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ASUS passed along one of their new Z170 chipset motherboards for us to take a look at today. The ASUS Z170-A is basically an economically priced version of the Z170-Deluxe we reviewed recently. While it may be slimmed down a bit, it still offers a lot of features and full support for the new Skylake processors. If you’re looking to get into the Skylake/Z170 platform and not break the bank while doing so, ASUS thinks they have just what you need in the Z170-A. Let’s go check it out!
Specifications and Features
Looking at the below specifications, we can see full support for all the latest Skylake/Z170 technologies. Other than the USB 3.1 controller and audio solution, just about everything is native to the Z170 chipset. No corners were cut on the LAN controller with the use of Intel’s latest I219V solution. SATA Express and an M.2 x4 storage connectivity complement the six SATA 6 GB/s ports to maximize storage options. Fast memory speeds are supported via XMP, and up to 64 GB of DDR4 can be installed. The motherboard also supports NVIDIA SLI/AMD CrossFireX in a number of different configurations. Specifications provided by the ASUS product page.
|ASUS Z170-A Specifications|
|CPU||LGA1151 socket for 6th Generation Intel Core i7/i5/i3/Pentium/Celeron Processors|
Supports 14nm CPU
Supports Intel Turbo Boost Technology 2.0
|Chipset||Intel Z170 Express Chipset|
|Memory||4 x DIMM max 64GB, DDR4 3466(OC) / 3400(OC) / 3333(OC) / 3300(OC) / 3200(OC) / 3000(OC) / 2800 (OC) / 2666(OC) / 2400(OC) / 2133 MHz, non-ECC, un-buffered|
Dual channel memory architecture
Supports Intel Extreme Memory Profile (XMP)
|Expansion Slots||2 x PCI Express 3.0/2.0 x16 slots (single at x16 / dual at x8/x8 mode)|
1 x PCI Express 3.0/2.0 x16 slot (max at x4 mode)
3 x PCI Express 2.0 x1 slots
1 x PCI
|Graphic||Integrated Graphics Processor- Intel® HD Graphics support|
Multi-VGA output support : HDMI/DVI-D/RGB/DisplayPort ports
– Supports HDMI with max. resolution 4096 x 2160 @ 24 Hz / 2560 x 1600 @ 60 Hz
– Supports DVI-D with max. resolution 1920 x 1200 @ 60 Hz
– Supports RGB with max. resolution 1920 x 1200 @ 60 Hz
– Supports DisplayPort with max. resolution 4096 x 2304 @ 60 Hz
Maximum shared memory of 512 MB
Supports Intel® InTru™ 3D, Quick Sync Video, Clear Video HD Technology, Insider™
Supports up to 3 displays simultaneously
DP 1.2 Multi-Stream Transport compliant, supports DP 1.2 monitor daisy chain up to 3 displays
|Multi-GPU Support||Supports NVIDIA® Quad-GPU SLI™ Technology|
Supports AMD Quad-GPU CrossFireX™ Technology
|Storage||Intel® Z170 chipset : |
1 x SATA Express port, compatible with 2 x SATA 6.0 Gb/s ports
1 x M.2 x4 Socket 3, with M Key, type 2242/2260/2280/22110 storage devices support (both SATA & PCIE mode)
6 x SATA 6Gb/s ports, gray
Support Raid 0, 1, 5, 10
Supports Intel® Smart Response Technology
|LAN||Intel I219V Gigabit LAN Controller|
|Audio||Realtek® ALC892 8-Channel High Definition Audio CODEC featuring Crystal Sound 3|
|USB||Intel® Z170 chipset :|
6 x USB 3.0/2.0 ports (2 at back panel, blue, 4 at mid-board)
Intel® Z170 chipset :
6 x USB 2.0/1.1 ports (2 at back panel, , 4 at mid-board)
ASMedia® USB 3.1 controller :
1 x USB 3.1/3.0/2.0 port (1 at back panel, , Type-C)
ASMedia® USB 3.1 controller :
1 x USB 3.1/3.0/2.0 port (1 at back panel, teal blue, Type-A)
|Back Panel I/O Ports||1 x PS/2 keyboard/mouse combo port|
1 x DVI-D
1 x D-Sub
1 x DisplayPort
1 x HDMI
1 x LAN (RJ45) port
