Asus' P8Z77-V motherboard
We took an early look at a bunch of Asus' 7-series motherboards last month. Now, it's time for a deeper analysis of one model in particular: the P8Z77-V. The lack of a suffix denotes the fact that this is Asus' "standard" Z77 model. It doesn't have all the extra goodies included in the pricier Pro and Deluxe models, but it's not missing key ingredients left off the budget LE and LX members of the family. To be fair, though, the P8Z77-V is selling for $210 online, making it rather pricey for a standard offering.
The P8Z77-V looks not unlike Asus' 6-series motherboards. The color palette hasn't changed, but the heatsinks have a new aesthetic treatment. Asus has traded the curved lines of the old heatsinks for a jagged pattern that reminds me a little bit of Winamp's spectrum analyzer. I like the look of the board, whose white and light-blue accents at least deviate a little from the black-and-blue motif that has blanketed the motherboard landscape.
Also popular among enthusiast-oriented motherboards is digital power delivery circuitry, which the P8Z77-V has not only for the CPU and system memory, but also for Intel's processor-based integrated graphics. Four power phases are dedicated to the IGP, eight are reserved for the CPU, and two cover the DRAM.
While perhaps not as sexy as digital VRMs, Asus' 7-series motherboards feature a new trace layout for their DIMM slots. This arrangement allows individual DIMMs to be accessed in parallel rather than the serial approach typically favored by motherboards. The result, Asus says, is more memory overclocking headroom with multiple modules installed. Don't expect an increase in memory bandwidth or a reduction in latency, though.
Going to be using memory with taller heat spreaders? Be sure to check your cooler against the P8Z77-V's socket clearances. The DIMM slots are about as close as they are on the other boards, but there might not be enough of a gap for some aftermarket coolers. Overall, Asus does a good job of keeping the socket area free of obstructions; the VRM heatsinks do crowd the socket on two sides, but they're short enough to avoid conflicting with oversized coolers.
The socket sits just to the north of a stack of seven expansion slots. Perhaps as a concession to owners of its Xonar DG sound card, Asus provides a pair of old-school PCI slots, one of which will be obscured by double-wide graphics configurations. The top two x16 slots are linked directly to the CPU and are compliant with the PCI Express 3.0 specification (as long as a PCIe 3.0-capable CPU is installed); when both slots are occupied, each one gets eight lanes of bandwidth. The rest of the PCIe slots conform to the gen-two standard and hang off the Z77 platform hub. That chip has only eight lanes of PCIe connectivity, so the bottom x16 slot is a little starved for bandwidth. It operates in x1 mode by default and can be configured with four lanes of bandwidth if you're willing to give up the x1 slots and the auxiliary SATA controller.
The SATA ports associated with that ASMedia controller are colored dark blue in the picture above. Even without them, the P8Z77-V has dual 6Gbps SATA ports and four 3Gbps SATA ports linked to the Z77. Asus has also cooked up a little something special just above the front-panel connector: a Thunderbolt header. This header is to be used in conjunction with a PCIe-based Thunderbolt card that Asus expects to sell for about $40. The header is necessary because current Thunderbolt chips need to see the motherboard's display outputs, something they can't do over PCI Express, Asus tells us.
Another surprise pops up in the P8Z77-V's port cluster. This time, it's an 802.11n Wi-Fi module that complements the board's Intel Gigabit Ethernet controller. Asus has cooked up some nifty software to go with the wireless controller, but the universal Bluetooth support from its 6-series motherboards has been dropped. I wouldn't be surprised if users preferred Wi-Fi over Bluetooth. Still, it would have been nice for Asus to include both.
Half of the USB 3.0 ports at the rear (the ones under the Gigabit Ethernet jack) are connected to the Z77 Express, while the others stem from a two-port ASMedia chip. The Z77's remaining USB 3.0 ports are routed to an internal header meant for front-panel connectors. Asus has special software designed to accelerate the performance of both USB controllers, and we'll take a closer look at how well it works in a moment.
Before then, I have to give Asus a shout-out for equipping the P8Z77-V with robust integrated audio. Although the Realtek codec is standard fare, it's paired with DTS Connect and UltraPC II software. UltraPC provides virtualization mojo, while DTS connect allows folks to encode multi-channel digital audio on the fly. If you have a compatible receiver, you can get pristine surround sound in both games and movies without resorting to a sound card or analog outputs.
Asus' excellent motherboard firmware needs no introduction. The interface remains largely unchanged, and it's still as responsive and as slick as ever.
Unfortunately, the firmware will still take liberties with your CPU. The "Asus MultiCore Enhancement" mode kicks in automatically if you change something like the memory multiplier. This feature tweaks the CPU's Turbo behavior, applying the single-core multiplier to all load levels, including when all four cores are occupied. That's overclocking, according to Intel, and it shouldn't be done without the user's knowledge and consent. Asus doesn't ask permission to change this behavior, although it does make a token effort to give the user a heads up by changing the all-core Turbo speed displayed in the firmware interface. Proper Turbo behavior can be restored by disabling the MultiCore Enhancement, which is better than the old workaround, which required setting the correct per-core Turbo multipliers manually.
Changing the system's memory speed shouldn't overclock the CPU. Indeed, altering one system setting should never affect another, especially one that's not in any way related. We've expressed our reservations about this behavior to Asus countless times since noticing it with 6-series motherboards, and the company continues to defend the practice stubbornly. It's becoming increasingly difficult to view this practice as anything other than a thinly veiled attempt to inflate benchmark scores artificially.
With that off my chest, we can get back to the firmware, with is otherwise excellent, right down to how it can be updated. The P8V77-V includes a BIOS Flashback feature that allows updates to be applied to the board with only a USB stick and a power supply—no processor or DRAM required.
Like the other boards, the P8V77-V's firmware is loaded with overclocking and tweaking options. It also features an excellent collection of temperature-based fan speed controls for the CPU and all four system fans. Users can change the minimum and maximum temperatures and speeds associated with each fan header. The CPU header's speed control only works with four-pin PWM fans, but that's really the only limitation.
Fire up Windows, and there's even more fan control goodness. Asus' Fan Xpert 2 application allows the user to define multiple points along the speed profile associated with each fan. Fans can be given distinct names and classified based on their position in the system. There's also an auto-tuning mechanism that ramps fans from zero to full blast to determine their exact rotational speed at each step along the way. No other motherboard we've seen comes close to the level of fan control offered by Asus' firmware and software tag team.
The P8V77-V comes with Windows-based overclocking software, too, and that's just the tip of the iceberg. Asus has bolstered its AI Suite software substantially over the past couple years, adding extensive power regulation controls and, most recently, a networking component with bandwidth prioritization and other goodies. I tend to avoid the software that comes bundled with most motherboards, but AI Suite is worth installing.
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