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ASUS Z170-A Skylake Motherboard Review

AkG

Well-known member
Joined
Oct 24, 2007
Messages
5,270
Closer Look at USB 3.1

Closer Look at USB 3.1



The easiest way to start to describe what has changed with USB 3.1 standard is to start with what has been carried over from previous generations. First and foremost Type A and Type B connectors are still around and a USB 3.1 Type A port is identical to a USB 3.0 Type A port. The same holds true for Type B ports. That is to say both are physically the same as their USB 3.0 predecessor.

This in turn means that USB 3.1 is based upon a 4 data lane configuration - just as USB 3.0 was. More importantly, USB 3.1 Type A and Type B ports are fully backwards compatible with USB 2.0 and USB 3.0 devices - they just will not work at USB 3.1 speeds.

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This backwards compatibility was done on purpose. USB 3.1 does indeed represent a new direction and approach for the USB standard but USB-IF wanted consumers of existing devices to not worry about compatibility. Unlike Apple who threw their existing user-base under the bus numerous times, if your device works with USB 3.0 Type A or Type B ports it will fully connect and work via USB 3.1 Type A or B. More importantly consumers should notice almost no differences between connecting them via USB 3.0 and USB 3.1 controllers and ports.

For this reason, USB Type A and Type B ports will still be a part of the computing landscape and in all likelihood Type A's will still be the de-facto standard ports found on motherboards for the foreseeable future. We will see some of the new 'Type C' ports on motherboards but Type A will be the most common - just as when USB 3.0 was released and motherboards came with 2.0 and 3.0 ports, expect both A and C type USB 3.1 ports to co-exist.

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This backwards compatibility and physical layout is nearly the grand total of what has been carried over to the next generation 'SuperSpeed Plus' USB standard. In fact, if it was not for backwards compatibility USB 3.1 in all likelihood would not have even exhibited this amount in common with its predecessors. We will get to the new Type C connector later but even excluding this new connector type USB 3.1 is an entirely new breed of USB built on a completely new foundation.

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In some ways USB 3.1 is actually a return the original USB founders’ goal of replacing as many different and competing standards as possible. In the 1990s this meant simply being 'plug and play' via one all-encompassing USB driver set. Now the landscape is very different and in order to replace everything from HDMI to ThunderBolt and even power ports requires a new way of doing things.

With this in mind, the USB-IF started by changing the very encoding scheme USB uses. In the past USB generations, 8-bit data chunks would be encoded into 10-bit symbols and then passed over the USB interface, then at the other end of the connection this 10-bit encoding would then be decoded into the original 8-bits. The extra 2-bits of data was the sum total of the Error-Correcting Code (ECC) and this amounted to a twenty percent overhead packet loss, thus reducing speeds even further.

With USB 3.1, the USB-IF has moved to a new and highly sophisticated encoding scheme they have dubbed Gen X. The Gen X scheme does things differently and is best compared to how Ethernet transmits data. Much like your wireless Ethernet connection, USB 3.1 packets are much, much larger. Instead of USB 3.0's 10-bit packet that has only 8-bits of data, USB 3.1 sends data packets that contain 128 bits of data. Also like Ethernet, USB 3.1 uses a 'header' that contains the ECC for each packet as well as the instructions for what is inside the packet. This 4 bits of data also has an Error Correction Code built into itself and can be reassembled as long as at least 3 bits are intact.

Obviously this 4+1 ECC is much more advanced than the original 2-bit ECC used in USB 3.0, but also allows USB 3.1 to boast an theoretical overhead of only 3%. This increase in packet size, in-conjunction with better ECC, is precisely how the USB-IF was able to push theoretical maximum speed from 5Gbit/s to 10GBits/s, even though USB 3.1 uses the same 4 data lanes that was first introduced in USB 3.0 specification.

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Bulk Only Transport (BoT) Protocol has also been updated and improved. The Bulk Transport protocol is a specific mode meant solely for transporting large amounts of data over USB. Nearly every motherboard gives their take on BoT implementation a different name, but ASUS uses the apt description of 'Turbo Mode'. When enabled, different software drivers are used for USB file transfer. These drivers allow a USB connection to consume as much bandwidth as it can, with little regards for other devices attached, and use greatly increased packet sized. For best results BoT should be used on a clear USB channel with no other devices attached to it.

In previous generations BoT did improve performance somewhat but the end result was extremely variable. In order to improve upon USB 3.0 BoT performance, USB 3.1 not only adds in SCSI command support - to reduce delays between command phases - but also adds in a caching element in which the controller uses a portion of its onboard cache for BoT I/O's. Unfortunately, Command Queuing is still absent and the I/O requests are processed in the order they are received, just as with USB 3.0. As such it is best to only transfer one file at a time using Turbo Mode, otherwise overall performance will suffer.

Interestingly, ASUS' next generation Turbo Mode also supports standard SCSI commands over USB and not just for USB attached SCSI devices (UASP). This is an important feature as next generation Solid State controllers are starting to include SCSI command capabilities, and as such ASUS motherboards may in fact provide improved performance over competitors' models in the future.

