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ASUS Maximus III Extreme LGA1156 Motherboard Review

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MAC

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ASUS Maximus III Extreme
LGA1156 Motherboard Review‏




Manufacturer's Part Number: Maximus III Extreme
Price: $350CDN Price Comparison
Manufacturer's Product Page: ASUSTeK Computer Inc.
Warranty: 3 year limited warranty (with 1st year advanced RMA service)




The first wave of Intel P55-based LGA1156 motherboards have now been on the market for approximately 8 months. This is ancient by technology standards, so we have slowly begun to see second-generation P55 motherboards make their arrival. The main selling point of these newer models is support for SATA 6Gb/s and USB 3.0, but the board that we are reviewing today has quite a few other tricks up its sleeves.

The Maximus III Extreme (MIIIE) is, of course, a Republic of Gamers motherboard that has been designed for the hardcore enthusiast. This is a $350 component, it is not for the weak of heart, nor the light of wallet. However, at first glance this model is miles ahead of just about every other Intel P55 motherboard on the market, even casting a huge shadow on Gigabyte's newest flagship, the P55A-UD7.

This new RoG model is designed around a sophisticated new power management system called Extreme Engine Digi+, which combines the best features from digital and analog VRM designs thanks to a newer type of MOSFET. It uses less phases than traditional VRM designs, but is significantly more robust. This new design has also unlocked advanced BIOS features, like user selectable PWM switching frequencies and voltage control. Basically, skilled overclockers have more control over aspects of the power delivery system.

Adding to the MIIIE's allure is the presence of an NVIDIA NF200 chip, which allows this particular motherboard to have 40 PCI-E lanes for graphics use. This is 24 lanes more than a traditional P55 motherboard, which is limited to dual graphics card PCI-E x8/x8 setups. What this means, is that the MIIIE supports not only two cards @ x16/x16, three cards @ x8/x16/x16, four cards @ x8/x8/x8/x8, but five cards at PCI-E x8 each. While latter configuration only works with single-slot cards though, this motherboard can handle up to four dual-slot cards. Obviously, having five cards is useless for gaming purposes, but it it is very attractive for Folders.

Features-wise, ASUS have really kicked things up a notch too, with many of the improvements being centered around ROG Connect. First debuted on the Maximus III Formula, this technology allowed users to monitor and tweak the most motherboard parameters from a netbook/notebook via a USB cable. We thought it was somewhat a novelty feature, but interesting nonetheless. Well now ASUS have allowed for a smaller device to be able to control and monitor your desktop, a Bluetooth-enabled smartphone. There's also the new USB BIOS Flashback feature, which allows users to flash the BIOS without even turning on the system, the CPU/GPU/RAM don't even need to be installed! Whether or not these features are worthwhile from a day-to-day perspective is what we are interested to find out, so without further ado, onto the review.

 
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MAC

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Specifications

Specifications



Intel's new P55 Express 'Ibex Peak' chipset is a true break from their traditional chipset design. Unlike all previous Intel chipsets which featured both a northbridge and a southbridge (eg. X58 Express + ICH10R), the P55 is a one-chip solution. As such, it has been given the new designation of Platform Controller Hub (PCH). When it comes to PCI-Express 2.0 connectivity things get a little complicated with this chipset since in the past, the northbridge supplied the graphics-related PCI-E lanes. However, Lynnfield processors feature an industry-first: an integrated PCI-E controller that supports 16 PCI-E 2.0 lanes supplying two mechanical PCI-E x16 slots. If only one graphics card is installed it will operate at the full electrical x16 speed, but if two graphics cards are installed the PCI-E lanes are divided between both PCI-E x16 slots and they will operate at x8 each. On motherboards with three mechanical PCI-E x16 slots, the first two slots will each operate at x8 while the third slot will operate at x4. How is this possible if we have already established that the integrated PCI-E controller only supports 16 PCI-E lanes? The additional 4 PCI-E lanes come from the P55 PCH itself, which can supply up to 8 PCI-E 1.0 lanes in total.

