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ASUS Z87 Maximus VI Hero Motherboard Review

Eldonko

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As the newest board in ASUS’ ever-expanding ROG lineup, the Maximus VI Hero is built to redefine value in the ROG series. This may seem like an innocuous enough goal but before this point, Republic of Gamers products were normally associated with high prices and with good reason. ASUS basically throws everything they have into these boards in an effort to make them the best around even if that means throwing cost into the wind.

Looking at the Hero from a high level standpoint, its target demographic is enthusiasts who want the ROG design ethos alongside performance and air cooled overclocking superiority without breaking the bank. Priced at close to $200 cheaper than the flagship enthusiast ROG board, the Maximus VI Extreme, the Hero is intended to bring ROG innovation that gamers crave without some of the extreme overclocking features which they may never use.

The Hero is packed full of features that we typically look for to maximize our gaming experience. The SupremeFX 8-Channel HD audio brings an amazing audio experience and Sonic Radar is an audio positioning engine which helps to locate opponents in games from sounds like gunshots or footsteps.

One more gaming-related feature the Hero brings is Gamefirst II. This helps the online gaming experience by ensuring pings and latency are kept low through constant packet inspection and management.

A few other features that don’t only effect the gaming experience, but the overall PC standpoint are ASUS' excellent CPU Level Up, 4-Way Optimization, USB Charger+, USB 3.0 Boost, AISuite III, and the Extreme Engine DIGI+ III VRM. Additionally, as with many other ASUS Z87 boards, the Hero has Fan Xpert II which brings a new level of control and optimization for system fans and even the UEFI BIOS has over 15 new features over previous gen boards.

We also can’t forget to mention the functionality brought to the table by Intel's new Lynx Point Z87 chipset . Items like six native USB 3.0 ports, six native SATA 6G ports, full support for PCI-E 3.0 including 16 PCI-E lanes, Rapid Start Technology, Smart Connect, and new instruction sets have all been carried forward en masse onto the Maximus VI Hero.

The Maximus VI Hero comes with the ASUS standard 3 year parts and labour warranty and is available now at most retailers. More importantly, at just $220 it is hundreds less than competing products from Gigabyte, MSI, ASRock and others. Does that mean ASUS has cut too much or are we really about to see a renaissance in overclocker-friendly yet abundantly affordable motherboards? We're about to find out.

 
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Eldonko

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Specifications and Features

ASUS Maximus VI Hero Specifications and Features

Before jumping right into photos and testing, let’s take a look at the specifications and features for the Maximus VI Hero:


Click to enlarge
 

Eldonko

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Packaging and Accessories

Packaging and Accessories

The packaging for the Maximus VI Hero is the typical ROG red with a simple cover and details on the board features inside the top cover and on the back of the box.


Inside, the Hero has a smaller black box that includes a clear cover containing the motherboard and beneath the board the accessories sit in a divided black cardboard compartment.


The accessory bundle for the Maximus VI Hero is fairly standard and includes SATA cables, jumpers, driver disk, SLI bridge, I/O cover, manuals, cable labels, and a ROG do not disturb sign.

ASUS hasn't included anything out of the ordinary here since the Hero needed to retain a budget-conscious price and any "fluff" would have pushed cost to another level. If you're looking for a broader accessory package, jumping up to a higher end ROG board will likely be necessary. However, there's absolutely nothing missing that would prevent a gamer or overclocker from setting up the board with multiple storage drives and several graphics cards.
 
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Eldonko

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AI Suite III

AI Suite III
Click to enlarge

The software that will be most used on the Maximus VI Hero software suite is the new and improved AI Suite III. Designed using the ROG color scheme, this powerful tool allows tweaking and monitoring of just about anything you could possibly want through a convenient Windows-based interface.

The first section of AI Suite III is under the 4-Way Optimization tab and contains a function which automatically overclocks the system and optimizes fan speed and power savings. Other items on this page are mainly display items for TPU and EPU as well as shortcuts for power saving settings.

The TPU page is where you will do the majority of overclocking and tweaking. This page has adjustable settings for BCLK, CPU ratio, and CPU cache ratio. The Group Tuning checkbox allows for locking all cores at the same ratio or adjusting each separately. At the bottom are sensors for voltages, temperatures and fan speeds.

