So we have survived one of the biggest days of the year for all things computer performance related - the release of Intel's new Ivy Bridge processor.  It replaces Sandy Bridge in the landscape of all things processor related, with Ivy Bridge boasting better single threaded performance at lower power usage when at stock speeds.  Despite Ivy Bridge being in the same socket as Sandy Bridge, we have a new trio of chipsets to tackle.  As in my previous chipset and motherboard preview, AnandTech has a series of boards ready to put through their paces with the glory of Ivy Bridge. Today we begin with the first set of boards - the ASRock Z77 Extreme4, the ASUS P8Z77-V Pro, the Gigabyte GA-Z77X-UD3H, and the MSI Z77A-GD65.  

ASRock Z77 Extreme4 - Overview

In the early reviews of a new chipset, and a new processor, there is often a delay between initial testing and understanding a platform.  In this circumstance, ASRock have the dubious honor of being my first victim for Ivy Bridge.  Typically the lower end Extreme models from ASRock have solid performance, are priced extremely competitively and come with many extras.  In this case, the Z77 Extreme4 board currently retails for $140, but does not come with a lot more than the board itself.

From the results, we notice that ASRock is perhaps a little behind.  However, this is more indicative of a larger issue regarding certain options that motherboard manufacturers are implementing to appear to be better in multithreaded scenarios.  It boils down to how each manufacturer implements turbo modes.  So there is a big chance we will see these ‘tweaks’ being implemented on future BIOSes across all the motherboard manufacturers, including ASRock.

The BIOS and software are ASRock standard, with XFast USB providing faster speeds for an individual USB port, XFast LAN allowing configuration of the network controller, and XFast USB giving RAMDisk options for large memory configurations.  The software is spread across several programs, which perhaps in the future will be integrated into one interface.  I do like the Internet Flash feature in the BIOS though, which downloads the latest BIOS and applies it without ever needing an operating system (as long as the motherboard is connected to the internet via Ethernet).

One 'issue' I had (which I have experienced on the past few ASRock boards I have tested) was that by default the CPU fan speed is set at 100% to minimize temperatures on the CPU.  The downside of this is increased noise, so users should be aware and adjust accordingly.  The fan controls themselves are not very sophisticated compared to other manufacturers, so I hope these will evolve over time. 

Overall, the board is very easy to use, but the package as a whole which backs ASRock’s products has room to grow.

Visual Inspection

ASRock is still insistent with bringing the black gold philosophy to its range, as seen here with the Z77 Extreme4.  The main point you may immediately notice is the size and depth of the heatsinks covering up the power delivery - they are smaller than previous iterations of ASRock boards, and no longer connected via a heatpipe.  This is indicative of quite a few boards in the Z77 range, due to the low power requirements of the new processors and as a result, the lack of heat given away.

The socket area is relatively clean, especially to the south where we have no large intruding heatsink.  The VRM heatsinks however do brush right up against the Intel specifications for the socket area, so users ultimately have only two directions (to the PCIe and towards the memory) in which to play around with big air coolers.  The socket area is adorned with five fan headers - three along the top edge of the board and two chassis headers near the top PCIe x1 slot.  The other header on board is along the bottom next to the two-digit debug.

The board is actually not a full ATX sized board - from left to right, it measures only 21.8 cm, rather than the standard ATX size of 24.4 cm.  As a result, this means ASRock do not have to deal with the far right holes in the motherboard for case mounting, and hence why the SATA ports in the bottom right are neatly tucked away.  In this corner, we have the six SATA ports from the PCH (two SATA 6 Gbps, four SATA 3 Gbps) and another two from an ASMedia ASM1061 controller (SATA3_A1 is shared with an eSATA port, however).  The internal USB 3.0 header is located nearer the 24-pin ATX power connector, perhaps indicating that is for both front case use and rear case use, taking up the space where the first PCIe x1 is.

