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…
Since the Sandy Bridge generation, Asus has arguably had the most enthusiast-friendly motherboard firmware in the business. The same basic design has been honed for Haswell, and plenty of little extras have been sprinkled on top. Take the UI, for example. Asus has maintained a familiar theme, but it’s changed the color scheme, fonts, and scaling. The end result looks cleaner and sharper to my eyes.
The EZ interface pictured above is targeted at newbies, and it’s traditionally been light on actual options. Asus has expanded its functionality for Haswell, adding XMP memory control and the ability to select pre-defined fan profiles.
The Shortcut button in the lower left corner has been carried over from Asus’ Ivy Bridge boards, but its contents are now customizable. Users can add shortcuts to any variable within the advanced interface. They can also populate an entire Favorites tab in the alternate UI.
Most of us modify only a fraction of the settings in modern mobo firmware. The mix of options is probably slightly different for each user, making the favorites tab a nice addition.
As one might expect, the advanced interface is teeming with tweaking and overclocking options. We’ve seen the vast majority of them before, but Asus has cooked up something new for CPU voltage adjustment. In the past, users have been limited to defining a static voltage or using an offset that boosts the CPU’s default by a specific amount. The offset mode is generally preferred because it allows the CPU voltage to drop when Turbo is disengaged.
Even with the CPU idling at its lowest clock speed, though, the offset mode applies extra voltage, raising power consumption and heat output unnecessarily. Asus’ new adaptive mode addresses this issue by applying an offset voltage only when Turbo multipliers are active. The CPU runs at its default voltage when idling.
Adaptive voltage control is pretty slick, but it’s not perfect. Haswell CPUs can request additional voltage under extremely heavy loads, and this is applied on top of the adaptive voltage set in the firmware. If your cooling solution can’t handle the extra voltage (typically around 100 mV, from what we’ve been told), throttling or worse could result.
Asus tells us that only stress tests like Prime95 will cause Haswell CPUs to demand extra voltage; even multithreaded rendering loads don’t hit the chip hard enough. The only way to stop this voltage grab is to set a static CPU voltage, Asus claims. Offset voltages are affected just like adaptive ones.
Another setting of note is MultiCore Enhancement, which has been used in the past to boost Turbo multipliers silently when unrelated system variables are changed. Asus promised it wouldn’t play tricks with Turbo this time around, and the Z87-PRO delivers on that pledge. We have seen some other Z87 boards resort to surreptitious overclocking, though. Stay tuned for their public shaming.
Like Asus’ previous UEFI iterations, the Z87-PRO’s firmware feels like it’s been designed for speedy navigation. The interface transitions are instantaneous, and the mouse and keyboard response are excellent. Most multipliers, clock speeds, voltages, and timings can be keyed in directly.
The advanced section of the firmware contains a couple of unique features we haven’t seen elsewhere. QuickNote allows text notes to be saved and modified within the firmware interface. Then there’s the Last Modified log, which keeps a running record of settings changes. The log can be accessed at any time and saved to a USB drive. An appended version is also displayed when you’re prompted to save changes upon exit. Pretty slick, no?
Speaking of slick, Asus continues to have the best firmware-based fan controls in the business. Users can choose between pre-baked profiles and manual tuning for each of the Z87-PRO’s five onboard headers. The fan controls are somewhat limited compared to what’s available in the new AI Suite III software for Windows, though. Let’s see what that app has to offer.
Fresh tweaking software
In recent years, Asus has put more emphasis on motherboard software. That effort continues with its 8-series family, which comes with the third generation of AI Suite. Like previous iterations of the tweaking utility, the latest revision is completely modular. Users can control which components are installed, although the overclocking, fan, and power controls are all lumped into the 4-Way Optimization module.
This all-in-one optimization tool combines automatic overclocking, power tuning, and fan control. Previous Asus software has supported automatic tuning in each of those categories, but this is the first time that a single routine takes them all into account at the same time. The one-button approach makes sense for newbies, and I suspect many enthusiasts will use it to establish a quick baseline from which to proceed with further tuning.
The 4-Way Optimizer can be tweaked in various ways. You can configure it to ignore certain categories, and there are secondary options within each one. For example, the auto-overclocker can be set to increase only the CPU multiplier, leaving the base clock steady. Unlike some automated overclocking software, AI Suite tests for stability automatically and reboots the system as needed.
