07/17/2012 | 12:47 PM
Quite a few mainboard makers offer not only regular mainstream products, but also exclusive mainboard series. Take, for instance, “Fatal1ty” series from ASRock, “Republic of Gamers” series from ASUS, “G1-Killer” series from Gigabyte or “Big Bang” series from MSI. All mainboard makers stress the use of high-quality electronic components, but only Asus actually back up their words with sound actions by introducing “TUF” (The Ultimate Force) mainboard series. “TUF” mainboards have a lot of peculiarities, some of which are typical of all mainboards in the series, and some are unique for specific mainboard models, but they all share one common feature: extended warranty period of 5 years. Our today’s review will talk about Asus Sabertooth Z77 mainboard from the “TUF” series. We will try to recall the already familiar features and get acquainted with some of the brand new ones as well.
Like all other “TUF” mainboards, Asus Sabertooth Z77 comes in a package with typical design. The cardboard packaging is designed as a metal box with a flip-open front cover. The broadside of the box as well as the back side of it offers a brief list of the mainboard features. Besides that, there is a mainboard photo on the back of the box alongside the list of its technical specifications.
The mainboard inside the cardboard packaging sits in a separate box with a plastic lid with all the accessories arranged beneath it:
Last year we reviewed Asus Sabertooth P67 mainboard, which was also almost completely covered with a protective plastic casing called “TUF Thermal Armor”, that is why we weren’t really chocked when we saw Asus Sabertooth Z77 mainboard. But in any case, a seriously armored mainboard does command respect with its mere looks.
The main idea behind “TUF Thermal Armor” technology is to provide a physical barrier between the mainboard components and the much hotter processor and graphics accelerator. To ensure that the hot air trapped under the casing doesn’t stay there, the manufacturer included two 35 mm fans and two sets of retention screws for them. One fan should be installed onto a special reserved spot in the center of the mainboard, while the other one should cool two heatsinks on the processor voltage regulator components also hidden beneath the casing.
35 mm fans are not very popular these days, so they might be difficult to replace in case of failure, therefore, there is also a special frame that will allow using a 40 mm fan if necessary. There is also enough free space on the back panel to avoid any airflow obstruction. The only strange thing is that the warm air won’t be pushed to the outside of the system, but rather sucked inside it. However, only LGA 1366 and LGA 2011 mainboards are in serious need of additional cooling of their voltage regulator circuitries, while significantly more energy-efficient LGA 1155 boards may easily do without it, as they do not heat up a lot.
“TUF Thermal Armor” technology eventually evolved into “TUF Dust Defender” technology. You could see on the mainboard photo that three internal USB 2.0 pin-connectors are covered with anti-dust protective plastic caps. However, there are additional dust-filters for all expansion card slots as well as memory DIMM slots among the bundled accessories.
As a result, once the system has been completely assembled and all components and dust-filters are in place the mainboard’s body armor becomes almost completely solid:
Dressed up like that, Asus Sabertooth Z77 doesn’t look anything like a regular mainboard anymore, but the component layout shows that its design is, in fact, very thought-through and complies fully with contemporary system needs and requirements.
The digital “TUF ENGINE!” voltage regulator circuitry designed as 8+4+2 powers the processor, integrated graphics core and memory. The board uses “TUF Components”, which exceptional quality is confirmed by the enclosed certificate. There are four memory DIMM slots that can accommodate up to 32 GB of RAM working in dual-channel mode. By the way, Asus mainboards allow clocking the memory in very wide frequency range from 800 to 3200 MHz in systems with Ivy Bridge processors. The graphics cards can be installed in two PCI Express 3.0/2.0 x16 slots that share 16 PCI Express lanes. The third PCI Express 2.0 x16 slot works at the maximum speed of x4, but it has to share the available four lanes with another three PCI Express 2.0 x1 slots that is why its default speed is only x1.
