With the release of the new Haswell line of CPUs, motherboard manufacturers are rolling out motherboards to support the new socket 1150 platform. Overclockers’ very own hokiealumnus recently published a review on ASUS’ top dog for this platform, the Maximus VI Extreme. Today, however, we’ll tone it down a bit and review one of ASUS’ Z87 entry-level, mainstream motherboards – the Z87-A. If you’re looking to get into the Haswell game at an affordable price, does ASUS have something worth your consideration in the Z87-A? Let’s find out!
Specifications and Features
Here are the specifications as provided by ASUS.
|ASUS Z87-A Motherboard Specifications|
*Hyper DIMM support is subject to physical characteristics of individual CPU
|Mulit GPU Support|
|Rear Panel I/O Ports|
|Internal I/O Connectors|
For features, ASUS seems to have packed a lot of them in this price conscious offering. The first set of features we’ll cover are the ones referred to as “ASUS Exclusive Features.” We’ll get into more detail later on, but here is the list.
|ASUS Exclusive Features – Z87-A Motherboard|
|ASUS Dual Intelligent Processors 2 with DIGI+ VRM ASUS DIGI+ VRM|
ASUS Fan Xpert 2
ASUS Remote GO!
ASUS Exclusive Features:
ASUS Quiet Thermal Solution:
The second set of features ASUS wants you to know about are what they call “ASUS Exclusive Overclocking Features.” Most of these have to do with the different voltage controls and frequency options. The point ASUS is trying to drive home is how finite the options are when setting voltages and frequencies. Other than the vPCH, every other voltage listed can be raised or lowered in 0.001 V increments.
|ASUS Exclusive Overclocking Features – Z87-A Motherboard|
|Precision Tweaker 2|
SFS (Stepless Frequency Selection)
ASUS has grouped five of their high-end features together and called them “5X Protection.” Included in the 5X Protection family is DIGI+ VRM, DRAM Overcurrent Protection, ESD Guards, 5K-hr Solid Caps, and Stainless Steel Back I/O.
For an entry-level motherboard, I think you’ll agree ASUS has done a good job giving the user as much as possible in this entry-level offering. And, let’s not forget the advantages the Z87 platform brings to the table either!
Packaging and First Look
Gold accents are used for the color scheme of the package, which is in line with the well-documented color change ASUS has implemented on their Z87 channel line of motherboards. The box front and back detail some of the high level features the Z87-A offers, along with a glimpse of the board’s layout and specifications. Three of the four box sides are pretty much identical with additional branding and the Dual Intelligent Processors 2 logo. The fourth side has a multilingual blurb about the EPU feature.
Once the box is opened, we find the Z87-A wrapped in an anti-static bag with the accessories housed in a cardboard insert to the left side. The accessory pack includes the following items:
- User Guide
- Driver/Software CD
- SLI bridge
- Two SATA cables
- I/O Shield
Here is the brown and gold Z87-A undressed and ready for inspection. So, what do you think of ASUS’ new color scheme? I find the gold highlights to be more appealing when compared to other manufacturers that have also implemented gold coloring. If there are complaints to be made about the new color scheme, I think most of them will be related to the brown colored PCB. I think a black PCB would look much better and really make the gold accents pop! Let us know what you think in the comments section, ASUS is listening! Worth noting is the board is a bit smaller than the standard ATX form factor. The difference is in the width only, where the Z87-A measures 8.8 inches versus the standard ATX size of 9.6 inches.
Below is a slide show of the Z87-A from several different angles. If at any time you would like to view a full size image of any of the included pictures, simply right click on it and choose “view image.”
A Closer Look/Under the Hood
Our up close tour of the Z87-A begins at the bottom area where we find most of the front panel connection options including audio, USB, and case wiring. The DirectKey button is also located here and allows automatic entry into UEFI when pressed, saving you from having to tap on the delete key. There is also a two pin connector on the motherboard where you can connect the case’s reset wire, thus making the reset button work like pressing the DirectKey button.
