Home ASRock’s Z97 Extreme6 motherboard reviewed

ASRock’s Z97 Extreme6 motherboard reviewed

Geoff Gasior
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The market for Haswell motherboards is crowded with contenders, many of which differ only slightly from one another. ASRock’s Z97 Extreme6 manages to stand out among the masses, though. Unlike most Z97 offerings, whose M.2 sockets connect via dual PCIe 2.0 lanes in the chipset, the Extreme6 boasts “Ultra M.2” goodness with quad PCIe 3.0 lanes from the CPU.

The Extreme6 has a typical M.2 implementation, too, along with SATA Express connectivity, dual Gigabit Ethernet jacks, and a generous number of USB 3.0 and SATA 6Gbps ports. Add the beefy power circuitry and oversized heatsinks, and the Extreme6 looks very much like a high-end motherboard. But it isn’t: Newegg is selling the board for only $164.99 right now, and until the end of October, there’s a $20 rebate on top of that.

On paper, at least, the Z97 Extreme6 looks like an incredible value for enthusiasts contemplating a future-proof Haswell build. Let’s see what it’s really like.

We usually avoid unboxing coverage here at TR, but it’s worth spending on a moment on the Extreme6’s packaging, which surrounds most of the board in thick foam. Zip ties anchor the foam to the mobo’s screw holes, creating a secure cushion that should confer a little extra protection against rough handling during shipping. Although this isn’t the most elegant solution, it’s hard to fault the practical simplicity of ASRock’s approach.

Removing the spare tire takes only seconds with a pair of scissors, allowing us to focus on the rest of the board…

I wasn’t kidding when I said the Extreme6 looks like a high-end motherboard. The board is loaded with enough sockets, slots, and ports to justify a much higher price tag. And that’s not even counting the oversized aluminum jewelry, which thankfully doesn’t look too obnoxious when paired with the otherwise muted styling.

The VRM heatsinks aren’t nearly as substantial as they look. The one on the right is almost hollowed out, while the one on the left has a concave profile that leaves plenty of breathing room below. The board shouldn’t need hardcore VRM cooling, though. ASRock touts the low operating temperatures of its all-digital circuitry, which relies on the expected mix of premium electrical components.

We’ve heard board makers boasting about the benefits of their CPU power schemes for years, and those claims have always been a little difficult to verify. Perhaps the advent of relatively affordable, smartphone-enabled thermal cameras can help provide a better sense of how heat is distributed around the socket. Hmmm.

Like on most Z97 boards, the DIMM slots and VRM heatsinks are quite close to the socket. Folks who intend to run larger aftermarket heatsinks or taller memory modules should check the socket clearance measurements below.

Motherboard makers are pretty good about keeping VRM heatsinks short enough avoid conflict with most coolers. Accommodating taller memory modules is usually more challenging.

Despite having space for seven expansion slots, the Extreme6 only serves up five. The first two x16s share 16 PCIe Gen3 lanes from the CPU, while the third gets two Gen2 lanes from the chipset. Dual-card SLI and CrossFire configurations are supported in the first two x16 slots, but the third one can’t participate in GPU teaming schemes.

Both x1 slots are fed by the chipset, and so is the Mini PCIe slot squeezed between the first two x16s. This notebook-style slot is ideal for mini wireless cards. Mini SSDs are the domain of the dual M.2 sockets, which support drives up to “22110,” or 22 mm wide and 110 mm long.

The Ultra M.2 socket sits just above the Mini PCIe slot. Thanks to four Gen3 lanes from the CPU, it offers up to 32Gbps of bandwidth for next-gen drives. (When the Ultra M.2 slot is occupied, the second x16 slot drops down to four lanes.) SSDs fast enough to exploit this faster pipe are scarce right now, but more should trickle out later this year and into 2015. They’ll have to bring their own drivers or rely on native support in the OS, though. SSDs attached via the CPU can’t be managed by Intel’s RST drivers.

