Roundup: entry level Z77 Express motherboards from AsRock, Asus, Gigabyte and MSI - BeHardware
Written by Guillaume Louel
Published on July 5, 2012
After giving you a review of the mid/high end in a previous article, we wanted to look a little further down the manufacturers’ ranges at some of the less expensive models.
These cheaper boards do nevertheless have many features in common with those further up the ranges. From the BIOS to the design, the similarities are often very strong. On the other hand there are also often very significant differences, whose importance varies according to what users want their mobo for.
We’ve chosen one entry level ATX format model (or almost!) from each of the four main manufactuers, all with similar features and limitations ie. the handling of the PCI Express lanes in the processors.
To recap, Intel Sandy Bridge and Ivy Bridge processors have a 16-lane PCI Express controller that can be used in several ways. With Sandy Bridge, these sixteen lanes can be divided into two, which means a motherboard can have two PCI Express ports cabled in x8 mode. Via the use of switches, motherboards then allow you to choose the mode – x16/x0 when you’re using just one graphics card or x8/x8 if you're using two. Ivy Bridge allows you to partition these lanes into three and also introduces PCI Express 3.0. This means that there can be up to three slots connected to the processor running in any of the following modes: x16/x0/x0, x8/x8 ou x8/x4/x4.
Things are simpler on our entry level range: the sixteen processor lanes can be linked to just a single x16 port. This doesn’t mean that there isn’t another physical x16 port on these boards, as we’ll soon see. It’s just that these ports will be connected to the chipset, often in x4 mode, or sometimes x1. This means that Nvidia’s multi GPU (SLI) won’t be supported on these boards, though Crossfire will be as it can function on asymmetric configurations, even if this isn’t recommended.
Multi GPU setups don’t however concern most PC users. Other limitations do exist on these motherboards and are sometimes hard to quantify. The simplest of them concerns the disappearance of numerous additional chips. When it comes to serial ATA controllers, firewire and additional USB 3.0s, the entry level boards are very often simplified to a maximum and you’re limited to the features afforded by the Intel chipset.
The most complex limitation concerns the power supply systems and this is something we’re now going to take a closer look at.
Power supply circuits, phases
For the last few years motherboard manufacturers have been announcing boards with ever-increasing numbers of phases. We wanted to go over what these stats mean. First of all, a reminder of their role: a PC power supply supplies a direct current (DC) of 12 volts to the motherboard by means of the 24-pin connector and an additional connector often called a P4/P8.
The problem is that our processors don’t run at 12 volts. The voltage you can observe with a tool such as CPU-Z is lower and, moreover, tends to vary according to processor load!
By default, CPU-Z shows the voltage read using a sensor. By adding the line Sensor=0 to the file cpuz.ini, you can also see what's called the VID, namely the voltage requested.
A voltage regulation circuit is therefore used to make the conversion. This circuit uses a PWM controller. As we saw in our report on PWM fans, the concept behind the PWM controller is to send a discrete periodic signal, an output voltage that will determine whether or not the circuit behind it is switched on or not.
When used with a fan, the PWM controller serves to regulate the rotation speed of the blades by controlling the period during which the fan is supplied with power. The PWM signal serves as a sort of programmable periodic switch.
On a motherboard, a PWM controller works in a similar way, except that here it controls several channels, turning several circuits on and off simultaneously in an intelligent way. These circuits are called…
Without going into too much detail, a phase is a voltage regulation system (12V in, different voltage out) made up of a controller (1), transistors (2), a choke coil (3) and capacitors (4). Above and beyond the concept, which is standard electronics, it's the components themselves that have evolved.
For example, here’s a system on a slightly older motherboard (socket 1156 era). The photo highlights several points which lie behind some of the marketing communication from motherboard manufacturers.
The most commonplace concerns the capacitors. For some time now, the cheaper traditional electrolytic capacitors have been replaced with a new gen capacitor, the so-called 'solids'. The main advantage of solids is that they last longer at higher temperatures. Manufacturers talk about ‘solid caps’ in their marketing communication. Some manufacturers also tell you where they've been made, with Gigabyte for example telling us that its capacitors are made in Japan. You may remember that a few years ago some manufacturers had problems with lower quality capacitors that were subject to leakage.
