Asus' P8P67 PRO motherboard
We caught our first glimpse of the P8P67 PRO motherboard while previewing Asus' Sandy Bridge lineup back in November. The PRO sits smack in the middle of that family, which has 10 models based on the P67 alone. In case you're wondering, no, PRO doesn't actually stand for anything. Nothing says professional like abbreviating in all-caps.
At least Asus hasn't gone with a shouty aesthetic. The muted blue ports, slots, and heatsinks give the PRO a much softer appearance than a lot of enthusiast-oriented motherboards. I'd almost call it elegant.
What's most remarkable about Asus' Sandy Bridge lineup is that so many features have been applied from top to bottom, at least among the ATX models. One of those features is so subtle you'd never notice without a microscope. Asus has adjusted the fiber weave used to make the circuit board, rotating the pattern slightly to reduce the size of the gaps that individual traces must traverse. This change purportedly results in better signal delivery, which, like most minor tweaks to materials and components, is said to improve stability when overclocking.
Gone are the days when motherboard makers were seemingly in competition to see who could strap more metal to the voltage regulation circuitry on their motherboards. The P8P67's VRM coolers are really quite small, providing ample clearance for larger coolers. Unfortunately, they leave little room around the bottom screw hole in the picture above. This fact made installing the last thumbscrew on the cooler we used for testing a little awkward, at least for my fat fingers.
More interesting than the VRM coolers is the circuitry they cover. All ATX members of Asus' 6-series mobo lineup feature a digital VRM system dubbed Digi+ VRM. Instead of being controlled by the CPU, these VRMs are governed by an Asus EPU microcontroller that scales the number of phases based on demand and temperatures. As many as 12 phases can feed the CPU at once, and the system can ramp down to just one phase to conserve power. Asus says the all-digital design can switch phases faster than its analog equivalents, resulting in more efficient power delivery.
The P67's dual storage controllers make color-coding a must for SATA ports. In light blue, we have the P67's 3Gbps ports, followed by the chipset's 6Gbps ports in white. The darker blue ports over to the right also offer 6Gbps Serial ATA connectivity, but via an auxiliary Marvell controller rather than through the chipset.
All the usual caveats apply to these and other edge-mounted Serial ATA ports. Longer graphics cards won't block any of the ports or their associated cabling. However, tighter cases that put the hard drive bays or other internal scaffolding right next to the motherboard tray may make accessing the edge-mounted ports difficult.
A massive but low-profile chipset heatsink leaves plenty of room for longer graphics cards to stretch out. You can run three of them in the P8P67 PRO thanks to the third x16 slot at the bottom of the stack. The last x16 slot has to share lanes with the x1 slots, though. Even when both of the x1 slots are unoccupied, the black slot only gets four lanes of bandwidth. Keep in mind, too, that double-wide cards installed in the bottom x16 slot may extend below the motherboard and fail to fit into some cases.
That said, the third x16 slot can be used with any PCI Express card. It's especially nice to have up to four lanes of bandwidth available for the PCIe-based SSDs that seem to be on track to become more prevalent over the next couple of years.
The P8P67 PRO is graced with one of the most complete port clusters we've seen from a modern motherboard. You get one of everything, including standard and USB-powered eSATA ports. I particularly like the inclusion of coaxial and optical digital S/PDIF audio outputs, which are the best way to tap the onboard audio. The Realtek audio codec behind those ports isn't particularly inspired. However, Asus has picked up the codec's optional DTS Surround Sensation support, which provides virtualized multi-channel audio for stereo speakers and headphones.
That little purple lump sticking out above the red USB ports is a receiver for the board's built-in Bluetooth 2.1 module. Bluetooth may not be a must-have feature for a desktop system, but it's a nice little extra for such an affordable motherboard.
Half of the PRO's four USB 3.0 ports are located in the rear cluster. The remaining two reside on an expansion slot cover that connects to internal headers. Those headers can also be used to fuel the front-mounted USB 3.0 ports available in some newer cases.
Speaking of extras, we should point out that Asus continues to include handy jumper blocks for front-panel connectors that have yet to be standardized. We've also grown fond of the soft-backed I/O shields that Asus bundles with its motherboards—no more slicing your fingers open on thin bits of razor-sharp metal.
Arguably the most impressive feature of Asus' 6-series motherboards is a new Unified Extensible Firmware Interface (UEFI) BIOS framework that represents a fundamental change in how the operating system talks to the motherboard. The P8P67 PRO isn't the only motherboard in this round-up with a UEFI BIOS, but its implementation is far and away the best. First, there's the interface, which first presents the user with a simplified screen offering control over the boot order and a couple of pre-baked performance settings. Believe it or not, the picture above shows the BIOS interface and not a Windows system utility.
Dig into the advanced view, and you'll find access to all the usual widgets, including multiplier, clock, and voltage controls. There's more than enough range to satiate serious overclockers, and the menu options grant full control over the various Turbo multipliers available in Intel's latest CPUs. Asus hasn't pursued overclocking excellence at the expense of fan speed controls, either. Users can tune the temperature thresholds and fan speeds associated with the CPU and system fan headers.
What really makes the BIOS is how smooth and responsive it feels when navigating with a keyboard, mouse, or both. Asus carries over the same overall layout it uses on standard motherboard BIOSes, so there's no need to relearn where everything is. Being able to scroll through and select the usual settings while using a mouse is truly liberating.
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