Only devices connected via the Z97 chipset are covered by Intel’s RST software. “Gumstick” SSDs can get in on the action via the standard M.2 socket, which shares a dual-lane PCIe Gen2 link to the chipset with the SATA Express port and the two SATA 6Gbps ports contained within it. The sharing arrangement for this flexible I/O connection is exclusive: users are limited to one M.2 SSD, one SATAe device, or two old-school SATA drives.

Six of the Extreme6’s regular SATA ports come from the Z97, while four are provided by a separate ASMedia controller. Unlike the chipset, which supports the usual mix of RAID configurations, the auxiliary ASMedia controller is limited to single-drive IDE and AHCI modes. It also has slower sequential and random I/O performance than the Intel solution.

Interestingly, the board includes an “HDD Saver” header primed to provide power for up to two SATA drives. This header is controlled by Windows software that can toggle power to those drives with the stroke of a key combo. ASRock bills this mechanism as a way to save power, reduce drive wear, and hide data from prying eyes.

Another intriguing extra is the internal USB 3.0 port that complements the usual headers; it’s situated on the edge of the board right along with them.

Otherwise, the USB configuration is fairly predictable. Internal headers provide access to four USB 2.0 and four USB 3.0 ports, all of which are fed by the Z97. The chipset also fuels four SuperSpeed connectors in the rear port cluster, but it doesn’t have enough native ports to cover them, so the board relies on a one-to-four ASMedia hub. A separate ASMedia controller drives the last two USB 3.0 ports at the back. That couplet is clearly identified in the manual, and users may want to avoid it, because the Intel-powered ports deliver higher sequential throughput.

The rest of the cluster has a little something for everyone, including a CMOS reset button for frequent tweakers, a PS/2 port with “true” n-key rollover for hard-core gamers, and an eSATA port for folks who picked the wrong external storage standard. There’s even a choice of Gigabit Ethernet jacks backed by Intel and Realtek controllers.

The integrated audio provides good options for both analog and digital output. ASRock uses Realtek’s top-of-the-line ALC1150 codec, which is paired with dual Texas Instruments amplifier chips and popular perks like Nichicon capacitors, isolated traces, and additional codec shielding. Surround sound virtualization is available via Realtek’s drivers, as is real-time DTS encoding for multi-channel digital audio.

Even though the Extreme6’s hardware spec hits a lot of the right notes, the board still falls short in a few important areas. The I/O shield is littered with metal protrusions that can slice fingers and get caught up in the rear ports during installation. Also, there are no provisions to simplify the wiring process for front-panel connections. There’s no way to boot directly into the firmware, either, though ASRock provides a software utility that reboots into the UEFI from Windows.

What a convenient lead-in for the firmware and tweaking discussion on the next page…

Firmware and software tweaking
The Z97 Extreme6 has two firmware chips. Both are socketed for easy replacement, and the mechanism for toggling between them is simple but effective: a physical switch on the board. Firmware code can be transferred from chip A to chip B via the “secure backup UEFI” option in the UEFI.

Most motherboard firmware has an integrated flashing utility that relies on files downloaded by the user. In addition to that provision, ASRock takes the concept one step further with a separate flashing utility that automatically grabs the latest firmware revision from the Internet. This Internet Flash functionality is especially handy when setting up a new rig without a secondary system riding shotgun. So is the Easy Driver Installer, which automatically downloads LAN drivers and ASRock’s Live Update software to USB storage. There’s an auto-downloader for RAID drivers, too.

The firmware has a “Full HD” setting that renders the interface at 1920×1080—but only if that’s the native resolution of the monitor. Displays with higher resolutions, like the 1920×1200 monitors in the Benchmarking Sweatshop, are limited to Ye Olde 1024×768 despite having enough pixels for the full HD mode. ASRock sent us a “special” firmware that forces 1080p regardless of the monitor’s native resolution, but that build doesn’t appear to be available to the general public.