The chipset heatsink is rather small, compared to Z68 and X79 boards, and is not connected via heatpipe to any other heatsink nearby.  On the south side of the board are the standard array of audio and USB headers, along with a fan header and power/reset buttons.  It is good also to see the two-digit debug on the board as well.

The PCIe layout is indicative of what we will see on many Z77 boards this year, which do not use any form of PCIe lane expansion, such as a PLX chip.  In this case, we have an x1, an x16 (x8 on a dual card setup), a gap, a PCI, an x8, another PCI, and another x1.  This is some smart thinking, as even with a dual GPU setup there is space for two single width PCIe x1 cards and a PCI card (which contrary to what some people think are still used in reasonable numbers).

Despite the stock image from ASRock looking a little bent on the back panel, we have a typical Z77 arrangement for IO.  From left to right, a combination PS/2 port, two USB 3.0 ports (blue), a D-Sub output, a DVI-D output, HDMI, a clear CMOS button, two USB 2.0 ports (black), an eSATA port (red), gigabit Ethernet, two more USB 3.0 ports (blue), and a standard array of audio jacks featuring an optical SPDIF output.

Board Features

ASRock Z77 Extreme4
Price Link
Size ATX
CPU Interface LGA-1155
Chipset Intel Z77
Power Delivery 8 + 4 Phase
Memory Slots Four DDR3 DIMM slots supporting up to 32 GB
Up to Dual Channel, 1066-2800 MHz
Video Outputs HDMI 1.4a, DVI-D, D-Sub
Onboard LAN Broadcom BCM57781
Onboard Audio Realtek ALC898
Expansion Slots 2 x PCIe x16 Gen3
2 x PCIe x1 Gen2
2 x PCI
Onboard SATA/RAID 2 x SATA 6 Gbps (PCH), Support for RAID 0, 1, 5, 10
2 x SATA 6 Gbps (ASMedia ASM1061)
4 x SATA 3 Gbps (PCH), Support for RAID 0, 1, 5, 10
USB Two USB 3.0 at rear (PCH)
Two USB 3.0 at rear (ASMedia 1042)
One USB 3.0 header (PCH)
Onboard 4 x SATA 6 Gbps
4 x SATA 3 Gbps
1 x IR Header
1 x CIR Header
1 x COM Header
1 x SPDIF Header
Power/Reset Buttons
Two Digit Debug LED
6 x Fan Headers
Front panel audio connector
3 x USB 2.0 headers (support 6 USB 2.0 ports)
1 x USB 3.0 header (supports 2 USB 3.0 ports)
Power Connectors 1 x 24-pin ATX connector
1 x 8-pin 12V connector
Fan Headers 2 x CPU Fan Header (one 4-pin, one 3-pin)
3 x CHA Fan Headers (one 4-pin, two 3-pin)
1 x PWR Fan Headers (3-pin)
IO Panel 1 x Combo PS/2 Port
1 x HDMI 1.4a
1 x DVI-D
1 x D-Sub
1 x Optical SPDIF
2 x USB 2.0
4 x USB 3.0
1 x eSATA 6 Gbps
1 x Gigabit Ethernet
1 x Clear CMOS
Audio Outputs
Warranty Period 3 years from date of purchase
Product Page Link

Rather than dump a Realtek NIC/Audio combination on this board, ASRock has gone for a Broadcom NIC.  This means either they have struck a deal with Broadcom, or it works a lot better for their ASRock LAN software.  ASRock is the only motherboard manufacturer to state they support HDMI 1.4a on their website specifications as well.  As one of the cheaper boards of this roundup, the Z77 Extreme4 actually comes away pretty well in terms of features.

ASRock Z77 Extreme4 - BIOS and Software
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  • DarkRogue - Tuesday, May 08, 2012 - link

    First off, thank you for the review.

    I am a bit bummed that the UD5H and the Z77 Deluxe were not reviewed, since those were the two I was looking at. Especially since the UD5H can be had for under $200.

