Super Mainboard for a Mega-Computer: ASRock Z77 Extreme9 Review

The functionality of this mainboard has been significantly expanded with additional onboard controllers that provide the board with such features as wireless, FireWire, additional PCI-E slots, SATA and USB 3.0 ports. This board could become the base for a high-end computer system, although there are a few things to keep in mind while doing that.

by Doors4ever
08/29/2012 | 01:20 PM

There are several manufacturers who make special gaming mainboards. In our review series dedicated to LGA 1155 mainboards on Intel Z77 Express chipset we started with Gigabyte G1.Sniper 3, and a little later checked out ASRock Fatal1ty Z77 Professional. We didn’t do any direct comparison between the two products, because they were completely different and the only common features were the Intel Z77 Express chipset and the positioning for the gaming fans. However, it turned out that ASRock Z77 Extreme9 reminded us a lot of the Gigabyte G1.Sniper 3. Of course, these are two completely different mainboards, but they have so much in common that the side by side comparison makes a lot of sense in this case. Therefore, in our today’s review we are going to study the new ASRock Z77 Extreme9 and see how it compares against the same solutions implemented on Gigabyte G1.Sniper 3.

 

 

Packaging and Accessories

ASRock Z77 Extreme9 ships in a large box with a carry handle, just like the competitor:

The front cover attached with Velcro tabs can be flipped open to reveal a large clear window, which allows you to see the board without removing it from the box. The broadside and the back of the box offer brief descriptions of the mainboard features and peculiarities.

Inside the large external box there are two smaller internal ones. The top box additionally enforced with a frame made of porous material holds the mainboard, while the bottom box contains all numerous accessories:

We are not going to compare the boxes here, all we have to say is that both of the boards are very securely packed to protect them against possible transportation mishaps. Direct comparison of the bundled accessories also doesn’t make much sense without speaking in detail about the mainboard features. For example, Gigabyte board comes with a kit including a bracket and cables for adding two eSATA ports to the back panel, while ASRock board doesn’t have anything like that. However, the thing is that Gigabyte mainboard doesn’t have any eSATA ports in the back that is why they needed a bracket, however, ASRock mainboard already has one eSATA port on the back panel by default. Gigabyte mainboard is bundled with a special module for the 3-inch bay bringing two USB 3.0 ports to the front of your system case and with a Gigabyte GC-WB300D PCIe Wi-Fi/Bluetooth card with two external antennas. However, ASRock mainboard has the same exact mini-PCIe card on Atheros AR5B22 already integrated onto it. It supports 802.11 a/b/g/n standards in the dual-band 2.4 and 5 GHz range and allows connecting Bluetooth 4.0 to it as well. The accessories bundle includes a large ASRock Wi-SB Box that goes into the 5-inch bay of the system case. It has two internal antennas, two USB 3.0 ports and two slots for 2.5” drives.

Both mainboards come with six Serial ATA cables with metal connector locks, half of which are L-shaped and another half – straight, but the ASRock mainboard has an additional pair of power adapters for SATA devices. Both mainboards have a sufficient number of bridges for different Nvidia SLI graphics configurations, but Gigabyte mainboard also comes with a flexible bridge for AMD 2-Way CrossFireX systems. Moreover, the owners of Gigabyte mainboard will also get a large colorful “G1-Killer” poster, a set of decals with the series logos, bullet holes and ammo and a Gigabyte logo sticker for the system case.

PCB Design and Functionality

The color scheme of ASRock Z77 Extreme9 is a little dark, and only golden-colored solid state capacitors and decorative heatsink covers brighten it up a little bit. By the way, one of these covers has white LEDs underneath called “LED Heatsink Design”. Gigabyte mainboard has somewhat livelier color choices, but a tasteless skull sticker on the chipset heatsink doesn’t seem to fit in, while ASRock product looks serious and stylish. But, we are not at an art show, and therefore should proceed to the actual features rather than stick to the exterior looks of the two products in question.

The voltage regulator circuitry on ASRock Z77 Extreme9 is implemented via digital Digi Power system working as 8+4. The components of the voltage regulator that tend to warm up during work are covered with a large heatsink connected to the central heatsink with a heatpipe. All heatsinks on the board, including the third chipset heatsink are fastened using reliable screw-on retention. Just like the heatsink on Gigabyte G1.Sniper 3, the central heatsink on ASRock Z77 Extreme9 is not a decoration, but a mere necessity. It cools the PLX PEX 8747 bridge providing additional PCI Express lanes for the graphics cards. This controller significantly expands the list of possible PCI-E lanes distribution layouts for the existing graphics card slots. Not only a single graphics card may work at full PCI Express speed, but also both cards in a 2-Way configuration, and in case of a 4-card system each of them will work at x8 speed. Everything is the same as on Gigabyte G1.Sniper 3 mainboard, but there are way too many graphics card slots – ASRock Z77 Extreme9 has six of them. One of these slots uses PCI-E lanes from the chipset and therefore works only at x4 speed, but why did they leave us with five more slots if only four graphics cards could actually be installed?

