ASRock Z77 OC Formula Review: Living In The Fast Laneby Ian Cutress on January 15, 2013 1:00 PM EST
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Enthusiasts and speed freaks are always looking for an edge – a little something that will help push their gear that little bit faster. There is already a market for pre-overclocked GPUs and now SSDs are coming with internal RAID to push the boat over the SATA connections. These require little-to-no knowledge of overclocking and are essentially plug and play. When it comes to pushing GPUs higher, and motherboards, we get a dichotomous nature of ‘easy to OC’ against ‘advanced options to push the limits’. In order to meet these two markets, the top four motherboard manufacturers have all come out with their respective weapons for Z77 and Ivy Bridge, aiming for either ~$220 or ~$380, and all of them have broken overclocking records at one stage or another since their release. First up on our battle bridge is the ASRock Z77 OC Formula, designed by ASRock’s in-house overclocker Nick Shih, and commands a paltry $240 for all the goodies.
Overclocking Motherboards From All Sides
As mentioned, the top four motherboard manufacturers all have weapons when it comes to hitting the enthusiast or power user with an overclocking platform. These weapons are (with prices correct as of 1/13):
$400 – Gigabyte Z77X-UP7
$370 – ASUS Maximus V Extreme
$290 – ASUS Maximus V Formula
$240 – ASRock Z77 OC Formula
$200 – MSI Z77 MPower
$200 – ASUS Maximus V Gene
There are two main differentiators between the low and the high end. The first is usually the choice to include a PLX PEX 8747 chip to allow 3-way or 4-way GPU setups. We covered how the PLX chip works in our 4-board review here, but to summarize, this functionality can add $50-$80 onto the board depending on the bulk purchase order of the manufacturer and the profit margins wanted. The second is usually attributed to the functionality and power delivery – the 32x IR3550s used on the Gigabyte Z77X-UP7 costs them a pretty penny, and the extensive feature list of the ASUS ROG boards usually filters through.
In the past there have been attempts at pure overclocking boards, such as the Gigabyte X58A-OC, which was entirely stripped of all but the necessary components for pushing overclocks under sub-zero conditions for competitions. The board itself was cheaper due to the functionality not present, but it did not provide a rock solid home system for many users. The ASUS ROG range, as we reviewed in 2012, has been releasing motherboards for both gaming and overclocking for several years, trying (and succeeding) with the mATX Gene, ATX Formula and Extreme. All three of these boards continuously push both the gaming and OC frontiers, with a slight gaming focus on the Formula and an OC focus on the Extreme, but all boards cross over into each other’s territory very easily.
A motherboard in this area cannot focus solely on the overclocking component – there has to be additional focus for power users and gamers in order to shift units, as competitive overclocking is a small blip on the radar. I hope all the players realize this!
ASRock Z77 OC Formula Overview
When the Z77 OC Formula was first shown to the public at Computex 2012 (we covered it here), there was a small outcry on the basis of its name more than anything else. We already had the Gigabyte X58A-OC and ASUS Formula boards, so there was a large inkling that ASRock wanted a piece of this pie in their ‘OC Formula’ naming. When quizzed on this, ASRock pulled out the obvious analogy I was expecting:
“The name is derived from Formula 1 racing – the series will focus on overclocking which is like driving the race car.”
This mentality is clearly shown on the motherboard box, which features a Lamborghini Aventador mash-up with technology and going full bore on the yellow and black coloring scheme.
Naming aside, this is a board I really like to use. On the board itself we get integrated water cooling on the large VRM heatsink (like the ASUS Maximus V Formula), a liberal abuse of eight fan headers, 10 SATA ports (six SATA 6 Gbps), 8 USB 3.0 ports with 10 USB 2.0 ports for good measure, an ideal layout for dual-GPU setups, all the debug tools needed should anything go wrong, 13 (thirteen) onboard temperature sensors and even voltage read points for overclockers. Features not readily apparent include a multiple filter cap system to reduce electrical noise, and switches to enable/disable PCIe slots (reduce instability when not in use).
