BIOS is an acronym that stands for Basic Input/Output System. It is meant to control your product at a very low level. As of right now there are three regularly used BIOS formats (there are actually more than that but there are three common ones). These are the AMI (American Megatrends Incorporated), Award, and Phoenix. Of course with the introduction of the UEFI (Unified Extensible Firmware Interface) we now have a solid basis for the “BIOS” on new motherboards. This actually gets away from the term BIOS (Basic Input/Output System) and becomes more of a software interface. Each manufacturer will have their own take on how to implement this; some good, some not so good. If trace layout and component choice is the front line on performance then the BIOS is right behind them. In many cases the system BIOS is used to overcome problems with the initial design of the board. Asus has always been out in front when it comes to the new UEFI designs, their implementation is one of the most responsive that we have played with. You can check out the UEFI BIOS on the Z87-Expert in the video below.
Overclocking is one of the fun parts of testing motherboards and CPUs (well really almost every component…). As Intel has developed their CPUs and Chipsets overclocking has become easier to accomplish for even a novice. CPUs and motherboards are designed with considerable headroom to allow for extra voltage and to handle the increase in speed. Once again Asus has always been a leader in overclocking methods, components and in providing boards that have the potential to push your CPU and memory to their limits. For us pushing the Intel Core i7 4770k was not too hard and we are happy with the final results that we got on the 4770k. We did not need to use too much voltage to get there which is always a good thing. You can check out the CPUz validation below.
Of course overclocking is a picky subject. I can buy to identical CPUs from the store and they will not always perform the same way under stress. This is the same with motherboards, RAM and GPUs. So again it is important to keep in mind that our results represent a specific hardware configuration. Yours may be similar but will rarely be identical.
Overclocking Tools –
Asus provides a nice suite of board management and overclocking tools in their AISuite. Over the years they have improved them quite a bit and now they form a single program with multiple APIs running under the same hood. The tools, like the UEFI BIOS have improved in responsiveness and also in what they provide to the end users. As there are far too many to cover with pictures and text we thought a video would do the new AISuite justice much better.
The Test System and Comments -
Our test system is built on an open bench. This has two effects on testing. First it allows us to see everything and also to setup and disassemble the test rigs quickly. Second it means that we cannot gauge the potential air flow found in a normal case. The air is pretty stagnant; some may say this is a great neutral testing method and it can be. However, it does mean that the temperature reading taken off of the components are not accurate to what an average consumer would see. This means that your thermal performance will vary from what we see here. Over the last few months we have redesigned our lab to give us conditions closer to what an end user would have. We have ditched the completely open benches in favor of Cooler Master HAF X cases. These give us the ease of using a test bench but with the air flow of a real case. For cooling and power we also chose Cooler Master using their Eisberg 240 water cooling system and Silent Power Pro 1050 Watt PSUs. For drives and memory Kingston is our company of choice with us typically using their 16GB Hyper X 10th Anniversary kits (KHX24C11X3K4/16X) and HyperX SH100S3B/120G 120GB SSDs in both of our benches. For this test we also wanted to try out their 16GB Beast kit (KHX21C11T3K2/16X). We have also decided to stick with Windows 7 for now until we have completely validated Windows 8.1 with all of our tests. Currently there are still some benchmarks and real world applications that do not perform well on Windows 8.x systems. Once we can confirm these we will begin the move to using that OS as a testing platform.
Performance testing overview -
Our testing is a little different than most. We combine both synthetic and real-world applications to simulate the types of performance common to the individual products. For motherboards this means that we run roughly six synthetic tests and two real-world. We will be expanding the real-world testing in the near future. But there is more to performance than just the raw numbers. As there are multiple components and sub-components on a motherboard there each item can have a distinct impact on the way the product will perform once you get it in your system. It is important to note not only the actual results but what they mean to you as a potential consumer. We will try to give this information to you. But we do not just cover the performance aspects that are measurable. We also talk about the components that might not have a direct benchmark. These are items like Audio Quality, ease of use and installation.
