Asus’ Republic of Gamers brand has become one of the best-known in gaming PC components, and ROG motherboards tend to be some of the fanciest and most innovative around at the dawn of each new socket generation. The downside, if there is one, is that ROG boards tend to go for a pretty penny. You want the best, you gotta pony up.
Not every PC builder can spare the scratch for a full-on ROG Maximus IX Formula or similar board, so Asus has recently broadened the availability of entry visas for the Republic of Gamers with the Strix family of motherboards. These boards might not offer as much RGB LED lighting, “thermal armor,” or exotic port and cooling options as their highest-end cousins, but they bottle up some of that ROG magic for the critical $200-and-under price brackets. On the bench today, we have Asus’ top-end ROG Strix board: the Z270E Gaming. At $199.99, the Z270E Gaming slots in right under the $200 mark that we consider the threshold for diminishing returns with mainstream motherboards.
Asus’ designers have turned to neutral palettes of late thanks to the rise of RGB LEDs, and the Strix carries that DNA in its muted silver heatsinks, dark gray I/O fascia, and a gray PCB with silkscreened accents in a lighter gray.
The chipset heatsink gets a chrome ROG logo on a sort of fractal lenticular background for some visual interest, but the overall presentation of the board is quiet.
In fact, the Z270E features only one onboard concession to the RGB LED craze: a delta of multicolor lighting on the I/O fascia diffused with frosted plastic. This diffuser hides the individual glare of each of the eight or so LEDs underneath, making it look like a single uniform light source. I’ve long believed that diffusion and directional control are critical to making RGB LEDs look their best, and Asus goes the extra mile here to achieve quality over quantity.
Skylake or Kaby Lake CPUs drop right into the Z270E Gaming’s LGA 1151 socket. The Z270E feeds the CPU with a 10-phase power design that should be more than adequate for all but the most extreme Skylake or Kaby Lake overclocking adventures. As always, we’ve measured some of the critical distances around the socket so that builders can get a sense of what coolers will or won’t fit into the Z270E’s socket area.
The brushed-metal heatsinks ringing the socket are massive, but their aggressively-sloped design means they shouldn’t interfere with large tower coolers. A couple rows of capacitors left of and above the socket might run afoul of some liquid cooler pump head designs, but they’re low-profile enough that we doubt they’ll cause an issue in practice.
Asus outfits this board with the usual quartet of DDR4 DIMM slots capable of holding up to 64GB of RAM. The Strix only has multipliers for overclocked RAM ranging up to DDR4-3866, so be aware of that limitation if you’re shopping some recent RAM kits running over 4000 MT/s. Mere mortals probably won’t have reason for concern from the Strix’s memory overclocking department. From this view, we can also see the Strix’s USB 3.1 Gen 2 front-panel connector. Those whose cases don’t have cabling for this connector will have to run the front-panel USB 3.0 header to the bottom edge of the board, a potential inconvenience.
Expansion and storage options
Unlike some higher-end boards bristling with M.2 slots, U.2 connectors, and vestigial SATA Express ports, the Z270E’s connectivity and expansion options are straightforward. Asus provides two metal-reinforced PCIe x16 slots fed by the CPU. The leftmost of these gets the full 16 lanes from an LGA 1151 CPU with a single graphics card installed. Install a second graphics or expansion card, and the board runs each of the primary PCIe x16 slots at x8 speeds.
All of the remaining PCIe slots draw their connectivity from the Z270 chipset. The board has four PCIe x1 slots running off the Z270 chip, as well as a physical PCIe x16 slot that offers x4 bandwidth. Some of these PCIe x1 slots share their lanes with the ASMedia ASM2142 USB 3.1 controller that lights up the Z270E’s front-panel USB 3.1 Gen 2 header. Plug in a case’s front-panel Gen 2 cable, and the second and fourth PCIe x1 slots in the image above will be disabled.
For traditional 2.5″ and 3.5″ storage devices, Asus offers six SATA ports running at 6 Gbps from the Z270 chipset. Some of these share bandwidth with the Z270E’s twin M.2 slots, so not every port will always be available if you’re using next-gen storage. More on that in a second.
