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.
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.