Section 1 Subsystems
Memory performance is very important on a motherboard, especially when you have a CPU with multiple cores and threads. If you have slow memory your cores and threads can become starved for data to execute. To test memory performance we run both Sisoft’s SANDRA and AIDA64. These two combine to not only give us accurate numbers but to validate each other. For testing at stock speeds the memory is hard set to 16000MHz while overclocking testing is done at the highest stable speed for the voltage of 1.55v this is due to the different memory dividers for each CPU. As such, the memory speeds will vary greatly. This means that the overclocked numbers are a little misleading and while they can show a trend are really only included to show if a board has a problem with memory performance at high clockspeeds.
Haswell brings a nice bump to native 1600MHz memory speeds. This does not mean that your memory will automatically run at 1600MHz, right now most RAM will still be set to 1333MHz stock. To get to 1600MHz you will need to manually set it through the BIOS. Once you do this though you can see the performance increase you get from running the memory at this speed. Haswell plus the Z87 Chipset gives us a healthy jump in memory performance over Sandy and Ivy Bridge. This extra memory headroom can help make the system much more efficient for multi-media, gaming, and well almost everything. It can also mean less disk access with in turn can mean a slight power saving.
Drive performance -
Drive performance is also one of the major subsystems that goes to make up the performance of a motherboard. For our testing we use Sandra and AIDA64 again. We only test with single drives for each type of controller present on the motherboard (unless it is a professional product where we will use RIAD 5 and/or 10). We have also begun using a Thermaltake USB 3.0 dock with another Kingston HyperX SH100S3B/120G 120GB SSD and a Kingston HyperX USB 3.0 Flash drive for our USB 3.0 performance. As a side note, we include the overclocked numbers here to make sure (again) that you are not going to see a major drop in performance due to minor instabilities at high clock speeds.
For HDD/SSD performance things have improved quite a bit. SATA 3.0 has improved from the first generations that we saw. The access times have gone up quite a bit as you can see here. Once again we do see overclocking slow down the SATA performance despite the faster CPU and memory speeds.
Power efficiency is another of those misnomers that we get caught up in. We hear about idle states and power gates. But what does that mean to you and I? On the surface having power management that reduces idle power sounds great and can be a benefit to someone that leaves their system on for long periods of time (and inactive) but how a system handles power under load and the delta between the two states is often more important than the idle power usage numbers. We use only P3 Kill A Watt instruments for measuring power.
The bane of any high-performance system is power. The faster you want to go the more power you draw from the wall. This is true with almost any device you find out there. In the “PC” world it is very evident. Both Intel and AMD have been working to bring that power draw down. They have been cooperating with motherboard manufacturers to pull this off. With Haswell and the Z87 we are seeing some of this come into play, but things are not there yet. The Intel Core i7 4770K combo just gives us acceptable power draw based on what is in the system, but it should be much better.
Cooling (Board Level) -
Board level cooling is an important factor in product performance and longevity. Components like the chipset, VRM modules and even capacitors need to be kept relatively cool to prevent failure. As these parts are made of silicon, they have a thermal breakdown threshold; or melting point. At that temperature the actual transistors built into chip will begin to deform and break down. Granted, the threshold is often very high, but you still need to make sure that components stay away from this level of heat for longer product life.
With extra power comes extra heat. Fortunately most motherboard makers have been working very hard to help counter the effects of the extra heat. Over the years Asus has had some very interesting designs indeed. On the Z87-Expert we find that they are, once again, doing a good job. It is just not the best job they could be doing.
