|Introduction and ASUS Z87 ROG Features|
|ASUS, like the other major motherboard manufacturers, has an extensive lineup of boards that now support Intel’s 4th-generation Haswell processors and come packing the Z87 chipset. There are motherboards in ASUS’ quiver that run the gamut from gaming boards to workstation boards to consumer-focused boards and beyond, but the company seems proudest of its Republic Of Gamers (ROG) line.
There are multiple Z87-based ROG boards in the series, and we took a look at three of them that represent a nice variety of form factors and features--the Maximus VI Impact, Maximus VI Gene, and the Maximus VI Formula--and also look at the work that the company has put into developing a robust gaming platform with loads of features and extras to add value in a number of places for gamers, tweakers and modders alike.
ASUS ROG FeaturesIn truth, delving into detail on each and every one of the unique ROG features and software that ASUS put into these Z87 boards would be more like a short novel than a long article, but we want to give an overview of what you can expect from the Impact, Gene, Formula, or other ROG boards.
As always with gaming, every ounce of performance you can squeeze out of your system is a bonus, and to that end ASUS developed a RAMDisk utility, which essentially allows you to utilize unused system memory to help out your storage subsystem, sort of like a partial SSD cache. The software itself is very simple to use; you can select a RAMDisk and allot a certain amount of space to it; then you click the Junction tab, browse to the folder you want to use with it, and add it.
ROG Connect is a tool that lets you adjust settings and overclock your rig from another PC or even a mobile device. There’s a physical ROG Connect button on some of the Z87 boards, and that button is given a dedicated USB port. With the special USB cable (which isn’t included with any of the three boards we were given) plugged in to that port and connected to another laptop or PC, you can use the ROG Connect software to adjust CPU frequencies, voltages, and fan speeds from a secondary machine.
On boards with a Bluetooth module, you can even overclock through ROG Connect wirelessly with a mobile device. The app also includes a monitor; POST status information; and the ability to turn the system on or off, restart it, and even clear CMOS.
Another handy little overclocking tool is MemTweakIt, which simply lets you check and adjust memory timings in real-time in the Windows environment.
On the networking side, ASUS baked in an Intel Gigabit LAN controller, but it also offers ROG GameFirst II for optimizing your network connection. Basically, the software offers smart network traffic shaping technology that’s designed to reduce pings and latency, thereby granting you a better gaming experience online; it also enhances your VoIP chats similarly.
Another particularly interesting feature is called Sonic Radar, and it’s designed to give you a visual representation of the sounds you’re hearing in a game. It’s a handy aid to give you a leg up on the competition when you’re in certain environments; it’s also a big help to the hearing impaired. Sonic Radar runs over top of a game, so it’s not actually part of the game engine. Anecdotally, we should note that we noticed a drop of between about 15-20 FPS when we ran our Crysis benchmark with Sonic Radar running versus without. Granted, we were hitting upwards of 290 FPS at times (in that test), so percentage-wise that’s not a big deal, but it’s worth noting nonetheless for situations where you have less performance headroom.
Finally, just for kicks, ASUS threw in ROG CPU-Z, DAEMON Tools Pro Standard, and Kaspersky Anti-Virus. A lot of people use CPU-Z as a simple, handy system monitor, and ASUS actually included it with the drivers and utilities disc. Bonus: This version has a custom ASUS ROG skin.
DAEMON Tools Pro Standard is for “optical media emulation”; in other words, you can use it to create disc images, burn files, extract selected image files, emulate optical discs, and more. Kaspersky Anti-Virus is, well--it’s antivirus software but you knew that.
ASUS Bundled Software
But wait folks, those are just the ROG features; we haven’t even begun discussing the general ASUS features and software that are on most of the Z87 boards.
AI Suite III was designed to contain several key ASUS software features in one package. With its Dual Intelligent Processors 4 feature with "4-way optimization," the software will auto-detect the best setting for an ideal overclock. You just click a button, start the process up, and let her rip. Note that by default (with our hardware configuration), you can select 4.2GHz, 4.4GHz, or 4.6GHz auto overclocks.
AI Suite III also contains the TPU feature, which lets you overclock the CPU with a nice GUI, tune the power settings with the EPU function, adjust CPU or DRAM power control, and even fine-tune fan speeds with Fan Xpert 2. With Fan Xpert 2, you have a tremendous amount of control over the system’s fans; there are multiple presets you can use, or you can spend gleeful hours tinkering with each setting manually.