Another difference is that the type of transistor used has changed. On the older designs, basic field-effect transistors (MOSFETs) were used. Manufacturers are now going for the better quality ‘Low Rds (on)’ MOSFETs. Rds(on) literally indicates resistance (R, the loss) between the drain and the source (ds) when the transistor allows the current to flow (on). Having a lower resistance allows you to apply a lower voltage. Note that on some very high-end mobos, the controller (which is the same in both our photos) may also include both transistors on the same package. Then there's a single chip in place of the controller and the two transistors for each phase. This simplifies design and energy efficiency is generally higher (as is the price!). This doesn’t however concern the motherboards in this review.
Example of a single package design from Asus
The last notable difference comes with the choke coil and the introduction of models with ferrite cores that can be recognized by the fact that they are closed and the copper coil is no longer visible. Manufacturers stress that these closed chokes reduce electromagnetic interference.
If one phase is capable of transforming 12V into a lower voltage, one legitimately ask why multiple phases are needed.
This is where the PWM controller comes in. We said that the PWM controller controls the individual phases but we didn’t say how this works.
The idea of the PWM controller is that it turns on each of the phases in turn. Only one is turned on at any one time, then the next and the next, a bit like an electric Christmas decoration garland. The controller receives the voltage to be applied from the system (VID) and the processor communicates the voltage it receives in real time. From this information, the controller determines:
- The number of phases to be turned on one after the other
- The time each should be on
Thus a system at idle can function on a single phase and when more power is needed, several phases can be used. This still doesn’t give us an answer to the most important question of why however.
Example of a system using two channels to turn two phases on one after the next.
As with any electronic circuit, the yield of a phase isn't constant: it varies according to the power required and its temperature. By setting more phases to work to give the same amount of power, you limit the load on each phase and theoretically obtain a gain in energy consumption and a reduction in the number of Watts that need to be dissipated because of the improved yield. Of course to obtain this gain you need to fall within the optimal usage range of the phases. On the other hand, using more phases than necessary can also create a surplus in energy consumption and most motherboard energy economy modes reduce the number of phases used when this makes sense in terms of limiting energy consumption.
This graph has been taken from an International Rectifier whitepaper and shows the yield of multiple phase systems against amperage, clearly illustrating the issue: a system equipped with fewer phases will be more efficient at low current but will lose in efficiency as current increases.
The other advantage which comes from this is that by spreading the load between multiple phases, the phases heat up less individually and remain within their optimal usage range (if the PWM controller is working properly).
The last advantage is that by increasing the number of phases, you limit the voltage ripple on the voltage supplied to the processor, which is then smoother.
Overshoot levels, taken from Intel’s VRM 11.1 specification
Of course these questions are taken into account by processor manufacturers who impose well-defined levels. Intel’s VRM 11.1 specification (PDF) authorises fluctuations of 10 mV for the ‘waves’ that can be seen on the final voltage, but also all the fine tuning linked to this type of system (overshoot, when the voltage supplied initially is a little too high and so on…). In normal usage, the number of phases used will have a modest impact. During overclocking however, using more phases can make a difference – this is something we’ll quantify later.
Let’s finish by looking at how motherboard manufacturers tend to present the number of phases on their cards, using notation such as "4+2+1". These figures indicate the phases dedicated to the processor only, but to recap, a processor uses several voltages at the same time. With the Intel LGA 1155 processors that we’re looking at today, there are three different ones:
- VCC: CPU cores and LLC cache
- VCCSA: Memory controller, DMI, PCI-E and display unit
- VAXG: Graphics core
Thus, 4+2+1 shows that the Vcore (the main processor voltage) runs on four phases, the System Agent (previously the Northbridge) on two and the iGPU on just one. Unfortunately not all the manufacturers give the 3 figures and may only announce 4+2 for example. This begs the question of whether we’re at 3+1+1 (with VCC and VCCSA), 4+1+1 (with VCCSA and VAXG) or 4+2+1 (VAXG left out)?
Finally, if you look carefully at our photos you'll see that there are power supply circuits in other parts of the motherboard. There is always a circuit beside the memory (often two phase), beside the chipset and also beside certain other components (additional controllers for example), all of which function at different voltages. While these phases are necessary for these different components to run, there’s not really any point in increasing them in number as, for example, you rarely overclock your built-in audio controller!
