Asus' Crosshair IV Formula motherboard
Remote access for the Republic of Gamers
Asus has a long history of producing high-end motherboards. Years ago, the company's more exotic offerings really loaded up on integrated peripherals and extraneous gadgets. These days, overclocking has become more of a central focus. The Crosshair IV Formula is the latest addition to a family of Republic of Gamers products aimed specifically at the hard-core gaming and overclocking crowds. Asus says this republic is committed to delivering innovative products, and at least on one front, the Crosshair delivers in spades.
By far the most unique element of the Crosshair is its ROG Connect feature. Targeted at extreme overclockers, the ROG Connect application is designed to run on a second system that talks to the motherboard via a USB cable. The software can be used to tweak clock speeds and voltages remotely, or to monitor a mobo's POST codes, voltages, clock speeds, and temperatures. If you'd rather overclock locally, ROG Connect's ability to control the board remotely during a BIOS update might still prove useful.
Gamers and overclockers aren't usually known for their sense of style, but the Crosshair has definite aesthetic appeal. The board sticks to a simple palette and relatively subtle touches, making for an attractive overall package with a menacing edge thanks to angular heatsinks that wouldn't look out of place on a stealthy assault rifle.
Don't expect to find much spare room on any of these 890FX boards; they're all packed to the gills with slots, ports, buttons, and the like. The Crosshair has a particularly generous array of onboard extras, such as voltage probe points and actual buttons for core unlocking and automatic overclocking. Amazingly, Asus' board designers have made room for everything without introducing potential clearance conflicts.
The Crosshair's DIMM slots snug right up next to the CPU socket, which is a common configuration for AMD-based mobos. If you're planning on running memory modules with taller heatsinks, you'd do well to avoid CPU coolers that fan out from the socket. Standard-height DIMMs shouldn't pose any clearance problems, and neither will the 890FX and VRM heatsinks.
Asus neatly clusters all six of the SB850's SATA ports along the edge of the board, out of the way of longer graphics cards, but access to those ports could prove tricky extremely cramped enclosures. That one black SATA port stems from a JMicron controller that also fuels the eSATA connectivity in the port cluster. You'll have to sacrifice the internal port when running a lengthy double-wide CrossFire config, but the SATA ports connected to the south bridge should be faster, anyway.
Yes, even with four PCI Express x16 slots, the Crosshair has fewer than the Gigabyte and MSI boards. The top three PCIe slots can be configured in an x16/x8x/x8 setup for a ménage à CrossFire. You can also load the second slot up with 16 lanes for a pair of Radeons. The bottom x16 slot only has four lanes of electrical connectivity, though.
Motherboard makers have found a new way to differentiate their products: the number, size, shape, and color of onboard buttons. Asus clusters a chunky set right below the slot stack, providing the usual start and reset buttons in addition to toggle switches for automatic overclocking and core unlocking.
More buttons can be found at the rear, this time to control ROG connectivity and clear the CMOS. All the staples of a modern port cluster make an appearance, as well, including a couple of blue USB 3.0 ports, a hybrid eSATA/USB connector, and a digital S/PDIF output.
An unlikely duo powers the Crosshair's twisted take on integrated audio: VIA's VT2020 codec provides an output conduit for Creative's SupremeFX X-Fi software. This virtual X-Fi adds all sorts of capabilities you don't usually get with motherboard audio, such as support for EAX 4.0 effects, CMSS-3D surround virtualization and up-mixing, and Creative's ALchemy software, which improves 3D audio compatibility with old games in Windows 7.
The days of overstuffed motherboard bundles are thankfully behind us. However, Asus has still thrown in a few extras with the Crosshair. The most notable of these is a sheet of 12 color-coded labels for SATA cables. I'm also a big fan of the little front-panel jumper blocks that Asus includes in with just about every mobo.
As one would expect from any high-end motherboard BIOS bearing Asus' name, the Crosshair's loaded with overclocking and tweaking options. Even extreme overclockers should be happy with what the BIOS has to offer, but there are features for normal folks, too. A handy auto-overclocking tool is built right in, for example, and the fan-speed controls are the best I've seen in a very long time. Users can set a temperature threshold and high and low duty cycles for both the CPU and system fans. Only slightly more limited control is available for the board's four additional fan headers, which can abide by high and low temperature thresholds. An adjustable fixed-speed mode is available for each onboard fan header, as well.