In the past few years ASRock has climbed the ranks of motherboard manufacturers and today they find themselves the third best-selling brand. ASRock’s Z77 lineup is quite impressive and currently offers no less than twelve motherboards to choose from. You’ll find everything from ITX, mATX, and full size ATX offerings within their Z77 chipset lineup. ASRock has made quite an effort to infiltrate the enthusiast level market as of late, and their “Extreme” line of motherboards is one of their stronger attempts at doing just that. Today I’ll be taking an in depth look at the Z77 Extreme4, which is positioned in the middle sector of their Z77 lineup.
Specifications and Features
Below is the list of specifications, proudly pilfered from ASRock’s web site. You honestly didn’t think I was going to type all this did you?
|Audio, Video and Networking|
|Expansion / Connectivity|
|Rear Panel I/O||
As we begin to explore the features of the Z77 Extreme4, it quickly becomes apparent that ASRock has taken full advantage of everything the Z77 platform has to offer, and then some. ASRock has developed there own feature they call “XFast 555″, which includes XFast RAM, XFast LAN, and XFast USB. ASRock claims 5X faster speeds in the areas these features target.
XFast RAM creates a RAM disk (or sometimes called a virtual disk) from the system memory. While this concept is not a new idea, the way ASRock has implemented it with a GUI is new. ASRock’s own internal testing has shown Photoshop to run five times faster using this feature.
|XFast LAN can lower latencies during specific tasks through the setting of priorities. The XFast LAN GUI Makes it easy to add programs or games to the list of items you can give priority status to.|
|With little information available on exactly how this feature works, we have to rely on ASRock’s explanation. ASRock states “XFast USB software modifies part of the USB driver, allowing it to multi-task and enhance the performance”. The GUI for XFast USB allows you to easily toggle the feature on or off.|
The XFast 555 features are just the beginning of whats available on the Z77 Extreme4, below are the rest of the features as provided by ASRock.
|ASRock motherboard supports Lucid Virtu Universal MVP technology that improves your PC’s visuals with faster response times, improved video processing, and smoother media playback, all with low power consumption.|
|Intel® Smart Connect Technology keeps content always up-to-date! It means that your email, favorite apps, and social networks are continually and automatically updated even when the system is asleep.|
|Intel® Rapid Start Technology gets your device up and running faster from even the deepest sleep, saving time and battery life. It quickly returns where you left off with a PC that goes from deep-sleep to full awake in a flash.|
|Intel® Smart Response Technology accelerates the system response experience by putting frequently-used blocks of disk data on a solid-state drive (SSD), providing dramatically faster access to user data than the hard disk alone can provide.|
|Users may prevent motherboard damages due to dampness by enabling “Dehumidifier Function”. When enabling Dehumidifier Function, the computer will power on automatically to dehumidify the system after entering S4/S5 state.|
|Fast, Easy and Free – ASRock OMG technology allows you to establish an internet curfew or restrict internet access at specified times. Administrators are able to schedule the starting and ending hours of internet access granted to other users. Normally, ISPs (Internet Service Provider) will charge for internet curfew service.|
|Internet Flash searches for available UEFI firmware updates from ASRock servers. System can auto-detect the latest UEFI from our servers and flash them within UEFI setup without entering Windows® OS.|
|Overclocking is no longer for K-series CPU users only. For those CPUs that aren’t K-series, ASRock No-K OC can unleash your CPU’s power by boosting its frequency with just one click.|
|Top-Class Quality Guaranteed. Premium Gold Caps are luxury capacitors. These 100% Japan-made solid capacitors are sleek, high gloss caps with a premium gold coating providing long life and stable performance.|
|More Precise, More Efficient. By adopting digital pulse-width modulation (PWM), the ASRock motherboard can provide CPU Vcore voltage more efficiently and smoothly. Compared to analog PWM, digital PWM can optimize the CPU power solution and provide a proper and stable Vcore for the processor.|
|This motherboard is designed with a 8 + 4 Power Phase design. It features sturdy components and completely smooth power delivery to the CPU. Plus, it offers unmatched overclocking capability and enhanced performance with the lowest temperature for advanced gamers as well.|