On the right side of the Z87-A, you’ll find the TPU and EPU switches and six SATA 6 GB/s ports. Just behind the TPU and EPU switches is the first of three 4-pin chassis fan connectors. Moving upward, we find the USB 3.0 front panel connector, 24-pin ATX power connector, another 4-pin chassis fan connector, and the MemOK! button. The MemOK! button is a useful tool should you encounter incompatible memory. Pressing the button will start an automatic memory tuning process in an attempt to configure incompatible memory to a bootable state.
The TPU switch is used for automatic overclocking, while the EPU switch is used to intelligently moderate power consumption based on system load. The TPU switch has been upgraded from previous implementations by adding a second switch position. If the first position is used, an automatic overclock will be provided based on raising the CPU multiplier only. If you move the switch over to the second position, an automatic overclock will be attempted using both CPU multiplier and BCLK adjustments. Overclocking made easy!
At the top of the Z87-A, we find the two CPU 4-pin fan headers, the upper MOSFET heatsink, and the 8-pin CPU AUX power connector. The dual CPU fan headers are nice to have if you happen to be using a cooler that has two fans attached to it. You might notice the yellow 4-pin fan header looks a little different than what you’re used to seeing. There is actually a mechanical switch built into the header that tells the motherboard if you’re using a 3-pin or PWM capable 4-pin fan.
Moving around to the left side of the motherboard, we find the I/O connectivity options. Beginning at the top, we have a combination PS/2 port with two USB 2.0 ports directly beneath. Below that, we have a mini DisplayPort, HDMI port, and the optical S/PDIF out port. The VGA and DVI connections are next in line, followed by four USB 3.0 ports and the LAN jack. At the very bottom of the I/O area is the 8-channel Realtek ALC892 Audio Codec jacks. All of the I/O connection blocks are made from stainless steel and feature a corrosion resistant coating. ASUS claims to be the only motherboard manufacturer using stainless steel I/O shields.
Just behind the block of audio jacks is where the third 4-pin chassis fan connector is located. The rest of the motherboard’s left side is home for many of the ICs used for the onboard peripherals, which we’ll have a closer look at next.
For expansion slots, we have two PCI Express 3.0 x16 slots that support SLI and Crossfire. A single GPU will run at x16 speed, whereas a dual GPU configuration will perform at x8/x8 speeds. Additionally, there are two PCI Express 2.0 x1 and two standard PCI slots available. At the bottom is a PCI Express 2.0 x16 slot. All of the PCI Express x16 slots feature the Q-Design release lever, which makes removal and installation easier.
The four DIMM slots also feature the Q-Design, which means there is only one release tab used. There is memory support for up to 32 GB of DDR3 2800 MHz (OC) and down to DDR3 1333 MHz. The memory has a dedicated 2-phase power design as well.
ASUS used an 8-phase power design for the Z87-A, which is pretty stout for a board of this class. The MOSFET area is kept cool with the two gold colored heatsinks. There isn’t a great amount of room between the CPU socket and the left side MOSFET heatsink, and the heatsink itself is pretty tall. So, you’ll want to choose an air cooling solution carefully. The heatsink sitting on top of the Z87 PCH is also gold in color and has an ASUS emblem attached. After removing the heatsinks, all TIM applications were found to be making good contact with the target areas. The PCH chip itself is unmarked and is simply a shiny smooth surface.
The Dual Intelligent Processors 2 feature incorporates the TPU and EPU functions mentioned earlier. Each of these have their own onboard ICs to control the functions they provide and integrate them with the DIGI+ VRM.
The DIGI+ VRM feature is a little different then previous iterations because of the VRM now being integrated into the CPU, but it still provides a seamless interface to control its functions. The DIGI+ VRM offers complete control of the CPU power options for both maximum performance and maximum power efficiency. You can take advantage of all these power controls from within the UEFI or from the desktop via the AI Suite III software. Past experience with the DIGI+ VRM feature has always led to a rewarding endeavor when fine tuning a system. We’ll see if the new on chip VRM equates into any real world changes once we explore the UEFI.
