Asus’ Z170-A motherboard reviewed

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.

Here’s a 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.

 

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.

 

Software

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.

Overclocking

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.

 

Performance highlights

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.

Power consumption

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!

 

Detailed specifications

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

Wireless NA
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
Firmware 0601 2601
Platform hub Intel Z170 Intel Z97
Chipset drivers 10.1.1 10.0.24
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
Memory timings 16-18-18-39-2T 11-13-13-35-2T
Graphics Sapphire Radeon HD 7950 Boost with Catalyst 15.7 drivers
Storage OCZ ARC 100 120GB
Power Supply Cooler Master V750 Semi-Modular
Case Antec P380
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:

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.

 

Conclusions

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.

Comments closed
    • MDBT
    • 4 years ago

    Seems like all of the extra lanes Z170 has available have been wasted on SATA Express by the vast majority of board manufacturers.

      • Krogoth
      • 4 years ago

      SATA Express port can be converted into two SATA-III ports without a hitch.

        • MDBT
        • 4 years ago

        Yes, but the lanes on this and others are still shared with other connectivity options just like they were with Z97, there are just more of them so you can hook up more mythical drives.

    • The Egg
    • 4 years ago

    [quote<]"as well as an old-school PCI slot driven by an ASMedia PCIe-to-PCI bridge chip" "....we also have both Type A and Type C USB 3.1 ports courtesy of an ASMedia ASM1142 controller"[/quote<] Ick. I'd rather not have the connectivity at all than have it via a flaky 3rd party controller. I would be immediately disabling those two in the BIOS. Edit: The plethora of USB3.0 ports via Intel are nice though.

    • strangerguy
    • 4 years ago

    $165 for a mobo is simply too much to swallow for a mainstream socket and for a full size ATX board no less when X99 boards can be found at ~$200. If talking about i7s, I will take the 5820K over the 6700K without any hesitation, and in the context of the 6600K I would rather wait for the <$100 H/B boards and jump up to a 6700K with the money saved on the mobo.

    • kilkennycat
    • 4 years ago

    For Mark Nelson:-

    1. How does the Asus z170-A handle Windows 7 install? There has been a lot of (mis?-information) on the subject of Skylake, Win7 USB installation support, over the past few months. Some COMPLETE clarity on the subject using this real live Skylake motherboard as an actual test vehicle for a Windows 7 install would be gratefully received.

    And a corollary question……

    2. Does the MB/BIOS support USB2.0 Keyboard and Mouse for accessing all the UEFI UI screens (ahead of any OS installation) ? I have no wish to revert to PS/2 at any time and for ANY reason (including Win 7 install), in spite of the PS/2 physical interface being provided on this specific motherboard..

    Not all of us want to upgrade to Microsoft’s latest and most comprehensive personal-data-mining effort (er, Windows 10), at least until DX12 becomes a true gaming reality ( in which case I will dual-boot my PC Win7/Win10…. solely for gaming purposes…)

      • divide_by_zero
      • 4 years ago

      ^^^^^ THIS

      • derFunkenstein
      • 4 years ago

      Right on.

      EHCI is out, right? And Windows 7 doesn’t have native XHCI support. So you’re not going to install Windows 7 without some sort of compatibility fallback in the BIOS. There would have to be a way for the motherboard to masquerade its XHCI root devices and hubs as EHCI, I think.

      Would be interesting thing to see answered definitively.

      • Ninjitsu
      • 4 years ago

      No USB install of Windows 7, optic disc only. And you have to flip an option in the BIOS to allow that. I’d give you the source but I don’t want Damage on my tail again. 😀

      • Krogoth
      • 4 years ago

      Just strip-stream USB 3.0 drivers into your Windows 7 ISO and you are golden. You can also just throw USB 3.0 drivers onto the same thumb drive that carries your Windows 7 installer as well. Either method works.

      This is no different then strip-streaming thrid-party disk controller drivers back in the pre-Vista era.

      • loophole
      • 4 years ago

      Unfortunately, I can’t provide complete clarity right now because I don’t have any Windows 7 install media on-hand. That said, Asus has a whole section in the Z170-A manual (section 2.12) on getting the USB 3.0 drivers pre-loaded for a Win7 installation. The first method they describe has you installing Windows 7 with Asus’ support DVD in your optical drive and the original install media either on a USB thumb stick or accessible using a USB DVD drive (or presumably a second SATA-based optical drive if your system has two). That way the install can find the USB 3.0 drivers in the AutoUnattend directory on the support DVD. The second and third methods slipstream the drivers onto the install media (manually and using an Asus wizard).