It’s in AI Suite II that you can also find AI Charger+ for fast-charging an iOS device; USB 3.0 Boost which gooses the transfer rate of your connected USB devices; EZ Update’s simple driver, software, and BIOS update feature; USB Charger+ for fast-charging virtually any device connected to the ROG USB port; and USB BIOS Flashback tool that lets you save a BIOS update to a flash drive and install it without even booting the system.
These motherboards also come with ASUS WebStorage and ASUS Utilities.
You want to know what’s really wild about the above extensive collection of goodies? There’s even more of them camping out in the BIOS, which we’ll look at later.
|ASUS Maximus VI Impact|
|Anecdotally at least, it seems that there’s been increasing interest in smaller form factor motherboards in recent years. Maybe it’s the fact that hardcore builders can make powerful machines in a very small footprint, or perhaps it’s simply the enchantment over the fact that good engineering can fit a whole lot into a tiny space, but in any case, ASUS did not forget SFF fans with its line of RoG boards.
The ASUS Maximus VI Impact is a straight-up gaming motherboard that happens to come in the mini-ITX form factor. The little guy sports two DIMM slots capable of supporting up to 16GB of DDR3-3000 (OC) memory as well as a PCIe 3.0 x16 slot and an mPCIe Combo II slot. ASUS made use of the M.2 slot by including a module that pops into the slot and offers a mini PCIe 2.0 port as well as 802.11ac and Bluetooth 4.0.
It also supports six USB 3.0 and six USB 2.0 ports, all from the Z87 chipset, as well as four SATA 6Gbps ports and one eSATA port.
The VRM is called “Impact Power”--essentially the Extreme Engine Digi+ III VRM of other Z87 ROG boards but designed vertically because of the lack of space on this small PCB--but it features a digital 8+2 phase power control with the same 60A BlackWing chokes and 10k Black Metallic Capacitors as its bigger brothers.
The Impact has a unique feature called Music PnP, an ROG technology that lets you push a stereo stream right to your computer-connected speakers even when the PC is turned off. You can just plug essentially any external audio device to the front panel mic jack and hit play.
There are physical power and reset buttons, as well as clear CMOS, MemOK!, DirectKey, and ROG Connect buttons. The MemOK! button allows users to easily ensure DIMM compatibility, and the DirectKey lets users boot right into the BIOS, which obviates the need to repeatedly bang on the DELETE key during the boot process. Thank goodness.
For such a small board, there’s a lot of good stuff in the box. We’ve mentioned the mini-PCIe module and the discrete sound card, but ASUS also threw in an external dual-band WiFi antenna to go with the WiFi module as well as a sheet of sticker labels so you can note where everything is, 4-in-1 washers for a CPU cooler backplate, Q-cable, I/O shield, Q-cables, SATA cables, user guide, and a driver disc.
The rear I/O panel sports the three audio jacks from the sound card, Intel gigabit LAN, four USB 3.0 ports, four USB 2.0 ports (including one that also serves as the ROG Charger, USB Charger+, and USB BIOS Flashback port), eSATA, S/PDIF out, DisplayPort, HDMI, and the module that houses the Clear CMOS, MemOK!, et al. buttons.
On the software side, the Maximum VI Impact features RoG’s Sonic Radar, GameFirst II, RAMDisk, ROG CPU-Z, Mem TweakIt, Kaspersky anti-Virus, and DAEMON Tools Pro Standard, as well as ASUS WebStorage and Utilities.
|ASUS Maximus VI Gene|
|While the Maximus VI Impact is a true SFF mainboard, the Maximus VI Gene offers a compact yet fully-loaded option in the mATX form factor, and while the former sports a solid array of motherboard components for its size, the Gene allows even fewer compromises.
The board (as well as its larger sibling, the Maximus VI Formula) enjoys ASUS’ Extreme Engine Digi+ III digital power delivery with 10K black metal capacitors, 60A Blackwing Choke, and NexFET MOSFETS that are designed to give users the best stability and precise controls possible for the CPU and memory power.
There are four DIMM slots supporting up to 32GB of DDR3-3000 (OC) system memory, and there are more PCI slots than the Impact--two PCIe 3.0 (x16) slots, one PCIe 2 (x4), and a mini-PCIe 2.0 (x1) with the mPCIe Combo II expansion card--and supports SLI or CrossFireX. The mPCIe card is nearly identical to the one that comes with the Impact, and the port it slots into supports both PCIe 2.0 and M.2.