ASMedia has been called upon to provide several key function of the Z87-A. First, the ASM1083 chips is used to bridge 32-bit legacy PCI devices to the more advanced serial PCI Express interface. Next is the ASM 1442 IC, which is a TMDS for providing functionality and voltage shifting to support the DVI and HDMI ports at the I/O area. There are a total of four ASM1480 chips found on the Z87-A, which are used to provide the PCI Express lane switching function.
Realtek is the 3rd party solution chosen for LAN and Audio support on the Z87-A. The LAN controller is the Gigabit 8111GR IC, and the audio is provided by the ALC892 chip.
The nuvoTon NCT 6791D chip provides the super I/O functions, such as fan control and system monitoring. A Winbond 25Q64FVAIQ 64M-Bit BIOS chip has been used, which is removable and replaceable if the need ever arises.
Even though the Z87-A does not include an onboard LED post code display, ASUS didn’t leave you out in the cold if you are experiencing a hardware problem. The Q-LED feature is a series of four LEDs that correspond with memory, VGA, CPU, and your boot device. If the motherboard detects a problem in any of these areas, the corresponding LED will illuminate.
5K solid capacitors are used throughout the entire motherboard, which ASUS claims results in a 2.5X longer lifespan and better thermal performance. If they are making a comparison to the old electrolyte filled capacitors, then I don’t question this claim one bit!
The New ASUS UEFI BIOS
ASUS has made some enhancements to their UEFI BIOS to make quick access to the areas you visit most often easier than ever. Below are some pictures from the press deck that describe the new UEFI features.
The EZ mode section is where you land when first entering the UEFI BIOS, and it features a lot more options than previous ASUS versions. There is CPU monitoring, memory configuration, fan information and adjustment, performance settings, and boot priority options available without having to dive into the advanced mode. There is also a set of buttons along the bottom to utilize the pre-programmed shortcuts, enter Advanced Mode, and check SATA information to name a few. By pressing the shortcut button or F3, you get a list of places within the UEFI BIOS that can be accessed instantly by simply clicking on one of them. The shortcuts seemed to be geared to the areas of the UEFI BIOS that overclockers would tend to visit most often, but these can be customized as well.
Hitting F7 lands you in Advanced Mode where you get more finite control of the UEFI BIOS. The main tab is mostly informational, but does have language, date and time, and security options. Backing up one tab to the My Favorites area is where we come across one of the new UEFI BIOS features ASUS has implemented. From here, you can add any location within the UEFI BIOS for quick access. Think of it as your own customizable UEFI BIOS homepage, full of links to your most visited areas within the UEFI BIOS. Pressing the F4 key anywhere within the UEFI BIOS will add that page to both the My Favorites screen and to the Shortcuts. Furthermore, the Quick Note button on the right side follows you everywhere you go and allows you to type notes about whatever you want to remember later on. Another cool feature is the Last Modified button, which gives you a list of the items that were changed the last time you were in BIOS.
The Ai Tweaker area is home to everything performance related. Whether it be overclocking, power consumption, or a combination of both, it’s all here. All of the voltage controls and frequency settings are accessed from the Ai Tweaker section as well. Some of you will be interested to know the maximum voltage available for the CPU and Memory. Interestingly enough, they both max out at 1.92 V.
There are three sub menus in Ai Tweaker, the first being for setting memory timings. There are options for primary, secondary, and third timing adjustments. They have even added a complete page of Round Trip Latency options to use, if needed. The second sub menu is the DIGI+ VRM controls that deal with fine tuning the way power is delivered to the CPU. The DIGI+ VRM controls do not include the memory options found on higher-end boards, but there are plenty of other ways to configure the memory for maximum performance. The third sub menu deals with CPU power management. Here you’ll find the EIST and Turbo Mode settings, along with a host of CPU internal power options.