Audio is highly subjective. What we find pleasing may sound “off” to you. That is always going to the problem with testing audio; results will vary too widely depending on the tastes of the listener. However, there are ways of measuring the audio output with an objective ear. There is also the issue of audio causing performance issues in gaming and video playback. The reason this is a potential source of concern is that all onboard audio CODECs (Compression/Decompression) are CPU controlled. This means that while the audio chip controls the audio levels and effects of the audio the actual work is done on the CPU. Usually this will not be a problem with today’s powerful CPUs. Even the lower and consumer level products can handle high-end audio these days. But again there is the chance that a bad design or software will hinder your system and performance. On the other side the limits of board space, cost, etc will also prevent the level of audio quality you can get from an add-in board. We test all audio parts with three media types, Movie (DVD), MP3 Music, and Gaming. These are pushed to our Tec On model 55 Tube Amp to see if we can detect any signal issues in the reproduction. The Audio quality on the Z87-Expert is “good enough” it is not going to impress too many people or win any awards. The audio system feels underpowered and a little reedy. If you are simply looking for basic audio this will get you by, but if you want audio for gaming or real multi-media playback you will want to get something else in your system.
This one is something that is a requirement anymore. If you have a computer, the chances are good (like 99%) that you are also connected to high-speed internet. With this you need a good and solid LAN chip to make sure that your data flows properly out and back. A long time ago Asus made the decision to move away from using REALTek LAN controllers on most of their motherboards. Instead they opted to use Intel as their standard. This move has improved their networking performance from a LAN side and the results show in a more stable experience. On the WLAN side things are little changed though. Asus has not gone the extra step to bring in an Intel wireless controller so you are going to get about average performance. The antenna that we showed you in part one of this review does a very good job of getting signal and Asus’ WiFi GO package adds extra value to the networking performance of the Z87-Expert.
Section II - Performance Tests, Synthetic
In this section of testing we cover the synthetics. These are tests that run a scripted sequence of internal APIs or that use another installed application to perform a series of scripted events. They are great in that they can provide reproducible results across various platforms. On the down side, synthetic tests can be fooled with driver tweaks and optimizations. In some cases it is necessary to rename the .exe file to something generic to discover if this is the case. In any event when this is needed (when a test shows a drastic difference in performance over the renamed exe) we will note this and show both results for comparison.
PCMark7 is the latest general performance test from FutureMark. As each generation of this benchmark has evolved and developed we have watched them add more and more realistic tests to this suite. With this generation we find more media tests, (audio and video transcoding) moving of large files, multiple web page rendering, and much more (the even added DX10 gaming). We use the Overall Performance and Common Usage suites in our testing. The Z87-Expert did not do so well in our PCMark7 testing. Despite having a newer CPU with a better memory controller and better performance from the drive subsystem our performance numbers were not all that good.
Now that we have fully validated PCMark8 we will begin including these scores in our reviews. PCMark8, although technically similar, has some differences in it that make it a great piece of software for use as a baseline. The numbers here are presented as a contrast to the scores we saw with PCMark7.
3DMark is the other Futuremark test that we run on our motherboards. This test simulates the typical tasks that a GPU (and system) would have to perform to provide you with a good gaming experience. It is based on the DX9, DX10 and DX11 engines but can only be installed on Windows Vista or later. The suite of tests covers DX9, DX10, and of course DX11 rendering; it also covers AI computations and physics. That’s right I said Physics the latest version of 3DMark uses a Havok physics engine. This removes the advantage that nVidia had with 3DMark Vantage. Futuremark has also broken out the tests into distinct groups for different performance levels and also to test different aspects of gaming. It is a very comprehensive test.
Once again we are just moving to using 3DMark all on its own instead of a combination of tests. We are only able to show the data from the Z87-Expert for this run, but things are looking solid considering we are only using the Intel HD 4600 GPU.
HyperPi 0.99b -
HyperPi is a front end application that allows you to easily run multiple instances of the SuperPi application. SuperPi, for those that are not familiar with it, is an application that measures the time it takes to calculate the number Pi out to as many as 32 million places. This calculation is then checked and run multiple times (up to 24 for a 32M run). This test stresses the CPU, Memory and HDD as data is handed off between the three. If there is a weak link, HyperPi will show it. For our testing we run the 32M test on as many cores (and threads) as the CPU has available. The slowest CPU time is then recorded. The blue bars indicate the slowest time while the red indicate the fastest.