The board’s duo of M.2 slots are also powered by the Z270 chipset. The primary M.2 slot is smartly located under the chipset heatsink, far from any other heat-producing components that could threaten an SSD with thermal throttling. This slot supports both SATA and NVMe SSDs, but using it in SATA mode will disable the board’s SATA 1 port. NVMe drives are always assured of four lanes of PCIe 3.0 from this slot at all times.
The secondary NVMe slot sits between the CPU socket and the first PCIe x16 slot. This slot is closer to the largest heat source in most modern PCs than the primary M.2 slot, but that position still beats being underneath the first PCIe x16 slot, where a drive might be torched by open-cooler graphics cards. This M.2 slot shares bandwidth with some of the Z270E’s SATA connectors. Plug in an NVMe device here, and the SATA 5 and SATA 6 connectors will go dark.
Overall, the Z270E’s expansion capabilities aren’t spread too thin by the lane-sharing mojo of Z270. The worst-case scenario for the board involves a build with a SATA M.2 SSD in the primary M.2 slot and an NVMe SSD in the secondary M.2 slot, along with a case that has a USB 3.1 Gen 2 front-panel cable hooked up. In this situation, the Z270E loses three of its six SATA ports and two of its four PCIe x1 slots. Builders would still have ample storage and expansion options to work with even with that unlikely setup. In a more typical build with a single NVMe drive and no front-panel USB 3.1 Gen 2, the Z270E keeps six SATA ports and all of its PCIe slots working. That’s good news for storage-hungry mainstream builds.
I/O and audio
Our tour of this board’s I/O options begins with the antenna connectors for the Z270E’s built-in wireless card. This is a Qualcomm Atheros QCNFA364A radio, better known as the Killer 1535 (but implemented here without Killer branding). This chip offers 802.11ac wireless support, as well as the usual laundry list of older standards on the 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz bands. For local periperhal connectivity, this Atheros chip also supports Bluetooth 4.1.
Directly to the right of the wireless radio, we get two USB 3.1 Gen 2 ports: one a Type-A, the other a Type-C. These ports both draw connectivity from an ASMedia ASM2142 chip connected to the Z270 chipset.
Although it seems unlikely that anyone will be running integrated graphics on a $200 motherboard, Asus gives builders three options for connecting to an Intel IGP. The Z270E has a DVI-D port that can run 1920×1200 displays at up to 60 Hz. Directly beneath this port is a DisplayPort 1.2 connector with a maximum resolution of 4096×2304 at 60 Hz. Rounding out the trio is an HDMI 1.4b connector with support for 4096×2160 displays running at 24 Hz.
The port cluster continues with four USB 3.0 ports from the Intel Z270 chipset. One pair is topped off with an archaic PS/2 port, while the other shares space with the connector for the Intel I219V Gigabit Ethernet NIC. I’d have rather seen the PS/2 port (and the DVI port, for that matter) dropped in favor of more USB 2.0 or USB 3.0 ports. The five USB Type-A ports the Strix offers will quickly be overrun by even a basic Oculus Rift and Touch setup, not to mention the three-camera Oculus setup needed for a true room-scale experience. I doubt many gamers are carting PS/2 keyboards or mice over to new system builds these days, not to mention DVI monitors.
For audio, Asus taps Realtek’s S1220 codec as part of its SupremeFX audio suite. Although there’s not much documentation about this codec online, it supports the usual bevy of stereo and eight-channel surround sound outputs for analog audio, as well as digital output through an optical S/PDIF port. Asus claims its implementation can achieve a 120-dB signal-to-noise ratio for playback and a 113-dB SNR for recording. The S1220 codec itself sits beneath an EMI shield for reduced noise, and Asus includes some premium Nichicon capacitors in the signal path for potentially better sound.
SupremeFX also includes an Asus software suite with ROG Sonic Studio and Sonic Radar utilities. Sonic Radar is an on-screen overlay that can use positional audio cues to show where opponents and enemies are coming from in games, at least so long as they’re making noise. I’m dubious that Sonic Radar is any more useful than a good headset to begin with, but it’s there for those that want to play with it.
Sonic Studio offers a suite of DSP effects for “smart volume,” “voice clarity,” “bass boost,” “treble boost,” “reverb” and “surround.” Blessedly, Asus leaves its Sonic Studio enhancements off by default, but I found them subtle even when I enabled them by choice. If you like simulated surround sound and other mild DSP tweaks, Sonic Studio’s might be worth toying with. The software also has an “advanced mode” for routing the output from various applications to the Strix’s various outputs. If you’d rather not have certain applications broadcasting over your speakers, for example, you can route them only to the outputs you’d like to hear them from.
