ASRock X79 Extreme4 LGA 2011 Motherboard Review

After the last couple of ASRock boards, I wasn’t sure if I ever wanted to see another one. The ASRock X79 Extreme4 not only surpassed my admittedly low expectations, but proved to be the exact opposite of the last two motherboards. Grab a sandwich and read on. You don’t want to miss this one.

ASRock is a new brand for us. Oh we heard about them in the forums and generally regarded them as the red headed step child of ASUS and Pegatron. Many people wanted it, asked for it, and practically demanded it. So Kyle purchased two ASRock motherboards and sent those to me for review. To say I was underwhelmed is a bit of an understatement. The build quality was terrible on both boards. The PCBs had more waves than an undercooked strip of bacon. One had a faulty PCIe x16 slot and both were a bit quirky. On the overclocking front both did well, but didn’t match up to our experiences with some of the other well known brands.

I wasn’t really sure if we got two bad samples or if we are talking about quality variations at particular price points. I’m still not sure what to think but the latest ASRock I received for testing was completely different than the ASRock boards I saw before. This one had no baconesque PCB or shoddy soldering, hardware quirks or other problems. I unpacked what was essentially a standard motherboard bundle but when I got to the board itself, I realized that this represented ASRock’s "A-Game". I had a feeling I was going to get an example of Friday night strip club dancers rather than Tuesday’s day shift workers.

(Editor’s Note: The night and day quality differences we have seen in ASRock’s boards are somewhat concerning. We purchased our first two motherboards from Newegg, and after seeing us covering its product, we immediately had access to samples from ASRock which we did not previously. So this begs the question, are reviewers getting samples that are not representative of what you would buy? We do not know, but as of editing this article, I have purchased this same model board from Newegg and we will find out if what you buy and what we get as samples are the same thing. We will run that retail board through the review process again.)

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The ASRock X79 Extreme4 is based on Intel’s X79 Express chipset. The X79 Express chipset is Intel’s latest offering and the only chipset supporting Intel’s socket LGA2011 Sandy Bridge-E CPUs. The chipset itself is a bit unimpressive for the most part because it doesn’t live up to the rumors and hype generated before its launch about SAS support, native USB 3.0 support, and being able to handle more than 2 SATA 6G drives natively. As it turns out we basically only get quad-channel memory support, PCI-Express 3.0 support, and of course support for 40 PCIe lanes up from X58’s 36.

Love it or hate it, it’s the only choice we have for Sandy Bridge-E and this socket. Now the chipset itself at least reaches parity with P67 and Z68 where it counts and most of the features it has over those are really provided by the Sandy Bridge-E CPU itself more than anything.

Though ASRock has a reputation as a budget board builder, the ASRock X79 Extreme4 isn’t really a budget board at all. In fact it represents its higher end offerings. Though it’s not quite the highest end board on its website, it’s close. Not to mention it is reasonably priced at around $240 at the time of this writing. The board itself has all the features one would expect in such a platform for the most part. I’m sorry to say ASRock gimped the memory support at 32GB of RAM with only 4 DIMM slots instead of the usual 8 slots and support for 64GB of RAM that we’ve see on most high end X79 boards. It does however support 7.1 channel surround sound, 3-Way SLI and CrossFireX, quad-channel memory, 9 SATA ports, IEEE1394, Gigabit Ethernet, etc. Digital power management is used for the board’s CPU power phases as is pretty much universally the case with newer motherboards.

Main Specifications Overview:

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Detailed Specifications Overview:

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Packaging

The board ships in a faux stainless steel themed box and has a fairly small bundle. Our board arrived perfectly intact with all included accessories accounted for.

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There isn’t much in the box. Not that I’d expect that with a board in this price point based on the X79 chipset. In the box we have a quick installation guide, software setup manual, some kind of poster thing and a driver DVD. We also get an I/O shield, SATA cables and both 2-way and 3-Way SLI bridges.

Board Layout

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When it comes to the board layout ASRock has done only one thing that pisses me off. The placement of the auxiliary power connector sucks. This 4-pin Molex connector needs to be on the board’s bottom edge below the last expansion slot and it needs to be right angled. Putting it next to the CPU and RAM just looks bad and is bad for cable routing. I wouldn’t think anyone would like this being here if they have a windowed side panel on their case. And though this is my personal opinion, I think having two legacy PCI slots in this day and age on a so called high end board is ridiculous. This is the market segment that is most likely to have done away with legacy hardware such as PCI cards. At best they are probably using a PCI sound card and one such legacy slot should suffice. Minor complaints overall, but what can I say, I’m picky.

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The CPU socket area is as good as it gets with X79. Intel obviously doesn’t really consider air cooling all that good an option or they’d send air coolers with all their LGA2011 CPUs. I don’t really have anything to gripe about here aside from the fact that the DIMM slots are too close to the CPU socket, but it appears that this can’t be helped as all X79 boards offend about the same on that front. Again with water cooling this is a non-issue.

