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Asus’ Z97-P motherboard reviewed

Mark Nelson
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The Pentium G3258 arrived amidst a wave of inexpensive Z97 motherboards aimed at overclockers seeking a suitable home for their unlocked Anniversary Edition silicon. Intel’s latest enthusiast chipset could now be found on boards with two-digit asking prices, setting the stage for potent budget pairings.

Although Asus’ Z97-P doesn’t quite fall under the $100 mark, it’s still the firm’s cheapest Z97 offering. The board can be had for $110.99 online, or $29 less than the Z97-A Geoff reviewed last year. That’s a substantial difference for customers with Anniversary Edition Pentiums, which are regularly priced at $70.

So, what features does one lose when stepping down to the entry-level Z97-P? The swapped letters in the model name provide no hints. Neither does the Z97-P’s subtle black-and-gold color scheme, which matches the motif of its pricier sibling. Closer inspection quickly reveals the board’s budget pedigree, though.

Compared to its costlier brethren, the Z97-P has gone on a diet in a number of ways. The most obvious difference is the size of the circuit board. At only 8.4″ (21.3 cm) wide, the board uses just six of the nine mounting holes that full-sized ATX boards normally occupy. This brings the onboard components closer together, but due to the no-frills nature of the design, we’re not left with a terribly cramped layout.

Losing over an inch at the Z97-P’s waist forced the designers to position the four DIMM slots so that they butt right up against the restricted zone for the CPU socket. If you’re using an oversized CPU cooler, be sure to check for adequate DIMM clearance. Here are some measurements to help you figure out which components can safely fit together on the board:

Clearance issues aren’t solely the domain of large, tower-style air coolers. The beefy copper block of the Cooler Master Nepton 240M liquid cooler we use for testing runs afoul of the capacitors closest to the CPU socket. This conflict prevents the block from making sufficient contact with the CPU’s heat spreader, removing two of the four possible orientations as workable options. Clearance issues between the VRM heatsink and the hose connections to the block rule out a third orientation.

This particular cooler only works on the Z97-P in one orientation, and even then, the fit isn’t perfect. The hose connections encroach on the DIMM slots, blocking the one closest to the CPU socket. Thankfully, this slot is only needed when populating the board with four DIMMs.

A high-end liquid cooler like the Nepton isn’t the likeliest accompaniment to a board in this price range, but it’s assuredly not the only cooler that could run into clearance issues on the Z97-P.

A small heatsink positioned between the CPU socket and rear port cluster hides the four power phases feeding Haswell’s on-die VRM. With modern motherboard heatsinks being about equal parts form and function, this little piece of aluminum not only provides cooling for the MOSFETs, but also serves as one of the Z97-P’s pieces of flair. The second and final piece of flair is located farther down the board, atop the Z97 chipset. This slim heatsink is furnished with just a handful of fins, but it only has to contend with the Z97’s meager 4.1W TDP.

At first glance, the Z97-P presents a PCIe slot layout that looks ideal for a pair of graphics cards. Alas, closer examination reveals that the x16 slot on the left is the only one with Gen3 lanes from the CPU. The x16 slot on the right is tied to just two Gen2 lanes in the chipset. This second slot lacks sufficient bandwidth to participate in CrossFire configs, let alone more exclusive SLI setups.

Dual PCIe x1 and old-school PCI slots round out the expansion region. The x1s get Gen2 connectivity from the chipset, while the PCI slots are fed by an ASMedia PCIe-to-PCI bridge chip.

Between the CPU socket and top PCIe slot lives the Z97-P’s sole entry into the next-generation storage race: an M.2 slot that supports both PCIe and SATA SSDs up to 80 mm long. PCIe drives get dual Gen2 lanes from the chipset, while SATA hardware is limited to a single 6Gbps connection. The low-slung slot shouldn’t interfere with CPU coolers or expansion cards, but it does put mini SSDs between two potentially toasty components.