In use, SupremeFX sounds about as good as other high-end Realtek audio codecs. I felt the default voicing of the analog output was a bit mid-heavy, but that’s a common complaint I’ve had with the S1220, and it’s an easy fix with some gentle EQ. Even out of the box, however, the SupremeFX suite is more than good enough to obviate a low-end sound card.
Whatever we might think of them, arrays of RGB LEDs have become central features of most every modern motherboard. We’re long past the point where protesting the presence of these blinkenlights would be useful. They are well and truly ubiquitous, and they’re not going away. If you can’t stomach them, the answer is simple: turn them off. As reviewers, our main concern now is making sure motherboard makers are making RGB LEDs easy to configure and manage across a system. Given the ranges of color, animation, and synchronization available from modern RGB LEDs, the potential complexity of lighting management is daunting, and it’s a major challenge for motherboard makers to rein in that complexity in software.
As I noted at the beginning of this review, Asus’ RGB LED implementation on the ROG Strix Z270E Gaming is quite reserved compared to some we’ve seen. The only RGB LED feature of the Z270E is a delta of eight or so controllable lights embedded in the I/O shield. Aura can apply a wide range of animation effects to these lights out of the box, and devoted tweakers will find that they’re divided into four individual zones that are exposed in some Aura modes.
The board also offers two RGB strip headers with support for standard 5050 strips up to two meters in length and with maximum current draws of 2A.
Asus’ Aura software interface is straightforward and easy to use for casuals like yours truly and for advanced lighting techs alike. The basic interface offers an even dozen animation options, ranging from static lighting to music-responsive rave lighting to system temperature and load monitoring.
Beyond the software utility itself, Asus’ trump card with Aura is its Aura Sync initiative. Asus has a broad range of partnerships for Sync-compatible lighting strips, fans, RAM, SSDs, cases, and more. I happen to have a kit of G.Skill’s Sync-compatible Trident Z RGB RAM to play with, and the Aura software recognized and controlled the RAM as part of the overall lighting on the Z270E without any work on my part. When I called up individual lighting zones, each RGB LED atop the Trident Z DIMMs showed up as a a controllable light source, as well.
Most importantly, the motherboard and the RAM interpreted a given color in the same way. Even though I’m a color obsessive, I couldn’t see a noticeable difference between the Z270E’s LEDs and the Trident Z LEDs, even for tough tones like light oranges. That’s impressive performance from an RGB LED system. The only color that didn’t quite sync up was the notoriously-difficult-to-match white. The Asus LEDs offered a slightly cooler white than the Trident Z’s warmer tone. Folks pursuing builds illuminated in white are probably well aware of this headache already, and I don’t hold it against the Strix or the G.Skill RAM.
Although I don’t have an especially wild lighting setup at hand, I can see Aura Sync being a major advantage for Asus in all-out RGB LED builds. Having one central interface instead of several separate pieces of software is incredibly convenient, and Asus has the scale to make incorporating Aura Sync into new products worth it for its hardware partners. Asus will also be exposing Aura control as an SDK for interested developers, and that SDK could make Aura an even more valuable feature over time. Overall, the Strix Z270E Gaming (or any other Aura-ready motherboard) should serve as an excellent platform for the lighting-obsessed.
Firmware and Windows software
Asus hasn’t changed its basic firmware interface much since the arrival of its Z170 motherboards, and that’s a good thing. We already considered the company’s firmware some of the easiest-to-use in the industry, and Asus hasn’t messed with success. We won’t be revisiting every one of this board’s firmware features here. If you want to get a general idea of the features on offer, check out our Z170-A review.
Invoking the ROG Strix Z270E Gaming’s firmware still drops users right into the Ez Mode interface. This basic dashboard gives an overview of key data like fan speeds, CPU temperatures, XMP profile status, and boot order. It also offers a path into the Z270E’s various fan control settings. More on that in a second.