Now let’s move on to the boards!
Review: ASRock Z77 Pro4
ASRock Z77 Pro4
There are ten models in the ASRock Z77 range.
Click to enlarge
Today we’re testing the Pro4, a ‘short’ ATX model that has been designed to be as compact as possible. It measures just 20cm wide (against 24.5 for a traditional ATX model).
A direct consequence of this is that in place of the standard nine fixture holes, there are only six here with none on the right side of the board. Take care not to press too hard then, when attaching the power supply connector or the memory.
For the processor’s power supply, ASRock uses a system given as 4+2 in the manual and is in practice 4+1+1. ASRock has gone for solid capacitors and a mixture of standard and ferrite chokes. Low Rds (on) transistors are used for four of the phases.
Because of the board’s narrowness, ASRock has put the VRM processors on the top of the board with a radiator underneath. We’ll see later if this design choice has an impact on temperatures.
The board is relatively modest in terms of PCI Express, with a x16 port connected to the processor and a second port at x4 for the chipset. There are also three PCI ports with a single PCI Express x1 port above the main graphics port. It can be used simultaneously with the x4 port.
This is of course an entry level board and there aren’t many additional controllers. ASRock has all the same added two Serial ATA 6 Gb/s ports via an Asmedia 1061, which might come in useful. On the audio side we have a Realtek ALC892 controller while the network runs off a Realtek too, the RTL8111E.
As well as a PS/2 port this board provides six USB 2.0 ports as well as two USB 3.0 ports (that run off the Intel chipset).
In terms of video outs we have DVI, VGA and HDMI but not the DisplayPort, which is reserved for models further up the range. For sound note the inclusion of an S/PDIF optical port (as we’ll see later this is by no means automatic on low-end models) as well as five assignable jacks.
ASRock has provided headers to connect four additional USB 2.0 ports as well as two USB 3.0 ports.
There’s also an RS-232 series port as well as two infrared headers.
The bundle is very succinct here, with just two Serial-ATA cables and two manuals!
Like the previous ASrock manuals, although the main manual is thick this is simply because all languages are included. The information itself is relatively brief. The second manual covers the BIOS.
Review: Asus P8Z77-V LX
Asus P8Z77-V LX
The Asus Z77 range is very extensive and includes three micro ATX models and a mini ITX!
Click to enlarge
Here we looked at the P8Z77-V LX. Like the ASRock board, the Asus one is also a short ATX type, and measures just 21.5 cm in width.
This board looks less crowded, particularly the power stages, which is definitely a good thing.
Low Rds(on) transistors have been used for the power stages (there are standard MOSFETs for the RAM) and it also has solid capacitors and ferrite chokes. Pretty good for an entry level model! Of course there aren’t many phases with Asus going for a 4+1+1 system here.
There are two x16 physical PCI Express ports but only the first is connected to the processor. The second is at x4 and connected to the chipset. There are two x1 ports, which surround the main graphics port, and three PCI ports. There aren’t any additional controllers beyond the obligatory chips: the Realtek RTL8111E for the network and the ALC887 for sound.
The I/O panel is sparse. Apart from a PS/2, there are simply four USB 2.0 ports and two USB 3.0 ports.
For video, we have DVI, VGA and HDMI and for sound, while there is an S/PDIF optical out, there are only three assignable jacks.
You can add up to six USB 2.0 ports, two USB 3.0 ports and a series RS/232 port.
Note also, the inclusion of a MemOK switch which allows you to force a wrong memory detection resolution mode and a switch to turn GPU overclocking (GPU Boost) on. This can also be turned on in the BIOS.
The bundle is also rather spare with just a manual and two Serial ATA cables.
The manual is well set out.
Review: Gigabyte GA-Z77-D3H
Gigabyte offers an extensive range with no fewer than ten models, including three micro ATX models.
Click to enlarge
From Gigabyte we decided to test the GA-Z77-D3H. In contrast to the motherboards from ASRock and Asus, this one is in a full size ATX format and will therefore fix on correctly using nine screws.
Visually the components on the board look to be better spaced, though the mSATA in the middle stands out!
