely used right across the range.
Let’s look more particularly at the model we’re testing today, namely the Z77 Extreme6. For the power supply, there’s an 8+4 phase circuit covered with two radiators linked by a heatpipe. ASRock has gone for an Intersil 6367 controller, which isn't yet listed on the manufacturer site.
The ASRock has additional fixture holes for the LGA 775 cooler.
There are three PCI Express x16 ports on the card. The first two are separated by two slots (allowing the use of tri-slot graphics cards) and are linked directly to the processor. They can function in 16/0 and 8/8 mode using NXP L04083B switches. These ports provide Crossfire and SLI support.
The two main PCI Express x16 slots are linked to the processor and the third to the chipset. Note the mini PCI Express between these two slots!
A third PCI Express x16 is available lower down on the board but cabled to the Z77 chipset (PCI Express 2.0) at x4. ASRock uses a 4-lane PLX PEX8605 switch to increase the number of chipset lanes (8 in total remember). Thus there’s a PCIe x1 port at the top of the card, along with a mini PCI Express slot that can for example be used for a wi-fi controller. The port isn’t described as being mSATA compatible (this standard uses a mini PCI Express connector to route an SATA signal). Two standard PCI slots complete the list of extension ports and run off the PCIe/PCI Asmedia ASM1083 bridge.
The PLX switch only adds four additional lanes.
Apart from this mini PCI Express port, another particularity of the ASRock motherboards is the inclusion of a four-pin molex connector to strengthen the power supply of the PCI Express graphics ports.
Controller wise, Asmedia has (once again) supplied the 1061, a Serial ATA 6 Gb/s controller that has two ports running off it. One of these is shared here with an eSATA connector on the panel. The EtronTech EJ168A controller has been added for USB 3.0 and there’s a Broadcom 57781 chip for the network. The 57781 was already used on ASRock's Z68.
There are few original implementations when it comes to the ports on the I/O panel at the back of the motherboard. The single PS/2 port is still there on the left of the panel and there are two USB 3.0 ports underneath it… running off the EtronTech controller! Note, these ports cannot be accessed in Windows without the installation of a driver beforehand. To connect a keyboard and mouse (and for them to remain accessible to the boot and during the installation and configuration of an OS), you’re therefore strongly advised to use the native Intel USB 2.0 ports. There are two of these on the panel, in red. These ports should perhaps have been placed under the USB 2.0 to facilitate mounting for newbies. As we'll see, ASRock isn’t alone in using this type of incongruous configuration.
There are also two ‘native’ Z77 USB 3.0 ports on the right of the panel, something that Intel hasn’t highlighted which makes us think that the preliminary performance of the Intel controller didn't match up to motherboard manufacturers’ expectations. As we’ll see, other manufacturers have made the same choice. The fact that the two blue ports run at different speeds (and with different drivers) is somewhat perturbing, the EtronTech not being, historically, the fastest USB 3.0 controller we’ve tested.
The rest of the panel is much more conventional with four video outs (DVI single link, VGA, DP and HDMI, two of four usable), a Firewire port that runs off the VIA 6308S (PCI interconnect) and the previously mentioned eSATA port. This port shares one of the two ASM1061 controller ports which then becomes inaccessible.
In addition to the Gigabit Ethernet connector there are five configurable audio jacks and an S/PDIF port. A Realtek ALC898 controller is used for the audio. Finally, there’s a CLR_CMOS button, the utility and placement of which are debatable.
ASRock also includes the two switches on the bottom of the card for the Power and Reset functions that so delight users who mount their motherboards out of the box. Just beside these there's also an LED diagnostics display with two digits showing the boot phase, an exhaustive list of the codes being supplied – on four pages – in the manual, a relatively rare feature that other manufactures would do well to imitate (often just a limited list of error codes is supplied). Note that there are six fan connectors on the card (two four-pin and four three-pin).
ASRock has included the standard internal connectors, such as the floppy and serial port headers. There are also connectors for six USB 2.0 ports, two USB 3.0 ports (Intel) and a firewire. There are two infrared ports (IR and CIR).
We’ll finish our rundown with the bundle that comes with the card. It includes a particularly thick manual - 256 pages – with just 50 pages for each language. In practice it only covers the spec and installation. There’s an additional 28-page manual covering the BIOS and two A4 pages for the software (Xfast, which we’ll come back to, and Lucid Virtu MVP, which we have covered in a separate article).
The accessories include a dual port USB 3.0 bracket, that can be fixed via a 3"1/2 bracket or a flat angle PCI bracket. Four Serial ATA cables and an SLI bridge make up the rest of the offer.
Review: Asus P8Z77-V Pro
Asus P8Z77-V Pro
Asus also has a very extensive Z77 range with no fewer than eleven motherboard models, which includes three micro ATX models and a mini ITX model!
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The Pro is positioned under the two very high end Workstation and Deluxe models. Asus is highlighting certain particularly interesting components such as the Intel network controllers and a generous distribution of Serial ATA and USB 3.0 controllers that generally come in pairs here!
On the P8Z77-V Pro, Asus has gone for a 12+4+2 phase power supply circuit. Two passive radiators are used for cooling. Note that there are two plates at the back of the board to improve cooling.
There are also MOSFETs on the back of the board as we’ll see later on in this article.
There are three PCI Express x16 ports on the motherboard. The first two are linked to the processor at x16/x0 or x8/x8 managed with ASM1480 switches.
Some features are limited by the lack of PCIe lanes on the chipset.
The third slot is connected directly to the Z77 chipset (by PCIe 2.0) and will run at x1 by default. Unlike ASRock, Asus hasn’t gone for an additional PCI Express switch to multiply the lanes. Therefore if a x4 mode is available, it will automatically turn the Serial ATA controller and one of the additional USBs off as well as the two PCI Express x1 ports!
One of the two PCI Express x1 ports (the one under the main graphics card and rarely used) shares the bandwidth of the additional Serial ATA controller and you therefore have to choose between the two. Finally there are two standard PCI ports.
Rather than settle for the Intel chipset for USB 3.0, Asus has added two Asmedia 1042 controllers to the board (two ports run off each). There’s also an additional Serial ATA 6 Gb/s controller (the ASM 1061, two ports) and the network runs off the Intel 82579V controller, a good trend initiated by Asus with the Z68 and which is imitated by other manufacturers in this price range, as we’ll see later.
