Tweaking in Windows
If you'd rather not poke around in the firmware, the Z87E-ITX ships with tuning software for Windows. The A-Tuning app is new, as far as I can tell, and it could use a little polish.
The interface is nice and clean, but the overclocking options are a little limited. There's no way to adjust Turbo multipliers for different loads, for example; only an all-core option is provided. The app doesn't support changing the BCLK strap, either. Sliders are available for the base clock and integrated graphics frequencies, though, and there's no shortage of voltage options.
The Z87E-ITX offers both adaptive and override voltages. We'd recommend that most folks use the former, which applies extra juice only when the CPU kicks into Turbo mode. That should reduce unnecessary power consumption under load.
When running in adaptive mode, the CPU can request additional voltage on top of what's set in the firmware. Motherboard makers tell us this power grab occurs only with stress testing loads like those found in Prime95. The only way to set a hard limit on the CPU voltage is to use the override mode, which is recommended for extreme overclocking.
ASRock's software fan controls are even better than those in the firmware. They provide the same degree of granular control but add mouse-friendly graphs to the equation. Points on the curve can be dragged and dropped with ease.
As has become fashionable for the latest round of mobo tweaking software, the A-Tuning app also includes a fan calibrator. This function maps out the actual rotational speed, providing insight on how different spinners behave.
The system monitor built into A-Tuning software is pretty basic. All the essential variables are tracked in real time, but you only get a current snapshot. We'd rather see values graphed over time, preferably with a logging function that outputs standard CSV files.
We've seen RAM disk software bundled with a few different motherboards lately, and the Z87E-ITX is the latest one to join the club. I guess that's cool, but I just don't get the appeal. You'll pay about $60 for 8GB of decent DDR3 these days. That works out to $7.50 per gigabyte, which is about eight times the per-gig price of the fastest SSDs. A RAM disk will technically be faster, but it will also be a lot smaller. Besides, modern SSDs are pretty quick already.
If you go the RAM disk route, the A-Tuning app provides a few handy features. Simple switches control whether the RAM disk is used for various cache and temporary files. There's also an integrated backup routine that can preserve the contents of the drive through a reboot.
The Z87E-ITX can be overclocked several different ways, and we tried a few of them. For newbies, the most tempting method is invoking the auto-OC feature built into the A-Tuning software. This iterative auto-tuner steps up the CPU clock speed and tests stability along the way. It didn't get very far with our Core i7-4770K, though. The system hard-locked at 4.1GHz, requiring a manual reboot. After that, it locked at 4GHz and then again at 3.9GHz. In the end, the auto-tuner settled on a disappointing 3.8GHz all-core speed, just 100MHz above stock.
Next, we turned our attention to the firmware, which features a collection of pre-baked overclocking profiles in 200MHz increments. Our system booted into Windows with the 4.8GHz preset, but it immediately started throttling under load. Even with our dual-fan Corsair H80 water cooler drawing heat away from the CPU, temperatures still spiked up to 95°C, causing the CPU to reduce its clock speed.
The 4.8GHz profile called for a CPU voltage of 1.42V, which is quite high for Haswell. The 4.6GHz preset demanded only 1.32V, and it cut CPU temperatures by 11°C. That was enough to keep throttling at bay and give us our highest stable speed.
Manual overclocking proved more difficult. On the Z87 motherboards we've tested from Asus, Gigabyte, and MSI, the CPU can be overclocked by doing little more than changing the Turbo multiplier and adjusting a few voltages. All the other settings can be left at their "auto" defaults, allowing the firmware to make adjustments as it sees fit.
On the Z87E-ITX, the auto settings don't react particularly well to overclocking. We couldn't even get the board to boot at a lowly 4GHz without setting the CPU voltage manually. 4.2GHz required flipping a bunch of separate switches, some related to power management and the CPU's integrated VRM. We basically copied the changes made by the auto-OC presets. Those tweaks got us up to 4.6GHz before things went sideways again.
Surprisingly, our manually tuned 4.6GHz config wasn't as stable as the preset one. We played with everything from power limits to load-line calibration, but we couldn't get the manual setup to survive our stress test without throttling or spitting out a BSOD. We must have missed one of changes made by the auto preset.
We've hit similar speeds on other Z87 boards with much less fiddling, making the experience on the Z87E-ITX somewhat frustrating. Unless you really enjoy tweaking obscure firmware settings, you're better off sticking with the presets.
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