|This motherboard unlocks maximum memory performance, coming with 4 DIMM slots for dual-channel memory, supporting up to DDR3 2800+ (OC) MHz!|
|The ASRock motherboards support the Next-Gen PCI-E 3.0! PCI Express 3.0 can maximize the bandwidth for the next-gen PCI Express 3.0 VGA cards providing ultimate graphics performance.|
|Intel® HD Graphics simplifies your designs by eliminating additional discrete graphics hardware, while integrating stunning visuals and performance for immersive gaming.|
|THX TruStudio is specially designed to bring the same great audio experience found in live performances, films, and recording studios to the PC.|
|Unified Extensible Firmware Interface (UEFI) is a revolutionary BIOS utility which offers tweak-friendly options in an advanced viewing interface. Compared with traditional BIOS design, the latest UEFI utility provides lots improved functions.|
|UEFI system browser is a useful tool included in graphical UEFI. It can detect the devices and configurations that users are currently using in their PC. With the UEFI system browser, you can easily examine the current system configuration in UEFI setup.|
|ASRock Extreme Tuning Utility (AXTU) is an all-in-one software to fine tune different features in a user-friendly interface, which includes Hardware Monitor, Fan Control, Overclocking, OC DNA, IES and XFast RAM.|
|The ultimate solutions to enhance your media experience. From music management, music creation, video editing to photo management. Simply do more with your media than you ever thought possible.|
Packaging and First Look
The ASRock Z77 Extreme4 comes boxed in the typical manner most manufacturers use now days; accessories on top with the motherboard below. The black and gold theme applied to the box is secondary to the large “XFast 555″ emblem splashed across the front of the carton. It’s not hard to tell that ASRock wants the world to know how proud they are of their XFast 555 software. The back of the box again gives the XFast 555 features top billing, but also goes into more detail in regards to other features the Z77 chipset offers. The box sides have additional branding and brief mention of the major specifications.
With the box opened, we get our first look at the items included with the motherboard. Sitting on top are two leaflets, the first of which is a detailed installation guide for VirtuMVP. Additionally, the VirtuMVP leaflet goes into further detail about actually using the software once it is installed. The second leaflet is a detailed list of all three XFast 555 features (LAN, USB,RAM) and what they actually do.
Also sitting at the top is the driver and utility CD, a multilingual quick installation guide, and the software setup guide. The software setup guide is very well written and provides the user with a detailed walk through of the UEFI settings. At the back of the software setup guide you will find a couple of pages devoted to the ASRock Extreme Tuning Utility (AXTU), a Windows based tweaking utility.
As far as included accessories go, there isn’t a whole lot to talk about. Two SATA 6 cables, the I/O shield, and a solid SLI bridge is all you get folks. In order to keep the Z77 Extreme4 in the “affordable” category, things like accessories are first to be sacrificed. I’m cool with that concept if it means the motherboard itself is not stripped of features.
ASRock does a great job of protecting the motherboard inside the box. Not only is it wrapped in the customary anti-static bag, but the Styrofoam bed wraps around the bottom of the board and up all four sides.
We’ll go into more detail of the various areas of the motherboard shortly, but for now here are some overhead views for your perusing pleasure.
I suppose if you don’t mind brown as a motherboard color, it’s a pretty sharp looking color scheme. Other than brown looking so 1980′s, it might be difficult to build a color coordinated system around it. I can’t help but think how sweet this board would look if the PCB was black, but that’s my own opinion and everyone has their own preferences as far as aesthetics go.
You may have also noticed that even though the Z77 Extreme4 is classified as an ATX form factor, the width of the board falls short of that specification. Standard ATX specifications call for a motherboard width of 9.6 inches and this board measures out at 8.6 inches. The size difference might actually help with cable management, and I do not see this as an issue at all.
A Closer Look and Under the Hood
Starting with the outer extremities, we’ll work our way around the horn. Beginning at the bottom area of the Z77 Extreme4, we find connection points for the front panel HD audio, infrared module, HDMI-SPDIF, three USB 2.0, and the consumer infrared module (used with optional ASRock Smart Remote).
