Original Link: http://www.anandtech.com/show/8249/asus-z97-pro-wifi-ac-review
ASUS Z97-Pro WiFi AC Reviewby Ian Cutress on July 16, 2014 10:00 AM EST
The initial set of Z97 reviews demonstrated that most motherboard manufacturers were implementing at least one the new storage options offered by the chipset: SATA Express and M.2. The motherboard we are testing today, the Z97-Pro, uses both but incorporates a switching system so only one is active at the time. Similarly to the Z97-Deluxe which we have reviewed, ASUS’ new brushed metalling gold design is here on the Z97-Pro as well.
ASUS Z97-Pro WiFi AC Overview
The birth of SATAe and M.2 in the market is a strangely complicated one. Both of these new standards, despite the lack of drives for end-users to purchase, require two of the eight lanes from the chipset in order to function, as well as two SATA 6 Gbps ports for SATA modes. One would suggest that this requires four PCIe lanes in order to incorporate both onto a product; however the current solutions we have seen show that the lane allocation is shared by both M.2 and SATAe, meaning that using one disables the other. Sharing lanes is nothing new for motherboards, where we might see a PCIe 2.0 x4 slot share lanes with controllers or PCIe 2.0 x1 slots. Compounding this fact, Intel only officially supports their storage technology on a single x2 at a time and not both, suggesting that the switch method is the only appropriate way to evolve the situation. This leaves motherboards that use both of these technologies, when the products come to market, in a precarious position. The Z97-Pro takes the brunt of this head-on, as it were. While it is impossible to implement RST on two PCIe storage ports at once, a manufacturer can use an ASMedia controller for a SATAe port, which also consumes PCIe lanes and adds cost.
The Z97-Pro aims to tackle the large landscape of motherboard offerings around the $188 region, or $200 with added 802.11ac for the WIFI AC variant. This price bracket features others such as the Z97X-SOC, Fatal1ty Z97 and Z97 Gaming 7, all of which are aimed to sell with their respective crowds.
We examined the software and BIOS offerings of the ASUS Z97 range with the Z97-Deluxe which show a continued improvement over ASUS’ generational cadence, although the BIOS aesthetic recommendations still stand. Fan controls allow every fan header on board to be controlled through DC or PWM, and the built-in BIOS fan testing system helps expedite accurate fan profiles. The EZ OC mode in the BIOS also gives users a more targeted look at automatic overclocks. The software has a new trick in Turbo App, giving users overclock granularity on a per-program basis, as well as new overclocking options for stress testing.
Performance of the Z97-Pro shines out via the onboard audio (an enhanced Realtek ALC1150 solution with PCB separation, filter caps and DTS support) and Z97's excellent DPC Latency, however our early pre-release BIOS had a long POST time, suggesting that users should update the BIOS ASAP in case this has changed. Power consumption was a little higher than expected, but still in reasonable limits. USB 2.0 speed was boosted by the in-built Turbo mode, giving a sub 40-second result.
The Z97-Pro offers a WiFi version using a 2T2R 802.11ac WiFi module, situated on the rear IO. I am a big fan of integrated WiFi solutions on the rear IO rather, but the original increase in price for the version with the module was $30 might seem a little high. However, now the difference is $12 and given that the WiFi module is unavailable as a separate purchase, users with WiFi needs (such as myself who tests machines in a different room with no wired Ethernet access) should consider the WiFi version because even at $200 the system seems to punch above its weight. Normally when I review a system I keep a list of oddities, issues, irregularities or interesting tidbits of information as I test in order to help shape the review. With the Z97-Pro, my list contained a total of zero entries, indicating that it just worked as it said it should. This is sometimes an oddly rare occurrence in a mature industry.
ASUS Z97-Pro Visual Inspection
The brushed metallic look we saw with the Z97-Deluxe is here on the Z97-Pro as well, as shown on the two power delivery heatsinks and the new styled circular chipset heatsink. I hate to use artsy words to describe a motherboard, but I feel like I want to use the word ‘contemporary’, whatever that means. The ASUSDESIGN logo adorns one of the heatsinks, and the rest of the motherboard attempts to use two shades of black for the rest of the ports and slots. The switches and rear IO keep their silvery look.
The socket area is bounded on two sides of the minimum Intel specifications by power delivery chokes and on a third side by the DRAM slots. As with most motherboards in this segment, the heatsinks are designed to allow large coolers, however due to the close proximity of the DRAM slots, users with taller memory might have to rely on slightly smaller CPU coolers in order to fit a full set of memory.
In the socket area the user has access to four fan headers: one to the bottom left below the power delivery heatsink, the two CPU headers between the top heatsink and the DRAM, and a final header just above the 24-pin ATX power connector. At a stretch there is a fifth within reach of the socket, just below the 24-pin, while the sixth and final fan header is at the bottom of the motherboard.
The DRAM slots are color coordinated for the two memory channels, and all four slots use a single sided latch mechanism for easier memory removal. With this system users should be aware that installing memory requires a double check to make sure it is seated in the slot correctly.