Also under the TPU tab is a subsection marked CPU Strap. Here users can change the CPU strap to 100, 125, 167, and 250, however 250 is not usable so don’t bother trying that one.

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The voltage section under TPU contains every voltage you will need for overclocking and tweaking the system. Adaptive and Manual voltages are available for CPU Core and CPU Cache as well as 10 other adjustable system voltages.

Under the EPU section are all of the power saving options. There are subpages titled High Performance, Max Power Saving, and Away mode under the EPU tab in which users can customize things like when the monitor turns off, when the computer sleeps, how much CPU voltage will drop, fan profiles, and even if USB controller power will be active when a device is not attached.

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Moving to the tab after EPU we have DIGI+ Power Control. This section of AI Suite III has two subpages for power settings: one for CPU and one for RAM. Specifically, the CPU section contains adjustable settings for load-line calibration, power phase control, current capability, power thermal control, voltage frequency, and active frequency mode. Under DRAM, there are adjustable settings for DRAM current capability, DRAM voltage frequency, and DRAM power phase control.

Under the last tab in AI Suite III is Fan Xpert 2. This is a huge addition to the Z87 ASUS boards as it gives full manual control over all fan headers individually. Fan Xpert 2 comes with several profiles (silent, standard, turbo, full speed) and a fan tuning utility.

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In each individual fan profile, there are both Smart and RPM modes for each fan as well as full fan RPM curve customization. You can even set spin up and spin down time to make changes in fan speed less noticeable.

You may not have noticed, but at the top of AI Suite III is a small arrow pointing downward. Clicking this arrow brings up more features via an index page containing Dual Intelligent Processors 4 (this is the section we have been in up to now), USB 3.0 Boost, EZ Update, System Information, USB BIOS Flashback, and USB Charger+.

Click to enlarge

EZ Update allows you to manage and update motherboard drivers, software, and BIOS from the Internet. This utility also allows for installing a custom boot logo if desired. The System Information section gives information on the motherboard, BIOS, CPU, and DRAM.

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USB Charger+ is a utility that allows for rapid charging of USB devices such as smartphones and tablets. Ensure the device is plugged into Intel USB 2.0 ports 9 or 10 (as shown in the manual), disable ErP Ready in the BIOS, and set USB Charger+ mode to fast-charging and you are all set.

Lastly we have USB 3.0 Boost. USB Boost can provide up to 170% faster transfer speeds over traditional USB 3.0 through the UASP (USB Attached SCSI Protocol) in Windows 8. Even in Windows 7 there is a Turbo mode that will speed up USB devices as well. We will have testing of this feature later in the review.

Overall, ASUS did a good job in the design of AI Suite III. The software is extremely easy to use and the only thing that we think could be improved is to have AI Suite open to the index page instead of the DIP4 section. This would ensure no users would miss the small arrow at the top of the screen to expand the index page.
 
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Eldonko

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Other Software & Utilities

Other Software & Utilities

While the AI Suite is by far the linchpin in the Maximus VI Hero's software stack, ASUS also includes a number of other programs in an effort to make everyday computing that much easier.


ASUS Boot Setting allows users to boot directly into the BIOS without having to repeatedly hit delete during the POST screen. This is invaluable when you reboot 100 times a day when overclocking and tweaking a system. It seems like such a simple tool, but we love it.


Next up we have the TurboV Core utility. This utility does basically the same thing as AI Suite II, but without all of the extra tools (and CPU usage). Many benchers prefer TurboV Core because of its simplicity.


Click to enlarge

Two other handy overclocking utilities that come with the Hero are the ROG-skinned Mem TweakIt and CPU-Z. Unfortunately, Intel has the memory timings locked in Windows so Mem TweakIt is basically for display only and the ROG CPU-Z on the ASUS website is out of date so we recommend grabbing the latest version from www.cpuid.com.


One of the key features of the Hero, the ROG SupremeFX 8-Channel HD audio, comes with a handy utility that allows for adjusting settings for environment (type of room), sample rate and bit depth, and DTS settings (surround sound). The Realtek HD Audio Manager also has sound effects, voice cancellation (for karaoke), and an equalizer.


The ROG GameFirst II utility with cFos Traffic Shaping technology provides the ability to ensure your online games take priority over other devices connected to your network. By lowering ping and latency, GameFirst II will help gamers to stay a millisecond ahead of the competition in online games, and especially online shooters. It also works for VoIP, media streaming, and file sharing, so whatever your priority is GameFirst II can prioritize your bandwidth. There is an EZ Mode setup for beginners and Advanced Mode for professional users to tweak.