    Anyway, the voltage ripple/stability charts were quite interesting for me.
    But my main concern lies with the Gigabyte's chart. It looks good... but in my eyes, TOO good. It's too perfectly straight. On one hand, I thought, "Wow, this board has awesome VRM or something."

    On the other hand, it made me suspicious about why it was so stable. I have to ask, is it measuring the correct voltage?

    The reason is because I had a similar finding when I was looking at the vcore requried to OC an IVB CPU (or any CPU, really) on the new Z77 mobos.
    Per my thread here: http://forums.anandtech.com/showthread.php?t=22417...

    We found that Gigabyte mobos were incorrectly reporting its VTT voltage as the vCore, which resulted in "vcore" readings in CPU-Z and other programs reporting the same, or very similar, 1.0xx voltages regardless of what the CPU OC'd to.

    I hope to be able to get some clarification on this.

    Only other suggestion I have is to really test more of the features of each motherboard. (mSATA, firewire, audio, etc; how do they compare with other chipsets, how are their drivers, etc..)
    Thank you, and keep up the good work!
    Reply
  • IanCutress - Tuesday, May 08, 2012 - link

    Hi DarkRogue,

    I have the Deluxe on my test bed right now, so keep your eyes peeled for when I finish the review.

    Regarding the voltage reading charts, it merely reads the OS reported voltage. This is loosely a smoothing of what ripple actually happens on board. After consideration, it only serves to show LLC on board, and how the board reacts to requested load by the processor. It's fairly easy for a manufacturer to override this to make sure only a straight line is reported. But, if it is a messy line, then there could be a problem (e.g. check my 990FX review a little while ago).

    I'd love the kit to test more features on the boards (mSATA etc), if you've got any kit spare! :) Though keep in mind that each test can't take 2 hrs, or we would end up with 1 board a month reviewed (as we do this part time)! I'm open to suggestions regarding tests if anyone has a good one with a simple output I can report and analyse.

    Ian
    Reply
  • DarkRogue - Tuesday, May 08, 2012 - link

    Thank you for your response, Ian!

    I wish I had the funds to send in spare items, though. Unfortunately, I'm not quite rich enough, haha. We'll have to be bound by the generosity of the various vendors to this site.

    As far as tests go, I imagine some people would be interested in a quick RMAA test of the various audio chipsets. It's of no concern to me, since I insist onboard solutions are never going to be as good as a dedicated external DAC+amp, but it should be good for a lot of people.

    I'd also be interested in how the eSATA and Firewire performs, as I'm of the camp that says anything firewire related that isn't Texas Instruments is not worthwhile. The eSATA, mainly it's to see if there are any quirks with the drivers from each manufacturer allowing hotswap properly or not, and whether it causes DPC latency issues. My friend's ASUS board was plagued with problems related to eSATA not allowing him to eject drives, BSOD'ing on resuming from sleep, causing massive DPC latency when a drive was connected, etc. It's these little things that really make or break the experience of a board.

    I'd also like to see how well the fan controls are on each motherboard. ASUS' Fan Xpert 2 really drew me in, as it seems no one else can match the level of customization for fans. I dug a bit and found out that Gigabyte's boards not only cannot do this, but it even struggles to stay consistent between its various headers. (One header runs straight +12v no matter what, while the others make the fans spin at different speeds with the same settings.)

    ANYWAY, back to the issue at hand - Gigabyte's voltage readings.
    As I found in my thread linked above, Gigabyte appears to be reporting the wrong voltage, for some unknown reason. This to me seems to invalidate the test result for the Gigabyte board, because it's incomparable to the others.

    I know that the purpose of the test is to test for variation in the voltage to the CPU, not necessarily the exact ripples, but the VTT supplies voltage to a completely different segment than the vcore, unless I'm mistaken. I wouldn't think that the voltage supplied toward the IMC would vary as much when the CPU ramps up and down.

    Is there a way to force that program to probe a specific/different voltage reading, or have you already done this and the chart actually does represent Gigabyte's handling of vcore voltage? I wasn't able to figure that out from the article.

