With Computex 2014 just around the corner, one would have expected Intel’s latest Z97 boards to be announced then. But Intel launched its Z97 chipset based boards a month earlier. A lot of motherboard makers are already out with their offerings.
Asus sent us the Z97 - Deluxe board which is a notch below its flagship board - Asus Z97 - Deluxe (NFC and WLC) - from the signature series, the other series being ROG, Workstation and TUF which have their own flagships. While Intel platform refreshes are generally known to bring a lot of innovative changes, the Z97 board brings some additions, but on the whole the platform is not drastically different from the Z87 chipset. We will talk about the new features soon, but first let us look at the Asus Z97-Deluxe’s board layout and design.
Board layout and Design
When it comes to high end boards from major motherboard brands including Asus, you are assured of one thing - great build quality. Asus has gone with a muted golden colour for the heatsinks and a two-tone black and gray colour combination for the DIMM slots and PCIe slots. This is a welcome change from the gaudy golden colour seen in the some of Asus’s Z87 boards last generation. The first thing that grabs your attention is the chipset heatsink which is circular in shape. While the majority of the heatsink has the smooth golden top with the Asus logo, the edge of the circle is patterned. The height of this heatsink is below the PCIe ports, so that it won’t hinder placement of the graphics cards.
The heatsink around the voltage regulator modules is also quite well designed with the smooth golden block neatly complemented by matte black metallic projections. A heat pipe connects the heatsink around the VRM section to the black coloured heat sink placed just below the processor slot.
The board is quite dense with barely any breathing space as far as components on board go. But there is enough clearance area around the socket. There are six fan headers in all - two of them placed above the socket, two along side the 24-pin ATX power connector and one between the USB connectors and front port connector at the other end of the board.
On the bottom left hand side you will notice a white coloured line demarcating a part of the board. This is the audio section which is electromagnetically isolated from the rest of the board to prevent any noise from the electrical components affecting the audio quality. Asus employs the Japan-made Nichicon audio capacitors.
There are dedicated notches for TurboV Processing Unit (TPU), Energy Processing Unit (EPU) and the EZ XMP. The two-stage notch for the TPU increases the multiplier on the first step (I) and increases the base clock as well on the second step (II). EPU corresponds to real-time power saving features. Finally the EZ XMP activates the XMP profile to overclock the RAM memory.
On the right hand side you have the SATA Express ports (we will come to that in a while), six SATA 6 Gbps ports, two USB 3.0 connectors. On the top you have the MemOK button to help you select the optimal latency timings for the RAM sticks. Below the heatsinks, you have two PCIe 3.0 x16 slots, one PCIe 2.0 x16 slot, interrupted by four PCI x1 slots.
Coming to the back panel IO ports, you have all the features that you would expect from a high end board. Six USB 3.0 ports, four USB 2.0 ports, a mini-DisplayPort, two Intel LAN ports and a 7.1 channel audio connector. The ASUS Z97-Deluxe also has a dedicated Wi-fi Go card for Wi-fi 802.11ac and Bluetooth 4.0 to which you connect the wireless antennas bundled with the board to connect to your router.
ASUS Z97 - Deluxe is an upgrade to the ASUS Z87-Deluxe, and belongs to the top end of the ASUS Z97 line up barring the ROG series boards. This ATX board features an LGA 1150 socket with the four DIMM slots supporting a maximum of 32GB of DDR3 RAM.
Coming to the main addition to the board as compared to the last generation boards - the M.2 port and SATA Express port. The M.2 port is present just above the TPU switch and can take an an mSATA drive. There are two SATA Express ports placed just beside the six SATA 6Gbps ports. These ports are basically meant as a future-proofing mechanism, as SATA Express drives are yet to start selling and mSATA drives though sold are quite expensive vis-a-vis regular SSDs. M.2 ports were also seen on some Z87 boards and were known as the NGFF or Next Generation Form Factor ports. With the Z97 chipsets, the M.2 port will be mandatory on every board, but the SATA Express ports are optional.
With the SATA Express ports, you have two SATA like ports along with a smaller port - these three connectors make one SATA Express port. The SATA Express drives have a different output port as compared to regular SATA drives. The Z97 chipset natively provides two PCIe 2.0 lanes for either the SATA Express port or the M.2 port (either of them can be used since the SATA Express may not be present on all boards) which takes the theoretical bandwidth from 6 Gbps on the SATA 3 port to 10Gbps. On the ASUS board, the lower SATA Express port is connected to the chipset, whereas the top SATA Express port is supported by an ASMedia ASM106SE SATA Express controller. Similarly, of the six SATA 6Gbps ports, four are supported natively by the Z97 chipset and two are controlled by the ASMedia ASM1061 SATA controller (located on the top right hand side of the SATA port).
