Articles: Mainboards

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Design and Functionality

Like modern Gigabyte mainboards, the ASRock Z87 Extreme4 looks kind of gloomy with its predominantly black-and-gray color scheme. Its appearance is only enlivened by the gold-colored solid state capacitors (which are counted among the product's advantages) and by the same-color captions on the cooling heatsinks. Well, the exterior design, although an important factor too, is still secondary unlike the mainboard’s technical capabilities among which we can find some very exciting ones.

The digital 12-phase voltage regulator Digi Power ensures support for all modern LGA1150 processors. Its hot components are covered with a couple of additional heatsinks. Like the chipset heatsink, both are securely fastened with screws. The memory specs seem to be standard from a formal standpoint: four DDR3 slots that can take in up to 32 GB of memory working at clock rates of 1066 to 2933 MHz. That's the same as you get from other makers' mainboards. However, you can find it in the BIOS that the memory range is actually 800 to 4000 MHz. Even though the top limit is not achievable with ordinary memory modules and under normal conditions, ASRock can already claim that its mainboards have been used to set a few memory overclocking records. The memory slots are designed using the Distortion Free technology, which is supposed to favorably affect memory performance.

The Z87 Extreme4 makes full use of the chipset's capabilities in sharing CPU-integrated PCIe lanes and adds to it in terms of SATA and USB 3.0 ports. A single graphics card will work in full-speed PCIe 3.0 x16 mode. Two cards will both work in PCIe x8 mode. You can even build a graphics configuration with three cards, and the speed formula will be x8/x4/x4 then. ASRock has finally abandoned its inconvenient graphics slot fasteners which had to be manually locked and unlocked, but the latches that replace them are small and not very convenient to release, either, even though they lock automatically. Besides the mentioned expansion slots, the mainboard offers two PCIe 2.0 x1 and one PCI slot.

Besides the six SATA 6 Gbit/s ports based on the chipset, two more are added by means of an ASMedia ASM1061 controller. One of them is combined with the back-panel eSATA 6 Gbit/s connector. The eight SATA connectors are all the same gray color, which is not very correct since they are not exactly equivalent to each other. The blue color of the single vertical USB 3.0 connector near the memory slots catches the eye. You can often see such ports on modern mainboards and it’s easy to explain why. The Intel Z87 chipset has six USB 3.0 ports, four of which we will find on the back panel. The fifth port is transformed into two onboard headers via an ASMedia ASM1074 splitter, so you can connect up to four USB 3.0 connectors to them. And the last of the chipset’s USB 3.0 ports is implemented as an onboard vertical connector. Of course, it is not handy for occasional access, but you can plug a USB flash drive into it on a permanent basis, for example.

The mainboard back panel has the following ports and connectors:

  • Universal PS/2 connector for the keyboard;
  • Two USB 2.0 ports, another six are laid out as three onboard pin-connectors;
  • D-Sub, DVI-D, HDMI-Out and HDMI-In;
  • eSATA 6 Gbit/s is combined with one of the internal SATA 6 Gbit/s ports provided by ASMedia ASM1061 controller;
  • Four USB 3.0 ports (blue connectors) implemented in the Intel Z87 chipset, which has a total of six ports available, that is why one of the remaining chipset ports is turned into two internal pin-connectors with a four-port ASMedia ASM1074 splitter. These two internal pin-connectors allow four more USB 3.0 ports. The last chipset port is laid out as a vertical internal pin-connector on the mainboard PCB;
  • One local network port (network adapter is built on Gigabit Intel WGI217VB network controller);
  • Optical S/PDIF and five analogue audio-jacks provided by eight-channel Realtek ALC1150 codec.

The mainboard’s back panel is all occupied by connectors. Interestingly, there are not one but two HDMI ports there. The HDMI-Out connector is conventional enough. Like the other video outputs, it can be used to connect a CPU-integrated graphics core to an external monitor. The HDMI-In connector is part of ASRock's A-Style technologies set. You can use it to connect an additional video source, e.g. a game console, camera, media-player, etc., to the monitor via HDMI. You can switch between your video sources with a key combination you set up in the A-Tuning utility, and the HDMI input will work even when the computer is shut down. This feature may come in handy for monitors with a small number of input connectors, saving you the trouble of switching the cables from your video sources manually.

The set of hardware and software solutions under the name of Purity Sound is devised to let audiophiles and gamers enjoy better-quality audio. The integrated 8-channel codec Realtek ALC1150 is covered with a casing to protect it from electromagnetic interference. The audio subsystem includes a differential amplifier TI NE5532. Yet another such amplifier serves the audio interfaces for the front panel of a computer case, which are usually used for headphones and headsets. The audio subsystem area of the mainboard is isolated from the other components to minimize noise.

The result is higher playback quality of low frequencies, reduced level of distortions, and purer sound overall. The mainboard allows using headphones with an impedance of up to 600 Ohms. We saw something like that on ASUS’s special ROG series mainboard called Maximus V Formula, but now such advanced audio capabilities are implemented on quite a regular midrange product.

One more A-Style feature of the Z87 Extreme4 is called Home Cloud. It allows you to access the PC remotely, also from mobile gadgets. First you turn on the Intel Smart Connect technology and Wake on LAN option in the BIOS and then use one of two access methods. The first method is provided by Intel. You have to register at and install a Mesh Agent driver. The second method also requires that you register and install a couple of utilities (Splashtop 2 and Splashtop 2 Streamer). As a result, you will be able to turn your PC on and off remotely and access its local files. The downside is that this feature is only compatible with Microsoft Windows 8 if the mainboard has an Intel network controller, like the Z87 Extreme4 does. Some of ASRock mainboards based on Intel’s 8 series chipsets employ Qualcomm Atheros network controllers. In this case, the Home Cloud feature with remote access will work via the Sunlogin utility and will be compatible with Windows 8 and Windows 7, but you have to pay for your access to the Sunlogin service.

The ASRock Z87 Extreme4 layout shows some more of the mainboard’s special features such as the highlighted Power and Reset buttons. It has a Clear CMOS button, too. There are two CPU fan connectors on the mainboard. One of them is 4-pin and another is 3-pin, so the CPU cooler's fan can be regulated irrespective of its connection type. There are two BIOS chips and the active chip is selected with a jumper, which is not as handy as a 2-position switch. A switch can be turned on and off even without seeing it while the small jumper is much harder to deal with in a cramped computer case.

We’ve summed up the basic specs of the ASRock Z87 Extreme4 mainboard in the following table. Clicking on it will open a comparative table with specs of all previously tested mainboards, namely ASUS Z87-K and Gigabyte GA-Z87X-D3H.


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