Sonic Radar is an in-game sound visualization overlay designed for FPS gamers. Gunshots, footsteps, and call-outs appear with precise directionality via the on-screen radar and the utility includes a hotkey that allows for switching sound detection focus for specific effects within games, and intuitive settings that provide greater gaming experiences. There are four optimized game presets that detect key sound effects but keep in mind that your opponents may consider this cheating so check the server rules before using it.


Lastly we have the ASUS Webstorage Agent. This is a utility used for cloud storage similar to something like DropBox.
 
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Eldonko

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Feature Test: ROG RAMDisk

Feature Test: ROG RAMDisk


The ROG series of Z87 motherboards comes with a new software application called ROG RAMDisk. For those not familiar with what a RAMDisk is used for, in short it acts as a virtual drive that is much faster than even a modern, high end SSD. A RAMDisk is an OS level volume that can be used for storage to accelerate the performance and response times of installed or cached applications.

The basic concept behind the ROG RAMDisk software is to provide a quick and easy way for users to further enhance the performance of their system and durability of their SSD(s), by utilizing the system memory (DRAM) that is not in use. It can junction with exiting files hosted on the SSD or HDD and remaps the original contents into the RAMDisk, enabling access to the desired application. Alternately, data can be purely housed within the DRAM bus, minimizing executing latency as well as data read-in time.

Since system DRAM can sustain close to infinite access attempts, a RAMDisk can prolong the life of your HDD and SSDs by diverting the access critical folder from permanent mass storage to the DRAM, where it only does one single access to the permanent storage during system shutdown. This is a key advantage of the ROG RAMDisk over traditional RAMDisk solutions.

The ROG RAMDisk does not require porting the entire application to the RAM Disk to benefit from its performance. By creating a junction between the existing application folder on the SSD/HDD and the RAM Disk, the system will copy across the data and then access the RAM Disk data as if they were installed locally. The system only sees one version of the data so there is no risk of duplication.


To test out the RAMDisk software we paired an 8GB set of G.Skill 2666 memory with an 8GB set of G.Skill 2800 memory and set the speed to 2800Mhz. We knew from past experience that the 2666 would run 2800Mhz so the two kits worked nicely together. We'd recommend nothing less than 16GB for this operation while 32GB of memory is preferable.


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As shown above, even a fast SSD isn’t in the same ballpark in terms of read and write performance as a RAMDisk. It comes out at more than TEN TIMES faster.

We tested RAMDisk with a few programs, games, and utilities and it worked perfectly. One word of caution though: don’t use it with an unstable system since a freeze or BSOD will cause the loss of any data on the RAMDisk and could corrupt the installed application.

How you want to utilize this speed is up to you. You can throw intensive programs such as PhotoShop or your most played games on the RAMDisk to speed up the load times. Meanwhile, some will use it for benchmarking programs such as PCMark. All in all this software is well worth using if you have 16GB+ of memory installed and we love that it is absolutely free and customized to the ROG user base.
 
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Eldonko

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A Closer Look at the Maximus VI Hero p.1

A Closer Look at the Maximus VI Hero


Above is a map of the Maximus VI Hero motherboard layout with descriptions of the various parts. All in all, the board is very well laid out with more than adequate spacing between every one of its components. ASUS may be gearing this for the budget-conscious gamer / overclocker but you wouldn't know that from the near-perfect layout.



The cooling system on the Maximus VI Hero consists of a two piece system, a heatpipe cooler for the VRM and a separate passive heatsink for the chipset. The heatsinks are flat black and although they look great, the rough texture picks up lint and dust fairly easily. ASUS used a hard pink TIM for the chipset and soft thermal pads for the VRM coolers.


Similar to the majority of Z87 boards, the Z87 chipset heatsink is passive so ASUS went with a low profile design to dissipate heat properly and won't interfere with longer graphics cards. The chipset is located beneath the ROG branded cooler and looks similar to its predecessor, the Z77.