After abandoning the PS/2 port on the P8Z68-V Pro, it is has been reintroduced on the extreme left of this board. Underneath there are two USB 3.0 ports, which, as on the ASRock board, are not Intel ports but run off one of the Asmedia controllers. This is surprising to see, as is the fact that there are just two Intel USB 3.0 ports on the back panel, on the right under the network connector.
There are just two USB 2.0 ports (in black) which we would have preferred to see placed on the far left, though they are slightly better situated than on the ASRock board. Asus has placed a sticker here to show that the USB mouse and keyboard should be plugged into these ports. The four standard video outs are all here (DVI Single link, DP, HDMI and VGA) and two can be used at the same time. There are six audio jacks and an optical S/PDIF out. The audio runs of a Realtek ALC892 controller. Note that Asus hasn’t included an independent Firewire, though as we’ll see below eSATA has been included.
The Power and Reset switches used on the equivalent Z68 model are no longer there, but there are still several other switches. Firstly the MemOK that resolves certain memory conflicts with uncooperative memory bars (incorrect SPD table or bars no longer maintaining timings). Pressing on this button launches a specific mode that generally allows you to correct the issue. There are two useless switches for the energy economy (‘EPU’) and tuning (‘TPU’) features – all this can of course be set in the BIOS. The Bios FLBK does however come more in handy. The idea here, introduced with X79 motherboards, is to allow you to flash the BIOS from a USB key without having to insert a processor or any memory in the system. This feature probably won’t be used every day but may serve as a fallback solution in some cases (processor too new for the current BIOS on the motherboard, which would then refuse to start-up, or a corrupted BIOS that doesn’t allow you to boot or initiate restore mechanisms). We like and would encourage other manufacturers to include such a feature.
The diagnostics leds are limited but do the job, with one led lighting up on start-up beside each component that is being initialised. While this method isn’t as precise as using start-up codes, it has the merit of being easy to follow. Note finally that Asus is still using its very practical memory slots, with the catches on one side.
For the internal connectivity, we have the headers required to pilot eight USB 2.0 ports and four USB 3.0 ports (2 Intel and 2 Asmedia). There’s a final USB header for the wi-fi module that comes with the motherboard. Note that Asus has planned for as many as six 4-pin fan connectors that can be controlled from the BIOS and via software.
In additiona to a high quality manual, the bundle includes a USB wi-fi module that is plugged in between the USB 2.0 ports and the HDMI connector. This module is 802.11 b/g/n compatible and comes with an external aerial. Asus also supplies four SATA cables and an SLI bridge. There’s a USB 3.0 bracket (2 ports) in PCI format, as well as an eSATA bracket also in PCI format. At the extremity of the bracket is a single SATA cable that can be connected to the port of your choice. This is a low cost solution but it is at least nice to see that Asus has replaced the very slow JMicron controller it used on its previous generation and is moving in the right direction.
Note finally that as usual Asus has padded the panel plate that is inserted inside the casing – this is supposed to limit electromagnetic interference and stops you from cutting your fingers when inserting it into the casing. The small extensions that allow you to fix the power/reset and speaker cables and buttons more easily are also there. Minimal cost but practical!
Review: Gigabyte GA-Z77X-UD5H
Gigabyte offers an extensive range with no fewer than ten models, including three micro ATX models.
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As we’ll see, Gigabye uses VIA chips quite extensively in its range. The GA-Z77X-UD5H is positioned under the high end Gigabyte model. It comes with lots of additional chips and is available in two versions, a standard version and a version with a built-in wi-fi module. Here we tested the standard version.
This is a detail but the motherboard PCB is covered with a very nice looking matte coating
The Gigabyte board’s power supply circuit is generously dimensioned with 12+2+1 phases, an International Rectifier 3567 digital controller (International Rectifier acquired CHiL at the beginning of the year). A particularity of the power supply system are the thirteen MOSFETS that have been placed on the back face of the card. They aren’t covered. Two radiators cover the front face power supply circuit and are linked by a heatpipe, which descends as far as the chipset radiator (an unusual decision).
In contrast to the Asrock and Asus models, this Gigabyte board offers three PCI Express x16 physical ports that are all linked directly to the sixteen processor lanes. As the sticker on the third port shows, it will be unavailable if you use a Sandy Bridge processor in the system. With an Ivy Bridge processor and three cards, these ports will function in x8/x4/x4 mode. For switches, Gigabyte uses ASM1480 chips.
Note the sticker on the third port.
This means the eight PCI Express 2.0 chipset lanes can be used differently, with Gigabyte choosing to place three PCI Express x1 ports on its board. A single PCI port completes the list of slots. The five other lanes are used rather originally, as, first of all, there are two Gigabit Ethernet network controllers: an Intel 82579V and an Atheros AR-8151 (Atheros was recently bought by Qualcomm).
Next, we have two Serial ATA 6 Gb/S Marvell 88SE9172 controllers, each with two additional SATA ports running off them. Three are internal connectors and the fourth is available as an eSATA port. The last PCI Express lane is used by a PCI Express to PCI bridge.
Note that there’s no additional USB 3.0 controller in this list. Does this mean that Gigabyte is simply using the four ports on the Z77? Yes and no as the spec indicates that ten ports are available. How can this be so? Two VIA VL810 hubs. These chips have the particularity of being able to turn one USB 3.0 port into four, with bandwidth then being shared. We’ll see in practice what this solution gives a little later.
Gigabyte has gone for an original positioning of the connectivity on the I/O panel with four video outs (VGA, DVI Single Link, HDMI and DP) placed to the left and accompanied with an S/PDIF optical out. Next there are two USB 2.0 ports, a Firewire port (running off a VIA VT6308 controller, PCI) and the eSATA port previously mentioned. Next we have four USB 3.0 ports… connected to the same hub! This is to say the least bizarre, with the two Gigabit Ethernet ports, which are independent, overhanging them.
There are six standard audio jacks and Gigabyte uses a Realtek ALC898 chip for the sound. Note the PS/2 port is absent.
Just below the socket, there’s an mSATA connector. To recap, this connector looks like a mini PCI Express, but is in fact linked directly to the SATA controller. Here it is linked to the chipset on one of the 3 Gb/s ports that will therefore be unusable.
The board is pretty well set up in terms of switches with a big power button, a small reset button and a small clear CMOS button. These three buttons are postioned at the top of the board beside the diagnostics LEDs (two hexadecimal digits). There's a full list of the codes (on 4 pages) at the end of the Gigabyte manual, which is excellent news! Note also that just beside this are some voltage read points (PCHIO, VDIMM, DDRVTT, CPUPLL, VSA, CPUVTT, VCORE).