      MSI’s Z170A Gaming M5 just came in and it tackles the problem a different way: it has a “Windows 7 Installation” firmware option (under Advanced->Windows OS Configuration). The firmware help for that option states:
      [quote<]There is no XHCI in-box driver in Windows 7. If user want to use USB Keyboard and mouse to install Windows 7, please switch to "Enabled". After XHCI driver is installed successfully in OS, please set to "Disabled" again.[/quote<] The manual also has a note: [quote<]It is suggested to plug in your USB Keyboard/USB Mouse to the leftmost USB port when installing Windows 7.[/quote<] It would be interesting to find out exactly what the firmware is doing when this option is enabled. I'll see if we can get more details out of MSI. Thankfully, I can answer your second question definitively: you can use your USB keyboard and mouse to interact with all interfaces of the UEFI. This holds for not only the Z170-A but also MSI's Z170A Gaming M5 too. So you definitely don't have to rip out any old PS/2 peripherals to use the firmware. In fact, in the past I've come across boards whose UEFI implementations had smoother cursor tracking when used with USB mice compared to PS/2 rodents.

        • kilkennycat
        • 4 years ago

        Thanks so much for your very helpful reply to my posting.
        I will download the Z170A manual and take a detailed look.

    • Freon
    • 4 years ago

    Starting to read around the web, the selection of boards is already insane. ASRock has boards at like every $5 increment. WTF.

    Gunna have to spend plenty of time digging through feature lists and whatnot to figure out what I want. This one looks pretty solid, though.

    • End User
    • 4 years ago

    The [url=https://www.asus.com/media/global/products/w3qfKR4BXnsEhUNS/GltoEVzvFNtGPHc8_500.jpg<]rear port cluster[/url<] of my 3 year old P8Z77-V Premium looks more up-to-date that this motherboard.

      • Krogoth
      • 4 years ago

      You are comparing a mainstream tier board to a high-end tier board……

        • End User
        • 4 years ago

        “This arrangement grants support for two-way SLI setups and, thanks to more lenient bandwidth requirements, room for up to three-way CrossFire configs. ”

        It’s an enthusiast board with a Type C USB 3.1 port for goodness sake. VGA and DVI are just wasting space that could be used for something more useful.

          • Krogoth
          • 4 years ago

          It is a mainstream-tier board nonetheless. USB 3.1 is not a premium/high-end feature. VGA/DVI are there for compatibility purposes.

          You should be making comparisons to the premium version of Z170 board from ASUS not the regular version.

            • lezmaka
            • 4 years ago

            I’m hoping when I’m ready to buy in a couple months that Asus has brought out a new model or two, and one that’s similar to my current P8Z77-V Pro. There basically a huge pricing hole between $170 and $320. There’s the ROG versions at $230/$240 but I don’t need all of the gaming/overclocking features. Oh well, just gotta wait.

            • End User
            • 4 years ago

            VGA needs to die. Period. DVI appeared way back in 1999. Get rid of it. If you need either bow your head in shame and buy an adapter. Neither of them have any place on a 2015 motherboard of any type.

            • Krogoth
            • 4 years ago

            There is a ton of legacy hardware out there. VGA/DVI aren’t going away until VGA/DVI capable equipment no longer work. I give it another decade for that to happen. FDD, Serial and Parallel ports were on motherboards for a long time and it is just fairly recent that boards no longer have them. PCI and PATA are finally about to meet the same fate.

            You are not the intended market for the board in question.

            • End User
            • 4 years ago

            [url=http://daringfireball.net/misc/2015/08/most-important-mobile-vs-pc<]The problem is already taking care of itself[/url<].

            • Krogoth
            • 4 years ago

            That chart has nothing to do with legacy hardware and it actually provides more of a reason for manufacturers to put in older interfaces onto current platforms.

            People aren’t getting new desktops to go with their peripherals. They are holding onto their desktops because there’s still no killer app that renders them woefully inadequate.

            • End User
            • 4 years ago

            Legacy support is a plague on the PC industry. The writing was on the wall for VGA back in 1999. It is an absolute travesty that we see it on a 2015 motherboard. Actively supporting legacy is a disservice to PC enthusiasts. You should bow your head in shame.

            • Krogoth
            • 4 years ago

            No it is not.

            It is the nature of computing itself.

            The majority of world only “upgrades” when their current stuff is either broken or woefully inadequate. If your hardware works and does it job why should you bother to waste time and $$$$ (upgrades are rarely headache free) because it is “hip” to have the latest greatest?

            Enthusiasts have always been a vocal minority in PC computing. The mainstream and enterprise is where the majority of the revenue comes from.

            It is the same deal in a number of other industries.

            • End User
            • 4 years ago

            As far as mainstream revenue is concerned that is being raked in by Apple and we don’t see VGA nor DVI in that world.

            • DrDominodog51
            • 4 years ago

            Don’t hate on DVI(-D). HDMI is electronically compatible with DVI-D and DVI-D can drive displays at higher resolutions than what is average for people to have.

