Articles: Mainboards

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PCB Design and Features

We’d never guess the Z97-A is just a midrange model by its looks. Its appearance is quite impressive. The 8-phase digital power system DIGI+ supports both existing and upcoming LGA1150 processors. Its hot components are cooled with a couple of heatsinks. The chipset heatsink is fastened with screws whereas the two additional heatsinks are secured with spring-loaded plastic pins. They never get too hot, though, even when the mainboard is overclocked. The four memory slots can take in up to 32 gigabytes of DDR3 SDRAM clocked at frequencies up to 3200 MHz.

There are four SATA 6 Gbit/s ports and a new SATA Express connector in the right part of the PCB. If you don't have a SATA Express drive, you can use the connector as two SATA 6 Gbit/s ports, so the total number of SATA ports is six.

Below the CPU socket, there’s an M.2 connector with support for drives with a width of 22 mm and a length of 60 or 80 mm. It is disabled by default because it shares PCIe lanes with the two PCIe 2.0 x1 expansion slots. So, owners of the Z97-A don’t have to wait for SATA Express SSDs to come out. They can use M.2 drives which are already available. You can get more information about these new connectors and compatible SSDs from our Plextor M6e PCIe drive review.

The problem is that the specification describes an M.2 slot as having four PCIe lanes and one SATA port. However, Intel chipsets don't have enough of free PCIe lanes, so the SATA Express and M.2 connectors have only two rather than four PCIe lanes. Moreover, the ASUS Z97-A isn’t a flagship model and has no additional controllers. Four of the chipset's SATA ports are implemented as SATA connectors on it. Two more ports are in the SATA Express connector. So the M.2 connector ends up with no SATA interface at all. If you look into the mainboard’s specs, you can find out that its M.2 connector only supports PCI Express drives. It turns out that the Z97-A is only compatible with such rare SSDs as the Plextor M6e in M.2 form-factor but cannot work with the majority of existing SATA-based M.2 drives.

The two PCIe 3.0/2.0 x16 slots can share the processor’s PCIe lanes and let you build SLI or CrossFireX configurations. In the latter case you can throw in a third graphics card by installing it into the PCIe 2.0 x16 slot based on the chipset’s PCIe lanes. That third slot always works at x2 speed, though. Besides the mentioned slots, the mainboard offers two PCIe 2.0 x1 and two PCI slots for expansion cards.

The mainboard’s back panel is densely populated:

  • D-Sub, DVI-D, HDMI and DisplayPort video outputs
  • Two USB 2.0 ports (with six more via three onboard headers)
  • One PS/2 connector for keyboard or mouse
  • Four USB 3.0 ports (blue connectors, based on the Intel Z97 chipset, with two more available via a single onboard header)
  • Gigabit Ethernet connector (based on an Intel WGI218V controller)
  • One optical S/PDIF and five analog audio outputs (based on an 8-channel Realtek ALC892 codec)

The mainboard's schematic shows a few additional features. There are six 4-pin fan connectors, two of which are for a CPU cooler. All of them can regulate both 4- and 3-pin fans. A connector for an additional temperature sensor can also be found in the schematic. The MemOK! button helps the mainboard start up in case of some memory-related problems. Besides the two familiar switches TPU (TurboV Processing Unit) and EPU (Energy Processing Unit), which overclock the computer and enable power-saving mode, respectively, there is a new switch called EZ XMP. It activates memory modules’ overclocking profile. As for the audio subsystem, the Crystal Sound 2 technology means a built-in amplifier, premium capacitors, EMI shielding and separate PCB layers for the left and right channels. The ASUS Z97-A doesn’t support USB BIOS Flashback although this technology might come in handy for the upcoming fifth-generation Core processors.

The mainboard supports Q-Design technologies which are meant to simplify the process of building and running an ASUS-based computer. You can quickly and easily identify the source of any boot-related problems by looking at the Q-LED indicators (CPU, DRAM, VGA and Boot Device LEDs). Then, we have broad graphics slot latches (Q-Slot), single-sided memory slot latches (Q-DIMM), and a set of adapters for connecting the mainboard to a computer case’s buttons, indicators and USB 2.0 connector (Q-Connector). The 5X Protection technology covers a number of engineering solutions that make the mainboard more reliable and long-lasting such as protection against overloads, short circuits and electrostatic discharges. The digital voltage regulator DIGI+ delivers stable power while the solid-state capacitors and the steel I/O Shield coated with a thin layer of chromium oxide (to prevent corrosion) increase the service life of the mainboard. And, finally, the 5-Way Optimization technology combines ASUS's exclusive features (TPU, EPU, DIGI+ Power Control, Fan Xpert 3 and Turbo App) which can help you optimize your computer for higher performance, power savings or energy efficiency.

We have summed up the basic specs of the ASUS Z97-A in the following table:

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