We also like the switch that has been placed right at the bottom of the card and which allows you to move from one BIOS to another - the card includes two independent BIOS chips. Another originality is an electric connector beside the SATA ports. Such a connector is usually used on hard drives. This compact port serves the same purpose as the Molex that comes with the ASRock boards, adding to the PCI Express x16 power supply ports.
The card is rich in internal headers with six additional USB 3.0 ports (two connected directly to the chipset and the four others coming from the second VIA hub). Note finally, the four USB 2.0 ports and a Firewire port. A TPM connector is also included. There are five four-pin connectors for fans.
Gigabyte continues to produce one of the best manuals around, sufficiently detailed for those new to mounting their own board and sufficiently precise and well set out for advanced users to get the information they're looking for.
For the rest, the bundle includes four SATA cables, an SLI bridge and a 3"1/2 USB 3.0 bracket. Note finally that the plate which serves as the interface between the back panel and the casing is also padded, like on Asus boards. This should save your fingers.
Review : MSI Z77A-GD65
MSI has the smallest range of the four manufacturers with just six Z77 motherboard models, including a micro ATX model.
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Note that MSI is the only manufacturer to give full confidence to Intel when it comes to its USB 3.0 ports. MSI doesn't really seem to be pushing the boat out when it comes to chips either, though the top model in the range, the GD80, does have a Thunderbolt controller. The GD80 isn’t yet available however. Note the MSI site also references two original models which aren’t included in our list, the Z77A-S01 and the Z77MA-S01. These models seem to be clones of the A-G45 and MA-G45, but without the video outs. It isn’t clear how widely these models will be available yet.
The components on the MSI PCB have plenty of room to breath.
The high end therefore currently consists of the Z77A-GD65 that we are testing today. For the power supply circuit MSI, who have been very frugal with power supply phases up until now, is offering a 10+2 phase circuit (the Z68A-GD65 had just 6+2).
The motherboard includes three PCI Express x16 physical slots. Like the Gigabyte UD5H, MSI connects these three slots straight to the processor (via ASM1480 switches). They then run either in 16/0/0, 8/8/0 or 8/4/4 modes. The last mode is only available with an Ivy Bridge processor, something that is clearly indicated in the manual and rather badly on the board sticker. MSI has also added four PCI Express x1 connectors (connected to the chipset). There’s no standard PCI slot, which is a strange choice as users of old PCI peripherals will turn to other models. It does mean that MSI economises a PCI Express lane that can then be used for something else.
The sticker isn’t very precise. The port will not function without an Ivy Bridge!
Among the additional controllers, MSI has gone for the now very popular Intel 82579V for the Gigabit Ethernet network. For storage MSI is using a Serial ATA 6 Gb/s Asmedia 1061 controller which pilots two additional ports, with a Firewire VIA VT6315N controller connected by PCI Express making up the quota. Reasonable choices.
The back panel has exactly the same configuration as the Z68A-GD65. A PS/2 port accompanies four USB 2.0 ports, with the two USB 3.0 ports in blue. Unlike its competitors MSI has chosen not to implement a DisplayPort video out. We do however have two S/PDIF outs, one optical and one coaxial. To complete our inventory, there are six assignable jacks connected to a Realtek ALC 898 controller.
There’s still a ClearCMOS button, but it's small and set back. You definitely won’t press it by mistake in any case!
Though the MSI board may seem light when it comes to additional chips – it’s true that the components on its PCB have plenty of room to breathe – there are still plenty of additional functionalities. There are power and reset switches and a big OC Genie switch which launches an automatic overclocking search, which as we will see, definitely brings something to the table. There are also some voltage points at the top of the board, which can be easily accessed with a multimeter.
At the bottom of the board, a switch allows you to choose between your boot BIOS and a backup. MSI thus automatically activates a copy operation in its BIOS and, after several successful boots on a new BIOS, flashes the backup BIOS with the new version. You can turn this feature off. Note that there’s double digit hexadecimal display. The codes are given in the manual in the form of a relatively concise list on a single page.
The internal connectivity includes six USB 2.0 and two USB 3.0 ports. There’s also a Firewire connector and a TPM connector. There are five fan ports (3x4b, 2x 3b).
In the bundle MSI includes three manuals to cover the board, software and installation. An explanation for overclocking Ivy Bridge processors is also supplied. This looks particularly well put together and explains the differences between Intel K and non-K processors as well as voltages and gives you a table with some advice on which voltages to use. An excellent initiative for newbies, and others!
Look at the certificate!
The rest of the bundle is pretty standard with four SATA cables, an SLI bridge and adaptors to facilitate the mounting of front panel connectors in the casing. MSI doesn’t supply any USB 3.0 brackets.
We have summarised all the specifications of the motherboards tested in this large table to allow you to compare them more easily.
We have also added a full summary of the ranges:
Let’s now move on to our BIOS analysis. As you'll see there have been significant developments here since our last review!
ASRock & Asus BIOS'/UEFIs
Moving over to the Sandy Bridge platform has cemented the use of the UEFI BIOS. Originally developed by Intel (now by a forum), UEFI is a specification that replaces certain limitations of the older BIOS’ that still ran, among other things, in 16-bit mode on the processor side and were therefore particularly limited in memory.
Another notable innovation is the change in the hard drive partitioning system which is no longer based on the MBR format but rather GUID. MBR had several limitations, from the number of partitions to the number of sectors, stopping you from going beyond a capacity of 2.2 TB with sectors of 512 bytes. GUID increases the number of available sectors and also makes it possible to change the size of physical sectors, in time supporting drives with 4K physical and logical sectors (currently high capacity general consumer drives use 4K physical sectors and 512 byte logical sectors for compatibility reasons, as Windows still doesn’t support 4K native sectors).
The last advantage of UEFI is that drivers can be used for the various system components, enabling, for example, the initialisation of a network controller or a mouse. These drivers can then be passed to the operating system to authorise minimum functionality, which can be useful during and after installation of the OS and before installation of the drivers.
As we're going to see, manufacturers have started to take these innovations on board!
The ASRock UEFI is broadly based on the previous version, but with some intelligent developments. Firstly the choice of slightly more vivid colours for the background and icons improves the design and legibility. The white font is now more easily legible, even though it's still relatively fine and small. The design is good, with functional page up/down buttons and pressing towards the top when you’re at the top of a page takes you back to the bottom. The keyboard design is very good and the mouse just requires a click to choose one option and another to select it. This may seem obvious but as we’ll see later, not all the other manufacturers love simplicity.
