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.
Firmware and software tweaking options
Geoff has long lauded Asus motherboards for the quality of their firmware. While my experience with mobos isn’t nearly as broad as his, I’m happy to report that the Crossblade Ranger’s UEFI is as good as that of the company’s Z97 boards, of which I’m quite fond.
The point of entry for the UEFI is the Extreme Tweaker tab, which offers direct access to overclocking-friendly settings like the processor multiplier and voltage, RAM voltage and timing, and VRM load-line calibration options. The more user-friendly EZ Mode screen is only a click away, though. Aside from the Republic of Gamers theme, the UEFI looks practically the same as Asus’ Intel Z97 firmware, and it includes the same comprehensive fan control and automatic overclocking wizards, as well. For a more in-depth discussion of those features, check out Geoff’s rundown of the Z97-A’s firmware here.
The Crossblade Ranger’s firmware has a couple of quirks, though. Because Asus’ motherboard fan control supports both 3- and 4-pin fans (a welcome and uncommon feature), the Ranger tried to control my liquid cooler’s pump as if it were a 3-pin fan, varying the voltage on that header. Since the pump was expecting a constant voltage, it made some disturbing rattling noises until I figured out what was going on and disabled firmware control on that header. For its part, Asus says this behavior is expected and that disabling firmware control on the pump header is the appropriate response. It would be better if Asus warned buyers of this behavior. The Ranger’s manual provided no directions for using liquid cooling, and other Ranger owners might not have the leap of insight that I did.
Another quirk arose with the RAM kit I use with review hardware. It’s bog-standard 1.5V DDR3-1600 with 9-9-9-24 timings (AMD Radeon memory, even), but the Ranger thought that this RAM needed 1.65V to function properly. As a result, I had to set the correct voltage for the RAM manually, a procedure that needed to be repeated every time I reset the firmware to its default settings.
Asus says RAM qualified for Intel platforms may not be stable at the same voltage and timing settings on an AMD motherboard, so the extra voltage is a safety margin to ensure that the system will POST. Owners can then set the correct RAM voltage and check for system stability themselves. This behavior is an annoyance, but it’s understandable. Those building a system around the Ranger should probably stick to RAM from its QVL.
As with the UEFI, Asus has ported its Ai Suite 3 Windows software to the Crossblade Ranger mostly untouched. Ai Suite brings most of the UEFI’s processor overclocking features into Windows, as well as the firmware’s fan tuning, VRM, and energy-saving settings. You can also manage a number of small-but-useful features from Ai Suite, including BIOS updates, USB fast charging, and push notifications about your PC’s status (if you have an Android phone).
Most importantly, Ai Suite handles Asus’ one-click overclocking process, which Asus calls “5-Way Optimization.” No, Asus isn’t trying to improve Cincinnati chili. The name refers to the fact that the app overclocks the CPU, tests memory stability, develops an energy-saving profile, measures fan speeds and makes appropriate fan speed curves, and futzes with VRM load-line calibration as needed. Whew. For the inexperienced tweaker who wants to push his system without getting his hands too dirty, Ai Suite’s automatic overclocking is fast and easy—but it’s not risk-free, as we’ll see in a moment.
A perk of Asus’ Republic of Gamers motherboards is the bundle of extra software that’s usually included to maximize your gaming experience. At least, that’s the promise.
Some of the included ROG utilities might be genuinely useful. KeyBot, for example, works with a dedicated microprocessor to add macro and media key functionality to any keyboard. The SupremeFX audio suite can normalize microphone levels so that you don’t deafen your teammates when you get fragged, and it can also perform software noise reduction on mics that don’t have that capability built in. The GameFirst III utility can perform QoS management on your network traffic, ensuring that background tasks don’t interfere with your ping in games.
Sonic Radar does its thing.
The other bundled applications, Sonic Radar II and Sonic Studio, seem like gimmicks to me. Sonic Radar is an overlay that shows the direction of gunshots and other sounds in games. Sonic Studio is a collection of DSP effects in the ROG-branded Realtek audio driver that’s supposed to sweeten audio from music and games. Sonic Radar is interesting, but it’s more distracting and cumbersome than simply using one’s ears. I also played around with Sonic Studio and found that it usually made things sound worse, so I left it off. For the most part, though, I think that the ROG utilities do add value to the Crossblade Ranger, and it’s worth playing with them to see if they fit your needs.
To put Asus’ automatic overclocking features to the test, I dropped AMD’s most potent unlocked APU, the A10-7850K, into the CPU socket. To ensure that cooling wasn’t the limiting factor in overclocking the 7850K, I used Cooler Master’s Nepton 120XL liquid cooler. With these pieces in place, I let Ai Suite work its one-click overclocking magic.
Ai Suite’s overclocking utility ran through some sensible steps, first increasing the CPU multiplier to its maximum stable setting while using default voltage and base clock settings. Once the utility pushed the multiplier a tick too far, the system restarted, and the utility began tweaking voltage and base clock values (which Asus calls the “APU frequency”). Finally, Ai Suite delivered what it thought was a stable overclock at 4.368GHz using a 42x multiplier, a 104MHz base clock, and a 1.475V Vcore. Not all was well, however, as the system BSODed and restarted after a brief rest at idle. I got similar results every time I ran the automatic overclocking process.