Gigabyte mainboard has a very simple and intuitive layout of the graphics card slots, because there are four PCI Express 3.0/2.0 x16 slots. One of two graphics cards work at full speed, and once you add another card the speed will be shared between pairs of slots. Five slots on ASRock mainboard require a much more complicated layout. A single graphics card should be installed into the second slot, two graphics cards – into the first and fifth slot, the third card is added into the third slot, and the fourth – into the seventh slot.

As a result, Gigabyte is the winner here, because all of its slots, besides four PCI Express 3.0/2.0 x16, can be used. It also has two PCI Express 2.0 x1 slots, one PCI slot and one micro-SATA slot. There was no room left on ASRock mainboard because of an “extra” PCI Express 3.0/2.0 x16 slot that is why there are no PCI slots, no mSATA slots, although there is a mini-PCIe connector, which is already taken by the Wi-Fi/Bluetooth Atheros AR5B22 card. Moreover, ASRock mainboard is equipped with not very convenient graphics card locks: these aren’t the latches that automatically lock the card in place, but slider locks. They need to be shifted to free the card and to secure the card in place. Since contemporary graphics cards are pretty bulky and the sliders are fairly small, it is pretty hard to do it, especially when more than one or two graphics cards are installed.

However, ASRock mainboard does have its own advantages. Intel Z77 Express chipset can offer a limited number of PCI Express lanes, which are sued not only for the expansion card slots, but also for numerous additional controllers. As a result, after a long list of additional connectors and expansion cards we can often see a note printed in small font. It may state that PCI Express 2.0 x4 slot in fact works at x1 speed and if you set it to work at full speed, then all other PCI Express 2.0 x1 slots on the board will get disconnected. Moreover, additional SATA and USB 3.0 controllers may also stop working in this case. All this occurs because of insufficient number of free PCI-E lanes. To avoid situations like that and allow all additional connectors and controllers to work simultaneously, they equipped ASRock Z77 Extreme9 with PLX PEX 8608 hub that adds another eight PCI-E 2.0 lanes. We have already seen this solution on ASRock Fatal1ty Z77 Professional. Similar controllers with fewer additional lanes are also installed on Asus P8Z77-V Deluxe, Intel DZ77GA-70K and Intel DZ77RE-75K.

Speaking of additional interface controllers we should say that ASRock Z77 Extreme9 and Gigabyte G1.Sniper 3 have the same number of them onboard, only the chips models are different. Intel Z77 Express chipset provides the board with two SATA 6 Gbps ports and four SATA 3 Gbps ports, while two ASMedia ASM1061 controllers add another four SATA 6 Gbps ports. The only downside is that all six SATA 6 Gbps ports are of the same gray color, while the ports on Gigabyte board are easily distinguishable: white for the chipset ports and gray for the additional ones. One of these four additional ports is combined with an eSATA 6 Gbps on the back panel. Moreover, numerous video outs take a lot of space on the back of the Gigabyte G1.Sniper 3 board, although they are absolutely unnecessary for a multi-GPU system. The back panel space is used more efficiently on ASRock Z77 Extreme9, which allowed to lay out not only an eSATA port, but also an IEEE1394 (FireWire) port, a Clear CMOS button  and ten USB ports, compared against only six USB ports on the Gigabyte board.

Overall, the back panel of ASRock Z77 Extreme9 has the following ports and connectors:

We summed up all the technical specifications of ASRock Z77 Extreme9 in the following table:

ASRock Z77 Extreme9 and Gigabyte G1.Sniper 3 mainboards have a lot in common, and the existing differences do not allow us to name the winning product. Both boards use digital processor voltage regulator circuitries built with high-quality components, both use the PLX PEX 8747 bridge to take maximum advantage of the multi-card graphics configurations. On the one hand, Gigabyte board seems to be better because it doesn’t have the “excessive” PCI Express 3.0/2.0 x16 slot, but has PCI and microSATA slots instead, but on the other hand, ASRock mainboard has an additional PLX PEX 8608 hub and a PCI express 2.0 x16 (x4) slot. Both boards have four additional SATA 6 Gbps ports, two Gigabit network controllers, eight-channel sound, IEEE1394 (FireWire) support. However, the back panel of ASRock mainboard seems to be laid out in a more optimal way, and Gigabyte board boasts hardware and software goodies from Creative Technology and Bigfoot Networks.  Z77 Extreme9 mainboard has a total of twenty USB ports, twelve of which are USB 3.0, while G1.Sniper 3 has ten USB 3.0 ports out of a total of fourteen.