At the top right of the motherboard is the MemOK button, used to recover memory settings from a failed overclock without losing the rest of the BIOS settings in the process. Below this is the EZ XMP switch, a new addition for Z97 that allows users to enable XMP at the touch of a button and without entering BIOS. Given the number of enthusiast users, especially (anecdotally) at LAN events, who have super machines but fail to run at XMP, this is a nice option to have.
The SATA ports are arranged such that the SATA Express port is nearest the 24-pin ATX, followed by four chipset SATA 6 Gbps ports and two SATA 6 Gbps from the ASMedia controller. Given what we have seen from GIGABYTE and ASRock, I am a little perplexed as to why ASUS did not invest into the tiered/stacked SATA plastic housing and routed appropriately, as this would have saved some space for (perhaps) another SATA controller or something else (a USB port?). Beside the chipset SATA 6 Gbps ports is the M.2 x2 slot, which as mentioned above shares bandwidth with the SATAe ports such that only one can be used at a time.
Along the bottom of the motherboard we have the T_Sensor that allows users to equip their own thermocouple and adjust the fan speeds on the motherboard based on the output of the thermocouple. Next to this is the DirectKey header that allows the user to enter the BIOS on the next boot. This feature used to be an onboard button, which I prefer, but has been relegated to jumper duty. Above these two jumpers are the TPU and EPU switches, providing automatic overclocks and power saving modes respectively. Beneath these, right at the bottom of the board, is the front panel header, one of the aforementioned fan headers and two USB headers.
Moving left across the bottom of the motherboard we have our second chipset based USB 3.0 header, a TPM module header, the BIOS Flashback button, a power button, the Thunderbolt header and the front audio header. Above the TPM header, and just above the PCIe slot in this place, is the two-digit Debug display. This position between the PCIe slots is a little different to what we usually encounter, and in this position it would be blocked by a second GPU.
The PCIe slots are arranged in a typical fashion, with an x1 at the top followed by x16, x1, x1, x8, x1 and an x4. When a device is placed in the x8 slot, the x16 will reduce down to x8 to compensate. The two PCIe 2.0 x1 slots in the middle actually share bandwidth, with the bottom of the two enabled by default. The PCIe 2.0 x4 actually shares bandwidth with two other parts of the motherboard – the two chipset USB 3.0 ports on the rear IO, and the final PCIe 2.0 x1 slot. By default the PCIe 2.0 x4 slot is in x1 mode, and the USB 3.0 ports/PCIe x1_4 slot are both enabled. In x2 mode, the PCIe x1_4 slot is disabled, and in x4 mode both the PCIe x1_4 and USB3_E12 are disabled.
The audio on the Z97-Pro is an enhanced version of the Realtek ALC1150 audio codec featuring PCB separation, separate PCB layers for left/right signaling, an EM shield, additional filter caps, a headphone amplifier, DTS support and a de-pop circuit.
The rear IO of the motherboard gives a combination PS/2 port, two USB 2.0 ports, four USB 3.0 ports, the four standard video outputs, gigabit Ethernet (Intel I218-V) and audio jacks. Normally I prefer more than two USB 2.0 ports for installing an operating system via USB (ideally need three in case USB 3.0 are not initialized), however there was no issue here. One might argue that having all four video outputs on the rear is redundant given the targeted use of this motherboard is towards PCIe users, and some part of me is wondering if dual HDMI+DisplayPort or dual mDP + HDMI/DVI-D is more a preferred option going forward. The gap in the rear IO shown above is where the WiFi Go module should sit.
|ASUS Z97-Pro (WiFi AC)|
Four DDR3 DIMM slots supporting up to 32 GB
Up to Dual Channel, 1333-3200 MHz
VGA (1920x1200 at 60 Hz)
DVI-D (1920x1200 at 60Hz)
HDMI (4096x2160 at 24 Hz or 2560x1600 at 60 Hz)
DisplayPort (4096x2160 at 24 Hz or 3840x2160 at 60 Hz)
Broadcom 802.11ac 2T2R
|Onboard Audio||Realtek ALC1150 (DTS)|
2 x PCIe 3.0 x16 (x16 or x8/x8)
1 x PCIe 2.0 x4 (Shares bandwidth with USB3_E12 and PCIe x1_4)
4 x PCIe 2.0 x1 (PCIe x1_2 shares bandwidth with PCIe x1_3)
6 x SATA 6 Gbps (PCH) (two shared with SATAe)
2 x SATA 6 Gbps (ASMedia)
1 x SATAe x2 (PCH) (shared x2 and SATA with M.2)
1 x M.2 x2 (PCH, SATA and PCIe) (shared x2 and SATA with SATAe)
6 x USB 3.0 (PCH) (2 back panel, 2 headers)
2 x USB 3.0 (ASMedia) (2 back panel)
8 x SATA 6 Gbps
1 x SATAe
1 x M.2
2 x USB 3.0 Headers
2 x USB 2.0 Headers
1 x TPM Header
6 x Fan Headers
1 x TB Header
EZ XMP Switch
USB BIOS Flashback Button
Front Panel Header
Front Audio Header
Two Digit Debug
1 x 24-pin ATX
1 x 8-pin CPU
1 x CPU (4-pin, DC+PWM)
1 x CPU_OPT (4-pin, DC+PWM)
4 x CHA (4-pin, DC+PWM)
1 x PS/2 Combination Port
1 x Intel I218-V NIC
4 x USB 3.0
2 x USB 2.0
WiFi Go! Module
|Warranty Period||3 Years|
ASUS Z97-Pro WiFi AC BIOS
We analyzed the BIOS in our review of the Z97-Deluxe, and not much has changed between this and the Z97-Pro.
