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Roundup: entry level Z77 Express motherboards from AsRock, Asus, Gigabyte and MSI
by Guillaume Louel
Published on December 28, 2012

UEFI BIOS

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.

ASRock

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

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.

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