Both boards support wireless technologies using mini-PCIe Atheros AR5B22 card, which offers dual-band 2.4 and 5 GHz connection with 802.11 a/b/g/n support as well as Bluetooth 4.0. Some may prefer a discrete card with two external antennas, some – an integrated card with internal antennas. Some will favor a module for the 3-inch system case bay with two USB 3.0 ports, while others will choose ASRock Wi-SB Box for the 5-inch bay with two additional slots for 2.5” drives. Both boards have Power On, Reset, Clear CMOS buttons and POST-code indicators, both allow adjusting the rotation speed of three-pin processor fans, both use 2 oz copper PCBs. Gigabyte has two BIOS chips with the switching option and special voltage control points for manual voltage monitoring. The G1.Sniper 3 board is designed in an E-ATX form-factor (264 mm wide), while Z77 Extreme9 managed to remain whtijn the standard ATX dimensions.

BIOS Functionality

When we reviewed ASRock Z77 Extreme4 and ASRock Z77 Extreme6 mainboards, we discussed their BIOS functionality in great detail, and a little later we talked about the BIOS on ASRock Z77 Fatal1ty Professional, which major distinguishing feature was the typical red-and-black “Fatal1ty” interface. That is why today we are going to go over the major BIOS sections and point out only the most important features and peculiarities.

The first section we see upon accessing the BIOS is called “Main”, which reports the basic information about our system.

 

“System Browser” sub-section is designed as a pretty precise schematic layout of the board itself. By rolling the mouse pointer over any of the mainboard components on this layout you can get information about it. For example, we highlighted the voltage regulator on the layout and learned that the BIOS sees its structure as 12+6 instead of 8+4.

ASRock OMG (Online Management Guard) function allows denying Internet access at preset times and days of the week in the BIOS.

Most of the overclocking and fine-tuning options are gathered in “OC Tweaker” section. The top part offers you options for automatic overclocking of the CPU and the graphics core integrated into it, or allows setting the parameters manually. At the bottom of the page there is an option that allows you to save up to three complete settings profiles and assign each of them a descriptive name. The voltages may be set above and below the nominal value. They may be set at specific values, or adjusted by adding an offset to the default setting. The digital voltage regulator circuitry allows selecting the Vdroop value.

As usual, some parameters have been relocated into individual sections to unload the main page a little bit. In particular, all the settings for memory timings configuring have been singled out onto a separate page.

We are already very well familiar with the functionality of the sub-sections in the “Advanced” section: their names speak for themselves. I would only like to point out a very convenient BIOS updating tool called “Instant Flash”. This utility will analyze the contents of the plugged in USB drive and provide you a list of compatible updates. All you need to do at this point is select the correct BIOS version. We also noticed a few changes in another even more convenient BIOS updating utility called “Internet Flash”: now we can select the server for downloading the BIOS at the most convenient geographical location.

The “CPU Configuration” sub-section contains basic information about the processor and offers to configure some processor technologies.

“H/W Monitor” section allows monitoring temperatures, voltages and fan rotation speeds. The rotation speeds of the two processor fans and a four-pin system fan may be set in dependence on the temperature or locked at a certain fixed value. The rotation speed of the remaining two system fans can only be lowered to the desired level. Only the “Power FAN” speed can be monitored but cannot be adjusted in any way. “Dehumidifier Function” will prevent boot-up failures caused by excessive humidity inside the system case. The humidity can be easily lowered from 70% to 40% in a very simple way: by powering the system on from time to time. This function allows setting the frequency of system power-ups, the length of the on-time and the rotation speed of the CPU cooler fan.

The “Boot” section allows choosing the startup system parameters.

“Security” section will offer to create administrator and user passwords.

The last section called “Exit” allows you to apply all changes, cancel them or reset all settings to defaults.

Overall, the new UEFI BIOS from ASRock looks very solid and convenient to work with. It offers everything necessary for system overclocking and fine-tuning.

Testbed Configuration

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

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 9.3.0.1020, AMD Catalyst graphics card driver version 12.4.