On the connectivity front, the P55 supports 14 USB 2.0 ports and 6 SATA II ports with Matrix Storage Technology. Naturally, it also supports Advanced Host Controller Interface (AHCI) and Native Command Queuing (NCQ). The PCH also features one Gigabit LAN port and HD Audio Technology. The one omission is support for Intel's Trusted Execution Technology (TXT), formerly known as LaGrande, which provides hardware-level protection against malicious software.

The P55 PCH communicates to the processor via the Direct Media Interface (DMI), which is a 2 GB/s point-to-point connection, which is roughly equivalent to a PCI-E x4 1.0 link. By the way, the DMI is by no means new, it has long been used as the link between the northbridge and southbridge.

Much like the P45 Express and X58 Express chipsets, the P55 PCH is manufactured on the venerable 65nm process, and it has a low default voltage of 1.0V. As a result of this low voltage, and the simple fact that the P55 does not actually do much, it does run quite cool. Did we mention that it is also quite tiny? The P55's package size is just 27mm x 27mm, and the actual die is a minuscule 8mm x 8mm.


That's about all there is to know about the chipset itself, so let's move on to the motherboard itself. Despite being a mainstream platform, higher-end P55 motherboards like this ASUS model are definitely outfitted with just about anything you could want on a motherboard.



This motherboard's specifications list is stacked like no other P55 motherboard on the market. In fact, aside from the Rampage III Extreme, we can't think of another motherboard with more extensive set of specs and features. Of particular interest to us though are the new 'Special' and 'Overclocking' features built into this model, and we will be examining them thoroughly.
 

MAC

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Package & Accessories

Package & Accessories



Now that we have examined the Maximus III Extreme's specifications, it is time to take a look at the packaging and the included accessories. Since the MIIIE is part of the Republic of Gamers (RoG) product line we are expecting big things...



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The packaging is the usual Republic of Gamers fare, nearly identical to what we saw with the Maximus II Formula. It definitely stands out among the sea of bland white packaging that most companies use. The packaging also comes with a top flap, which details some of this model's various features, and a window revealing the motherboard in all its glory.


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When you open the box, you are greeted with two seperate inner sections. The first obviously holds the motherboard itself, while the bottom half contains all the accessories.


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When you open the accessories box you are greeted by a fairly impressive array of items. Here's a breakdown of accessories:

  • ROG Connect Cable
  • 2-Way SLI Cable
  • 3-Way SLI Cable
  • 2 SATA 6Gb/s Cables
  • 6 SATA 3Gb/s Cables
  • 3-port eSATA/USB PCI Expansion Bracket (with accompanying eSATA cables)
  • RC Bluetooth Card
  • I/O Panel
  • Optional Fan
  • Q-Connector Kit
  • Thernal Sensor Cables Pack



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Let's take a closer look at a few accessories. First, we have the sturdy SATA cables with metal clips that prevent any accidental disconnections. ASUS have bundled 8 SATA cables with the MIIIE, 6 SATA 3Gb/s and 2 SATA 6Gb/s. Visually there's no way to distinguish between the 3Gb/s and 6GB/s cables, so thankfully ASUS printed 'SATA 6Gb/s' on the respective cables.The white RoG Connect cable connects the Maximus III Extreme to a netbook/notebook, and allows for impressive control over the motherboard's system frequencies, voltages, and more. The optional fan that can be installed on one of the MOSFET coolers. However, ASUS warns to only install the fan if you are using a passive CPU cooler or water cooling, otherwise the fan will likely interfere with your CPU cooler's airflow and lead to higher CPU temperatures. ASUS have also conveniently provided 2-way and 3-Way SLI connectors. Last, but certainly not least, is the RC Bluetooth Card, which is used for the RC Bluetooth feature that allows users to control and/or monitor their systems via a bluetooth-enabled mobile phone.
 

MAC

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A Closer Look at the Maximus III Extreme

A Closer Look at the Maximus III Extreme


Without further ado, here is the Maximus III Extreme in all its glory:



For this motherboard, ASUS have wisely chosen to emulate many of the layout elements from the Maximus III Formula. They have kept a standard ATX layout, so you won't worry about this motherboard fitting in your case. The 8-pin CPU power connector, 24-pin ATX power connector, and all the other connectors and headers are ideally located right on the edge of the motherboard. As always, we're a fan of the red & black Republic of Gamers theme, but we do wish that the large rather bland southbridge heatsink had been revamped a little.


