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Asus' Crossblade Ranger motherboard reviewed

Socket FM2+ joins the Republic of Gamers

Let me ask you a couple of questions. Do you bleed AMD red? Wonderful. Have you been following Geoff's reviews of Asus' Z97 and X99 motherboards, tantalized by that company's latest and greatest firmware innovations for Intel platforms? How terrible. Today, I bring you a form of relief: the Crossblade Ranger, an AMD A88X-based Socket FM2+ board that blends Asus' recent firmware innovations with all of the underpinnings necessary for an enthusiast PC built around one of AMD's latest APUs.

We might call such a thing a "unicorn," but that's not the most unique thing about the Crossblade Ranger. This is the only Socket FM2+ mobo from Asus' premium Republic of Gamers (or ROG) sub-brand, which is focused on the unique needs of elite gamers and extreme overclockers. Practically speaking, buying a ROG motherboard usually gets you a distinctive design language, an upgraded onboard audio codec, extra on-board controls for the test bench, and an exclusive suite of gaming-centric software utilities.

Selling for $153, the Crossblade Ranger is the cheapest ROG motherboard around. It's also the most expensive A88X-based mobo on the market by a wide margin. It'll be interesting to see whether the Ranger is worth the substantial premium. For now, let's take a look at the Ranger's board layout.

Home on the Ranger
The Crossblade Ranger impresses from the moment that you lift it out of the box. This is a hefty piece of hardware, in part because of the three solid slabs of metal that comprise the VRM and chipset heatsinks. While a weighty motherboard isn't a good indicator of performance, it certainly feels nice. The chiseled heatsinks, the matte black PCB, and the muted red-and-black color scheme are pleasantly aggressive without crossing the line into tackiness. Asus refrained from printing feature blurbs all over the PCB, too, contributing to the clean presentation. This is the kind of motherboard that windowed cases were made to display.

Builders looking to install beefy air coolers will find plenty of clearance on the Crossblade Ranger. Here are some precise clearance measurements:

The VRM heatsinks are short enough that most CPU coolers should clear them without issue. Depending on your specific RAM and cooler combination, however, taller RAM heat spreaders could come into contact with the bottom of the heatsink tower. Keep that in mind when picking parts, as always.

Asus has included some test-bench-friendly features on the Crossblade Ranger, as well, including a big, LED-backlit power button, a reset switch, and some mode switches related to liquid nitrogen cooling for extreme overclockers. I don't have a dewar of cryo-coolant handy to test these modes, but it's probably safe to say that we mere mortals can safely ignore them. The smaller red button triggers Asus' MemOK! feature, a firmware routine that will try to find the proper settings for your DIMMs if they don't work with the Ranger out of the box.

On the storage front, Asus has tapped every one of the eight SATA 6Gbps ports from the A88X chipset. Unfortunately, there aren't any M.2 slots on the Ranger's PCB, so buyers who want to take advantage of the next-gen storage standard will have to purchase a drive that can plug into a PCIe slot, like Kingston's HyperX Predator.

As one would expect from an ATX motherboard, the Ranger has plenty of expansion slots. The red PCIe slots share 16 lanes of Gen3 connectivity between them, which can be devoted entirely to a single GPU or split between a pair of pixel-pushers for CrossFireX setups. Nvidia SLI support is absent, however. The grey PCIe x16 slot at the bottom of the mobo provides four Gen2 lanes, which can be used to add a third GPU for triple CrossFireX configs. All of the PCIe x16 slots are controlled by the APU. Asus also taps the A88X chipset for two more PCIe 2.0 x1 slots and a pair of plain old PCI slots.

The Crossblade Ranger includes Asus' SupremeFX 2014 audio hardware and software suite. The underlying codec chip is the same Realtek ALC1150 that can be found on many of Asus' other high-end motherboards, but there's some extra EMI shielding and some premium Elna capacitors in the signal chain here, as well. The Ranger's implementation of the ALC1150 includes DTS Connect and DTS Neo:PC support, which respectively allow the Ranger to stream 5.1-channel surround and simulated 7.1-channel audio from non-surround sources through the S/PDIF port.

A couple of SupremeFX features work exclusively with the front-panel audio connection. The first is SenseAmp, which automatically detects whether low- or high-impedance headphones are plugged into the front panel and adjusts the ALC1150's built-in headphone amplifier accordingly. The second is SoundStage, an OS-independent set of four gaming audio profiles that can be switched using a dedicated button on the motherboard. The idea sounds neat, but I feel like there really should have been an external mode button for this feature. Most people probably won't want to open their cases just to switch the audio profiles.

To my own ears, the SupremeFX audio sounds about the same as the Xonar DG in my main system. I didn't immediately notice a difference in sound quality between the Realtek ALC1150 and the Xonar DG, as I did between the Xonar and the Realtek ALC892 on my Asus Z97-A. If pressed, I would say that the ALC1150 is slightly more mid-heavy than the Xonar, which might have a smoother overall sound by comparison. Without extensive double-blind testing, it's hard to call a winner here. For the average person, the SupremeFX audio should be perfectly fine.

Moving around to the port cluster, there are two USB 2.0 ports and two USB 3.0 ports tied to the A88X chipset. The USB 3.0 ports below the Ethernet jack are driven by an ASMedia controller. If the rear port cluster doesn't provide enough USB connections, the Ranger has internal headers for another two USB 3.0 ports and six more USB 2.0 ports, all from the A88X chipset.

HDMI, DVI, and VGA display outputs are available for the Radeon IGPs in AMD APUs. Even though most Ranger buyers will likely be adding a discrete GPU to their systems, the omission of DisplayPort connectivity here is strange. I'd gladly give up the VGA port in trade.

Audio I/O is handled by a sextet of gold-plated analog ports, plus an optical S/PDIF output for those wanting to bypass the motherboard's onboard DAC. A single PS/2 port rounds out the Ranger's peripheral connection options. Last but not least, the single Ethernet port is managed by an Intel gigabit controller.

See that little BIOS button nestled between the DVI and USB 3.0 ports? While its iconography would suggest that it's a BIOS reset switch, this button actually triggers Asus' BIOS Flashback feature, which can be used to upgrade the motherboard's firmware without a CPU or RAM installed. This feature could be handy if AMD releases a new Socket FM2+ CPU that isn't compatible with the Ranger's existing firmware.

Asus packs a few extras into the Crossblade Ranger's box: four SATA cables, a padded I/O port shield with a classy black nickel finish, a sheet of cable labels, a couple of the company's famous Q-Connector port blocks, and a driver disc. If you're 13 and excited by silly things, there's a door hanger to keep the parents out of your room while you're pwning noobs, plus a ROG mouse mat with a crazy PC mecha on it.

Now that we've seen the Ranger's fundamentals, let's take a look at Asus' firmware, Windows software, and the ROG utilities.