Skylake has arrived, and along with the processors themselves come Intel’s 100-series chipsets. The Z170 platform caters to PC enthusiasts, and it brings some notable upgrades over the last-generation Z97 enthusiast chipset.
First off, Z170 is a major USB upgrade. Fourteen USB ports sprout from the Z170 platform. That’s the same number as with the Z97, but now, up to ten of them can be USB 3.0. The “up to” qualifier exists because details like these are dependent on how the motherboard maker decides to use the chipset’s flexible I/O lanes. Are consumers given the maximum number of PCIe lanes for expansion cards, or does the pendulum swing toward maximizing USB 3.0 ports? Point is: mobo makers have options.
Z170’s PCI Express connectivity has also been upgraded to Gen3 speeds. Not only does this upgrade double the bandwidth for lanes coming from the chipset, but it also doubles the bandwidth for the DMI link between the processor and the chipset. This latter point is important as PCIe SSDs become more prevalent. Auxiliary controllers like USB 3.1 chips also get access to more bandwidth. The fatter DMI pipe lets the processor shuffle bits more rapidly to the increasingly bandwidth-hungry I/O devices hanging off the chipset.
The Z170 platform also gives us some expected-but-welcome enthusiast-friendly features, like the ability to split the processor’s sixteen Gen3 PCIe lanes for multi-GPU graphics configs. The Z170 also offers full control over Skylake’s various knobs and dials, allowing overclockers to tweak to their hearts’ content.
The first Z170 board that we’ve put through its paces is Asus’ Z170-A.
With the 100-series boards, Asus has brought over some of the familiar black-and-white aesthetic that we saw on their X99-based boards, but it’s made a few tweaks. Instead of heatsinks clad in matte black, Asus has gone with silver. Unlike the Z170-A’s X99 brethren, the board itself isn’t completely black, either.
A more blacked-out look can be had by removing the large plastic cover that shrouds the rear port cluster and the left VRM heatsink. This cover is purely cosmetic, and it’s secured with just three screws on the underside of the board. Removing it could also improve airflow to that left VRM heatsink.
Skylake eschews the fully-integrated voltage regulator (FIVR) used by Haswell chips, so it falls to the motherboard’s VRMs to supply each of the input voltage rails the processor requires. To accomplish this task, Asus uses eight digitally controlled phases for the CPU and two for Skylake’s integrated GPU. Both VRM heatsinks are held in place with push-pins rather than screws.
One of Skylake’s key features is support for DDR4 memory. The Z170-A’s four DIMM slots only accept 288-pin DDR4 DIMMs—older 240-pin DDR3 sticks need not apply. Asus recommends installing DIMMs in the gray slots first. If you’re only installing two sticks, that gives maximum clearance between the processor’s heatsink or water block and the DIMMs. Thanks to DDR4’s higher-density modules, up to 64GB of RAM can be installed with all four slots populated. Asus uses slots with locking mechanisms on only one end, which can make life easier when swapping DIMMs in crowded cases.
Thankfully, Skylake’s LGA1151 socket maintains compatibility with existing LGA1150 heatsink and water block mounting mechanisms. As always, if you’re using an oversized CPU cooler, be sure to check for adequate DIMM clearance first. Here are some measurements to help you figure out which components can safely fit together on the board:
The CPU socket has a lot of breathing room thanks to a healthy distance not only to the VRM heatsinks, but also the first PCIe x16 slot. In close proximity to the CPU socket are a total of six fan headers, including a special one meant exclusively for all-in-one liquid coolers’ pumps.
The Z170-A serves up three x16 PCIe slots. When one graphics card is installed, all sixteen of Skylake’s Gen3 PCIe lanes are routed to the gray slot at the left. Those wanting to partake in some dual-GPU fun should use the left and middle x16 slots: with two cards installed, each will get eight Gen3 PCIe lanes from the CPU. The third x16 slot, rightmost in the picture above, is fed with either four or two Gen3 lanes. When that slot is configured to operate as an x4 slot in the firmware, two of the board’s SATA 6Gbps ports are disabled, since they both share the same flexible I/O lanes from the chipset.
