Haswell is finally upon us, and so are droves of new motherboards designed for it. For PC enthusiasts, the most interesting ones are based on the Z87 Express platform. The Z87 is the full-fat implementation of Intel's latest chipset silicon. It offers six Serial ATA 6Gbps ports and six USB 3.0 ports alongside all the usual connectivity.
In addition to handling platform I/O, the Z87 unlocks a couple of processor-specific features. CPUs connected to the platform can split their 16-lane PCI Express 3.0 links into a pair of x8 connections for multi-GPU graphics configs or into an x8/x4/x8 setup for Thunderbolt. The Z87 also unlocks all of Haswell's tweaking dials, allowing overclockers to push the processor to its limits—or just unlock a bit of "free" headroom with a decent aftermarket cooler.
There are dozens of Z87 motherboards selling online right now, each with a different mix of features and functionality. Over the coming weeks, we'll try to cover some of the most interesting Haswell motherboards on the market.We're kicking things off with a detailed look at the Asus Z87-PRO.
Asus has introduced a new black-and-gold color scheme with its 8-series motherboards. The aesthetic is a departure from the blue accents that have dominated the industry of late. The gold is supposed to convey a premium feel, and the anodized metal heatsinks definitely fit the part. However, the plastic ports and slots have more of a beige tone, which cheapens the look a little. I can't look at the Z87-PRO without picturing a 1978 Firebird Trans Am with gold rims and faded beige upholstery.
While scoping the board from this angle, one of the first things that jumps out is the conspicuous lack of PCI slots. The PRO is PCIe-only, and it has dual x16 slots to take advantage of the chipset's multi-GPU support. There's also a third PCIe x16 slot at the bottom of the stack. This slot offers a maximum of four lanes of PCIe 2.0 connectivity via the platform hub. Those lanes are shared with the board's four PCIe x1 slots.
Haswell's LGA1150 socket lies north of the slot stack. Despite the processor's new integrated VRM, the power circuitry surrounding the socket looks similar to what you'll find on Ivy Bridge boards. This additional circuitry is all digital, of course.
Asus straps a pair of heatsinks to the Z87-PRO's 12-phase CPU power solution. These ornately machined hunks of metal flank the socket boundaries on two sides. Fortunately, they're short enough to steer clear of most aftermarket CPU coolers.
To provide a better sense of clearances, we've measured the distance between the socket and several on-board landmarks. We've also measured the heights of the inner and outer peaks of the heatsinks.
With the full ATX landscape at its disposal, the Z87-PRO does a good job of keeping the socket region relatively clear of obstructions. The DIMM slots are relatively close to the socket, but that's true for all recent Intel boards. Be careful when combining wider aftermarket coolers with taller memory modules.
The Z87-PRO's Serial ATA ports line the edge of the board. All eight support 6Gbps speeds, but only the six to the left are tied to the Intel platform hub. The two on the right stem from an auxiliary ASMedia controller.
The ASMedia chip lacks fancy features, but the Z87 has a handful of storage-related goodies. It supports RAID arrays and SSD caching, for example. Intel has also added a new feature called Dynamic Storage Accelerator. This addition purportedly improves I/O performance "by dynamically adjusting system power management policies."
In addition to its six SATA 6Gbps ports, the Z87 has six USB 3.0 ports. On the Asus board, two of those ports are sent directly to the rear cluster, while two more power an internal header for front-panel connectivity. One of the remaining ports is routed through an ASMedia hub that shares the bandwidth among four more jacks at the rear. The Z87's final USB 3.0 port appears to be untapped.
Even with some potential left on the table, the Z87-PRO is hardly hurting for SuperSpeed ports. The four to the left are routed through the ASMedia hub, while the other two are linked directly to the chipset. This arrangement makes sense; the ports coming from the Z87 sit under the Gigabit Ethernet jack, which is also powered by an Intel chip.
Display and audio outputs abound in the rear cluster. The Z87-PRO uses an updated Realtek audio codec dubbed the ALC1150. On top of that, Asus adds a layer of DTS software that offers two key features. The first is DTS Interactive, which allows multichannel digital audio streams to be encoded on the fly. Without this capability, multichannel game audio would be limited to analog output. The second perk is DTS UltraPC II, which offers surround-sound virtualization for stereo devices.
With an 802.11n Wi-Fi adapter complementing its Gigabit Ethernet controller, the Z87-PRO is primed to connect to just about any network. The wireless card is a dual-band affair paired with an understated antenna on a 31" leash. The Qualcomm Atheros module that supplies the Wi-Fi link also supports Bluetooth 4.0.
Like the integrated audio, the on-board networking comes with extra software. Asus' AI Suite Windows utility includes a bunch of networking-specific widgets, including support for DLNA streaming, remote desktop control, and file transfers for connected mobile devices. It also features a configuration wizard for client and access-point modes. Asus has become a bigger player in the networking business, and its growing expertise in that field is evident in the Z87-PRO.
Before we move on to a closer look at the Z87-PRO's software and firmware interfaces, I have to take a moment to point out a couple of smaller hardware touches that no enthusiast board should be without.
The first is a removable port block for the front-panel connectors. Asus provides a block for the usual array of buttons and LEDs in addition to a second block for one of the internal USB 2.0 headers. These little accessories cost next to nothing to produce, and they can make system wiring much easier.
Asus has bundled port blocks with its motherboards for years, but this next feature is something new. Next to the POST code display is a tiny button labeled DirectKey. Hit it, and you'll boot directly into the firmware interface without having to hit the Delete key. This might seem like a frivolous feature, but modern mobos boot into Windows 8 at warp speed, making it extremely difficult to enter the firmware manually. Now, about that firmware...