In my frequent BIOS rants, I often complain about interactivity, simplicity and experience, given that no motherboard manufacturer can offer me all three. ASRock’s BIOS continues to grow on me, and the Z77 OC Formula BIOS is almost great. Visually everything is easy to read, at a nice resolution, and every option gets a description of what it is and how to use it. The important options for overclocking are well laid out, and ASRock provide 12 automatic OC options for users to try. ASRock also likes to include their ever growing BIOS features like Internet Flash, OMG and Dehumidifier.
ASRock’s software package also gets a small overhaul – AXTU becomes ‘Formula Drive’, and operates in much the same way except for an upgraded fan tuning utility (compared to ASRock’s previous version, this one is awesome) and other menus relating to new functionality. We also get a memory timing configuration utility, and software to use the RapidOC buttons onboard. This is all on top of the XFast LAN, XFast USB and XFast RAM utilities. In the box are a set of plastic standoffs for the motherboard, making extreme overclocking without a test bench very easy, and we also get a front USB 3.0 panel among SATA cables.
Benchmark performance of the Z77 OC Formula is aided by the decision by ASRock to enable a form of what they call Multicore Acceleration, which enables the top turbo mode for the processor under any load by default (read our debate about it here). Stock settings aside, the Z77 OC Formula pushed our retail i7-3770K CPU sample to 4.9 GHz, limited only by the cooling at load, and to 5.2 GHz unloaded. We also pushed a set of 2x4 GB 2666 C11 memory to 2800 C12 with a simple bump on the memory strap after XMP, peaked at an unloaded 2920 C12 and reached a peak BCLK of 110.3 overall.
A couple of niggles are worth mentioning. By default, all the fans are select to be ‘Full On’, which helps ASRock in any overclocking and temperature results, but can cause issues related to noise. The fan tools in the OS can auto apply a user profile on OS boot though. The 4-pin molex on board for additional PCIe power is not really needed unless you are pushing for competitive overclocks, but I still had to use it to get dual 580s running with a stock system. The Rapid OC buttons only work when the Rapid OC software is up and running, giving more sources of instability when pushing overclocks. One might also argue that the lack of mSATA/WiFi/better-than-Realtek audio may detract from the gaming crowd a touch, or that the small fan on the VRM is cause for concern.
Overall though, at $240 this board feels like a solid bit of kit. The main comparison should be to the $180 Gigabyte Z77X-UD5H which we gave a Bronze Award back in July. Overall the ASRock looks nicer, has more features, better OC and fan controls, as well as software and in-the box contents. However is it worth $60 more?
A rundown of motherboard colors gives us red for ASUS’ ROG, camo for ASUS’ Sabertooth, green for Gigabyte’s G1, orange for Gigabyte’s UP7, red for ASRock’s Fatal1ty, gold for ECS’ Golden Series, black for MSI’s MPower, and blue for MSI’s Big Bang. While I am still waiting on pink, white and purple, ASRock jumps in with a rather nice looking yellow palette.
Aside from the color scheme, the VRM heatsink is a large part of the visual on this board. It hides a 12+4 phase setup, but also includes a water cooling pipe through the middle of the heatsink to be attached by 3/8” tubing. Like similar motherboards, the dual VRM cooling design allows the VRMs to be cooled by air or water or both, and the addition of a small VRM fan is designed to aid both setups with active cooling. This small fan spins at around 4400 RPM, but can be disabled by taking the connector beneath the fan out of the fan header – with respect to noise, I could not hear it above a GPU fan on an open test bench.
The overall VRM heatsink is quite shallow (~3.5cm), allowing large air coolers to be used on the CPU – I was able to fit a Thermalright TRUE Copper and fans without issues. The socket area has access to five open fan headers for CPU fans, with a sixth being used for the VRM fan. We get two CPU fan headers above the socket, two chassis fan headers between the 24-pin power connector and the SATA ports, and the fifth fan header below the VRM heatsink. The final two headers on board are found at the bottom.