Due to the brushed metal accents on the motherboard, the BIOS is similarly styled to give consistency, and rather than using the standard BIOS font, a more readable (and adjustable) font is used instead. The first screen encountered is the EZ mode, showing the motherboard name, the CPU installed, the CPU frequency, CPU temperature, fan speeds, DRAM installed, DRAM speeds and also options to enable XMP from this screen.
Users can enable XMP from this menu, as well as select the boot priority and quick tuning profiles for the system. A cool new addition is the fan profiling, direct from the easy mode. The fan speeds on the left show a fan spinning, and the faster a fan spins, the faster the animation. But click on the button marked ‘Manual Fan Tuning’ and after a quick test of the system fans, the following menu appears:
Users can select each of the five controllable fan headers (the sixth header onboard is for liquid coolers that want 100% pump operation) in either PWM or DC mode. Each fan can be referenced to one of the five preset options (standard, silent, turbo, full speed) or users can go manually and adjust a three point gradient. Ideally I would prefer more points in the gradient and a hysteresis option here in the BIOS as well, but we will look forward to any future adjustments.
Also part of the Easy Mode is the Tuning Wizard. This is a button up the top, above the CPU Temperature. Selecting it gives the following screen:
On previous ASUS motherboards I had lamented the lack of variable overclock options. It was often just ‘Tuner’, or a choice between ‘Fast’ and ‘Extreme’. ASUS took this onboard from several sources and developed this interface, allowing users to select what they do with their PC:
What sort of cooling is being used:
And then the BIOS gives an estimate of possible overclocks when the Tuning Wizard is implemented:
So in this case, the BIOS is predicting (based on internal testing and a lookup table) a 25% increase in CPU speed (3.5 GHz to 4.4 GHz) and a 19% boost in DRAM speed (1600 MHz to 1866 MHz) when we had an i7-4770K equipped with 8GB of G.Skill DDR3-1866 C9. At present the BIOS is not that smart, so if the overclock fails the user will have to get into BIOS and set defaults if their CPU cannot take the speed and voltage. Because Haswell is so varied in its performance (e.g. I have had a CPU that fails 4.3 GHz at 1.35 volts), ASUS and other motherboard manufacturers have to draw the line between aggressiveness on auto overclocking against the likelihood that some CPUs are bad overclockers. If an overclock fails, try retaking the tuning and selecting the lower cooling option; this will cause the temperature limits in the OC to adjust to hopefully accept an overclock on a poor processor.
Astute readers will notice that Easy Tuning also has a RAID function. Part of the feedback ASUS has received from the 8-series is the ability to build RAID drives using hardware drivers. This tool is designed to take control of the Intel RAID interface, and users can build arrays through the BIOS instead.
Moving into Advanced mode also affords an adjustment from Z87. ASUS is being more economical with the space, and the use of a different font makes it more readable with no need to put significant gaps between each row of text. As a result, we get a Hardware Monitor on the right hand side with all the poignant information about the CPU, DRAM and Voltage. I would have liked the motherboard name and BIOS version in there as well, just to complete the set. At the bottom is the help menu. Moving it to a longer horizontal side allows more text on the same line and less strain on users who read about controls to keep adjusting their eye line.
There are some new and updated features in the BIOS that work well. The My Favorites menu has adjusted so users access a setup map (like a sitemap) in order to select the options for My Favorites:
With the color scheme and font, this is actually really easy to use. Previously users had to navigate to each option and press F4/right click to add to my Favorites, but this condenses that selection into a single menu speeding up the process. The options that I usually use for overclocking my home systems are selected in the screenshot above, which when we navigate to My Favorites gives:
For the settings that involve voltages or specific values (such as CAS Latency), the BIOS gives in indication of the current value, whereas the help section at the bottom will display the range and granularity of the setting.
The full overclocking options are in AI Tweaker, and these follow the previous BIOS iteration starting with frequency settings, with sub-menus for DRAM timing and DIGI Power, and then voltage settings. For extreme users wanting to use sub-zero cooling, the OV_CPU jumper on the motherboard has to be enabled to allow extreme voltages:
Load line calibration and switching frequency options are in the DIGI+ Power Control sub-menu, whereas power limits are in CPU Power Management.
