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 I..er, 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.
Software, firmware, and the regulars
Asus’ programmers have been busy. The Wi-Fi GO! software accompanying the wireless-equipped boards offers DLNA support for media streaming. It can transfer files to and from Android devices, and there’s even a remote desktop function. The RDC component of the Android app only works over local networks right now, but a version that allows connections over the web is on the way, as is a smartphone-friendly UI option. Right now, the app is optimized for larger tablet touchscreens.
There’s a new version of Asus FanXpert Windows software. The app includes a fan profiling tool that determines the exact speed range for each of the attached fans, ensuring consistent speeds when dealing with a mix of fan types. The interface allows the user to identify where the fans are within the system, and each one can be given its own name.
The FanXpert extras aren’t available through the UEFI, but thanks to a firmware tweak, all the on-board fan headers now support temperature-based speed control with both three- and four-pin fans. The fan controls are otherwise excellent, as is the mix of tweaking and overclocking options. As far as overall functionality goes, little has changed from Asus’ existing motherboards. Once the firmware has been tuned for the final processor silicon, there are plans to add new features that take advantage of some of the freedom afforded by the UEFI standard. Since it’s been responsive to my repeated ranting about fan speed controls, I can only hope Asus has been taking notes on what I’d like in next-gen firmware.
Speaking of ranting, Asus’ firmware continues to monkey around with Turbo multipliers if unrelated system settings are modified. Do something as innocuous as define the memory speed manually, and the UEFI effectively overclocks the CPU behind your back by applying higher-than-stock multipliers to all-core loads. That’s not how a modern enthusiast firmware should behave; modifying one setting should never affect something unrelated, and the CPU should never be pushed beyond stock speeds without informing the user—and, indeed, asking his permission.
Of all the members of the P8Z77 series, the Mini-ITX Deluxe model is perhaps the most exciting. Thanks in part to that VRM riser, Asus says the board overclocks just as well as its full-sized counterparts. Sandy Bridge’s successor is expected to have tighter thermal envelopes, making the CPU a better fit for shoebox-sized systems.
The P8Z77-V Deluxe is the big daddy of the family, at least among the regular boards. As one might expect, it has more slots, ports, and power phases than the others. I quite like the look of Asus’ new heatsinks, which remind me a little of the output from a graphical equalizer. They’re nothing compared to the hunks of metal on the Maximus V Formula board, though.
A pair of barbs for liquid-cooling tubing can be found on the Formula’s VRM heatsink, which contains an internal heatpipe and exactly zero cheesy gun imagery. Asus claims liquid cooling can decrease the temperature of the power regulation circuitry by 18-20°C. The heatsink is said to perform well with traditional air cooling, too, achieving lower temperatures than the heatsinks on the last generation of ROG mobos.
The Formula features three PCI Express x16 slots, so you can bet there’s an Extreme model in development for four-way graphics configurations. Also in the works is a new integrated audio solution for the Formula, although Asus wouldn’t provide any details. All the company would tell us is that it’s been working closely with a well-known DAC maker.
On the microATX side of the ROG line, the Maximus V Gene provides a small-but-potent foundation for image-conscious gamers and extreme overclockers. The Gene has some fancy integrated audio of its own thanks a moat design that isolates the audio traces from the rest of the circuit board. It also features a nifty riser card with one mSATA slot and one Mini PCIe slot.
Asus couldn’t get through a motherboard unveiling without talking about component quality, and it’s particularly jazzed about the capacitors on the ROG boards. They’re a higher grade than the ones used in the Sabertooth series, Asus says, and were chosen specifically for how they perform in highly overclocked systems.
Asus’ serious side, plus one more thing
The Sabertooth family has a new member draped in Thermal Armor. Asus has added Dust Defender inserts for the expansion slots, and the plastic pieces have been designed to double as extensions to aid in releasing the retention clips on the PCIe slots. That’s probably safer than the metal screwdriver I’ve been using to free graphics cards in tightly packed systems.
We weren’t impressed with Asus’ first Thermal Armor implementation, but this one comes with its own fans: two purportedly quiet units covered by the same five-year warranty as the rest of the board. One of the fans mounts just behind the port cluster, while its twin is meant to lie just south of the CPU socket.
To improve airflow to the back of the motherboard, the Sabertooth has been drilled full of holes. The portals are strategically placed around the power circuitry and fans, which have a little extra magic of their own. The headers intended for the Thermal Armor fans support an Overtime function that keeps them spinning after the system has been powered down, allowing it to cool more quickly. Users can define how long the fans keep spinning, and Overtime will work with any fan plugged into the appropriate headers.
Workstation users who require additional expansion slots but not the extra PCIe bandwidth offered by Sandy Bridge-E should make note of the P8Z77 WS, which uses a PLX bridge chip to split the PCI Express lanes hanging off the CPU. The PLX chip supports PCIe 3.0, and it acts as a simple pass-through when only two cards are installed, reducing the potential for latency.
Despite lacking premium features like integrated Bluetooth and Wi-Fi, the WS board has a few unique tricks up its sleeve. The Intel NICs are server-grade affairs that purportedly offer better performance than the client-oriented NICs used in the other boards. Also, there’s a standard USB port on the circuit board intended for use with the DRM dongles required by some workstation software suites. Stashing the dongle inside the case makes it harder to steal.
Asus hasn’t gone too crazy with its 7-series motherboards, but the changes look to be positive ones overall. There’s much more to say, of course, but the intrigue largely revolves around the processor and platform hub, whose names I dare not speak. Expect an in-depth report on Intel’s new hotness before long.
As the event wound down, I got to talking to an Asus rep about tablets. He promptly produced One More Thing: the new Transformer 300, a replacement for the original Transformer due out this spring. My time with it was limited, but as an owner of the first generation, the 300 felt like a definite upgrade.
The tablet and dock are noticeably thinner, and the UI is snappier thanks to the Tegra 3 SoC under the hood. I’m particularly fond of the textured finish on the back of the tablet, which feels grippy and almost rubberized. The device resisted my attempts to leave smudged fingerprints, and it looks quite distinctive—nothing like an iPad, at least not unless you believe Apple has a monopoly on curved edges and black bezels.
Asus is on track to ship the Transformer 300 and other additions to its tablet lineup this spring. I suspect we’ll be seeing more cooperation between its motherboards and Android devices, too.