The Intel Z77 Express chipset provides support for four Serial ATA 3 Gbps ports (black connectors) and two SATA 6 Gbps ports (brown connectors). The additional ASMedia ASM1061 controller adds another two SATA 6 Gbps ports (light-gray connectors). Besides two three-pin connectors for the included 35 mm fans, there are six four-pin connectors, two of which are designated for processor fans. Here we should bring up “TUF Thermal Radar” technology, which allows monitoring and controlling twelve (!) temperatures in various hot spots. The fan rotation speeds may be set dependent on these readings.
The mainboard back panel contains the following ports and connectors:
“USB BIOS Flashback” button will allow to easily update the mainboard BIOS with the help of the namesake technology even if the system hasn’t been completely assembled yet. Like other ASUS mainboards, Asus Sabertooth Z77 uses convenient wide Q-Slot latches on the graphics card slots and Q-DIMM latches only on one end of the memory slots. Besides the abovementioned “USB BIOS Flashback” button on the back panel, there is also a MemOK! button that allows the mainboard to successfully boot even if there are memory-related problems present. The Q-LED diodes will help you quickly determine at what stage the boot-up process has stalled by gradually lighting up the LEDs as the processor, graphics cards and boot-up drive get initialized.
We summed up the mainboard’s major technical specifications in the following table:
We were pretty surprised to see the following note to the technical specifications, which we haven’t seen or noticed before: “Due to Intel chipset limitation, P8Z77, P8H77 and P8B75 series motherboards do not support Windows Vista operating system”.
In our previous reviews of Asus products we have already talked about Asus EFI BIOS – an overall very successful implementation of the UEFI standard (Unified Extensible Firmware Interface). Therefore, today we are going to briefly glance over the major BIOS sections pointing out new features and functions.
By default, there is “EZ Mode” enabled in the BIOS. It performs mostly informational functions, because there are barely any configurable parameters there. You can check the basic system settings, some monitoring data, select an energy-efficient or performance mode and set the order of boot-up devices by simply dragging and dropping them with the mouse pointer.
You can quickly switch from “EZ Mode” to “Advanced Mode” by pressing F7, or use the F3 hot key to jump over to one of the most frequently used BIOS sections.
You can switch from “EZ Mode” to “Advanced Mode” every time you enter the BIOS, or press F3 key which also works if pressed while in any other BIOS section, yet it could be much more convenient if you made “Advanced Mode” a default setting. In this case the first section you will see would be the familiar “Main” section, where you can receive some basic system information, change the interface language and set up the date and time.
Most of the overclocking-related options are traditionally gathered in the “Ai Tweaker” section. The main section window allows you to change the frequencies, multipliers and voltages. You don’t need to go over to the “Monitoring” section to check the current voltages, as they are all listed right here next to each of the parameters used for changing these voltages, which is highly convenient. The voltage may be set above or below their nominal values.
As usual, some parameters are singled out into individual sub-sections in order to unload the main section a little bit. “OC Tuner” parameter only looks like a sub-section, but in reality it helps to automatically overclock the system. The memory timings can also be configured on an individual page. They are indeed very numerous, but still very easy to work with. You can see all timings that the mainboard sets for each of the two memory channels. And you can adjust only a few selected timings, such as the main ones, for example, leaving all other settings at defaults.
The “CPU Power Management” sub-section allows configuring the parameters affecting “Intel Turbo Boost” technology. However, you do not have to do that, because the board will automatically adjust everything to match your selected overclocking goals.
I can’t help pointing out a lot of options that deal primarily with the power and energy consumption. They appeared due to the digital “DIGI+” voltage regulator circuitry. You can configure Asus’ proprietary power-saving technologies that allow changing the number of active phases in the voltage regulator circuitry depending on the CPU utilization right in the BIOS. “CPU Load-Line Calibration” technology that prevents the CPU Vcore from dropping under heavy load may be not only enabled or disabled, but also adjusted to deliver the desired effect.
The functionality of the parameters in the sub-sections of the “Advanced” section is quite clear from their names.
