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Revamped firmware and fan controls
Asus has made substantial changes to its firmware for 9-series motherboards. Unfortunately, these tweaks don't include a high-resolution user interface like the one included with recent Gigabyte boards. Like most mobo firmware, the Z97-A's UEFI is rendered at ye olde 1024x768. It still looks good, though, in part thanks to the snazzy new EZ Mode screen.

EZ Mode consolidates basic system information and a handful of configuration options in a simplified interface meant for newbies. The presentation is very slick, with smooth animations, a real-time CPU temperature graph, and a drag-and-drop boot priority list, among other functions. The UI wouldn't look out of place in Windows software, which is a testament to how far motherboard firmware interfaces have come in the past few years.

As part of its mission to simplify tweaking for less experienced users, EZ Mode now has configuration wizards for overclocking and RAID. Again, the presentation is slick:

The overclocking wizard is interactive, asking users about their usage habits and whether the CPU is cooled by a stock heatsink, an aftermarket air tower, or a liquid cooler. The answers to those questions determine how aggressively the CPU frequency is increased. Users also get a preview of the auto-tuned settings before they're applied.

On the RAID front, array configuration is now handled entirely in the firmware. The wizard is reasonably intuitive, with "easy backup" and "super speed" categories to differentiate between array types. It's certainly a lot nicer than the old Intel interface that used to be required for RAID configuration.

Savvy enthusiasts will probably spend most of their time in the UEFI's advanced interface. This UI is loaded with tweaking, overclocking, and general configuration options organized more like a traditional BIOS. The UI is quick to navigate with both the keyboard and mouse, and the fancy tab-switching animation can be disabled to make it even more responsive. Interestingly, Asus told us that UI smoothness is one factor holding back its transition to high-def firmware. The company doesn't want to sacrifice responsiveness to hit higher resolutions.

Advanced Mode's layout has been rearranged slightly for 9-series motherboards. Key system information is now shown on the right, while descriptions of individual settings are displayed at the bottom. The vast majority of settings have been pulled from the 8-series generation, so there's little new on that front. As with last year's Asus boards, users can roll their own My Favorites tab with options pulled from anywhere in the advanced interface. Cue UI shot:

Asus has also spruced up Quick Note, which lets users save text notes within the firmware, and Last Modified, which lists the changes made during the previous session. Settings changes made during the current session are displayed when the user exits the firmware. As boring as they sound, these change logs are one of my favorite features of recent Asus UEFI.

Since I've ranted about other Asus boards sneakily increasing Turbo multipliers, it's only fair that I laud the Z97-A for playing by the rules. It's a shame this topic even needs to be discussed, but most motherboard makers engage in covert CPU overclocking to gain an edge in benchmarks. This unseemly behavior has persisted for years, and it's evident in two of the other Z97 motherboards I've been testing. Those offenders will be shamed when their time comes.

I've been rambling about the need for better motherboard fans speed controls for even longer than I've been complaining about deceptive overclocking. And again, Asus has been listening. The Z97-A's graphical fan control interface is pretty much what I've been asking for.

The new Q-Fan Tuning interface has individual speed profiles for not only the CPU fan, but also all four of the Z97-A's system fan headers. Users can click and drag up to three points along a manual profile or select one of four pre-baked options. There are separate profiles for four-pin PWM and three-pin DC fans, as well. Temperature-based speed control works with both fan formats across all the onboard headers.

And there's more.

The firmware features an automated calibration routine that tests the rotational speed range of each connected fan. That information feeds into the speed profiles, presenting a more accurate picture of fan behavior. Each fan has a separate minimum speed threshold that can be set as low as 200 RPM or ignored completely. There's also an option that allows DC fans to spin down to a full stop.

The individual fan profiles can be linked to different temperature sensors, including those tied to the CPU, chipset, and motherboard. They can also pull temperature data from a separate probe plugged into the Z97-A's onboard sensor header. While the necessary probe doesn't ship with the board, it's nice to have the option of adding one.

Most of these additional fan tweaking options are accessible only via the monitoring section of the advanced UI. They're a little difficult to find if you don't know where to look, and I wish Asus would integrate more of them into the Q-Fan Tuning screen. There I go asking for things again. But, hey, it's working so far.

On the next page, we'll see what Asus has been up to on the software front.