ASUS Maximus V Formula / ThunderFX Review

Not one to rest on their laurels, ASUS adds another Z77 Express chipset based board to its Republic of Gamers lineup. This time in Formula trim. The Maximus V Formula / ThunderFX gives us most of what the Extreme version gave us and a couple of things it didn’t. What’s so special about the Maximus V Formula ThunderFX? Let's find out.

Introduction

ASUS is a well known fixture in the motherboard market. It has diversified over the years into a number of markets. Its products include motherboards, graphics cards, cases, monitors, laptops, tablets, wireless access points and more. Naturally the motherboards are what we tend to think of when we hear the name "ASUS." Of course the ASUS product line is quite large. A few years ago around the start of the 680i SLI chipset launch ASUS created the Republic of Gamers brand to differentiate its upper echelon gaming focused products. Originally this included only motherboards and then sound cards, laptops, and other items were added along the way.

Motherboards within the Republic of Gamers brand typically come in three flavors. Extreme, Formula and Gene. Often times a given board name will come in at least two of these flavors. Usually Extreme or Formula. Extreme boards represent the best of the best. These tend to have the largest integrated feature sets and the largest in the box bundles. Formula boards have a slightly more streamlined feature set and smaller bundles. These generally reduce the price somewhat compared to Extreme offerings. Finally we have Gene boards which are always mATX boards. The PCBs on Gene boards are about as packed as these possibly can be.

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ASUS went the extra mile with the ASUS Maximus V Formula / ThunderFX. At a glance it is very similar to the more expensive ASUS Maximus V Extreme we reviewed earlier. There are some key differences and even some advantages when comparing the Maximus V Formula ThunderFX to the Extreme board. The Maximus V Formula ThunderFX comes with an integrated water block which ASUS calls the Fusion Thermo system. It is a heat pipe based cooling solution with a water channel integrated into it. Theoretically it should allow for better cooling than the Maximus V Extreme is capable of. That board features the heat pipe based cooling system but without the water channel. Though it remains to be seen which is actually better on straight up air cooling. But those of you who want to water cool it may find the Formula board a better fit. It’s also great for those people with existing loops who may have avoided cooling components on the board due to the cost of specialized cooling blocks designed for their boards.

While the Maximus V Formula does feature a better power phase cooling than the Maximus V Extreme does, the Formula doesn’t have all the same overclocking tools that the Extreme did. It doesn’t come with the OC key onscreen display device, Subzero Sense support, or VGA hotwire support. So naturally I think for LN2 cooling the Extreme is still going to be your best bet in the LGA1155 board market.

Another key improvement we’ll talk about in greater detail later is the addition of the SupremeFX IV audio solution. ASUS has made a couple changes compared to the Maximus V Extreme board and I can tell you that these do make a difference. This is key for the Maximus V Formula board which does not come with the ThunderFX solution. Of course we’ll be talking about both audio options. Speaking of which the ThunderFX simply put is a USB DAC. This is often the recommended route in our audio forums for a variety of reasons. You get a great sound solution and you don’t have to sacrifice a PCIe slot to get it.

As different as these boards are, these are very much the same. Both feature a similar SATA configuration, USB 3.0 implementation, layout, and share a number of features. Both have MemOK support, ProbeIt headers for hardware monitoring of voltages, Integrated Intel networking, and various other similar components. DIGI+ Power control delivers precise control over the system’s integrated power phases.

The Maximus V Formula is based on the Intel Z77 Express chipset and leverages all that this chipset supports. It supports the latest LGA1155 CPUs, Intel's Smart Connect and Rapid Start technologies, SLI, 3-Way SLI, Quad-SLI, and CrossFire support, up to 32GB of DDR3 RAM (up to 2800MHz through overclocking), 2 SATA 3G ports, 6 SATA 6G ports (two via the Z77 and 4 via ASM1061 controllers), onboard graphics, Intel Gigabit Ethernet, 8x USB 2.0 ports and 6 USB 3.0 ports. Wireless 802.11 a/b/g/n, Bluetooth 3.0+HS/4.0, and mSATA support is provided via the mPCIe combo card.

While it’s easy to think of the "Formula" boards as stripped down compared to "Extreme" models, it doesn’t actually mean the Formula boards aren’t feature rich as the Maximus V Formula has a lot going for it.

