|Introduction & Specifications|
One of the unfortunate consequences of AMD's inability to match Intel's performance at the ultra high-end of the CPU market over the past few years is that there's been a substantial decline in the number of high-end AMD motherboards. NewEgg presently stocks just two AMD motherboards in the $200-$300 price range compared to 36 Intel products. That's not to imply that you have to pay $200 or more for a quality motherboard but it clearly implies that when motherboard manufacturers are thinking about enthusiasts, they're also thinking about Santa Clara.
The Crosshair IV Extreme isn't actually an E-ATX motherboard, but its width of 10.6" is one inch wider than the official ATX spec supports. To determine if the board will fit in your case, measure one inch from the last set of mount spacers on the right and add at least a few tenths of an inch for wiggle room. Most cases will support the board, but those with interiors that conform to the ATX spec with laser-cut precision are out-of-luck.
The Crosshair IV Extreme, like most high-end boards these days, is explicitly aimed at the ultra-high-end overclocking crowd and offers a number of OC-friendly features in an attempt to court this rare species of computer enthusiast. Because so few users actually push their systems as far as that group, we'll be explicitly evaluating the CIV-Extreme's features that might prove useful to the more typical user and thus help justify the higher purchase price to a broad audience.
|Included Bundle, Hardware Features|
Asus includes a USB 2.0/FireWire 1394a PCI bracket, six SATA cables (4x6G, two 2x3G), a Bluetooth receiver, S/PDIF cables, Crossfire/SLI bridges, Asus' handy Q-connector for the various front panel indicator lights/power switch, and multimeter cables for enthusiasts who want to check voltage outputs directly rather than relying on the BIOS reports. There's also a set of three thermal probes for monitoring specific hot spots (don't try to put these between the CPU and heatsink).Asus' MemOk! button is the smallest button at the lower left. It doubles as the "Go Button," which can be used to automatically restore a preset BIOS profile after a firmware reset. Note that the right-hand shot is from an earlier board revision; the button positions changed slightly in the final product.
Most of the value-added components that ship with the Crosshair IV-E are hardware-based, but there are a few exceptions. The company's driver CD contains the usual suite of tools, anti-virus software, and various overclocking/system monitoring utilities; Asus noted to us that it's completely redesigned the way its tools interlock and function to streamline usage and make things less confusing. The disc also contains a pre-loaded Linux distro and a full licensed copy of 3DMark Vantage.
The Crosshair IV Extreme isn't the first Asus board we've tested that featured the company's MemOk! compatibility technology, but we actually needed to use it at one point during this particular review. We are, therefore, able to verify that the function works (mostly) as advertised; activating MemOk! allowed the system to successfully and stably boot a RAM configuration that otherwise refused to POST.
MemOk!'s status display after successfully booting our system
According to Asus, activating MemOk! is only supposed to change RAM timings. In our tests, using MemOk! also reset all BIOS settings. This was not an issue; we were able to re-set and save our other BIOS settings with no problem.
PCI-E On / Off Switches
The PCIe switches can be seen in the right-hand photograph above. Enthusiasts who want to conserve power or are trying to break overclocking records can manually disable each of the Crosshair IV's five auxiliary PCI-Express ports by flipping the appropriate switch(es).
Various Buttons And Status LEDs
The Crosshair IV Extreme's BIOS can be reset via an external button on the back plate. There are also three independent LEDs that shine green, yellow, or red depending on voltage settings. The Go, power, reset, and Asus core unlocker buttons located in the upper north quadrant of the board are extremely useful if you're fine-tuning certain settings or setting it up for the first time. The core unlock button only does something if your CPU has deactivated cores, but it's a useful way to make sure one's CPU cores remain unlocked even after a BIOS restore.
The BIOS swap button
BIOS protection is a major feature of the Crosshair IV. The board features two independent BIOSes on two different physical chips—if one becomes corrupted or physically damaged, switching to the second is as simple as pushing a button. The two are maintained completely independently, there's no way for problems with BIOS #1 to impact BIOS #2.
Profiles can be saved and titled on each BIOS—it's possible, for example, to save all overclocking settings to the first BIOS chip while customizing fail-safes for BIOS #2. Additionally, it's also possible to restore a proper BIOS even if neither of the installed images will POST.
The BIOS can be reflashed by inserting a USB flash drive with the appropriate image and holding down the iROG connector on the back of the motherboard until it flashes. If, by some quirk of fate, all of these options fail, the chips themselves are removable/replaceable.
ROG / RC Bluetooth
The Crosshair IV Extreme incorporates Asus' ROG (Republic of Gamers) processor; this chip enables several different overclocking-friendly options. Enthusiasts can either overclock the Crosshair IV Extreme via a second system over USB or alternately use Bluetooth and a mobile phone to perform the same tasks. Touch phones, including the iPhone, are not supported.
If overclocking isn't your cup of tea, the included BlueTooth radio is also compatible with standard BlueTooth devices—any BT device that works with your phone should theoretically be able to double up and function on the PC.