Operational and Overclocking Specifics

We didn’t have any problems during the system assembly on ASRock Z77 Extreme9. When the system is on we see a startup logo with the mention of all active hot keys.

You may turn off the start-up image. In this case we will see the correct processor clock frequency, which most mainboards from other manufacturers cannot do. However, as for the memory, the board will only display its size, but not the frequency. I would also like to stress that ASRock mainboards start and reboot very quickly.

Unfortunately, we experienced an issue in the nominal mode: the rotation speed of the processor fan didn’t adjust. Rotation speed management suddenly kicked in during overclocking, but we suddenly uncovered another issue: the board always set the maximum “Level 1” Vdroop no matter what the BIOS settings were. As a result, we simply couldn’t overclock our CPU. Either the voltage was too low, so that the board couldn’t even load the operating system, or the BSODs would appear immediately after the start-up and even before the tests started. Or the voltage was too high and the CPU immediately overheated at the very first seconds of the stability tests.

Before we started the test session we used the convenient “Internet Flash” function integrated into the BIOS. This function worked impeccably and updated our BIOS with the latest version 1.50. It turned out that all the problems were with this particular BIOS version. Once we rolled back to version 1.40, we didn’t have any issues in the nominal or overclocked mode. Therefore, we performed all the tests with the BIOS version 1.40 and talked about it in the “BIOS Functionality” chapter of this review. We have to give ASRock due credit for taking rapid action and removing the BIOS version 1.50 from their web-site. I am sure that once it becomes available again, it will already be problem-free, so you shouldn’t be worried. Once again we have to remind you of the golden rule: do not reflash the BIOS if everything works fine with the current version.

Once we returned to version P1.40, we easily overclocked our test processor to its maximum frequency of 4.6 GHz increasing the memory frequency to 1867 MHz at the same time.

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.

 

Performance Comparison

As usual, we are going to compare the mainboards speeds in two different modes: in nominal mode and during CPU and memory overclocking. The first mode is interesting because it shows how well the mainboards work with their default settings. It is a known fact that most users do not fine-tune their systems, they simply choose the optimal BIOS settings and do nothing else. That is why we run a round of tests almost without interfering in any way with the default mainboard settings. For comparison purposes we also included the results of the previously reviewed ASRock Fatal1ty Z77 Professional, ASRock Z77 Extreme4 and ASRock Z77 Extreme6, Asus P8Z77-V Deluxe, Asus Sabertooth Z77, Gigabyte G1.Sniper 3, Gigabyte GA-Z77X-UD3H and GA-Z77X-UD5H-WB WIFI, Intel DZ77BH-55K, Intel DZ77GA-70K and Intel DZ77RE-75K, and MSI Z77A-GD65 mainboards. The results on the diagrams are sorted out in descending order.

Nominal Mode

We used Cinebench 11.5. All tests were run five times and the average result of the five runs was taken for the performance charts.

We have been using Fritz Chess Benchmark utility for a long time already and it proved very illustrative. It generated repeated results, the performance in it is scales perfectly depending on the number of involved computational threads.

A small video in x264 HD Benchmark 4.0 is encoded in two passes and then the entire process is repeated four times. The average results of the second pass are displayed on the following diagram:

We measured the performance in Adobe Photoshop using our own benchmark made from Retouch Artists Photoshop Speed Test that has been creatively modified. It includes typical editing of four 10-megapixel images from a digital photo camera.

In the archiving test a 1 GB file is compressed using LZMA2 algorithms, while other compression settings remain at defaults.

Like in the data compression test, the faster 16 million of Pi digits are calculated, the better. This is the only benchmark where the number of processor cores doesn’t really matter, because it creates single-threaded load.

Since we do not overclock graphics in our mainboard reviews, the next diagram shows only CPU tests from the 3DMark11 – Physics Score. This score is obtained in a special physics test that emulates the behavior of a complex gaming system working with numerous objects:

We use FC2 Benchmark Tool to go over Ranch Small map ten times in 1920x1080 resolution with high image quality settings in DirectX 10.

Resident Evil 5 game also has a built-in performance test. Its peculiarity is that it can really take advantage of multi-core processor architecture. The tests were run in DirectX 10 in 1920x1080 resolution with high image quality settings. The average of five test runs was taken for further analysis:

Batman: Arkham City game also reacts eagerly to any changes in the CPU clock frequency, but it uses DirectX 11. We ran game’s integrated benchmark five times with high image quality settings and then take the average of the five runs for the diagrams.

In the nominal mode ASRock Z77 Extreme9 is not too fast and its results are always a little below average, while Gigabyte G1.Sniper 3 is often the performance leader. However, this is not a critical difference.