More experienced users will want to hop into the Advanced Mode interface with a press of F7. Advanced Mode exposes the Ai Tweaker tab and its wealth of frequency and voltage settings. Each setting generally has a helpful tooltip that explains what it does, so if you’re not familiar with messing about in firmware, Asus’ will at least get you pointed in the right direction.
I won’t dive into every one of these settings, but I do want to call out one disappointing default. As you might expect, the offender is the “Asus MultiCore Enhancement” setting. MultiCore Enhancement applies the highest Turbo multiplier to all cores of a CPU. With our Core i7-7700K, that means the Z270E will try to run all of its cores at 4.5 GHz under load. By default, this mode is set to “Auto,” but that name suggests some ambiguity about whether the feature is enabled or not. Make no mistake: “Auto” means on, and on is undesirable.
To be fair, the Turbo tables for the i7-7700K suggest the chip can handle 4.4 GHz on all cores under heavy load, so a 4.5 GHz all-core overclock isn’t that much of an offender. Still, those with borderline cooling systems (in small-form-factor systems, say) might find MultiCore Enhancement an annoyance rather than a feature. We’ve long asked for these kinds of under-the-radar overclocks to be disabled by default, and it’s a shame that Asus’ otherwise excellent default settings are marred by this bit of clock goosing.
The firmware does give the user the “option” to enable MultiCore Enhancement when XMP is enabled, but that alert isn’t really about activating the all-core overclock—it’s about maintaining the status quo or not. In fact, even if you choose “no” when the firmware prompts for MultiCore Enhancement with XMP, the setting remains on “Auto”—meaning it’s enabled no matter what. If you really don’t want MultiCore Enhancement on, the only way to be sure it’s off is to set it to “Disabled” in the firmware.
One of the neat new Asus-exclusive features in the company’s Z270 firmware is an option called “CPU overclocking temperature control,” or CPU OTC for short, formerly known as the Thermal Control Tool. This utility essentially offers an all-core Turbo Boost atop the stable all-core overclock one might reach in traditional tuning. As Asus puts it, this option lets a user set two separate frequency targets: one for light-load applications and the other for heavier workloads. Each of those frequency targets gets its own voltage offset and frequency multiplier.
The glue that makes these two ratios work is an upper and lower bound for CPU temperatures in the OTC settings. Above the upper threshold, the “CPU core ratio under activation” multiplier and “additional Turbo Mode CPU core voltage under activation” settings will kick in to keep CPU temperatures in check. Once the CPU temperature falls below the lower threshold, the firmware will try to engage the lightly-threaded multiplier and voltage again (as set in the Ai Tweaker tab).
Asus claims this feature could unlock anywhere from 100 MHz to 300 Mhz more overclock headroom in loads that aren’t pushing the CPU to its limits. For folks that can’t quite get their CPUs stable under Prime95 workloads at 5 GHz, say, the CPU OTC feature might let them boost their chips to that speed or something near it for light desktop use. I’m not aware of a similar feature from other manufacturers, so CPU OTC is worth keeping in mind if you’re going for the highest single-threaded performance possible from an LGA 1151 CPU.
In Windows, Asus greets users with the same Ai Suite interface it’s used since at least the Haswell days. Once again, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Ai Suite provides a quick glance at system clock speeds, temperatures, voltages, and fan speeds, and it also provides in-depth fan control and overclocking tools.
Like Asus’ firmware, Ai Suite remains one of the best Windows software interfaces for monitoring and tuning. Not only does it condense all of the motherboard’s controls into one spot, there are few features that it would require a builder to dive back into the firmware to control.
The Strix Z270E Gaming continues Asus’ tradition of fan-control excellence. The board has six four-pin fan headers, and each one can drive both DC and PWM fans. The board is also compatible with Asus’ Fan Extension Card if more headers are needed.
Users can tie fan speeds to CPU, motherboard, or chipset temperatures, and the Strix also has an onboard header for a two-pin remote temperature sensor if those sources aren’t precise enough. The Strix can also monitor up to three different temperature sources for each fan header to arrive at a final fan speed.
Like most recent motherboards, the Strix Z270E offers builders two ways to control their system fans: one in the firmware, and one in Windows. The level of control afforded in both interfaces is practically identical, so where one does one’s fan tuning on the Z270E is primarily a matter of taste.