    Thank you again!
    Reply
  • UltraWide - Tuesday, May 08, 2012 - link

    Thank you so much for covering the fan control features on each board! I truly appreciate this as it is often left out in other reviews.

    Keep up the great work!
    Reply
  • AeroRob - Tuesday, May 08, 2012 - link

    I don't know about anyone else, but I'm really sick of seeing VGA and PS/2 ports wasting space on new motherboads.

    I know some gamers might think that PS/2 does the job better than USB, and I can appreciate that, but VGA? Who even uses VGA connections anymore? They should be avoided like the plague.

    And even if you do insist on using a VGA connection, what's the point of putting a DVI-D connector and a VGA together? Chances are you won't be using both, so just make it a DVI-I connector and throw in one of the cheap DVI>VGA adapters, and use the newly freed up space for a connector that isn't an ancient piece of garbage. Let's see HDMI or DP up there. Move things around so you can perhaps throw an eSATA connector on the back, or more USB ports--you can never have too many USB ports!
    Reply
  • Paapaa125 - Wednesday, May 09, 2012 - link

    PS/2 has one single thing that makes it superior to USB: you can turn your computer on by clicking space bar on a PS/2 keyboard or clicking mouse button on a PS/2 mouse. USB does not have this feature which is a big problem if your computer case is not easily reachable.

    Agree about VGA ports. Nobody uses them anymore. Nobody.
    Reply
  • AeroRob - Wednesday, May 09, 2012 - link

    As I understand it, gamers feel there's an issue with USB's polling rate, and prefer PS/2 for that reason.

    As for turning on your computer, I never heard about that. I rarely shut my computer completely off, and my wireless USB keyboard can wake it up from sleep just fine. Hell, my computer's so sensitive to any change, just flipping my monitor back on wakes it up (probably due to the built-in USB hub).
    Reply
  • mcquade181 - Thursday, May 10, 2012 - link

    I know whole organizations that still use VGA, and there are tons of KVM switch boxes in development and testing centres everywhere that only support VGA. Yes I know you can get HDMI and DVI KVM's but most places won't have them yet.
    I still use VGA occasionally and would be annoyed if it wasn't there.
    Reply
  • Paapaa125 - Friday, May 11, 2012 - link

    And how many of those organizations are switching to Z77 boards and still keeping their VGA? Reply
  • Ramon Zarat - Tuesday, May 08, 2012 - link

    The latest AXTU version does not include XFastRAM anymore. XFastRAM is a stand alone utility now. Also, XFastRAM is much more than a 32bit 4GB RAM limitation extender. It's in fact a RAM disk on steroid, valid for both 32 and 64bit system. It can do the following:

    1- "Recycle" unused memory beyond 4GB on a 32bit OS into a RAM disk. A RAM disk of up to 32GB can be created on a 32bit OS.

    2- RAM disk of up to 8GB on a 64bit OS. Asrock is working on extending that limit on 64bit OS.

    3- Can choose any available driver letter to assign to your RAM disk

    4- Use part of the RAM disk as a Readyboost drive to accelerate your magnetic boot drive!

    5- Easy transfer of either or both the "user" and "system" temp file to RAM disk. No fooling around with Windows configuration.

    6- Easy transfer of IE and Firefox cache to RAM disk. XFastRAM take care of everything straight from its interface.

    7- Easy transfer of the page file to RAM disk. Again, directly from XFastRAM interface.

    8- Possibility to save the RAM disk to hard drive before shutting the PC down.

    It's fast (10 000MB/s with CrystalDiskMark on a 2500K @ 4.7 and 8GB of 1866 RAM) , it's free, it's amazingly flexible and can both accelerate your PC and prevent premature wear on your SSD by redirecting a lots of small writes to the temp folders and web cache! You can apparently gain 5X performance in some Photoshop operations when you configure it so use the RAM disk as the temp folder!
    Reply

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