Motherboard Buyer’s Guide - A Home For Haswell (Part 1) : ASRock Z87 Extreme4, ASUS Maximus VI Extreme, ASUS Maximus VI Hero

9/4/2013 11:26:57 AM

With the release of the 4th Generation Core CPU, aka Haswell, Intel has released the latest reason to reach for your back pocket: the Socket 1150 design. Just five pins separate this from the physical design of the last generation of Socket 1155 boards, but Haswell’s radical reshaping of its power design and I/0 structures are justifications for the change. Sadly, this means you’re going to need an entirely new motherboard if you want to use Intel’s latest chips.

If you’re expecting this Series 8 chipset to be a massive upgrade from the Series 7, you’re going to be sorely disappointed; just like Haswell’s CPU performance, this is an incremental improvement over the prior generation. The number of USB 3.0 ports natively supported has increased to six, while integrated graphics users can look forward to using three independent displays. DisplayPort 1.2 is also included, though plebs like us will probably stick with HDMI for the time being. Storage Kings will also appreciate the increase to six SATA 6GBb/s ports, with most motherboard manufacturers using third party controllers to add a couple more. Other than a few power saving features, that’s about it for improvements you’ll notice.

Version 1 of the Series 8 chipset had a bug that caused USB 3.0 devices to wig out when the PC woke from sleep, but Intel has since resolved the issue in the C2 version of the chipset.

We’ve sourced a healthy range of PC gamer-focused boards from the major manufacturers to see which one fits the bill. Note that all of these boards use the Z87 chipset, just one of several in the Series 8 range. This is the premo edition, aimed at enthusiasts, with top tier performance and over-clocking. To our surprise, we noticed some rather large performance differences amongst the many samples, something that we really hadn’t expected. A motherboard is a motherboard is a motherboard, or so we thought, but as you’ll see the choice of PC backbone can influence overall system performance by 10% or more. All motherboards were updated to the latest publically available BIOS at the time of testing, and benchmarked with an i7-4770, 2 x 4GB of Patriot memory at 2133MHz, a Radeon HD 7970 and a Corsair Neutron 256GB SSD. Onboard audio was tested with a variety of music and games piped through a set of premium Audio Technica ATH-A700s. Game tests were run at low detail, to ensure the GPU wasn’t the bottleneck.

High scored all around

You might notice an abundance of high scores on the following reviews. We certainly did, but we can’t artificially mark scores down when the products are all such high quality. It can be explained by the fact that we asked the most respected motherboard manufacturers to send their best products – with decades of experience poured into each platform, it’s no surprise they’re all superior products. However, they’re all rather different in their scope and purpose, so it’s still worth seeing which the right one for your specific needs is.

ASRock Z87 Extreme4

No nonsense and to the point

Price: $205

This spin-off company from ASUS knows how to deliver quality products at absolutely rock-bottom price, and the Z87 Extreme4 is no exception. It’s by far the cheapest board in the roundup, yet has everything a basic gaming PC could need. There are plenty of expansion slots, with three full lengths PCIe x16 slots ready for SLI or CrossFire, twin PCIe 2.0 x1 slots, and two PCI slots for those hanging onto old Sound Blasters or Wi-Fi cards.

ASRock Z87 Extreme4

ASRock Z87 Extreme4

While the audio is based around the relatively cheap Realtek ALC1150 chip, it’s been EMF shielded and beefed up with quality amps and components. During testing, we didn’t notice any hissing, though Realtek’s trademark flat tone was still evident. Interestingly ASRock has added HDMI in, a rare feature on motherboards and something video cappers will love. An extra two SATA 6 GB/s connections are included in addition to Intel’s six, along with an additional four USB 3.0 ports on top of the usual six.

Unfortunately, lackluster memory performance hurt this board’s overall benchmarks, posting some of the slowest results in the test. As a result, we’d only suggest the Z87 Extreme4 to those on the tightest of budgets, who value features over frame rates.

Verdict: 7/10

·         An excellent feature set and price is let down by lack sure overall performance

·         Affordable gaming board

·         Good onboard audio

·         Well specced

·         Very poor memory performance

·         Slowest overall game performance

ASUS Maximus VI Extreme

Built for the Bunker

Price: $480

If you don’t have a tank of liquid nitrogen under your benchmarking desk, this is probably bot the motherboard for you. Designed for the extreme tweaking, this award-winning board took out 10 of the 11 awards at Corsair’s pre-Computex 2012 overclocking competition. Even we were a little scared by the plethora of overclocking options in the BIOS. It comes with a remote control-sized box called the OC Panel, which brings all of the usual voltage and other onboard overclocking features to a central, easy to use location, perfect for those high-pressure overclocking events.

ASUS Maximus VI Extreme

ASUS Maximus VI Extreme

If you do decide to use it purely for PC gaming, it’s got plenty of extras worth considering. The PLX chip necessary for four-way SLI or CrossFire is included, and there’s also an 802.11ac/Bluetooth 4.0 /mPCIe Combo II card. Sadly the audio solution is rather mediocre for this price point. Given the high price, we expected excellent performance, but a couple of average results dragged the higher speed benchmarks down. Still, if you’ve got money to burn and need the ultimate over-clocker, look no further. But if you’re looking for a gaming board, there are better options for a lot less moolah.

Verdict: 8/10

·         If you want the ultimate overclocking board, the Extreme is the pricey answer to your needs.

·         Incredibly deep BIOS

·         4 ways SLI/CrossFire

·         8802.11ac/Bluetooth/mPCIe combo card

·         Very expensive

·         Lackluster audio solution

·         A few odd benchmark results

ASUS Maximus VI Hero

Half-price Hero

Price: $285

ASUS’s Republic of Gamer products rarely fail to impress, but their premium feature set is usually matched by a sizeable price tag. The Hero is a new strategy from the company, delivering most of the goods at a more reasonable price. It’s still a little bit more expensive than competing gamer boards, but ASUS has decked it out with plenty of goodies.

ASUS Maximus VI Hero

ASUS Maximus VI Hero

The biggest difference compared to other ROG boards is few PCIe slots, with twin PCIe 3.0 x 16, one PCIe 2.0 x 16 and 3 PCIe 2.0 x1. That’s still plenty for a dual SLI or CrossFire board, but it can’t handle triple or quad GPUS. The BIOS is almost identical to the Extreme, with an insane amount of new tweaking options; if only the manual better explained them. The audio solution has been beefed up over the Extreme, with ASUS’s SupermeFX solution, which we believe is the Realtek ALC1150 with better EMF shielding, as well as higher quality amps and capacitors.

Performance was exceptional, taking the lead in several of our tests. It’s still a little pricey for our liking, but that should drop in a month or two but even at today’s price this is an excellent basis for any high-end gaming PC.

Verdict: 9/10

·         Republic of Gamers quality at a much reduced price. Sure sounds like a great idea to us!

·         Rich feature set

·         Solid onboard audio

·         Includes all the things

·         No PCI slots

·         Not the best audio quality

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