For the power supply system, Gigabyte has put in a good shift equipping the board with high quality transistors, capacitors and chokes. There’s a radiator covering the transistors on the left of the board (processor power supply). It’s a 4+2+1 type here (one more phase for the northbridge than the other motherboards tested here). Note that Gigabyte has added a P4 (four pin) type ATX 12V connector. Using a P8 is optional and somewhat superfluous on this socket.
Gigabyte has included two x16 physical PCI Express connectors. Only one is connected to the processor, the other to the chipset in x4 mode. There are three x1 ports. Using the x4 port will deactivate the third x1 port. To complete the total, there are also three PCI ports. Gigabyte has included an additional EtronTech EJA68A controller to give us two extra USB 3.0 ports. Not having this controller wouldn’t have been too much of an issue! When it comes to the standard chips, Gigabyte has gone its own way. Out with Realtek for the network and in with an Atheros chip. For sound it’s the VIA VT2021. These are intriguing choices that we’re looking forward to checking out in practice!
The I/O panel on the Gigabyte board is relatively rich with a PS/2 port as well as four USB 2.0s and four USB 3.0s. Two of these are linked to the chipset (on the left) and two to the EtronTech.
For the video connectivity, once again there’s no DisplayPort, but DVI, VGA and HDMI are included. There’s an S/PDIF optical port for the audio as well as five assignable jacks.
When it comes to headers, the board has the wherewithal to add six USB 2.0 ports, two USB 3.0 (Intel chipset), as well as an RS/232 series port. There’s also a header for the TPM module.
What is most original about this Gigabyte board is the inclusion of an mSATA connector which is plugged into the last of the chipset's SATA 3 Gb/s ports. Note also that there are two BIOS’ (a main one and a backup). There’s no switch however to go from one to the other - the backup only kicks in when there’s a problem and you can’t update it.
The Gigabyte bundle almost seems luxurious with four Serial ATA cables (2 for the competition).
The manual is excellent, as with other Gigabyte boards.It's nicely adapted for newbies and yet sufficiently detailed and practical for more experienced users looking for information. We congratulate Gigabyte on this point.
Review: MSI Z77A-G43
MSI’s Z77 range isn’t as extensive as the competition.
Click to enlarge
The Z77A-G43 is the entry level MSI board and is given as a 4+1 phases type. This is however ambiguous as it is in fact a 3+1+1 system! Given that the first figure is always supposed to apply to the Vcore alone, MSI’s notation is quite simply misleading. Such practices should be reviewed.
Like the Gigabyte model, the MSI is also a full size ATX model.
The MSI power supply system components are of very good quality and even include the use of rectangular ‘Super Ferrite’ chokes that are announced as more effective. This is something we'll check in the energy consumption/temperature section. Two radiators cover the transistors.
MSI includes two x16 physical PCI Express connectors, the first connected to the processor and the second to the chipset in x4 mode. There are two x1 ports and three standard PCI ports. There are no additional chips. The network runs on the Realtek RTL8111E and the sound on the Realtek ALC892.
The Z77A-G43’s I/O panel is relatively well furnished, with six USB 2.0 and two USB 3.0 ports as well as the PS/2.
For the video connectivity, once again there’s no DisplayPort , but DVI, VGA and HDMI are included. There are six assignable jacks for the audio but there's no optical S/PDIF.
With respect to headers this motherboard has the wherewithal to add four USB 2.0 and two USB 3.0 ports.
In addition to the RS/232 port, MSI has gone for a parallel port with an LGT1 header that will remind some of you of ancient times. There’s also a TPM connector.
The bundle is also rather spare with just a manual, a rapid start-up guide and two Serial ATA cables.
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 the BIOS’!
ASRock & Asus BIOS'/UEFIs
Moving over to the Sandy Bridge platform has lead to the introduction of the UEFI BIOS on the Intel side. 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 on the GUID one. 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.
It’s no surprise to see that the BIOS’ are basically the same within the same range. We have therefore concentrated on the changes that we have noticed since our last test.
The ASRock BIOS implementation is solid. Generally speaking the legibility of the menus is good though the font is still too small for our taste. The contrast with the screen background does however mean that it’s legible. The design is good, with functional page up/down buttons and pressing up 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 slect it.
The main tab is informative as usual, 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's plugged into which port. We like this.
