|Introduction and ASRock Z77 OC Formula|
|We’ve seen more than our share of motherboards sporting the Z77 chipset, but today we have a pair of Z77 boards--one each from ASRock and MSI--that are designed specifically for overclocking. Even better, both of these mainboards are actually mid-range offerings, meaning you can enjoy the overclocking features without paying for the highest-end options from the two companies. What better way to put them through the paces than by setting up a good old-fashioned mainboard shootout?
Because Z77 was made to be paired up with Intel’s Ivy Bridge processors, we slapped a quad-core Intel Core i7-3770K in these two contenders and let the fur fly.
But first, let’s take a look at the ASRock Z77 OC Formula and MSI Big Bang Z77 MPOWER. As motherboards go, the ASRock Z77 OC Formula’s a beaut, featuring a black PCB, black and yellow slots and connectors, gold caps, and a brushed black metal finish on the heatsinks.
In terms of physical buttons, switches, and other miscellany located on the PCB, the power and reset buttons reside down by the Southbridge; a V-Probe is up and to the right of the DIMM slots, just under Rapid OC +/- buttons; and just above those is a Dr. Debug LED and PCIe on/off switches; and there’s a Clear CMOS button on the rear I/O panel.
The board supports both 2nd- and 3rd-generation Intel Core i7, i5, and i3 chips and can handle up to 32GB of DDR3-3000 (OC) system memory.
Four-way SLI and CrossFireX support is enabled by the five PCI-E slots--two PCI-E 3.0 x16, one PCI-E 2.0 x16, and two PCI-E 2.0 x1 slots--and there are six total SATA connectors on board, all of which are SATA 6Gbps. As far as USB goes, ASRock put in four USB 2.0 ports and went with USB 3.0 ports for the remaining seven; one is mounted on a front panel, and there are ten total on the back I/O panel.
The rest of the back panel includes a PS/2 port, HDMI, optical S/PDIF, LAN port, CMOS button, and audio jacks.
To enhance overclocking prowess, ASRock built the Z77 OC Formula with a 12+4 power phase design, Digi Power PWM for better CPU voltage handling, dual-stack MOSFETs, and premium alloy choke. The CPU socket and memory slots feature 15μ Gold Finger for better performance, and ASRock’s twin-power cooling is designed so that users can combine air and water cooling for better heat flow and transfer.
There are even little “OC stands” that keep the motherboard up off the surface you're using it on for better airflow if you don’t feel like building the system with a chassis, and ASRock threw in a syringe full of GELID GC-Extreme thermal compound, too.
Of course, there’s plenty of OC software provided so you can tweak the board and components in a variety of ways in addition to the old-fashioned method of adjusting settings in the UEFI BIOS, which includes a pre-loaded OC profile from Nick Shih. Formula Drive is the main piece of software, and it enables users to view and alter settings for hardware monitoring, fan controls, PCI-E on/off controls, fine voltage controls, thermal sensors, and more.
Other software ASRock threw in includes ASRock OMG (Online Management Guard), Internet Flash to look for firmware updates from the UEFI BIOS, the MAGIX Multimedia Suite, APP Charger, Lucid Virtu, and ASRock XFast USB/RAM/LAN.
It’s always interesting to see what mainboard manufacturers will include in the box, and ASRock did not disappoint. In addition to the accessories mentioned above, there’s a black velvet sack with a tie cord--and only good things can come from such a satchel--which contains a user manual, software setup guide, software and utilities disc, I/O shield, screws, a front USB 3.0 panel, a rear USB 3.0 bracket, an SLI bridge card, a handful of SATA cables, and a pair of 1-to-1 SATA power cables.
|MSI Z77 Big Bang MPOWER|
|There must be something about black and yellow, because the MSI Big Bang Z77 MPOWER sports a similar look as the ASRock board. It has a black PCB with black slots and connectors, and the heat sinks are mostly dark gray with splashes of bright yellow.
Also like the ASRock board, physical buttons and switches abound; the power, reset, and OC Genie II buttons are clustered just to the right of the DIMM slots, and down below the Southbridge is a multi-BIOS switch and the GO2BIOS button, with a debug LED and voltage checkpoints connector just above. The I/O panel has a conveniently-located Clear CMOS button, too.