Inside the Advanced area of the UEFI BIOS there are nine sub menus dealing with system feature settings. Most of these items you have seen time and time again. Most of these settings are found on most current platform motherboards from any manufacturer. One item that is worth mentioning, however, is the SATA port naming feature, which allows you to assign a unique name to each port. No more guessing what drive is hooked to what port! As I mentioned before, if any of the pictures in the slide show warrant a closer look by you, simply right click on it and select “View Image” for a larger view.
In the Monitor area is where you get real time voltage and temperature readings, along with the ability to control all of the fan headers on the motherboard, You can set the low limit RPM of each fan and select a pre-programmed profile for each as well. Worth noting here is the ability to control either 3-pin or 4-pin fans.
Under the Boot tab is where all the boot and BBS priorities are set. Additionally, you’ll find SATA, USB, and PS/2 keyboard and mouse support options.
The Tools section has access to the EZ Flash 2 Utility, which is my recommended way of flashing the EUFI BIOS. It’s quick, easy to do, and a very safe way to flash. The O.C. Profile area allows you to save up to eight profiles to the UEFI BIOS, or you can save as many as you like to a USB drive. The SPD information area gives you the JDEC standard for the installed memory, as well as the XMP Profile information.
The last section of the UEFI BIOS is the exit tab. I think most of you have this one figured out!
AI Suite III makes its debut with the release of the ASUS Z87 series of motherboards. Just like its predecessors, it’s a feature packed software suite that offers a full array of tweaking options and utilities. The look and feel has changed from previous versions, and you now have a tile design as your entry point for all the different areas. The lower part of the screen will always display real time monitoring information on CPU frequency, voltages, temperatures, and fan speeds.
The first area to explore is the DIGI+ VRM section, which is where all the CPU power delivery options are located.
In the EPU section of AI Suite III, you’ll find settings for auto, high performance, max power saving, and away mode. Power efficiency is the name of the game here.
TurboV Evo is where your CPU overclocking takes place. Here you have the ability to set the multiplier, BCLK, voltages, and straps. If you prefer, you can even use the auto tuning feature to let the utility overclock the system for you.
Fan Xpert 2 quite simply put, has no equal. This utility gives you complete control of fans either manually or by using built in presets. You’ll want to start by first having Fan Xpert 2 run Auto Tuning to customize the available settings based on the specifications of your fan. Once you do that, you can use one of the four available presets or customize them manually to your liking. Reports are generated after the tuning process that will give you information on what Fan Xpert found, such as minimum and maximum RPM ranges. Fan Xpert 2 also has the ability to do its magic on all the fan headers on the motherboard, unlike a lot of competitor motherboards. You also have the ability to name each of the fan headers and get a visual of where each one is located in the system.
ASUS makes a big deal of their Remote GO! software. This utility has four areas, the first of which is Cloud GO!. Here you can set up access to all your cloud storage services and sync them, making for what ASUS calls a RAID like cloud experience. The Remote Desktop utility allows you to operate your desktop computer in real time from a mobile device, such as a smart phone or tablet. The DNLA media hub feature can turn your computer into media server that can be accessed wirelessly by any DNLA supported device. The last utility included in Remote GO! is File Transfer, which is just as the name implies. It’s an easy way to transfer files to and from the PC to mobile devices.
Network iControl deals mostly with traffic prioritization, but does offer a couple other helpful options as well.
USB 3.0 Boost is designed to speed up transfer rates when using USB devices. I’ve tested a lot of different iterations of this feature. For the most part, it does work; but results vary with the type of USB device being used.
The EZ Update feature is a Windows based BIOS flashing utility and can be used to customize a BIOS file with a boot logo of your choice. It’s said to be able to automatically update ASUS motherboard drivers and software too. Keep in mind, flashing your BIOS from within Windows carries a certain amount of inherent risks that are avoidable by using one of the other methods ASUS provides to perform the task.