The Z77 OC Formula uses both an 8-pin and a 4-pin CPU power connector, although the 4-pin needs only be used when pushing extreme overclocks on sub-zero. All the testing done in this review used only the 8-pin connector. To the right of the socket are our color coded memory slots, with the yellow ones used preferentially when dealing with one or two memory modules. It is a small shame that ASRock did not use the single sided latch memory connectors coming into circulation on other motherboards.
The motherboard itself is actually E-ATX (305mm x 267mm compared to 305mm x 244mm for ATX), meaning the extra width on the board is ripe for additional controls. In that regard we get our two-digit debug at the top left, a set of PCIe switches to disable unused PCIe slots, and a pair of Rapid OC (+/-) buttons. Beneath these are a set of 14 voltage read points for extreme overclockers to monitor voltages to the CPU, memory, VTT and others, a chipset-based USB 3.0 header, and two of the aforementioned chassis fan headers.
The Z77 OC Formula gives us a total of 10 SATA ports to play with – four SATA 3 Gbps from the chipset, two SATA 6 Gbps also from the chipset, and four more SATA 6 Gbps from a pair of Marvell SE9172 controllers. All the ports support RAID 0 and RAID 1, but only the chipset ports support RAID 5 and 10. Intel RST and SRT are also chipset only.
The chipset heatsink is very solid with a few grooves for airflow, suggesting that ASRock are going for bulk rather than surface area to aid chipset cooling. The bottom of the board is full of connectors, and going left to right we have our front panel audio, a COM port, a 4-pin molex power collector, an IR header, a 4-pin chassis fan header, a USB 2.0 header, a 3-pin chassis fan header, another USB 2.0 header, a pair of soldered on BIOS chips with a BIOS select header, power and reset buttons, and finally a front panel header.
The PCIe layout is relatively sparse in comparison to the normal Z77 range, but aimed squarely at double width GPU users. In order, we get a PCIe x1, x16 (x8 in dual mode), a gap, x1, x8, gap, x4 (from chipset). The layout caters for users with two double-slot or triple-slot GPUs as well as those needing an x1 slot for a sound card.
The rear IO takes advantage of the GPU-focused nature of the board by removing all but one of the video outputs and placing a large swathe of USB ports in their stead. From left to right we get a combination PS/2 port, six USB 3.0 ports, a clear CMOS button, a HDMI port, a Broadcom BCM57781 network port, four USB 2.0 ports, an optical SPDIF output and standard audio jacks. Compared to other motherboards in this price range, aside from the few video outputs, ASRock also reduce the NICs to one.
|ASRock Z77 OC Formula|
Four DDR3 DIMM slots supporting up to 32 GB
Up to Dual Channel, 1066-3000 MHz
|Onboard LAN||Broadcom BCM57781|
|Onboard Audio||Realtek ALC898|
2 x PCIe 3.0 x16 (x16/- or x8/x8)
1 x PCIe 2.0 x16 (x4)
2 x PCIe 2.0 x1
2 x SATA 6.0 Gbps (Chipset), RAID 0, 1, 5, 10
4 x SATA 6.0 Gbps (Marvelll SE9172), RAID 0, 1
4 x SATA 3.0 Gbps (Chipset), RAID 0, 1, 5, 10
4 x USB 3.0 (Chipset) [2 rear panel, 2 onboard]
4 x USB 3.0 (Etron EJ188H) [4 rear panel]
10 x USB 2.0 (Chipset) [4 rear panel, 6 onboard]
6 x SATA 6 Gbps
4 x SATA 3 Gbps
1 x USB 3.0 Header
3 x USB 2.0 Header
8 x Fan Headers
1 x COM Port Header
Voltage Measurement Points
Two-Digit Debug LED
Rapid OC Buttons
PCIe On/Off Switches
1 x 24-pin ATX Power Connector
1 x 8-pin CPU Power Connector
1 x 4-pin CPU Power Connector
1 x 4-pin Molex PCIe Power Connector
2 x CPU (4-pin, 3-pin)
4 x CHA (4-pin, 3x3pin)
1 x POW (3-pin)
1 x MOS (3-pin)
1 x PS/2 Combination Port
2 x USB 3.0 (Chipset)
4 x USB 3.0 (Etron EJ188H)
1 x Clear_CMOS Button
1 x HDMI Port
1 x Broadcom BCM57781 Ethernet
4 x USB 2.0
|Warranty Period||3 Years|
The ASRock Z77 OC Formula gets 10 SATA ports, six of them SATA 6 Gbps, eight total USB 3.0 ports and eight fan headers. Each of these numbers is in the upper echelons of anything available on a motherboard today. I am also pleased with the debugging tools on board, as they are helpful for overclockers as well. Only two of the fan headers are four pin which could be frustrating, and other non-OC/non-gaming oriented motherboards in this price range often have dual network ports / WiFi included.