Overclocked Mode

ASRock board does better during overclocking and is at the top of the diagrams most of the time. However, it is important to take into account its CPU and memory overclocking results. The table below shows what we obtained on different mainboards:

ASRock Z77 Extreme9 looks way better than others during overclocking, because it managed to hit the maximum CPU frequency. However, among other mainboards that overclocked the processor to the same 4.6 GHz it is usually at the end of the pack, which means that nothing has really changed compared with what we have just seen in the nominal mode. Gigabyte G1.Sniper 3 mainboard is a little faster than average, ASRock Z77 Extreme9 – a little slower than average, so despite the difference in their overclocking results, their performance numbers are very close and Gigabyte mainboard is sometimes even ahead of the ASRock.

 

Power Consumption

We performed our power consumption measurements using an Extech Power Analyzer 380803. This device is connected before the PSU and measures the power draw of the entire system (without the monitor), including the power loss that occurs in the PSU itself. In the idle mode we start the system up and wait until it stops accessing the hard disk. Then we use LinX to load the CPU. For a more illustrative picture there are graphs that show how the computer power consumption grows up depending on the number of active execution threads in LinX (both at the default and overclocked system settings).

Power consumption is yet another aspect where Gigabyte G1.Sniper 3 and ASRock Z77 Extreme9 mainboards are close, and at the same time very different from the competitors, unfortunately. The additional PCI-E bus hub makes them consume much more power than the others, although the ASRock board does look a little better. Its processor power-saving technologies work correctly right from the beginning, including the dynamic adjustment of the number of active phases in the processor voltage regulator circuitry, while the same function on Gigabyte mainboard doesn’t work. Also, the power consumption may be additionally lowered by enabling the “Power Saving Mode” in the BIOS, which will lower the CPU Vcore by 0.1 V by default (this value may also be adjusted manually).

During overclocking the situation with power consumption changes a little bit. In idle mod and under low operational loads ASRock Z77 Extreme9 catches up with Gigabyte G1.Sniper 3, and under heavy operational loads its power consumption gets even a little higher. At the same time both mainboards remain pretty power-hungry compared to the other testing participants. However, let’s not forget that ASRock mainboard managed to overclock the CPU to higher frequencies and therefore its Vcore was raised more, so the results remain in its absolute favor.

 

Conclusion

I have to say that ASRock Z77 Extreme9 mainboard left a very good impression. In fact, we didn’t have any serious problems with it, neither in nominal mode, nor during CPU and memory overclocking. Of course, there are a few things that could be improved, but they are totally outweighed by the indisputable advantages and unique features the board boasts. This is, actually, one of the reasons why our original intention to compare ASRock and Gigabyte mainboards has finally arrived to a dead end. These two mainboards have a lot in common and at the same time are very different. Each board has its own advantages and its own specific shortcomings, however the advantages are not dramatic enough and the shortcomings are not critical enough to allow us to award the winning title to one of these products. Both of them seem to be priced in the same range, but the latter turned out arguable. We have already pointed out many times in our reviews that ASRock mainboards are usually priced lower than other similar products, which can make them a more attractive purchase. To our sincere surprise, ASRock Z77 Extreme9 turned out significantly more expensive than Gigabyte G1.Sniper 3. For example, the popular Newegg.com web-site offers Gigabyte G1.Sniper 3 for $280, which is already quite a lot for an Intel Z77 Express based mainboard, but can still be explained by extensive functionality and all the extras this board has to offer. At the same time they offer ASRock Z77 Extreme9 for as much as $350! Taking into account that the two boards have a pretty equal score of highs and lows, this serious price difference makes ASRock’s marketing success pretty vague.

However, the technical specifications are the only thing that doesn’t change after the mainboard launch, and ASRock Z77 Extreme9 has absolutely no problems with features and functionality. It is much more advanced than any mainstream board out there. When we reviewed ASRock Fatal1ty Z77 Professional mainboard, we called it “the most feature-rich mainboard” and now we see that it was obviously too premature. Unlike functionality and features, the price may change as time goes on. Besides, it may differ in various parts of the world. So, go ahead and check the price of the ASRock Z77 Extreme9 mainboard at your local stores, it must have already gone down a bit making the board a much more attractive buy. However, do not forget that this particular mainboard, just as its today’s competitor from Gigabyte, is targeted for multi-card graphics configurations in the first place. If you are planning to use only one discrete graphics accelerator, or the graphics core integrated into your processor, then you may want to look at some other models.