The “CPU Configuration” sub-section reports the basic info about the processor and allows managing some processor technologies.
All parameters related to power-saving are singled out on a separate page called “CPU Power Management Configuration”.
“Monitor” section tells us the current temperatures, voltages and fan rotation speeds. You can select one of the preset modes for two processor, four case and two additional fans from a pretty standard set including “Standard”, “Silent” and “Turbo” modes. You can also select the parameters manually. You can take advantage of the flexible adjustment options for processor fans only if you are using four-pin fans.
The new “Fan Overtime” parameter allows setting the time of 1 to 10 minutes, during which the small additional fans will continue working after the system has been shut down completely to ensure quick cooling of the system components.
The “Boot” section allows you to adjust your boot-up parameters that will be applied on system start-up. By the way, this is where you have to replace the default “EZ Mode” with “Advanced Mode”.
Now let’s quickly refresh the functionality of the “Tools” section.
The built-in “EZ Flash 2” utility for BIOS reflashing is one of the most convenient and functional programs of the kind. Unfortunately, they have recently eliminated the option that allowed saving the current BIOS version before reflashing a new one.
Asus mainboards allow saving and then quickly loading eight full BIOS settings profiles. Each profile may be given a brief descriptive name reminding you of its contents.
They still haven’t fixed the issue that doesn’t allow you to save disabling of the startup image in the settings profile, but they brought back the ability to exchange BIOS settings profiles with other users, which was lost upon transition to the EFI BIOS. From now on the profiles may be saved onto external media and loaded from them.
The last section is called “Exit”. Here you can apply the changes, restore the defaults or go back to the “EZ Mode”.
We have discussed in detail the “Asus AI Suite II” software bundled with contemporary Asus mainboards in our Asus P8Z77-V Deluxe review. Therefore, today we are going just to point out some of the most prominent differences. You can easily see that the list of software tools and utilities bundled with Asus Sabertooth Z77 mainboard has become slightly different. This is quite logical as there is no Wi-Fi/Bluetooth module here, for instance, and therefore, some of the utilities are no longer needed.
“ASUS TurboV EVO” utility allows setting overclocking parameters, saving them into a profile, or resorting to automatic overclocking in the “Auto Tuning” sub-section. “ASUS DIGI+ Power Control” utility is sued to configure processor and memory voltage regulator and power settings. “ASUS Sensor Recorder” utility can create diagrams showing dynamic changing of the voltages, temperatures and fan speeds and then save all these data into a file. “ASUS Ai Charger+” and “ASUS USB Charger+” programs allow rapidly charging mobile devices even if the system is in one of the power-saving states. The only difference between them is that the first program works with Apple devices, while the second – with the devices from other makers. “ASUS USB 3.0 Boost” utility will speed up data transfer using Turbo or UASP modes (the latter will only work in Windows 8 or newer OS). ”ASUS Network iControl” utility will help connect to a network and set bandwidth priorities for different applications.
One of the distinguishing features of the “TUF” mainboard series is “TUF Thermal Radar” technology, which functionality has been implemented through a namesake utility.
This utility will not only show where all thermal diodes are located and what their readings are, what fan speeds and voltages are current. It will also allow selecting one of the preset profiles or adjust the rotation speed of any fan manually.
We carried out our tests on a testbed that included 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 220.127.116.110, AMD Catalyst 12.4 graphics card driver.
When we assembled our Asus Sabertooth Z77 based system we didn’t have any problems or difficulties. Although I have to admit that I immediately disconnected the fan for cooling the heatsinks on the processor voltage regulator components. This small 35 mm fan rotates too fast even though the rotation speed adjustment is in place. The heatsinks it cools do not heat up even under heavy load and during CPU overclocking, so there was no need to put up with additional noise.
During system startup you will see a startup image, where there was no mention of any hot keys besides “Del”.
Disabling the startup image won’t pay off big. The board can’t tell us the actual CPU clock frequency, and will always report the nominal one. The hints about available hot keys also won’t come up on the screen.