This is a socket 1155 motherboard to handle Sandy Bridge or Ivy Bridge chips, and the board supports up to 32GB of DDR3-3000 OC memory over four DIMMs.
The three PCI-E 3.0 x16 slots and four PCI-E 2.0 x1 slots, which support multi-way SLI and CrossFireX setups, and there are four SATA 6 Gbps and two SATA 3Gbps ports, as well. Six of those SATA ports support Intel Rapid Storage Technology for RAID 0/1/5/10.
The rear I/O panel includes the aforementioned Clear CMOS button as well as a PS/2 port, optical S/PDIF out, Gigabit LAN port, 6-in-1 audio jacks, HDMI, DisplayPort, two USB 2.0 ports, and 6 USB 3.0 ports. For handy connectivity, there’s a Bluetooth module and a WiFi module with a jack for the included antenna, too.
The MPOWER Difference -
As you might expect, the MSI Big Bang Z77 MPOWER does not want for overclocking features. Before these boards ship, MSI burns them in for 24 hours with Prime95 and a liquid-cooled overclocked CPU so they can proudly wear the “OC Certified” title. (Lest you doubt the veracity of your exact board’s certification, it comes with an embossed certificate.) The board is built with MSI’s Military Class III components for longevity under intense working conditions, and the Superpipe cooling design is meant to improve the board’s ability to pull heat away from power array and processor area.
In addition to being able to adjust overclocking settings the traditional way, users can create an overclocking profile in OC Genie II within the (very fine-looking) UEFI BIOS and call those settings up with the press of a button. The Instant OC feature of MSI’s Command Center software has a few preset overclocking configurations, too.
Speaking of software, MSI packed the included disc full of it; in addition to the aforementioned, the bundled software includes the excellent MSI Live Update 5, MSI Suite application launcher and backup manager, Super Charger for quickly charging attached devices, Winki III for limited use of certain applications without booting into Windows, audio and video genies, network and teaming genies, Lucid Virtu, Click BIOS II to tweak BIOS settings from within Windows, and more.
Little treasures that come in the box include an I/O shield, the WiFi antenna, V-Check cables and a quick guide, a handful of SATA cables, an installation guide, software and application user guide, user manual, drivers and utilities disc, a Certificate of Quality and Stability, and a glossy fold-out overclocking guide.
|When motherboard manufacturers started moving away from the old AWARD BIOSes and switched to graphically lovely UEFIs, it was a revelation, but it took a while for most of them to feel as smooth as they looked. Even though you could use both the mouse and keyboard to adjust settings, for example, performance was often frustratingly laggy and glitchy.
Most motherboard companies are producing very fine UEFIs these days, however, and both ASRock and MSI have nailed it. Both felt snappy and responsive and were relatively easy to navigate, so kudos to the two companies for that.
We’ve looked at ASRock’s excellent UEFI before when we tested its Fatal1ty Z77 Professional board, and it’s worth noting that the company went to the trouble of creating a separate (though mostly similar) UEFI environment for the Z77 OC Formula. Unlike the former’s coolly subdued red and black look, the latter has a star system-looking background and more elaborate icons for the various tabs. With the Z77 OC Formula, ASRock also ditched the option to bring up a 3D image of the motherboard, which really isn’t going to be of much use for an overclocker, anyway.
The organization is straightforward: the Main area gives you basic, at-a-glance system information; OC Tweaker is the playground where you adjust all your overclock settings; Advanced is the section is which you can set parameters and options for the North Bridge, South Bridge, storage, I/O, and other aspects of the system; under Tools, you can update the BIOS; the H/W Monitor area gives you a boatload of information about temps, voltages, fan speeds, and so on; there are copious items to play with under Boot; the Security area lets you set passwords and set state modes; and Exit is--well, that’s self-explanatory.
There’s even a QR code in there that you can scan to get more details. Perhaps that’s a bit over the top, but it’s still pretty cool.
MSI’s Click BIOS II is pretty much what we’ve seen in the company’s other Z77 offerings. Instead of keeping everything neatly organized under a handful of tabs, much of what you’ll want to adjust is sort of out there on the main screen, including temps, basic information such as the BIOS version and components list, and a graphical boot priority menu.
