Articles: Mainboards

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Testbed Configuration

We performed all our tests on a testbed built with the following components:

  • Mainboard: ASRock Z77 OC Formula (LGA 1155, Intel Z77 Express, BIOS version 1.30);
  • Intel Core i5-3570K CPU (3.6-3.8 GHz, 4 cores, Ivy Bridge rev.E1, 22nm, 77 W, 1.05 V, LGA 1155);
  • 2 x 4 GB DDR3 SDRAM Corsair Vengeance CMZ16GX3M4X1866C9R (1866 MHz, 9-10-9-27 timings, 1.5 V voltage);
  • Gigabyte GV-T797OC-3GD (AMD Radeon HD 7970, Tahiti, 28 nm, 1000/5500 MHz, 384-bit GDDR5 3072 MB);
  • Crucial m4 SSD (CT256M4SSD2, 256 GB, SATA 6 Gbps);
  • Scythe Mugen 3 Revision B (SCMG-3100) CPU cooler;
  • ARCTIC MX-2 thermal interface;
  • Enermax NANX ENM850EWT PSU;
  • Open testbed built using Antec Skeleton system case.

We used Microsoft Windows 7 Ultimate SP1 64 bit (Microsoft Windows, Version 6.1, Build 7601: Service Pack 1) operating system, Intel Chipset Software Installation Utility version, AMD Catalyst graphics card driver version 12.4.

Operational and Overclocking Specifics

It has become a common phrase opening this part of our review: the testbed assembly went smoothly and without any problems. And this is indeed the case. Mainboards with out-of-the-ordinary design and inconvenient components layout have become a thing of the past. None of the LGA 1155 mainboards we have reviewed so far caused us any issues during system assembly. When we start the system, we see an unpretentious start-up image with a list of “hot” keys for your convenience. It is really strange that many other mainboard makers still haven’t implemented a little thing like this in their products.

You may turn off the start-up image in the BIOS or by pressing the “Tab” key. In this case we will see the correct processor clock frequency. As for the memory, the board will only display its total size, but not the modules frequency.

After system assembly, we often say the exact same thing: there were no problems during the system operation in the nominal mode, but some issues popped up during overclocking. However, things were almost the complete opposite of that with ASRock Z77 OC Formula mainboard. Processor and memory overclocking went on flawlessly, but operation in nominal mode revealed a number of unique peculiarities.

We would like to start by saying that there is a “MultiCore Acceleration” parameter in the BIOS, which is enabled by default. Under any type of load this function increases the processor clock frequency multiplier to the maximum value allowed by Intel Turbo Boost, which is intended for single-threaded load types only. This insignificant increase in the processor frequency could be considered acceptable for an overclocker mainboard. However, the “Power Saving Mode” parameter is enabled at the same time, and this one lowers the nominal processor Vcore by 0.1 V. Our ultimate goal during any overclocking experiments is to achieve maximum performance at the minimal possible power consumption, but we carefully test every operational mode for stability. In this particular case, it may be excessively optimistic to have both these parameters are enabled without any stability checks. We believe each non-nominal mode should be selected consciously and not enforced by the manufacturer, and in the nominal mode the system should work the way it is supposed to. However, it isn’t a problem to simply disable “MultiCore Acceleration” and “Power Saving Mode” parameters, which is exactly what we did to ensure that we can have a fair comparison against other mainboards in our performance and power consumption tests. These are definitely not real issues, but merely unique peculiarities, which you should keep in mind, that’s all. However, the real challenges awaited us when we tried to adjust the rotation speed of the CPU fan.

I have to say that almost every mainboard maker out there have their own specific shortcomings, which migrate from one mainboard model to another and are very hard to get rid of for some reason. ASRock mainboards have two of them, and the first one is the incorrectly working Load-Line Calibration technology. We have come across this issue on multiple different models, when the “CPU Load-Line Calibration” parameter is always set to the maximum Vdroop value independent of the settings in the mainboard BIOS. However, this technology worked flawlessly on ASRock Z77 OC Formula, but instead we had a problem with the processor fan rotation speed adjustment. The rotation speed would lower just a tiny bit and barely responded to the BIOS settings, thus generating more noise than desired. At the same time the system took a long time to respond to the changes in the operational load and CPU temperature. If both these parameters increased, the fan would speed up very slowly and then would slow down just as slowly after completion of the tests, when the load and processor temperature dropped.

This isn’t a constructive deficiency, but merely a software flaw, because we discovered that the processor fan speed may be adjusted properly in the “Fan-tasting Tuning” tab of the multifunctional “Formula Drive” utility. Once the calibration is complete, no additional correction is needed, the suggested dependence of the fan speed on the CPU temperature is almost ideal. In idle mode the RPM level is low and the system runs almost completely noiselessly, but it reacts instantaneously to changes in load levels. This could be the case only for some specific fan models, for example for the default four-pin fan of our Scythe Mugen 3 Revision B cooler. However, in the BIOS of Biostar mainboards, for example, we saw the function for calibrating the processor fan, which means that this feature can theoretically be added to ASRock mainboards BIOS, too. Using “Formula Drive” utility resolves this issue, but we would really like to see the rotation speed adjustment feature working properly right from the start.

There is a profile called “Nick Shih’s Profile” in the BIOS of ASRock Z77 OC Formula, which allows you to automatically overclock the processor with a wide variety of frequencies to choose from. The only downsides are that the proposed operation modes suite well for determining the processor’s overclocking potential or setting overclocking records, but are unfit for long-term use. The processor is constantly under increased voltage, all power-saving technologies are disabled. However, we didn’t have any problems during our processor and memory overclocking experiments, when we increased the processor core voltage in Offset mode, i.e. by adding a necessary value to the nominal setting.

Now I just have to remind you that we always overclock mainboards in such a way that they could be used permanently in this mode. Therefore we do not try to make our life easier by disabling any of the mainboard’s features, e.g. onboard controllers, and try to keep the CPU’s power-saving features up and running. This time we did exactly the same thing. All Intel power-saving technologies remained up and running and automatically lowered the processor Vcore as well as clock frequency multiplier in idle mode.

I have to say that we tested ASRock Z77 OC Formula using BIOS version P1.30, but when we completed our tests the new BIOS version P1.40 came out. We checked it out, but didn’t reveal any striking differences from the previous one. The “MultiCore Acceleration” and “Power Saving Mode” parameters are still enabled by default, the adjustment of the processor fan rotation speed is still somewhat flawed.

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