Even with low-fi digs, the UEFI looks alright. The layout has a retro vibe that should feel familiar to seasoned veterans. The options are well organized, and navigation is smooth with both the keyboard and mouse. Most important variables can be entered directly with the keyboard, though there are a few awkward attempts at mouse-friendly sliders:

The DRAM, CPU input, and PCH voltages are all governed by pop-up sliders with oddly oversized text. These UI elements take a second to appear, and the accompanying animation is a little chunky. The upper limits of the sliders don’t necessarily correspond with the maximum values for each setting, either. In the screenshot above, the slider has plenty of room to move to the right, but the DRAM voltage doesn’t scale beyond 1.8V.

That DRAM voltage limit is lower than what we’ve seen on some other Z97 boards, but it should still provide sufficient headroom for most overclockers. The firmware is otherwise loaded with the usual mix of clock speeds, multipliers, and voltages. All the expected power tuning options are present, along with a full slate of memory timing settings and reasonably robust fan speed controls.

Users can define four points along each fan’s curve, in addition to the peak temperature where fans go to full tilt. Temperatures and fan speeds are presented in 1°C and 1% increments, but these values must be selected individually from drop-down menus, and the diagram to the right (in the screenshot above) doesn’t reflect the user’s changes. Defining custom profiles is a little cumbersome as a result. The user can always select one of several pre-configured options instead of rolling his own.

Temperature-based speed control is available for all five onboard fan headers. However, the dual CPU headers are combined under a single profile, and only one of them can power four-pin “PWM” spinners. That limitation has nothing to do with the firmware; the second CPU header is a three-pin “DC” unit. The system fan headers are also split between PWM and DC camps; the one in the lower right corner of the board has four pins, while the ones in the lower left and by the top PCIe slot have three pins. The PWM headers can still power DC fans—but not the other way around—so the mixed config should only hurt folks with a penchant for four-pin gear.

The UEFI has a couple of other neat elements, including an integrated tour that explains basic firmware settings. Then there’s the System Browser, which provides a visual map of the board loaded with snippets of information on core components and connected hardware. That map is replicated in ASRock’s A-Tuning utility for Windows:

The A-Tuning app adds a few perks that aren’t present in the UEFI, such as a RAM disk utility and an automated driver downloader. We’re more interested in its ability to change system settings that would otherwise have to be altered in the firmware.

A-Tuning’s overclocking panel is basic but functional, yielding access to the base clock, CPU multiplier, and various voltages. Unfortunately, the CPU multiplier is limited to all-core adjustments; it can’t define different multipliers based on the number of active cores. The tweaking utility is also devoid of power-related settings. Tweakers can save and load their own profiles, but ASRock doesn’t provide any pre-defined ones. The A-Tuning utility also lacks the automated overclocking intelligence found in competing software from some other motherboard makers.

At least the software’s fan speed controls are much more intuitive than what’s in the firmware. The range of options is unchanged, but the graphical interface allows points on each fan profile to be dragged and repositioned with ease:

The FAN-Tastic, ahem, tuning tool also adds a calibration routine that determines the range of available speeds for each connected fan. Some fans ramp up more linearly than others, so it’s nice to have a sense of the RPMs for each step up the percentage scale. Too bad ASRock leaves out the “temp source” variable included in the firmware. That setting determines whether the rotational speed of system fans is based on the CPU or motherboard temperature.

Now that we’ve dissected the Z97 Extreme6, it’s time to test the board’s capabilities. Overclocking is up next.

The Z97 Extreme6’s only automated overclocking options are found in the firmware, which has factory-programmed configs for 4.0 to 4.8GHz in 200MHz increments. The profiles for 4.6GHz and 4.8GHz have scary red lettering, so we started at 4.4GHz, which raised the multiplier of our liquid-cooled Core i7-4770K up to 44X, the CPU voltage to 1.3V, and the CPU cache voltage 1.27V. That config was stable under load, with temperatures spiking up to 86°C but no signs of throttling.

As it turns out, the 4.6GHz profile was barely more extreme. Along with the multiplier bump, it pushed the CPU and cache voltages to 1.32V and 1.3V, respectively. That profile also raised the CPU input voltage, which is supplied by the motherboard VRMs rather than Haswell’s integrated voltage regulator, to 1.9V. The system was stable with those settings, but AIDA64 detected brief moments of thermal-induced throttling, rendering the attempt invalid.

