While a nice layout, cool colors and a good feature set listed on the box might be nice performance is what most people are looking for in a motherboard. A good feature set does not matter so much if the board is not able to perform to the level you want it to. For the most part Asus has done a good job in balancing out their features and performance. This balance has extended even down to their entry level boards as they trickle down what they learn from their Republic of Gamer’s Boards. So where does the Z97-A fit into all of this? Let’s find out.
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. The modern BIOS is not like the old ones that were around when I first got into computers. Most of them were there simply to let you set the date and time and perhaps a few other items about the computer. Now the BIOS is like a mini OS that allows you to control a large number of things. There is so much you can do in today’s BIOSes that you just can’t write about them properly. Instead you can check out the video we have for you of the UEFI BIOS on the Z97-A.
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. Asus has been making some excellent progress in providing overclocking performance. They have worked hard to build their boards with the right components and trace layouts. This means that there is less potential for performance loss at high speeds due to signal issues.
The Z97-A can certainly push a CPU. We hit 4.9GHz on our 4770K without any issues. We are very sure that with more time and tweaking we could have gotten to 5GHz and beyond. It was a very impressive experience.
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’ AISuite has evolved over time to become a very full featured offering. It is designed to give you a single interface for multiple applications and thanks to some fairly good coding the integration of these applications appear seamless to all but the most critical observer. Instead of trying to write about all of the details we walk you through AISuite 3 as it pertains to the Z97-A below.
The suite was not as complete as what we saw on the Z97I-Plus, but it has more than enough to keep you going.
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.
The Z97-A is a fairly typical motherboard. We did not run into any issues with setup, diver installation or even during our overclocking testing. It is solid board that should fit into almost any build.
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.
The memory performance on the Z97-A is much better than what we saw on the Z97I-Plus. This could be a sign of very good performance later in tests like Lightwave, HyperPi and a few others. Good memory speed can also be important for gaming, image manipulation as well more general purpose usage like web browsing.
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 SCK30/240G 240GB 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 drive performance the Z97-A comes in near the top of the list, but ends up being behind its smaller brother at stock speeds and only a little bit ahead when overclocked. You are still getting good drive performance though so this should not be a subsystem that will hinder performance.
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.
Our power draw tests find a surprisingly efficient motherboard in the Z97-A. After the performance we saw with the Z97-I we did expect to see this board pull much more power, but this was not the case. Even overclocked we did not a massive jump in power draw despite being 100 MHz faster.
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.
The Z97-A does a pretty good job of keeping the important components in the board cool even when we pushed it. You still want to make sure that you have good ventilation in your case though.
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.
Asus has been improving the audio on their more mainstream motherboards. We saw this on the Z97I-Plus and are seeing the same thing happening on the Z97-A. The audio on the Z97-A is not at the same level as the I-Plus, but it is better than many in the same price range.
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.
The networking hardware on the Z97-A is Intel based which typically means you are going to get solid performance. This was a move that Asus made a while ago and we are seeing the rest of the market follow on. We did not encounter any performance issues when running multi-player games, streaming movies, or transferring files.
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.
PCMark 8 is a little bit of a departure from PCMark 7. Although the application is still intended for benchmarking and does that quite well the methods used to obtain the results are different. Futuremark has decided to break the tests into usage models instead of performance types. Here we see the tests aligned to the home, work, content creation (creative) and storage functions. We ran all of our tests at baseline (no OpenCL acceleration) to get the feel of the motherboard and its ability to run these tests.
Although the Z97-A is the faster of the two Z97 boards that we have tested so far it still falls behind the Z87 boards in the pack. This is something that we did not expect considering the Z97 is supposed to be an improved chipset and one that highlights the Haswell features.
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.
Under 3DMark the Asus Z97-A ends up at the back of the pack when using the HD4600 internal GPU. You should be able to get much better performance with a discrete GPU though.
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 Z97-A did surprisingly well with HyperPi. As this is a very memory and computational heavy application we should see our render based applications perform well unless there is another bottleneck somewhere (HDD speed for example).
Cinebench R15 -
Cinebench R15 is the 15th 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.
Once again the Asus Z97-A is leading the group of Z97 boards, but falls behind the older Z87 boards. We are hoping that this is something that we will see Asus address and fix.
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 CyberLink’s Media Espresso. 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 11 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 308 of the Flocking-Alien Army scene found in the LW 11 Content folder. This uses perspective cameras which 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.
The Z97-A dropped back a bit during our Lightwave testing. We suspect this is due to the slight slower drive speeds that we saw earlier. When pushing a render if your drive cannot keep up with the rest of the system it can (and usually does) have an impact. The delta here is significant when you look at the estimated project times where you add on almost 15 minutes to the render times.
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.
For media encoding the Z97-A does outperform its little brother, but once again we find it behind older boards from the Z87 and even Z77 lines. This is certainly not what we would expect from this chipset, but we are not sure yet if this is an Asus based issue or if it is chipset wide. As we look at other manufacturers we will be able to get a better feel for this.
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 3 and Total War Napoleon for DX9 and Civilization V 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.
The good news is that the Asus Z97-A and 4770K combination will make sure you can still play Modern Warfare 3. Granted this is an older game, but you do still get a fairly solid gaming experience with no audio issues or rendering issues.
Total War Napoleon 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 Z97-A also gives you a good experience when playing games like Napoleon Total War. Even with everything going on we found that the game was fluid with good audio. This should push out into other real time strategy games.
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 can be a slow game without the right hardware, fortunately the Z97-A has enough behind it to play the game well. With the hardware we had installed we found load times and end of turn transitions to be smooth and fast. We were not able to run at max resolution or eye candy, but you can always drop in a GPU and get it all.
Gaming wrap-up -
Gaming on the Asus Z97-A was pretty good even with the iGPU on the 4770k. You get good audio and a quick chipset behind it to keep things moving along. If you are looking to play some more demanding games you will need a discrete GPU or two (the Z97-A support both SLI and Crossfire) especially if you want to play something like Cyrsis. Other than that you should get a solid gaming board with the Z97-A.
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. At $140-145 at most online stores the Z97-A is priced fairly well considering what you get. There are a few things that Asus should have done though. For starters on a board priced at this level the M.2 port should have been SATA and not PCIe. Although this is a nice feature and one that will get you very good performance most people looking at this level of board are not going to pay the extra to get a PCIe SSD. Still for under $150 you just cannot go wrong.
As we mentioned the Asus Z97-A is a good board with the right hardware dropped in. You can get some very solid overclocking out of it as well as good gaming performance. The Z97-A would also fit well in an entry level system considering its price. We are a little bit disappointed with the overall performance of the Z97 chipset at this time. We cannot be sure that this is an Asus specific issue though until we run a few more board through our tests. Overall, if you are looking to upgrade to a Z97 board and do not want to spend a fortune the Z97-A from Asus is a good choice. This might be a good board if you also want to build a board for use with an M.2 PCIe SSD. The lower cost of the board could offset the cost of the PCIe SSD. You have quite a few choices when you look at the Z97-A.
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