This arrangement grants support for two-way SLI setups and, thanks to more lenient bandwidth requirements, room for up to three-way CrossFire configs. That said, we usually recommend going for the fastest single graphics card you can afford before stepping up to more exotic multi-GPU setups.
Peppered around those three x16 PCIe slots, we find three x1 slots fed by Gen3 lanes from the chipset, as well as an old-school PCI slot driven by an ASMedia PCIe-to-PCI bridge chip.
That’s a lot of words. Here’s a graphical representation of the Z170-A’s expansion slots and how each one is connected.
The expansion slots can handle something as wild as a pair of triple-slot video cards, but in more typical multi-GPU setups, a pair of double-slot cards won’t obscure the leftmost x1 slot, the middle PCI slot, or the rightmost PCIe x16 slot.
Now, on to the Z170-A’s storage subsystem.
Storage, ports and DIY-friendly features
The Z170-A’s storage connectors are all clustered at the bottom right-hand corner of the board.
Here we find a SATA Express connector alongside four standard SATA ports. This layout gives us a total of six SATA 6Gbps ports, two of which are part of the SATAe connector that you see on the right. We mentioned that running the third PCIe x16 slot in x4 mode disables two of the SATA ports on the Z170-A. The affected ports are the leftmost two in the above picture.
South of the low-profile chipset heatsink is the Z170-A’s M.2 port. This location lets the Z170-A support devices up to 110 mm long, and it could allow mini SSDs installed here to run cooler than on boards with M.2 connectors situated underneath PCIe x16 slots filled with power-hungry graphics cards.
Thanks to Z170’s upgraded PCI Express connectivity, PCIe M.2 drives get four Gen3 lanes from the chipset. This gives storage devices up to 32Gb/s (4GB/s) of bandwidth, an impressive increase over the bandwidth provided to chipset-connected M.2 devices on previous generation boards.
SATA-based M.2 SSDs are also supported, but plugging one in means the SATA Express port can only be used with PCIe devices, because both ports share the same SATA connection to the chipset. A firmware configuration option specifies which port runs in SATA mode.
Another new feature of the Z170 chipset is support for RAID arrays across PCIe SSDs. These arrays are managed by Intel’s drivers, and they can be formed from AHCI or next-gen NVMe SSDs. NVMe-based drives can be installed in the third PCIe x16 slot or the M.2 slot.
The Z170-A’s rear port cluster is a mish-mash of old and new. Not only does Asus give us a VGA output and a PS/2 port—Model M owners rejoice—but we also have both Type A and Type C USB 3.1 ports courtesy of an ASMedia ASM1142 controller.
For buyers looking to tap into Skylake’s integrated GPU, the Z170-A offers the aforementioned VGA connector, a DVI-D port, a full-size DisplayPort, and an HDMI port. These last two support DisplayPort 1.2 and HDMI 1.4b, respectively. Folks with discrete graphics cards don’t have to worry about the onboard display outputs, of course.
The Gigabit Ethernet port is powered by Intel’s I219V controller. Asus bundles its own traffic prioritization software with the Z170-A, called Turbo LAN. This utility aims to improve ping times when online games are competing with other applications for bandwidth. While packet prioritization is nice in theory, it doesn’t help if the network congestion is occurring at some point outside of the PC.
Outside of the two USB 3.1 ports below the Gigabit Ethernet port, all other USB ports are connected directly to the chipset, including the two USB 3.0 ports below the PS/2 port and the leftmost two USB 2.0 ports. Four more USB 3.0 ports are available via two internal headers, as are four more USB 2.0 ports.
colorful graphical representation of all of that information:
Asus calls the Z170-A’s audio implementation “Crystal Sound 3.” The underlying audio codec is the familiar ALC892 from Realtek, backed by a TI R4580 amplifier and high-end Nichicon audio capacitors.