The main tab gives the standard information, except for the System Browser. Choosing this option brings up a photo of the motherboard. By moving around across the components you then have access to additional information, say on the processor or the memory, and can find out what is plugged into which port. We like this feature.
All the overclocking options have been grouped in to the OC Tweaker panel, though we can’t see the automatic overclocking options that were there before which makes us think the BIOS isn’t completely finished. At the bottom, we have the backup options for overclocking profiles. Access to them is practical.
The advanced settings options are very standard. Note on the first screenshoot we have the first real implementation of a BIOS update search… within the BIOS itself! We salute ASRock for their efforts on the implementation of this feature and hope that it is rolled out across other manufacturer BIOS' too.
For monitoring, ASrock provides two processor fan connectors, a four-pin and a three-pin which are set in parallel, though each port only accepts fans of its type. On the chassis, three ports are adjustable. Each accepts fans of their type. There aren’t any rotation threshold type settings but the first chassis port has a thermoregulation mode.
The other options are standard. The ASRock implementation isn’t the most ambitious in terms of the interface but it is user-friendly and practical, which is after all the main thing!
Asus provides a dual interface, the EZ Mode and an advanced mode. Before going any further, we’d like to congratulate Asus for choosing to a slightly thicker, more legible font. While not designed to make typography enthusiasts salivate, it is a lot more legible than before! We approve of the change.
EZ Mode offers access to all the essential features, including information on temperature monitoring, voltages and some (but not all – not enough space!) fan speeds. The settings options are however limited as, apart from energy management, you can only change the boot order for peripherals or force startup on a given volume. We like the graphics and appearance of the EZ Mode but it could do with being extended. As things stand its usefulness is limited.
Before moving on to overclocking, note that Asus has reintroduced the pages up/down buttons that were missing previously. Overall the advanced interface is very similar to the ASRock one and this is no bad thing. AI Tweaker handles the overclocking options. Some of the advanced options have been added in sub menus.
All the peripherals settings have been placed in sub menus of the Advanced menu. Asus tends to add more sub menus than are necessary but overall the organisation makes sense.
Asus offers by far the most options when it comes to fan management. While the two CPU ports are linked, the others are independent. All the chassis fans can be adjusted. The only criticism we have is that all the ports are four-pin and none will run a three-pin fan. In the BIOS at least.
For the rest, the Asus implementation is solid and while we did note a few artefacts on the drawing of the mouse at the top of the AI Tweaker menu, the rest of the interface is very good indeed.
Nevertheless, we do have to object to the implementation of the ASUS MultiCore Enhancement option. The concept behind the option is simple. When activated on a ‘K’ processor, the Turbo mode is turned off and the processor moves into fixed multiplier mode. This multiplier is then changed to the Turbo mode value on one core. This represents a mini overclocking that you don’t notice unless you look closely.
The issue we have with this is the fact that this option is activated automatically. On the bios 920 then, you simply need to change the memory clock for the option to come on on its own. The same thing happens when you try to activate an XMP profile. Worse still, in the latest beta BIOS supplied by Asus, and used in our tests, the option is still on by default, even after you reinitialise the BIOS settings. The option isn't, of course, even mentioned in the manual. We’re struggling to see the point of this option that adds nothing except confusion when it comes to settings (it contradicts the Turbo activation or fixed options on the same OC page!), except that it tries to add a few points (not insignificant!) to the benches. You would expect a bit more than this from the market leader. Of course we had the option off for the benches in our tests here.
Gigabyte & MSI BIOS/UEFI
Gigabyte is probably the manufacturer that has introduced the most innovation: it is finally offering a 'graphical' UEFI BIOS. We have covered the broad lines of this interface previously and now aim to look at it in more detail.
Described as a 3D BIOS, the interface displays an image of the motherboard (that can be rotated 90°, which is where the 3D comes from) with certain sections that can be selected. If you don’t do anything, these areas flash as if to invite you to place your cursor on them.
The first good idea, problem and surprise comes when you click on the processor to set the system and a window appears in the middle of the screen. We like the column on the right with the monitoring information but the problem is that some of the information is hidden. The happy surprise is that the window can be moved around, which, note, is a first in a BIOS! Once we got over this however, we were still left wondering why the window hadn’t been better placed. Otherwise, the number of options varies a great deal from one place to another. In the end, while the intentions aren’t bad, the implementation, though a little more extensive than Asus' EZ Mode, is lacking and you'll find yourself resorting to the advanced interface.
As with Asus previously, the font chosen by Gigabyte here is small and fine. Overall, the strong contrast between the background and the font does help, but we would like to see better in the future. The overclocking settings are grouped in the MIT tab as usual but Gigabyte has gone for too many sub-pages. The best example is with the voltages, split into three so as to fit in with the ‘3D' concept. While we can accept some marketing speak, when it has a negative impact on design we’re less inclined to be understanding!
This isn’t the only problem that we noted. Strangely, while clicking on an option brings up a menu, you have to double click to select the value. The double click wasn’t designed for this sort of usage. Another problem is that some options don’t display a menu and when you click on them nothing happens. This is the case with the voltages where you have to use the + and - buttons to move from Auto to Normal and then in the case of Vcore you go from 1.1 to 2.1V by steps of 0.05V. Sure you can also type in the value you want, but there’s nevertheless a clear lack of design forethought here. Another odd thing is that the page up and page down buttons work as + and - buttons, which isn’t very logical or practical.
The other options are standard. Overall Gigabyte has come up with a UEFI BIOS that is okay as a first venture into the domain but it nevertheless has a lot to do to catch up with the competition. Some of the design details would be simple to correct but having a dual 3D BIOS/Advanced mode needs either to be rethought to be of any use and to represent a real alternative or put to one side and be replaced with a more usable advanced interface.
To finish this secton let's move on to MSI, who have also brought out a new version of their BIOS, known as the ClickBIOS II.
Out with the flashing icons and clicks which only work every other time. This new BIOS is usable and once launched the BIOS even looks rather swish. As with all the other manufacturers (except Asus), the choice of font is regrettable. It's small here and in some cases poorly contrasted!
In practice, not everything works perfectly and the rather strange design choices quickly become apparent. For example, you have to double click every time to choose an option, then double click again to validate a menu. We insist on the point that design rules (and the rules of good taste!) dictate that the double click should never be used in this way! A lot of time is lost and it’s no consolation that the mouse scroll is supported! Overall MSI has grouped most options in Settings. Everything is there except overclocking. The middle column is rather narrow and you quickly find yourself wondering if all those big buttons were really necessary on what is a text interface in the middle.