Besides the extra noise from the 35 mm fans, there are no other comments on our part about the mainboard operation in nominal mode. Automatic system overclocking using “OC Tuner” parameter in the mainboard BIOS also was a success, and even though we weren’t at all disappointed with the obtained results, we weren’t super-excited either. The CPU clock speed rose to 4.22 GHz, all power-saving technologies remained up and running flawlessly, but the memory frequency didn’t change at all.
As for the manual overclocking, we faced some unexpected difficulties trying to keep the system stable at 4.6 GHz as well as 4.5 GHz CPU clock.
Here it is important to remind you that our particular processor is overclocked to 4.6 GHz frequency only when we reviewed the first three mainboards on Intel Z77 Express chipset: Asus P8Z77-V Deluxe, ASRock Z77 Extreme4 and ASRock Z77 Extreme6. All mainboards tested after that, namely, Gigabyte G1.Sniper 3, MSI Z77A-GD65, Intel DZ77GA-70K and Intel DZ77RE-75K stopped at 4.5 GHz. We should strike out the MSI board, because we intentionally didn’t raise the CPU core voltage when we overclocked on it in order to keep processor power-saving technologies intact. However, if we add here the results obtained with the Asus Sabertooth Z77 board, we can clearly suspect that our processor could have degraded substantially. With the first three mainboards we even attempted to hit 4.7 GHz, but decided to stop at 4.6 GHz because of extremely high temperatures. The second group of mainboards managed to overclock this processor to 4.5 GHz, and now we can’t get even that, although we were optimistic that Asus Sabertooth Z77 would push the overclocking results back to 4.6 GHz.
However, before we make bold statements like that, let’s take a closer look at this situation. At first we ran all tests in the nominal mode and everything went flawlessly. After that we increased the memory frequency and again didn’t have any problems. It indicates that the experienced issues have nothing to do with the actual benchmarks or operating system and are not connected with the memory overclocking. They emerge only when we attempt to overclock our CPU. Therefore, we assembled a testbed using ASRock Z77 Extreme4 mainboard – one of the boards that managed to previously overclock our processor to 4.6 GHz. Of course, the testing conditions were not fully identical to what we had before, because since then new drivers and BIOS versions came out. However, the new BIOS version didn’t prevent ASRock mainboard from passing all stability tests with flying colors at the same 4.6 GHz CPU clock.
In other words, there is no sign of any CPU degradation. It is still capable of hitting higher numbers and if we can’t do that, the CPU is not the one to blame. Since we couldn’t get Asus Sabertooth Z77 to overclock our processor beyond 4.4 GHz we had to stop at this CPU frequency and 1867 MHz memory frequency. This overclocking didn’t require any Vcore increase; all we had to do was to enable minimal CPU Load-Line Calibration.
Now I would only like to remind you that we always overclock mainboards in such a way that they could be used for a prolonged period of time in this mode. We do not try to make our life easier by disabling any of the mainboard features, such as onboard controllers, for example. We also try to keep the CPU's power-saving technologies up and running normally to the best of our ability. And this time all power-saving technologies remained up and running even during overclocking lowering the CPU voltage and frequency multiplier in idle mode.
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 Asus P8Z77-V Deluxe, ASRock Z77 Extreme4 and ASRock Z77 Extreme6, Gigabyte G1.Sniper 3, Intel DZ77GA-70K and Intel DZ77RE-75K, and MSI Z77A-GD65 mainboards. The results on the diagrams are sorted out in descending order.
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 Asus Sabertooth Z77 performs at a quite expected normal level, which is just a little bit lower than the performance of the fastest Asus P8Z77-V Deluxe or Gigabyte G1.Sniper 3 mainboards.
Of course, things are going to change dramatically during overclocking, because Asus Sabertooth Z77 had the lowest overclocking result of all the testing participants. The obtained results are summed up in the following table:
Asus Sabertooth Z77 is quite logically the slowest during most of the tests in overclocked mode, but as it turned out not in all of them.