The codec chip used on the Z170-A isn’t quite as fancy as the ALC1150 found on some pricier boards, but Asus has taken measures to improve the onboard audio in other ways. A pre-regulator is placed in front of the audio codec to minimize power supply noise. Left and right output channels are split between different PCB layers. Shielding is applied to both the codec and the analog traces. The TI amplifier chip’s output can be routed to either the front or rear outputs in software. A special “de-pop” circuit designed to minimize popping noises during startup.
The Z170-A’s analog audio output produces sound that my ears were happy to hear, with no unwanted noise under a variety of load and idle conditions. For those who want digital output from the Z170-A, DTS Connect can encode multi-channel digital output in real time. Another DTS component, Studio Sound, enables surround sound virtualization for stereo speakers and headphones.
This mobo is equipped with a number of builder-friendly features. First, a tick of approval for the Z170-A’s socketed firmware chip. The board also supports Asus’ excellent USB BIOS Flashback feature. Although it might not be used every day, USB BIOS Flashback lets you update the firmware with nothing more than a USB thumb drive and a power supply. That could save you from having to beg, borrow, or steal a supported CPU to flash the firmware for a newer chip.
A front-panel wiring block—Asus calls it a Q-Connector—makes the finicky job of wiring up these headers so much more pleasant. It sure beats fumbling with a flashlight in a dimly-lit case. Just below the front-panel wiring block, we can see headers to clear the CMOS, as well as the DirectKey firmware shortcut. DirectKey offers a convenient way to enter the UEFI by default without having to resort to furious mashing of the Del key. The great little DIY-friendly features stop at the I/O shield, unfortunately. Asus includes a standard stampted metal cover, which eagerly awaits its chance to slice your fingers.
Now, on to the Z170-A’s firmware.
Asus’ 9-series boards came with some huge changes in the firmware interface compared to the 8-series. Then came the company’s X99-based boards, whose firmware contained some incremental improvements over the 9-series. As with the X99 boards, the Z170-A’s firmware feels more more evolutionary than revolutionary.
This certainly isn’t a bad thing. Asus’ X99-based boards have excellent firmware, and the Z170-A builds on that foundation with its own set of incremental improvements. The only knock against the UEFI is that it’s rendered at the somewhat pedestrian resolution of 1024×768. That said, it still looks great, even if the text and graphics aren’t quite as crisp as on firmware interfaces sporting 1080p resolutions.
EZ Mode provides a simplified interface meant for newbies, with a combination of some basic system information and a handful of configuration options. Users can easily drag-and-drop devices in the boot priority list, monitor CPU temperatures in real time, tweak fan speed controls, and more.
Advanced Mode is where seasoned tweakers will spend most of their time tuning multipliers, frequencies, and voltages. The configuration options are well-presented and grouped in a logical fashion. The My Favorites tab now comes pre-populated with commonly used settings, but users can still add or remove items from this list to their liking. The “Last Modified” function shows the settings that were changed during the previous tweaking session. When you’re finished, the firmware displays a list of changes made during the current session. Very nice touches.
In a welcome change of pace, the firmware actually asks if the user wants to overclock their CPU’s turbo multipliers when setting an XMP profile. This behavior is much better than silently adjusting multipliers if the user changes the memory frequency. Let’s hope other manufacturers start being this transparent.
The board’s fan control logic works with both three-pin DC and four-pin PWM fans, and there’s a built-in calibration routine that determines the exact speed range of each connected fan. Asus includes four pre-baked fan curves. If none of those are suitable, a manual mode allows users to create their own fan response profiles by moving three points on a graph of temperature and fan speeds.
Hiding in the Monitor tab of the Advanced Mode UI are settings to adjust spin-up and spin-down times for each header. Increasing these intervals smooths out the fan response to changes in temperature, preventing brief spikes from producing audible oscillations in fan speeds.
On previous motherboards, users with all-in-one liquid coolers, especially those that rely on a mix of DC and PWM-controllable devices, often had to connect their pump’s power cable to one of the chassis headers. The Z170-A gives users a dedicated fan header for liquid-cooling pumps, making this problem a thing of the past.
Another nice feature of the Z170-A is the ability to invoke the secure erase command on SSDs directly from the firmware. Two more useful tools are the GPU POST function, which shows the populated PCIe slots and the number of lanes running to each one, and the SMART info feature, which displays SMART data for compatible storage devices.