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As you can see, the general CPU socket area is free from obstructions and the motherboard's heatsinks are all low profile, so users shouldn't have any issues installing even the largest CPU cooler. Those utilizing more extreme sub-zero forms of cooling won't find insulating this motherboard particularly difficult, especially if they remove the CPU latching mechanism.

To the left of the CPU socket, surrounded by traditional solid capacitors, you may spot a shiny rectangular component. This is a high quality and high capacity Fujitsu 3V-1000uF SuperML capacitor, which ASUS only installs on their flagship products. One advantage of a SuperML capacitor is that it can store a much greater electrical charge, which helps ensure stability even when there is a sudden increase in the load current.

For this particular motherboard, ASUS have unveiled their sophisticated new power management system called Extreme Engine Digi+, which combines the best features from digital and analog VRM designs thanks to a newer type of MOSFET. The more efficient, cooler-running chokes used in this design are also able to sustain 25% more current than traditional designs, and are capable of delivering up to 40A. Overall, Extreme Engine Digi+ requires less phases than traditional VRM designs, but is significantly more robust. The Maximus III Extreme's design has 8 phases for the CPU and 3 phases for the VTT/Uncore, whereas the Maximus III Formula's older design required 16 phases for the CPU and 3 phases for the VTT/Uncore.

By the way, for those of you who care, this motherboard does have both a LOTES latching mechanism and socket.



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Upon removing the cooling system, we can see the new multi-phase MOSFETs. If you are unfamiliar with how traditional motherboard MOSFETs look like, you will instantly notice a significant difference. These new MOSFETs are encased in a metal packaging, and thanks to the FET+ in construction, ASUS claims that they offer 30% faster heat dissipation as well as 40%+ better conductivity.


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The DDR3 memory slots feature a 3-phase power design, and support overclocked memory frequencies up to DDR3-2200. The Q-DIMM memory slot design, which is clip-less on one end, has wisely been implemented on this model. The reason for this innovative design is to prevent the clips from coming into contact with the back of the graphics card, which would be an issue on this motherboard.


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Those of you familiar with ASUS motherboards might mistake the little red knob as the MemOk! button, but it is in fact the new Go Button which serves two functions. When you press the button before posting it will enable the MemOk! feature, but if you press it while in Windows, it will overclock the system based on a preset profile that can be set in the BIOS.

Above the red Go Button, you can see the LN2 Mode jumper, which is a feature unique to this model. The function of this jumper is to circumvent processor's internal temperature diode and reduce coldbug issues when using sub-zero cooling methods. The OPT_TEMP1 header is one of 3 thermal sensor headers, which can be used with the included thermal sensor cables to monitor temperatures wherever you place the thermal probe.

ProbeIt is a series of 5 voltage read points on the motherboard, which is obviously a must-have feature on a enthusiast-oriented model. To be honest though, while read points are nice, we would have liked to see a different design whereby voltmeter leads could be attached directly to the motherboard via cables, like on the Rampage II Extreme or even the MSI P55-GD80.



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Here we have the huge, rather boring looking southbridge cooler. Frankly, it's overkill for the tiny and cool-running P55 PCH. The MIIIE features six right-angle SATA 3Gb/s ports, which are supplied by the P55 chipset and support RAID 0/1/5/10. The two red SATA 6GB/s ports are courtesy of a Marvell 9123 controller and support RAID 0/1. The JMicron JMB363 controller supplies the lone upright SATA port to the left of the others, as well as the eSATA port on the I/O panel.

As on all their USB 3.0 + SATA 6Gb/s supporting motherboards, the Maximus III Extreme features a PLX bridge chip. This chip takes 4 PCI-E 1.1 lanes from the P55 PCH turns them into PCI-E 2.0 lanes, which are then used for the USB3.0 and SATA 6Gb/s controllers.