Because of the use of switches to enable/disable certain features when others are in use, it pays to understand certain options in the Advanced tab. The usual options are all here, such as HyperThreading in the CPU Configuration menu:
RST/SRT in the PCH Configuration menus:
Display choices in the System Agent Configuration menu:
Out of the two most important menus in Advanced, the PCH Storage allows users to force select between the chipset SATA Express port and the M.2 slot:
Whereas the Onboard Devices menu will allow users to enable and disable the WiFi, USB 3.0 and extra SATA ports. For example, the hot-plug functionality of the ASMedia SATA controller is actually disabled by default in our BIOS version:
The Monitor tab contains the onboard sensors, as well as the option for Q-Fan Tuning. This tuning needs to take place before using the custom graph adjustments in the Easy Menu, but the easy menu will direct users here automatically. In this menu however users can tie each of the fan headers to a specific sensor on the motherboard, including the T_SENSOR if a user wants to use their own thermocouple.
The Boot tab contains the fast boot options, the boot order and also the boot override features:
To update the BIOS, ASUS still has the EZ Flash 2 tool in the Tools tab:
The Tools tab also contains options for saving overclocking profiles and viewing DRAM SPD information. Because of the ability for ASUS to adjust font sizes in this new BIOS revision, even though the SPD info page has to use the Courier font due to the amount of information, we can get it all on one screen:
Carrying over from the last generation of BIOSes is also Quick Note and Last Modified. Quick Note is essentially a small note pad to write notes about the BIOS, and Last Modified indicates which settings in the BIOS have changed since the system booted.
ASUS Z97-Pro WiFi AC Software
The AI Suite package is the main interface for all of the software features on ASUS motherboards. The interface for the Z97 version is mostly similar to the Z87 package, however the move from Dual Intelligent Processors v4 to v5 adds another element into the equation. One of the big updates to the package is the Turbo App feature that allows users to define specific overclock settings on a program-by-program basis. This means that if a user is playing a game, the overclock can be boosted from normal OS usage, or if in the case of some single-threaded picture editing work, the speed of single core processing can be boosted while the system is in action.
The front screen for the software features each of the main system options, including the overclock settings (TPU), the fan settings (Fan Xpert 3), VRM control (DIGI+ Power), Energy Saving (EPU) and the new Turbo App. The automatic overclocking is here, and we have moved from 4-Way Optimization in Z87 to 5-Way Optimization (5WO). The big update to 5WO is the ability to adjust how the system performs the auto overclocking:
A user can now select the ratio that the tool starts from, set the peak temperature to hit during testing, peak power consumption of the CPU and how long the stress test at each point is. This is a big step forward in automatic overclock controls, and allows users to implement, for example, an overclock that reaches a peak temperature of 85ºC and is stress tested for an hour at each point of the scaling. The stress test comprises of a few internal tests from ASUS, including a Prime95 derivative.
The final report gives the overclocking results, and in the screenshot above we see a rise to 4.5 GHz with 1.247 volts with a maximum power draw of 133 W.
As part of the automatic overclock it also tests the fans to find their controllable range and adjusts the fan profiles accordingly.
When changing the manual settings, each of the five ways in 5WO can be adjusted. TPU has the CPU options:
The good thing about overclocking in the OS like this is the CPU voltage graphs showing the correlation between the CPU ratio and the voltage applied. As a user adjusts the voltage scales, the graph changes accordingly to give direct feedback.
The fan options also show their respective graphs, with users being able to choose from presets or initiate the Fan Tuning option so that the software can report any power dead-zones or the quiet zones:
ASUS also offers fan spin up and spin down time, which tries to slowly ramp up or down the fan speed when the temperature changes suddenly. In the form of spin-down time, this can be considered a form of hysteresis so naturally I would push it to the maximum possible such that when I stop playing a game, my fans would cool the case quicker than immediately reducing the fan speed when I exit.
For manual overclocking we typically adjust the maximum limit of the phases as well, giving them more headroom. These options are in the DIGI+ Power Menu, as well as Load Line Calibration which helps keep a constant voltage across the processor while under load.
The EPU menus allow for customization of power profiles. One of the features ASUS likes to point out is their Away mode which will help power conscious users reduce their power consumption by configuring the maximum CPU power and adjusting the fans.
The Turbo App feature, as shown above, gives the configuration of an overclock for a per-application basis. As an example, I can have set two of the games installed on the system for high overclocks and high network usage, but for the ASUS software the multi-threaded overclock is reduced back down to stock performance.
The rest of AI Suite deals with the non-overclocking oriented features of the motherboard. We have covered some of them before:
USB Charger+: Quick charging of a single device via USB 3.0 by disabling data transfer and increasing power delivery.
USB 3.0 Boost: Offers an additional speed for Windows 7 USB 3.0 devices by implementing an updated driver on-the-fly.