When it comes to updating the firmware, we’ve long been able to flash new firmware revisions using tools built in the firmware itself. Updating firmware became a matter of downloading the latest firmware to a properly formatted storage device and pointing the utility to the right file. On the Z170-A, it’s possible to have the firmware connect to the Internet to download the latest version directly from Asus’ servers. Truly, we’re living in the future.
On the next page, we’ll take a look at the Z170-A’s Windows software and overclocking features.
Compared to firmware UIs of years gone by, modern motherboards have interfaces that are accessible to users of all experience levels. Some users still prefer to tweak their systems from within Windows, though. This is where Asus’ AI Suite comes into play.
AI Suite is loaded with tweaking options for everything from multipliers and clock speeds to voltages and power controls. From this perspective, not a lot has changed from previous boards. Most variables can be altered either by dragging mouse-friendly sliders around or by keying in values directly.
AI Suite’s Fan Xpert 3 function provides extensive fan speed controls similar to what’s available in the firmware. We’ve consistently been impressed with the quality of Asus’ software fan controls, and AI Suite doesn’t mess with success on this point.
By far one of the most impressive components of AI Suite is the auto-tuning wizard. This software-based wizard has more power than its firmware-based counterpart.
Not only does it scale up clock speeds iteratively and test stability at each step, just like an enthusiast would, but it’s also highly configurable. You can set temperature thresholds, voltage limits, and the frequency at which to start testing—either stock speeds or something higher. There are even configurable options for the duration and nature of the stress test. Do you want to include memory stress tests? How about an AVX workout to really stress those vector units? With a few simple mouse clicks, Asus’ helpful little overclocking minion sets off to do your bidding.
Saved profiles can be loaded manually or via the Asus Turbo App feature, which invokes them automatically based on application-specific preferences. Individual apps can be tied to a combination of performance, fan, audio, and networking profiles. The audio and networking settings are fairly simplistic compared to the other profiles, but they make Turbo App more of a full-fledged system tuner than a selective overclocker.
A given processor’s top stable frequency is mostly determined by the limitations of that particular chip—also known as the silicon lottery—and the CPU cooler one straps on top. Still, whether your particular CPU is the golden child of the wafer or the runt of the litter, you want a motherboard that makes the process of finding out as painless as possible.
We tested the Z170-A’s overclocking chops using a Core i7-6700K CPU with Cooler Master Nepton’s 240M strapped to it. The Nepton has a 240-mm radiator and $120 asking price, so it’s probably at the high end of the range of coolers one might expect to see in a system built around the Z170-A. That said, it should do a good job of keeping our four Skylake cores from getting too hot and bothered.
First up, we gave the firmware’s EZ Tuning Wizard a shot. After letting it know that our purpose in life was to play games and encode media, and that we had an all-in-one liquid cooler, the wizard boosted clocks to just over 4.6GHz using a 45X multiplier and a 103MHz base clock. To support these speeds, the firmware supplied the CPU with 1.376V. This config proved completely stable when running our Prime95 stress test, with no signs of thermal throttling. Our core temperatures did reach a toasty 86°C, though.
AI Suite’s auto-tuner was less aggressive. When we told it to use AVX instructions during the stress test, it pushed the Turbo multiplier to 45X for 1-2 core loads and 44X with 3-4 cores engaged, all on the stock base clock of 100MHz. Our chip was perfectly stable during our Prime95 stress test, which pegged it at 4.4GHz and 1.376V. Core temperatures reached 85°C, but we saw no signs of throttling.
For completeness, we re-ran AI Suite’s auto-tuner with the AVX stress test disabled. This config gave us a 49X Turbo multiplier across the board with the same 100MHz base clock as before. Temperatures rose to over 100°C when running our Prime95 stress test, thanks to a core voltage of 1.424V. These settings caused significant thermal throttling when we ran Prime95, and we also saw errors in a matter of minutes on core 2.