    • albundy
    • 4 years ago

    “running the third PCIe x16 slot in x4 mode disables two of the SATA ports”

    so running it at x16 keeps it working? not sure i follow. sure, this isnt their top of the line board, but i really didnt expect such a feature to be impaired. what surprises me is that sata express is still a feature. its been through a few generations of chipsets and still there’s no hardware supporting it. no idea why it’s still in intel’s reference spec. the only thing that i can think of is if it tied to the functionality of the M.2 slots.

      • loophole
      • 4 years ago

      That third slot is physically a x16 slot, but electrically x4 or x2. If you want to run the maximum of four lanes to it, two of the SATA ports are disabled because lanes three and four of that slot share the same chipset flex I/O ports as SATA ports 5 & 6.

        • Krogoth
        • 4 years ago

        Not it really matters since it is PCIe 3.0 and even a 2x “slot” yields more than enough bandwidth for majority of non-graphical uses.

          • loophole
          • 4 years ago

          I think the ability to route four Gen3 lanes to that slot is there primarily for high-bandwidth PCIe SSDs like Intel’s 750 series.

    • derFunkenstein
    • 4 years ago

    This is without a doubt the weirdest motherboard review discussion I’ve ever seen on the Internet.

    • chuckula
    • 4 years ago

    Hey Guize! Guess what I just saw over on Anan!*!UG(A*&D [Line terminated after Damage beats Chuckula over the head with TR URLs].

    • divide_by_zero
    • 4 years ago

    I’ll be excited when we start seeing mobos equipped with Intel’s Alpine Ridge chip for native USB 3.1 (and Thunderbolt) rather than this sort of ASMedia implementation.

      • Ninjitsu
      • 4 years ago

      I think Gigabyte’s using Alpine Ridge.
      [url<]http://www.anandtech.com/show/9485/intel-skylake-z170-motherboards-asrock-asus-gigabyte-msi-ecs-evga-supermicro[/url<]

        • divide_by_zero
        • 4 years ago

        Ah, nice. Been buried in Win 10 stuff at work so no chance to visit Anand’s the last few days. Appreciate the heads up.

          • Damage
          • 4 years ago

          Me either. Been buried in Win10 stuff at work, but I found the info here:

          [url<]https://techreport.com/news/28758/gigabyte-z170-motherboards-are-built-enthusiast-tough[/url<]

        • Damage
        • 4 years ago

        Yeah, confirmed.

        [url<]https://techreport.com/news/28758/gigabyte-z170-motherboards-are-built-enthusiast-tough[/url<] 😉

          • divide_by_zero
          • 4 years ago

          Ha! Fair ’nuff. 🙂

          Guess what I should’ve said was “I’ll be excited when we start seeing *REVIEWS OF* mobos equipped with Intel’s Alpine Ridge chip…”

            • derFunkenstein
            • 4 years ago

            It’s kinda lame. I’m pretty well resigned to upgrading to Skylake this fall sometime, but I won’t buy a board without Alpine Ridge. Gonna wait to see what else Mark churns out – I love the PCI Express diagram on page 1.

          • Ninjitsu
          • 4 years ago

          Lol. Yeah should have linked to the TR story, but then AT had all the boards together so I just linked there.

    • the
    • 4 years ago

    What chip provides the VGA conversion since that functionality has been dropped by the chipset?

      • loophole
      • 4 years ago

      It’s a Realtek RTD2168. And, just in case it’s useful, the HDMI is driven by an ASMedia ASM1442K.

    • Ninjitsu
    • 4 years ago

    According to AT, 4.6 seems to be the general trend for an OC with the 6700K.

    They also note that Skylake seems temperature bound than voltage limited, and recommend using a line of paste (with the little triangle marker on the PCB at the lower left) from top to bottom.

    POV ray seemed to be more prone to uncovering instability than OCCT in their tests.

      • Damage
      • 4 years ago

      According to TR, 4.6GHz seems to be the trend for OC with the 6700K.

      [url<]https://techreport.com/review/28737/asus-z170-a-motherboard-reviewed/4[/url<]

        • chuckula
        • 4 years ago

        You keep posting links to this new website called “techreport.com”…. you aren’t a paid shill for them or something, are you???

        • derFunkenstein
        • 4 years ago

        Maybe if they’d called it ScottTech, people would read it.

        • Ninjitsu
        • 4 years ago

        I read that, I was just supporting with more info… :/

        Tom’s Hardware managed 4.7 GHz, so did Ars (or was it 4.8?).

        Temperatures and power numbers seem to be all over the place, and you guys didn’t mention how you applied thermal paste (I don’t remember reading), but AT did, so I mentioned it.

        🙁

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