For what it’s worth, we managed to boot into Windows with the 4.8GHz profile, which cranked the CPU up to 1.42V. Throttling dialed back the CPU frequency almost immediately, though, and the system crashed soon after we fired up our combined CPU and GPU load.

With the built-in profiles exhausted, we turned our attention to the laziest form of manual tuning: increasing the CPU multiplier in the firmware and letting the “auto” defaults do the rest. This newbie-friendly approach worked all the way up to 4.6GHz. At that speed, the board automatically applied 1.3V to the CPU, 1.9V to the external VRMs, and the highest load-line calibration available. The slightly lower CPU voltage turned out to be a good fit for our chip, which sustained 4.6GHz without so much as a hint of throttling.

At 4.7GHz, CPU-Z reported 1.35V running through the CPU, and the system crashed under load. We then took matters into our own hands and started adjusting voltages manually, but we ran into a familiar limit. When pushed to the edge, our 4770K CPU teeters between too little voltage, which causes BSOD errors, and too much voltage, which induces throttling. We couldn’t find a mix of settings that produced a stable—and consistent—4.7GHz on the Extreme6.

Still, the board took this particular CPU and cooler combo as far as most of the other Haswell contenders we’ve tested. More impressively, it hit top speed with minimal tweaking. Not every CPU may be happy with the same auto-tuned settings, but ASRock definitely nailed it for the characteristics of our chip.

Power consumption
We measured power draw at the wall socket with our test system at idle, then playing a 1080p YouTube video, and finally under a full load combining Cinebench rendering with the Unigine Valley demo. The Z97 Extreme6 was tested against Z97 boards from Asus, Gigabyte, MSI, and Biostar, plus an Asus Z87-PRO from the previous generation. You can find our detailed reviews of all those boards right here.

The Asus boards were tested with and without their “EPU” power-saving modes enabled. The Extreme6 also has a low-power mode that can be activated via the firmware, so we tested that board twice, as well.

ASRock’s power-saving mode cuts a few watts off the system’s power draw under light and heavy loads, but there’s no difference at idle.

Versus its peers, the Extreme6’s power consumption is fairly average at idle and under our lighter load. However, with the CPU and GPU pinned, the ASRock system draws more juice from the wall socket than any of the others. The 12-phase power delivery is probably overkill for Haswell, at least at stock frequencies.

A lot of PC component purchases are driven by performance characteristics. The thing is, speed generally isn’t a factor for motherboards, which typically offer near-identical performance when equipped with the same CPU, GPU, memory, SSD, and so on. We still run motherboards through a collection of application, gaming, and peripheral benchmarks to look for outliers, but we didn’t find any with the Extreme6.

Although there are some subtle performance differences between the Extreme6 the other Z97 boards we’ve tested, the gaps are minimal—and often smaller than the run-to-run variances for the individual boards.

The Extreme6 goes from a cold start to the Windows 8.1 desktop in as little as 14 seconds with its ultra-fast boot option enabled. That’s reasonably quick, but the boot times for Z97 boards vary by only a couple of seconds, so the stakes are pretty low. Still, it’s worth pointing out that ASRock’s boot acceleration options are limited to fast and ultra-fast settings. Unlike with other 9-series boards, there’s no way to adjust initialization preferences for USB and SATA devices separately. A little more granularity would be nice.

ASRock Z97 Extreme6 6 5 5 4 3 5 6 4 5
Asus Z97-A 6 4 4 5 3 5 5 5 5
Biostar Hi-Fi Z97WE 6 5 5 5 3 5 5 5 5
MSI Z97 Gaming7 6 5 5 5 4 5 6 5 5

It’s also worth noting that the Extreme6 scores slightly lower than some of its competition in a couple of the RightMark Audio Analyzer tests we use to evaluate analog signal quality between the stereo output and line input. The board gets the same “very good” overall score as its peers, though, and the analog output sounds decent enough through a pair of Sennheiser HD 555 headphones. (RMAA gauges quality on a scale from 1-6, or poor-excellent.)