AI Suite III is also well-equipped to handle manual tuning. All the most important overclocking knobs are there, including Turbo multipliers, CPU straps, and base clock controls. Adaptive and manual voltage adjustments are supported, and so are several power regulation options. While you’re fiddling with settings, you can keep tabs on frequencies, voltages, and temperatures using the monitoring pane at the bottom of the UI.
Apart from a brief polling delay when modules are launched, AI Suite III feels smooth and responsive. The interface is intuitive, though its high information density might be a little intimidating. Seasoned enthusiasts will probably prefer the denser layout. They’ll also appreciate the app’s sparing CPU utilization and tiny memory footprint.
The overclocking options are nice, but if I were building a PC based on the Z87-PRO, I’d install AI Suite III just for the fan speed controls. They’re that good.
First, there’s the profiling function. AI Suite can run connected fans through their full range of supported voltages to establish an accurate speed profile for each one. The app allows users to name the fans and define their positions inside the chassis. This positional information is then fed into the auto-tuning process along with each fan’s speed profile.
Once a fan has been profiled, you can drag multiple points along its temperature-based speed curve. Each fan also has an optional shut-off temperature that spins it down completely. To eliminate jarring transitions between fan speeds, there are separate sliders that control how quickly the RPMs ramp up and down in response to temperature changes.
If you don’t want to install AI Suite, you’re out of luck for Windows-based fan speed controls. However, you can still overclock using Asus’ lightweight TurboV Core software.
This stand-alone application offers a bare-bones interface for clock, multiplier, and voltage control. TurboV Core can’t manipulate the clock strap or variables related to the power circuitry, but it at least supports multiple profiles.
We could spend days exploring all the different ways one can overclock the Z87-PRO. Because our time is limited, we’ll focus on two approaches: the 4-Way Optimizer and old-school manual tuning.
The auto-optimizer took our water-cooled Core i7-4770K up to 4.7GHz within minutes. That speed was only applied to 1-2-core loads, though. 3-4-core loads were capped at 4.6GHz, and AI Tuner registered a CPU voltage of 1.392V. Our Corsair Vengeance Pro memory was also cranked up to 2400MHz—its maximum rated speed—and the DRAM timings were adjusted accordingly.
This machine-tuned config was stable under load, with only a hint of throttling under our combined CPU and graphics stress test. The automated tuner did blue-screen once in its search for the limits of our hardware, but it recovered gracefully.
You won’t earn any enthusiast cred with automatic overclocking, so we also pushed our system by tweaking the firmware manually. This time, we focused our efforts on the CPU exclusively. We also ignored the base clock and its associated strap. Our K-series Haswell CPU has access to high enough multipliers to cover all but the most extreme overclocking attempts.
Asus recommends that most firmware variables be left at their “auto” setting even when overclocking manually. The auto rules didn’t give our CPU enough voltage to go beyond 4.2GHz, though. Higher speeds required more juice, which we were happy to supply with a static voltage.
In the end, we got our 4770K up to 4.7GHz with quad-core loads, a smidgen better than the auto-tuner’s result. That frequency required 1.375V, and it was stable and throttle-free under load. We were also able to boot the system at 4.8GHz, but that speed required more voltage to avoid blue screens under load. Unfortunately, upping the voltage raised temperatures enough to invoke throttling even with our water cooler pumping at full speed.
Of course, your mileage may vary. You can read more about Haswell overclocking in this article.
Comparative performance testing is a big part of what we do here at TR. However, it’s been a while since motherboards have had a substantial impact on system performance. These days, application and gaming performance tends to be bottlenecked by the CPU and GPU. Adding an SSD can improve overall system responsiveness, and faster memory can provide a boost in some scenarios, but that’s about it. Thanks to increased platform integration, even peripheral performance is largely consistent from one mobo model to the next.
There are rare exceptions to this general rule, and the only way to find them is to test motherboards exhaustively. We’ve done so with the Z87-PRO and comparable Haswell boards from Gigabyte and MSI. We also threw an Ivy Bridge-based Z77 board into the mix. We didn’t encounter any big surprises, though. The highlights of our findings are summarized below. Let’s look at those before diving into our full collection of benchmark results.