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A doubling in the performance department is certainly impressive, but sheer speed is only one of the improvements the USB-IF is counting on to eliminate the competition. Up until USB 3.1, a USB port and USB cable could really only be used to transmit USB encoded data. For example, if a consumer wanted to add an external monitor to their system they either had to use a built-in controller and port, or they would have had to purchase USB based external display adapter and controller and use it between the monitor and the computer. USB 3.1 eliminates the need for specialized ports and external 'adapters' - be they displaybased, Ethernet, or other. Instead, monitor outputs, Ethernet cables, and nearly every other connector found on the typical desktop, laptop, and hand held computer can be used via the USB 3.1 port.

USB 3.1 is able to boast such impressive abilities due to a new addition to the actual USB standard. Since USB 3.1 already uses a header for their data packets it was relatively simple to encode in an additional code to tell the 'other end' of the connection that a given packet was not encoded via the USB standard but instead was encoded via some other standard. For example if the header states a given packet is encoded using the DisplayPort standard, the client side of the connection will treat it as an audio/visual package - just as if it was sent via a DisplayPort connector and cable. This new mode is aptly called 'alternate mode' and it can be used on any - or all - of the four data lanes at any given time.

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If we use the same display output analogy as above, a compatible monitor both receive audio and video via a single USB 3.1 cable while it is also being used as a USB 3.1/3.0/2.0 hub with a keyboard, mouse, printer, etc also connected to this one cable. Alternately if you use a HDMI to USB adapter cable monitors with 'just' an HDMI port can still use a single cable to connect to the computer - as long as the monitor supports the Mobile High-Definition Link standard.

At this time the DisplayPort and Mobile High-Definition Link (MHL) Consortium have already agreed to their perspective standard being used via USB. Meanwhile Ethernet and even PCIe governing bodies are in talks with the USB-IF. For laptop and tablet users, once the "Media Agnostic USB specification and protocol" is finalized, future portable devices may look a great deal sleeker with drastically fewer port types.

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Being able to provide audio and visual data via USB is in and of itself very, very interesting, but on its own would have proven to be of limited use for laptops, tablets and other portable devices. To this end, the USB-IF also increased the USB Power Delivery standard.

In previous generations, USB Power Delivery Protocol was limited to a maximum of 5 amps at 5 volts, or 25 watts total. With USB 3.1 this has been increased to a maximum 5amps at 20 volts - or a whopping 100 watts. In theory this means one USB 3.1 port could be used as a power-in port on UltraBook while another is used to power external devices such as monitors, external storage arrays, or even printers.

There has been some confusion regards this new Power Delivery standard and it is not directly tied to the new Type-C port, rather it is tied to the controllers connected to the port and the cables themselves. What this means is that while we could in theory see Type A ports sporting 100 watt capabilities this is unlikely due to their backwards compatibility; using a standard Type A cable would result in a fire hazard with such a massive increase in power flow. Instead 100 watt connections will most likely be reserved for Type-C ports, and Type-C cables. Even then -thanks the auto negotiation chips in the client controller and host controller, not every Type-C cable will be 'allowed' to handle 100 watts of power.
 
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AkG

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Joined
Oct 24, 2007
Messages
5,270
Hardware Installation

Hardware Installation


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In order to test how different hardware combinations will fit onto the ASUS Z170-A, we installed a Noctua NH-U12S, an 8GB dual channel kit of G.Skill DDR4 RipJaws V memory, and an ASUS GTX 780 video card.

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The GTX 780 is a long length, dual slot GPU so it should so it should provide a good reference for other premium video cards and highlight any spacing issues. The NH-U12S is a moderately sized aftermarket CPU cooler so it should provide a good reference for other coolers so we can see if there any clearance issues around the CPU socket. We installed the memory in the two sockets closest to the CPU to ensure clearance with 4 DIMMs.

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Let's start with the obvious. LGA 1151 mounting is no different than LGA 1150. So if your existing aftermarket CPU cooling solution works an LGA 1155 or 1150 system it will work on LGA 1151.

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While the area between the memory slots and CPU socket is slightly limited there should be no clearance issues with all slots populated with standard height RAM. On the other hand the same cannot be said of RAM that has higher than standard cooling fins. Such RAM may cause issues as larger CPU cooling solutions may overhang the innermost DIMMS, so if you do opt for non-standard height modules, proper heatsink selection will be paramount. This issue is not as large if you only use two RAM sticks instead of four, but we do recommend you take this into consideration.

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If your RAM requires active cooling, you may want to think long and hard about opting for a water based solution as there isn’t enough room to fit both a large CPU cooling solution and memory cooling devices. On the positive side the rather low profile MOSFET heatsinks should pose no problems with most tower based coolers. By the same token because they wrap around two sides, and the memory encompasses a third, the amount of room for physically installing larger tower cooler hardware is limited. This is not as big an issue as with some motherboards, but time and patience will be key to installing large air based CPU cooling solutions.