1 x USB 3.1 Type-C
1 x USB 3.1 (teal blue)Type-A
2 x USB 3.0 (blue) Type-A
2 x USB 2.0
1 x Optical S/PDIF out
5 x Audio jacks
|Internal I/O Connectors||2 x USB 3.0 connectors supports additional 4 USB 3.0 ports (19-pin)|
2 x USB 2.0 connectors supports additional 4 USB 2.0 ports
1 x SATA Express connector: , compatible with 2 x SATA 6.0 Gb/s ports
1 x M.2 Socket 3
1 x TPM header
1 x COM port(s) connector
6 x SATA 6Gb/s connectors
1 x CPU Fan connector (1 x 4 -pin)
1 x CPU OPT Fan connector (1 x 4 -pin)
4 x Chassis Fan connectors (4 x 4 -pin)
1 x S/PDIF out header
1 x Thunderbolt header
1 x 24-pin EATX Power connector
1 x 8-pin ATX 12V Power connector
1 x EZ XMP switch
1 x Front panel audio connector (AAFP)
1 x System panel (Q-Connector)
1 x DRCT header
1 x MemOK! button
1 x TPU switch
1 x Power-on button
1 x Clear CMOS jumper
1 x 5-pin EXT_FAN (Extension Fan) connector
1 x USB BIOS Flashback Card header
1 x Water Pump header (4-pin)
1 x 14-1 pin TPM connector
|OS Support||Windows 10|
|Form Factor||ATX Form Factor 12″ x 9.6″ (30.6 cm x 24.4 cm)|
The image below gives you a good idea of the layout and aesthetics of the Z170-A. We’ll explore all this later in the review.
ASUS continues to offer their 5-Way Optimization software within the AI Suite III software package. I know most of our readers prefer to overclock through the UEFI BIOS, but 5-Way optimization works very well and is a lot of fun to play around with.
The ASUS TPU feature is an onboard chip that works for automatic overclocking either by the 2-phase switch on the motherboard or through the AI Suite III utility. The EPU feature is geared towards energy efficiency by adjusting the power consumption to match the needs of the PC. The Fan Xpert 3 utility is another module in AI Suite III that now offers control over a dedicated water pump header found on the motherboard. Many of the same options are available from within the UEFI BIOS as well. The DIGI+ power control is again assigned the task of voltage regulation now that the FIVR is no longer built into the Skylake CPUs. It’s said to enhance overclocking potential, increase system stability, and provide improved power efficiency. The Turbo App is yet another utility found in AI Suite III and lets you customize overclocks, audio features, network data, and fan control to a specific software application. Once the application is launched, the customized settings you create are automatically set in motion.
Fan Xpert 3
A new addition to the ASUS Z170 series of motherboards is their Pro Clock integrated IC. Now that the BCLK has been untied from other system clock generators, you have the ability to set the BCLK speed a lot higher than before without the strap limitations. The Pro Clock IC allows for BCLK settings well above the Intel limit of 170 MHz.
DDR4 support on a mainstream platform makes its debut with the Skylake/Z170 platform. ASUS touts support for memory speeds up to 3400 MHz with all four DIMM slots populated.
It’s now possible to combine a pair of PCI-E storage devices and run a RAID array. You can use the onboard M.2 x4 slot and install another x4 capable storage device to one of the PCI-E slots to accomplish this.
There is an abundance of fast storage options found on the Z170-A. SATA-Express, M.2 x4, and USB 3.1 offer much improved speeds over their past generation counterparts. We’re finally starting to see a spattering of SATA Express components arrive on the market, so maybe there’s hope yet for that interface.