The firmware actually has two different levels of fan-speed control through the Q-Fan system. The first and more basic, Q-Fan Control, is accessed from the Ez Mode interface. It offers control over DC or PWM modes and fan curves. Users can select from any of three default fan curves, set a constant speed, or configure a custom curve using three separate fan-speed-and-temperature points.
The second, more-advanced fan control interface is under the Monitor -> Q-Fan Configuration tab. Here, users can additionally configure the fan spin-up and spin-down times, set temperature sources, and set low-speed alarms. I’m especially glad to see fan spin-up and spin-down periods here, since the ability to configure long spin-up times prevents fans from ramping up in response to short temperature tranisents caused by light workloads. Both the Q-Fan Control and Q-Fan Configuration tab offer full automatic profiling of fan RPMs to prevent setting out-of-range speed values.
Asus’ Windows fan controls live in the Fan Xpert 4 section of the Ai Suite software. Like the firmware fan control options, Fan Xpert 4 can profile fan speeds and set any of three different pre-baked profiles per fan. It also exposes custom fan curves for each connected fan and lets users pick up to three temperature sources for each header. Instead of simply establishing a range of fan speeds and letting users figure out what combinations of temperatures and duty cycles fall beneath the spin-up speed of a given fan, Ai Suite’s fan profiler actually finds and prohibits setting out-of-range values. That’s a convenient feature that might prevent a user from stopping a fan when they don’t intend to.
Every CPU has different overclocking potential as a consequence of the vagaries of semiconductor production. The job of the motherboard, then, is to make it as easy as possible to extract the performance potential from each chip in a straightforward and understandable manner without causing undue risk to the hardware at hand. Most modern motherboards also offer a suite of automatic overclocking tools to let even novices try their hands at pushing frequencies to the moon, and the effectiveness of those features could tip newbies’ favor to one board over another.
Asus offers builders a wealth of overclocking options on the ROG Strix Z270E-Gaming. One automatic overclocking routine in the firmware and another in the AI Suite software give novices and the short-on-time a quick way to void warranties, and the company’s excellent firmware makes manual tweaking simple for novices and the experienced alike.
I started my automatic overclocking journey in the firmware. After a brief questionnaire about my intended usage patterns and cooling setup, the system rebooted and made it into Windows successfully. The pre-baked firmware overclocking profile handed me a 4.95 GHz overclock using a 49X multiplier, a 103 MHz base clock, and an observed 1.376V Vcore. This overclock proved stable under Blender, but Prime95 experienced instability straight away. Temperatures under Blender didn’t clear 76° C with our Corsair H115i cooler, at least. Asus’ pre-baked profile might prove fine for lighter workloads, but it technically fails our stability test. I’d also be wary of running such a high Vcore day-to-day, even if load temperatures are within reasonable limits.
The next step on my overclocking journey was Asus’ 5-Way Optimization process through the Ai Suite software. This overclocking interface lets tweakers with a penchant for the automatic set a wide variety of parameters for establishing stability, including the use of AVX instructions, the duration of each stress-testing cycle, and how stringent the software should be about the definition of “stable” (ranging from Encoding Stable to “aggressive”). I configured the tool to use AVX and to consider “normal” strictness for stability and set it to work.
After a couple of restarts, 5-Way Optimization delivered a Prime95-stable overclock at a conservative 4.6 GHz and 1.264V Vcore. CPU temperatures didn’t exceed 80° C at those settings. I also tried 5-Way Optimization without AVX stress-testing enabled and got a Prime95-stable 4.8 GHz at 1.312V—a result equal to the best manual overclock I’ve achieved with our particular Core i7-7700K. It seems Asus’ auto-overclocking logic errs on the conservative side when AVX is in play. Still, the fact that Asus’ auto-overclocking tool matched my best manual tweaks with slightly looser settings is an impressive feat.
With the Z270E’s auto-overclocking options exhausted, I turned to manual tweaking. Knowing what I know about our particular Core i7-7700K, I set an adaptive-mode Vcore of 1.310V and a multiplier of 4.8 GHz and saw how the Z270E handled it. The system turned in a Prime95-stable overclock of 4.8 GHz at 1.298V Vcore with nary a hitch, and CPU temperatures didn’t exceed 90° C. Attempting to soldier on to 4.9 GHz didn’t meet with any success, though, even when I pushed the adaptive Vcore to 1.350V. Prime95 immediately threw errors on multiple cores, an experience I’ve had with our i7-7700K on multiple motherboards. Even so, getting our known-stable overclock running on the Z270E Gaming was a snap, and I didn’t even have to touch settings like load-line calibration to get the chip stable.
