Today's Hard|Forum Post
Today's Hard|Forum Post

ASUS Z87-A LGA 1150 Motherboard Review

We start today with reviewing new Z87 chipset motherboards, which we will surely see a lot of, with ASUS' new Z87-A motherboard. Before we even got the box open we had to stop for a second and enjoy the simplicity of the name. But don't let the name fool you. There is plenty going on here to keep your enthusiast attention.

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Overclocking

Overclocking a new platform always has its ups and downs. On the upside you get to play with a new architecture and you generally have no idea what the boundaries are for voltages and various other settings. The downside is the learning curve that goes with it. Working with Haswell itself has been interesting in a lot of ways. For one thing these CPUs are amazing at stock speeds using very little power and running very cool. While overclocked Haswell processors generate a ton of heat. I won’t rehash too much of the ins and outs of Haswell as we’ve already covered that in another article.

It takes very few adjustments to achieve a good result and frankly some of the fun has been taken out of it as very few of the settings in the BIOS make any difference at all when OC’ing. As the platform matures we may find a few new tricks that will allow us to get a bit more headroom out of these CPUs. Based on what we are seeing right now though 60% of the equation is luck of the draw with regards to your CPU. The rest comes down to your cooling hardware. Voltage settings are by far the most important values which you can adjust. The main one being the CPU voltage. Adjustments of voltages such as the CPU PLL voltage do nothing for you on the Z87-A, at least not using this setup. ASUS documentation on the matter suggests that most of the settings will do very little if anything for you.

Some settings such as phase control can affect your overclock negatively as the extreme setting creates higher overall thermals for the board and CPU. For speeds up to 4.8GHz this is unnecessary based on what we’ve seen. The T.Probe value seems to be good enough.

If you’ve read anything about Haswell you probably already know that synthetic stress tests like Prime95 load the CPU much harder than most real world applications do. Using Prime95 I was still able to get a solid 4.6GHz overclock out of the CPU using a 1.2v VID. Memory loading is a bit different than it was in previous generations. The IMCs and attainable clock rates on these CPUs seem to vary as much as the attainable CPU clocks do. So some CPUs can be run with DIMM frequencies above 2,000MHz and some can barely do DDR3 1600MHz. I didn’t get faster RAM in time to test this CPU beyond DDR3 1866MHz. However I had no trouble with DDR3 1866MHz speeds at any clock rate using this board or CPU. That is dropping back to a DDR3 1333MHz clock never gave me better CPU core overclock resutls.

4.6GHz (100x46) DDR3 1866MHz

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Concerning the ASUS Z87-A specifically the board was always well behaved. I never set an overclock or any settings that prevented the machine from completing POST. It’s hard to say beyond that how good the Z87-A was as this is the first lengthy experience I’ve had with any LGA 1150 motherboard. I get the sense that the board is fine for overclocking as it did pretty good based on what I’ve read and seen about other test machines.

I’d like to further note that my setup could run at 4.8GHz easily using a 1.260v-1.30v VID. Prime95 unfortunately caused a crash immediately once the workers got going. The system wasn’t entirely stable at those speeds either. While most tasks were stable, firing up Handbrake to encode something or firing up 3D Mark 2013 would cause crashes. The system was more stable with higher voltages but the temperatures because unmanageable at 1.3v. This is a bit different than what Kyle saw, and keep in mind that I am using a different Haswell Core i7-4770K processor than him, so we expected different results. Worth keeping in mind though is that this CPU I am using is also and engineering sample that is on loan to us from ASUS, and we knew it to be a "good" CPU.

Conclusion

Dan's Thoughts:

My experiences with the Z87-A were nothing short of excellent. The out of the box experience was flawless. I had no stability issues or other odd problems. The platform felt more mature than it is. ASUS definitely did a good job as this doesn’t feel like the launch of a new line but rather something that we’ve seen many times before. Unfortunately the chipset and CPU aren’t that exciting alone. Fortunately the ASUS Z87-A motherboard is exicting. ASUS has definitely tried to set the bar high with improvements it has made in the Z87 line. The new CPU fan header, ESD guards, DRAM overcurrent protection, new AI Suite III, improved UEFI, and other new features are all very nice touches that set ASUS apart from the rest.

The ASUS Z87-A is a very good board which feels quite mature despite using yet another new socket and chipset from Intel. If you’ve been waiting for Haswell to pull the trigger on a new board and CPU upgrade and you don’t want to pay for unnecessary fluff the ASUS Z87-A is an attractive solution. You’d be remiss not to take a good look at the Z87-A for your next purchase.

