Intel Z97-Express Final Thoughts
For the sake of discussion, I will presume that we’re all wondering why Intel would offer a fresh motherboard chipset without a corresponding new processor to launch with it. Intel’s Z87 Express chipset works wonderfully with current 4th generation Haswell desktop processors, and board partners like ASUS have (over)loaded their product with features beyond the needs of most enthusiasts. We’re still a few months away from a Haswell series refresh with Devil’s Canyon, which retains the same 22nm architecture for LGA 1150 but delivers small speed bumps at each SKU level and comes with improved pre-applied thermal interface material. Z97 Express sets the groundwork for 5th-generation processors, but these 14nm Broadwell-D desktop CPUs are not rumored to debut until Q1 2015. That could mean two things for the next year: 1) with at least 6-9 months until Broadwell arrives, system builders will continue to use Haswell-based CPU inventory, and 2) once Broadwell arrives, Z97 Express will remain the supported channel board chipset for quite some time afterward. Of course, there’s still time for Intel to make changes to their plans for X99 Express, but their roadmap draws a clear picture of the plan.
As it looks now, Haswell-E (Enthusiast) is where things will get interesting. The new 14nm enthusiast 6- and 8-core desktop CPU will utilize a new LGA 2011-3 socket, which is why is won’t be supported on Z97 Express. With the arrival of Intel’s X99 Express chipset enthusiasts will be treated to: DDR4 memory support, five PCIe 3.0 x16 card slots, and ten SATA 6 Gb/s ports. Intel’s Haswell-E processors and X99 Express motherboards are rumored for arrival in late 2014 near the holiday shopping season.
With this Z97 Express chipset launch, we’ve got a new channel board that can and will support all Haswell, Devil’s Canyon, or Broadwell desktop processors available now or in the future. This will likely create quite the product life cycle for Z97-based boards, well into 2016. This bodes well for the ailing desktop computer industry, which has trimmed away so much fat that all that remains are bone and the strongest muscles. Keeping Intel’s strategy to remove itself from the desktop board market, Z97 and X99 could be what we’re given to chew on for quite some time.
ASUS Z97 Final Thoughts
As we previously mentioned, Intel didn’t give vendors a lot new to work with with the Z97 Express chipset. Its main feature– support for forthcoming Broadwell desktop CPUs– isn’t useful yet, and a couple of extra USB 3.0 and SATA 6G ports isn’t that exciting. If you have a Z87 or even a Z77 based motherboard, there’s little compelling reason to upgrade.
That said, if you’re building a new rig, there’s no reason not to get the latest and greatest, and ASUS has upped the ante by including support for SATA Express and M.2 storage technologies. Granted there are no SATA Express SSDs actually available now, but the optional Hyper Express enclosure will let you connect two M.2 SSDs to the SATA Express ports.
Given the multitude of overclocking options and mechanisms, one thing I’d like to see ASUS offer is a “Gentle Introduction to Overclocking”, which would explain the various options in detail, estimate the amount of performance improvement each was capable of, and help a new user progress along the way from simply flipping switches on the motherboard to changing unpronounceable settings in the BIOS.
In my testing, all the built-in overclocking features made the exact same settings to my 4770K CPU as did the same features on the ASUS Z87-Deluxe/Dual motherboard, and the CPU-bound performance was pretty much the same (the SPECViewPerf benchmark scores are different because different video cards were used on the two motherboards). That’s probably just because ASUS has taken automatic overclocking further than anyone else; I consistently get better results from the auto overclocking features of ASUS boards than I do from other boards. From a pure performance point of view, this is about the best you can do short of one of ASUS’ Rampage Extreme motherboards with its liquid nitrogen feature set.
Although the Z97 chipset isn’t as exciting as Intel’s previous chipset launches, ASUS has used the opportunity to buff the shine on their motherboard range by adding features like SATA Express support and tweaking their already excellent BIOS as well as their Windows utilities. Is it possible to have too many features on a motherboard? I don’t know, but the Z97-DELUXE certainly seems to be trying to answer than question.
From a performance point of view, the Z97-DELUXE offers the same performance and auto-tuning capabilities as ASUS’ previous Z87-based motherboards. This isn’t a bad thing; it just shows how far ASUS has pushed the envelope in this area. The “5-Way Optimization” feature in ASUS’ AI Suite 3 utility considers system power and cooling along with CPU frequency for a balanced, stable approach. Granted, you can still do better with hand-tweaking for your particular workload, but in most cases the performance improvement this gets you will be something you’ll only see in benchmarks.
The Z97-DELUXE is an excellent motherboard that offers superior automatic performance tuning as well as all the features and capabilities an enthusiast user could want. At the time of this writing, the Z97-DELUXE version was available for $289.99 (Newegg), and the Z97-DELUXE NFC & WLC sold for $399.99 (Newegg). ASUS warranties the Z97 DELUXE motherboard for three years.
+ Robust ASUS Dual Intelligent Processors 5 feature set
+ 10 GB/s SATA-Express expansion ports
+ 10 GB/s M.2 SuperSpeed Inter-Chip
+ Built-in dual-band Wi-Fi 802.11ac (a/b/g/n/ac)
+ BlueTooth 4.0 wireless functionality
+ Includes ASUS ThunderboltEX II/Dual, NFC Express 2, and Wireless Charger
+ Support for upcoming Broadwell desktop CPU
- Expensive enthusiast product
- Z97 chipset lacks innovative features