The Asus Z87-Expert with the Intel Core i7 4770K made short work of our HyperPi testing. Both at stock speeds and overclocked the pair did a very impressive job on powering through this test. In the real world, this should give us a boost in 3D Rendering, Video Encoding, and even potentially in gaming for those games with heavy AI or CPU based Physics.
Cinebench R11.5 -
Cinebench R11.5 is the 11th release of Maxon’s rendering test. This test is based off of the Cinema 4D engine, which is one of the industry standard tools for digital animation. It is a powerful product with many different modules that can be “plugged” into it to increase its effectiveness. With Cinebench you get to see how your computer would do using this application. There are two tests; one tests the CPU’s ability to render an image across multiple cores or threads. The other tests your systems ability to handle OpenGL based rendering.
The Z87-Expert did not have any issues with Cinebench 11.5 at stock speeds. However when overclocked to 4.84GHz it fell off a lot more than we expected. Likewise the HA 4600 did not perform so well in our OpenGL testing.
Section III - Performance Tests, Real-World
Here we have two tests that are designed to put the performance of the motherboard and its subsystems to the test. Both require good CPU, Memory, HDD and even to a lesser extent audio and network performance. The two tests we chose were Lightwave 3D 9.6 and AutoGK 2.55. We will be adding at least one more real-world test to this battery in the near future, but for now these two cover quite a bit.
Lightwave 3D 9.6 x64 -
Lightwave is another industry standard application for 3D animation and rendering. It has a large tool base and the rendering engine is highly threaded (when using the right render model). This application is also capable of expanding to 4k resolutions as well as ray tracing for rending the light sources. For our testing we use frame 470 of the Pinball scene found in the LW 9 Content folder. This uses the newer perspective camera that is better suited to a multi-CPU/Core environment. This camera style also uses ray tracing and a much improved anti-aliasing method. Settings are shown below in the attached screen shot. Of course these are single frame renders and they are not a complete picture; for that you have to take into account the number of frames an average project would have. In a typical 30 second commercial you will have around 840 to 960 frames (at 28 – 32 FPS) this means that you have to multiply the time of a single frame by that number just to get a vague idea of how long that 30 seconds would take. This is because each frame will have a different render time based on complexity.
While we are in the process of validating Lightwave 11 for use in the lab we still intend to use Lightwave 9.6. The Asus Z87-Expert shows off how well it can perform with the Core i7 4770K. The render times here are quite impressive beating out the Z77 Ivy Bridge combination by 28 Seconds.
CyberLink Media Espresso 6.5 -
After having various issues with AutoGK and Intel CPUs with more than four cores we have changed our Media Encoding test to use Media Espresso from CyberLink. Although this new utility does not have the same ability to transfer directly from DVD it is still a good test to transfer different media types into a usable format for your iPad, iPod, or other media player. Our test involves using multiple (Six) 20 minute media files and transcoding them for an iPad. This gives us a very good indication of how well a motherboard can handle this type of work load.
Once again the Asus Z87-Expert did well in video encoding, very well. Much of this is the extra encoding help that Intel dropped into Haswell, but we are still seeing some from the Z87 and the Asus design.
Section IV Performance – Gaming
Gaming as a test of motherboard performance is sort of a joke these days. The big player in the gaming arena is the GPU. Everyone but a few hardcore PR teams know this. However, it is important to run at least a few (one from each current DX version) to see if there are any issues with the combination of components on a motherboard. These are items like Audio lag, memory lag and of course problems with the PCIe lanes and signal traces. If there are issues in design, drivers or BIOS then you can have odd gaming performance. So without much more preamble let’s dive into the three games we currently use; Call of Duty Modern Warfare 2 for DX9 FarCry 2 for DX10 and Battlefield Bad Company 2 for DX11.