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themossie - Tuesday, January 15, 2013 - linkTwo SSDs using one SATA III connection will be severely bandwidth-constrained, a single SSD is already near the limits of SATA III (6 Gbps = ~600MB/sec max in practice). More SATA connections means much more available bandwidth...
Get something like http://www.amazon.com/Silverstone-5-25-Inch-Conver... and roll the RAID yourself :-)
The linked drive bay converter is really great - although I wouldn't trust it with four hard drives due to heat.
ShieTar - Wednesday, January 16, 2013 - linkThats not exactly a new development, OCZ are selling their colossus line since 2009. You could still buy one, but I think it stopped making sense a while ago, as they are slower than most single SATA6G-SSDs.
There are also several PCIe-based solutions with internal RAID-0 solutions available for at least two years now. I don't see why Ian should not mention them.
Flunk - Thursday, January 17, 2013 - linkIf you really want that you need to get something like the OCZ Revodrive series. Multiple SSD controllers all hooked up to PCIe. SATA's just not fast enough.
NitroWare - Tuesday, January 15, 2013 - linkTheres innovative for the sake of being the bleeding edge (eg ROG) and theres innovative for making features that a vendor assumes its customers want or commercialy driven. Asrock would go in the latter.
Note their answer to Ian's question about the naming Unforuntly that mentalilty is prevalient with some vendors despite what they are told by media or testers.
"I eagerly await a Z87 OC Formula which can build upon the additional features listed above. If, for a few more dollars, we got an included ASRock Game Blaster, 5 GHz WiFi or an mSATA for not much more on the price, then it will speak out to gamers and boutique system builders even more."
Even if they put those features on that doesnt automatically put it at the top of the podium.
They'd put them on and then ruin it with some feature they read on a forum or 'brainstormed'.
Compare the Z68 and Z77 Fatalilty boards - the Z68 had an almost if not perfect rear IO backplane with its 2 HDMI ports, dual GBE, switches and abundance of USB ports. They went and added DVI to the Z77. Really ? OK Lucid Virtu/multiple displays but this is an enthusiast board not a H77.
This is all Intel's 'idea' and they didnt feel a need to put a DVI on theirs, their DZ77RE has a single rotated HDMI to save space and they fited what the enthusiast wants and needs, nothing more.
They have alot of work to do on their UEFI (NTFS support, Automatic Fan Control, things that have been for granted on other brands), Their software (their fan control sw lacks error catching), production line QA and valdation lists are less comprehensive than GA/ASUS plus they need to answer customer tech support tickets or emails.
Asrock Support once told me not to use Kingston Memory when I reported a non memory related problem (faulty board) as they didnt really validate that and 'had problems' with it, a company saying things like this is unacceptable for many reasons.
Ian did not miss anything with this comprehenive review, although I am personally curious as to how sturdy their heatsink assembly is based on my experiences with their other modern boards.
I really liked the Z68 Fatalilty despite its shortcomings, the old X58 Delux seemed to work well for many people and I guess we can say this one doesnt suck either. They are really trying but then they feel they need to bring back old ghosts from the past by toying with gimics like XFast RAM rather than concentrating on core hardware and software engineering.
Have a look at their Q77 board, its a recycled H77 even still retaining their enthusiast livery and THX logo, OK then.
