Firmware and software tweaking
The Z97 Extreme6 has two firmware chips. Both are socketed for easy replacement, and the mechanism for toggling between them is simple but effective: a physical switch on the board. Firmware code can be transferred from chip A to chip B via the "secure backup UEFI" option in the UEFI.
Most motherboard firmware has an integrated flashing utility that relies on files downloaded by the user. In addition to that provision, ASRock takes the concept one step further with a separate flashing utility that automatically grabs the latest firmware revision from the Internet. This Internet Flash functionality is especially handy when setting up a new rig without a secondary system riding shotgun. So is the Easy Driver Installer, which automatically downloads LAN drivers and ASRock's Live Update software to USB storage. There's an auto-downloader for RAID drivers, too.
The firmware has a "Full HD" setting that renders the interface at 1920x1080—but only if that's the native resolution of the monitor. Displays with higher resolutions, like the 1920x1200 monitors in the Benchmarking Sweatshop, are limited to Ye Olde 1024x768 despite having enough pixels for the full HD mode. ASRock sent us a "special" firmware that forces 1080p regardless of the monitor's native resolution, but that build doesn't appear to be available to the general public.
Even with low-fi digs, the UEFI looks alright. The layout has a retro vibe that should feel familiar to seasoned veterans. The options are well organized, and navigation is smooth with both the keyboard and mouse. Most important variables can be entered directly with the keyboard, though there are a few awkward attempts at mouse-friendly sliders:
The DRAM, CPU input, and PCH voltages are all governed by pop-up sliders with oddly oversized text. These UI elements take a second to appear, and the accompanying animation is a little chunky. The upper limits of the sliders don't necessarily correspond with the maximum values for each setting, either. In the screenshot above, the slider has plenty of room to move to the right, but the DRAM voltage doesn't scale beyond 1.8V.
That DRAM voltage limit is lower than what we've seen on some other Z97 boards, but it should still provide sufficient headroom for most overclockers. The firmware is otherwise loaded with the usual mix of clock speeds, multipliers, and voltages. All the expected power tuning options are present, along with a full slate of memory timing settings and reasonably robust fan speed controls.
Users can define four points along each fan's curve, in addition to the peak temperature where fans go to full tilt. Temperatures and fan speeds are presented in 1°C and 1% increments, but these values must be selected individually from drop-down menus, and the diagram to the right (in the screenshot above) doesn't reflect the user's changes. Defining custom profiles is a little cumbersome as a result. The user can always select one of several pre-configured options instead of rolling his own.
Temperature-based speed control is available for all five onboard fan headers. However, the dual CPU headers are combined under a single profile, and only one of them can power four-pin "PWM" spinners. That limitation has nothing to do with the firmware; the second CPU header is a three-pin "DC" unit. The system fan headers are also split between PWM and DC camps; the one in the lower right corner of the board has four pins, while the ones in the lower left and by the top PCIe slot have three pins. The PWM headers can still power DC fans—but not the other way around—so the mixed config should only hurt folks with a penchant for four-pin gear.
The UEFI has a couple of other neat elements, including an integrated tour that explains basic firmware settings. Then there's the System Browser, which provides a visual map of the board loaded with snippets of information on core components and connected hardware. That map is replicated in ASRock's A-Tuning utility for Windows:
The A-Tuning app adds a few perks that aren't present in the UEFI, such as a RAM disk utility and an automated driver downloader. We're more interested in its ability to change system settings that would otherwise have to be altered in the firmware.
A-Tuning's overclocking panel is basic but functional, yielding access to the base clock, CPU multiplier, and various voltages. Unfortunately, the CPU multiplier is limited to all-core adjustments; it can't define different multipliers based on the number of active cores. The tweaking utility is also devoid of power-related settings. Tweakers can save and load their own profiles, but ASRock doesn't provide any pre-defined ones. The A-Tuning utility also lacks the automated overclocking intelligence found in competing software from some other motherboard makers.
At least the software's fan speed controls are much more intuitive than what's in the firmware. The range of options is unchanged, but the graphical interface allows points on each fan profile to be dragged and repositioned with ease:
The FAN-Tastic, ahem, tuning tool also adds a calibration routine that determines the range of available speeds for each connected fan. Some fans ramp up more linearly than others, so it's nice to have a sense of the RPMs for each step up the percentage scale. Too bad ASRock leaves out the "temp source" variable included in the firmware. That setting determines whether the rotational speed of system fans is based on the CPU or motherboard temperature.
Now that we've dissected the Z97 Extreme6, it's time to test the board's capabilities. Overclocking is up next.