Next, we tried manual overclocking through the firmware. Using multiplier tweaking alone, with the voltages on their “auto” defaults, we made it all the way to a stable 4.6GHz. At this speed, the firmware supplied 1.392V to the CPU, and temperatures maxed out at 89°C under our Prime95 load.
While our 4.6GHz settings were stable, with no signs of throttling, attempting to push speeds higher than 4.6GHz proved unsuccessful. When we set a 47X multiplier, the firmware dialed in a voltage of 1.424V for us. This config caused throttling during our Prime95 stress test as temperatures skyrocketed once more. Reducing the core voltage introduced errors in our Prime95 run. It appears that 4.6GHz is the end of the road for our Core i7-6700K with the Nepton 240M strapped on.
Z170-based boards feature a revised reference clock architecture that decouples the PCIe and DMI bus speeds from the base clock. This setup allows one to tweak the base clock without having to worry about running other system devices out of spec. As a quick test, we set the base clock to 200MHz in the firmware and left everything else on “auto.” The system booted perfectly, and our CPU was stable at 4.4GHz:
Throwing caution to the wind, we pushed the base clock to 300MHz. Alas, it was not to be—our system failed to POST. More investigation of Skylake overclocking by tweaking the base clock is definitely needed, but due to time constraints, we’ll have to return to this question at a later date.
Overclocking our Skylake chip on the Z170-A was a very smooth process. Not only was tweaking clock speeds a breeze in Asus’ firmware, but the auto-tuners in the firmware and AI Suite were easy-to-use, one-click solutions that gave good results. Auto-tuning solutions like these can be very beneficial for newbies as they get started with overclocking, and as a starting point for more seasoned tweakers. I especially like the configurability of the software-based auto-tuner.
Since so much former chipset functionality now resides on the CPU die, and since there are only a handful of third-party peripheral controllers out there, we rarely see meaningful performance differences between motherboards these days. That said, we still test system performance with different motherboards, if for no other reason than to ensure everything is functioning correctly.
When it comes to testing motherboard performance, we’ve usually gathered benchmark results using the CPU’s peak stock memory multipliers. Since DDR4 is so new, however, and Skylake’s 2133MHz maximum stock DDR4 speed is so conservative, we’ve continued what we started with our X99 reviews and tested our Z170 boards with the memory clocked at the highest speed we can attain while keeping the CPU at its stock clocks.
With no other Z170 boards on hand for comparison, we decided to test against the Z97-P that I reviewed earlier this year. Rather than take the results straight from that review, though, we got some fresh numbers for the board with a Core i7-4790K. To make things interesting, we ran tests with the Z97-P’s DDR3 memory clocked at 2400 MT/s. The DDR4 DIMMs in our Z170-A were running at 3000 MT/s. This hardly makes for an apples-to-apples comparison, but the results are interesting nonetheless.
Of the above results, the 7-Zip Decompression test shows us something unexpected. There, we see the Devil’s Canyon Core i7-4790K leading the Skylake Core i7-6700K by 6%. This result is repeatable, and the trend corresponds to what Scott saw in his Core i7-6700K review. In the rest of the tests, Skylake matches or beats Haswell, as we would
expect hope for Intel’s most recent “tock.”
When it comes to boot times, the Z97-P leads the Z170-A by a margin of just over eight seconds. It’s worth pointing out that the Fast Boot setting on our Z170-A didn’t seem to have any effect on the time it took to go from power-on to the Windows 8.1 desktop. We’re looking into this behavior with Asus, and we’ll update the review with our findings when we have them. In the meantime, modern systems have perfectly functional sleep and hibernate modes that can mitigate these boot times.
We have more Z170 motherboard reviews planned, so we’ll be able to assess the Z170-A’s performance against its true competitors soon. Don’t expect any big revelations, though. Motherboards typically have a negligible performance impact when all other system components are the same.
Unlike performance results, one’s choice of motherboard can have a notable impact on power consumption. We measured total system power draw (sans monitor and speakers) at the wall socket with our test system idling for a period of five minutes in the Windows desktop and then under a full load combining Cinebench rendering with the Unigine Valley demo.