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Switching from air to water caused nary a ripple as there is more than enough room between the waterblock and its adjacent components. By the same token, if your waterblock of choice is overly large you may run into more installation issues, but our waterblock installed in seconds. However, we consider installing a typically designed block a much easier proposition than installing a tower cooler. For novice consumers an AIO would be a great compromise between performance and ease of installation.

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Due to the excellent PCI-E slot layout, there is a large gap between memory clips and the back of the graphics card. This means consumers need not worry about first uninstalling their GPU before installing/removing memory modules. The 24-pin ATX power connector and the 8-pin CPU power connector are also well placed, so that makes assembling and disassembling the system just a tad easier.

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The one issue that results from this PCIe layout is that longer cards will overhang the edge of the motherboard and can make installing SATA cables a rather odious task. Even in single GPU configurations this occurs and we strongly recommend installing your SATA cables before installing your second video card.

Even with the minor issues taken into consideration the Z170-A belies its rather modest asking price. We have since countless more expensive boards with a lot more problems than this board. We just wish more companies would take the time to make ease of installation a priority.
 
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AkG

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Joined
Oct 24, 2007
Messages
5,270
Test System & Testing Methodology

Test System & Testing Methodology


To full test the built in overclocking abilities of a given motherboard, we have broken down testing into multiple categories:

Stock Turbo Boost - To represent a 6770K at stock with turbo enabled.

5-Way Software OC - To represent a Z170-A at best proven stable overclock achieved via included software based overclocking (4.6GHz).

Manual OC –To represent an experienced overclocker that is looking for the optimal long term overclock to maximize system performance while keeping voltage and temperatures in check (4.7GHz).

We chose benchmark suites that included 2D benchmarks, 3D benchmarks, and games; and then tested each overclocking method individually to see how the performance would compare.

The full list of the applications that we utilized in our benchmarking suite:

3DMark 8
3DMark 2013 Professional Edition
AIDA64 Extreme Edition
Cinebench R11.5 64-bit
SiSoft Sandra 2013.SP4
SuperPI Mod 1.5mod
RightMark Audio Analyzer 6.2.5
Sleeping Dogs Gaming Benchmark
Metro: Last Light Gaming Benchmark
Tomb Raider
BioShock Infinite


Instead of LinX or P95, the main stability test used was the AIDA64 stability. AIDA64 has an advantage as it has been updated for the Haswell architecture and tests specific functions like AES, AVX, and other instruction sets that some other stress tests do not touch. After the AIDA64 stability test was stable, we ran 2 runs of SuperPI and 2 runs of 3DMark to test memory and 3D stability. Once an overclock passed these tests, we ran the full benchmark suite and then this is the point deemed as “stable” for the purposes of this review.


To ensure consistent results, a fresh installation of Windows 8.1 was installed with latest chipset drivers and accessory hardware drivers (audio, network, GPU) from the manufactures website. The BIOS used for overclocking and benchmarking was version 1301 and the Nvidia drivers used were version 332.21.

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Our test setup consists of an Intel Haswell 6770K, ASUS Z170-A motherboard, one NVIDIA GeForce GTX 780 video card, 8GB GSkill RipJaws V DDR4-3600 1.35v memory, a Intel 335 180GB SSD, and a WD Black 1TB. All this is powered by an EVGA SuperNOVA 1000 P2 1000 watt PSU.

For cooling we used a Corsair H110i AIO w/ four 140mm fans attached. For hardware installation testing we also used a Noctua NH-U12S and a XSPC Raystorm waterblock.

Complete Test System:

Processor: Intel i7 6770K ES
Memory: 8GB GSkill RipJaws V DDR4-3600
Graphics card: NVIDIA GeForce GTX 780
Hard Drive: 1x 180GB Intel 335 SSD. Western Digial Black 1TB.
Power Supply: EVGA SuperNOVA 1000 P2
CPU Cooler: Corsair H110i AIO

Special thanks to EVGA for their support and supplying the SuperNOVA 1000 P2.
Special thanks to G.Skill for their support and supplying the RipJaws V RAM.
Special thanks to NVIDIA for their support and supplying the GTX 780