Further to the right of the bottom area is where we find a 4-pin fan header, the post code LED display, front panel switch/led pins, and the onboard power/reset buttons. Just above the post code LED display is the Winbond 64 MBit (8MB) AMI UEFI chip; and to the right of that is the clear CMOS jumper. The AMI UEFI chip is removable, but unfortunately there is only one accessible UEFI version. Without the option to switch between UEFI versions, if you have a flashing session go bad, you will need a replacement chip.
Moving over to the right side of the board we come to the eight SATA ports; four black and four gray. The four gray SATA ports are SATA 6 Gbps, but only the bottom two are native to the Z77 chipset. The upper two gray ports are provided via the ASMedia 1061 controller. All four black SATA ports are SATA 3 Gbps and are native to the chipset. It appears by the sticker applied to the top of the SATA ports that ASRock’s confidence in the ASMedia SATA controller is suspect. ASRock recommends populating all the other SATA ports before using the ASMedia ports for the best performance, especially if it is a boot drive.
Moving upward we come to the front panel USB 3.0 connection (native to Z77 chipset), the 24-pin ATX connector, and the four DDR3 DIMM slots. I really like this location for the front panel USB 3.0. It’s nice not having to stretch that cable clear over to the bottom area of the motherboard, which is where most manufacturers put this connector.
Forging onward and upward, we come to the top area of the Z77 Extreme4. Here we find dual CPU fan headers (1X4-pin and 1X3-pin) and another 3-pin fan header. Dual CPU fan headers are nice to have if you use an air cooling solution that uses dual fans in a push/pull configuration.
The upper-left section of the motherboard is where the 8-pin CPU ATX12V1 power connection is located. This is the perfect location for the 8-pin connector in my opinion, and it really makes cable management much easier.
The I/O area has all the usual suspects found on a modern day motherboard. There is a PS/2 port that will accept both a keyboard or mouse. Many gamers out there will appreciate the PS/2 port, as they still feel the PS/2 connection is more responsive than USB. Personally, I have no idea which is best, but it’s always nice to have both options! Four USB 3.0 ports are found here as well; two native and two provided by the ASMedia 1042 controller. If your game plan for this motherboard includes using VirtuMVP or the CPU’s IGP, then you will be pleased to see three monitor connection options (DVI-D, HDMI and D-SUB).
It’s always nice to have a clear CMOS button located on the back of a motherboard, thus making it unnecessary to take a side panel off to access the motherboard.
A single E-SATA3 port, two USB 2.0 ports, and a Broadcom BCM57781 LAN port are also available options at the I/O area. The onboard audio solution chosen for this motherboard is the Realtek ALC898 7.1 HD audio codec. The audio connection block also includes an optical out jack.
The lower-left side of the board doesn’t have much in the way of features, but we do get a good look at several of the so called “premium gold caps”. As long as we are on the subject of these caps, they are all Japanese as advertised. The advertising also states they have a “premium gold coating”. I’m assuming the paint is premium, because I can assure you there is no real gold in “them thar hills!”
As we turn our attention towards the interior area of the motherboard, the first thing I always like to do is remove the factory heatsinks to inspect the TIM application. I’m not a huge fan of heatsinks that are secured using spring loaded push pins, but these seem to do the job well enough. Beginning with the Z77 PCH heatsink, I found that just the right amount of TIM was applied. With the heatsink removed, and after a bit of cleaning, we can get a closeup look at the PCH chip itself.
Having a look at the 8+4 power phase delivery system and the Digi-Power PWM chips, we find the cooling solution is via two independent heatsinks. Again, these are secured with the same push pins used on the PCH heatsink. Both of the PWM heatsinks use a thermal pad, which was superbly applied and showed equal pressure to the target areas across the span of the heatsink.
The CPU socket area is relatively clear of obstructions and should allow for just about any CPU cooling solution on the market. As always, memory height needs to be considered when making a decision on an air cooler. However, I can’t imagine a CPU water block that wouldn’t fit here. There is ample room between the CPU socket and the left side PWM heatsink as well, so no worries there either.
Another nice feature of CPU socket area is the dual drilling, which will accommodate both socket 775 and 1155/1156 cooler mounting. Nice touch there!