Intel mainboards fell behind Asus Sabertooth Z77 in 7-zip test, because it is very sensitive to the memory sub-system parameters, and the memory timings on Intel mainboards are not as good as on others. MSI board was the slowest in 3DMark 11 – Physics Score test. As for the gaming tests, here Asus Sabertooth Z77 is barely any different from the other boards that reached 4.6 GHz CPU clock, and all others fall farther behind. So, CPU overclocking is definitely not the only thing affecting the overall system performance. Sometimes mainboards’ unique features have a much greater effect on the speed.
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).
Asus Sabertooth Z77 consumes a little more than average in nominal mode, although all of its processor power-saving technologies work absolutely correctly right from the start. The next diagram shows that enabling Asus’ proprietary power-saving technologies will provide additional energy-efficiency under any load as well as in idle mode.
In idle mode during overclocking the board’s power-consumption is again a little above average. Only under maximum load it becomes one of the most energy-efficient, but this is bitter-sweet victory, because this board has the lowest overclocking results of all, which was obtained without any increase in the CPU Vcore.
Throughout our Asus Sabertooth Z77 review we pointed out its advantages and drawbacks. Now time has come for us to sum everything up and draw some conclusions. The mainboard has thought-through and very convenient layout, good set of features meeting all contemporary requirements. Numerous BIOS options allow very extensive system fine-tuning in broad ranges, and the proprietary software adds indisputable value and extends the mainboard’s functionality even further. Unfortunately, the board’s power consumption is a little above average, and it was unable to overclock our test processor to its maximum. But despite these facts, Asus Sabertooth Z77 is so fast that in some applications it clearly outperforms the competitors, which managed to achieve better overclocking results.
Speaking of the specific unique features of a “TUF” series mainboard, things aren’t so straight-forward here. Of course, no one will be against a digital voltage regulator circuitry powering the processor, integrated graphics core and memory. The use of high-end electronic components as stated by the enclosed quality certificate is also worth a lot. However, we have some doubts about the efficiency of a few other technologies. Take, for example, “TUF Thermal Armor”, which is in fact a plastic casing covering almost the entire mainboard PCB. This “armor” is designed to separate the mainboard from other components inside the system that may run very hot, such as a graphics card or a CPU, and also to improve the mainboard cooling by optimizing the airflow from the cooling fans. But will the separation help, if there is a fan in the very center of the mainboard, right between a hot graphics card and a processor, which will suck hot air underneath the casing? The recommended positioning of the second fan is also somewhat questionable, as it is supposed to cool the heatsinks on the processor voltage regulator circuitry components by pushing hot air into the system case. On top of that these small high-speed fans generate quite a bit of noise.
Anti-dust caps for the empty slots and connectors, which are part of the “TUF Dust Defender” technology is definitely a good thing. However, most dust usually collects around the processor socket. This is where the dust accumulates in different patterns depending on the specifics of the CPU cooler installed in your system. However, you won’t be able to completely isolate the area around the processor socket, so the actual benefits from this technology will be quite insignificant. Even the seemingly flawless “TUF Thermal Radar” technology still has room for improvement. The users do not really care whether the temperature around the SATA or USB ports is 33, 35 or 37°C. In any case, it will never reach critical levels and therefore is of no significant value. However, this technology wasn’t able to slow down the small 35 mm fans while maintaining sufficient cooling efficiency. It is also not capable of adjusting the rotation speed of three-pin processor fans, and although there are two processor fan connectors onboard, both of them are four-pin connectors.
As a result, we cannot deny the benefits of “TUF Thermal Armor”, “TUF Thermal Radar” and “TUF Dust Defender” technologies, but we dare question their necessity. The only thing we know for sure is that these technologies do affect the mainboard price. However, any “TUF” mainboard has one indisputable advantage - 5-year warranty. No other mainboard maker offers anything like that, that is why we are confident that Asus Sabertooth Z77 will find its fans and their choice will undoubtedly be the right one.