Here we see Skylake and the Z170 platform flexing its muscles rather efficiently. The Z170-A has an advantage in idle power consumption, where it consumes 6W less than the Haswell-based system, and also under load, where the gap grows to 25W. It’s interesting to note that enabling Asus’ EPU power-saving feature produces power savings of a single watt, at most.
The following page is loaded with detailed motherboard specifications, system configurations, and test procedures. If you’re thinking of jumping straight to the conclusion, know that you’ll be missing out on important details like how many cup holders and fan headers the motherboard has. Not to mention two more pictures!
Apologies for that cheap cup holder ploy—everyone knows that on a mid-range board like the Z170-A, cup holders only come with an add-on Asus Hyper Cup Holder Kit, or the Asus Fan and Cup Holder Extension Card.
We’ve already gone over the Z170-A’s most important details, but for completeness, here’s the full spec breakdown.
|Platform||Intel Z170, socket LGA1151|
|DIMM slots||4 DDR4, 64GB max|
|Expansion slots||2 PCIe 3.0 x16 via CPU (x16/x0 or x8/x8)
1 PCIe 3.0 x16 via Z170 (x4 or x2)
3 PCIe 3.0 x1 via Z170
1 PCI via Z170 and ASMedia ASM1083 PCIe-to-PCI bridge
|Storage I/O||1 SATA Express via Z170 (SATA function shared with M.2 slot)
4 SATA RAID 6Gbps via Z170 (two shared with two PCIe lanes of x4 slot)
1 M.2 up to type 22110 via Z170 (SATA and PCIe)
|Audio||8-channel HD via Realtek ALC892 with TI R4580 amplifier
Real-time digital encoding via DTS Connect
Surround virtualization via DTS Studio Sound
|Ports||1 PS/2 keyboard/mouse
1 VGA via CPU
1 DVI-D via CPU
1 HDMI 1.4b via CPU
1 DisplayPort 1.2 via CPU
2 USB 3.1 (1 Type A and 1 Type C) via ASMedia ASM1142
2 USB 3.0 via Z170
4 USB 3.0 via internal header and Z170
2 USB 2.0 via Z170
4 USB 2.0 via internal headers and Z170
1 Gigabit Ethernet via Intel I219V
1 analog front/headphone out
1 analog microphone in
3 configurable analog ports (front, center, rear, side, headphone, line in)
1 digital S/PDIF output
|Overclocking||All/per-core Turbo multiplier: 8-83X
Base clock: 40-500MHz
Min. CPU cache ratio: 8-83X
Max. CPU cache ratio: 8-83X
Base:DRAM ratio: 100:133, 100:100
DRAM clock: 1200-6399MHz
CPU voltage: 0.6-2.1V
CPU graphics voltage: 0.6-2.1V
CPU VCCIO voltage: 0.7-1.8V
CPU system agent voltage: 0.7-1.8V
CPU standby voltage: 0.8-1.6V
DRAM voltage: 1.0-2.0V
DRAM CTRL ref. voltage: 0.395-0.63V
DRAM DATA ref voltage A, B: 0.395-0.63V
DMI Voltage: 0.3-1.9V
PCH core voltage: 0.7-1.8V
|Fan control||2 x CPU (combined), 1 W_PUMP, 4 x SYS (DC and PWM)
Predefined silent, standard, turbo, and full speed profiles
Manual profile with three temp/speed points per fan
Our testing methods
As a reward for making it this far, you may now gaze upon our test system:
Performance testing and overclocking were carried out on an open-air testbed. We also installed the machine in Antec’s P380 full tower case, which Jeff reviewed a while back. Here’s what the system looked like assembled and powered on:
We used the following configurations for testing:
|Processor||Intel Core i7-6700K||Intel Core i7-4790K|
|Cooler||Cooler Master Nepton 240M|
|Motherboard||Asus Z170-A||Asus Z97-P|
|Platform hub||Intel Z170||Intel Z97|
|Audio||Realtek ALC892||Realtek ALC891|
|Memory size||8GB (2 DIMMs)|
|Memory type||Corsair Vengeance LPX DDR4 SDRAM at 3000MHz||Adata XPG DDR3 SDRAM at 2400MHz|
|Graphics||Sapphire Radeon HD 7950 Boost with Catalyst 15.7 drivers|
|Storage||OCZ ARC 100 120GB|
|Power Supply||Cooler Master V750 Semi-Modular|
|Operating System||Microsoft Windows 8.1 Pro x64|
Thanks to Adata, Antec, Cooler Master, Corsair, and OCZ for providing the hardware used in our test systems. Thanks, also, to the motherboard makers for providing the boards.