The ASUS UEFI BIOS gets a few upgrades with these new motherboards. The My Favorites sections now adds a set of pre-loaded navigation options, and EZ Flash 3 now allows flashing the firmware via the internet just to name a couple. Two levels of UEFI BIOS options are available – EZ Mode for the novice user and Advanced Mode for the more seasoned enthusiast.
One of the areas where a little cost was saved was by using the Realtek ALC892 Audio CODEC instead of the higher end ALC1150. Even so, the rest of the Crystal 3 audio solution stay intact with its host of features.
ASUS uses the latest Intel LAN solution on the Z170 – the I219V controller. Intel LAN controllers have long been the favorite among the gaming crowd, so it’s nice to see it implemented here. Turbo LAN is the accompanying bandwidth prioritization software.
The motherboard’s built-in protection features include surge protection for the LAN port (LANGuard), overvoltage protection, overcurrent protection, stable power delivery through the DIGI+ VRM, and a stainless steel back I/O.
One last set of features worth mentioning is the ASUS Easy PC DIY group of items, which are intended to make building and maintaining your system easier. Included in this set of features are the CPU installation kit and several “Q” features as mentioned below. On the PC maintenance side, ASUS now offers PC Cleaner for easy removal of unwanted/unused files and programs.
The retail box keeps true to the other Z170 channel series packaging we’ve seen from ASUS to date. Black and white is the main color scheme here with minimal branding on the front and sides. The back of the box goes into much greater detail about the motherboard’s specifications and features.
Inside the retail box, the motherboard sits on top and is wrapped in an anti-static bag. Sitting below is a very adequate set of accessories for a motherboard in this class. Here is what’s included.
• User’s Manual
• I/O Shield
• 3 x SATA 6Gb/s Cables
• 1 x M.2 Screw Package
• 1 x CPU Installation Tool
• 1 x SLI Bridge
• 1 x Q-Connector (1 in 1)
The below pictures were taken from a variety of angles and give you a first look at the Z170-A. The white highlights come via the plastic I/O cover and the PCH heatsink. Almost everything else on the motherboard is either black or a dark gray color, except for the PCB. The PCB is a very dark brown color, which is pretty common on price-conscious motherboards.
The ASUS Z170-A Up Close
The bottom of the motherboard contains a lot of I/O connections, so we’ll start at the bottom-left edge. First in line is the front panel audio connector followed by the serial port header, onboard power button, TPM connector, Thunderbolt header, and a pair of USB 2.0 front panel headers. If you look closely just above the bottom PCI-E x16 slot, you see a header marked “FLBK_HEADER”. ASUS is planning to offer an add-on BIOS Flashback card to bring the capability to lower end motherboards that offer the feature by default.
At the bottom-right edge, we find a USB 3.0 front panel header, the Fan Extension header (sold separately), a 4-pin PWM fan connector, the EZ XMP switch, and connectors for a case’s wiring. Just above these is the TPU switch that when activated initiates an automatic overclocking function. The EZ XMP switch can be used to set the system memory to its XMP profile without having to enter the UEFI BIOS.
Over on the right side of the motherboard, we come to the six SATA 6 GB/s ports and the single SATA Express port – all of which are native to the chipset. You can see the back-side of the M.2 port just below the SATA ports and the four threaded pegs to support all the different length M.2 SSDs.
Further up the right side, we find the second USB 3.0 front panel header, the 24-pin ATX power connector, and the MemOK! button. The MemOK! button can be used to initiate an automatic compatibility tuning sequence for memory that might otherwise be incompatible and keep the system from booting.
Along the top of the motherboard are three 4-pin PWM fan headers, the 8-pin CPU AUX 12V power connector, and the CPU overvolt jumper. Two of the fan headers are to be used with CPU fans, and the other is a system fan header. The CPU overvoltage jumper allows for higher CPU voltages, but probably shouldn’t be used unless you’re going with extreme cooling (read LN2).