USB BIOS Flashback: A quick setup tool to prepare a USB stick for flashing the BIOS without a CPU, DRAM or GPU connected.
EZ Update: Software to allow updates to the system, primarily drivers, software and BIOS.
Wi-Fi Engine: Set up the system as an access point for a home network.
Wi-Fi Go!: Use the Wi-Fi on the system with the Android/iOS app to give remote desktop access via a smartphone or tablet, along with file transfer, cloud storage and remote keyboard/mouse control.
One of the newer features in the software is Push Notice. This allows a user to configure an alert that will be sent to a paired device if the system meets an alert criterion, such as an abnormal temperature/fan RPM/voltage reading or an unexpected system restart.
ASUS Z97-Pro WiFi AC In The Box
As mentioned previously, this motherboard is available in two versions: with or without the WiFi module. The price difference goes towards the module and the antenna, with the rest of the package being the same. Being $188 and $200, one might imagine that motherboards in this price bracket bring something extra into the package, however the dynamic for 9-series seems to have changed. Previously with two USB 3.0 headers, one might expect a USB 3.0 bracket, but now we have cases with two USB 3.0 connectors for four ports on the case, so motherboard manufacturers are avoiding this add-on. With the mainstream series also, there is not much incentive to go beyond a flexi-SLI bridge unless the motherboard uses a PLX 8747 chip for 3x or 4x SLI. Because SATA Express is now here, one might imagine that SATAe cables will start being part of the package, but a lack of drives on the market is stagnating this advancement.
In the Z97-Pro package we have:
Rear IO Shield
Four SATA Cables
Flexi SLI Bridge
WiFi Antenna (WiFi AC version only)
With a total of 8 SATA ports (two being part of SATAe), only four SATA cables may cover most users but not all. The WiFi antenna is ASUS’ rotating design, although I personally preferred the older magnetic ring antennas.
ASUS Z97-Pro WiFi AC Overclocking
Experience with ASUS Z97-Pro WiFi AC
The Z97-Pro has formed the bedrock of my Haswell Refresh and Devil’s Canyon CPU test bed since the 9-series was released, and there has not been much to worry about. With the Devil’s Canyon CPUs, both the i5 and i7 saw 4.7 GHz, as did the Pentium G3258.
For our regular i7-4770K testing CPU, the automatic overclocking provided by the 5-Way Optimization software gave 4.7 GHz for single core loading and 4.6 GHz for multi-core, Unfortunately the voltage was set to 1.250V in adaptive mode, which causes extra voltage as the speed is ramped up. As a result, the overclock caused the system to reduce its performance when it got too hot, giving a POV-Ray score equivalent to around 4125 MHz.
Our standard overclocking methodology is as follows. We select the automatic overclock options and test for stability with PovRay and OCCT to simulate high-end workloads. These stability tests aim to catch any immediate causes for memory or CPU errors.
For manual overclocks, based on the information gathered from previous testing, starts off at a nominal voltage and CPU multiplier, and the multiplier is increased until the stability tests are failed. The CPU voltage is increased gradually until the stability tests are passed, and the process repeated until the motherboard reduces the multiplier automatically (due to safety protocol) or the CPU temperature reaches a stupidly high level (100ºC+). Our test bed is not in a case, which should push overclocks higher with fresher (cooler) air.
For the i7-4770K, we achieved the following:
46x at 1.325V is pretty much where we expected to be with our CPU sample. The limiting factor in our testing here is the average CPU, meaning that temperature is artificially making a ceiling.
For other CPUs:
Intel Core i7-4770K ES
4 Cores, 8 Threads, 3.5 GHz (3.9 GHz Turbo)
Thermalright TRUE Copper
OCZ 1250W Gold ZX Series
Corsair AX1200i Platinum PSU
|Memory||G.Skill RipjawsZ 4x4 GB DDR3-1600 9-11-9 Kit|
|Memory Settings||1600 9-11-9-27 1T tRFC 240|
MSI GTX 770 Lightning 2GB (1150/1202 Boost)
ASUS HD7970 3GB (Reference)
NVIDIA Drivers 335.23
|Hard Drive||OCZ Vertex 3 256GB|
|Optical Drive||LG GH22NS50|
|Case||Open Test Bed|
|Operating System||Windows 7 64-bit SP1|
|USB 2/3 Testing||OCZ Vertex 3 240GB with SATA->USB Adaptor|
Many thanks to...
We must thank the following companies for kindly providing hardware for our test bed:
- Thank you to OCZ for providing us with PSUs and SSDs.
- Thank you to G.Skill and ADATA for providing us with memory kits.
- Thank you to Corsair for providing us with an AX1200i PSU, Corsair H80i CLC and DRAM.
- Thank you to ASUS for providing us with the AMD HD7970 GPUs and some IO Testing kit.
- Thank you to MSI for providing us with the NVIDIA GTX 770 Lightning GPUs.
- Thank you to Rosewill for providing us with PSUs and RK-9100 keyboards.
