Hardware review: ASUS Maximus IX APEX

With all the Ryzen and GTX 1080 Ti buzz that’s going around, it’s easy to get distracted. The truth is, if you’ve been looking to build a potent, high-performance gaming system based around the Z270 platform, nothing much has changed for you, or should’ve changed. The Z270 chipset is still the most up-to-date offering Intel has for the desktop.

What’s noteworthy is that the Z270 platform has brought with it much better motherboards from all vendors. Of particular importance is the ROG Maximus IX APEX. It’s a board that many will ignore, yet it’s the most significant of the entire ROG line up. It’s a bold claim, sure, and one that ASUS would perhaps disagree with, but let me explain why this motherboard is so important.

Technical specifications

Socket/CPU support: LGA 1151 (6th– and 7th-generation Core CPUs)

Max memory / frequency: 32GB / DDR4 4,266MHz

Size/form factor: E-ATX (305mm x 272mm)

SATA 6Gbps ports: 4

M.2 / SATA Express / U.2: 2x (32Gbps) 2242 – 22110 with RAID 0, 1, 5, 10

Onboard audio: ROG SupremeFX (S1220A + ESS ES9023P)

Expansion slots: 4 x PCIe 3.0 x16 / 2x PCIe 3.0 x1

USB ports: 9 (6 x USB 3.0, 1 x USB 2.0, 2 x USB3.1 Type-A+C)

Price and supplier information
Supplier: ASUS
Website: www.asus.com
RRP: R4,899

As a result of how things work in the PC DIY industry, most reviews don’t detail how a motherboard functions, instead outlining the features it has and what each one’s performance is under a limited array of synthetic and game benchmarks. Of course, this is highly appreciated, but with such editorial we tend to overlook important factors, in particular when it comes to performance.

By now, we all know that most motherboards perform similarly, or at least they’re close enough that they won’t significantly impact your gaming, no matter which one you choose. The truth is, if you were to sit in front of two computers – one configured with a low-end motherboard from a “lesser” board vendor, the other built around a premium board from a celebrated manufacturer like ASUS, for example – there’d be no way for you to tell the difference between the two with all other parts being identical.

As such, what distinguishes one motherboard from another cannot and should not be game benchmarks, pitting one product against another at their default CPU and memory frequencies. That won’t tell you much of anything. The results would all be within the margin of error, and if they aren’t, that’d likely indicate an anomaly in the testing by either the person doing the review or the hardware’s behaviour. Ultimately, the motherboards will produce the same results.

After such a long intro then, why is the APEX the most important motherboard of the Z270 platform? It’s simple really. Not only is it the fastest of the lot, it’s also the easiest motherboard to overclock, bar none. In the past I’ve reviewed motherboards that’re easy to overclock, but the APEX takes it far beyond what those previous offerings could muster. In fact, this is the most proficient board ASUS has produced in this discipline. While the Rampage V 10 Edition impressed thanks to the sheer number of features it had, the package it offered and how it helped extract the best from the X99 chipset, the Maximus IX APEX does away with the packaged goodies and focuses purely on giving you the best possible performance, with all tuning options made available to you from within the UEFI and software package.

I’m not kidding when I say this motherboard is easy to overclock, and the only real limitation here will be your memory and your CPU. The board will scale right up until you hit the limits of your CPU, memory or overclocking knowhow. For instance, this is the only motherboard that’ll reliably make use of DDR4 4,266MHz memory. Some may have it on the box as a possible overclocked frequency, but have a look around the Internet to see how well those boards maintain such frequencies, and you’ll find very few (if any) successful cases. These are frequencies validated internally, using very specific kits and tuning. So while it’s possible in theory, it’s not something you’ll be able to pull off. Just a quick suggestion: always check the QVL for any motherboard you buy and the memory you intend to use with it, in order to avoid complications.

With the APEX board, using DDR4 4,266MHz is simple. In fact, it’s almost too easy. Take any set of memory that’s based on Samsung B-die ICs, load a profile within the UEFI and 4,266MHz is immediately there for you to use. The default profile may use excessive voltage for the DRAM, but remember that these are profiles for competitive overclockers, as that is who this board is primarily targeting. Feel free to lower the DRAM voltage, though keep in mind that for memory based on these ICs, DRAM voltages of up to 1.45V are perfectly acceptable and safe for everyday use. If you’re feeling a little adventurous, you could overclock to these memory frequencies manually – but avoid using the last memory divider for 4,266MHz, as it doesn’t work on any motherboard from any vendor (it never has and likely never will). You have to use the 4,133MHz divider and a base clock frequency of around 102MHz, and that’ll get you to the desired 4,266MHz.

