ASUS ROG Maximus V Formula Motherboard Review

 

A Closer Look - Design Highlights

ROG boards have always been known for their fashion sense, and the Maximus V Formula doesn't disappoint. The board is meticulously laid out in typical ASUS fashion, and the entire PCB is satisfyingly weighty. Most eyes will be immediately drawn to the bulging VRM heatsink that features the patent pending Hybrid Thermal Solution known as Fusion Thermo. At its core, the system is comprised of a multitude of heat fins mated to an L-shaped copper heat pipe. A water cooling channel runs parallel to the heat pipe to dissipate heat from the VRM. Nickel barbs on both ends of the water channel allow the user to incorporate the Fusion Thermo heatsink into an existing water loop. Unfortunately, the fixed barbs are only 3/8" in diameter, so popular 1/2" tubing and G1/4 fittings are not compatible. ASUS has basically found a way to deliver the best of both cooling worlds in a hybrid solution that doesn't add substantial bulk to the area surrounding the CPU socket, and the results speak for themselves. While the passively cooled fins perform admirably on their own, introducing water cooling into the equation can result in an advertised >25% improvement in temperature. ASUS has tested and published a list of water cooling solutions from the likes of Thermaltake, Swiftech, and Koolance to ensure maximum compatibility and cooling performance, while taking some of the guesswork out of an art that has been somewhat reserved for die-hard enthusiasts. Judging from the number of water cooling products that we saw at CES 2013, liquid solutions are definitely on their way into the mainstream, and we are happy to see that ROG continues to have its fingers on the pulse of where the PC gaming industry is headed.

Taking a quick glance around the rest of the board, you might notice the three thermal sensor connection points. One is located atop the uppermost PCIe x 4 slot, another between the DIMM slots and 24-pin power connector, and the third next to the system panel connector pins. For a very small sum of money ($8 to $10), you can purchase a set of thermal sensor cables and place them wherever you please inside your case. Unlike the temp sensors that might come with a generic fan controller, these will interface directly with the Probe II utility, which we will detail later. You will quickly discover that a common theme amongst ROG motherboards is real-time monitoring, and the inclusion of these sensor inputs is testament to that enthusiast mentality. Something that's sure to be appreciated by any builder is the Formula's fan header layout. There are two side-by-side top placed headers, two in close proximity to the memory banks, two near the bottom right corner, and two between the left heatsink and rear I/O area for a grand total of eight. Any fans that you connect to these 4-pin headers can be fully tuned and controlled using the Fan Xpert II utility, which we will also detail later.

It takes a keen eye to spot some of the other unique components residing on the Formula's face. One such component is the PLX chip situated between the bottom two PCIe x 16 slots. This chip allows for additional 2.0 lanes to be multiplexed (combining multiple data streams into one signal) for more robust concurrent PCIe controller usage. Without it, a user assumes the risk of running into a PCIe bottleneck if too many lanes are being accessed at a given time. This becomes particularly relevant for multi-GPU setups since Z77 and Ivy Bridge only have access to a total of 16 PCIe 3.0 lanes. The PLX chip effectively doubles the number of available PCIe 3.0 lanes to 32, preventing the bottleneck and latency issues. It adds a considerable chunk of change to the board's MSRP, but most SLI and Crossfire users would consider it a worthwhile investment. While we're on the topic of multiple GPUs, it's worth noting the amount of spacing between the PCIe slots. Even 3-slot based cards can be used here with zero overhang. Additionally, the open slot above the primary x16 allows for a RAID card, capture card or sound card to be installed, even with two triple-slot cards equipped. Another benefit of the increased spacing is the room for additonal airflow around the cards.

Next up is the VRM structure, featuring chokes made of a metal alloy as opposed to standard iron. You might have seen these alloy chokes marketed under the "TUF Components" branding of the ASUS Sabertooth Series. The alloy construction enables the support of much higher electrical current with greater efficiency than standard chokes. Complimenting these chokes are the Japanese Nichicon GT-series Black Metallic Capacitors. Not only are they built to withstand a greater range of temperatures than a solid cap, they also boast a wopping 5x longer lifetime than a solid cap, making them the ideal choice for gamers who are generating higher levels of ambient heat inside their chassis with multiple GPUs. These improvements to the VRM structure, along with the onboard EPU (Energy Processing Unit) and TPU (TurboV Processing Unit), make up the hardware side of the ASUS Extreme Engine DIGI+ II digital power design. More on that later.

