Motherboard Testing Methodology
After a few years of testing motherboards, I’ve noticed that motherboards based on the same chipset tend to have very similar performance. This wasn’t always the case, but now that the memory controller’s in the processor, and the PCI-E lanes are in the chipset, it’s not surprising that everyone’s “Y22″ chipset motherboard performs pretty much alike…at stock settings, anyway. Haswell collapses the field even further by moving voltage regulation circuitry onto the CPU. Say goodbye to those exotic 24-phase CPU power supplies of yore…
So testing motherboards, unlike testing CPUs or video cards, is more about examining the proprietary features that make one different from another, as well as testing a board’s overclocking ability, especially if it’s marketed to the enthusiast community.
The ASUS Sabertooth Z97 Mark 1 motherboard offers two automatic overclocking options, both in the BIOS. The first is a simple EZ System Tuning toggle at the upper right of the main screen, and you can switch between normal, eco, and “ASUS Optimal” mode.
The second is the confusingly similar EZ Tuning Wizard, invoked from the main BIOS screen by pressing F11. This will ask you a simple series of questions about your system, starting with your intended usage:
Next, you’re asked about your cooling:
The final screen shows the estimated result of the tune:
Now, unlike ASUS’ more sophisticated auto-tune systems, neither EZ System Tuning nor EZ Tuning Wizard iterate through various settings, running a stress test after each until the system crashes. Both appear to use a heuristic to immediately apply a pre-defined overclock. For the EZ System Tuning, aka “ASUS Optical” setting, this was a surprisingly aggressive setting of multipliers of 43-43-42-41 (with 1, 2, 3, and 4 cores loaded), applying the XMP memory profile, and boosting CPU voltage to 1.3 volts.
EZ Tuning Wizard was even more aggressive, setting all cores to 44x and the BCLK to 102mHz and applying the XMP memory profile. However, there was one little problem: it left the CPU voltage at 1.072 volts. When I tried to boot with these settings, the system would blue-screen before booting into Windows. I tried resetting the BIOS defaults and running the tuning wizard several times and got the same results every time. In order to get the system to boot and run I had to manually set the CPU core voltage to 1.3v and lower the BCLK to 100mHz. This voltage error is egregious enough that I can only assume it’s a bug in this early BIOS.
I tested the performance of the system at stock settings as well as with the ASUS Optimal settings and the modified tuning wizard settings, which I list as “manual tune” since that’s really what it was. Although I’ve managed to get this particular Core i7- 4770K to run reliably with 45x multipliers on other motherboards, I was limited to 44x here.
I should note here that like most other modern motherboards, the Sabertooth Z97 by default overrides Intel’s core multipliers so that all cores run at 39x under load. Also, I always ran the memory at its XMP timings.
- Motherboard: ASUS Sabertooth Z97 Mark 1 with BIOS 0801
- Processor: Intel Core i7-4770K “Haswell” CPU
- System Memory: 8G (2x4G) DDR3-2133 at 11-12-11-30 timings
- Video Card: NVIDIA GTX580 reference card
- CPU Cooler: Thermalright Silver Arrow
- Operating System: Windows 7 Home Premium x64
- AIDA64 Engineer v4.3.2900
- SPECapc Lightwave
- x264HD 5.0
I’ll start with synthetic benchmarks in the next section.