The overclocking menu is also very much compressed, though all the necessary options are there, including the profile backup options. The lack of clear markings means that time is lost searching for the right option though we do like the menu allowing you to customise OC Genie! This allows you to force XMP recognition for example, or ask for more aggressive settings. Some control of automatic features is no bad thing.
The Eco menu is without any practical use – while lots of useful settings are hidden in the Settings sections, certain settings that will never be changed take up an entire tab. Things aren’t much better on the right with ‘Browser’ allowing you to boot on a special USB key (the Winki, which is prepared in Windows). The point of this in this day and age is limited. This is particularly a shame as some of the functions in the Utilities menu (HDD Backup and Live Update) still require the use of the Winki. The whole point of the UEFI is to remove the need to boot an alternative system! Thankfully you can flash the BIOS without the Winki. We’ll finish on the fact that the three buttons in the middle of the interface (Eco mode, Standard mode and OC Genie II) are clickable… though nothing happens when you do click.
While the MSI BIOS is far from perfect, it’s much more usable that it was before. It’s not the best designed BIOS out there and some strange choices have been made, which it has to be said do have their charm, but at the end of the day it works without too much fluff.
Fans, boot time
We have summarised the fan control specs for each of the motherboards. Remember, PWMs are 4-pin fans, while DCs are 3-pin.
Note that while Asus and Gigabyte are both now exclusively using 4-pin conectors, only Gigabyte allows you to control a 3-pin fan on a 4-pin connector. For Asus however, while the BIOS doesn’t allow you to pilot a 3-pin fan, FanXpert 2 does! With the only limitation being that it doesn’t work for the processor fan, which is in fact even more of a problem. ASRock, Gigabyte and MSI provide a form of thermoregulation by the BIOS, which is nice. Note finally that the only power supply port on these cards, on the ASRock motherboard, is not adjustable.
We also took readings for the motherboard start-up times. We measured the time between pressing down the button and the launch of the operating system. These times, which may seem long, represent full initialisation of the mobo. Power was cut before each reading was taken.
We measured two scenarios, the default bios settings and a 'rapid' setting where we turned off all the unused peripherals. Often the most demanding peripherals with respect to boot times (the additional ROMs on start-up for the network and drive controllers) are already turned off by default by most manufacturers.
While ASRock still dominates in this test, the three other manufacturers have made big efforts here, all posting lower boot times than in our previous review, which is good news!
ASRock & Asus software
The manufacturers deliver a certain number of utilities in Windows that allow users to manage their mobos better. We have had a good look at what's on offer.
The ASRock software offer looks a lot like the offer we wrote about here a few months ago, though there has been one small innovation.
XFast LAN, a piece of software for prioritisation of network traffic based on cFos Speed (a paid application), is still included for example.
On the USB side, ASRock supplies another application, XFast USB. XFast USB allows you to accelerate USB transfer speeds by replacing, port by port, the default USB driver. You do have to remove and then reinsert a peripheral into the port the first time you plug the peripheral in but overall it functions simply and efficiently. ASRock also supplies an application which implements the USB Battery Charging spec, which means charging can run on 1.5A instead of the standard 500 mA (required for USB charging for certain pieces of hardware such as iPads and so on)
ATXTU is another somewhat mixed bag application. It groups several monitoring, fan control (the same as what’s on offer in the BIOS) and overclocking options which will require a reboot. There have however been two changes to the previous version. Firstly, the energy economy module, which was included previously, actually works this time! Secondly, ASRock now includes a RAMdisk application, Xfast RAM, which is a good idea!
ASRock still provides the sound utility, THX TruStudio Pro. To recap, this is a piece of software developed by Creative that allows you to apply a certain number of effects, the utility of which every user will be able to decide for themselves (multichannel to stereo conversion, improvement of dialogues, dynamically adjusted volume and so on). It must be activated online.
Let’s finish with the last application, Instant Boot. The concept behind Instant Boost is original to say the least, as it promises an instantaneous Windows boot. In fact, this is more of a trick than anything. When you turn your PC off, it forces Windows to restart completely then shuts down (either in RAM standby or sleep). When you restart your PC it will therefore come back to life on a freshly booted system (more or less). We don’t really see the point of it.
Most of the Asus software offer is grouped under AI Suite. Asus has progressed here, putting everything together and avoiding the need for multiple downloads on its site. Note however that two identical applications, AiCharger and USB Charger+, are included, which is strange. The AI Suite bundle is nevertheless very practical, a plus for Asus.
AI Suite appears as an application launch bar, with the applications launching on top. The problems with slowdowns on start-up that we remarked on previously have disappeared, with AI Suite very responsive on launch.
All the utilities included may be daunting for some and the repetitions aren’t limited to USB 3. There are two monitoring applications, which could be fused into one, as could TurboEvo and DigiVRM+. The excellent FanXpert is now in version 2 with an automatic detection of connected fans. The interface is still very user-friendly and allows you to set your fans in the form of a curve. While the repetitions are unnecessary, overall we're impressed.
The diagnostics tool still comes separately. Note that Asus has removed the Zynga add icon, which used to appear on the previous version, which is good!
Gigabyte & MSI software
Gigabyte continues to supply a good few utilities on its website. Note that some of the installation files on the DVD that came with our mobo had bugs, notably the EasyTune overclocking software. More recent versions of the utilities were in any case available on the Gigabyte website.
The big innovation comes with an application called 3D Power. It comes in the form of a 3D cube that allows you to regulate certain power supply details. As with the BIOS, splitting these options into three has simply been done to serve the 3D marketing speak. What’s more, when you launch this 'cube’ on an IGP, the graphics chips struggle to display it properly. Superfluous!
The far more useful network prioritisation software, LanOptimizer, is still there. In contrast to what we thought however, it isn't a rebadged Realtek tool, but an in-house Gigabyte utility. It will only function here with the Atheros controller. To recap, LanOptimizer allows you to determine the priority of the software accessing the network, and even the traffic in real time, blocking it if you so wish.
Let’s finish on the @BIOS and EasyTune software. The first allows you to update yor BIOS via the Internet by going to check automatically to see if a new BIOS is available. The utility doesn’t really show clearly if a new version is available or not. In our test, it suggested we flash the current version of the BIOS over the top of itself.
