Articles: Mainboards

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We have been diligently reviewing numerous LGA1155 mainboards based on the Intel Z77 Express chipset, which ended up in about 20 reviews that covered mainboards from six different makers. We’ve tested entry-level, mainstream and flagship products, both regular and unique. We’ve discussed products designed specifically for gamers or overclockers. We know Z77-based mainboards that can only work with one graphics card, a few models that are better used with a multi-GPU subsystem, and versatile products that run equally well whether you’ve got one or more graphics cards installed. We know mainboards with integrated wireless interfaces and expansion cards, with numerous USB 3.0 ports and Thunderbolt. We seem to have learned everything about them, so any new model is likely to present just a certain combination of features we already know about, yet ASRock has managed to surprise us with its unique Z77 Extreme11 which doesn’t look like anything we’ve tested so far.

As we noted in our previous reviews, Intel’s chipsets have remained the same for the last few years in terms of functionality. It is only in series 7 that they have acquired USB 3.0 support but they still only provide two SATA 6 Gbit/s and four SATA 3 Gbit/s ports, just like the older series 6 chipsets. The original plans to increase the number of high-speed interfaces in the Intel X79 Express haven’t come true, so it doesn’t have new capabilities to offer. The additional SATA ports are in fact implemented in the chip but remain blocked. We know only one mainboard, the ECS X79R-AX model from Elitegroup, which implements four additional SATA 6 Gbit/s ports via the chipset but the manufacturer doesn’t guarantee compatibility and stability. Intel’s careful approach is understandable if we recall that the company had reliability issues after it had introduced the high-speed interfaces in its series 6 chipsets. Intel had to quickly solve the problem by issuing revised chipsets, which involved time and financial losses. But even though we understand Intel, we cannot like the company’s current stance because it is we, end-users, who pay for Intel’s caution. Mainboard makers have to install additional controllers on their products and make their product designs more complicated as the consequence, which leads to an increase in the price of the resulting mainboard. Compared to this, AMD’s modern chipsets offer as many as six or even eight SATA 6 Gbit/s, eliminating the need for extra SATA controllers.

That said, we have to admit that Intel chipsets are sufficient for a regular computer configuration which includes one or two HDDs (SSDs) and an optical drive. Things only get more complicated when you’ve got a lot of drives and need to combine them into a RAID array. To ensure both higher performance and improved data security you must have three or even more drives for your RAID because with two drives you can only increase performance at the expense of reliability or ensure fault-tolerance at the expense of doubling the cost of a single drive. If data security is the top priority, you may use a dedicated multi-disk NAS but it can hardly be a good choice when you also need high speed. Ordinary onboard SATA controllers the manufacturers install on their mainboards can’t solve the problem as they only add two SATA 6 Gbit/s ports, making you look for expansion cards with at least four ports. The ASUS P8Z77-V Premium is an exception as it features Marvell’s 4-port 88SE9230 controller. And it was the only model with enhanced SATA capabilities we knew of before the release of the ASRock Z77 Extreme11.

So, what makes ASRock mainboard truly special and unique? Basically it carries an 8 (!) port SAS2/SATA3 (6 Gbit/s) controller - LSI SAS2308. That’s already an unprecedented feature by itself, but simply installing the chip on the mainboard isn’t enough. To ensure high bandwidth, the controller uses PCI Express 3.0 whereas the Intel Z77 Express only offers PCI Express 2.0 lanes, and even the number of these lanes is limited. PCI Express 3.0 is only supported by the CPU for discrete graphics card and it has no extra or unneeded PCIe 3.0 lanes, either. Thus, integrating the LSI controller called for some clever engineering solutions to ensure that new advanced feature will not pose any restrictions on any other functions. In this review we are going to tell you how ASRock’s creative approach helped them come up with an overall very successful product. Of course, we’ll cover the rest of the product’s features, too.

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