There are several items of interest in the upper right-hand corner of the board: the Slow Mode switch, GO button, and Q-LED display. The Slow Mode switch is meant to only be used with a -10°C cooling system such as liquid nitrogen, so toggling it is not recommended for most users. When enabled, the Slow Mode switch slows down the CPU and allows the system's tuner to make adjustments, making it easier to enter the OS and validate results without the system crashing. Speaking of system crashes, interpreting error codes can waste valuable time in an overclocker's day, so ASUS has implemented a system of status lights that they call Q-LED. Unlike the implementation that we’ve seen on channel boards like the P8Z77 V Pro where the Q-LED’s are scattered around the motherboard, the four lights on the Formula have been consolidated to a single location next to the 24-pin power connector. The ROG boards also come equipped with an error code display, making diagnosing post errors as easy as pulling out your manual and looking up the code. No more guesswork. If poor or unstable memory turns out to be the culprit, just press the Go Button to call the ASUS MemOK! function to the rescue. It will test different memory configurations to find one that is stable before sending you on your merry way. It also provides an alternative method of overclocking. Users can configure a GO Button overclocking configuration within the BIOS and execute it within the OS at a push of the button.

supremefx

Graphical processing power and image quality seems to get the most press when it comes to creating the best gaming experience possible. But what about sound quality? Granted, a good headset can make a world of difference when it comes to identifying the soft footsteps of an enemy sneaking up behind you, but a whole new level of fidelity can be acheived by improving the signal processing at a hardware level. This is where the SupremeFX IV system comes in. It's easy to overlook the complexities of SupremeFX at first glance. There's a black box, a bunch of capacitors, and a pretty illuminated line running through them. But there is a lot more behind this system than meets the eye, starting with that red line. It quite literally divides the PCB into two parts, separating the analog audio components from the digitized portions of the board along a horizontal plane. Just another example of form follows function. What you cannot see is that the PCB is in fact multi-layered, with copper sheets resting between the main layers to protect vulnerable analog signals from attack in the vertical direction. The capacitors aren't your ordinary caps either. They are Japanese ELNA audio caps that have been designed with a very low ESR (equivalent series resistance) and are only located within the red-line area. Of course, some concessions need to be made with regards to the red-line separation. There still needs to be enough power on tap to cope with sudden demands from the analog side and prevent "clipping" of the sound. Take for instance those times in game when it's extremely quiet and then a massive explosion erupts and all hell breaks loose. A 1500uF capacitor straddles the two sides of the red line to make sure the clipping phenomenon doesn't occur. To ensure that you enjoy those loud explosions as much as possible, ASUS has implemented a Texas Instruments headphone amplifier, which boosts the output of the front stereo port up to 300 ohm. Indeed, I found myself reaching for my headphone controls after finding that the volume was noticeably louder after installing the board. Frequent listeners of heavily compressed audio sources such as Pandora and Spotify may notice increased clarity and punchiness thanks to the DTS audio codec being utlized here. Rounding out the package is the EMI aluminum cap (the black box). The concept behind it is simple. Modern advances in computing have progressively reduced the destructive interference of all the high frequency signals floating around the inside of your computer case. But take a powerful GPU (or two for that matter) and slap them and their fans right next to the audio processing area of the board, and you negate the effect. The aluminum EMI shield creates a barrier to these high-frequency signals to help prevent the SNR from being affected. ASUS claims that all of this added componentry equals true lossless audio quality with an SNR (signal-to-noise-ratio) of 110dB. The real output SNR of most motherboards is limited to around 98dB. That thin red line and little black box just became a lot more dear to you didn't they?

Our experience with Supreme FX IV over the past few weeks has been a very enjoyable one and we have managed to pick up on a few subtle nuances were we find the system working its magic. For those of you who have seen the latest 007 film "Skyfall," there is a particular scene where Bond encounters an assassin battle on the top floors of a skyscraper in Shanghai. Things quickly turn from calm to hectic, and the ensuing battle is filled with sounds of beating drums, rushing wind, punches, kicks, and bullets impacting concrete and glass. It's difficult to convey the intensity of the situation in words, but I was impressed to find that all the impacts of the fist fight weren't drowned out by the heavy percussion track. That's something that wouldn't be possible if I was watching at the same volume on a PC lacking a dedicated card with the same speakers . The drums would have overpowered the whole scene. Enhancements to musical tracks are also better detected at high volumes where quality begins to deteriorate on mainstream audio implementations. Chaotic chorouses using a variety of instruments manage to remain balanced, with lead vocals still coming through loud and clear. While you can still expect to get better quality out of a premium card like the Xonar STX, word on the street says that Supreme FX IV isn't that far off. It's hard to not be impressed by how much this on-board implementation does to boost the quality of listening for all forms of audio in general.

 

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