Intel’s Haswell refresh is just around the corner and more companies are revealing what minute changes they’re going to be making on their products to celebrate what should be a thoroughly disinteresting launch for the most part. ASRock, not ever being content with just adding on a new coat of paint and a few graphical UI tweaks decided to go completely bonkers on their new board designs and they couldn’t be further varied from the Z8-series products we have on the market today. Hit the jump for more hardware porn!
The top of the line Z97 motherboard starts with the Z97 OC Formula, back again in the black-and-yellow colour scheme. Unlike previous OC Formula designs, this one only has a 10+2 phase layout near the CPU socket along with two 8-pin 12v PEG connectors, suggesting that either Broadwell, which comes later this year, is an amazing overclocker or they really don’t think that Intel chips need all the over-engineered products we’ve seen in the past. Unlike Gigabyte, which seems to have lost the plot at the high-end in favour of simplicity, the Z97 OC Formula has both a M.2 connector and two SATA Express ports delivering up to 2GB/s of potential bandwidth.
By current SATA standards, in case you didn’t know already, SATA6 runs at 6Gb/s speeds, which ends up with a theoretical maximum of 768MB/s of potential bandwidth. Despite the fact that no SSD on SATA6 currently reaches those speeds, SATA Express is at least three times as fast. This allows for SSD manufacturers to push the boundaries further than they were previously allowed, as changing the SATA specification to suit ever-faster generations of newer drives would have been financially unsustainable.
The Z97 OC Formula also employs one PEX PLX bridging chip to allow for the fourth PCI-Express lane at the bottom of the board to be run at PCI-E 3.0 x8 speeds. Looking elsewhere on the board, it has Killer NIC Networking, ASRock’s Purity Sound 2 solution powered by Creative’s ALC1150 codec along with a USB headphone amplifier, a molex connector at the bottom of the board to provide extra power to multi-GPU arrays and a set of voltage measuring points near the 24-pin ATX connector.
The board also is apparently made with six PCB layers, a first for ASRock. As expected, it also has Nick Shih’s signature on it, hinting that the overclocking master must have injected more of his secret sauce into the BIOS and the hardware layout.
Going into the more budget part of the high-end range (something that more of us should be able to afford) is the Z97 Extreme 6 and Extreme 4. Both have the same black-and-blue colour scheme, a departure from the greys, silvers and dark blacks that we’re used to. Both also have the same 10+2 power phase layout and both have molex connectors to deliver extra power for multi-GPU configurations. Interestingly, both boards omit the Killer NIC chips in favour of a Gigabit solution from Intel, with the Extreme 6 supporting two Intel Gigabit ethernet ports.
The Extreme 6 also supports two SATA Express ports as well as two M.2 connectors, one of which is powered by a PLX chip to provide four lanes of PCI-E 2.0 connectivity. While this doesn’t do anything to raise the bandwidth for M.2, it will allow for future BIOS updates to take advantage of faster SSDs that will appear over time and will require more than two lanes to the CPU. Other than the M.2 connectors and the extra two SATA 6Gb/s ports, both boards should be largely similar in function and performance. Additionally, both will allow for triple SLI or Crossfire configurations.
I love seeing new ITX motherboards and the Z97-ITX-ac is jam-packed with loads of stuff. There’s Intel Gigabit ethernet, built-in Wi-Fi 802.11ac, four SATA 6GB/s ports as well as one SATA Express port. There’s a 4+2 phase design next to the CPU and a distinct lack of any M.2 connectivity, which would be nice to have. Despite the diminutive size, there’s also two HDMI ports on the back panel, Displayport 1.2 and DVI as well as four USB 3.0 ports on the back panel. Considering previous performance of ASRock’s ITX offerings in the high-end, it should easily match what most motherboards can achieve for overclocks.
The Fatal1ty family still perseveres, despite the fact that Johnathan “Fatal1ty” Wendel no longer competes professionally. It sticks to a black-and-red colour scheme and both boards make do with a 6+2 phase layout. The Z97X K1ller has two SATA 6Gb/s ports and two SATA Express ports, while the Z97 K1ller swaps that out for four SATA ports and one SATA Express port. Both still have M.2 connectors, which is a more flexible arrangement and closer to what Gigabyte’s Z97-UD5H-BK offers.
Rather weirdly, ASRock still offers PCI connectivity on the Z97 K1ller. ASRock says that this is because many gamers still rely on older PCI-based hardware like sound cards and capture equipment, making upgrading to a new rig more problematic because you have to replace that hardware as well. Ten year-old sound cards at the top of their game are still every bit as capable today as they were back then.
So that’s ASRock’s lineup, just in time for the Haswell refresh which releases onto the market on 10 May 2014. Is anyone excited? I’m not very intrigued by the slight overclocks on the CPUs, but the boards are most definitely the bigger reason why anyone should consider an upgrade to the 9-series chipsets. If you want to be ready for Broadwell’s launch in late 2014, now’s also a good time to prepare to hop onto that bandwagon.