ASUS Z170-A LGA 1151 Skylake Motherboard Review

Previously we looked at ASUS’ Z170-Deluxe which offered users a huge amount of features and a premium price to go with it. Not everyone wants to spend $300 or more on a motherboard which is why ASUS has just what you need. ASUS’ Z170-A offers all the performance without all the extra features and fluff and a low price point.

Introduction

ASUS Probably doesn’t need any real introduction unless you’ve recently time traveled from the past to the present, or have been released from a state of suspended animation dating back to the late 1980’s. For those of you who are new to the hobby or whose’ lives fit into one of the science fiction type scenarios, ASUS was founded in 1989 and has grown to be one of the largest PC vendors in the world. ASUS is a multi-billion dollar a year corporation which offers a wide range of products from smart phones and consumer networking equipment to monitors and motherboards. ASUS began its existence producing motherboards, and is often the progenitor of many modern features we now take for granted. ASUS still remains best known for its motherboard offerings.

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The ASUS Z170-A is based on Intel’s Z170 Express chipset and is compatible with Intel’s 6th generation Core i5/i7 6x00 series socket LGA 1151 CPUs. The new chipset has a host of new features and improvements which elevate it over the previous generation in many areas. The chipset sports DDR4 memory support up to DDR4 3466MHz, SATA 6Gb/s, SATA Express, 4x PCIe M.2, NVMe, PCIe 3.0, SLI and Crossfire, USB 3.1, and more. If you want to know more about the chipset please refer to our earlier coverage of it here. The ASUS Z170-A is essentially a stripped down version of the Z170-Deluxe we reviewed a short time ago. The main differences are in the realm of connectivity. The Z170-A lacks the extra SATA ports, has only one network interface, has fewer USB ports than the more expensive Z170-Deluxe mode. There are other concessions to such as PCB thickness and MOSFET cooling. We’ll get into more of what you can expect as we progress through the various aspects of the board’s features and design. Features like LAN Guard, 5-Way optimization, Pro Clock, MemOK, and Q-Flash 3 are all present. The Z170-Deluxe motherboard is selling for $320 currently. The ASUS Z170-A motherboard sells for about half that price, currently retailing for $160.

Main Specifications Overview:

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Detailed Specifications Overview:

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Packaging

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The packaging for the Z170-A is just like it was last generation with similar box art to that of the Z170-Deluxe and X99 Deluxe motherboards we’ve seen before. Inside the box there is a substantial bundle given how basic the motherboard is. Inside you’ll find the following accessories: User's manual, driver disc, I/O Shield, 3x SATA 6Gb/s cable(s), 1x M.2 Screw Package, 1x CPU installation tool, 1x SLI bridge(s), and 1x Q-connector. The CPU installation tool is something we glossed over in our Z170-Deluxe article. Essentially the instructions that come with it are quite good. The trick is getting your processor to clip into the plastic bracket. You basically turn the CPU upside down and then clip it into place. You’ll hear a click when it works right. You can install the tool and CPU into the socket. The tool makes it so you can’t get the alignment in the socket wrong. You really can’t anyway, but it becomes more blatantly obvious with the tool. I think the idea is to give you something you can hold onto more easily so you don’t drop the CPU into the LGA pin array.

Board Layout

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The layout of the Z170-A is superb. There isn’t a whole lot that can really go wrong here given the more or less stripped down nature of the board. ASUS has 5 fan headers and an optional extension card port which adds even more. All of which are fully controllable in the UEFI BIOS.

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The CPU socket area is very clean. Black metallic electrolytic capacitors can be seen flanking the CPU socket. The Z170-A uses an 8+2 all digital power phase design cooled with relatively small heat sinks. My only complaint here is that the heat sinks use push pins with spring tensioners for retention. Words can’t describe how much I dislike this method for "securing" heat sinks to the motherboard. The wobble doesn’t ever leave you with a good impression when handling the board. Furthermore, these don’t mate perfectly flat to the MOSFETs as a result. I can’t imagine screws to properly secure these are much more expensive than the tensioners. The result would absolutely be worth it in my opinion. ASUS obviously realizes the screws are better as its higher end motherboards are built using this method of heat sink retention.

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The Z170-A uses four 288-pin DDR4 DIMM slots for a total supported memory capacity of 64GB. The memory modules use a single locking tab for retention. These slots are also color coded alternating between black and gray to denote proper dual-channel memory mode operation. ASUS rates the maximum supported memory clock speed for the Z170-A at 3466MHz. Naturally this is an overclocked specification using manual tuning, or X.M.P. profiles as JEDEC specifications only call for speeds up to 2133MHz.

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The chipset is cooled by a single flat, white and silver metal heat sink. It has no heat pipes and uses tensioners to hold it in place. The Z170-A lacks the LEDs found on the Z170-Deluxe but otherwise this cooling hardware looks very similar. Next to the chipset you’ll find 4x SATA 6Gb/s ports and a single SATA Express port which also serves as two additional SATA 6Gb/s ports. The port ASUS recommends for the OS drive is marked for convenience. The motherboards M.2 slot is located next to the chipset and some of the onboard switches. The switches are for the TPU I/ II modes as well as the EZ XMP switch. The latter, I’m actually quite fond of. The M.2 slot uses 4x PCIe 3.0 lanes and supports drive types up to 110mm in length. This slot is well positioned as it keeps the M.2 drive clear of the primary GPU. Unfortunately the slot places the M.2 drive under the secondary GPU slot.

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The expansion slot area is well thought out. I like having a PCIe x1 slot above the primary GPU so long as the motherboard isn’t designed for 3-Way SLI. The PCIe x16 slots support the following configurations: x16/x0, x8/x8, and x8/x8/x4. The last PCIe x16 slot is only capable of supporting up to x4 lanes. A PCIe to PCI bridge allows for a legacy PCI slot. I personally think these are virtually useless in today’s age but ASUS, MSI, GIGABYTE and all other brands usually leave this here for emerging markets like China. In the expansion slot area you will find the onboard UEFI BIOS ROM. It is normally close to the chipset. The BIOS ROM is actually removable, which is something I’m pleased to see ASUS continue doing.

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The I/O panel offers a ton of options in regard to video connectivity. Too many in fact. There is a DisplayPort connector and an HDMI 2.0 connector which isn’t 2.2 compliant as one would hope. Intel didn’t certify the iGPU in Skylake to be HDMI 2.2 compatible. There is also a DVI-D connector. Essentially the four video options take up at least 40% of the I/O panel. That leaves little space for USB ports. There are two legacy USB 1.1/2.0 ports, 2x USB 3.0 ports and a single USB 3.1 port. The new USB Type-C port is also present. The PS/2 keyboard and mouse port is oddly placed. A single RJ-45 connector is present for wired networking. 5x mini-stereo jacks and one optical out are present for your audio needs. 7.1 channel audio is actually supported, but forces jack retasking to use it.