About a month ago, I had the opportunity to try out the ASRock Z390 Phantom Gaming ITX motherboard, and was impressed and (still!) in awe of what ASRock managed to put together with it. In fact, as far as standout motherboards over the last year or so are concerned, I think the Z390 Phantom Gaming ITX, along with the ROG Maximus X Apex, are by far the best I’ve ever had the pleasure of using.

That said, not everyone is willing to live with the sacrifices such motherboards require in terms of connectivity, expansion possibilities, and – most importantly – DRAM capacities. Even more so if you don’t care about or need uncompromised performance, but want to keep all the bells and whistles which typically come with high-end full ATX/E-ATX motherboards. This is where the Taichi Ultimate goes about its business in a different, better manner. The truth is not many motherboards at this price point actually live up to the promises made on the box and marketing material – but every now and then, you’ll find one that does. Like the Taichi Ultimate.

Price and supplier information
Supplier: ASRock
Website: www.asrock.com
ERP: Approximately R5,500 (based on EU pricing)

Technical specifications

Socket & CPU support: Intel 8th & 9th Gen Core CPUs (LGA 1151)
Max memory/frequency: 64GB DDR4 4200MHz (O.C)
Size/form factor: ATX (305mm x 244mm)
SATA 6Gbps ports: 8x (RAID 0, 1, 5, & 10)
M.2 / SATA-Express/U.2: 3x (32Gbps) 2280 – 22110 PCI-E
On-board audio: Purity Sound 4 (ALC 1220 + 120dB SNR DAC + TI Op-Amp)
Expansion slots: 3x PCIe 3.0 x16, 2x PCIe 3.0 x1
Rear I/O USB ports: HDMI, DP 1.2, 3x USB 3.1 (gen 2/A), 4x USB 3.0, 1x USB 3.1 (gen 2/C), 1x PS/2 keyboard/mouse

Testing configuration

Intel Core i9 9900K | 5GHz OC (1.275v)
Corsair Dominator Platinum SE Contrast DDR4 3466
NVIDIA GeForce RTX 2080
WD BLUE 500GB SATAIII SSD
Seasonic Prime Platinum 850W PSU
Windows 10 x64
(Bios P1.30)

As a performance enthusiast, these things matter to me more than the number of RGB LED headers, fans, and whatnot. It would be easy for ASRock to place emphasis on the cosmetic elements while skimping on fundamentals, such as stability, reliability, and performance, but the Taichi doesn’t have you make a choice between all these aspects, by simply providing it all for you in this single package.

Let’s begin with DRAM frequency. Typically, board vendors claim a particular DRAM frequency is supported but that support is more theoretical than real. You typically have to check the QVL list (which I highly recommend) and make sure that your chosen set of DRAM is not only mentioned within, but in your intended configuration as well. On the Taichi, not a single one of the DRAM kits I have access to is on the QVL list, yet all the kits reached the claimed DDR 4,200MT/s (2,100MHz) easily – a startling result when one considers that such frequencies are mostly reserved for two DIMM boards (due to the trace layout). Not only was the frequency higher than expected, but the performance was fantastic with faultless stability in both two and four DIMM mode. This motherboard claims DDR 4,200 is supported and it delivers. One can reach that frequency with pretty much any set of B-die IC memory.

As with its ITX stable mate, the Taichi brings forth the most refined UEFI experience in the industry, bar none, including full HD support, smooth cursor movement, a logical layout of options, and a clean but informative interface. Updating your UEFI online or via USB flash drive is a breeze as well, requiring little to no input from the user. The only oddity is that you can’t select the update file yourself, but the system will scan your drive to find the relevant file.

As for the on-board feature list, it’s what you’d expect for a premium model in that it supports up to three M.2 storage devices at full 32Gbps (PCIe 3.0 x4), and up to eight SATA ports. Obviously, you can’t use all of them if you populate all three M.2 slots, but you have enough of the ports left behind to build a respectable array of fast storage. I doubt many will use all of these, but for the ones who use these boards outside the context of gaming, this may come in handy.

Moving on to the Taichi’s gaming credentials, ASrock introduces the fourth iteration of its Purity Sound tech. On this particular expression that means a combination of the industry standard ALC1220 CODEC, complemented by a TI NE5532 operational amplifier, Nichicon fine gold capacitors, and an unnamed 120dB SNR (signal-to-noise ratio) DAC, all of which is shielded from the electrical interference by isolating the relevant components from the rest of the board’s power circuitry. As such, the resulting audio fidelity is pretty good, as has been the case with previous forms of Purity Sound on the high-end boards. That said, even though this is the best showing yet, perhaps the Sound Blaster Cinema 5 software would have added another dimension to the audio signal, not necessarily in clarity but by giving some additional space to the audio which isn’t there otherwise. This may not be best in the business, but it is a solid audio experience that’s more than adequate for gaming, video, and other audio tasks.

Besides its audio features, the Taichi’s gaming résumé also includes multiple network connectivity options, with three LAN adapters, two of which are powered by the Intel chip (I219v), and the third a 10Gbps chip courtesy of Aquantia. 10Gbps is a bit of an overkill right now, but I like that it’s there so when the opportunity comes you’ll be ready to take advantage of it. For those of you who prefer wireless connectivity, the ethernet ports are complemented with Bluetooth 5.0 and 82.11AC (Wi-Fi 5) support.

This motherboard not only ticks all the right boxes but also manages to execute well in each discipline. Missing is Thunderbolt 3 connectivity, but given everything else that’s available, this shouldn’t be a problem.

In the aesthetics department, no board in 2018 would be complete without full RGB LED support, for which we have two LED strip headers (one of which is addressable). You’ll control your lighting via the Polychrome SYNC software suite, which offers the typical lighting patterns (wave, breathing, etc.) seen on almost every component and peripheral these days.

I also like that it has power and reset buttons along with the important POST LED. Oddly enough, much like on the Z390 Phantom Gaming ITX, this is a model where you could argue that a POST LED isn’t necessary. The board goes through the POST process with incredible speed whatever your settings, and recovers related issues and alerts you to the failed POST so you can fix offending parameter(s) when necessary.

The only real negative is the materials quality, which aren’t up to the same levels you’ll find on competing products. I’m not sure why, but there’s an uncertainty in the plastics used around the various components. It’s not anything to be concerned about at all as the electronics are solid, but it is something noticeable nonetheless.

In closing, the Z390 Taichi Ultimate is a no-nonsense option for the discerning buyer. At around R5,500 (no official pricing at this point as this is an estimate based off the EU pricing) it’s one of the more, if not the most, affordable high-end Z390 offerings. There’s isn’t any other motherboard from any vendor that has this combination of connectivity, audio solution, and overclocking credentials at this price, and as a value proposition, this is possibly the best gaming motherboard you can buy in the this budget.

90ASRock’s Z390 Tai Chi Ultimate is a feature-rich, high-performance motherboard selling for a reasonable price. It has all the basics covered and more, packing in the best UEFI in the business along with features not seen on boards that cost a lot more. There’s little to nothing to dislike here as this one is easily the best ASRock has ever produced.