It’s laid out with six huge buttons (three per side) and the corresponding menu items appear in the middle of the screen when a button is clicked. It’s perhaps a bit of a distracting layout, but as a result there isn’t much you need to hunt for in the six sections since so much is there on the main screen.
Under Settings, there’s system status information, an Advanced area for further system configuration, boot settings, and the exit menu; you can dive deep into overclock settings under the OC area; Eco mode gives you handful of power-saving parameters to play with; the Utilities area lets you set backups and update the system and BIOS; and you can create passwords and chassis intrusion settings under Security. The Browser area lets you access the Internet and handy tools such as email right from the BIOS.
There are also three modes of operation you can easily toggle between: Eco, Standard, and OC Genie II. Using Eco mode helps reduce your energy consumption, and the OC Genie II mode lets you easily switch over to overclock settings you can set in the BIOS and forget. In other words, it lets you leave your standard settings alone and just fire up your optimal OC settings whenever it’s convenient. All told, we really liked MSI's UEFI implementation here.
And now, on to our benchmark testing to see how these puppies perform.
|Test Setup and PCMark 7|
|Test System Configuration Notes: When configuring our test systems for this article, we first entered their respective UEFI menus and set each board to its "Optimized" or "High performance Defaults". We then saved the settings, re-entered the BIOS and set the memory frequency to the maximum officially supported speed for the given platform. The SSD was then formatted, and Windows 7 Ultimate x64 was installed. When the Windows installation was complete, we updated the OS, and installed the drivers necessary for our components. Auto-Updating and Windows Defender were then disabled and we installed all of our benchmarking software, performed a disk clean-up, cleared temp and prefetch data, and ran the tests.
We outfitted our motherboards with an Intel Core i7-3770K, 8GB of Kingston HyperX DDR3-1600MHz memory, NVIDIA GeForce GTX 260 graphics card, and an OCZ Vertex 4 SSD.
Below is what Futuremark says is incorporated in the base PCMark suite and the Entertainment, Creativity, and Productivity suites, the four modules we have benchmark scores for you here.
The PCMark test is a collection of workloads that measure system performance during typical desktop usage. This is the most important test since it returns the official PCMark score for the system
Although the performance gap between the two boards isn't too wide, the MSI board clearly takes the win in the PCMark 7 test.
|Cinebench R11.5 and POV-Ray|
|Cinebench R11.5 is an OpenGL 3D rendering performance test based on Cinema 4D from Maxon. Cinema 4D is a 3D rendering and animation suite used by 3D animation houses and producers like Sony Animation and many others. It's very demanding of system processor resources and is an excellent gauge of computational throughput. This is a multi-threaded, multi-processor aware benchmark that renders a 3D scene and tracks the length of the entire process. The rate at which each test system was able to render the entire scene is represented in the graph below.
Both boards put forth strong Cinebench scores, although the MSI board topped ASRock here in both multi-thread and single-thread tests. The margin isn't much, but it is clear who's the victor here.
Again, although these two boards scored fairly close together, it's MSI that comes away with the win with a stronger showing, posting a multi-thread score of 90 points higher than the ASRock board.
|LAME MT and SunSpider|
|In our custom LAME MT MP3 encoding test, we convert a large WAV file to the MP3 format, which is a popular scenario that many end users work with on a day-to-day basis to provide portability and storage of their digital audio content. LAME is an open-source mid to high bit-rate and VBR (variable bit rate) MP3 audio encoder that is used widely around the world in a multitude of third party applications.
There's not much to see here; these scores are almost identical, which is to be expected in this test. Still, it's good to see that consistency.
All of the systems were testing using the latest version of Internet Explorer 9, with default browser settings, on a clean installation of Windows 7 Home Premium x64.
The competition between these motherboards is tight; there's almost no difference here. We're talking about a difference of 4 milliseconds, which, in a browser test, is hardly notable.
|Low-Res Gaming: Crysis and ET:QW|
|For our next series of tests, we moved on to some more in-game benchmarking with Crysis and Enemy Territory: Quake Wars. When testing processors with Crysis or ET:QW, we drop the resolution to 1024x768, and reduce all of the in-game graphical options to their minimum values to isolate CPU and memory performance as much as possible. However, the in-game effects, which control the level of detail for the games' physics engines and particle systems, are left at their maximum values, since these actually do place a load on the CPU rather than GPU.