The left side of the motherboard has all the rear panel I/O connections and all the pieces that make up the Crystal 3 audio solution. The I/O connections offer a pair of USB 2.0 connections and display connectivity that includes a DisplayPort, HDMI, VGA, and DVI-D. The assumption is that an economical board such as this may draw people that intend to use the iGPU for their graphics, and they’ll have plenty of options for hooking up their monitors if that’s the route they take. Next in line is the Keyboard/mouse combo PS/2 port, a pair of USB 3.0 ports, the LAN jack, and two USB 3.1 ports (Type-A and Type-C). Lastly, the audio jacks support up to 7.1 channel speaker configurations and also contain an optical out port if needed.
At the bottom of the left side, we can see the Crystal 3 audio and its PCB separation line, amplifier, Japanese-made audio capacitors, and EMI cover protecting the Realtek ALC892 CODEC.
The expansion slots consist of three PCI-E 3.0 x16 slots, three PCI-E 3.0 x1 slots, and one PCI slot. A single graphics card in the top PCI-E x16 slot will run at x16 speed, and a pair of graphics cards in SLI/CrossFireX will run at x8/x8. Looking between the bottom two PCI-E x16 slots, we get another look at the M.2 mounting pegs and a view of the M.2 port itself. M.2 SATA and PCI-E interface SSDs are supported in lengths of 2242/2260/2280/22110.
The CPU socket area is about as wide open an area as we’ve seen. The MOSFET heatsinks, memory slots, and the top PCI-E x16 slot are all a good distance away from the socket. It’s hard to imagine a CPU cooler (air or water) that won’t fit here. The DIMM slots are also viewable from the pictures below and utilize the Q-DIMM feature, which means a single release lever. Officially, memory speeds up to DDR4 3466 MHz (OC) are supported, and a total capacity of 64 GB can be installed. The last picture below shows the three additional 4-pin PWM fan headers located just below the left side MOSFET heatsink. The white fan header is intended for water pumps and AIO coolers and is set to run at 100% speed by default.
If the white plastic cover over the I/O doesn’t fit your fancy, it can easily be removed by taking out three screws. Once off, we can see the stainless steel I/O blocks.
The passive cooling scheme includes a large heatsink over the PCH and two heatsinks covering the MOSFET areas. All of the heatsinks use a thermal pad for their TIM solution. The PCH heatsink is held in place with screws, and the MOSFET heatsinks use spring loaded push-pins to secure them in place. All of the thermal pads were found to be making excellent contact with their target points.
With the heatsinks removed, we see the 10-phase CPU/iGPU power phases. It’s not the most robust power phase design you’ll ever see, but should be more than adequate for the task at hand. The power phases are controlled by the all digital DIGI+ VRM controller, which now has full control of that function since the FIVR has been removed from Skylake processors.
The group of pictures below outlines several ICs found on the motherboard, which provide many of functions/features the Z170-A offers.
The ASUS UEFI BIOS
Your initial entry into the UEFI BIOS lands you in the EZ Mode area where you get a basic set of options. From here, you can set the memory’s XMP pofile, set boot priorities, and perform a good deal of fan control. Basic system information and monitoring information can be found at the top of the screen. You can also initiate the EZ Tuning Wizard, which performs system optimization once you select a PC scenario and what kind of cooling you are using. It can also guide you through setting up RAID arrays. Q-Fan Control options are available within EZ Mode, which let you choose between four different presets or choose to manually control the fans.
By pressing F7, you’ll be taken to the Advanced Mode area of the UEFI BIOS. My Favorites is the first tab within Advanced Mode and comes pre-loaded with shortcuts you’re most likely to visit. The list can be cleared out if you want to start fresh and do your own customization. If you clear the list and decide later you want it back, then it can be restored as well.
The next tab is the Main tab, which gives you BIOS and CPU information at a glance. The language, date, time, and security settings can be adjusted from here also.