This design ensures that both USB 3.0 and SATA 6Gb/s can be used at the same time, at full speed, without having to divert some of the PCI-E lanes from the CPU, thereby crippling multi-GPU performance.



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In the lower right corner, we see that ASUS have finally adopted a dual socketed BIOS approach. With this in mind, ASUS have installed a BIOS Button, which allows you to switch between the two BIOSes. The nearby BIOS leds tell you which BIOS is currently being used.
 

MAC

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A Closer Look at the Maximus III Extreme pt.2

A Closer Look at the Maximus III Extreme pt.2



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This motherboard's expansion slot layout and assortment is one of the aspects that makes this particular model unique. By adding an NVIDIA NF200 PCI-E express bridge chip, the Maximus III Extreme has 40 PCI-E lanes dedicated to solely to graphics use, which is significant compared to reference P55 motherboards which are limited to 16 PCI-E lanes. What this allows for on the MIIIE is proper x16/x16 dual graphics card configurations, x8/x16/x16 triple graphics card configurations, and x8/x8/x8/x8 quad graphics card configurations. This motherboard can handle any of those configurations using dual-slot cards. You can even use single-slot cards to achieve a quintuple (5) graphics card configuration. You can't game from such a configuration, but it's perfect for Folders. Frankly, the only P55 motherboard that surpasses the MIIIE in the PCI-E slot department is the EVGA P55 Classified 200, which has 6 PCI-E x16 slots thanks to 2 onboard NF200 chips. Should you choose to install multiple graphics cards on this motherboard you are advised to plug a molex connector into the one or both of the EZ Plugs, to ensure proper power supply to the PCI-E slots.

All Republics of Gamers motherboards come with the race car-like START button and this model is no different. Under the reset button, you may notice the "OC_Station" label and the black header to the right of it. That is where you can plug in the OC Station, hardware-level overclocking console that installs into two 5.25" case bays.


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The 'northbridge' heatsink on most P55 motherboards is usually there for decoration purposes, but on this model it cools down the aforementioned
NVIDIA NF200 chip. The simple, yet attractive look of this small heatsink has wowed users since it first unveiled. Regrettably, it doesn't feature any back-lighting like the Maximus III Formula's heatsink does.

The EZ Plug molex connector to the left of the heatsink is to be used to ensure sufficient power supply to the PCI-E x16 slots when you install multiple graphics cards.




Click on image to enlarge

Although ASUS decided to omit the usual SupremeFX X-Fi audio card from this motherboard's package, they outfitted the exact same VIA VT2020 audio codec directly onto the motherboard, albeit without software X-Fi support.

The Winbond W83667HG-A is a hardware monitoring controller, the VIA VT6308P is an IEEE1394/FireWire controller, and the Realtek RLT8112SL is a Gigabit LAN controller.


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Here we see the RC Bluetooth header, which is obviously where you can install the RC Bluetooth card.


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The NEC D720200 is the USB 3.0 controller that every motherboard manufacturer is using, it supplies the two blue USB 3.0 ports on the rear I/O panel.

The little red button is the Q Reset Button. It is intended for sub-zero overclockers. Basically, when you press the button it temporarily stops the power supply to the CPU, helping the CPU recover from a frozen state. This is the second step to take after trying the LN2 mode jumper.



The rear I/O panel features a PS/2 keyboard port, three USB 2.0 ports, a CMOS reset button, 2 USB 3.0 ports, an optical S/PDIF connector, a FireWire port, a eSATA port, a Gigabit LAN port, the RC Bluetooth card (installation optional), the RoG Connect On/Off switch, and the RoG Connect port, which is where you plug the RoG Connect cable into.



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When we turned over the MIIIE, we were glad to see that all the heatsinks are held in place with proper mounting screws. There are 4 MOSFETs on the underside of the motherboard, which are part of the CPU VRM. It would be nice to see them have some form of heatsink cooling.
 
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MAC

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Hardware Installation

Hardware Installation


In the Hardware Installation section we examine how major components fit on the motherboard, and whether there are any serious issues that may affect installation and general functionality. Specifically, we are interested in determining whether there is adequate clearance in all critical areas.