The last point is with respect to EasyTune 6, an overclocking application with presets. Gigabyte has had the clever idea of adding an overclocking search feature, similar to MSI’s OC Genie in as much as it runs in Windows.
The MSI software offer is still relatively limited.
The USB battery charging software doesn’t pose any particular problems.
The same can’t be said for ControlCenter, which did once again present some new problems. Firstly on load, this control panel now blocks the mouse, which struggles to reply for a few seconds. We also noted some new bugs, such as the wrong memory clock being reported! The SPD clock of the memory bars is given and not that chosen in the BIOS.
The problem on start-up concerns ClickBIOS II, the BIOS setting software in Windows. Its implementation is to say the least chaotic as validating a setting blocks the system for a few long seconds and then asks us to restart the machine. You may as well use the BIOS.
The Live Update 5 utility seemed a bit more cooperative this time in terms of the drivers, which did seem to recognize the mobo family correctly. As our test drivers were more recent than those available on the MSI site, we weren’t able to confirm this fully. As with the ASRock, here you get THX TruStudio with the mobo.
Note, to finish, that on installation of this software, MSI offers not only to sign you up to the newsletter but also to install its branded wallpaper! This option is however unticked by default.
With the integration of the memory controller onto the processor and the disappearance of the northbridge, the performance difference between motherboards has now become almost inexistent (under normal circumstances). We did nevertheless want to check to see if performance levels were what we expected on all our test models.
PC Mark Vantage
We ran PC Mark Vantage first of all, using two tests, ‘Suite’ which uses extracts of different scenarios in the application and ‘Productivity’.
The performance of the various mobos is very similar.
Next we used 7-Zip in which we carried out a file compression in LZMA2 mode. We used a Vertex 3 Max IOPS SSD connected to a 6 Gb/s port on the Z77 to carry out the test on all the motherboards. We measured compression times in seconds with a shorter time therefore being best.
Once again the performance levels of the different mobos were all extremely close. All as expected then!
SATA / eSATA performance
SATA / eSATA performance
All the motherboards in this roundup have one or several additional controllers, as well as the drive controller in the chipset, to add additional Serial ATA 6 ports or manage an eSATA port on the back panel.
Serial ATA 6 Gb/s controllers
We measured the performance of the Intel chipset (in 6 and 3 Gb mode) as well as the performance of the various additional controllers. While Gigabyte is still using Marvell controllers, the other manufacturers have moved over to ASMedia. Let’s see what this gives in practice. We used CrystalDiskMark to measure the sequential and random speeds of a Vertex 3 Max IOPS:
[ Sequential ] [ Random ]
Although the SATA 6 Z77 ports are without a doubt the fastest ones, the ASmedia controllers do much better than the Marvells, particularly for sequential writes. The differences in favour of the new arrival are even more marked for random accesses performance, which probably explains why so many manufacturers are opting for ASmedia components.
Only two of the mobos include an eSATA port on the back panel, the Gigabyte and the ASRock, both using their respective additional controllers. Remember Asus supplies a bracket that can be used where you wish to place it.
It’s no surprise to see that performance levels here are identical to those obtained previously.
USB 2.0 / USB 3.0 performance
USB 2.0 performance
We measured USB 2.0 performance in CrystalDiskMark with an SSD connected via USB. We also used the ASRock Xfast USB utility which allows you to increase performance via an alternative driver. The Asus application, which is equivalent for USB 3.0, doesn’t offer this feature for USB 2.0. We measured the sequential speeds:
Performance of the different cards is very similar. Xfast USB gives a little boost but doesn’t perform any miracles for this interface which is now comparatively slow.
USB 3.0: Sequential reads
Next we measured USB 3.0 sequential speeds using our test SSD connected via USB with the 3.0 standard. In addition to Xfast, the Asus application was also tested.
The first thing to note is that the VIA hub included on the Gigabyte mobo doesn’t seem to have any impact when only one port is used, which is positive. The four mobos all perform at the same level with the Z77 Turbo mode off, which is logical. Performances in Turbo mode are similar between Asus and ASRock, with a very slight advantage for the Asus application.
Above all, it’s interesting to look at the relative performance of the ASMedia and EtronTech controllers. First of all while the ASMedia controllers continue to give a good level of performance here, the latest EtronTech drivers have significantly improved write performance. Note that Turbo mode allows EtronTech to post extremely fast write performance, while ASMedia stagnates slightly.
USB 3.0: IOmeter
So as to fully test the capacities of the USB 3.0 controllers, we used two SSDs to measure read and write speeds.
There are several things to note here! First of all, when using two ports, the Gigabyte board is significantly limited during simultaneous performance. We tried several configurations on the four ports at the back of the motherboard, but as we thought, the four ports are indeed plugged into the same hub, which is particularly disappointing.
Other than this, write performance is particularly high overall on the Z77. Note that the ASMedia is trailing some way behind in writes and that Turbo mode is counterproductive, with the driver probably optimised for simple accesses. The EtronTech does better here, even if Z77 performance is in any case better in general. Intel’s USB 3.0 implementation is looking good, though given how long it has taken, we wouldn’t have expected anything less!
Network performance, audio
We measured network controller performance using the Microsoft application, NTttcp. We took readings of maximum speeds as well as processor usage. ASRock is alone in using a Broadcom controller, with an Intel being used on the other models. Gigabyte also provides a second Atheros controller. Is there any point in this?
[ Speeds ] [ CPU occupation ]
We have a new winner! Unsurprisingly, the Intel controllers all perform at the same level on the different mobos and while the Broadcom trails them, the Atheros is the new leader with the best speeds. This does come at a cost however, with CPU occupation doubled.
We used RightMark Audio Analyzer to measure analogue audio quality (the signal is identical in digital via the S/PDIF out). We used the loopback mode which uses both the analogue line-in and line-out on the motherboard. Two different models of Realtek audio controller are used on our mobos, the ALC 892 et 898. Which is best?
[ 16 bit/44.1 kHz ] [ 24 bit/192 kHz ]
While the ALC 892 stands out in some areas it trails when it comes to the signal/noise ratio and has a lower dynamic range. Though these areas are relatively important, Rightmark still scores it top. The ALC898 does better when we look at the 24-bit results, where the differences are more marked.
The three ALC898 mobos post very similar scores, with a slight advantage to the Gigabyte for dynamic range.
Although the Asus mobo is less rich on the analogue side than the competition, Asus does provide DTS Connect, which enables real time DTS encoding of stereo and (above all) multichannel streams like games for those who use the S/PDIF out. This is something that will delight those who use a home cinema amp with their PC.