Given the Z97-P’s target market and asking price, we shouldn’t be surprised by the lack of SATA Express support. The Serial ATA configuration is a little unusual, though. Despite the fact that the chipset supports six SATA devices, there are only four internal ports—two in the bottom right corner and two half-way up the board, near the front-panel USB 3.0 header. The M.2 slot technically provides a fifth SATA connection, but the sixth is nowhere to be found, not even as an eSATA port in the rear cluster. That doesn’t help the Z97-P in the feature-checkbox race against budget Z97 boards with a full slate of SATA ports.

Asus has chosen to implement the chipset’s 18 flexible I/O lanes without sharing resources between storage and expansion. Statements like, “SATA3 connector is shared with M.2 slot,” or the more helpfully spelled out, “when the M.2 slot is being used by PCIe M.2 module, SATA3_U & SATA3_L connectors will be disabled,” are nowhere to be found in the manual and spec sheet.

Seeing the rear port cluster’s analog audio output handled by only three jacks reinforces the fact that the Z97-P hails from the low-rent district. Users who want eight-channel analog output have to rely on a combination of rear and front-panel ports.

The lack of DisplayPort output won’t hinder users with discrete graphics cards. Those looking to build systems for office use or general productivity can tap into Haswell’s integrated graphics via VGA, DVI, and HDMI outputs, though.

Rear USB connectivity comes in the form of six ports, four of which are of the SuperSpeed variety. Two additional USB 3.0 ports are available through an on-board header, as are six more USB 2.0. All the USB ports are connected directly to the chipset, without hub chips or third-party controllers. The onboard networking and audio are powered by Realtek GigE and codec chips, which are ubiquitous for boards in this price range.

The Z97-P uses an older ALC891 codec backed by a TI R4580 amplifier. These two sit tucked away in their own corner of the board, isolated from the rest of the signaling, with the left and right output channels split between different PCB layers. This arrangement produces sound my ears are happy to hear, with no unwanted noise under a variety of load and idle conditions. That’s a very good thing, because the S/PDIF module for digital output is sold separately, and there’s no support for encoding multi-channel digital audio on the fly.

Asus gets a tick of approval for fitting the Z97-P with a socketed firmware chip, but the lack of support for its excellent USB BIOS Flashback feature is a little disappointing. Although not a feature that gets used every day, the ability to update the firmware with nothing more than a USB thumb drive and a power supply can save you from having to beg, borrow, or steal a supported CPU to flash for a newer chip. At least the Anniversary Edition Pentium is supported out of the box.

Also noticeably absent is support for Asus’ DirectKey firmware shortcut. The convenience of being able to quickly and easily enter the UEFI without having to resort to furiously mashing the Del key shouldn’t be underestimated, especially in the age of fast boot methods.

Although Asus’ marketing materials mention the presence of Q-Design features for DIYers, that only extends to larger winged retention tabs on the PCIe x16 slots, which are meant to aid users who compulsively swap graphics cards. Q-Connectors—Asus’ name for front-panel wiring blocks—sadly don’t make an appearance. To make the already finicky wiring process even more arduous, the onboard header lacks color-coding, and the PCB markings are silk-screened in a font small enough to leave you reaching for a magnifying glass. Be prepared with a flashlight and the user manual when wiring the front panel in a dimly-lit case.

While I have my nit-picking hat on, it would have been nice if the clear CMOS jumper weren’t nestled between the front-panel header and one of the internal USB connectors. Once the build is complete and everything is plugged in, it’s difficult to reach the jumper with fingers alone. That said, the firmware does an excellent job of recovering from overly ambitious overclocks that fail to POST, so you shouldn’t have to clear the CMOS manually.

Since the pricier Z97-A doesn’t provide a cushioned I/O shield, don’t expect that builder-friendly perk on this more entry-level model. A standard metal I/O shield is tucked in the box, eagerly awaiting its chance to slice your fingers.