Kyle's Thoughts:

First and foremost, your overclocking experience with these new Haswell processors is likely going to be limited by the quality of the CPU you happen to purchase. We went into this fairly in-depth in our Intel Haswell i7-4770K IPC and Overclocking Review and I would highly suggest checking out our Results Page, "Luck of the Draw," and "Tips and Tricks" pages for sure. That all said, I have yet to start working with Gigabyte and MSI Z87 motherboards, so I am not sure if everything will be so "easy" on those motherboards. It is extremely apparent that ASUS has spent a tremendous amount of resources on its enthusiast line of Z87 motherboards in terms of "auto tuning" features on these motherboards and we are not exactly sure if other builders’ Z87 motherboards are going to be as forgiving when it comes to tweaking out stable overclocks. If you want to geek out a bit more on motherboard technology I highly suggest downloading this zip file from our servers and giving the not-final-draft version of ASUS’ Z87 Overclocking Guide a read.

ASUS’ new UEFI BIOS implementation is impeccable. You will have to look long and hard to find anything about it that you don’t like, at least both Dan and I walked away with a great experience. The cursor support has gotten even better and the features that are touted in it now will give you that, "I never thought of that, but always knew it needed to be done feeling." The level of customization is pure greatness; from being able to name Sata ports for easy identification, to the My Favorites BIOS page that lets the user populate with settings that he wants is brilliant. Then when you think it cannot get any better and you are about save and reboot, you get a pop-up screen with your save that summarizes all the settings you have changed, and gives you the before and after values as well. And of course we all know that we never leave a BIOS without full knowledge of all the sliders, knobs, and switches we have just touched!

The new ASUS Ai Suite III is much more user friendly and intuitive. It is laid out in a better manner and its usage is straightforward. Even with simple things like tweaking voltage values, you are allowed to key in exactly what you want instead of having to rely on getting a slider in just the right place.

I did have one issue with the Z87-A, as well as every other Z87 chipset motherboard we have used so far. My "old" 120GB Corsair F120 SSDs that we have used for testing motherboards caused big issues. On the ASUS Z87 motherboards, the F120 drives would work, but could be slow or not recognized, or cause boot issues, or simply not been seen by the BIOS or the OS. Plugging the Corsair F120 SSDs into the Intel motherboard shipped with the Core i7-4770K left us with nothing. The Intel motherboard would not see these drives at all. I reported this back to ASUS and it replicated the issue in-house and sent us over a Beta BIOS (as referred to earlier) that fixed the issue. We had already moved onto putting new Samsung Pro SSDs into commission by then as our testing platform needed to be updated and we needed to get to work on Haswell. Letting Intel know about this problem it originally expressed it had not seen any issues, but later came back to say:

We have seen some older SATA 2 devices that are out of spec (8-series has tighter tolerances to specs as platform power is much lower آ– but fully complies with all SATA specs) and have intermittent behavior, we are investigating whether this particular drive is one of those.

Obviously Intel is aware of a "problem" internally, although the fault may not be on its end.

Doing a bit of digging we found that some 1200 and 1600 series SandForce controllers are not fully SATA specification compliant and the previous Intel chipsets allowed for this out of spec behavior. It seems that the Z87 will not allow for this as it requires "strict adherence to the SATA specification." We did test the workaround BIOS that ASUS sent us without issues using the older F120 SSDs that employ the Sandforce 1200 controller. So obviously, this will have to be solved at a motherboard BIOS level and something to keep in mind if you have older SATA 2 SSD drives. This issue does not seem to be "widespread" though as Intel sent us a chart that contains many SATA 2 drives that have been verified to work fine with Z87 chipsets.

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As noted in our Intel Haswell i7-4770K IPC and Overclocking Review, the ASUS Z87-A and Z87-Deluxe motherboards showed to overclock the "same." I say this to outline that even though the Z87-A currently represents the "bottom" of the ASUS Z87 enthusiast stack, it looks to be hardly at the bottom in terms of performance. And considering that this Z87-A motherboard that is selling for $150 with a ton of BIOS and software features, it makes it hard to argue with in the value department.

The Bottom Line

The ASUS Z87-A motherboard showed to be an incredibly stable piece of overclocking equipment and carried with it an "upgraded experience" when coming from working with the latest Z77 chipset equipped motherboards. If the Z87-A represent the "low end," we think that ASUS has likely nailed down a very solid footprint in the Z87 market.

The fact that you can use older LGA 1155 and LGA 1156 cooling solutions with LGA 1150 motherboards means that there are plenty of cooling solutions on the market for you to purchase to try to push your Haswell to the limit. The ASUS Z87-A is a great value at its price point and it will likely have everything that a lot of us need for solid Haswell overclocking; without all the stuff that we don’t need.

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ASUS Z87-A Motherboard

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