To recap, here's what you get with the different software bundles on the four motherboards:
- ASRock Z77 Extreme6: THX TruStudio Pro (DSP effects)
- Asus P8Z77-V Pro: DTS Connect (DTS encoding)
- Gigabyte GA-Z77X-UDH5: X-Fi Xtreme Fidelity (emulation of Creative EAX 5.0 effects)
- MSI Z77A-GD65: THX TruStudio Pro (DSP effects)
Everyone will find something in one or another of these technologies, with for example certain games able to make use of EAX 5.0 effects though DirectSound/XACT is now becoming increasingly dominant.
The Z77 platform enables Sandy Bridge overclocking with the same restrictions as previous chipsets. To recap, the processor clock used for the processor is also used for the different buses. Changing the BCLK quickly makes the system unstable and it’s preferable to use the multiplier to overclock with, something that is only fully authorised with the K versions of these processors. We replaced the uncooperative 2600K with the 2700K for our overclocking tests and used a Noctua NH-C12P SE14 cooling system.
Before beginning our manual tests, we wanted to take a look at the automated solutions supplied by the mobo manufacturers. Various automatic overclocking options are on offer, whether in the BIOS or using a specific application (sometimes both!).
Note also two important points with respect to Sandy Bridge overclocking. First on the multiplier, there are two possible strategies. Turbo mode on these processors varies the multiplier with respect to load: the individual Turbo values (1, 2, 3 or 4 cores in load) can be changed or you can change the multiplier in global terms (the same multiplier on all four Turbo settings).
We checked the overclockings in Prime95. We were able to get higher clocks, which were apparently stable in Windows but couldn't be maintained.
Unlike with its Z68 boards which had two almost redundant options, ASRock didn’t provide an automatic overclocking option in its BIOS, no doubt because of the fact that its BIOS’ are relatively recent and is something to be checked with the arrival of new ones. ASRock doesn’t supply an automatic overclocking software solution.
Asus has an OC Tuner option in its BIOS. This restarts the motherboard, which then tries to find optimum settings. Our board gave us a clock of 4.429 MHz at a BCLK of 103 MHz and a multiplier of 43. The CPU voltage increased automatically to a value that couldn’t be viewed in the BIOS. In load, CPU-Z showed a voltage of 1.280V and a VID of 1.336. Experience (see next page) tells us that this is similar to a voltage of 1.29 entered in the BIOS manually.
The memory was clocked at 1922 MHz and the IGP was also overclocked, with a voltage increase of 200 mV and its clock going up to 1450 MHz.
There’s no automatic option in the Gigabyte BIOS, but the EasyTune 6 utility in Windows does have an auto mode.
As well as the predefined profiles, Gigabyte also offers an "Auto Tuning" mode which is supposed to search for the optimum processor settings. We obtained a clock of 4.443 GHz with a bus clock of 103.3 MHz and a 43x multiplier. Our 2133 MHz XMP was clocked at 1928 MHz. The processor voltage went up to 1.351, giving us a modest overclocking as is often the case with automatic solutions.
MSI provides an overclocking switch, OC Genie, on the motherboard itself. This activates an automatic overclocking search which restarts the mobo to find optimum settings.
The default voltage was then increased to 1.35V with a multiplier of 42 (giving us 4.2 GHz). Unlike on the Z68, our XMP profile was automatically applied by OC Genie. Note that MSI allows you to configure OC Genie in the BIOS, which is a very good move.
Now let’s move on to manual overclocking!
We attempted to check the overclocking capacities of all the boards, trying to obtain the highest possible clock for different voltages.
The notion of voltage varies a great deal from one motherboard to another, with each manufacturer manipulating the effective voltage (that measured with the sensor) according to the voltage requested (the VID sent to the processor). In its VRM 12/12.5 spec, in load Intel provides for a lowering of the voltage supplied as demand increases (the Vdroop concept). The effective voltage in load is then lower.
For some time manufacturers have been able to manipulate Vdroop in the BIOS using something known as 'LoadLine Calibration’. This option, which can sometimes be regulated, allows you to mitigate natural ‘loss’ of voltage in load, which can give the impression that the overclocking for a given VID is easier. In practice however this actually only consists of a manipulation of the final voltage, but the algorithm used by each manufacturer varies significantly and this can result in marked differences. Unless otherwise stipulated, we set the option at 50% on all the motherboards. We also activated Internal PLL Overvolting on all the boards. In practice the option didn’t allow us to stabilise further increases in clock.
In spite of the differences in the internal management of voltages for each board, we tried to look at the attainable clocks (we overclocked our 2700K using the multiplier, with a ratio of 47 below consisting of 4.7 GHz effective) by increasing voltage in 0.05V steps. Each mobo must be considered independently and can’t be compared lane by lane. In each case we give:
- The voltage requested in the BIOS
- The voltage read in load on the sensor
- The VID reading in load
- Maximum ratio reached (multiply by 100 to obtain the clock, 47 = 4.7 GHz)
- The energy consumption at the platform socket
We checked clock stability of each time in Prime95. We managed higher clocks in Windows that weren’t completely stable. Before starting, we wish to thank Martin Malik (author of the excellent hwinfo software) for his help on the subject of voltages.
No point pretending otherwise, the ASRock motherboard was the most complicated to overclock!
In spite of level 3 of LLC, the difference between the voltage requested and that obtained is high. In spite of everything, it was impossible to get up to 5 GHz at a requested voltage of 1.5V (which corresponds to more than 1.4 in load). By increasing voltage compensation (LLC2) we stabilised the processor at 5 GHz, but at the price of a very high real voltage and ridiculous power consumption. As with the missing automatic overclocking, ASRock doesn’t seem to have finished its BIOS with respect to overclocking.
The Asus mobo did better than the ASRock board, though it was slightly recalcitrant at the end.
It was hard to stabilise it at 5 GHz in spite of the fact that the voltage taken by the sensor was higher than that requested in the BIOS (though lower than the VID), with energy consumption remaining very respectable for 5 GHz however.
In spite of the scattered menus, it was simple enough to overclock the Gigabyte motherboard.
Note that we weren’t able to take a voltage reading on the sensor, which stayed blocked at 1.056. This voltage is reported using an additional chip that wasn’t yet correctly supported by the standard tools. Strangely we weren’t able to get a stable 4.9 GHz at 1.4V and had to go up to 1.425 to attain this clock and 5 GHz.