The CIV-E is loaded with BIOS options and configurable functions as befits an enthusiast board at this price point. End-users can save specific profiles, monitor thermal probe temperatures, or even opt to disable all integrated peripherals save for the Ethernet adapter (Asus claims this may improve overclocking stability.)
A variety of system voltages and settings are available for tweaking; enthusiasts who want to individually tune each core for maximum performance can do so via Asus' Core Unlocker technology. The lower-right-hand corner shows the standard set of temperatures as well as the three optional thermal connectors (two of which are not hooked up in this image).
LEDs on the motherboard will change color to match the BIOS display--push CPU voltage into the red zone, for example, and you'll see a warning light both in the BIOS and on the board itself. End users have control over a wide range of features and settings; overclockers are free to optimize to their heart's content.
|Lucid Logix Support|
The HydraLogix chip aboard the Crosshair IV is an LT24102-A1 processor, as shown below. This chip is substantially more powerful than first-generation Hydra 100 processors. Compared to its predecessor, the LT24102 offers twice the bandwidth and can serve up to four x8 PCIe slots compared to just two x16 slots for the 100 series.
The Lucid processor incorporates a 32-bit RISC 'Diamond' processor built by Tensilica and clocked at 300MHz with a 64K L1 instruction cache and a 32K data cache. The diagram below shows how Asus has incorporated the LT24102 into the CrossHair IV Extreme.
Those would be GPU slots #2, #4, and #5
The Crosshair IV effectively contains two separate PCI-Express implementations. Users wanting to build a standard AMD CrossFire system are advised to use slots 1 and 3, both of which tie into AMD's 890FX controller. Enthusiasts who want to use more than three ATI GPUs (A-Mode), a mixed ATI/NV solution (X-Mode) or multiple Nvidia GPUs (N-Mode) should avoid slot three altogether. On paper, Hydra should be a drop-in replacement for Nvidia's SLI, but our performance tests were decidedly erratic.
Probing the Problem:
The major, full-stop problem with the Hydra engine is that it's currently impossible for us to predict either the degree of scaling Hydra will offer in a particular title or whether that title will be supported at all. When the Hydra Control Panel is first installed, it displays a list of more than one hundred ostensibly-supported titles. We can't comment on the accuracy of this list when using GT200, G92, or G80-based GeForce cards, but current support for Fermi-based products is limited.
After a great deal of benchmarking and repeated conversations with Asus and LucidLogix, we've compiled a list of supported (and unsupported) games and benchmarks using the 1.7.104a 64-bit Hydra drivers released on January 17, 2011. (We also tested the 1.7.103 drivers released in December and multiple WHQL driver releases from Nvidia).
* - Current support for 3DMark 11 is limited. All four GPU tests scale in Performance mode, but only one test scales across both GPUs in 'Extreme' mode.
** - Lost Planet 2 refused to run in DX11 at all, period. The game scaled in DX9.
*** - World of Warcraft refused to run in DX11 mode. It ran in DX9 mode but did not scale.
There's no common factor that separates the games that do work and those that should but don't. We discussed this at length with LucidLogix's Offir Remez, who pointed out that Lucid has been shipping hardware for barely a year, only recently added support for Fermi-based GPUs, and tests an enormous number of GPU configurations. He told us that Lucid is aware of the issues above, and he promised we'd have seen far more compatible games if we'd been testing with older GT200-based NV cards.
The Bottom Line:
We appreciate Lucid's willingness to openly discuss these support issues and agree that it takes time to ramp any multi-GPU solution; both SLI and Crossfire suffered significant growing pains in their early years. Understandable difficulties, however, don't change the fact that as of this writing, HydraLogix technology is not an effective SLI replacement.
We expect the number of Fermi-supported titles to improve as further drivers are released and believe that LucidLogix is committed to consistent driver improvement. Given sufficient time to bake, HydraLogix could one day provide a level of support substantially equivalent to SLI. For now, buyers looking for an SLI equivalent when using Fermi-class products should look elsewhere.
|System Configuration, SiSoft Sandra|
Our two AMD test systems were configured identically save for the necessary difference in RAM type and speed due to their differing chipsets. Both systems were equipped with 6GB of RAM. The M3A78-T board used DDR2-800—this 780GX-based board has never been fond of DDR2-1066. The Crosshair IV Extreme used Corsair DDR3 rated for 1600MHz but we purposefully backed down to 1333MHz which is the highest, officially supported speed of the 890FX chipset.We began testing with SiSoftware's SANDRA, which stands for System ANalyzer, Diagnostic and Reporting Assistant. We examine a CPU's multimedia and arithmetic performance using Sandra, as well as the motherboard's peak memory bandwidth. The difference between the two platforms should be minor given their identical configurations.