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Name="Medium List 1 Accent 5"/> <w:LsdException Locked="false" Priority="66" SemiHidden="false" UnhideWhenUsed="false" Name="Medium List 2 Accent 5"/> <w:LsdException Locked="false" Priority="67" SemiHidden="false" UnhideWhenUsed="false" Name="Medium Grid 1 Accent 5"/> <w:LsdException Locked="false" Priority="68" SemiHidden="false" UnhideWhenUsed="false" Name="Medium Grid 2 Accent 5"/> <w:LsdException Locked="false" Priority="69" SemiHidden="false" UnhideWhenUsed="false" Name="Medium Grid 3 Accent 5"/> <w:LsdException Locked="false" Priority="70" SemiHidden="false" UnhideWhenUsed="false" Name="Dark List Accent 5"/> <w:LsdException Locked="false" Priority="71" SemiHidden="false" UnhideWhenUsed="false" Name="Colorful Shading Accent 5"/> <w:LsdException Locked="false" Priority="72" SemiHidden="false" UnhideWhenUsed="false" Name="Colorful List Accent 5"/> <w:LsdException Locked="false" Priority="73" SemiHidden="false" UnhideWhenUsed="false" Name="Colorful Grid Accent 5"/> <w:LsdException Locked="false" Priority="60" SemiHidden="false" UnhideWhenUsed="false" Name="Light Shading Accent 6"/> <w:LsdException Locked="false" Priority="61" SemiHidden="false" UnhideWhenUsed="false" Name="Light List Accent 6"/> <w:LsdException Locked="false" Priority="62" SemiHidden="false" UnhideWhenUsed="false" Name="Light Grid Accent 6"/> <w:LsdException Locked="false" Priority="63" SemiHidden="false" UnhideWhenUsed="false" Name="Medium Shading 1 Accent 6"/> <w:LsdException Locked="false" Priority="64" SemiHidden="false" UnhideWhenUsed="false" Name="Medium Shading 2 Accent 6"/> <w:LsdException Locked="false" Priority="65" SemiHidden="false" UnhideWhenUsed="false" Name="Medium List 1 Accent 6"/> <w:LsdException Locked="false" Priority="66" SemiHidden="false" UnhideWhenUsed="false" Name="Medium List 2 Accent 6"/> <w:LsdException Locked="false" Priority="67" SemiHidden="false" UnhideWhenUsed="false" Name="Medium Grid 1 Accent 6"/> <w:LsdException Locked="false" Priority="68" SemiHidden="false" 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QFormat="true" Name="Subtle Reference"/> <w:LsdException Locked="false" Priority="32" SemiHidden="false" UnhideWhenUsed="false" QFormat="true" Name="Intense Reference"/> <w:LsdException Locked="false" Priority="33" SemiHidden="false" UnhideWhenUsed="false" QFormat="true" Name="Book Title"/> <w:LsdException Locked="false" Priority="37" Name="Bibliography"/> <w:LsdException Locked="false" Priority="39" QFormat="true" Name="TOC Heading"/> </w:LatentStyles> </xml><![endif]--><!--[if gte mso 10]> <style> /* Style Definitions */ table.MsoNormalTable {mso-style-name:"Table Normal"; mso-tstyle-rowband-size:0; mso-tstyle-colband-size:0; mso-style-noshow:yes; mso-style-priority:99; mso-style-parent:""; mso-padding-alt:0in 5.4pt 0in 5.4pt; mso-para-margin:0in; mso-para-margin-bottom:.0001pt; mso-pagination:widow-orphan; font-size:15.0pt; mso-bidi-font-size:14.0pt; font-family:"Times New Roman","serif";} </style> <![endif]-->
 
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AkG

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Feature Testing: Onboard Audio and USB 3.1 Performance

Feature Testing: Onboard Audio


<i> While the ASUS Z170 Deluxe is mainly orientated towards PC enthusiasts, the upgraded onboard audio is one of its main selling features. As such, it behooves us to see exactly what this upgrade brings to the table. To do this we have used RightMark Audio Analyzer.</i>

<div align="center"><img src="http://images.hardwarecanucks.com/image/akg/Motherboard/Z170-A/thd.jpg" border="0" alt="" />
<img src="http://images.hardwarecanucks.com/image/akg/Motherboard/Z170-A/dr.jpg" border="0" alt="" />
<img src="http://images.hardwarecanucks.com/image/akg/Motherboard/Z170-A/noise.jpg" border="0" alt="" /> </div>

While certainly not in the same league as the best Z97 motherboards, this board did surprise us with its abilities. Obviously, if you take your music fidelity seriously you will find this it a tad lacking, but for average consumers these results are more than adequate.


Feature Testing: USB 3.1 Performance


For the USB 3.1 device we have used an Asus USB 3.1 enclosure which uses a pair of Samsung 840 EVO 250GB drives, and is powered by a ASMedia ASM1352R chipset.

<div align="center"><img src="http://images.hardwarecanucks.com/image/akg/USB31/ports2.jpg" border="0" alt="" />
</div>

Unfortunately this enclosure doesn't make use of USB 3.1's increased power abilities and instead uses a second USB (micro 2.0) port which hooks up to an included 2A (10watt) wall adapter.

Crystal DiskMark


<i>Crystal DiskMark is designed to quickly test the performance of your drives. Currently, the program allows to measure sequential and random read/write speeds; and allows you to set the number of tests iterations to run. We left the number of tests at 5 and size at 100MB. </i>

<div align="center"><img src="http://images.hardwarecanucks.com/image/akg/Motherboard/Z170-A/cdm_r.jpg" border="0" alt="" />
<img src="http://images.hardwarecanucks.com/image/akg/Motherboard/Z170-A/cdm_w.jpg" border="0" alt="" /> </div>


Real World Data Transfers



<i>No matter how good a synthetic benchmark like IOMeter or PCMark is, it cannot really tell you how your hard drive will perform in “real world” situations. All of us here at Hardware Canucks strive to give you the best, most complete picture of a review item’s true capabilities and to this end we will be running timed data transfers to give you a general idea of how its performance relates to real life use. To help replicate worse case scenarios we will transfer a 10.00GB contiguous file and a folder containing 400 subfolders with a total 12,000 files varying in length from 200mb to 100kb (10.00 GB total).

