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ASRock's Z97 Extreme6 motherboard reviewed

High-end storage at a mid-range price

The market for Haswell motherboards is crowded with contenders, many of which differ only slightly from one another. ASRock's Z97 Extreme6 manages to stand out among the masses, though. Unlike most Z97 offerings, whose M.2 sockets connect via dual PCIe 2.0 lanes in the chipset, the Extreme6 boasts "Ultra M.2" goodness with quad PCIe 3.0 lanes from the CPU.

The Extreme6 has a typical M.2 implementation, too, along with SATA Express connectivity, dual Gigabit Ethernet jacks, and a generous number of USB 3.0 and SATA 6Gbps ports. Add the beefy power circuitry and oversized heatsinks, and the Extreme6 looks very much like a high-end motherboard. But it isn't: Newegg is selling the board for only $164.99 right now, and until the end of October, there's a $20 rebate on top of that.

On paper, at least, the Z97 Extreme6 looks like an incredible value for enthusiasts contemplating a future-proof Haswell build. Let's see what it's really like.

We usually avoid unboxing coverage here at TR, but it's worth spending on a moment on the Extreme6's packaging, which surrounds most of the board in thick foam. Zip ties anchor the foam to the mobo's screw holes, creating a secure cushion that should confer a little extra protection against rough handling during shipping. Although this isn't the most elegant solution, it's hard to fault the practical simplicity of ASRock's approach.

Removing the spare tire takes only seconds with a pair of scissors, allowing us to focus on the rest of the board...

I wasn't kidding when I said the Extreme6 looks like a high-end motherboard. The board is loaded with enough sockets, slots, and ports to justify a much higher price tag. And that's not even counting the oversized aluminum jewelry, which thankfully doesn't look too obnoxious when paired with the otherwise muted styling.

The VRM heatsinks aren't nearly as substantial as they look. The one on the right is almost hollowed out, while the one on the left has a concave profile that leaves plenty of breathing room below. The board shouldn't need hardcore VRM cooling, though. ASRock touts the low operating temperatures of its all-digital circuitry, which relies on the expected mix of premium electrical components.

We've heard board makers boasting about the benefits of their CPU power schemes for years, and those claims have always been a little difficult to verify. Perhaps the advent of relatively affordable, smartphone-enabled thermal cameras can help provide a better sense of how heat is distributed around the socket. Hmmm.

Like on most Z97 boards, the DIMM slots and VRM heatsinks are quite close to the socket. Folks who intend to run larger aftermarket heatsinks or taller memory modules should check the socket clearance measurements below.

Motherboard makers are pretty good about keeping VRM heatsinks short enough avoid conflict with most coolers. Accommodating taller memory modules is usually more challenging.

Despite having space for seven expansion slots, the Extreme6 only serves up five. The first two x16s share 16 PCIe Gen3 lanes from the CPU, while the third gets two Gen2 lanes from the chipset. Dual-card SLI and CrossFire configurations are supported in the first two x16 slots, but the third one can't participate in GPU teaming schemes.

Both x1 slots are fed by the chipset, and so is the Mini PCIe slot squeezed between the first two x16s. This notebook-style slot is ideal for mini wireless cards. Mini SSDs are the domain of the dual M.2 sockets, which support drives up to "22110," or 22 mm wide and 110 mm long.

The Ultra M.2 socket sits just above the Mini PCIe slot. Thanks to four Gen3 lanes from the CPU, it offers up to 32Gbps of bandwidth for next-gen drives. (When the Ultra M.2 slot is occupied, the second x16 slot drops down to four lanes.) SSDs fast enough to exploit this faster pipe are scarce right now, but more should trickle out later this year and into 2015. They'll have to bring their own drivers or rely on native support in the OS, though. SSDs attached via the CPU can't be managed by Intel's RST drivers.

Only devices connected via the Z97 chipset are covered by Intel's RST software. "Gumstick" SSDs can get in on the action via the standard M.2 socket, which shares a dual-lane PCIe Gen2 link to the chipset with the SATA Express port and the two SATA 6Gbps ports contained within it. The sharing arrangement for this flexible I/O connection is exclusive: users are limited to one M.2 SSD, one SATAe device, or two old-school SATA drives.

Six of the Extreme6's regular SATA ports come from the Z97, while four are provided by a separate ASMedia controller. Unlike the chipset, which supports the usual mix of RAID configurations, the auxiliary ASMedia controller is limited to single-drive IDE and AHCI modes. It also has slower sequential and random I/O performance than the Intel solution.

Interestingly, the board includes an "HDD Saver" header primed to provide power for up to two SATA drives. This header is controlled by Windows software that can toggle power to those drives with the stroke of a key combo. ASRock bills this mechanism as a way to save power, reduce drive wear, and hide data from prying eyes.

Another intriguing extra is the internal USB 3.0 port that complements the usual headers; it's situated on the edge of the board right along with them.

Otherwise, the USB configuration is fairly predictable. Internal headers provide access to four USB 2.0 and four USB 3.0 ports, all of which are fed by the Z97. The chipset also fuels four SuperSpeed connectors in the rear port cluster, but it doesn't have enough native ports to cover them, so the board relies on a one-to-four ASMedia hub. A separate ASMedia controller drives the last two USB 3.0 ports at the back. That couplet is clearly identified in the manual, and users may want to avoid it, because the Intel-powered ports deliver higher sequential throughput.

The rest of the cluster has a little something for everyone, including a CMOS reset button for frequent tweakers, a PS/2 port with "true" n-key rollover for hard-core gamers, and an eSATA port for folks who picked the wrong external storage standard. There's even a choice of Gigabit Ethernet jacks backed by Intel and Realtek controllers.

The integrated audio provides good options for both analog and digital output. ASRock uses Realtek's top-of-the-line ALC1150 codec, which is paired with dual Texas Instruments amplifier chips and popular perks like Nichicon capacitors, isolated traces, and additional codec shielding. Surround sound virtualization is available via Realtek's drivers, as is real-time DTS encoding for multi-channel digital audio.

Even though the Extreme6's hardware spec hits a lot of the right notes, the board still falls short in a few important areas. The I/O shield is littered with metal protrusions that can slice fingers and get caught up in the rear ports during installation. Also, there are no provisions to simplify the wiring process for front-panel connections. There's no way to boot directly into the firmware, either, though ASRock provides a software utility that reboots into the UEFI from Windows.

What a convenient lead-in for the firmware and tweaking discussion on the next page...