Sandra shows precious little difference between the two motherboards. The one exception is the memory test, where the Crosshair IV Extreme has an obvious advantage.
|LAME MT, PCMark Vantage|
The times here slightly favor the CIV-E but the difference is tiny.
Here the boards essentially tie; the three percent gap between them is well within a typical margin of error for this benchmark.
|3DMark Vantage, Low-Res Crysis|
We saw a small performance difference in 3DMark but again, only by about two percent. The M3A78-T has kept pace remarkably well thus far.
For our next set of tests, we moved on to some low-resolution in-game benchmarking with Crysis. When testing processors and motherboards in these games, we drop the resolution to 800x600 and reduce all of the in-game graphical options to their minimum values to isolate CPU and memory performance as much as possible. However, any 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 some load on the CPU rather than GPU.
In Crysis we saw the largest difference yet with the Asus Crosshair IV Extreme pulling ahead of the older 780GX configuration.
|Cinebench 10 & 11|
Cinebench R10 has since been superseded by the 11.5 version but we've continued to include it with a nod to backwards continuity. One of the hallmarks of CB11.5, however, is that it makes much more efficient use of more than four cores.
Eyeball the results above and you'll note a persistent gap between the M3A785-T and the Asus Crosshair IV Extreme—a gap that refused to go away, despite multiple test runs. Since Cinebench is processor-centric by design, it was odd to see a performance difference here as opposed to a program that's more memory speed dependent.
After a little sleuthing we found the problem. The M3A78-T fully supports AMD's latest Thuban, but some aspect of the motherboard's support for Cool'n'Quiet doesn't seem to be working properly. Specifically, the CPU wasn't always holding to its stock operating speed of 3.3GHz. The individual cores were automatically cycling down to lower speeds as if they weren't in use, thereby slowing the overall rendering time.
We were able to correct this by using AMD OverDrive to manually set and lock all six cores to 3.3GHz. Once we did so, performance equalized between the two motherboards.
Asus doesn't talk up the CIV-E's audio as a major selling point and the chip itself is a bog-standard Realtek ALC889. Its performance, therefore, caught us by surprise.
At the 44kHz/16-bit settings we didn't notice the Crosshair IV Extreme distancing itself from the competition in any significant way. Things changed at the 96kHz / 24-bit level.
At 24-bit/96kHz, however, the Crosshair IV Extreme distinguished itself by beating every other sound card / onboard audio chip that we've tested to date. We've included a breakdown of scores in particular areas below; the system's audio quality is very good across the board.
|Overclocking, Power Consumption|
In this case, we were primarily concerned with whether or not our Thuban X6 1100T would perform differently with the Crosshair IV Extreme as opposed to the venerable-but-overclocking-friendly M3A78-T. We tested the CPU on both air and using a single-stage phase-change unit. On air, the CPU topped out at 1.40v and 4GHz on both chips. The phase change cooler, however, produced somewhat different results.
Once we cooled the chip down to -50C, we saw more of a difference between the two motherboards. While the X100T topped out at 4.1GHz on the older AM2 board, the AM3 Crosshair IV Extreme had a bit more punch. Here, we saw a maximum stable speed of 4.4GHz--an increase of about seven percent.
One of the things we were curious about was whether or not the price premium on the Crosshair IV Extreme would translate into improved power draw. We've seen multiple high-end boards offering this sort of improvement on the Intel side and wanted to see if Asus would bring it over to its AMD portfolio.
The benefits of the Crosshair IV's design aren't going to make a financial difference to anyone's power bill, but it's nice to see that the advantage is there.
Performance Summary: The Crosshair IV Extreme offers some of the best performance, overclocking, and general features of any 890FX-based motherboard available to date. It's overclocking and lower power consumption are features that may only appeal to certain audiences, but they're still packed in. The onboard audio is very good, the various BIOS protections make it all but impossible to hose the motherboard without using an axe, and it's currently one of just two motherboards that supports Nvidia multi-GPU configurations, even if the state of said support is rather shaky. Even with this caveat, it's the nicest AMD board we've seen in-house in quite some time.
If existing AM3 products were Bulldozer-compatible and LucidLogix's game support was more mature, this motherboard would be a must-have for any AMD enthusiast. Unfortunately, this is not the case; a fact that leaves the Crosshair IV Extreme on uneasy ground.
The Crosshair IV Extreme makes the most sense for an AMD fan who simultaneously wants to experiment with overclocking / core unlocking and doesn't see an upgrade in the near future. Anyone moving from a dual-core/quad-core AM2 system will notice the performance difference and Thuban, while not as powerful as some of Intel's Core i5/i7 products, still offers a good price/performance ratio of its own.
As we've noted on other occasions, there's no reason to think that a $300 board will magically offer better reliability or compatibility than a $150 board, simply by being more expensive. That said, the Crosshair IV Extreme impresses on virtually every front. Buyers who are aware of the Lucid Logix and Bulldozer-related caveats will find that it's easily the nicest, most overclocking-friendly, and feature-packed AMD motherboard currently available.