Testing will include transfer to and transferring from the devices, using MS RichCopy and logging the performance of the drive. Here is what we found. </i>

<div align="center"><img src="http://images.hardwarecanucks.com/image/akg/Motherboard/Z170-A/copy_sm.jpg" border="0" alt="" />
<img src="http://images.hardwarecanucks.com/image/akg/Motherboard/Z170-A/copy_lg.jpg" border="0" alt="" /> </div>

These results are a touch lower than what an LGA 2011-v3 system is capable of, but still bloody marvelous. Better still, ASUS' implementation of BoT - or what they call Turbo Boost - does indeed boost performance and you would be hard pressed to tell these results from internally mounted SSD numbers.
 
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AkG

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Feature Testing: Software Auto-Overclocking

Feature Testing: Software Auto-Overclocking


The ASUS Z170-A includes many ways of automatically overclocking the system but there are two primary routes we want to discuss. The first is not technically a standalone software based solution but is rather implemented via POST with a feature called HotKey OC. ASUS boasts that this is a one click solution and they aren’t kidding as it is as fast, easy, and painless a method of overclocking as we have seen.

To enable the HotKey OC, during post POST the Control and the 'T' keys need to be pressed at the same time. Doing this enables the TPU stage 1 overclocking profile. Unfortunately there isn’t a similar method to enable TPU’s second tier of overclocking. More importantly this is a static overclocking profile that does not take into consideration the abilities of your CPU. Instead it is a once size fits all approach that does push more voltage than is really necessary but in our testing it was perfectly stable. It also doesn’t touch memory settings beyond trying to enable an XMP, but more on that. Even with these caveats this still is still a nifty new feature that will make overclocking even easier.

oc_tpu.jpg

When enabled, HotKey OC boosted our i7-6700K from its stock settings to 4.3GHz on all four cores, UnCore was set to 4.1GHz, and the memory pushed to DDR4-2933. Considering this takes all of mere seconds to do, there is not much to complain about this predefined HotKey overclocking profile.



The other main way of overclocking your system without entering the BIOS is via the AI Suite III program. As the name suggests 5-Way Optimization automatic overclocking is not your typical one size fits most approach to letting the board increase frequencies. Instead of relying upon presets this program will slowly increase your processor's clock speed and voltage, test for stability, and repeat that process until it has found the sweet spot.

As with previous versions this program does customize the overclock based upon your processor and it offers you multiple paths to gaining a final overclock. Specifically, it features two options (Fast Tuning & Extreme Tuning) as well as two different methods for achieving that overclocking: Ratio only and Ratio + BCLK (TPU 1 & TPU 2).

soft_5_550.jpg

On top of all that you can also set the initial ratio the software will use to begin from (depending upon which mode you use) to shorten the testing stages. You can also set limits on the maximum voltage you feel comfortable with, the maximum temperatures you want the processor to remain below, and even the maximum CPU frequency. All these features allow for a much more customizable approach to overclocking.

If all that was not enough ASUS has now included the ability to stress test for up to one hour and use the CPU Advanced Vector Extensions (AVX) instruction set during the stress testing. This makes the built-in stress test much more capable of finding the true limits of the CPU’s stability. Only being able to stress test for one hour is a touch on the low side, but it in conjunction with AVX, this feature should catch nearly all 'bad' overclocks.

ASUS have also listened to complaints about their software overclocking suite handily avoiding the system memory. Basically, older versions simply enabled an XMP profile and called it a day. This new version will also test your RAM to make sure that it is indeed stable at its preset XMP setting. We have lost count of the so called 'stable' overclocks that inevitably failed because the memory was not up to snuff.

soft_oc_sm.jpg

To actually use this program, simply set your options to whatever you wish, press the button…and go to bed. When set to maximum testing AISuite will take a long time to complete. This however is not a complaint; instead we think it is bloody impressive given the low asking price of this motherboard.

There are however a few issues we need to address. First of all, the Z170-A doesn’t seem to support DDR4-3600 speeds. The best it could achieve via software overclocking was DDR4-2933; it can go higher than this but only if you manually set the speeds. In addition, the motherboard's best overclock was via ratio overclocking only. This is because TPU II also ungangs all cores, and while the one core overclock went higher than TPU 1 settings, the quad core results were lower. This was a tad disappointing.

Lastly it still does not really do much on the unCore side of things. Both options only set the Uncore to 4.1 from 4.0GHz. Not much, but it is better than nothing.

Of these hiccups the only really disappointing part was that our expensive DDR-3600 RAM was not fully supported. DDR4-2933 is good, but if you plan on purchasing this motherboard and relying upon the software to overclock your system we would recommend sticking to DDR4-3000 or slower DDR4 memory.

soft_oc_proof_sm.jpg

Even with these issues taken into account we were still impressed with what AISuite accomplished. Basically the system purred along, tested, retested, and finally decided on 4600GHz for all cores at a reasonable adaptive voltage level set at a maximum of 1.350V. A combination of DDR4-2933 RAM, 4.6GHz on all four cores, and Uncore of 4.1GHz is damn impressive.
 