Anyone remeber the X58 Supercomputer? NVIDIA professional certified. Yeah excactly. Funny how that went into the wind, perhaps the licensing was expensive but that was waters even ASUS didn't put their toes into.
They know their place as a budget vendor and it shows, hence emphasis on innovations that dont cost them as much as major R&D.
IanCutress - Tuesday, January 15, 2013 - linkSince I started reviewing I've never given a gold award to a motherboard (one to ROG as a brand), and I think in some 70 odd boards I've only given three or four silver awards. Gold needs to be perfect - BIOS, software, performance, easy of use, add-ins and price. Obviously there are things we can't test, like RMA or support.
But ASRock did seem to use a different way of thinking on this board - whether that's the Nick Shih influence or not I'm not sure, I've only met him once in passing.
Some boards that come out from vendors are designed for a specific customer in mind (Gigabyte H77N-WiFi) and are released to the public after the initial batch, whereas others ask users what they want. Like you, if I was given a pen and paper to design a motherboard, it would probably be very different to almost everything out there, based on what I think people needed. But compromise always comes in, and for example back panel connectors cost a fair bit, so a manufacturer might buy a thousand to keep the costs per unit down, or have a very good procurement offer for a certain type. If a designer wants something new on the rear IO, procurement might reject it for being too expensive, or it may not exist, or a manager might reject it for the BOM going over budget, or it may be rejected because a particular SI doesn't want it like that. Some model ranges are excluded from this, or someone like Intel has enough cash to do whatever they want.
Major R&D doesn't make the money - the products do. In my ROG review and interviews with staff, I found out it's taken them 7 years to break even in terms of sales vs. R&D. Very few companies are willing to do that. But it is good to see a great package now and again, and we all hope it becomes a stepping stone for the future.
Kevin G - Tuesday, January 15, 2013 - linkWell at this juncture I think it is fair to ask, how would you define the perfect motherboard? If you were to design a board, what specs and layout would it have? Any standards you adhere to or absolutely want to ignore to get the ideal product? Anything innovative you want to see on a board that you haven't yet? What price would you sell it at considering its BOM?
NitroWare - Tuesday, January 15, 2013 - linkYou can easily test RMA and support.
RMA - check what the procedure is in place is for certain regions, heck an eyeballing of newegg comments for bugs/ dud boards/vga doesn't go astray. Arrangements vary per region.
Support - email their support or fill in a ticket with a non publication domain name.
If you get an automated 'your ticket is in the queue' message - good
If you get a human reply - better.
If no reply within a certain time period or unacceptable facepalm answer - fail
If a vendor has a online chat (Intel and Coolermaster do) do they know their own products? Does the vendor have a staffed forum?versus relying on a tech site for their forum?
If someone has an issue, ameutuer or enthusiast they are going to google their problem after all.
While I agree with you bout they thought different about this board. One cant helpt notice that someone handed them a ROG board and the breif was 'make our own version of this but dont copy it', thats not neccesarily bad though.
If a vendor is playing supply channel/logistics games with their components and that ends up affecting an enthusiast or expensive board well thats not a positive is it. Their Z68 did have easy RAM clips for example and issues such as you described come into play
One can say ASUS ROG was trying to win customers away from ASUS 'delux' or 'premium' boards where as ASR is just trying to win customers outright, or even a repeat buy.
Assimilator87 - Tuesday, January 15, 2013 - linkNot sure if this is done in other reviews, but the majority of the conclusion was copied from the overview. Pretty lame to be honest.
IanCutress - Tuesday, January 15, 2013 - linkIt has been in a couple over the years. It is sometimes hard (and time consuming) to come up with 400-600 new words which essentially rewrite the overview to say the same thing in the conclusion but with a final statement. If it's severely an issue, I'll refrain from it in the future :)
cmdrdredd - Tuesday, January 15, 2013 - linkWHY!? This is clearly way over $180 and targeting the $300 boards like the Maximus V Formula from Asus. Does it beat that particular board? How about the $200 Maximus V Gene? We don't know because they were not included in any testing.
This board is most definitely not meant to be compared to boards under $200 but boards over it's price point.