We’re picky enough that integrated solutions never sound good, but the Extreme6’s output quality is certainly passable enough for an onboard solution. Audio snobs can always get a pristine digital bitstream by tapping into the slick S/PDIF implementation.

The following page is filled with detailed board specifications and nerdy tidbits about our test systems. It doesn’t make for particularly engaging reading, so we won’t be offended if you skip ahead to the conclusion.

Detailed specifications
We’ve covered all the essential characteristics of the Z97 Extreme6 already, but here’s the full spec sheet in case we missed anything:

Platform Intel Z97, socket LGA1150
DIMM slots 4 DDR3, 32GB max
Expansion slots 2 PCIe 3.0 x16 via CPU (x16/x0, x8/x8)
1 PCIe 2.0 x16 via Z97 (x2)
2 PCIe 2.0 x1 via Z97
1 Mini PCIe x1 via Z97
Storage I/O 1 M.2 Gen3 x4 via CPU (PCIe only)
1 M.2 Gen2 x2 via Z97
1 SATA Express via Z97
6 SATA RAID 6Gbps via Z97
4 SATA 6Gbps via ASMedia ASM1061
Audio 8-channel HD via Realtek ALC1150
2 x Texas Instruments NE5532 amplifier
Surround virtualization via Realtek drivers
Real-time multi-channel encoding via DTS Interactive
Ports 1 PS/2 keyboard/mouse
1 DisplayPort 1.2 via CPU
1 DVI-I via CPU
1 HDMI 1.3a via CPU
1 eSATA 6Gbps via ASMedia ASM1061
4 USB 3.0 via Z97 and ASMedia ASM1074 hub
2 USB 3.0 via ASMedia ASM1042AE
4 USB 3.0 via internal headers and Z97
1 USB 3.0 via internal port and Z97
4 USB 2.0 via internal headers and Z97
1 Gigabit Ethernet via Intel I218V
1 Gigabit Ethernet via Realtek RTL8111GR

1 analog front out
1 analog center/sub out
1 analog rear out/line in
1 analog side out
1 analog mic in
1 digital S/PDIF out

Overclocking All/per-core Turbo multiplier: 8-120X
CPU cache ratio: 8-120X
Base clock: 90-300MHz
CPU strap: 1, 1.25, 1.66, 2.5X
DRAM: 800-4000MHz

CPU voltage: 0.8-2V
CPU voltage additional offset: 0.001-1V
CPU input voltage: 1.2-2.3V
CPU input offset: 0-0.4V
CPU cache voltage: 0.8-2V
CPU cache voltage additional offset: 0.001-1V
System agent offset voltage: 0.001-1V
CPU analog offset voltage: 0.001-1V
CPU digital offset voltage: 0.001-1V
DRAM voltage: 1.165-1.8V
PCH 1.05V voltage: 0.977-1.322V
PCH 1.5V voltage: 1.366-1.696V

Fan control 2X CPU (combined), 3X SYS fans:
Predefined silent, standard, performance profiles
Manual profile with four speed/temperature points and full-speed temp

Our testing methods
We used the following system configurations for testing:

Processor Intel Core i7-4770K
Motherboard Asus Z87-PRO ASRock Z97 Extreme6 Asus Z97-A Biostar Hi-Fi Z97WE Gigabyte Z97X-UD5H MSI Z97 Gaming 7
Firmware revision 1802 1.4 0604 Z97AF516 F6b 1.1B1
Platform hub Z87 Express Z97 Z97 Z97 Z97 Z97
Chipset drivers Chipset: 10.0
RST: 13.0
Chipset: 10.0
RST: 13.0
Chipset: 10.0
RST: 13.0
Chipset: 10.0
RST: 13.0
Chipset: 10.0
RST: 13.0
Chipset: 10.0
RST: 13.0
Audio Realtek ALC1180 Realtek ALC1150 Realtek ALC892 Realtek ALC892 Realtek ALC1150 Realtek ALC1150
Memory size 16GB (2 DIMMs)
Memory type Corsair Vengeance Pro DDR3 SDRAM at 1600MHz
Memory timings 9-9-9-27-1T
Graphics Asus GeForce GTX 680 DirectCU II with 335.23 drivers
Storage Corsair Force Series GT 120GB
Samsung 830 Series 256GB
Power supply Corsair AX850 850W
Operating system Microsoft Windows 8.1 Pro x64

Thanks to Intel, Corsair, Samsung, and Asus for providing the hardware used in our test systems. And thanks to the motherboard makers for providing those.

