The successor to Intel's Z87 chipset is imminent, and very soon all will find out if the next generation of motherboards is a large step forward compared to its predecessor. Unfortunately we can't spill all the beans until the official launch day, but we can show you some of the features ASUS are bringing to the table this time around through their mainstream follow-up to the Z87-A. Note that these motherboards have been designed with the upcoming Haswell refresh in mind, and all that entails.
ASUS have at least three distinct motherboard ranges for the consumer market - Republic Of Gamers, TUF, and the mainstream range (which is often known as Legacy). This preview is for the latter, but many of the features will be shared with TUF designs which at the same time will be held to a higher component selection and manufacturing standard; ROG motherboards diverge much more significantly in its feature set, whilst still being true to the core chipset.
First off lets talk aesthetics. You can see that ASUS are more refined in the styling this time around, eschewing the Z87-A's gold flair in favour of only a few flashes in a mostly black board. At Vortez we're quite partial to the older colour scheme, but others will find the new to be much more pleasant - or at least easier to build around when customising your interior. It's also not quite as busy as many other ATX designs in regards to surface mounted components, speaking to the refined nature of the board over the previous generation.
Getting down to brass tacks, the dimensions of this board conform to standard ATX specifications. Notably this is still the most popular form factor sold by ASUS despite the recent surge in interest for smaller designs, so this relatively affordable entry into the mainstream range is expected to be their major seller. Four DDR3 DIMM slots are where you would expect them to be, whilst the CPU socket is further bordered on two sides by two relatively large heatsinks for the 8-phase DIGI+ VRM. The cooling on this motherboard isn't quite as elaborate as you might expect on ROG, TUF or Deluxe designs where in the past a heatpipe has bridged the heatsinks, and yet it should be plenty for some modest overclocking. The 8-pin EPS12V connector is in prime location for the majority of modern chassis.
Moving down the board we can observe that this is the first mainstream ASUS board with slot-based storage. MSATA was previously promoted as a major part of the Z77 and Z87 chipset but never really took off; this generation brings something a little different which we've discussed before, and may finally have some major benefits versus SATA3. However there will be more on that at the time of our review.
Three PCIe x16 slots indicate support for three full-length cards, but the motherboard won't support three-way SLI/CrossFireX. Still, two-way with a double-slot gap between is ideal for the vast majority of specs which do opt for SLI, both allowing plenty of air to flow between both cards and allow the use of even two with triple-slot coolers. Notably this motherboard still includes support for legacy PCI and in all likelihood this will be one of the final generations to do so. Two further PCIe x1 slots, primarily for audio or other add-in cards, round out the internal expansion slots.
Apart from one significant feature (which you'll probably know about if you had read this story from earlier today) storage and connectivity options look to be very similar to those of Z87. Both SATA and USB are well catered for as you would expect in a modern motherboard, and in a rare move for mainstream motherboards the majority of fan headers are four-pin which allows for PWM control throughout.
ASUS Specific Features
ASUS continue the next generation of Intel motherboards where they left off with Z87, bring a series of proprietary solutions to diverse requirements such as overclocking, fan control and on-board audio. The main thrust is through what they call '5-Way Optimisation', which is all about providing tools to consumers with often different expertise such that they can exploit the motherboard with a minimal learning curve.
This feature in the latest generation of boards builds on the previous designs which integrated TPU, EPU and DIGI+ Power. Under the new umbrella feature ASUS also bring Fan Expert 3 - the successor to Fan Expert 2 - and the brand new Turbo App, both for intermediate to advanced users.
Fan Expert 3 allows the creation of individual fan profiles for any and every system fan, be they DC or PWM, utilising data from multiple onboard thermal sensors - VRM, CPU, PCH and Motherboard (as well as an external header on some models). ASUS has also discovered a means of increasing the RPM range of most PWM fans specifically at the lower end, allowing very low-noise operation without the risk of stalling.
Rounding out the optimisations is the new Turbo App, a software suite primarily intended for gamers. Through the App you can allocate system resources to specific applications, prioritising for instance a game whilst throttling other background processes. The Turbo App also includes the sofware overclocking tools which can be tailored to specific processes, accessing a little more oomph on demand.
Complementing the Turbo App is Turbo LAN, and additional utility through which you can reduce network latency by setting priorities for applications. The effect should be most pronounced when downloading heavily in combination with playing an online title, although as always this will depend on network conditions. If you're on a capped internet tariff the built-in bandwidth meter will be a boon too.
It should be noted that any Turbo App dynamic overclocking settings will override Intel's Turbo Boost, and isn't yet able to dynamically down-clock the CPU or DRAM when the system isn't being stressed. That feature may be implemented in due course, but for now ASUS have prioritised energy saving through the EPU and chipset features.
All of the five key optimisation tools mentioned above can be accessed with just one click in software, making the process as straightforward as you could want, but nonetheless unlocks additional tools for those who can get to grips with everything the board is capable of.
Crystal Sound 2
Iterating on the original Crystal Sound, the new revision more effectively isolates left and right audio channels through dedicated PCB layers, shielding, and an EMI cover. Premium component selection will also improve sound quality, not least through the use of Japanese Capacitors and a de-pop circuit unique to ASUS boards.
On the software side ASUS are also improving the UI and including dts Connect and dts UltraPC II, which is intended to tailor the output audio to the speaker type utilised. In essence, although ASUS utilises a relatively standard Realtek CODEC, they're engineering the board to produce the very best sound such chips are capable of.
Updated UEFI Bios Improvements
Rounding out the hardware-specific improvements are some subtle changes to the UEFI BIOS. ASUS's implementation now includes both an EZ MODE for easy DIY system setup and an EZ Tuning Wizard to guide inexperienced users through the process of tweaking UEFI BIOS settings. Fan control also gets a refreshed graphical UI, now integrating system fan control into the BIOS and also allowing the creation of fan profiles for ASUS GPUs.
As with Z87 ASUS are stating that Thunderbolt 2 PCIe adaptor cards will be compatible with the next generation of boards including the one shown. A true niche interface, it's still of great value to those who make use of extremely fast external storage or other external devices which will tax the 20GB/s interface.
ASUS Homecloud is an application which allows you to utilise your system as a personal cloud server, making available audio and video for streaming and file access. It also allows some remote system control from mobile devices, although naturally there will be some limitations on the level of access these devices will have.
Note that these features are a central part of the mainstream ASUS motherboards due for release in the near future. Many of them are shared in the TUF and Sabertooth line, but there will be some variations in the Republic Of Gamers motherboards expected to be released alongside this motherboard.