The Z77 Extreme4 expansion slot area features one PCI-e X16, one PCI-e X8, two PCI-e X1, and two PCI slots. A single graphics card will operate at X16 speeds, but two cards in SLI or Crossfire will drop to X8/X8. If you run a SLI or Crossfire setup on this motherboard, you will be pleased to see the three slot distance between the two PCI-e graphic slots. This spacing will make it easy to keep a dual graphics card configuration nice and cool.
ASRock’s web site and the enclosed installation guide both proclaim support for a Quad SLI and Quad Crossfire. Obviously, this is not possible by using four video cards because there are only two PCI-e graphics slots available to use. I suppose you could use a pair of of dual core video cards, such as a GTX 690 to achieve a quad setup; but I think they should mention that in the specifications or remove the claim all together.
Just above the top PCI-e X1 slot are two more 3-pin fan headers. I can’t say that I am impressed by the location of these two fan headers. I typically like to see them located as close to the edge of the board as possible, and not in the center of the board as these two are.
As you can see in the picture above, and again in the picture below, there is no shortage of white screen-printing on this motherboard. A little overkill? I’ll let you decide!
Because the Z77 chipset only supports two SATA 6 ports and four USB 3.0 ports, ASRock chose ASMedia to provide additional connectivity in both areas. The ASM1061 chip in the picture below is responsible for the additional SATA 6 ports, and the ASM1042 chip is responsible for the additional USB 3.0 ports found on the back I/O panel.
The sensor functions on the Z77 Extreme4 motherboard are implemented by way of the Nuvoton NCT6776D H/W Monitoring chip, pictured below.
Finishing up our up close look at the Z77 Extreme4 is a look at the back side of the motherboard. There isn’t a whole lot to talk about here other then the nicely done solder points throughout and the Foxconn CPU socket retention backplate.
Ok, let’s dive into the UEFI’s less exciting areas first then we’ll go through the “OC Tweaker” section that I’m sure you are most interested in.
The main screen that greets you upon entry has some basic system information, such as the installed CPU, memory amount, and the firmware version. At the bottom of the screen there are two sub menus: System Browser and Online Management Guard (OMG). The system browser is actually more of a hardware browser than anything. If you click on it, a pop-up window appears with highlights around the areas of the motherboard that you have hardware installed in. The OMG feature allows you to turn off internet access at scheduled periods of time for each day of the week. A teenager’s worst nightmare!
Under the advanced tab is where you will enable or disable most of the chipset, onboard devices, and CPU features. At the bottom is the UEFI Update Utility; and I can tell you from experience, the instant flash feature works flawlessly. I updated to the latest firmware using Instant Flash, and it went off without a hitch.
Moving quickly through the remaining sections, the H/W Monitor section will give you real time information on temperatures, fan speeds, and voltages. At the bottom is something some of you may not have seen before, the Dehumidifier Function. If you live in an area with unusually high humidity, you can enable this feature to set the computer to wake up from a sleep state and run for a scheduled period of time. You may find this feature useful if you go on vacation or if the computer will not be used for an extended period of time.
Under the Boot tab is where you will set boot priorities and assign HDD, optical, and USB boot priorities
The Security section allows you to set UEFI passwords for supervisors or users.
The Exit tab is where you will save any changes made, discard changes, load defaults… you get the idea!
Rounding out our tour of the UEFI Setup Utility, we land on the OC Tweaker section. Obviously, if you are an overclocker, this is where you will be spending a lot of time. There is a plethora of settings at your disposal here, surely enough to keep even the most seasoned overclocker occupied for quite a while.
The first three pictures below are all from the main OC Tweaker screen, it took that many screen shots to show all the available options. Some of the highlights include the ability to manipulate voltages for the CPU, memory, and many of the sub-systems. Under the DRAM Timing Configuration is a list of the memory XMP profiles; the G.Skill kit I am using was identified and set correctly. You can also set your memory manually at speeds ranging from DDR3-1066 all the way up to DDR3-2800.
You may be interested to know that the CPU voltage can be set as high as 1.7v and the memory voltage can be set up to 1.8v. Both the CPU and IGPU load line calibrations are presented in five different levels, level 1 through 5. Setting LLC to level 5 effectively turns it off. At the bottom you will find options to save up to three user profiles.
There is really only one sub menu in the OC Tweaker area and it deals with DRAM configuration. This is where you can set all your memory timings manually if you choose to do so.