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AkG

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Manual Overclocking Results

Manual Overclocking Results


It is hard to not be impressed by what ASUS has been able to do with their Z170-A motherboard. Firstly, by making overclocking as simple as pushing two buttons on your keyboard during startup, or throwing a single switch on the motherboard, or even just running a simple program; ASUS has automatic overclocking down to a science. This however does take all the fun out of overclocking and for a lot of users the journey is just as important as the destination.

Thankfully ASUS has you covered on this end of things almost as well as they do on the automatic overclocking side of the coin. It does take more work to get a manual overclock but this board is rather fun to work with so the process is next to painless. This is because the Z170-A gives you a lot of freedom to explore, tweak, and generally mess around with things without fear of OS corruption or bricking the system. The only really missing feature was a clear CMOS button, but since the jumper pins are easy to access this is not too worrysome.

oc_proof_sm.jpg

When you then combine this freedom with a more cohesive power delivery system and then add in a rather cool running processor, the end result is eye-opening when compared to earlier Haswell processors. For the first time in a long time it was not a thermal wall that limited things but rather our limitation on voltages that stopped us from going even higher.

The final overclock was just north of 4.7GHz when on water cooling which is certainly respectable. Yes ASUS' software solution came damn close to what we could do but we do not consider the time wasted. Enjoyment of a new system takes many forms, and this board is a pleasure to work with. Having the My Favorites page is a blessing in and of itself.

To be fair, some of the reason we consider our manual overclock only moderately more powerful than the software is because this board and our processor is only mediocre on the memory side of things and we were using insanely capable RAM. In the past we could always count on hitting impressive memory frequencies, even if the CPU speeds were only slightly better. This time, G.Skill guarantees DDR4-3600 speeds and sets the XMP to that level. That is bloody fast, so fast in fact that this board couldn’t achieve those levels… and just would not post at anything above DDR4-3200 settings.

This is something we will pay careful attention to in the future, but we do believe it was the board and not the integrated memory controller that was the issue. We believe this to be the case as ASUS states DDR4-3400 (and above) is only possible on the Deluxe and similarly priced ROG branded models.

To be honest I doubt anyone will complain about merely hitting DDR4-3200 speeds on the RAM and 4.7GHz on all four CPU cores. Both frequencies proved to be rock solid and so cool running that we redid our stability test using a Noctua U12S with a single Noctua 1300RPM fan and it was still not thermally limited. All of this was accomplished with a board that costs significantly less than either the CPU or RAM. That is what we call impressive.
 
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AkG

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System Benchmarks

System Benchmarks


In the System Benchmarks section we will show a number benchmark comparisons of the 6700K and Z170 Deluxe using the stock speed (turbo enabled), 5-way Optimization (4.6GHz), and our manual overclock(4.7GHz). This will illustrate how much performance can be gained by the various overclocking options this board has to offer.

For reference the CPU speeds, memory speeds, memory timings, and uncore speeds used for these tests are as follows:

<div align="center">
<img src="http://images.hardwarecanucks.com/image/akg/Motherboard/Z170-A/chart.jpg" border="0" alt="" />
</div>

SuperPI Benchmark


<i>SuperPi calculates the number of digits of PI in a pure 2D benchmark. For the purposes of this review, calculation to 32 million places will be used. RAM speed, RAM timings, CPU speed, L2 cache, and Operating System tweaks all effect the speed of the calculation, and this has been one of the most popular benchmarks among enthusiasts for several years.
SuperPi was originally written by Yasumasa Kanada in 1995 and was updated later by snq to support millisecond timing, cheat protection and checksum. The version used in these benchmarks, 1.5 is the official version supported by hwbot.</i>

<div align="center">
<img src="http://images.hardwarecanucks.com/image/akg/Motherboard/Z170-A/pi.jpg" border="0" alt="" />
</div>


CINEBENCH R11.5


<i>CINEBENCH is a real-world cross platform test suite that evaluates your computer's performance capabilities. CINEBENCH is based on MAXON's award-winning animation software CINEMA 4D, which is used extensively by studios and production houses worldwide for 3D content creation.

In this system benchmark section we will use the x64 Main Processor Performance (CPU) test scenario. The Main Processor Performance (CPU) test scenario uses all of the system's processing power to render a photorealistic 3D scene (from the viral "No Keyframes" animation by AixSponza). This scene makes use of various algorithms to stress all available processor cores. The test scene contains approximately 2,000 objects which in turn contain more than 300,000 polygons in total, and uses sharp and blurred reflections, area lights, shadows, procedural shaders, antialiasing, and much more. The result is displayed in points (pts). The higher the number, the faster your processor.</i>

<div align="center">
<img src="http://images.hardwarecanucks.com/image/akg/Motherboard/Z170-A/cine.jpg" border="0" alt="" />
</div>

Sandra Processor Arithmetic & Processor Multi-Media Benchmarks


<i>SiSoftware Sandra (the System ANalyser, Diagnostic and Reporting Assistant) is an information & diagnostic utility. The software suite provides most of the information (including undocumented) users like to know about hardware, software, and other devices whether hardware or software. The name “Sandra” is a (girl) name of Greek origin that means "defender", "helper of mankind".