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MAC

Associate Review Editor
Joined
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BIOS Rundown

BIOS Rundown



A well designed, feature-rich motherboard can easily be rendered mediocre by a subpar BIOS. Thankfully, as we have become accustomed to on Republic of Gamers series motherboard, ASUS has outfitted the Maximus III Extreme with an intuitive, user-friendly BIOS.


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Here we have full screen logo that appears everytime the system is powered on. Thankfully, it can be disabled for those who want to shave some seconds from the bootup time.



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Upon entering the BIOS we are automatically presented with the Extreme Tweaker section, which is where all the fun happens. Once the manual option is selected in the Ai Overclock Tuner setting, the BIOS opens up to reveal all of the essential system clock control options: CPU multiplier, BLCK frequency, PCI-E frequency, memory frequency, QPI frequency, OC Tuner utility, memory timing options, and all the voltage options.

The CPU Level Up and Memory Level Up menus allow novice users to automatically overclock those components without having to mess around with clocks speeds, multipliers, and voltages. These two features do work, but they do tend to set voltages a bit higher than what would otherwise be needed.


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Once you select the DRAM Timing Control option, you enter a seperate sub-menu where the abundant primary and secondy memory timings are revealed. There's no option missing to our eyes.


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Continuing down the Extreme Tweaker page, we reach the clock amplitude and clock skew settings. the CPU Clock Amplitude is particularly useful when attempting to reach a high BLCK, you can set it to 1000mV without worry.


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Thanks to the new Extreme Engine Digi+ system a whole slew of advanced new power management settings have been included in the MIIIE's bios. This motherboard is setup well enough so that you should never actually have to tweak any of these settings though, unless you are really pushing the limits with phase-change or LN2 cooling. The exception to this is obviously Load-Line Calibration (LLC), which is a terrific feature that eliminates droopage on the CPU vCORE, and which we will take a closer look at in our Voltage Regulation section.



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We like the fact that ASUS have given users an option (CPU Voltage Mode) when it comes to changing the CPU vCore. You can either manually enter the vCore directly (1.20V, 1.30V, 1.40V, etc) or simply use an offset mode (+0.10V, +0.20V, +0.30V, etc) depending on your personal preference.

All the main system voltages are present and accounted for: vCore, CPU PLL, IMC/VTT, PCH, DRAM, and DRAM Reference voltages. We are also pleased to see real-time voltage readouts for the five critical voltages.



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The next tab in the BIOS is the Main section, which displays the standard storage devices and some basic system information. This System Information section lists some rudimentary specification info, including the BIOS date & version, the type of processor and the amount of memory installed.
 

MAC

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BIOS Rundown pt.2

BIOS Rundown pt.2




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The Advanced Tab is where you can enable/disable all the CPU-specific features like C1E, SpeedStep, Turbo Mode, C-STATE, as well as all the onboard devices like audio, LAN, FireWire, eSATA, USB 3.0 & SATA 6Gb/s controllers, etc.

You can also enable/disable the numerous LEDs placed across the motherboard. You can enable or disable the RoG Connect feature too, but frankly even if you're aren't using the feature, having it enabled doesn't have any effects whatsoever on the system.



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The Power section contains the power management settings linked to the power-saving sleep modes, it allows you to enable/disable the new EuP standard, and it leads to the Hardware Monitor. Since this is Republic of Gamers model, the Hardware Monitor section is quite impressive, it has all the essential temperature and voltage readouts, and good fan control functionality.


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The Boot tab is essentially where you set storage device priority, select the boot drive, where you can set supervisor and user passwords, and also disable the full screen logo.



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The ASUS O.C Profile feature gives users the option to save and switch between BIOS profiles, for example an everyday profile and a benchmarking profile. Not only is this infinitely quicker than manually inserting every setting, but the profiles can be saved and shared among other MIIIE owners. The Go Button section allows you to set, save, and load a Go Button profile


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ASUS EZ-Flash 2 is a built-in utility that greatly simplifies the BIOS updating process. You can easily update your BIOS from a ROM file located on your hard drive(s), USB flash drive(s), or even a CD. It's quick, painless, and it takes the worry out of BIOS flashing.