The board offers 12 total SATA 6Gbps ports--six apiece from the chipset and an ASMedia controller--and it supports up to 16 USB ports. Eight are USB 3.0, and eight are USB 2.0. The rear I/O panel features a clear CMOS button, ROG connect button, 10 of the aforementioned USB ports, LAN, optical S/PDIF out, HDMI, and six audio jacks.
Speaking of audio, while the diminutive Impact gets the SupremeFX audio treatment by way of a discrete sound card (included), the larger Gene has the same capabilities built into the board itself, including shielding technology, content protection for lossless audio playback, jack detection, multi-streaming, and more.
There are several buttons on the mainboard itself: there’s the clear CMOS and ROG Connect buttons mentioned above, as well as power and reset buttons, MemOK!, and DirectKey.
Accessories include several SATA cables, an SLI bridge, the I/O shield, Q-Connector kit, cable sticker labels, the mPCIe combo card, the ROG door hanger, and the user guide and driver disc.
|ASUS Maximus VI Formula|
|Now that we’ve had a look at two of ASUS’ smaller ROG motherboards, it’s time to have a gander at one of the higher-end models, the Maximus VI Formula. The first thing you notice about the Formula is that it’s wrapped up in “thermal armor”, a feature we’ve primarily seen on ASUS’ TUF series.
On air cooling, the ROG Armor primarily serves to isolate components from other components’ heat; for example, the plastic shielding around the CPU socket is designed to block the heat coming off of the graphics card(s); it also uses thermal pads to wick heat away from the components. Some are skeptical of the effectiveness of this sort of plastic armor, but if nothing else, it certainly helps keep dust from collecting on vital board components.
There’s steel support on the backside of the PCB to prevent bending, which is good because the CrossChill hybrid air and water cooling system is just asking for a liquid cooler. The feature makes use of G1/4 fittings to give users more flexibility in their setup.
Like the Gene, the Formula features onboard ROG SupremeFX 8-channel HD audio, although the latter does have some additional features, including an HD headphone amp and WIMA film capacitors. The Formula also has the same Extreme Engine Digi+ III VRM as the Gene and the same mPCIe Combo II WiFi and Bluetooth card as the Impact.
And perhaps it comes as no surprise, but this mainboard supports up to 32GB of DDR3-3000 (OC) RAM. It supports up to three-way SLI or CrossFire with three PCIe 3.0 x16 slots (dual at x8/x8, triple at x8/x4/x4), two PCIe 2.0 x1 slots, and the mini-PCIe 2.0 x1 slot afforded by the M.2 module.
There are 10 total SATA (6Gbps) ports--6 from the Z87 chipset and 4 from the ASMedia controller--and 16 USB ports, with 8 apiece of USB 3.0 and USB 3.0. The back panel is home to 10 of those (4 of which are USB 2.0), as well as a clear CMOS button, ROG Connect on/off switch, optical S/PDIF out, HDMI, DisplayPort, Intel gigabit LAN, and six audio jacks. The board itself sports a host of additional buttons and switches, including power and reset buttons, MemOK!, DirectKey, and a Fast Boot switch.
Like the Impact and the Gene, there’s lots of good stuff in the box. In addition to the I/O shield, fistful of SATA cables, SLI bridge, user guide, and driver disc, there’s the mPCIe combo card and a movable dual-band antenna to go with it, 2-in-1 Q-Connector kit, handy label stickers, and a door hanger.
In terms of software, the Formula’s disc comes loaded with everything but the kitchen sink: ROG GameFirst II, RAMDisk, ROG CPU-Z, Mem TweakIt, DAEMON Tools Pro Standard, ASUS WebStorage and Utilities, Kaspersky Anti-Virus, and DTS Connect. One feature that the Formula has that the other boards don’t is WiFi GO!, which lets you stream wirelessly to DLNA devices and offers remote control and access features.
|UEFI and Overclocking|
|For all the extra software and on-board goodies ASUS brought forth for its Z87 ROG motherboards, one of the features of the boards that the company is clearly proud of is the UEFI BIOS. Ever since the industry moved to a more graphical, more user-friendly BIOS, ASUS has been working to make its UEFI experience the best it can be. This generation does not disappoint.
As before, there is both an EZ Mode and an Advanced Mode. In EZ Mode, you’re greeted (or perhaps “blasted” is a better term) with loads of information that includes the time and date, fan speeds, CPU voltage, temperatures, boot order, DRAM information, system information, and more. Joking aside, it does offer a nice at-a-glance look at your system, and you can select different presets to adjust system power, too.