The software version used for these tests is SiSoftware Sandra 2015. In the 2015 version of Sandra, SiSoft has updated operating system support, added support for the latest CPUs, as well as added some new benchmarks to the testing suite. The benchmark used below is the Processor Arithmetic benchmark which shows how the processor handles arithmetic and floating point instructions. This test illustrates an important area of a computer’s speed.</i>

<div align="center">
<img src="http://images.hardwarecanucks.com/image/akg/Motherboard/Z170-A/sis.jpg" border="0" alt="" />
</div>


PCMark 8 Benchmark


<i>Developed in partnership with Benchmark Development Program members Acer, AMD, Condusiv Technologies, Dell, HGST, HP, Intel, Microsoft, NVIDIA, Samsung, SanDisk, Seagate and Western Digital, PCMark 8 is the latest version in FutureMark’s popular series of PC benchmarking tools. Improving on previous releases, PCMark 8 includes new tests using popular applications from Adobe and Microsoft.

The test used in below is the PCMark 8 Home benchmark. This testing suite includes workloads that reflect common tasks for a typical home user such as for web browsing, writing, gaming, photo editing, and video chat. The results are combined to give a PCMark 8 Home score for the system.</i>

<div align="center">
<img src="http://images.hardwarecanucks.com/image/akg/Motherboard/Z170-A/pcm8.jpg" border="0" alt="" />
</div>


AIDA64 Benchmark


<i>AIDA64 Extreme Edition is a diagnostic and benchmarking software suite for home users that provides a wide range of features to assist in overclocking, hardware error diagnosis, stress testing, and sensor monitoring. It has unique capabilities to assess the performance of the processor, system memory, and disk drives.

The benchmarks used in this review are the memory bandwidth and latency benchmarks. Memory bandwidth benchmarks (Memory Read, Memory Write, Memory Copy) measure the maximum achievable memory data transfer bandwidth. The code behind these benchmark methods are written in Assembly and they are extremely optimized for every popular AMD, Intel and VIA processor core variants by utilizing the appropriate x86/x64, x87, MMX, MMX+, 3DNow!, SSE, SSE2, SSE4.1, AVX, and AVX2 instruction set extension.
The Memory Latency benchmark measures the typical delay when the CPU reads data from system memory. Memory latency time means the penalty measured from the issuing of the read command until the data arrives to the integer registers of the CPU.</i>

<div align="center">
<img src="http://images.hardwarecanucks.com/image/akg/Motherboard/Z170-A/aida_mem.jpg" border="0" alt="" />


<img src="http://images.hardwarecanucks.com/image/akg/Motherboard/Z170-A/aida_lat.jpg" border="0" alt="" />
</div>

As you can see in the new 6700K does post some very good numbers, but as with previous generations is memory starved at stock settings of DDR4-2133. More importantly, the Z170-A gained a noticeable boost in performance from simply allowing the system to overclock itself.
 

AkG

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3D and Gaming Benchmarks

3D and Gaming Benchmarks


In the 3D and Gaming Benchmarks section we will show a number of benchmark comparisons of the 6700K and Z170 Deluxe using the stock speed (turbo enabled), highest stable software overclock of 4.6GHz and our manual overclock of 4.7GHz. This will illustrate how much performance can be gained by the various overclocking options this board has to offer.

For reference the CPU speeds, memory speeds, memory timings, and uncore speeds used for these tests are as follows:

<div align="center">
<img src="http://images.hardwarecanucks.com/image/akg/Motherboard/Z170-A/chart.jpg" border="0" alt="" />
</div>

3DMark Fire Strike Benchmark


<i>The latest version of 3DMark from FutureMark includes everything you need to benchmark everything from smartphones and tablets, to notebooks and home PCs, to the latest high-end, multi-GPU gaming desktops. And it's not just for Windows. With 3DMark you can compare your scores with Android and iOS devices too. It's the most powerful and flexible 3DMark we've ever created.

The test we are using in this review is Fire Strike with Extreme settings which is a DirectX 11 benchmark designed for high-performance gaming PCs. Fire Strike features real-time graphics rendered with detail and complexity far beyond what is found in other benchmarks and games today.</i>

<div align="center">
<img src="http://images.hardwarecanucks.com/image/akg/Motherboard/Z170-A/3dm.jpg" border="0" alt="" />
</div>

Sleeping Dogs Gaming Benchmark


<i>Sleeping Dogs is an open world action-adventure video game developed by United Front Games in conjunction with Square Enix London Studios and published by Square Enix, released on August 2012. Sleeping Dogs has a benchmark component to it that mimics game play and an average of four runs was taken.