I could easily ramble on for another 600 words about the memory overclocking capabilities of the APEX, but that would be missing out on all the other great features this motherboard houses. For instance, since this is a two DIMM board, there’s some space left where the other DIMM sockets would normally be. The ROG team has come up with a neat trick here and placed a riser board for M.2 PCIe SSDs. These fit back to back and can be used in RAID at full bandwidth. Besides being a convenient place for the drives, they’ll benefit from the air moving around the DIMM sockets. This is particularly true if you use a DRAM cooler such as the ones G.SKILL and Corsair provide on their more premium kits. A fan over your M.2 drives not only reduces operational temperatures, but ensures more consistent performance. As you may have read, seen or experienced yourself, the vast majority of M.2 drives have controllers that reach critical temperatures, causing the controller to slow down and the drive’s performance to degrade. So this is more than a surface level addition, and one that has real merit.

There’s a boatload of features on the APEX, but sticking with performance-related functionality, there’s a neat feature which ASUS has dubbed “CPU Overclock Temperature Control”. Simply stated, it sets a comfortable limit for the CPU temperature, frequency and voltage based on your overclocking settings. Instead of the system hanging or reverting to a lower speed via a single variable, a threshold can be set manually, which will reduce operational frequency and voltage accordingly, but keep your overclock essentially intact should conditions change. Think of it as something like Boost, but with the ability to turn it on and off without any frustration. When you’re using this feature, it’s transparent to you and you’re unlikely to suffer any observable performance losses.

As for the aesthetic elements of the APEX, we have the first X-shaped PCB. Visually, it’s not the most compelling offering from ASUS, of course. That honour belongs to the Extreme, the TUF boards and a few others. That said, the X-shaped PCB lends itself well to the overall presentation, especially when all the RGB LEDs are used. Of course, you can configure this to suit your needs via the Aura software.

In line with this is the customizable nameplate. As the name suggests, you can customize the name that’s on the board via some DIY cut-out Mylar (heat-resistant plastic film). Simply cut these in the shape of whatever you desire. You then mount this on the nameplate via screws, and voila, your own customized board. If you’re wondering: yes, this plate features LED lighting that can be customised.

For the overclocking community, there’s a lot on offer here. Every innovation and feature ASUS has had on their previous boards is available, plus more. These include a cold bug switch (this is a specific set of UEFI settings, automated via a switch, that’ll increase the cold boot bug threshold and the board’s tolerance for low temperatures), retry button, safe boot, slow mode and Mem OK. It’s all there and works as it should. On that note, the Maximus APEX is the first board I’ve ever used that had all the profiles working, especially for memory. With all the various ICs I tried, they all worked as indicated in the profiles. That may speak to how well this motherboard is tuned and its tolerance for some of the diciest memory modules around. The APEX is peerless when it comes to performance (at least in two DIMM mode). I can’t stress enough just how easy overclocking and extracting performance from the Maximus IX APEX is. It succeeds even with the most impossible settings applied, thereby flattering the worst CPUs and memory modules around. For instance, achieving 2,800MHz on a low-end, low-grade 2,133MHz set of memory is entirely possible, where that same memory was previously limited to 2,400MHz on other motherboards.

When it comes to performance on the Z270 chipset there’s not a faster motherboard around, and I say that with confidence. Yes, there’s the Z170M OC Formula from ASRock, but it’s only available in one or two regions, will cost you more than this board to import, and just isn’t as well supported, in addition to lacking many of the features present here. If there was ever going to be an ultimate Z270 performance offering, this is unquestionably the one. It doesn’t get better than the APEX. It exceeded every expectation I had, and I’m still in disbelief at how easy it is to tune and maximise performance. The team behind this one has done an incredible job and it deserves full marks. A perfect score then for the APEX, as it really is the zenith of the Z270 chipset.

10The definitive Z270 performance motherboard. It doesn’t get better than this and never will. This is a must-have if you’re serious about performance.

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