The board comes with a 5-way optimisation stamp on its box. This is an additional number from the Z87 chipset based boards which came with the 4-way optimisation. The five areas where the board promises optimisation include CPU performance boost using the TPU chip, energy efficiency using the EPU chip, advanced fan controls with the FanXpert 3 utility which optimises fan speeds according to tasks being performed, power controlling and finally the fifth addition - Turbo App.
The Turbo App basically lets you optimise your system based on parameters such as processor speed, audio output and LAN properties, based on the software or game you are on currently. So say you are editing photos on Adobe Lightroom, you may keep the audio and LAN portions disabled and for playing Battlefield 4 maybe you want to tweak the audio and LAN settings to your preference while mildly overclocking the CPU. Once you have set these parameters, then when you switch from Lightroom to BF4, the processor, audio and LAN settings will automatically change and you do not have to readjust the settings every time. This is an intelligent tool for those who are particular about having different profiles for different applications.
Apart from this, you have the regular ASUS features such as Home Cloud, WiFi Go! and so on which have been on ASUS boards of previous generations as well. The AiSuite III comes with the regular set of utilities with the Turbo App being the additional feature.
When it comes to UEFI BIOS design, ASUS normally gets it right. With the Z97 - Deluxe, ASUS has yet again made some changes in terms of aesthetic appeal. The colour palette has a lot more gray, white, yellow and black. On the home screen you have five distinct compartments. Starting at the top you have the basic information about the processor, processor and motherboard temperatures. Below this you have the DRAM and SATA information; you can activate the XMP profile as well from here. Below it you have the Fan controls section complimented by a graphical represenation of fan speeds which can be manually changed. On the right hand side, you have the EZ Tuning mode which toggles between Normal, Optimal, Power Saving and so on. Then you have the Boot selection menu from where you can change your boot priorities.
So from the home screen you can make the minor adjustments or even overclock the system. But for the advanced users, the homescreen is obviously limiting. Hit F7 and you will enter the Advanced mode where you can tweak the frequency settings, multipliers and even voltages under the Ai Tweaker section. The BIOS shortcuts still exist and you have a section called My Favourites where you can pin your most frequently used settings to tweak. The navigation using the mouse is a lot smoother than previous generations. Overall a great implementation of the UEFI BIOS.
Processor: Intel Core i7 4770K
Motherboards: ASUS Z97-Deluxe, Gigabyte Z97X Gaming G1, ASUS Maximus VI Impact, Gigabyte Z87X UD3H, ASRock Z87M Extreme 4
RAM: 2x 4GB GSkill Ripjaws @ 1600MHz
PSU: Cooler Master 800W Silent Pro Gold
OS: Windows 7 Ultimate 64-bit
Monitor: BenQ GL2250
We flashed the ASUS Z97-Deluxe board with the latest BIOS and installed all the latest drivers before starting the testing. We ran our regular suite of tests, which is a mixture of synthetic and real life tests. We could overclock the ASUS Z97-Deluxe to 4.5GHz on air using both the AiSuite III as well as from the BIOS.
We use three real-world testing scenarios, to check how well the processor performs with regular tasks. In the 7-zip file compression test, we compress a 100MB assorted file folder using a 4-character encryption. In the POV-ray test we render a 800×600 pixel scene with 0.3 anti-aliasing. Finally, in the video encoding test, we convert a 1 min MPEG file to x.264 MPEG-4 using AVIDemux. All these tests are timed and the lower the score, the better the processor.
We also tested the integrated Intel HD4600 graphics on the board. Naturally with such a board you will most likely add an external graphics card, which will vary from person to person. But we wanted to see what kind of variance is expected from different Z87 boards with three different games.
Verdict and Price in India
The ASUS Z97-Deluxe board comes at a Rs 21,675 which is premium pricing for a premium board. In terms of feature set, ASUS has barely missed out on anything. The board checks off all the right boxes - great build quality, excellent software support with the bundled utilities, good UEFI BIOS, multiple options to overclock. on-board Wi-fi and so on. It caters to a niche segment who are interested in gaming and overclocking.
As we said in the beginning, the Z97 chipset is not a major upgrade from the Z87 chipset, as is pretty evident from the benchmarks above. We did not have any SATA Express drives or mSATA drives to try out the new ports which are the only visible additions on this board as compared to last generation. As soon as we get our hands on one, we will put up the numbers. With Computex commencing in June, we should hopefully see a lot of players coming out with M.2 and SATA Express drives. Intel is also expected to announce the Haswell Refresh line of processors at the event.
For someone using the Z77 or Z87 boards, upgrading to the Z97 boards does not make much sense. Sure this board offers future-proofing in terms of SATA Express ports, M.2 port and support for Broadwell processors, but at the moment, it's not entirely recommendable. If you are going to invest in mSATA drives and are thinking of getting a Broadwell processor when it launches, only then does it makes sense to grab this board now. Otherwise, you will be better off waiting for the price to fall and other components to also hit the market.
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