Now, on to the more positive topic of the board’s firmware…

 

Borrowing big brother’s firmware
While Asus’ hardware engineers may have built the Z97-P as a budget board, happily for the consumer, no one told the firmware team.

Upon entering the UEFI, we’re greeted by the same duo of EZ and Advanced interfaces found on Asus’ higher-end boards. The excellent fan speed controls are carried over largely intact, as is the change log of config options on exit. Rather than rehashing what Geoff has already covered in his Z97-A review, I’ll instead concentrate on where the Z97-P differs.

Some firmware elements rely on hardware functionality built into the board. On the Z97-P, there’s a subtle reduction in the flexibility of the fan speed controls. Whereas individual fan profiles can be linked to one of four different temperature sensors on the Z97-A, the Z97-P only has two sensors: CPU and motherboard. This minor difference isn’t worth quibbling over for a budget board, but it’s worth noting, because we’ll see a similar hardware-dependent difference when we tackle automatic overclocking.

And his business suit software
The memo that the firmware folks missed about the Z97-P being a budget board also didn’t make its way to the software department, because Asus’ excellent AI Suite tweaking utility trickles down to the lowest ranks of the Z97 lineup. Perhaps both teams blew off the same meeting? In any case, the Z97-P reaps the rewards.

The vast majority of AI Suite on the Z97-P is the same as users would experience on Asus’ other Z97 boards. Once again, I’ll point you to the coverage in our Z97-A review. One difference is found in the auto-overclocking section. Instead of going through an iterative process of slowly raising the clock speed, checking stability, and rinsing and repeating, the TurboV auto-tuner instead selects speeds based on pre-defined profiles. Users can only choose whether to target the CPU multiplier exclusively or boost the base clock first.

The software auto-clocker mirrors the functionality of the OC Tuner firmware option. Both are bound by the board’s lack of a TPU, or TurboV Processing Unit, which is the brains behind Asus’ more sophisticated iterative tuning method. Novice system builders and first-time overclockers are losing valuable functionality here.

The firmware and software are both rich with manual overclocking controls, so seasoned overclockers shouldn’t be fazed by the profile-based auto tuner. The Fan Xpert software remains full-featured, as well, giving users complete control over the thermal and noise profiles of their systems.

It’s also worth pointing out that the Z97-P’s AI Suite is missing the Turbo App component. Turbo App lets users associate performance profiles with individual executables, like specific games or applications.

Overclocking
When Haswell chips first showed up in the market, unfettered overclocking was strictly the domain of K-series parts, the cheapest of which started at $242. Little had changed from previous Ivy and Sandy Bridge generations. Then, roughly a year later, Intel celebrated twenty years of the Pentium brand by releasing a cheap, completely unlocked dual core processor—the Pentium Anniversary Edition, or G3258. Suddenly, unrestricted overclocking could be had for $72 or even less.

Since a CPU’s overclocking prowess can vary from chip to chip, the silicon lottery tends to determine the top stable speed more than one’s choice of motherboard. 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.

With all of this in mind, we put the Z97-P through its overclocking paces. Our companions on the journey were a retail Pentium AE chip and a Cooler Master Nepton 240M closed-loop liquid cooler. The Nepton has a double-length radiator and $130 price tag, making for an unlikely marriage with the budget CPU. However, we can at least be assured that thermals didn’t hold back our overclock.

Our first stop on the road to peak clock speeds was the firmware’s EZ Tuning Wizard. After confirming that we had a liquid cooler and that our purpose in life was to play games and encode media, the wizard bestowed a 45X multiplier and 102MHz base clock. To achieve the resulting 4.6GHz clock speed, the firmware supplied the CPU with 1.375V. Unfortunately, our little chip wasn’t happy under such conditions, and it steadfastly refused to enter Windows. At least the wizard warned us that instability could ensue.

Next, we tried the auto-tuning feature in AI Suite. After activating ratio-only mode and rebooting, we found the CPU multiplier raised to 36X with the voltage at its default value. This config proved completely stable. A quick trip back to the auto-tuner—this time to focus its attention on the base clock—left us with a final frequency of just over 3.7GHz thanks to a 103MHz base clock. This setup was also stable, with no thermal throttling detected.