This is the part where I get to say I told you so. While we’re not looking at four-way ties in every test, the Z87 boards offer comparable application performance overall. The Z87-PRO is a tad sluggish in the 7-Zip compression test, but it’s less than 5% behind the fastest Haswell board.
The only contender to deviate consistently from the Z87 pack is our lone Z77 platform, which is running an older Ivy Bridge CPU and an Asus P8Z77-V motherboard. Haswell may not be a world-beater on the desktop, but it improves upon its predecessor in numerous ways.
Next, we’ll look at boot times, where we tend to see a little more separation than in our application benchmarks. Here, we tested the boards with and without their fast-boot options enabled.
The Z87-PRO isn’t the fastest-booting Haswell board we’ve tested, but it’s only 2.5 seconds off the lead. How much that’s worth will depend on how often you boot your PC.
I wouldn’t put much stock in such relatively small differences in boot time, but I would recommend playing with your firmware’s boot options. All the Z87 boards we’ve tested come with multiple settings to control how devices are detected at startup. You can easily shave a few seconds off your boot time without giving up anything important.
In the peripheral department, the Z87-PRO’s performance is largely equivalent to that of its peers. The following USB results come from TR RoboBench, which uses Windows’ multithreaded robocopy command to copy files to an SSD attached via a USB 3.0 docking station.
There are small gaps between the boards, but no single board comes out looking better than the others overall. At best, the fastest board is only 8% ahead of the slowest one, and the spread is generally much narrower than that. There’s enough run-to-run variance here that I wouldn’t worry about small performance deltas.
The Z87-PRO’s USB Boost mode does little to improve USB transfer rates. Asus’ boost software is limited in Windows 8, since the OS already offers native support for the UASP protocol employed by our docking station. The boost software does, however, offer a Turbo mode for non-UASP devices and enable UASP support in Windows 7.
Before moving on, we should point out an issue we ran into while testing the Z87-PRO’s USB performance. When our SSD was attached via the rear ports linked directly to the Z87 chipset, RoboBench and CrystalDiskMark hung occasionally during testing. The other external USB ports didn’t exhibit this issue, and neither did the ports accessible via the onboard header. Asus has replicated the problem, which is supposedly unique to our Thermaltake dock. (We haven’t encountered it with other USB devices we have in house.) We’re told Asus is trying to work with Thermaltake on a fix.
Update: Asus has supplied us with updated firmware for the Thermaltake dock’s ASMedia controller. The new revision resolves the issues we had on the Z87-PRO, though it’s unclear when or if the update will be made available to the general public. We’ve since tested a couple of other USB 3.0 devices in the Z87-PRO, and we didn’t encounter any problems with them.
There’s usually some variance in power consumption between different mobos, but there may be less with this generation due to Haswell’s on-chip voltage regulation. We measured power draw at the wall socket with our test system at idle, playing a 1080p YouTube video, and under a full load combining Cinebench rendering with the Unigine Valley demo.
The Z87-PRO is one of the most power-efficient mobos of the bunch. The top three boards are pretty close at idle and during YouTube playback. Somewhat surprisingly, our Ivy Bridge system consumes the least wattage under full load. The gap between it and the Z87-PRO is larger than the differences between all three Z87 mobos combined.
That’s it for our performance highlights. If you’ve seen enough test results, feel free to skip ahead to the conclusion for our final thoughts on the board. Otherwise, flip to the next page for the full motherboard specs, details on our system configuration, and all of our benchmark data.
Most of the essentials have been covered already, but here’s a complete list of the Z87-PRO’s hardware specifications and vital firmware options.
