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 1024x768. 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.