All the overclocking options have been grouped into the OC Tweaker panel. As with the higher end model we tested however, you can’t see the automatic overclocking options with Sandy Bridge processors. Also, you can only specify the processor voltage using an offset, ie by adding or subtracting a value from the base voltage. There’s still enough room for manoeuvre however because you can increase it by +0.6V, which is plenty to exceed safety margins! At the bottom, we have the backup options for overclocking profiles. This is practical.
The advanced settings options are very standard. ASRock does however also offer the option of searching for a BIOS update from the BIOS. Note that with the original BIOS supplied with our motherboard, while it did detect that a new BIOS was available, it didn’t allow us to flash it. This seems to have been corrected according to the ASRock release notes.
ASRock provides two connectors for the processor, one 4-pin and one 3-pin. They're regulated simultaneously and each port only accepts fans of its type. On the chassis, two ports are adjustable. They each only accept fans of their type. There aren’t any rotation threshold type settings and thermoregulation isn’t included on this model.
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. We like it.
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, it isn’t of much use and you’ll doubtless turn it off pretty rapidly!
All the overclocking is set in AI Tweaker. Some of the advanced options have been added in sub menus. You can set the Vcore either directly or using an offset. There are no limitations here which is a good thing! On the downside, the Asus Multicore Enhancement option, which is on by default, is still included. To recap, this option automatically overclocks the ‘K’ processors by setting the processor ratio at the maximum of the authorised turbo ratios. On our 2700K, the processor was thus overclocked to 3.9 GHz by default. In contrast to what we were told by Asus, who insisted that they had added this option because one of their competitors was doing the same thing, we haven’t found the same option on by default in any other BIOS.
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 lots of options when it comes to fan management. The processor connector and the two chassis connectors can be adjusted, but the power supply port can't (3-pin). There’s a minimum threshold setting and the Asus implementation means that these 4-pin connectors can only pilot PWM type fans.
For the rest, the Asus implementation is solid, legible and perfectly functional. The bugs with the mouse cursor that the previous version suffered from have also been sorted out. The Asus implementation is still the reference for the rest.
Gigabyte & MSI BIOS/UEFI
Gigabyte also has a graphical BIOS UEFI.
Labelled a 3D BIOS, the interface displays a diagram of the motherboard (that can be turned 90°, which is where the 3D label comes from) within which certain zones can be selected. If you don’t click on any of them, these zones flash, inviting you to move your mouse cursor over them.
Clicking on a component brings up a moveable window that allows you to alter certain settings. Some but not all, which is something of a problem with this solution, which, while more evolved than the Asus EZ Mode, still doesn’t allow you to get along without advanced mode! The position of some windows continues to hide the monitoring information on the right. We moved this for our screenshots.
In advanced mode, the size of the font, very small, is still an issue for us. Legibility could be much better. The other problem that we noted was with respect to the overclocking menu, which has too many submenus. A simple operation such as changing the multiplier and the Vcore requires you to go into multiple submenus. Separating the voltages into three submenus (so as to fit in with the ‘3D’ marketing speak) illustrates the problem perfectly!
Note that you still have to double click to validate a submenu, something we hope Gigabyte will sort out quickly. The other design fault concerns the fact that some menu options, such as the voltages for example, don’t display a popup onscreen when you click on them: this goes for any values that can be entered manually. For the user, this isn’t clear. Gigabyte could either systematically add a popup menu, or differentiate visually the fields in which a value can be added!
Otherwise, the options are standard. The fan setting options deserve a special mention. Firstly the processor connector (4-pin) allows you to choose PWM or DC manually. Next, there’s also a PWM increment setting for the the three chassis ports (4-pin). The first chassis port also allows you to opt for DC, something that isn't indicated in the BIOS but which functions in practice. The only thing missing is a minimal rotation threshold, with the Gigabyte fan implementation being excellent otherwise!
For the rest, the options are standard. Overall, Gigabyte offers a decent BIOS, innovative on some points but still with some design faults. Some of these could be corrected very easily, while others (we’re thinking of the 3D Bios) will need a bit more consideration and development. In spite of everything a solid implementation.
Lets finish with MSI and its ClickBIOS II.
At first sight the MSI interface is original, with big icons on the side. In practice however, these choices are somewhat limiting - 'Settings' for example includes all the settings except overclocking. Moreover the settings (still in text not graphic form) are fitted into a small space in the middle of the screen. This could have been better designed. MSI also overdoes the double clock, whether for selecting an option or validating it. This is a heresy that will drive users back to the keyboard. The font is also small and lacking in legibilty.