Overall, a pretty darn detailed and overclocking friendly UEFI has been implemented here, not much to complain about!
AXTU and XFast 555 Software
The ASRock Extreme Tuning Utility (AXTU) Windows based software has six areas to explore. Beginning with the Hardware Monitor section, you get real time information on CPU speed, fan speed, temperatures, and voltage readings. The ability to set fan speeds based on target temperatures can be found under the Fan Control section. You can only use temperature-based fan speed control on the two CPU fan headers and one of the system fan headers.
Moving on to the Overclocking section of AXTU, we find a rather limited array of options here. CPU ratio, BCLK frequency, and a few voltage adjustments are all that is here. Other than the memory voltage option, there is not much you can do with memory settings. Inside of the OCDNA section you get some information on the motherboard model and the UEFI firmware version. You can also set up to three user profiles here.
The IES (Intelligent Energy Saver) section is where you can turn this feature on or off. The basic idea behind this feature is to manipulate the voltage regulator in order to reduce the number of output phases during CPU idle states, thus saving energy and satisfying the “green” in all of us. The last section of the AXTU software is dedicated to setting up the XFast RAM feature. If you are using a 32 bit operating system and find yourself using more installed memory than it can utilize (over 4 GB), you can use XFast Ram to create a virtual drive from the unused memory. 64 bit operating system users can use XFast RAM to create a RAM Disk and use it for caching purposes.
As mentioned previously the XFast 555 software is comprised of three different utilities. XFast RAM is included in the AXTU software package, but XFast USB and XFast LAN are stand alone software utilities.
XFast LAN is actually an ASRock branded licensed copy of cFossSpeed. There are pages of options associated with this utility, far more than time or space allow me to cover in depth here. Suffice to say, the most useful function is the prioritizing of applications. One example is if you like to download files while gaming online, you can set the priority for the game you are playing at a higher level, thus making the file downloading have little to no impact on your game play. Obviously there is much more you can do with this utility, and I invite you to visit the Cfos website linked to above, or view ASRock’s video tutorial.
Rounding out the XFast 555 software is XFast USB. I just had to test this one out for my self to see if I could get anywhere near the claim of five times faster speeds. I used the same benchmark (ATTO) as ASRock; but instead of putting a SSD in a USB enclosure like they did, I used a USB 2.0 and USB 3.0 thumb drive for the testing. What I found was the write speeds had little to no increase at all, and the read speeds were somewhat faster… but not five times faster. Below are the results using the Intel native USB 3.0 controller, the ASMedia USB 3.0 controller, and finally, the Intel native USB 2.0 controller.
I’m sure given the perfect set of circumstances and hardware, the claim of five times greater speeds could be achieved; but for the normal day to day user… probably not. You have to love the creative marketing though (think Quad SLI/Crossfire support)!
Here’s the rundown of the components used for testing:
- ASRock Z77 Extreme4 Motherboard
- Intel i7 3770K CPU
- G.Skill F3-2400C10D-16GTX TridentX 2X8 Gb DDR3 2400 Mhz Kit
- PowerColor PCS+ HD7850 Video Card
- Kingston SSDNow V200 128 Gb SSD
- Thermaltake Water 2.0 Pro CPU Cooler
- Corsair HX1050 PSU
I wanted to find a 24/7 stable overclock, while keeping the temperatures under control, with the end result being a speed even those with a decent air cooling solution could obtain. The Thermaltake Water 2.0 Pro used in the test setup works quite well, but lets be honest here… most all-in-one water cooling solutions are not much better than high-end air coolers, if at all. There, I said it!
First up was a system stability test at stock speeds. I did this more to make sure the memory was stable at its rated speed of 2400 Mhz. I have been convinced by several people, including my esteemed colleague hokiealumnus, that the AIDA64 System Stability Test is the way forward. The main advantage of AIDA 64 is that is runs all the instruction sets concurrently, unlike the other popular choices out there.
The Z77 Extreme4 had no problem at all with running the memory at 2400 Mhz, and as expected the CPU was stable at stock speeds. All memory timings and voltages were set manually; I’ve never been a big fan of using XMP profiles and prefer to set things myself. I will tell you though, the XMP profile worked just fine; it’s just my personal preference to go the manual way.