Are you noticing a trend here? In every test so far, the MSI Big Bang has bested the ASRock OC Formula--by a relatively small margin. In Crysis, it's a difference of just 8FPS, although the gap in ET:QW of about 21FPS is slightly more notable.
|Total System Power Consumption|
|Before get to the final overclocking showdown, we'd also like to talk a bit about power consumption. Throughout all of our benchmarking and testing, we monitored how much power each of our test mainboards was consuming with a power meter, and compared them to the reference systems used throughout our benchmark tests.
The power consumption numbers offer an interesting surprise; these two motherboards are pulling almost exactly the same amount of juice under load. True, the idle ASRock board drinks a little more at idle, but 6W isn't much of a difference.
|The Final Showdown: Overclocking|
|It’s one thing to compare scores in our standard spate of benchmarks, but it’s quite another to see how these mainboards can overclock; after all, in a head-to-head matchup of two boards that are built specifically for overclocking, this is where the rubber meets the road.
We tested both boards using the same components and chassis, and at the same ambient room temperature. All case fans were running, and we went with air cooling using our trusty dual-fan Corsair A70 CPU cooler. In both cases, we adjusted settings using the UEFI BIOS instead of relying on any Windows-based overclocking software.
For both of these motherboards, we tested the overclocks primarily by balancing the base clock and multiplier to find their respective sweet spots and raising the CPU core voltage to see what further performance we could eek out of them.
The contest was reasonably close, but the ASRock Z77 OC Formula won the day. We goosed the CPU up to 4.747GHz by upping the base clock to 101 and raising the multiplier to 47 with a CPU core voltage of 1.25V. The MSI Z77 Big Bang MPOWER wasn’t terribly far behind, but we could only muster 4.646GHz at 101x46 with the same 1.25V CPU core voltage.
It’s worth noting, however, that we discovered that the MSI board could handle a base clock of 108 with a lower multiplier, while we couldn’t the ASRock’s past 106.5 without experiencing crashes.
And this is where we drop the disclaimer: Expect better performance with a liquid cooling system as well as some additional time and tinkering. You can spend weeks poking around all the various settings in these BIOSes and both boards offer experienced overclocker's lots of options and knobs to turn.
|Performance Summary and Conclusion|
|Performance Summary: Both the ASRock Z77 OC Formula and the MSI Z77 Big Bang MPOWER posted strong scores in our benchmarks, thanks in part no doubt to the Intel Core i7-3770K (Ivy Bridge) processor and zippy OCZ Vertex 4 SSD in the system, but in every test it was the MSI board that came out on top by mostly slim margins. However, the ASRock board managed to best its competitor with a slightly better overclock of 4.747GHz.
Deciding a winner in this shootout is tricky; on the one hand, the MSI Z77 Big Bang MPOWER showed that it’s consistently faster in regular tests, which might temp you to think that it’s the better board. And frankly, if these were two standard motherboards, that’s what we’d say and give the nod to MSI despite the ASRock board’s slightly higher overclock. This shootout, however, is between two mainboards that are designed and built specifically for overclockers, so we must give greater weight to that aspect of the competition, at least technically. It's pretty difficult to discern a clear "winner" here though.
Truthfully, though, the margin of victory isn’t a wide one, and we can enthusiastically recommend either of these boards. Both proved to offer great stability and robust construction to ensure that they’ll last for a while, even when users push components to the max. Both also offer excellent UEFI environments and plenty of additional overclocking tools.
Further, neither board has a sticker price at the top of their respective ranges, which makes them all the more appealing. The ASRock Z77 OC Formula comes in at $239.99, and you can currently find an MSI Z77 Big Bang MPOWER for around 200 bucks or even less.
So go ahead, snag one of these bad boys and overclock your heart out; we're putting our stamp of approval on both these boards, as neither of them really has a downside.
ASRock Z77 OC Formula
MSI Z77 Big Bang MPOWER