Asus’ auto-overclocking mojo on the Z270E Gaming is as fine as ever. The board matched my best manual overclocking efforts with one click, and most importantly, the automatic OC reached this way proved stable under load. For novices or for folks who just want to click a button and get an overclock back, Asus’ software seems capable enough of getting close to the optimum OC from a given chip. Manual overclocking on the Z270E proved a breeze, as well. The company’s clearly-labeled and cleanly-laid-out firmware remains just as fine a companion as ever. The most demanding overclockers might be able to get even more speed out of Asus’ exclusive CPU Overclocking Temperature Control settings, as well. Overall, the Z270E should prove an excellent companion for novice and experienced overclockers alike.
Asus’ ROG Strix Z270E Gaming motherboard has to strike a tough balance as the apex predator of a new sub-brand for Asus. Take too much thunder from the Republic of Gamers pantheon, and you dull the halos of those uber-fancy boards. Happily, I think the Z270E Gaming makes a fine case for the Strix brand as the bridge between the low-key Prime series and the ongoing envelope-pushing within the borders of the Republic of Gamers. This board (and its aerie mates) have just enough style and flair to stand out without crossing the line into excess.
No motherboard is perfect, but my time with the Z270E has been about as drama-free as it gets. I wish Asus had capitalized on the gaming focus of the Strix brand to ditch legacy ports like DVI and PS/2 from the Z270E’s port cluster in favor of more USB ports. VR headsets and modern gaming peripherals hunger for USB, and the Strix’s four back-panel USB 3.0 ports and single USB 3.1 Gen 2 Type A port are a little stingy. I’m also sad that Asus couldn’t find a couple nickels to rub together for its Q-Connector port block on this rather expensive board.
Asus has also taken to enabling its multi-core enhancement feature out of the box on the Z270E. As a result, the board will try to apply the single-core Turbo multiplier to all cores of an Intel CPU, even under heavy workloads. We aren’t fans of this kind of stealthy overclock, no matter how modest, and it’s a shame that Asus has taken to doing it. At least the company offers a clearly-labeled off switch for its multi-core goosing.
On every other point we care about in a motherboard, the Z270E is enviably polished. Asus’ firmware is cleanly laid out, and it features helpful tool tips that make demystify many complex settings. Asus’ Aura RGB LED software utility is friendly to casual users and RGB LED fanatics alike, and the widening Aura Sync ecosystem means that the lighting of a broad selection of components can be controlled all in one place. The company’s Ai Suite Windows software condenses important settings and features into a one-stop interface, and it lacks practically nothing compared to the full firmware interface.
While it didn’t take our Core i7-7700K to new heights, the Z270E offered a smooth and trouble-free path to getting the most from our particular chip. The board’s auto-overclocking logic matched my best manual tuning efforts with one click. Most importantly, that auto-overclock was stable under my Prime95 test load, and it didn’t come with extreme voltages or excessive heat production.
You won’t find them on a spec sheet, but Asus also offers perks for builders that go beyond any one motherboard model. Its Kaby Lake overclocking guide may as well be the bible for extracting the most from an LGA 1151 CPU, and the company clearly explains exactly what its smorgasbord of firmware features do and how they interact on the way to the best overclock possible from a given chip. That documentation is useful for full-time tweakers like yours truly, to say nothing of the casual PC builder just getting into overclocking for the first time. The company also offers innovative firmware features like CPU overclocking temperature control that simply aren’t available on other motherboards.
The ROG Strix Z270E Gaming isn’t the flashiest or most feature-packed board around, but it also doesn’t have any notable flaws for its $200 asking price. From board layout to fan control to firmware to Windows software, the Z270E Gaming proves that Asus is still the brand to beat for the smoothest all-around experience possible from a mainstream motherboard. I’m willing to pay extra for that kind of polish, and it makes the Z270E Gaming an easy Editor’s Choice. Rumor has it that we may see new Intel mainstream motherboards soon, and we’re looking forward to seeing what Asus has in store for them.