|Platform||Intel Z87 Express, socket LGA1150|
|DIMM slots||4 DDR3, 32GB max|
|Expansion slots||2 PCIe 3.0 x16 (x16/x0, x8/x8) via CPU
1 PCIe x16 (shared with x1s, max x4) via Z87
4 PCIe x1 via Z87
|Storage I/O||6 SATA RAID 6Gbps via Z87
2 SATA 6Gbps via ASMedia ASM1061
|Audio||8-channel HD via Realtek ALC1150|
|Wireless||2.4/5GHz 802.11n Wi-Fi via Qualcomm Atheros AR946x
Bluetooth 4.0 via Qualcomm Atheros AR9462
1 PS/2 keyboard/mouse
2 USB 3.0 w/ 2 headers via Z87
4 USB 3.0 via ASMedia ASM1074
8 USB 2.0 via internal headers via Z87
1 Gigabit Ethernet via Intel I217-V
1 analog front out
1 analog center out
1 analog rear out
1 analog line in
1 analog mic in
1 digital S/PDIF output
|Overclocking||Per-core Turbo multiplier: 36-80X
Base clock: 80-300MHz
DRAM clock: 800-3200MHz
CPU strap: 100, 125, 166, 250MHz
Base:DRAM ratio: 1:1, 1:1.33
CPU voltage: 0.001-1.92V
CPU cache voltage: 0.001-1.92V
System Agent offset voltage: +/- 0.001-0.999V
Digital I/O offset voltage: +/- 0.001-0.999V
CPU input voltage: 0.8-2.7V
DRAM voltage: 1.2-1.92V
PCH voltage: 0.7-1.5V
PCH VLX voltage: 1.2-2V
VTTDDR voltage: 0.6-1V
DRAM Ctrl refA/B voltage: 0.395x-0.63x
DRAM Data ref A/B voltage: 0.395x-0.63x
|Fan control||All: predefined silent, standard, turbo profiles
CPU: min/max temp, min/max duty cycle
System 1-4: max temp, min/max duty cycle
Got all that?
Our testing methods
While we stuck with our trusty Corsair AX850 PSUs, H80 water cooler, and Force GT 120GB SSDs for this round of motherboard tests, we did swap in new graphics cards and memory.
Asus provided a pair of its GeForce GTX 680 DirectCU II 4GB graphics cards. These double-wide beasts have quiet coolers, beefy metal back plates, and more memory than your average GTX 680. You can grab one of them online for $570, and they include a free copy of Metro: Last Light.
We also upgraded our memory to Corsair’s latest Vengeance Pro modules. The DIMMs we used in our Haswell systems are rated for operation up to 2400MHz, and they look pretty slick. They’re so new that not even Newegg has ’em in stock.
Despite the fancy DIMMs, we stuck to 1600MHz memory speeds for most of our testing. Haswell may support higher memory frequencies, but anything above 1600MHz counts as overclocking. We did, of course, let Asus’ AI Suite auto-tuner take the DIMMs up to 2400MHz. They had no issues operating at that speed.
We used the following system configurations for testing.
|Processor||Intel Core i7-3700K 3.5GHz||Intel Core i7-4770K 3.5GHz|
|CPU cooler||Corsair H80|
|Motherboard||Asus P8Z77-V||Asus Z87-PRO||Gigabyte Z87X-UD3H||MSI Z87-GD65 Gaming|
|Platform hub||Intel Z77 Express||Intel Z87 Express||Intel Z87 Express||Intel Z87 Express|
|Chipset drivers|| Chipset: 220.127.116.117
| Chipset: 18.104.22.1687
| Chipset: 22.214.171.1247
| Chipset: 126.96.36.1997
|Audio||Realtek ALC892||Realtek ALC898||Realtek ALC892||Realtek ALC892|
|Memory size||16GB (2 DIMMs)|
|Memory type||Corsair Vengeance Pro Series DDR3 SDRAM at 1600MHz|
|Graphics||Asus GeForce GTX 680 DirectCU II with 320.18 drivers|
|Hard drive||Corsair Force Series GT 120GB
Samsung 830 Series 256GB
OCZ RevoDrive 3 X2 240GB
|Power Supply||Corsair AX850 850W|
|OS||Microsoft Windows 8 Enterprise x64|
Thanks to Intel, Corsair, Samsung, OCZ, and Asus for providing the hardware used in our test systems. We should also thank the motherboard makers for providing their products for review.
We used the following versions of our test applications:
- 7-Zip 9.20 64-bit
- TrueCrypt 7.1a
- Chrome 27.0.1453.94
- x264 r2334
- DiRT Showdown demo
- CrystalDiskMark 3.0.2f
- FRAPS 3.5.9
- TR RoboBench 0.1
- RightMark Audio Analyzer 6.2.5
- Cinebench 11.529
- Unigine Valley 1.0
Some further notes on our test methods:
- All testing was conducted with motherboard power-saving options enabled. These features can sometimes lead to slightly slower performance, particularly in peripheral tests that don’t cause the CPU to kick into high gear. We’d rather get a sense of motherboard performance with real-world configurations, though; we’re not as interested in comparing contrived setups with popular features disabled.