- Thank you to ASRock for providing us with some IO testing kit.
Power consumption was tested on the system as a whole with a wall meter connected to the OCZ 1250W power supply, while in a single MSI GTX 770 Lightning GPU configuration. This power supply is Gold rated, and as I am in the UK on a 230-240 V supply, leads to ~75% efficiency > 50W, and 90%+ efficiency at 250W, which is suitable for both idle and multi-GPU loading. This method of power reading allows us to compare the power management of the UEFI and the board to supply components with power under load, and includes typical PSU losses due to efficiency. These are the real world values that consumers may expect from a typical system (minus the monitor) using this motherboard.
While this method for power measurement may not be ideal, and you feel these numbers are not representative due to the high wattage power supply being used (we use the same PSU to remain consistent over a series of reviews, and the fact that some boards on our test bed get tested with three or four high powered GPUs), the important point to take away is the relationship between the numbers. These boards are all under the same conditions, and thus the differences between them should be easy to spot.
The idle and long idle power consumption seems higher than other motherboards we have tested, and the OCCT power consumption is also in the higher bracket.
Windows 7 POST Time
Different motherboards have different POST sequences before an operating system is initialized. A lot of this is dependent on the board itself, and POST boot time is determined by the controllers on board (and the sequence of how those extras are organized). As part of our testing, we are now going to look at the POST Boot Time - this is the time from pressing the ON button on the computer to when Windows 7 starts loading. (We discount Windows loading as it is highly variable given Windows specific features.) These results are subject to human error, so please allow +/- 1 second in these results.
While the default POST time for the Z97-Pro is 20+ seconds, there are three reasons for this. The first reason relates to the controllers, as shown by the stripped POST time of 9.6 seconds. The second is the shift towards Windows 8, which affords a much faster POST time when Windows 8 fast boot options are enabled. As a result, motherboard manufacturers might not immediately look at POST time optimization as a primary focus. Third is the timing when we tested the Pro, which was still in the late beta phase around launch, meaning that ASUS had not optimized the BIOS for POST timing. This is ultimately a downside of testing this early in the chipset lifetime.
Rightmark Audio Analyzer 6.2.5
The premise behind Rightmark:AA is to test the input and output of the audio system to determine noise levels, range, harmonic distortion, stereo crosstalk and so forth. Rightmark:AA should indicate how well the sound system is built and isolated from electrical interference (either internally or externally). For this test we connect the Line Out to the Line In using a short six inch 3.5mm to 3.5mm high-quality jack, turn the OS speaker volume to 100%, and run the Rightmark default test suite at 192 kHz, 24-bit. The OS is tuned to 192 kHz/24-bit input and output, and the Line-In volume is adjusted until we have the best RMAA value in the mini-pretest. We look specifically at the Dynamic Range of the audio codec used on board, as well as the Total Harmonic Distortion + Noise.
Both the results of the Dynamic Range and the THD+N put the Z97-Pro really high in our audio testing.
For this benchmark, we run CrystalDiskMark to determine the ideal sequential read and write speeds for the USB port using our 240 GB OCZ Vertex3 SSD with a SATA 6 Gbps to USB 3.0 converter. Then we transfer a set size of files from the SSD to the USB drive using DiskBench, which monitors the time taken to transfer. The files transferred are a 1.52 GB set of 2867 files across 320 folders – 95% of these files are small typical website files, and the rest (90% of the size) are the videos used in the WinRAR test. In an update to pre-Z87 testing, we also run MaxCPU to load up one of the threads during the test which improves general performance up to 15% by causing all the internal pathways to run at full speed.
Deferred Procedure Call latency is a way in which Windows handles interrupt servicing. In order to wait for a processor to acknowledge the request, the system will queue all interrupt requests by priority. Critical interrupts will be handled as soon as possible, whereas lesser priority requests, such as audio, will be further down the line. So if the audio device requires data, it will have to wait until the request is processed before the buffer is filled. If the device drivers of higher priority components in a system are poorly implemented, this can cause delays in request scheduling and process time, resulting in an empty audio buffer – this leads to characteristic audible pauses, pops and clicks. Having a bigger buffer and correctly implemented system drivers obviously helps in this regard. The DPC latency checker measures how much time is processing DPCs from driver invocation – the lower the value will result in better audio transfer at smaller buffer sizes. Results are measured in microseconds and taken as the peak latency while cycling through a series of short HD videos - less than 500 microseconds usually gets the green light, but the lower the better.
The focus of 9-series motherboards on DPC Latency is quite surprising, meaning that we might have to realign our standards. Anything under 100 microseconds is still an awesome result, and the Z97 Pro scores 88.