In summary, this BIOS has everything that we have come to expect from a Republic of Gamers model. The level of tweakability and functionality is perfect. The Extreme Engine Digi+ options in particular should prove to be a boon to the extreme overclockers, and it should help this motherboard affirm its position as the King of the P55 hill.
 

MAC

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Included Software

Included Software


Now that we have the motherboard unpacked and installed, it is time to take a look at some of the software utilities that ASUS has included with the Maximus III Extreme.


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Here we have the familiar setup screens for the included software CD. It contains all the drivers or ASUS-specific utilities that you will need to get your system up & running. However, we obviously recommend that you visit the ASUS website to get the very latest software revisions.


PC Probe II


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PC Probe II is a system monitoring utility that displays information regarding fan speeds, component temperatures and voltages, as well as alerting users once preset thresholds have been surpassed. Like on all RoG models, ASUS have really gone to town with the voltage and temperature readouts, definitely a pleasant sight. As always, we wouldn't mind seeing some integration with Vista's sidebar, just to help clean up the desktop area a bit.


AI Suite


The AI Suite provides basic system information, but its main function is to host shortcuts to five other ASUS utilities and features, namely the EPU-6 Engine, AI NAP, CPU Level Up, Fan Xpert, and TurboV. The AI NAP is an advanced sleep feature that allows users to put their computers to sleep without terminating any tasks. Fan Xpert allows users to select from 7 fan speed profiles that can be individually applied to any fan.


TurboV EVO


With their P55 lineup, ASUS unveiled TurboV EVO, a new version of their popular overclocking utility. This application allows users to adjust all essential system parameters from within Windows, namely the base clock frequency, CPU voltage, VTT/IMC voltage, memory voltage, and even then CPU voltage and PCH voltage when you click on 'more settings'. All these settings can be tweaked without the need to reboot. This program also allows users to also save profiles and load them from within Windows. As usual, we have had good experiencea with the program, and we have come to rely on it to make quick on-the-fly adjustments in order to find stable overclock settings in various benchmarking applications.

Given the hardcore nature of their motherboard, ASUS appear to have omitted the automatic overclocking features found within other versions of this program on other motherboards.
 

MAC

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Included Software pt.2

Included Software pt.2




RC TweakIt



The RC in RC TweakIt stands for ROG Connect. This is the utility that you must install on your netbook/notebook/other system in order to remotely control the Maximus III Extreme via the ROG Connect feature using the included ROG Connect cable. This application allows users to make on-the-fly frequency and voltage adjustments in real-time from another system. As per the respective tabs, it permits for real-time monitoring of voltage, temperature, fan speed, and frequency.



The RC Poster button launches an applet which displays real-time POST information in either string or code format. This mini-app essentially gives you the same real-time boot status info as an onboard LED POST display.



The RC Remote button allows users to power on, power off, reset, shutdown immediately, and clear the BIOS using the clear CMOS button.



The RC Diagram button allows for real-time monitoring of just about any system frequency, voltage, temperature, fan speed, but only three at a time. You can select which readouts to display by clicking on Setting.



The RC BIOS Flashback button permits users to switch between the two onboard BIOS chips, or to update the BIOS remotely. Keep in mind that with the USB BIOS Flashback feature users cano now update the motherboard's BIOS from a USB thumb drive without even booting the system. All you have to do is plug the drive into the ROG Connect port, push the ROG Connect button for 2 seconds, and BIOS is automatically updated, without having to enter the BIOS or boot to OS. Why is this important? Well imagine if your motherboard won't boot because it doesn't recognize your CPU. Well instead of having to find a compatible CPU and then flashing the motherboard, you can now just update the BIOS right away with the push of a button.


One of this motherboard's most highly touted new features is the ability to use the RC Connect feature via RC Bluetooth on a bluetooth-enabled smartphone. Effectively you could have all of TweakIt's functionality of your mobile phone. Regrettably, it is currently limited to models based on the Android, Symbian, and Windows Mobile OS's, which obviously excluded our BlackBerry. All you iPhone owners are also currently out of luck for now.
 
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