There are numerous submenus and there is for example a menu which allows you to save or load default settings. MSI obviously hasn’t tried very hard to offer anything original or logical!
The overclocking menu is also particularly squashed, though all the necessary options are there, including a facility for saving profiles. On this point, note that the MSI board is the most limited in terms of upping the voltage settings. Only an offset mode is available and only +0.16V can be added, which isn't much in theory. We’ll soon see how this limits the board in practice!
The Eco menu is completely useless! While tens of useful options are tucked away in ‘Settings’, some options that nobody ever needs to change 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 being prepared in Windows). The point of this in this day and age is limited. This is particularly a shame as some of the functions of 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. Note some progress has been made from the last time, with the Eco button at the top of the screen now functional! Hurray!
Although MSI has made progress, it still has a long way to go to catch up with the competition. The changes we were hoping for still haven’t arrived. Will we have to wait for the next Intel chipset to see them?
Fans, boot time, software
We have summarised the fan control specs for each of the motherboards. Remember, PWM indicates a 4-pin fan, while DC indicates a 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, though only for two of its ports (processor and sysfan1). On these models, only ASRock doesn’t offer thermoregulation for the chassis ports, for which you can only choose a level.
We also measured the boot times of the motherboards. 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 and drives) are already turned off by default by most manufacturers. As there are hardly any on these mobos, the differences are minimal!
ASRock continues to dominate in this test, even if the other manufacturers are getting closer. The lack of additional controllers to initialise flattens the differences in comparison to our previous report.
As the software offer is common to all the motherboards of any one manufacters, we refer you to this page in our previous test for the Asrock and Asus software offer, and this one for the Gigabyte and MSI offer!
With the integration of the memory controller onto the processor die and the disappearance of the northbridge, the performance difference between motherboards has become almost nonexistant. We did nevertheless want to check to see if performance levels were what we expected on all our test models.
PC Mark Vantage
We used PC Mark Vantage first of all. We used two tests, ‘Suite’ which uses extracts of different scenarios in the application and ‘Productivity’.
The performance of the various cards is very similar. They're also identical to those of the high end models, which is no surprise!
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.
Once again, the differences are minimal and due to the error margin in our benchmark.
Unlike the mid/high end models, the entry level cards generally make do with the chipset features for drive support. ASRock stands out however with a controller that we tested. The drive performance of the Intel chipset is constant across all models. Note also that the motherboards don’t have eSATA connectors.
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 additional ASMedia controller used by ASRock. We used CrystalDiskMark to meaure the sequential and random speeds of a Vertex 3 Max IOPS:
[ Sequential ] [ Random ]
The ASMedia solution is one of the best alternative drive controllers on the market, particularly for sequential speeds. The Pro4 ports are perfectly usable as a backup solution.
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 is very very similar on the different cards. 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 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.
The EtronTech used by Gigabyte, which was for a long time very slow because of its drives, does very well here on a single port.
USB 3.0: IOmeter
So as to test the capacities of the USB 3.0 controllers fully, we used two SSDs at the same time to measure read and write speeds.
As in our previous test, the combined performance on two ports of the Intel chipset are very high. Adding a Turbo mode with the ASRock or Asus gives a little extra. The EtronTech is trailing but doesn’t do a bad job at all.
Network performance, audio
We measured network controller performance using the Microsoft application, NTttcp. We took readings of maximum speeds as well as processor usage. Gigabyte is alone in offering an alternative to Realtek.
[ Speeds ] [ CPU occupation ]
Already very much on form in our previous report, the Atheros dominates here even if the difference will only concern those who saturate their Gigabit Ethernet ports! Processor occupation is slightly higher, but in the era of multi-core CPUs, the difference won't be noticeable.
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. There are two different models of Realtek audio controller on our mobos, the ALC 892 and the 887, while Gigabyte uses a VIA controller. Which will come out on top?
[ 16 bit/44.1 kHz ] [ 24 bit/192 kHz ]
Already poor in our last report, the ALC892 doesn’t perform any miracles here. The alternatives hardly do any better however. Overall, the three chipsets are reasonable with an average signal/noise ratio and a low dynamic range. If we look very closely a small distortion (lower) advantage is discernible with the VIA controller, but this doesn’t make a significant difference.