- DiRT Showdown was tested with ultra detail settings, 4X MSAA, and a 1920×1200 display resolution. We used Fraps to log a 60-second snippet of gameplay from the demo’s first race. To offset the fact that our gameplay sequence can’t be repeated exactly, we ran this test five times on each system.
- Power consumption was measured at the wall socket for the complete system, sans monitor and speakers, using a Watts Up Pro power meter. Our video playback load used this 1080p YouTube trailer for the movie Looper. The full-load test combined AIDA64’s CPU stress test with the Unigine Valley DirectX 11 demo running in a 1280×720 window.
- The Force GT 120GB SSD was used as the system drive for all tests. The Samsung 830 Series 256GB was connected as secondary storage to test Serial ATA and USB performance, the latter through a UASP-compatible Thermaltake BlacX 5G docking station. With RoboBench, we used the Samsung SSD as the source drive and the OCZ RevoDrive 3 X2 240GB as the destination for the read speed tests. Those roles were reversed for RoboBench’s write speed tests.
The Samsung/OCZ tag team also powered our Ethernet transfer tests. The RevoDrive served as the source and destination on the host system, while the 830 Series SSD performed those duties on the remote machine. That remote rig was based on an Asus P8P67 Deluxe motherboard with an Intel 82579 Gigabit Ethernet controller. The two systems were connected via a single Cat 6 Ethernet cable.
The Samsung and OCZ SSDs were secure-erased before each test that involved them. The Corsair drive was also wiped before we loaded our system image.
- Analog audio signal quality was tested using RMAA’s “loopback” test, which pipes front-channel output through the board’s line input. We tested with the boards idling and with a combined load consisting of Cinebench’s multithreaded rendering test, the Unigine Valley demo, and a CrystalDiskMark 4KB random I/O test running on the Samsung SSD attached via USB 3.0.
The tests and methods we employ are usually publicly available and reproducible. All tests were run at least three times, and we reported the median of those results. If you have questions about our methods, hit our forums to talk with us about them.
Since all our systems used Corsair DIMMs running at 1600MHz with identical timings, don’t expect meaningful differences in memory bandwidth.
We tested the latest Kraken release, version 1.1, in Chrome 27.
TrueCrypt disk encryption
TrueCrypt’s AES algorithm benefits from acceleration via Intel’s AES-NI instructions, which are supported by our Ivy Bridge and Haswell CPUs. We’ve also included results for another algorithm, Twofish, that isn’t accelerated via dedicated instructions.
7-Zip file compression and decompression
The figures below were extracted from 7-Zip’s built-in benchmark.
x264 video encoding
We’ve devised a new x264 test, which involves one of the latest builds of the encoder with AVX2 support. To test, we encoded a one-minute, 1080p .m2ts video using the following options:
–profile high –preset medium –crf 18 –video-filter resize:1280,720 –force-cfr
The source video was obtained from a repository of stock videos on this website. We used the Samsung Earth from Above clip.
We busted out our Inside the second methods to testing gaming performance. While we aren’t showing all of our fancy latency graphs, we have included results for FPS and the 99th percentile frame time.
Here, we measured the boot time after a full system shutdown. We used a stopwatch to time each test and stopped the clock when “Start” first appeared on the Windows 8 Start screen. Each board was tested with and without its fast-boot options enabled, and we took full advantage of Win8-specific features when in fast-boot mode.
The biggest takeaway from these results is the fact that Haswell is a little faster than Ivy Bridge overall. Our review of the Core i7-4770K tells that story in much more intricate detail.
Serial ATA performance
TR developer extraordinaire Bruno “morphine” Ferreira created RoboBench, a scripted file copy benchmark that relies on Windows’ built-in robocopy command to execute eight parallel file transfer threads. The movie file set contains eight similarly sized files totaling 5.6GB, while the mixed set has a diverse collection of 14,000 files that adds up to 10.6GB.
Although the SATA results show relative parity between the Z87 boards overall, note the differences in the performance of the auxiliary storage controllers. The third-party SATA ports are slower than those connected to the Intel chipset—often by substantial margins. We recommend sticking with the primary ports.