Along with the Gigabyte board, the MSI mobo was one of the simplest to overclock.
The increases in voltage are very gradual and energy consumption remains at reasonable levels.
Unsurprisingly, having 8, 10 or 12 phases on a board doesn’t make much of a difference. We managed to stabilise the processor at 5 GHz on all the motherboards tested.
Only the ASRock motherboard stands out for its less than optimum voltage, as we can see on the graph above.
Energy consumption, temperature
Energy consumptionWe measured the energy consumption of the different motherboards. Each board was tested with a Core i7 2700K processor, which was also used for the graphics part. We used four memory bars on the system, clocked at 2133 MHz. A single hard drive was plugged into the machine and we used the IGP for the graphics part. These figures aren’t comparable to those on the previous page as the configurations (number of memory bars, memory clock, BIOS settings) differ significantly.
We measured the total energy consumption of the platform at idle, in processor load (Prime 95) and in processor +graphics card load (Prime 95 + Furmark).
Note that some motherboards offer energy economy modes which sometimes lower certain voltages. We have added them to our comparative below. We have however only added modes which don’t change performance.
Generally speaking, all our mobos have similar levels of energy consumption. The ASRock consumes slightly more than the others (this is the mobo with the most additional chips) but its energy economy mode is the most effective. Asus’ EPU however wasn’t very efficient, which may be down to a problem in the BIOS. In absolute terms, the differences were very slight.
To finish up, we tried to measure the temperatures of the mobo power supply circuits. We placed the boards in a Lian Li PC-P50 R casing and measured the temperature at the back of the VRM circuits with an infrared thermometer by cutting through the plate that supports the motherboard. Two fans were plugged into the casing, one low down at the front in front of the hard drive running at 600 RPM and the second running at 1100 RPM as an extractor at the back.
Not all the boards have however been designed in the same way. The manufactuers place certain chips at the back of the board in varying quantities and places. Asus uses a plate over the top, which makes taking the readings a little more complex. Here’s what the back of our boards look like in the casing.
[ ASRock ] [ Asus ] [ Gigabyte ] [ MSI ]
We chose to take a reading in three places:
- A hot point on the right hand side of the VRM
- A hot point at the top of the VRM
- A hot point between the socket and the right side of the VRM
We measured these temperatures after ten minutes in load in Prime 95 in two configurations, by default (with an XMP profile) and with our processor overclocked to 4.8 GHz.
[ 3.5 GHz ] [ 4.8 GHz ]
The higher part of the VRM is generally the least hot. At 3.5 GHz, it's even a lot less hot on the Asus and Gigabyte boards. For the readings taken on the right and between the VRM and socket, the Gigabyte mobo is the least hot, followed by the Asus. ASRock and MSI bring up the rear but the differences are small.
At 4.8 GHz the gaps between the boards are bigger. While the point at the top of the Asus VRM remains very cool comparatively, the right hand side and the part between the right and the socket of the Gigabyte VRM is very slightly cooler. The MSI mobo is also well placed, while the ASRock, which consumes significantly more power to maintain an overclocking of 4.8 GHz, brings up the rear.
Before going any further, we should say that in practice, the differences between the Z77 and the previous P67/Z68 generation are slim. For those who already have such a platform, changing it won't make more than a very modest difference, even if they want to change the processor for an Ivy Bridge in the future. Once the BIOS on P67/Z68 platforms has been updated, they will be able to enjoy most of the innovations introduced on the Intel Ivy Bridge processors, with the exception, depending on the mobo, of PCI Express 3.0 (compatible models exist, even if you have to be somewhat wary about manufacturer claims).
We tend to think that the perfect motherboard doesn’t exist and it’s certainly clear that none of the four mobos in our selection are.
The ASRock model, for example, proved to have some overclocking issues and while this isn’t necessarily a problem for everyone, it’s rare to see such difficulties on a board at this price. It will be interesting to see if ASRock manage to come up with a solution in a future BIOS. Otherwise, the ASRock board offers a practical and functional BIOS and also has the most additional controllers, thanks to the addition of a PLX bridge. It is also the cheapest board in this review, along with the MSI (from around €180).
The Gigabyte model is the most expensive, starting at €190. While it does well in terms of energy consumption, overclocking and heat management, the BIOS and the software suite could be improved. It does however have the fastest Gigabit Ethernet controller. While the Marvell controller for the SATA gives more modest performance than the ASMedia, it’s the choice of using the VIA hubs that really spoils things for us. Gigabyte might as well have confined themselves to those offered by the chipset rather than trying to multiply them artificially by offering four ports on the back panel. The cumulative performance will suffer as the four ports are connected to the same hub on a single physical chipset port. On a board sold at this price, this is a bit of a shame. It does however stand out for its analogue audio quality. The inclusion of the EAX 5.0 emulation software may also be a factor for some users.
Moving on to the Asus board, while we could have done without the hidden automatic overclocking option, it has to be said that several of the negatives noted on the Asus range in our previous review have been corrected. The font used in the BIOS is now more legible and the JMicron controller is no longer used for the Serial ATA. The board does however have lots more external controllers and in the absence of a PCI Express switch to reduce the chipset lanes, there are some limitations stopping the use of ports in parallel. We could perhaps therefore have done without the ASMedia USB 3.0 controllers. The software suite on the Asus board stands out and while the audio chip is relatively modest when it comes to analogue distortion, the inclusion of DTS Connect will make this board an obvious choice for anyone who wants to use their PC with a home cinema amp or speaker kit with S/PDIF ins. When you throw in a well-finished software suite and a wi-fi module, you have to say that at €190 this mobo represents a pretty good deal. The only thing that might put users off is the fact that there’s no support for a three-pin processor fan, either in the BIOS or via Fan Xpert. These fans are starting to disappear from the market, but it's a good idea to check before you buy that the one used on your CPU radiator does indeed have a four-pin connector!
To conclude, the MSI motherboard is the most surprising of the lot. It doesn’t have lots of additional controllers. Far from it. MSI has come up with a pragmatic solution by avoiding alternative USB 3.0 controllers, which in any case give lower performance than those on offer from Intel. For the rest, the choice of components is good, whether for audio, the network or Serial ATA. The board even gives good overclocking performance, with the lowest energy consumption of the four solutions tested. Of course, there are also some faults, starting with the relatively useless software suite and a BIOS with a perfectible design. For anyone who won’t be spending their life tinkering with it and, at a starting price of €180, the MSI board has a rational approach that will interest some and marks it out from the competition.
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