We attempted to check the overclocking capabilities 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 plans 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 clock increases.
The choice of voltage varies according to the different mobos: the final voltage wanted with Asus and Gigabyte and via offset (+0.1V on top of the initial voltage for example) with Asus as well as MSI and Gigabyte. Note that with the MSI board tested, the maximum offset is +0.16V.
In spite of these differences in internal voltage management for each mobo, we tried to look at the clocks that were attainable (we overclocked our 2700K by the multiplier, with a ratio of 47 shown below corresponding to 4.7 GHz) when increasing voltage by steps of 0.05V, or trying to use the available offset range as best we could. Each mobo must be considered independently and can’t be compared line by line. 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 stability with Prime95. Of course we could manage higher clocks in Windows but they 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.
For our configuration we used just two bars of DDR3 memory that we clocked at the minimum allowed by the mobo (800 or 1066 MHz). The energy consumption readings cannot therefore be compared with those on the following page!
Before starting, remember that in our last report, all our mobos reached 5 GHz with the same processor as used in this test. For the best, the energy consumption, in load, at 5 GHz, was under 200 Watts. What about today’s models?
The ASRock mobo doesn’t allow you to regulate the voltage by offset, however it can increase up to +0.6V! More than enough in theory but what about in practice?
Note above all that the maths of the offsets isn’t an exact science. Overclocking on this board is difficult. It only manages 4.7 GHz, with very high energy consumption. Pushing voltage higher didn’t allow us to stabilise it at a higher clock.
The Asus mobo allows you to set voltages manually (and via offset if you want).
The results are significantly better here and the mobo reaches 4.8 GHz at a more reasonable level of energy consumption.
The Gigabyte mobo allows you to set voltages manually and without any constraints.
Note that we couldn’t get a voltage reading on the sensor as it remained blocked at 1.056. This voltage is reported using an additional chip that wasn’t yet correctly supported by the standard tools. The entry level Gigabyte mobo managed 4.9 GHz, which is the highest of the entry level boards tested here. We weren’t able to stabilise it at 5 GHz, though it wasn’t far off.
The MSI board gives the least room for manoeuvre, allowing just +0.16V via offset, which isn't much though things were even worse before the latest BIOS to come out as the offset was originally limited to just +0.06V!
In spite of its limited options the MSI mobo quickly attains 4.8 GHz. As in our last report, the energy consumption of the MSI board in load at 4.8 is significantly better than the competition…
There are several things to note in comparison to our previous report. Firstly, we couldn’t stabilise any of the mobos here at 5 GHz. We got closest on the Gigabyte mobo. The Asus board is slightly behind but still with very decent results. The MSI board, though the most hampered by its bios and number of phases, clocks quite high at moderate voltage.
Note also in our mid-range review, at 4.6 GHz, only an additional 32 to 43 Watts were required, whereas here we’re between 44 and 81W. And when, in that review, the MSI, Asus and Gigabyte boards performed similarly, here the MSI and Gigabyte mobos stand out, the first for its energy economy and the second its capacity to clock higher while remaining within reasonable limits.
The MSI board shows that the number of phases isn't everything as, with fewer, it does just as well as the other models equipped with four phases for the Vcore. The quality of the circuits used for the phases also plays an important role and there’s no one stat that allows us to judge between the various mobos.
The ASRock mobo's energy consumption performance is troubling, with the slight increase at 4.5 GHz going through the roof as the clock goes up from here. Could the very small power supply circuit placed at the top of the socket be the cause?
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. Our configuration here differs from the one used for the overclocking readings. We used four memory bars on the system, clocked at 1600 MHz and supplied at 1.5V. A single hard drive was plugged into the machine and we used the IGP for the graphics part. The figures therefore aren’t comparable to those obtained on the previous page!
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 only added the modes which don’t change performance however.
At idle, the energy consumption of our mobos is relatively similar, with a small advantage for MSI. In load and without the energy economy mode, Asus is on a par with MSI. ASrock and Gigabyte consume significantly more power in load. Activating the energy economy mode on the ASRock makes a definite difference however. Remember, this mode reduces the number of phases used in load!