Advanced Mode has all the features you’ve come to expect from a UEFI BIOS, and more. The Extreme Tweaker tab is where you can adjust every conceivable CPU, memory, and voltage setting; the Main tab displays the BIOS, CPU, memory, and system information; and the Advanced tab offers up plenty of additional options for fine-tuning and optimizing virtually every other aspect of the system, from the SATA configuration to your ROG Effects.
The Monitor tab lets you keep an eye on voltages, temps, and fan speeds while offering some fan speed controls. And of course, the boot configuration screen gives you all sorts of adjustable parameters for how you want the system to behave when it starts up.
Although it’s somewhat hidden away, there’s a Tool section that contains ASUS’ EZ Flash 2 utility, ROG SSD Secure Erase, ROG OC Panel H-Key Configuration, and more. Unfortunately, the ROG H-Key doesn’t come with the three boards we tested (only the Maximus VI Extreme), but the flash utility is one you’ll definitely need from time to time, and ASUS Overclocking Profile is helpful for anyone who likes to keep settings organized and ready to be deployed with a click or two. The ROG Secure Erase tool is fairly self-explanatory, but it’s worth mentioning that the feature is available.
We want to be abundantly clear here: ASUS’ UEFI BIOS offers myriad and granular ways to adjust, tweak, and goose your system. Taking screenshots of all of it would be an exercise in tedium, but rest assured that the above represents just a basic high level view of what’s available in the BIOS.
Finally, ASUS added a few nifty features designed to enhance the user experience just a bit. One is that you can add items from the BIOS to your My Favorites page, so you can more quickly and easily access the features you use the most without having to hunt for them in their respective tabs and areas.
You can also add Quick Notes so you can remember what in the world you were doing when you adjusted a particular setting or tried out an idea. Another new feature in the same vein is a changelog that tells you what settings you’ve adjusted every time you exit the BIOS; this gives you a quick view of what’s changing, so you’re not surprised by something, and you can even save the logs to a USB flash drive.
OverclockingASUS offers many ways to tweak your system with fine granularity. From the typical BCLK and CPU multiplier options (afforded in part by our unlocked Intel Core i7-4770K Haswell chip) to voltages to fan speeds, you can get lost for days in the BIOS, tinkering and tweaking and poking to milk every ounce of extra performance out of the system.
For the purposes of this article, we kept things simple, working with just the BCLK and CPU multipliers to see what these boards would let us do. We also used an aftermarket dual-fan cooler (Corsair A70) as opposed to a liquid cooling system.
Predictably, we got nearly identical results with all three ASUS motherboards. The Impact maxed out at 4.71GHz (x47 multiplier, 100.1 BCLK) and scored a 10.18 in Cinebench; the Formula actually fared the same and delivered essentially the same Cinebench score (10.19). It was the Gene, actually, that gave us the best headroom (although not by much) with an overclock of 4.72 (x47 multiplier, 100.5 BCLK).
In all three cases, temperatures crept into the mid-80s at our max overclock. One interesting bit to note is that instead of hitting a sort of sweet spot before tapering off in terms of performance and then eventually hitting the BSOD wall as one often sees when incrementally upping overclock settings, these mainboards were all performing better and better before suddenly shutting down; in other words, the boards seems to shut the system down before there was any throttling on the CPU.
And now, let’s dig into our benchmark tests.
|Test Setup and PCMark Tests|
|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/UEFI and set the memory frequency to the maximum officially supported speed for the given platform. The drives were then formatted, and Windows 7 Home Premium 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.
Our system included an Intel Core i7-4770K processor, ZOTAC NVIDIA GeForce GTX 285, 4GB of Kingston DDR3-1600MHz RAM, and an OCZ Vertex 4 SSD with Windows 7 Ultimate SP1 x64.
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
The scores here are tightly clustered, although the Maximus VI Gene nudges out the rest of the field by a slim margin in all of the tests except for Entertainment.
|Cinebench R11.5 and POV-Ray|
| R11.5 is a
performance test based on Cinema 4D from Maxon. Cinema 4D is a 3D
rendering and animation suite used by animation houses and producers
like Sony Animation and many others. It's very demanding of processor
resources and is an excellent gauge of pure computational throughput.
Again we see a tight cluster of scores, this time in Cinebench. The Maximus VI Impact turned in a surprisingly high score compared to the rest of the field in the multithreaded test, although the tiny motherboard beat out the competition by the slimmest of margins. The Maximus VI Formula did the same in the single-thread test.