We used the following versions of our test applications:
- 7-Zip 9.20 64-bit
- TrueCrypt 7.1a
- Chrome 40.0.2214.115
- x264 r2431
- DiRT Showdown demo
- Fraps 3.5.99
- Cinebench R15
- Unigine Valley 1.0
Some further notes on our test methods:
- All testing was conducted with motherboard power-saving options enabled. These features can sometimes lead to slightly slower performance, particularly in peripheral tests that don’t cause the CPU to kick into high gear. We’d rather get a sense of motherboard performance with real-world configurations, though; we’re not as interested in comparing contrived setups with popular features disabled.
- DiRT Showdown was tested with ultra detail settings, 4X MSAA, and a 1920×1200 display resolution. We used Fraps to log a 60-second snippet of gameplay from the demo’s first race. To offset the fact that our gameplay sequence can’t be repeated exactly, we ran this test five times on each system.
- Power consumption was measured at the wall socket for the complete system, sans monitor and speakers, using a Watts Up Pro power meter. The full-load test combined Cinebench’s multithreaded CPU rendering test with the Unigine Valley DirectX 11 demo running with extreme settings in a 1280×720 window. We reported the peak power consumption during the Cinebench run. Our idle measurement represents the low over a five-minute period sitting at the Windows desktop.
- Our system build was done using all of the hardware components listed in the configuration table above. Completing this process as our readers would allows us to easily identify any pain points that arise from assembling a system with this particular motherboard.
The tests and methods we employed are publicly available and reproducible. All tests except power consumption, were run at least three times. Unless otherwise indicated, we reported the median result for each test. If you have questions about our methods, hit our forums to talk with us about them.
Alongside support for Skylake CPUs, the Z170 platform brings some very welcome updates. Chipset-based PCIe lanes have been upgraded to Gen3 speeds. The USB 3.0 port count has gone up. Uber-fast RAID arrays can be created from PCIe-based SSDs. Add these to the enthusiast-friendly features that we know and love from the Z-series of chipsets, and there’s a lot to look forward to from a Skylake build.
At its $165 suggested price, Asus’ Z170-A falls squarely into the mid-range price-bracket for Z170 boards. While the board may not be furnished with all the bells and whistles of pricier offerings, it covers the essentials well, and that may be all most prospective buyers need.
Asus does a good job of tapping into all the potential of the Z170 chipset, with support for CrossFire and SLI multi-GPU configs, next-gen storage of both the M.2 variety—fed with four PCIe Gen3 lanes—and SATA Express, as well as full overclocking support for K-series CPUs. No matter if you’re a seasoned overclocker or a newbie just starting out, you’ll appreciate Asus’ excellent firmware, fan controls, and Windows software. DIY-friendly features like the inclusion of a front-panel wiring block, support for processor-free BIOS updates with USB BIOS Flashback, and the DirectKey boot-to-firmware feature are icing on the cake.
Against a backdrop of praise, I do have to mention a couple of minor nitpicks. First is the VRM heatsinks being secured with push-pins. Screws not only ensure better contact between the VRM components and the heatsink, but they also give a decidedly less budget feel. While I’m at it, could we ditch the standard metal I/O shield in favor of a cushioned one? Like I said, these are minor concerns, but even the best products have their compromises.
The Z170-A is the first Z170 board that we’ve tested, but there’s an awful lot to like about it. We’re still testing Z170 boards and figuring out other manufacturers’ takes on the platform, but we think the Z170-A is worthy of serious consideration right now if a Skylake build is in your future.