The last area to cover in AI Suite III is the System Info section. Motherboard information, CPU information, and all the memory SPD information can be had with a quick trip here.
Overclocking and Benchmarks
|CPU||Intel i7 4770K Haswell|
|Memory||G.SKill TridentX DD3-2666 MHz 2x4GB|
|SSD||Kingston HyperX 3KSSD 240 GB|
|Power Supply||Corsair HX1050 Professional Series|
|Video Card||ASUS GTX 770 DirectCU II OC|
|Cooling||Swiftech Apogee HD CPU Water Block – 3X120 mm Radiator – MCP35X Pump|
When I attended the ASUS Haswell gathering in Fremont, CA this past May, the folks at ASUS made a point of telling us to expect a wide range of overclocking success based on how lucky you are with the CPU you end up getting. Even with the engineering samples Intel provided ASUS, they had some overclock as low as 4.3 to 4.4 GHz, while some went substantially higher. The consensus seemed to be anything that will overclock to the 4.6 to 4.8 GHz range was considered a decent CPU. The i7 4770K I’m using for this review topped out at 4.6 GHz, while still keeping the temperatures under control. After finding the 24/7 stable CPU speed, I was able to get the memory stable at 2400 MHz and still keep the CPU at 4.6 GHz.
In the stock benchmark results below, we’ll use the ASUS M6E and Intel DZ87KLT-75K from hokiealumnus’ reviews as comparisons. Keep in mind, the ASUS boards were using the the multi-core enhancement feature (meaning the core speed was locked down at 3.9 GHz), while the Intel board was at true stock and using the Turbo-Core feature. Single thread benchmarks like SuperPI won’t suffer too much from this difference, but multi-threaded benchmarks will favor the ASUS boards. Additionally, all three boards have the memory set to DDR3 2600. I went ahead and added the 24/7 stable overclock results mentioned above to the charts as well. This should give you an idea of the performance gains to be had.
We don’t typically see much difference in benchmarks scores when comparing motherboards, but if something is amiss with one of the comparison samples it will make itself known. What you’ll see below is the Z87-A and M6E scoring just about the same on all the stock tests. No big surprise there as they were running the same CPU and memory speeds. Instead of stating the obvious over and over, I’ll simply show the graphs and let you peruse at your leisure.
Rendering and Compression
As you can see by the above graphs, the Z87-A performed quite admirably at stock, and when overclocked some nice gains were noted.
Pushing the Limits
Strap is back!
Because this particular CPU refused to overclock past 4.6 GHz by simply raising the CPU multiplier, I headed off to see if I could get more out of it by using the strap adjustments. I was able to get another 100 MHz and landed at 4702 MHz with the memory landing at 1791 MHz. The strap adjustments can be made in .1 increments allowing you to really dial in that last MHz.
Here are a few benchmark screenshots, which don’t show a huge improvement over the overclock results above, but something is better than nothing!
The ASUS Z87-A turned out to be an excellent entry-level motherboard for the new Haswell platform. For $139.99, it’s certainly a viable option for those on a budget, but still wanting the overclocking features the Z87-A provides. The new AI Suite III continues the tradition of being the best all around motherboard software bundle on the planet, bar none. It’s a full featured software package that makes controlling the system from the desktop a breeze. Fan control, overclocking, maximum power efficiency, and more can all be fine tuned using the AI Suite III.
Several new features have been implemented into the new UEFI BIOS as we discussed above. With the new look EZ Mode screen, note taking, a favorites screen, and a “last modified” list, things are getting more and more user friendly. All the usual overclocking features are present and accounted for, and you even have the option of letting the UEFI BIOS automatically overclock the system for you. If you’re the type that likes to get the last MHz of performance from your system, you’ll really enjoy the strap options available.
All told, we have a motherboard that can satisfy both the overclocking crowd and those looking to build an energy efficient system. With everything this board offers at its asking price, it definitely deserves the Overclockers Approved stamp!