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The board’s 4 DIMM slots flank the CPU socket as is the case with all X79 boards I’ve seen. Since this board supports quad-channel RAM, and only has 4 slots, color coding isn’t really necessary. Just fill the damn thing up. Again I’d like to have seen 8 DIMM slots instead of 4, but this would make the board slightly cheaper as you have less sockets, less traces, and less power phases to integrate. Overclockers have long held the belief that more populated DIMM slots equals more stress on the IMC which lowers overclockability. This has more or less held true, so make your own judgment. Personally I prefer the option of using all possible memory slots even if I don’t.

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The X79 chipset is a unified chipset so X79 really resides where the south bridge would have on older boards. For whatever reason ASRock chose to use a little tiny fan for active chipset cooling. In general I’d rather see a larger heat pipe based solution which is devoid of fans. Tiny chipset fans seem to have a high failure rate and worse than that, these are noisy. This isn’t a deal breaker for me, but some people are more noise sensitive and may consider this a larger problem which may be expensive to remediate with water cooling.

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The expansion slot area is OK. Most importantly the PCIe x16 slots are well placed with nothing that upsets me too much. However the placement of the CMOS battery is simply stupid. I’m compiling a list of engineers in the world that I will have to punch in the face if and when I ever meet them. The guy that did this is now on that list. This is the second board I’ve seen like this recently. This type of bonehead move is inexcusable.

OK, so maybe I’m over reacting but I’ve had to pull more than one CMOS battery out because clearing the CMOS didn’t work any other way. Usually in a non-POST type situation. I also tend to run multiple video cards so when I see a board like this I can already imagine the anguish I’d endure to remove all my cards and pull the damn battery. Again your mileage may vary but I’m still going to say that the placement of the CMOS battery sucks. By itself, not a deal breaker. But let’s move on.

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The rear I/O panel has all the things we’d expect on a board like this. PS/2 mouse and keyboard ports rather than the sometimes problematic combination port. One S/PDIF connector, 2 USB 3.0 ports, 6 USB 2.0 ports, 1 IEEE1394 port, 1 eSATA port, and finally 6 mini-stereo jacks for audio output. It’s hard to see but there is an optical out right next to the clear CMOS button. (Which I hope to god works because if I had to pull out the CMOS battery, I might just smash the board in a fit of nerd rage.)

ASRock Extreme Tuning Utility

The ASRock Extreme Tuning Utility or AXTU comes with all the ASRock boards I’ve worked with thus far. It’s a simple utility and for the most part I like the look and the layout of it. As was the case with previous ASRock boards, the utility worked with the board and allowed me to overclock in Windows doing pretty much anything I could do in the BIOS from the OS. This isn’t always the case with some board manufacturers included utilities and seems to be hit or miss with some of them depending on the model. So far ASRock has shown great consistency here as this utility has always worked. At least so far.

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The application starts out with the hardware monitor. It shows us our CPU speed, BCLK and PCIe frequency, CPU ratio, and of course voltages and temperatures. Fan speeds are thrown in for good measure. Next is the fan control menu. This simple menu allows you to adjust your target fan speed and target CPU or zone temperature. Current CPU, motherboard and south bridge temperatures are shown at the top for reference. There is a polling interval of course, but these are more or less displayed in real time. Next we move on to the overclocking menu. This allows us simple BCLK/PCIe adjustments as well as CPU ratio adjustments. The latter can only be done if the corresponding option to do so is enabled in the BIOS which is not done by default. The utility will adjust the setting if you try and adjust the ratio. Just be forewarned that a reboot will need to take place before anything can be adjusted in real time.

Most of our systems major voltage settings are represented here but this utility still does not have every BIOS setting for performance and overclocking represented here. So some things you will still have to go into the BIOS to accomplish. In that regard the utility isn’t the most comprehensive I’ve seen. On the flip side it’s useful and isn’t a bloated warthog. CPU voltage, VCCSA voltage offset, DRAM voltage, PCH voltage, VTT voltage, CPU PLL voltage, and PCH 1.5v voltage settings are all adjustable from this menu.

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The OC DNA menu is a profile system. This allows you to create, save and reload profiles for overclocking or returning to known good settings. There are only three slots for saved profiles. I’d prefer to see a more robust setup than this as pretty much everyone else’s utilities aren’t so limited in this fashion. The chipset, BIOS version and BIOS date are given at the top. The IES menu is an energy saving feature which allows switching between phases to even out thermal and electrical loads across the phases theoretically saving energy and prolonging the life of the components. CPU core voltage and clock speed are displayed here, along with the currently active power phases. The XFast RAM setting is really a tweaking tool for the OS. As you can see by the adjustable page file settings, ready boost enable / disable, temporary files, etc. I really couldn’t care less about this feature but maybe some of you do.

All in all this is a decent utility. I’ve seen better, but I’ve seen a lot worse. At the end of the day I don’t allow software outside of firmware or drivers dictate my hardware purchases as this type of software rarely sees use outside of the initial setup of the machine.