With the automated options giving us aggressive and conservative attempts, it was time to see what we could do with the firmware’s manual controls. Using multiplier tweaking alone, with the voltages on their “auto” defaults, we made it all the way to 4.3GHz while maintaining stability. At this speed, the firmware supplied 1.277V to the CPU, and temperatures maxed out at 67ºC under a Prime95 load.

To reach a stable 4.4GHz, we had to switch to manual voltage tuning. The firmware-supplied 1.325V wasn’t enough to keep Prime95 from causing reboots, but 1.35V allowed stable operation. Temperatures hovered at or below 70°C under load, and there was no evidence of throttling.

Not content with an overclock of less than 40%, we pressed on. Stability at 4.5GHz was achieved, but at an increased voltage of 1.425V. Temperatures peaked at 77°C, and so did the noise produced by the Nepton’s fans. That’s where our journey ended, unfortunately. We achieved our goal of a 40% overclock, but no amount of voltage allowed Prime95 to run without causing reboots at 4.6GHz, even with temperatures under 84°C.

Although we didn’t reach the oh-so-magical milestone of a 50% overclock, Asus’ excellent UEFI made getting to 4.5GHz a pleasant experience. We couldn’t get the same CPU-and-cooler combo running any faster on the Gigabyte Z97-HD3, a comparable Z97 board we’ll be reviewing soon, so it’s probably safe to assume the Z97-P pushed our particular slice of Haswell silicon to its limits.

 

Performance highlights
With so many former chipset features now on the CPU die and few alternatives to the third-party peripheral controllers that dominate the scene, we rarely see meaningful performance differences between motherboards fitted with the same components. That said, we still test performance, if for no other reason than to ensure everything is functioning correctly.

The Z97-P was tested against another budget Haswell board we’ll be reviewing soon, Gigabyte’s Z97-HD3. The highlights are below, with the full descriptions of the test system and procedures on the next page.

The Z97-P consistently pulls ahead of the Z97-HD3, but it’s only in front by the smallest of margins. Gigabyte’s entry-level Z97 board comes out on top when it comes to cold boot times, though. While the Z97-P takes 15 seconds to boot to the Windows desktop, the Z97-HD3 gets there in 12 seconds.

Power consumption
Unlike with performance, 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.

With such slight differences in power consumption, it almost feels a little pedantic to call out one board over the other. The nearly identical power draw isn’t unexpected, though. Both boards have a minimum of third-party silicon, a complete absence of auxiliary storage controllers, and modest power circuitry. They share Haswell’s on-die voltage regulator, too.

It’s interesting to note that enabling Asus’ EPU power-saving feature produces a measurable difference at idle but none under load. However, that difference only amounts to a single watt.

The following page is loaded with detailed motherboard specifications, system configurations, and test procedures. If you’re having trouble getting to sleep—or you just really love tables filled with data—feel free to peruse. For those who jump straight to the conclusion, I won’t tell if you won’t.

 

Detailed Specifications
We’ve already gone over the Z97-P’s most important details, but for completeness, here’s the full spec breakdown.