Main Specifications Overview:

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Detailed Specifications Overview:

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Packaging

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The ASUS Maximus V Extreme ships in the standard Republic of Gamers package. The box features the standard red and black color scheme and features a flap with information about the board and a window in the box which allows you to see the board inside. This one actually has a second flap which shows off an included Diablo III mouse pad. As usual for ROG boards the box is packed full of accessories. The following can be found inside the box:I/O Shield, 2 x SATA 3Gb/s cable(s), 4 x SATA 6Gb/s cable(s), 1 x SLI bridge(s), 1 x Q-connector(s) (2 in 1), 1 x ROG Connect cable(s), 1 x 12 in 1 ROG Cable Label(s), 1 x mPCIe Combo card(s) with dual band WiFi 802.11 a/b/g/n module + Bluetooth v4.0/3.0+HS module, 1 x 2-in-1 RF Cable(s), 2 x Wi-Fi Ring Moving Antenna(s), 1 x Diablo III Mousepad(s), 1 x ROG Logo Sticker(s), 1 x 2.5mm Xbox 360 voice input, cable(s), 1 x dual-head USB cable(s), 1 x ThunderFX Xbox 360 AV + 3.5 mm to RCA cable(s)

Board Layout

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The layout of the Maximus V Formula is nothing short of excellent but not perfect. In fairness I do hold ROG boards to a higher standard than most other boards because of their premium nature. Generally speaking they always deliver. The ports are well placed, expansion area looks good and most everything is in an ideal location. My one complaint is concerning the location of the CMOS battery. I don’t like this location as you’d most likely have to remove your primary graphics card to change this out. This isn’t likely to impact most people. CMOS batteries generally last a long time so this isn’t something you should have to do often if ever during the life cycle of your system. So while I’m not fond of it I would hardly call this a deal breaker.

As we scan the board’s surface you can see ASUS’ is using Japanese 10k black Metallic Capacitors. According to ASUS’ literature on the subject, these are around 5 times more durable than many other Japanese solid electrolytic capacitors. These are quite forgiving with regard to temperature tolerances and operate within a range of between 70-125 degrees.

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The CPU socket area looks fairly crowded. Yet large heat sinks and fan assemblies should still fit here without too much trouble. You may have to use low profile DIMMs in some configurations but this is par for the course. Since Intel switched to an integrated memory controller this has always been a problem just as it was for AMD starting in the Athlon 64 days. The large Fusion Thermo solution which keeps the power phases cool hides an 8+4 phase power system. 8 are dedicated to the CPU with an additional 4 being included for the integrated GPU.

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There are four color coded DIMM slots. DIMM slots are color coded to make figuring out how to install modules for proper dual channel memory mode operation easy. The board supports up to 32GB of DDR3 memory using 8GB modules. The DIMM slots feature a 2-phase power system. The Maximus V Formula also features ASUS’ T-Topology design. This means that the distance from the CPU to DIMM 0 and DIMM 1 is equal. In dual DIMM configurations ASUS estimates a 15% improvement to DRAM overclocking margins.

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The Z77 Express chipset is found directly in front of the expansion slots. While the cooling hardware resembles the system used on the Maximus V Extreme, the Formula version lacks a connecting heat pipe between the MOSFET cooling solution and the chipset. The chipset is cooled only by this flat, passive heat sink design which offers optimal clearances for installing expansion cards. In front of the chipset you’ll find 8 SATA ports. Red ports are SATA 6Gb/s and the black are SATA 3Gb/s. Usually there are four SATA 3Gb/s ports here. ASUS is using one for mSATA compatibility via the mPCIe combo card. The other has been allocated as a eSATA port. The Intel Z77 Express chipset only supports two SATA 6Gb/s ports. The additional ports are provided by ASMedia ASM1061 controllers.

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The expansion slot area is well thought out. A PCIe x4 slot can be found at the top for adding something other than a graphics card up there. This is nice as it allows maximum room for video cards in multi-GPU configurations while still providing an additional slot for just about anything you’d be able to imagine here. The board offers three PCIe x16 Gen3 slots for use with Ivy Bridge CPUs. This allows for a 1x16, 8x8, or 8x4x4 configuration. This isn’t necessarily ideal for 3-Way SLI but it is supported. It is however fine for Quad-SLI and CrossFire as well as standard two card SLI or CrossFire.

In this area you’ll also find what ASUS calls the PCB moat. This is an area which contains the SupremeFX audio solution. While it is a Realtek ALC898 CODEC common to lesser boards it is implemented differently here. The PCB in this area is divided into two zones. Basically a digital and analog zone divided by the moat. Reference grounds are separate to isolate the audio from the rest of the board. Supposedly this is almost like having the audio solution on a separate board. You can’t see it in the photo but there is a red path of light not unlike the colored lights on everything in the movie Tron. This light not only looks cool but shows you where the division between the analog and digital zones of the PCB are. The ALC898 is houses in the SupremeFX shield. Older ROG boards just covered the ALC89x chip with a SupremeFX sticker rather than encasing it in a tin shield designed to reduce EMI. There are some different audio capacitors in this zone as well. ELNA premium audio capacitors which are designed for audio applications.

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The I/O panel is packed full with stuff. We've got a PS/2 keyboard mouse combination port, 4 USB 3.0 ports, 4 USB 2.0 ports (1 reserved for ROG connect), RJ-45 port, DisplayPort, mini-DisplayPort / Thunderbolt port, HDMI port, ROG Connect button, BIOS Flashback button, mPCI combo slot, 1 optical output and finally 5 mini-stereo jacks for audio output.