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A sneak peek at Asus' next-gen Intel motherboards

Upgrades from top to bottom

Last week, the tech press descended on Dallas, Texas, for an early look at Asus' next-generation Intel motherboards. Preview events like this are common in the industry, but Asus' so-called technology workshop was a little bit different. Instead of subjecting us to hours of PowerPoint presentations laced with marketing messages and not-so-helpful information about the state of the industry—which we, you know, cover for a living—the focus was squarely on the specifics of Asus' upcoming boards. Demo systems were on hand to show off various features, and we were given a surprising amount of freedom to poke, prod, and even overclock the rigs.

Although there were few limitations on what we could do at the event, there's only so much we can talk about now. Anything related to Intel's upcoming processors and chipsets is off the table. Indeed, even the widely known codename for the CPU is verboten. Sandy Bridge's little sister—we'll call her Poison Golden Gate—is still gestating, and it seems Intel is superstitious about having her name mentioned before the birth.

Nevermind the fact that, Poison's particulars leaked onto the web long ago. Even Intel is guilty of spilling the beans, having prematurely posted a Spring 2012 Processor Flipbook PDF loaded with specifications via its Retail Edge website.

Fortunately, there's quite a lot that we can cover on the motherboard front. Asus' engineers have been hard at work on a number of tweaks, enhancements, and new features for the next round of LGA 1155 mobos. Let's see if we can work our way through them without breaking any of the rules.

Goodness trickles down
Like other motherboard makers, Asus reserves the most exotic features for its high-end offerings. However, it's also been rather aggressive about migrating recent innovations to more affordable models. That continues with the new boards, which offer a number of perks up and down the line.

Rather than using a mix of chipsets, all the boards we saw were based on Intel's next top-of-the-line platform hub. Technically, we're supposed to refer to it as the "3rd generation Intel Core processor-based platform." The rumor mill outed the next-gen Express chipset's name long ago, of course, and it's plainly visible when you look at the model numbers on the boards, which we are allowed to show. Need a hint? The TUF model in the family is the Sabertooth Z77.

Intel will have other chipsets, of course, but Asus is sticking with this one for everything from standard models through uber-high-end variants. Although it will build boards based on other members of the 7-series chipset family, those products won't be targeted at enthusiasts. Since we can't discuss chipset features, I'll point you to the most recent rumor on the subject.

All the boards we saw, including the budget models and the Mini-ITX midget, feature digital power delivery circuitry for the CPU, its integrated graphics component, and the system's memory. Asus' 6-series motherboards already offer Digi+ VRMs for the CPU and memory, but they're new for the IGP.

Also new is the trace layout for the DIMM slots—a design that purportedly impressed Intel. The trace arrangement allows individual DIMMs to be accessed in parallel rather than the serial approach typically favored by motherboards. While Asus made no claims about improvements in memory bandwidth or latency, it did say the trace layout enables higher clocks. We saw systems running four DIMMs at 2800MHz, more than double the default memory clock of Intel's Sandy Bridge CPUs.

In a bid to offer better support for future CPUs, Asus' BIOS Flashback feature will be available on the full range of boards. This handy capability allows firmware updates to be applied with only a PSU and USB thumb drive connected—no processor required.

Asus is using Intel Gigabit Ethernet controllers throughout, which is a very good thing. Integrated Wi-Fi will make its way to the standard, Pro, and Deluxe models. Only the Deluxe boards boast dual-band support, though. They're the only ones with integrated Bluetooth, as well. Bluetooth support was included with a wider range of Asus' 6-series motherboards, so there's been some regression on that front. Fortunately, improvements have been made elsewhere.

On the USB front, Asus' Poison Golden Gate family supports the USB BC 1.1 charging standard, allowing compatible devices to draw additional juice even when the system is turned off. Other fast-charging solutions typically only work with iDevices, the company says.

While I've been sworn to secrecy about Intel's USB 3.0 controller, if such a thing exists, Asus is providing additional SuperSpeed ports via an ASMedia chip. The mobo maker was careful to point out that the ASMedia solution supports the USB Attached SCSI Protocol (USAP), which is claimed to offer better real-world performance than the old Bulk-Only Transport (BOT) standard, particularly at higher queue depths. Interesting ideas about how to put those claims to the test are already bouncing around in my head.

ASMedia is an Asus subsidiary, and its controllers have largely replaced Marvell's 6Gbps SATA chips on the next-gen boards. The only exceptions are the Deluxe and workstation-oriented WS models, which offer Asus' own SSD caching implementation using the Marvell chip. That particular feature doesn't work with the ASMedia chip right now.