The Ai Tweaker tab is where you’ll find everything related to overclocking, memory settings, and power delivery. A full allotment of voltage control, memory timing adjustments, and power phase controls are at your disposal here. ASUS even provides a Tweakers Paradise sub-menu that up until now was reserved for the ROG series of motherboards. ASUS didn’t cut any corners on the UEFI BIOS – it has the same set of overclocking options their more expensive motherboards have.
The Advanced tab holds everything related to system configuration. The 11 sub-menus hold a plethora of options including a new feature called HDD/SSD SMART Information, which gives you real-time information on the S.M.A.R.T. status of your hard drives. The rest of the options in the Advanced tab are self explanatory as you peruse the thumbnail images below.
The Monitor tab provides a detailed look at real-time voltage, fan speed, and temperature monitoring. The Q-Fan Configuration sub-menu is where you want to go for complete control of any fan connected to one of the onboard fan headers. PWM (4-pin) and DC (3-pin) control is configurable on each fan header and can be targeted to any monitored temperature. ASUS is the only manufacturer that offers this level of fan control for both PWM and DC fans. The motherboard comes with seven fan headers and one T-Sensor, but you can add more of each by purchasing the Fan Extension Card and control fans hooked to it in the same manner. Another thing worth mentioning here is the fan step up and step down delay options. The delays can be set anywhere from 2.1 seconds up to 25 seconds. This can eliminate extreme fan speed fluctuations and fan noise associated with it. Thinking of getting a fan controller to go with this motherboard? Forget it – you won’t need it!
Inside the Boot tab are all the system post behavior options. Most of this is pretty standard stuff, but you do have options for arranging the boot device priorities. If you prefer to land in the Advanced Mode area when entering the UEFI BIOS, that can be configured here also.
The Tool tab has several useful tools and a couple new additions to the Channel Series motherboards. The EZ Flash 3 utility now comes with the ability to flash the firmware via the internet. Secure Erase is another feature that was reserved for ROG motherboards up until now, and provides the ability to secure erase a SSD right from within the UEFI BIOS. You can save up to eight profiles directly to the UEFI BIOS or an unlimited amount to an external USB device, which is easily done by visiting the ASUS Overclocking Profile utility. The SPD Information utility gives you the JEDEC and XMP SPD tables for the installed memory. The Graphics Card Information utility features GPU Post, which gives you a list of everything installed in a PCI-E slot.
The Exit tab is standard fare with the exception of a nifty pop-up window that displays any changes made during the current session. You’ll see this window come up when you invoke the “Save Changes & Reset” option.
Bundled Software – AI Suite III
AI Suite III is a comprehensive set of desktop utilities designed to make the overall ownership as easy as possible. The champion of this suite of utilities is the Dual Intelligent Processors 5 utility and its 5-Way optimization tool. The 5-Way Optimization tool will run your system through an overclock process that you have total control over. You can target your overclock to a specific voltage, frequency, or CPU temperature; and the process will stop once it reaches your target. A stress test is performed at different stages of the overclock; and you can choose how long it runs, add a memory stress test, and enable AVX testing if desired. EPU power efficiency and fan optimization can be added to the process as well. If you prefer to perform all this manually, simply enter the TPU, EPU, DIGI+, and Fan Xpert 3 areas and have at it! DIP5 also holds the TurboApp utility, which allows application specific overclocking, audio, and LAN profiles. TurboApp allows user defined overclocks to any application and will apply them as soon as the application is launched. The audio and LAN profiles can also be applied when the application is launched, if desired.
Fan Xpert 3 is worth a visit on its own right if you don’t use DIP5 for anything else. It offers options similar to the QFan feature in the UEFI BIOS, but in an easy to follow GUI format. Fax Xpert 3 also allows lets you assign a location to any fan installed in your case for quick identification. Another cool feature is that you can use the graphical fan slope option to control fans individually or mirror one fan’s settings to all the others with a single click.
The rest of AI Suite III Is pretty self explanatory as you look through the thumbnail images below, but there are a couple new additions to the family. PC Cleaner is one of them and will scan your system for unneeded files and offer to remove them after the scan. The other new feature is Mobo Connect, which allows you to share a keyboard and mouse with any physically connected Android device.