The VRM on the Maximus VI Hero is run by the all new digital Extreme Engine DIGI+ III Power Control system (DIGI+ ASP1251 chip) through VRM, DRAM, and CPU voltage controllers. It uses an 8 phase power design (VCCIN) which is why you see 8 chokes lined up along the CPU socket area, 1 choke per phase. System DRAM also has 2 phases of its own which are situated near the memory. This is identical to the layout used on the ASUS Z87 Deluxe.

The new Haswell CPU architecture brings a new VRM system to motherboards with Intel’s Fully Integrated Voltage Regulator (FIVR). This means all voltage regulation is now done on-die. Intel says this lowers voltage ripple and improves response times but as we will see in the overclocking section, FIVR also increases heat. Now, the 8 phases no longer have to run the iGPU separately, the 8 phases provide all the power to the voltage regulator inside the CPU which does all of the work.

The DIGI+ III Power Control system adds an Active Frequency Mode, which enables the VRM Switching Frequency to be dynamically adjusted according to the load applied (which translates to the increase of current drain at the CPU Input Voltage rail). DIGI+ III also has full control over the CPU’s Fully Integrated Voltage Regulator (FIVR) which includes Switching Frequency, Thermal Management, Fault Tolerance, Power Efficiency, Phase Switching Capability, Power Response, and Current Slope.


Being part of the ROG line, the Hero is equipped with high end VRM components designed for high power and durability. Instead of the two power Low RDS_On MOSFET solution we see on most ASUS boards, the Hero uses NexFET Power Blocks with integrated dual high current delivery MOSFET stacked in a single package.

The chokes are also unique on the Hero. It comes equipped equipped with 60A BlackWing Chokes which have gold plated coil sealed by metal cooling heatsink fins for maximum current delivery with the optimal management of heat. The capacitors are 10K Black Metallic units, and have five times the lifespan as conventional Japanese solid capacitors, plus the additional benefits of being +-20 degrees more tolerant to extreme temperature (beyond 105 degrees, and below -55 degrees).

The combination of the NexFET Power Blocks, 60A BlackWing Chokes, and 10K Black Metallic Capacitors delivers excellent conductivity, current delivery, power efficiency, and sustains extreme temperature conditions. Part of the ROG target market is the extreme benchmarking crowd, and the VRM always reflects their needs so their inclusion on a lower priced model is certainly welcome.



The CPU socket may look similar to LGA1155 but Haswell utilizes the LGA1150 socket. On the underside of the board there is a backplate that holds the socket in place and two more backplates to hold the VRM cooler in position. This chipset cooler is held by screws with springs that give appropriate tension.
 
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Eldonko

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A Closer Look at the Maximus VI Hero p.2

A Closer Look at the Maximus VI Hero


ASUS began using their T-Topology architecture for the link between the memory and the processor last year with Z77. This innovation helps run higher clocks on 4 DIMMs by ensuring both memory channels are an equal distance from the CPU instead of having one channel closer than the other. An equal trace length gives equal data travel time and ASUS claims this allows for the most balanced control over DRAM modules under a dual channel configuration and can give up to an additional 15% DRAM overclocking headroom (as long as the CPU IMC does not limit the OC).

The Hero also has second generation T-Topology for its memory which further optimizes the layout and termination to minimize coupling noise and signal reflection effects. This can provide further memory overclocking stability. It also supports XMP 1.3 and memory speeds up to 2800MHz; an improvement over the previous Z77 which supported 2666Mhz and Z68 which supported XMP 1.2 and only up to 2200Mhz.


The memory has an independent VRM run by a separate DIGI+ chip marked with ASP1103, two chokes, and two Power Blocks.



The PCB real estate near the memory is quite packed. There here is a button marked MemOK and a MemOK LED. Press and hold the MemOK button until the LED starts blinking and the Hero will begin automatic memory compatibility tuning for a successful boot. Next to the MemOK button are power and reset buttons and a Q-Code LED which gives a debug code.

Left of this area is a chassis fan header and the 24-pin power connector. All fan headers on the board use a 4-pin layout to ensure compatibility with Fan Xpert but 3 pin connectors will work as well.

Tucked in close to the 24-pin power connector are four tiny LEDs (CPU, DRAM, GPU, boot device) that light up in sequence as the board POSTs. If the Hero resets or turns off with a particular LED lit up it gives you an idea of what is creating instability.


Next to the 24-pin power connector is a red USB 3.0 header which is run by the Z87 chipset. Beneath the chipset cooler is a ASMedia chip marked ASM1061 which is a SATA 6Gb/s controller running two of the SATA ports.