Call of Duty Modern Warfare 3 DX9 -
As the third installment in the Modern Warfare franchise you are picking up some old roles while adding a couple of new ones as well. The game play is almost identical to what you are used to in Modern Warfare 2 as are the graphical settings. The AI is a little different thought it is still similar to the bar fight style AI we like in the Call of Duty series. For our testing we run the first mission (Black Tuesday) from start to finish. Settings are shown below.
You can see the improved performance that Intel has dropped into the HD 4600 GPU inside the Core i7 4770K here. We were not able to push the graphics too hard and we had to stick with auto textures to get “normal” performance. This made the game seem a little flat. The Asus still has done a good job with all of the other systems, except perhaps the audio on the board.
Napoleon Total War DX9-
Napoleon Total War is a turn based strategy game that puts you in charge of Napoleon’s army during the height of his power. The game has some very interesting strategic systems although it can be boring when you are moving units into place. One of the more interesting things about Napoleon Total war is that the more CPU power you have at hand the better the game performs. This is because the system AI is dynamic and improves based on the resources available. For our testing we ran through the Lodi campaign. You can see the settings below.
The gaming performance here was solid with frame rates that allowed for an enjoyable gaming experience in Napoleon Total War. Once again the audio was not the greatest, but this is not a game that requires outstanding audio.
Civilization V DX11 –
Civilization V is a strategy game that pits you against other world leaders. You must advance your civilization and try to beat your opponents through military prowess, scientific achievement, or just lasting longer than they do. For our testing we ran through 30 minutes of game play using the same country and leader. We mapped out a city and production strategy attempting to move through the game the same way during all three test runs. You can check out the settings below along with a screenshot.
Civilization V pushed the limits of the HD 4600 and Asus Z87-Expert in a way that I would not have thought possible. We were not able to run the game at 1920x1080 at all, you could chose the setting, but it would begin flashing and stuttering in a way that made the game unplayable. Oddly enough this also affected the audio as the two tried to stay in sync with each other. We ended up backing everything off to 1680x1050 and dropping AA. This gave us an acceptable playing experience both at stock speeds and overclocked.
Gaming wrap-up -
Overall the Asus Z87-Expert gave us a good experience in our gaming tests, but there were some things that were lacking. One of the things that stood out the most was the audio. Although it was acceptable, it lacked any real life. If you are looking to improve your gaming experience we would recommend dropping in a discrete GPU and audio card.
Value is another very subjective topic. What is expensive to some might be a deal to others. You can look at this topic in multiple ways. One is raw price and the other is what you get for the money. Each is accurate and both are correct ways to look at price/value. We tend to look at features, performance and real-property when we discuss value. However, we also take into account the raw cash cost of the item.
The Asus Z87-Expert sells for $230 new on most online stores. It is not out of line with other boards with the number of features built in. You get WiFi, Bluetooth, Intel LAN, and many other of Asus’ stock features. You would think that the $230 is a fair price, but the market does not seem to completely agree (even with thunderbolt). We have seen them for around $100 on sites like Amazon and eBay. We are not sure why the disparity in prices between the new retail board and the ones that appear to be “used” unless the market is simply not ready to pay that much to make the incremental move to Haswell.
Overall I like the Asus Z87-Expert, but there are a few things that I would like to see Asus improve on. I would love to see Asus finally drop in improved audio on their mid-range and entry level boards. This would be a very nice improvement as even the most entry level system needs to be able to handle multi-media playback. The WiFi Go Package, while a nice option does not truly have that many real world uses. When we asked people about the options they were not all that excited, most agreed that having a built in WiFi card complete with Bluetooth was a nice option but the other software was lost on them. Getting into the whole software side of things we would like to see Asus clean up their installers. While most people building a system will know to do a custom install to only get the drivers and utilities they want the extra are annoying and not needed. Asus needs to return to making solid board and drop some of the gimmicks that they have been pushing lately. If they had done this with the Z87-Expert they might have been able to offer it at a lower price which would certainly make it more attractive to the consumers. In the end the Asus Z87-Expert has some good points, but it is a tad overprices for the level of performance you get and that is not something the feature set can really overcome.
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