The settings used in the testing below are the Extreme display settings and a resolution of 1920x1200. World density is set to extreme, high-res textures are enabled, and shadow resolution, shadow filtering, screen space ambient occlusion, and quality motion blur are all set to high.</i>

<div align="center">
<img src="http://images.hardwarecanucks.com/image/akg/Motherboard/Z170-A/sd.jpg" border="0" alt="" />
</div>


Metro: Last Light Gaming Benchmark


<i>Metro: Last Light is a DX11 first-person shooter video game developed by Ukrainian studio 4A Games and published by Deep Silver released in May 2013. The game is set in a post-apocalyptic world and features action-oriented gameplay. The game has a benchmark component to it that mimics game play. Scene D6 was used and an average of four runs was taken.

The settings used in the testing below are Very High for quality and a resolution of 1920x1200. DirectX 11 is used, texture filtering is set to AF 16X, motion blur is normal, SSA and advanced physX turned on and tessellation is set to high.</i>

<div align="center">
<img src="http://images.hardwarecanucks.com/image/akg/Motherboard/Z170-A/met.jpg" border="0" alt="" />
</div>

BioShock Infinite Gaming Benchmark


<i>BioShock Infinite is a first-person shooter video game developed by Irrational Games, and published by 2K Games released in March 2013. The game has a benchmark component to it that mimics game play and an average of four runs was taken.

The settings used in the testing below are UltraDX11 for quality and a resolution of 1920x1200.</i>

<div align="center">
<img src="http://images.hardwarecanucks.com/image/akg/Motherboard/Z170-A/bio.jpg" border="0" alt="" />
</div>

Tomb Raider Gaming Benchmark


<i> Tomb Raider is an action-adventure video game. Published by Square Enix released in March 2013. The game has a benchmark component to it that mimics game play and an average of four runs was taken.


The settings used in the testing below are Ultimate default settings for quality, VSync disabled and a resolution of 1920x1200.</i>

<div align="center">
<img src="http://images.hardwarecanucks.com/image/akg/Motherboard/Z170-A/tr.jpg" border="0" alt="" />
</div>

While the real world gaming improvements from overclocking are not as large as the synthetic tests would lead one to believe they nevertheless are still impressive. Considering it takes almost no effort to implant the software overclock that is time well spent.
 

AkG

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Conclusion

Conclusion


$165. That’s a number to keep in your mind throughout this conclusion as it is a defining aspect of ASUS’ Z170-A motherboard. Most of all, remember it because everything you read from here on out will fly straight in the face of that price.

Intel’s Skylake processors and the platform they have been created to serve represent a defining moment for mainstream users and enthusiasts alike. Never before have so many potentially forward-looking features been placed within the grasp of so wide a market and there’s no better example of this than the Z170-A. USB 3.1, the potential for high bandwidth PCI-E storage devices, full-speed M.2 compatibility and even SATA Express (which is admittedly in a sad state at this point) have all been rolled into a motherboard that is adaptable, affordable and packed to the brim with value-added elements.

What surprised us the most about this board is how few sacrifices ASUS made in order to bring it to fruition. While the previous generation Z97-A and even X99-A were both considered excellent values for their respective segments, they still felt like seriously cut-down versions of higher end boards. Not so with the Z170-A since, as we mentioned above, it includes technologies that were only available on motherboards costing nearly twice as much less than six months ago. In effect ASUS’ move to fully kit out their budget-minded motherboard actually makes higher priced alternatives like the Deluxe look like unnecessary luxury items that don’t offer all that much more to the vast majority of users.

Behind the feature-packed exterior lies an extremely competent BIOS and undeniably mature overclocking chops as well. If you are someone who wants a quick speedup, ASUS’ myriad of preset options will boost performance without blasting your processor with excessive voltage or sacrificing stability. Their 5-Way Optimization is a wonder in and of itself since it has the ability to nearly maximize an overclock based on your particular system setup rather than throwing frequencies and voltages against a wall in the hope that something will stick.

If manual overclocking is required, the ASUS’ UEFI BIOS will have you surprisingly well covered given the Z170-A’s low price point. There’s a long list of options from memory skew rates to simple BCLK clocks and everything in between. More importantly, every single option and its associated impact upon the system is spelled out in easy-to-understand English terminology. This may sound like a trite compliment but we’ve seen some atrociously vague BIOS options, even on the latest boards from ASUS’ direct competitors. Even the Favorites Page, an innovative addition pioneered by ASUS, has been honed to perfection here.

Naturally, there are some items that have been left off the Z170-A’s plate to insure some separation between it and more expensive boards in ASUS’ lineup. DDR4 memory speeds were capped at around 3400MHz, even though our G.Skill kit is rated for 3666MHz speeds; the modules’ DDR4-3666 XMP profile wouldn’t work either. The integrated Realtek audio solution is very good but still a far cry from the Deluxe’s ALC1150. Meanwhile, exotic features like Bluetooth, Wireless AC support, dual LAN controllers and onboard debug LEDs have all been left on the cutting board.

When it comes to deciding upon which motherboard to pick, the choices are often divided between what you need, what’s wanted right now, what you believe you may need in the future and what fits within your budget. In our opinion, the ASUS Z170-A provides everything you could possibly need, most things someone may want, a surprising amount of future proofing and a price that will surely fit in nearly everyone’s budget. There’s no higher praise than that.

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