This behavior was puzzling to me, so I decided to have a go at manually overclocking with the Ranger. I’ve successfully overclocked the A10-7850K without issue before, albeit without touching the base clock speed. Relying on voltage and multiplier tweaks alone, I got my 7850K up to 4.6GHz using the same 1.475V that Ai Suite did. The Extreme Tweaker menu in the UEFI made it quick and easy to change settings when a multiplier or voltage value didn’t work.
I’m surprised Ai Suite’s automatic overclocking produced an unstable system with the A10-7850K. My experience with the same utility on an Intel platform has been painless. With this APU, changes in the base clock appear to induce rapid-onset stability problems, so my chip might be partly to blame. At least the firmware is tweaker-friendly, and my manual overclocking experience was flawless. It’s unfortunate one can’t be assured of a stable one-click overclock with the Ranger, though.
Here’s everything there is to know about the Crossblade Ranger, in convenient tabular form:
|Platform||AMD A88X, Socket FM2+|
|DIMM slots||4x DDR3, up to 64GB supported|
|Expansion slots||2 PCIe 3.0 x16 from CPU (x16/x0 or x8/x8 modes)
1 PCIe 2.0 x16 from CPU (x4)
2 PCIe 2.0 x1 via A88X
2 PCI via A88X
|Storage I/O||8 SATA RAID 6Gbps via A88X|
|Audio||8-channel HD via Realtek ALC1150 with amplifier
Real-time multichannel S/PDIF encoding via DTS Connect
Surround virtualization via DTS Neo:PC
|Ports||2 USB 3.0 via A88X
2 USB 3.0 via ASMedia controller
2 USB 3.0 via internal headers and A88X
2 USB 2.0 via A88X
4 USB 2.0 via internal headers and A88X
1 Gigabit Ethernet via Intel I211
1 analog front/headphone out (amplified)
Analog ports for speaker configurations up to 7.1
1 digital S/PDIF out
|Overclocking||CPU multiplier range: 8-63x
CPU base clock range: 90-300MHz
DRAM frequency: 800-2400MHz (varies with APU frequency)
CPU voltage: 0.775V-1.9V
DRAM voltage: 1.35V-2.135V
VDDNB voltage: 0.800V-1.750V
SB 1.1V voltage: 1.1V-1.4V
APU 1.2V voltage: 1.05-1.25V
VDDA voltage: 1.8-2.1V
NB VREF voltage: 0.5*DRAM voltage +/- .315V
DRAM VREFCA voltage: 0.5*DRAM voltage +/- .315V
DRAM VREFDQ voltage: 0.5*DRAM voltage +/- .315V
|Fan control||2 x CPU headers (combined), 3 x chassis headers
Silent, standard, turbo, full-speed profiles
Manual profile with source temp, three temp/speed points per fan
DC and PWM fan support
Our testing methods
Here’s a picture of my test rig:
My testing system was configured as follows:
|Motherboard||Asus Crossblade Ranger|
|Memory||8GB AMD DDR3-1600 (2x 4GB DIMMs)|
|Graphics card||Zotac Nvidia GeForce GTX 660 Ti AMP! Edition|
|Storage||Kingston HyperX 120GB SSD|
|Power supply||Cooler Master V550|
|CPU cooler||Cooler Master Nepton 120XL|
|OS||Windows 8.1 Pro x64|
A hearty thanks to Asus, Cooler Master, Kingston, and AMD for contributing the hardware to make my review possible.
I used the following software to test the Ranger:
Our testing methods are publicly available and reproducible. If you have any questions about our tests, feel free to join us on our forums.
The Crossblade Ranger is Asus’ top-of-the-line AMD A88X mobo. It’s also the only Socket FM2+-based Republic of Gamers product out there. Given its unique status, I was curious to see whether the Ranger lived up to its billing.
Like any exotic piece of machinery, the Ranger did have a couple of quirks. As I’ve noted, the one-click overclocking in Asus’ Ai Suite utility couldn’t produce a stable overclock with my CPU. The Ranger also didn’t work correctly with my liquid cooler’s pump without some firmware tweaks. Another minor quirk arose with my RAM, which the Ranger overvolted by default. Asus’ rationale for this behavior makes sense, however, since getting a board to POST is better than a blank screen on first startup.
The one thing that really gives me pause about the Ranger is its $153 asking price. Other top-end, AMD A88X-based mobos are available for considerably less money, and they don’t lose out much on features by comparison. Asus’ own A88X-Pro uses slightly older firmware but picks up a few extra ports, and it’s $30 less—or even cheaper if you can stomach a mail-in rebate. MSI’s roughly comparable A88X-G45 Gaming also costs $30-40 less than the Ranger, though with it, you miss out on Asus’ ROG software suite.
The Ranger’s high price and small quirks didn’t ruin what was otherwise a pleasant experience, however. The onboard audio was nearly indistinguishable from my admittedly low-end Asus Xonar DG. The UEFI and Windows software that Asus includes with the Ranger are both top-notch, and the collection of exclusive ROG utilities and special hardware features like KeyBot might be useful for the more hardcore gamers out there. Asus’ fan control features remain the best I’ve experienced. Perhaps most of all, I enjoyed the aggressive styling and clean presentation of the Ranger. Tastes may vary, but I feel like the Ranger has a certain wow factor that’s absent in lesser hardware.