I ended up settling on 4.8 Ghz as the 24/7 stable overclock. Getting there was a piece of cake, it only required changing the multiplier to 48 and setting the CPU voltage to 1.275 in BIOS. I set the LLC value to level 1, which resulted in a 100% load voltage of 1.280 during the stability test. My suggestion is to just set the LLC to level 1 if you are going to overclock; there is very little over voltage associated with level 1, and the voltage stays extremely consistent.
The Z77 Extreme4 shipped with UEFI firmware version 1.90, which interestingly enough is nowhere to be found on their web site. That made me a tad nervous, so I updated to the latest 2.00. So far I have no complaints with the 2.00 firmware. All signs point to it being stable and very overclocking friendly.
On with the benchmarks, beginning with a stock and overclocked run of SuperPI 1M and 32M. I’ll be providing benchmark results at both stock speeds (3.5 Ghz), and at 4.8 Ghz during this phase of the review. This should give both the non-overclocker and the enthusiast overclocking crowd a good idea of the performance levels.
The SuperPI non-overclocked times below are about what is expected, and the overclocked times are pretty darn good!
Next up is wPrime 32M and 1024M using eight threads. Nothing earth shaking in these results, but nothing to sneeze at either!
Cinebench R10 (x64) and 11.5 (x64) will start off the synthetic portion of the benchmarks, again run at stock and overclocked. There was quite a significant gain between the stock and overclock runs, but no big surprise there. I did run into my first instability during the Cinebench 11.5 overclocked run, but raising the CPU voltage just one notch to 1.280v cured that problem.
The next synthetic benchmarks have to do with memory performance, first up is the AIDA64 Cache & Memory Benchmark. Even though this is a memory benchmark, substantial gains were noticed between the stock and overclocked runs.
Much like AIDA64, MaxxMEM also showed good latency and bandwidth improvements between the stock and overclocked runs.
Pushing the Envelope
As expected, I quickly ran out of thermal capacity, but I was able to get to 5.0 Ghz and complete a run of SuperPI 1M and wPrime 32M. It took 1.4v to the CPU to get there. The IB processors need cold……. and a lot of it! There were only minimal gains from the results we saw at 4.8 Ghz.
At the time of this review, the Z77 Extreme4 can be had for as little as $114.99 at Newegg. That price definitely puts it at the lower end of the Z77 market. What doesn’t put it at the lower end of the market is the raw performance of the motherboard. Sure, you don’t get a massive power phase count, dual LAN, mSATA port, or a host of accessories in the box; but you don’t get the price tag that comes along with all that either.
As far as the features that are part of the Z77 chipset, everything is there and more. The XFast 555 suite of utilities adds additional value to the product, even though the marketing hype surrounding it might be a bit overdone.
I found the UEFI firmware to be very stable and a piece of cake to work with. ASRock did a great job with the layout and looks of the UEFI, not to mention, it had no problem running my 2X8 Gb sticks at their rated speed from the moment I booted the system. This was not the case on another Z77 motherboard I recently reviewed, which cost three times what this one does. Limited only by CPU temperatures, the Z77 Extreme4 seemed willing and able to accommodate any overclocking I had the nerve to attempt. As most overclockers will attest to, it’s nice to have a motherboard that does not limit your overclocking and allows you to get the most out of your CPU without getting in the way.
There are a few minor issues I could mention if I was to nitpick. First is the color of the PCB, brown is not the best choice in my opinion. This especially holds true when the rest of the color scheme on the board is black and gold. In my opinion, a black PCB would have been awesome looking! There are two fan headers almost smack dab in the middle of the motherboard, which is not very conducive to good cable management. As mentioned earlier in the review, I much prefer fan headers to be as close to the edge of the motherboard as possible. The last little gripe I have is the lack of a dual UEFI firmware switch, this feature is pretty much common practice on any enthusiast level motherboard now days. I can’t imagine it would add very much to the price either.
All told, I’d have to say that the ASRock Z77 Extreme4 is an exceptional value at its current price point, and would be a great choice for any budget minded enthusiast out there.
- Dino DeCesari (Lvcoyote)