While testing the Z87-PRO’s SATA performance, we played around with Intel’s Dynamic Storage Accelerator a little. This feature needs to be enabled in the firmware and also in Intel’s RST software. Turning it on didn’t move the needle much in our tests, though. While SATA performance improved slightly in some runs, it didn’t in others, and the net gain was pretty minimal.
In our USB tests, CrystalDiskMark teases out wider differences between the boards than RoboBench. However, the standings are shuffled for each and every test. I’m not convinced that random I/O performance is particularly important for USB devices, either. Our multithreaded file copy test is more indicative of the sorts of workloads faced by typical USB storage devices.
PCI Express performance
The Z87-PRO has a healthy lead in the random-read component of our PCIe performance testing, but it’s a little behind the curve in the other three tests.
Our networking results are very close overall. The Z87-PRO’s Intel NIC combines competitive transfer rates with low CPU utilization.
Analog audio signal quality
RightMark Audio Analyzer grades analog signal quality on a scale between “very poor” and “excellent.” We’ve translated those values to a numerical scale that starts at low of one and peaks at six. Higher values are better.
Our first set of results was gathered with the systems idling (apart from the RMAA app, of course). The second batch is based on tests conducted with the system under a combined CPU, GPU, and USB load.
|RightMark Audio Analyzer audio quality at idle: 24-bit/192kHz|
|Frequency response||Noise level||Dynamic range||THD||THD + Noise||IMD + Noise||Stereo Crosstalk||IMD at 10kHz||Overall score|
|MSI Z87-GD65 Gaming||6||4||4||5||3||4||5||5||4|
|RightMark Audio Analyzer audio quality under load: 24-bit/192kHz|
|Frequency response||Noise level||Dynamic range||THD||THD + Noise||IMD + Noise||Stereo Crosstalk||IMD at 10kHz||Overall score|
|MSI Z87-GD65 Gaming||6||4||4||5||3||4||5||5||4|
As far as RMAA is concerned, none of the boards compromise analog signal quality during our load test. That’s a good sign.
Regardless of whether the system is loaded or idling, the Z87-PRO’s scores are close to those of its peers. If you’re really concerned with audio quality, we recommend using a digital output or skipping the on-board solution in favor of a discrete sound card.
The Z87-PRO is a pretty sweet motherboard. Its $210 asking price is higher than the going rate for a lot of Z87 boards, but the PRO has enough extras to justify the premium. Take the integrated networking, for example. Gigabit Ethernet is handled by an Intel controller, the 802.11n Wi-Fi is a dual-band implementation, and Bluetooth 4.0 is thrown in for good measure. Then there’s the on-board audio, which offers premium perks like surround-sound virtualization and real-time multichannel encoding. Those features count for a lot on modern mobos.
Performance doesn’t count for quite as much, mostly because it’s largely consistent between the Z87 boards we’ve tested. The Z87-PRO has no problem keeping up with the rest of Haswell pack. It also has comparable power consumption and a similar number of peripheral ports. Odds are you’re not going to run out of SATA 6Gbps or USB 3.0 connectivity.
Asus really sets the Z87-PRO apart from its peers with firmware and software. While the UEFI hasn’t undergone sweeping changes, thoughtful little features have been added to the EZ and Advanced interfaces. The modification log is awesome, and I suspect the customizable favorites tab will be popular.
On the software side, Asus has completely revamped its AI Suite tweaking utility. Newbies should appreciate the improved auto-optimization routines, which were aggressive enough to nearly match the peak CPU speed we achieved with manual overclocking. AI Suite has robust support for manual overclocking, too, and its fan speed controls are especially impressive. The latest version of Fan Xpert is easily the best fan configuration tool around.
Despite its considerable appeal, the Z87-PRO isn’t flawless. The USB issue we encountered needs to be resolved, and the gold accents are definitely an acquired taste—or something you’ll forget about after stuffing the board into the dark confines of a case. It’s hard to find further fault, though.
We’re too early in our Haswell motherboard testing to say whether the Z87-PRO is our preferred Z87 board, but it’s definitely on our short list.
Update: The USB problem we encountered has been traced to the firmware on our Thermaltake dock. With that issue resolved, our only reservations about the Z87-PRO are cosmetic in nature.