Readers of our motherboard review section will have noted the trend in modern motherboards to implement a form of MultiCore Enhancement / Acceleration / Turbo (read our report here) on their motherboards. This does several things – better benchmark results at stock settings (not entirely needed if overclocking is an end-user goal), at the expense of heat and temperature, but also gives in essence an automatic overclock which may be against what the user wants. Our testing methodology is ‘out-of-the-box’, with the latest public BIOS installed and XMP enabled, and thus subject to the whims of this feature. It is ultimately up to the motherboard manufacturer to take this risk – and manufacturers taking risks in the setup is something they do on every product (think C-state settings, USB priority, DPC Latency / monitoring priority, memory subtimings at JEDEC). Processor speed change is part of that risk which is clearly visible, and ultimately if no overclocking is planned, some motherboards will affect how fast that shiny new processor goes and can be an important factor in the purchase.
Compression – WinRAR 5.0.1: link
Our WinRAR test from 2013 is updated to the latest version of WinRAR at the start of 2014. We compress a set of 2867 files across 320 folders totaling 1.52 GB in size – 95% of these files are small typical website files, and the rest (90% of the size) are small 30 second 720p videos.
Image Manipulation – FastStone Image Viewer 4.9: link
Similarly to WinRAR, the FastStone test us updated for 2014 to the latest version. FastStone is the program I use to perform quick or bulk actions on images, such as resizing, adjusting for color and cropping. In our test we take a series of 170 images in various sizes and formats and convert them all into 640x480 .gif files, maintaining the aspect ratio. FastStone does not use multithreading for this test, and thus single threaded performance is often the winner.
Video Conversion – Xilisoft Video Converter 7: link
The XVC test I normally do is updated to the full version of the software, and this time a different test as well. Here we take two different videos: a double UHD (3840x4320) clip of 10 minutes and a 640x266 DVD rip of a 2h20 film and convert both to iPod suitable formats. The reasoning here is simple – when frames are small enough to fit into memory, the algorithm has more chance to apply work between threads and process the video quicker. Results shown are in seconds and time taken to encode.
Video Conversion – Handbrake v0.9.9: link
Handbrake is a media conversion tool that was initially designed to help DVD ISOs and Video CDs into more common video formats. The principle today is still the same, primarily as an output for H.264 + AAC/MP3 audio within an MKV container. In our test we use the same videos as in the Xilisoft test, and results are given in frames per second.
Rendering – PovRay 3.7: link
The Persistence of Vision RayTracer, or PovRay, is a freeware package for as the name suggests, ray tracing. It is a pure renderer, rather than modeling software, but the latest beta version contains a handy benchmark for stressing all processing threads on a platform. We have been using this test in motherboard reviews to test memory stability at various CPU speeds to good effect – if it passes the test, the IMC in the CPU is stable for a given CPU speed. As a CPU test, it runs for approximately 2-3 minutes on high end platforms.
2D to 3D Rendering –Agisoft PhotoScan v1.0: link
Agisoft Photoscan creates 3D models from 2D images, a process which is very computationally expensive. The algorithm is split into four distinct phases, and different phases of the model reconstruction require either fast memory, fast IPC, more cores, or even OpenCL compute devices to hand. Agisoft supplied us with a special version of the software to script the process, where we take 50 images of a stately home and convert it into a medium quality model. This benchmark typically takes around 15-20 minutes on a high end PC on the CPU alone, with GPUs reducing the time.
Console Emulation –Dolphin Benchmark: link
At the start of 2014 I was emailed with a link to a new emulation benchmark based on the Dolphin Emulator. The issue with emulators tends to be two-fold: game licensing and raw CPU power required for the emulation. As a result, many emulators are often bound by single thread CPU performance, and general reports tended to suggest that Haswell provided a significant boost to emulator performance. This benchmark runs a Wii program that raytraces a complex 3D scene inside the Dolphin Wii emulator. Performance on this benchmark is a good proxy of the speed of Dolphin CPU emulation, which is an intensive single core task using most aspects of a CPU. Results are given in minutes, where the Wii itself scores 17.53; meaning that anything above this is faster than an actual Wii for processing Wii code, albeit emulated.
Point Calculations – 3D Movement Algorithm Test: link
3DPM is a self-penned benchmark, taking basic 3D movement algorithms used in Brownian Motion simulations and testing them for speed. High floating point performance, MHz and IPC wins in the single thread version, whereas the multithread version has to handle the threads and loves more cores.
Synthetic – 7-Zip 9.2: link
As an open source compression tool, 7-Zip is a popular tool for making sets of files easier to handle and transfer. The software offers up its own benchmark, to which we report the result.
First up is F1 2013 by Codemasters. I am a big Formula 1 fan in my spare time, and nothing makes me happier than carving up the field in a Caterham, waving to the Red Bulls as I drive by (because I play on easy and take shortcuts). F1 2013 uses the EGO Engine, and like other Codemasters games ends up being very playable on old hardware quite easily. In order to beef up the benchmark a bit, we devised the following scenario for the benchmark mode: one lap of Spa-Francorchamps in the heavy wet, the benchmark follows Jenson Button in the McLaren who starts on the grid in 22nd place, with the field made up of 11 Williams cars, 5 Marussia and 5 Caterham in that order. This puts emphasis on the CPU to handle the AI in the wet, and allows for a good amount of overtaking during the automated benchmark. We test at 1920x1080 on Ultra graphical settings.