In POV-Ray there's incredible parity between these systems; each one scored within a few points of one another, and those point differentials represent rather small percentages.
|LameMT 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 MP3 audio encoder that is
used widely in a multitude of third party applications.
What else can you say here except that each board delivered nearly identical scores?
Although again the scores are tightly clustered, it's the Gigabyte G1.Sniper 5 that turns in the best performance, by a hair. The slowest was the ASUS Maximus VI Formula, and overall the Gigabyte boards fared a bit better than the ASUS boards here.
|Low-Res: Gaming Tests|
|For our next set of
tests, we moved on to some in-game benchmarking with Crysis
(DirectX) and Enemy Territory: Quake Wars (OpenGL). 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 place some load on
the CPU rather than GPU.
The ASUS motherboards and the Gigabyte Z87X-UD4H posted scores within a few FPS of one another, but the G1.Sniper 5 and Z87X-OC Force took a nap on these tests. In Crysis, the difference is stark, as the G1.Sniper 5 came in about 5 FPS below the lead group, while the Z87X-OC Force was another few FPS below that. The gap isn't as pronounced in ET:QW, but the lower scores on two of Gigabyte's more high-end boards is odd.
Still, all of these motherboards are hitting no less than 174.01 FPS in Crysis and 291.32 in ET:QW with our test system components, which is superb performance all the way around.
|Throughout all of our benchmarking and testing, we also monitored how much power our test systems
consumed using a power meter. Our goal was to give you all an idea as
to how much power each configuration used while idling and while under a
heavy workload. Please keep in mind that we were testing total system power consumption at the outlet here, not just the power being drawn by the processors alone.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the little Impact was the most efficient motherboard in this group at idle, pulling just 69.7W at the wall, especially in contrast to the burly G1.Sniper 5, which wanted 117W. We see more parity when all of the systems are under load, though; the Impact and the Z87X-UD4H were close at 157W and 160W respectively, and the Gene and Formula were relatively in line as well.
|Summary and Conclusion|
|Performance Summary: ASUS is clearly doing something right. Its Z87 ROG boards generally delivered impressive benchmark scores, they were rock-solid stable, and they proved to have plenty of overclocking headroom--and that’s before an enterprising tinkerer spends hours or days tweaking all of the copious settings, voltages, speeds, etc. that ASUS has available in each board's respective BIOS.
Although ASUS has a wide range of Z87-based motherboards, the company chose to feature its ROG line here, and it’s easy to see why. First, there are multiple form factors available, so users can have more freedom to build exactly the type of system they crave, while still being able to leverage the same platform and (most of) the same features as the highest-end offerings in the lineup. More importantly, the ROG boards offer great performance and features overall.
The little Maximus VI Impact was particularly impressive, like many mini-ITX mainboards, and ASUS gets a tip o’ the hat for using a discrete sound card to include the same quality of audio components as the larger boards in the series. In fact, ASUS’ biggest achievement with this line may be the consistent feature set and software applications of all the boards, regardless of form factor.
Of course, not every board is exactly the same. For example, the Formula boasts the thermal armor, and although we’re not completely convinced that it has much of an impact on anything other than keeping dust at bay and adding a level of physical protection to underlying components, it’s additional features like that, that entice buyers.
Speaking of additional features, ASUS’ RAMDisk and MemTweakIt are useful tools that gamers are likely to use, while perhaps less potent but no less enjoyable offerings such as Sonic Radar, ROG Connect, ROG CPU-Z, and Game First II are icing on the cake. And of course, the many, many ways in which you can tweak the system with obsession-level minutiae will appeal to overclockers and gamers alike.
For our money, though, we were most impressed with the physical quality of these motherboards. We experienced essentially zero instability, cooling was commendable, and every tiny component felt solid and well-built.
You’ll pay handsomely--but not too handsomely--for the privilege of owning one of these motherboards. The Formula costs roughly $329.99, the Gene is in the $209.99 range, and the Impact is about $229.99, although you can find slightly lower prices if you poke around. With the Impact it seems you’re paying for the extra engineering, and there’s not a demonstrative difference between the Formula and the Gene other than some expandability options (and that thermal armor), so unless you specifically want to build a SFF PC or roll with more than two graphics cards, the Gene presents a relatively good value.
But with any of the three boards, you’ll be getting a solid gamer with attractive options and excellent build quality.