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. Our video playback load used this 1080p YouTube trailer for the movie Looper. The full-load test combined Cinebench’s multithreaded CPU rendering test with the Unigine Valley DirectX 11 demo running in a 1280×720 window.
  • The Force GT 120GB SSD was used as the system drive for all tests. The Samsung 830 Series 256GB was connected as secondary storage to test Serial ATA and USB performance, the latter through a USAP-compatible Thermaltake BlacX 5G docking station. The Samsung SSD was secure-erased before each test that involved it. The Corsair drive was also wiped before we loaded our system image.
  • Ethernet performance was tested using a remote rig based on an Asus P8P67 Deluxe motherboard with an Intel 82579 Gigabit Ethernet controller. A single Cat 6 Ethernet cable connected that system to each motherboard.
  • Analog audio signal quality was tested using RMAA’s “loopback” test, which pipes front-channel output through the board’s line input. We tested while the system was loaded with Cinebench’s multithreaded rendering test, the Unigine Valley benchmark, and a CrystalDiskMark 4KB random I/O test running on the Samsung SSD attached via USB 3.0.
  • Power consumption was tested using a Watt’s Up Pro power meter. Our idle measurement represents the low over a five-minute period. For YouTube playback, we reported the median power consumption for the length of the video. For our full load test, we reported the peak power consumption during the Cinebench benchmark run.

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.

ASRock’s Z97 Extreme6 might be the most forward-looking Haswell motherboard around. The CPU socket supports next-gen Broadwell chips, the M.2 and SATA Express ports are primed for future storage devices, and the Ultra M.2 connector supplies even more bandwidth for future SSDs. The Ultra M.2 socket also allows M.2 and SATA Express devices to be used simultaneously, an impossible feat on most of the Z97 boards we’ve seen.

There are other perks throughout the Extreme6. The Mini PCIe slot serves as a home for notebook-style wireless cards, the integrated audio has good analog and digital output, and the additional peripheral ports fill out the spec sheet. ASRock even nails a couple of little details, like the POST code display and rear-mounted CMOS reset button, but it misses a few builder-friendly accoutrements. We’d like to see included port blocks for the front-panel connectors and a cushioned shield for the rear I/O panel. Then there’s the mix of three- and four-pin fan headers, which is just plain weird, even if the underlying speed control is fairly robust.

The Windows-based A-Tuning software has much more intuitive fan controls than the firmware, but its overclocking options are somewhat limited. Tweaking is best done with the UEFI, which has loads of handy functionality on top of the usual options. The ability to grab and apply the latest firmware update without leaving the interface is very slick, and so are the downloaders for storage and networking drivers. Both seasoned veterans and budding newbies should be able to appreciate how those little features streamline the initial setup process.

Both types of users should also appreciate how easily we were able to overclock on the Extreme6. Despite the board’s less sophisticated auto-tuning intelligence, we managed to crank our CPU up to the same speeds we’ve reached on other Z97 mobos, and the process was incredibly straightforward.

In the end, there’s a lot to like about the Z97 Extreme6—and a few important aspects that could definitely be improved. It’s hard to complain too much about the shortcomings in light of the $164.99 asking price (or $144.99 with a mail-in rebate good until the end of October). Simply put, the Extreme6 is a high-end Z97 board with a mid-range price tag. It doesn’t deliver the most refined user experience, but the overall package is very solid, and the Ultra M.2 slot is uniquely compelling for those eyeing future storage upgrades.

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