Turbo LAN is the bandwidth priority software that ASUS provides. It provides a full set of options to prioritize games, file sharing, media streaming, or any program that uses network bandwidth.
Benchmarks and Overclocking
Here are the components used in our Skylake/Z170 test system.
|Test System Components|
|CPU||Intel i7 6700K Skylake|
|Memory||G.SKill Ripjaws V DDR4-3600 MHz 2X4 GB kit|
|SSD||ADATA Premier SP610 512 GB SSD|
|Power Supply||Corsair HX1050 Professional Series|
|Video Card||EVGA GTX 780 Ti Classified|
|Cooling||EKWB Supremacy EVO Water Block – 360 mm Radiator – MCP35X Pump|
|OS||Windows 7 Professional x64|
We’ll use our normal set of benchmarks to test compression, rendering, video conversion, memory performance, and 2D performance. Because we’re just getting started with the Skylake/Z170 platform, we don’t have a lot of comparison data at this time. So, we’ll simply provide screenshots of the stock and overclocked benchmark results. For the stock testing, the CPU was set to its turbo speed of 4.2 GHz with the memory set to its XMP profile speed of 3600 MHz. I’ll check these results against the ASUS Z170-Deluxe we recently reviewed just to make sure no abnormalities exist as far as performance goes. The two motherboards should exhibit very similar results as all the other components used are identical.
As far as overclocking on the Z170-A, it easily took our CPU to 4.8 GHz with a bump in vCore to 1.43 V, and a few other minor adjustments. That’s the same stable overclock we achieved on the Z170-Deluxe, but that board did it at 1.42 V. Not a huge difference there, but worth mentioning. Even though the “official” memory support shows 3466 MHz as being the highest, the Z170-A had no problems running our G.Skill DDR4-3600 MHz using its XMP profile. In the screenshots below, you’ll see that CPU-Z wasn’t able to correctly read the CPU voltage, so don’t pay any attention to what you see there.
Compression, Rendering, and Video Conversion Benchmarks
Cinebench R10 – R11.5 – R15
x264 Pass 1 and 2
PoV Ray R3.73
7zip Compression Benchmark
Wprime 32M and 1024M
SuperPi 1M and 32M
Aida64 Cache & Memory
The ASUS Z170-A performed extremely well and was right on par with the much more expensive Z170-Deluxe. Some of the scores above were higher than the ASUS Z170-Deluxe, some a little lower, and a couple were exactly the same. So, certainly nothing to complain about on the performance front.
Pushing the Limits
At 1.475 V vCore, we were able to get to the desktop and get a suicide run of SuperPi 1M accomplished at 5 GHz. That’s about all we could do though as anything more stressful resulted in either a blue screen or system lock-up. This is the exact same result we achieved on the Z170-Deluxe too, so you can see that the overclocking potential is definitely there with the Z170-A.
From strictly a performance point of view, the ASUS Z170-A matches up well with motherboards costing twice as much. Sure, you don’t get things like dual LAN ports and Wi-Fi, dual M.2 slots, and extra SATA ports from a third party controller, but you also don’t get the price tag that comes along with all that. Don’t get us wrong though, the Z170-A comes well-appointed with M.2 x4 support, SATA Express, Intel LAN, the Crystal 3 audio solution, and several other enthusiast-level features we discussed along the way. Couple that with the industry’s best accompanying software package in AI Suite III, and you’ve got a great combination going on.
So, just how much is this price conscious ASUS offering going to set you back? It’s currently available at Newegg for $165, which is a great price considering the enthusiast-level performance and overclocking ability the motherboard offers.
ASUS set out to prove it’s not necessary to spend high-end money to get high-end performance, and the Z170-A is an excellent example of this. If you’re looking to build a price conscious system around the Skylake/Z170 platform, you’ll definitely want to give the ASUS Z170-A a good hard look.