Platform Intel Z97, socket LGA1150
DIMM slots 4 DDR3, 32GB max
Expansion slots 1 PCIe 3.0 x16 via CPU
1 PCIe 2.0 x16 via Z97 (x2)
2 PCIe 2.0 x1 via Z97
2 PCI via Z97 and ASMedia ASM1083 PCIe-to-PCI bridge
Storage I/O 1 M.2 via Z97 (SATA and PCIe)
4 SATA RAID 6Gbps via Z97
Audio 8-channel HD via Realtek ALC891 with TI R4580 amplifier
Surround virtualization via Realtek drivers
Wireless NA
Ports 1 PS/2 mouse
1 PS/2 keyboard
1 VGA via CPU
1 DVI-D via CPU
1 HDMI 1.4a via CPU
4 USB 3.0 via Z97
2 USB 3.0 via internal header and Z97
2 USB 2.0 via Z97
6 USB 2.0 via internal headers and Z97
1 Gigabit Ethernet via Realtek RTL8111GR
1 analog front/headphone out (amplified)
2 configurable analog ports (center, rear, line in, mic in)
Overclocking All/per-core Turbo multiplier: 36-80X
CPU strap: 100, 125, 167, 250MHz
Base clock: 80-300MHz
Min. CPU cache ratio: 8-39X
Max. CPU cache ratio: 8-80X
Base:DRAM ratio: 100:133, 100:100
DRAM clock: 800-3400MHz

CPU voltage: 0.001-1.92V
CPU cache voltage: 0.001-1.92V
CPU system agent voltage offset: +/- 0.001-0.999V
CPU analog I/O voltage offset: +/- 0.001-0.999V
CPU digital I/O voltage offset: +/- 0.001-0.999V
CPU input voltage: 0.8-2.7V
DRAM voltage: 1.185-1.8V
DRAM CTRL ref. voltage: 0.395-0.63V
DRAM DATA ref voltage A, B: 0.395-0.63V
PCH core voltage: 0.735-1.5V
PCH VLX voltage: 1.185-2.135V

Fan control 1 x CPU (PWM), 2 x SYS (DC and PWM)
Predefined silent, standard, and turbo 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 was carried out on an open-air testbed. We also built the machine up inside Antec’s P380 full tower case, which Jeff reviewed just recently. Here’s what the system looked like assembled and powered on:

We used the following configurations for testing:

Processor Intel Pentium G3258 Anniversary Edition
Cooler Cooler Master Nepton 240M
Motherboard Asus Z97-P Gigabyte Z97-HD3
Firmware 2601 F7
Platform hub Intel Z97
Chipset drivers 10.0.24
Audio Realtek ALC891 Realtek ALC887
Memory size 8GB (2 DIMMs)
Memory type Adata XPG DDR3 SDRAM at 2400MHz
Memory timings 11-13-13-35-2T
Graphics Sapphire Radeon HD 7950 Boost with Omega 14.12 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, 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
There are a lot of budget Z97-based boards out there. A quick look at Newegg reveals nine different models from four manufacturers all under the $100 mark. Stretch the budget up to $120, and you’ve suddenly got twenty models from six players. There’s a lot of competition in this space, and the presence of a cheap ‘n cheerful overclocker like the Pentium Anniversary Edition makes the environment perfect for budget builds with serious oomph.

At $110.99, the Z97-P is Asus’ least expensive Z97 board—but not the cheapest option on the market. It’s obviously built to a price, with fewer features and more limited functionality than more upscale boards. Only four SATA ports are available, analog audio is limited to three jacks, there’s no provision for multi-GPU configs, and the automatic overclocking isn’t as smart as on Asus’ higher-end boards. There are other little things, too, but the omissions don’t amount to much in the context of a budget build. Are you really going to put two graphics cards into a rig based on a low-end board? What sort of realistic storage configuration for this class of system requires more than an M.2 slot and four SATA ports?

Despite cutbacks in other departments, Asus’ excellent firmware survives the transition to the budget ranks remarkably unscathed. The UEFI delivers virtually the same experience as on higher-end boards. The same goes for Asus’ top-notch AI Suite software, helping to justify the Z97-P’s price premium over the cheapest Z97 fare.

It’s also worth mentioning that the Z97-P keeps an eye towards the future. The M.2 slot supports both PCIe and SATA SSDs, flexibility that isn’t found on all 9-series boards. Asus has already released updated firmware to support socketed Broadwell chips, as well.

If you’re willing to pay a little more for next-gen storage support and Asus’ excellent firmware and software, the Z97-P makes a good foundation for budget builds, especially if you’re going to overclock a Pentium Anniversary Edition.

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