Bioshock Infinite was Zero Punctuation’s Game of the Year for 2013, uses the Unreal Engine 3, and is designed to scale with both cores and graphical prowess. We test the benchmark using the Adrenaline benchmark tool and the Xtreme (1920x1080, Maximum) performance setting, noting down the average frame rates and the minimum frame rates.
The next benchmark in our test is Tomb Raider. Tomb Raider is an AMD optimized game, lauded for its use of TressFX creating dynamic hair to increase the immersion in game. Tomb Raider uses a modified version of the Crystal Engine, and enjoys raw horsepower. We test the benchmark using the Adrenaline benchmark tool and the Xtreme (1920x1080, Maximum) performance setting, noting down the average frame rates and the minimum frame rates.
Sleeping Dogs is a benchmarking wet dream – a highly complex benchmark that can bring the toughest setup and high resolutions down into single figures. Having an extreme SSAO setting can do that, but at the right settings Sleeping Dogs is highly playable and enjoyable. We run the basic benchmark program laid out in the Adrenaline benchmark tool, and the Xtreme (1920x1080, Maximum) performance setting, noting down the average frame rates and the minimum frame rates.
Company of Heroes 2
Company of Heroes 2 also can bring a top end GPU to its knees, even at very basic benchmark settings. To get an average 30 FPS using a normal GPU is a challenge, let alone a minimum frame rate of 30 FPS. For this benchmark I use modified versions of Ryan’s batch files at 1920x1080 on High. COH2 is a little odd in that it does not scale with more GPUs with the drivers we use.
The EA/DICE series that has taken countless hours of my life away is back for another iteration, using the Frostbite 3 engine. AMD is also piling its resources into BF4 with the new Mantle API for developers, designed to cut the time required for the CPU to dispatch commands to the graphical sub-system. For our test we use the in-game benchmarking tools and record the frame time for the first ~70 seconds of the Tashgar single player mission, which is an on-rails generation of and rendering of objects and textures. We test at 1920x1080 at Ultra settings.
ASUS Z97-Pro WiFi AC Conclusion
The to-and-fro with regards to the new SATA Express and M.2 storage options is not going to go away any time soon. PCIe storage is here to stay, but in the interim motherboard manufacturers have a tough choice to make between M.2 support, SATAe support, or both with some fancy PCIe lane management. ASUS at that point is going to have to be committed to SATAe due to their involvement with ASMedia, and ASMedia is the only company with a SATAe controller in the consumer market. It would seem that this controller is destined for $250+ motherboards, given that the Z97-Pro only has one SATAe from the chipset. It also depends on Intel’s support of SATAe, and whether it will expand in future chipsets to more than one x2 topology.
With that aside, the Z97-Pro has been a solid part of our CPU test bed. In terms of swapping out CPUs, GPUs and memory, I have not come across a problem. The key point in the performance metrics actually comes from the audio, where our motherboard achieved 105.1 dB dynamic range and -84.8 dB THD+N, and the DPC Latency came in under 100 microseconds.
The big challenges from ASUS’ perspective should be the Z97X-SOC, Fatality Z97 and Z97 Gaming 7 which are all in that $188-$210 bracket. ASUS 9-series BIOS shows that growth in these areas are still happening and similar to our Z97-Deluxe review conclusion, having the automatic overclocking option to determine maximum temperature and length of stress testing is something I imagine all other motherboard manufacturers taking on board relatively soon. It should be easy enough to implement as well. While I might not be the BIOS’ biggest fan, the EZ mode and My Favorites menus are evolving, and the fan controls in the BIOS are now second to none. My only additions to those fan controls would be an option to set all fans to ‘high speed’ or ‘silent’ with one click, as is possible in software, and also a measure of hysteresis.
The addition of 802.11ac 2T2R WiFi might have come across as a bit pricy, originally being a $30 addition but has now moved down to +$12. The module cannot be purchased individually and one might argue that a PCIe card to do something similar would cost more, making the WiFi module a good investment. Given that ASUS now ship 3T3R 802.11ac routers, including the dual 3T3R AC3200 model announced at Computex, I wonder how close we are to seeing 3T3R solutions on motherboards. My expectation lies at the feet of X99, however the additional cost is a bit more difficult to predict. Nonetheless, the WiFi option of the Z97-Pro is preferred as a ‘just-in-case’ option should a user’s circumstances change. The XMP switch is also a nice touch that other manufacturers might implement, helping enthusiasts get the full speed out of their memory without worrying about accessing the BIOS.
Even at $200 the system punches above its weight, and the lack of issues across my testing with almost a dozen CPUs for other reviews can only ever be a positive. Users investing into the Z97 ecosystem should consider the Z97-Pro or the Z97-Pro WiFi AC as worthwhile motherboards in their builds.