The bottom right side of the Maximus VI Hero has 8 SATA ports, all in a red color. The six ports on the right are connected directly to the PCH and all run at a speed of 6GB/s. The two ports on the left also run at 6GB/s but are controlled by the ASMedia ASM1061 chip.


The Hero's bottom corner houses the front panel connector, chassis fan header #1, a DRCT header, a clear CMOS jumper, a TG Header and a DirectKey button. The DRCT header is alternative place to connect your reset switch to. When the reset switch is connected to DRCT, the board will boot to BIOS when being reset. Meanwhile, that DirectKey bottom has a similar function to DRCT in which the system will boot and enter the BIOS without having to press the delete key.


Moving left along the bottom of the board we have a USB 2.0 header, a TPM connector, AAFP (front panel audio) connector, and the digital audio (SPDIF) header. The Trusted Platform Module (TPM) connector is for connecting a TPM device to the board which can be used to store keys, digital certificates, and passwords.
 
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Eldonko

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A Closer Look at the Maximus VI Hero p.3

A Closer Look at the Maximus VI Hero



Before continuing across the bottom portion of this board, we have a couple of chips to look at. First is a large Nuvoton chip marked NCT6791D which monitors several critical parameters, including power supply voltages, fan speeds, and temperatures. Near that is the board’s BIOS chip which is removable so if a user corrupts the BIOS and it cannot be recovered it is easier to swap out the BIOS chip than the entire board.


A key feature of ASUS' Hero is the onboard ROG SupremeFX audio solution. The PCB has a “Red Line” lighting PCB moat, where the PCB surrounding the built-in ROG SupremeFX audio solution has been specially divided into two zones, digital and analog, and uses separate reference grounds. This keeps the audio section purely inside the analog zone and allows the built-in ROG SupremeFX to function as if it is on the separate piece of PCB (like a standalone soundcard). The red LED lights are there to indicate where the PCB has been divided.


There is also PCB Shielding, where each portion of the ROG SupremeFX has been carefully arranged to avoid unnecessary reductions of audio quality due to crosstalk or electric coupling.

The ROG SupremeFX's core is covered by a stainless steel cover that blocks all electromagnetic interference generated from nearby components and ELNA Premium Audio Capacitors are used to enable smoother change in capacitor charge and discharge for the delivery of a warmer and pleasant sound.

We didn’t have a high end soundcard on hand to test the audio with a program such as RMAA, however, subjectively, it sounds excellent!


For expansion slots, the Maximus VI Hero comes equipped with three PCI-E 3.0 x16 slots (two red, one black) and three PCI-E x1 slots (black). The two red PCI-E slots are usable for 16x/8x Gen 3 SLI and the black slots operates at 4x for other devices.

As with most ROG boards the primary PCI-E slots are well spaced and will easily accommodate triple slot graphics cards provided a secondary PCI-E device isn't installed as well.


Above the top PCI-E 1x slot is another chassis header (#3), and in behind the I/O panel is a chip marked Parade PS8201 that runs the HDMI port on the I/O panel.


The I/O panel on the Hero is fairly standard but it does have a few items worth explaining. The button marked BIOS with the curved arrow is the BIOS Flashback button that allows for updating the BIOS directly from a flash drive without ever entering the BIOS. The flash drive must be in the bottom USB port to the right of the BIOS Flashback button. For iGPU use the board also has an HDMI port with a maximum output of 1080P.
 
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Eldonko

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Hardware Installation

Hardware Installation


In order to test how different hardware combinations will fit onto the Maximus VI Hero Z77, we installed a Zalman CNPS10x Flex, an 8GB dual channel kit of G.Skill memory, and a GTX 670 video card. The Zalman is an average-sized aftermarket CPU cooler so it should provide a good reference for other coolers so we can see if there any clearance issues.


We installed the memory in the sockets closest to the CPU to ensure clearance with 4 DIMMs. There shouldn't be any issues even with all slots populated, plus the new Trident by G.Skill has removable fins in case users run into any trouble. Even the aftermarket air cooler didn't have any issues fitting.


Switching the air cooling to a water block and adding the Trident RAM cooler also did not create any clearance issues on the Hero. We have seen this memory cooler not fit on some boards in the past due to the video card being in the way but it fits on the Hero with some room to spare.
 
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