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 motherboards are designed in the same way, with, as we have seen, ASRock reducing the size of its mobo significantly and placing its VRM processors above the socket. This is what our mobos look like from the back:
[ ASRock ] [ Asus ] [ Gigabyte ] [ MSI ]
As you can see, the ASRock board stands out from the others with a differently placed socket. We therefore decided to measure the heat at three points:
- The hot point on the right part of the VRM
- The hot point on the top part of the VRM
- The hot point between the socket and the right VRM
We tried to take a reading at the right part of the VRM on the ASRock board but the reading here was less precise. We measured these temperatures after ten minutes of load in Prime 95 in two configurations, by default (with XMP profile) and with our processor overclocked to 4.5 GHz.
[ 3.5 GHz ] [ 4.5 GHz ]
Firstly, in comparison to our previous review, even at the initial clock, the temperature is significantly higher. All the models are at least ten degrees hotter. This isn’t a surprise because in spreading the load across more VRMs and therefore also over a bigger area, localised heating is reduced.
The ASRock board is penalised most by the positioning of its VRMs, which both benefit less from extraction and have our processor radiator underneath them. This naturally heats things up. At 4.5 GHz, the ASRock mobo shows its limitations and this partly explains the overclocking difficulties it experiences. Of course, the quality of the VRMs in themselves may also be a reason for this, though this is difficult to verify.
Note finally that at 4.8 GHz, under the same conditions, the power supply circuits on the medium range boards were a good 20° cooler.
While all the manufacturers offer entry level models, they aren’t all designed in the same way or with the same care. Of course, when it comes to mobos priced at under €100, they all have to work within the same restrictions. First of all in terms of functionalities, the additional controllers that you see on high and mid-range boards are reduced to the minimum (network and audio). Only two manufacturers exceed this, with Gigabyte including a USB 3.0 controller and ASRock a Serial ATA controller.
Another functionality on which manufacturers have economised is the PCI Express ports. Here, a single x16 port is connected to the processor. Multi-GPU solution enthusiasts will have to turn to other models, as will those who want to use specific mobo extensions. For everyone else, the vast majority of users, this won’t necessarily be an issue.
Concessions have also been made with the power supply circuits, varying from one manufacturer to the next. The number of phases is only one indicator. The quality of components used and their implementation on the board are at least as important and should be taken into account when deciding whether your mobo will be getting standard usage or also doing some overclocking.
The ASRock Z77 Pro4 illustrates this well as while the board does fine in standard usage, it doesn’t handle overclocking well. By cramming its VRM circuits in, one beside another at the top of the board while other manufacturers space out their VRMs to the left of the socket and on the top, the board struggles as soon as you up the clock. The temperatures of the VRMs go up, their yield drops and energy consumption rockets.
However this doesn’t mean that you can’t overclock using entry level models. The Asus P8Z77-V LX and the MSI Z77A-G43 reached 4.8 GHz relatively easily and the Gigabyte GA-Z77-D3H even managed 4.9 GHz. Of course, in comparison to the mid-end models, the VRMs are hotter on these models and energy consumption at equal clocks is higher, but these boards were nevertheless capable of handling the potential of the processor used for this test, which doesn't exceed 5 GHz with air cooling.
If we take price into consideration, two models stand out. The ASRock and Asus boards are available at around €115-120 but this pricing isn’t justified by what you get out of these boards and the MSI and Gigabyte boards are much better positioned at around €100-105.
Each of these two models has its advantages and disadvantages. The MSI mobo is the most economical in terms of energy consumption and gives a good overclocking performance. On the downside, apart from the design of the BIOS and a rather useless software offering, the absence of an S/PDIF connector will be a problem for some users. Once again, note the misleading labelling used for the phases by MSI which indicates 4+1 phases while the board is in reality 3+1+1. In practice the three phases that supply the Vcore are very efficient and do well in comparison to the 4-phase configurations used on other boards.
The Gigabyte board offers a decent compromise. Better in terms of overclocking, it also has a BIOS that, while not perfect, is a bit more practical than the one used by MSI. We also like the inclusion of the backup BIOS and while the EtronTech USB 3.0 controller and mSATA port probably won’t be seen as giving much extra, this mobo does have an S/PDIF out, which might tip the balance in its favour.
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