Qualification: Asus Z77 MotherboardsWritten on April 9, 2012 by Matt Bach
At Puget Systems, we are constantly on the lookout for new products to keep us at the forefront of technology. For complex components like motherboards, we always want to get a sample in for qualification before we determine if it is a something that will fit well within our product line. Manufacture specifications go a long way to help us whittle the huge number of available products down to a manageable number, but we always learn a lot by having the physical product in hand.
After reviewing the specifications of Asus' motherboards using the new Intel 7-series chipset, we were able to narrow down the list of Micro ATX/ATX boards we were interested in to the Asus P8Z77-V Pro, P8Z77-V Deluxe, and P8Z77-M Pro motherboards. From a specifications point of view, all three of these boards are great, but it is often the little things that go unnoticed until we are actually using the boards that lead us to decide which products (if any) we want to carry.
One thing that needs to be pointed out with all three of these motherboards (and all motherboards using the new 7-series chipset from Intel) is that while they support the current 1155 2nd Generation Processors (Sandy Bridge), they are primarily designed for the upcoming 1155 3rd Generation Processors (not yet released). Because of this, some of the features available on these boards will not be active until one of the upcoming CPUs is installed. Fortunately, the only major feature that is currently not functional is support for PCIe 3.0. Even with the existing CPUs all of the PCIe slots are functional, so there is no concern of having one or more dead PCIe slots. You simply will be limited to PCIe 2.0, which for the majority of PCIe cards still provides more than enough bandwidth.
When reviewing the connectivity offered by a motherboard, we want to take a close look at the external ports on the I/O panel, the internal headers, the PCI-E slots on the motherboard, and the available networking options. Starting with the external and internal ports/headers, let's take a look at what is available on each of these motherboards:
|P8Z77-V Pro||P8Z77-V Deluxe||P8Z77-M Pro|
|USB 2.0||2 Ports||4 Ports||2 Ports|
|USB 3.0||4 Ports (2 ports on ASMedia Controller)||6 Ports (4 Ports on ASMedia Controller)||4 Ports (2 ports on ASMedia Controller)|
|Audio||7.1 Surround Sound + Optical SPDIF||7.1 Surround Sound + Optical SPDIF||7.1 Surround Sound + Optical SPDIF|
|E-SATA||0||2 (ASMedia 1061 controller)||2 (ASMedia 1061 controller)|
Intel 82579V Gigabit LAN
Intel 82579V Gigabit LAN
Realtek 8111F Gigabit LAN
|Realtek 8111F Gigabit LAN|
|Video Ports||VGA, DVI, HDMI, Display Port||HDMI, Display Port||VGA, DVI, HDMI|
|USB 2.0||4 Headers (providing 8 ports)||2 Headers (providing 4 ports)||3 Headers (providing 6 ports)|
|USB 3.0||2 Headers (providing 4 ports)||1 Header (providing 2 ports)||1 Header (providing 2 ports)|
|SATA 3Gb/s||4 (Intel Z77 controller)||4 (Intel Z77 controller)||4 (Intel Z77 controller)|
2 (Intel Z77 controller)
2 (ASMedia 1061 controller)
2 (Intel Z77 controller)
2 (Marvell 9128 controller)
|2 (Intel Z77 controller)|
Starting with the P8Z77-V Pro, the lack of E-SATA is a bit of a concern but it is very easy and cheap to add E-SATA capabilities to a motherboard with the use of an E-SATA bracket. There are fewer external USB ports than the P8Z77-V Deluxe, but the additional onboard video options more than make up for it. The two internal USB 3.0 headers are a huge pro for this motherboard since ATX chassis are starting to have two or more USB 3.0 front ports. USB 3.0 devices (such as card readers) are also becoming more common, for things like USB cards, we always prefer to use the built-in motherboard headers over 3rd party expansion cards. Finally, the built in wireless is a very nice feature, even if it doesn't support 802.11a like the P8Z77-V Deluxe. More and more consumers are utilizing wireless networking technology, so having it included with the board is very nice.
The P8Z77-V Deluxe version crams a huge number of ports on the rear IO panel, but only has HDMI and Display Port options for the onboard video. Since the upcoming CPUs from Intel support triple displays, it seems a shame to be limited to two displays simply due to the lack of a third video port. It's true that there is only so much physical space available on an I/O panel, but we would rather see the second Gigabit LAN and possibly a set of USB ports removed in order to fit a DVI port. In addition to the 802.11a/b/g/n adapter, the P8Z77-V Deluxe includes a Bluetooth v4.0 adapter for those that wish to connect Bluetooth-enabled devices to their computer. The big problem with this motherboard is the fact that there is only a single internal USB 3.0 header.
Finally, the P8Z77-M Pro has a great set of ports/headers and has very few negatives to it. On an absolutely ideal Micro ATX motherboard, we would still like to have a second internal USB 3.0 header, but it is not nearly as important as it is on an ATX motherboard. This is due to the fact that micro ATX chassis at the moment are not as likely to have more than two front USB 3.0 ports. This may change in the future, but at the moment a single internal USB 3.0 header is acceptable. The biggest issue we have with the P8Z77-M Pro is the lack of an included wireless adapter. In our experience, wireless is more likely to be used on smaller computers (either micro-ATX or Mini-ITX) so we would really have liked to see wireless included with this motherboard.
The practice of having one or more features disable when a PCIe slot is in use is not new (although it is something we are certainly not fans of), but it is clear from the information above that there is something different about the P8Z77-V Deluxe board that keeps this affliction at a minimum. It turns out that the Deluxe version has a secondary PCIe controller in addition to the controller built into the CPU. This controller (PLX PEX8608-BA50BC) controls the secondary PCIe slots allowing the motherboard to provide more PCIe slots than the Pro version while simultaneously not having nearly as many issues with their usage disabling other features on the motherboard.
This may seem like a very big deal, but in a real world scenario the issue with the P8Z77-V Pro's bottom PCIe slot is not going to occur often. On any motherboard, the slot directly below the primary PCIe x16 slot can generally be written off as unusable due to the high probability of a dual-slot video card being used. So that leaves one PCIe x1, one PCIe x16 and one PCIe x4 slot (as well as a pair of PCI slots) useable for expansion cards on a typical system. The average system will in fact not use any of these slots, but some systems may use one or two for PCIe devices such as sound, RAID or controller cards. Using three cards is very rare, but as long as two of those cards are PCIe x1 cards (as most sound and controller cards are) this is still not an issue since using the bottom slot at x1 speeds only disables one of two rarely use features (either the uncommonly used PCIe x1 slot under the video card or the secondary SATA 6Gb/s ports which are rarely used due to the lower performance relative to the native Intel ports)
The only reasonable configuration in which the Pro version would have PCIe conflicts is a system with SLI/Crossfire, a RAID card, and one other PCIe x1 card (such as a sound card). The RAID card would be installed into the PCIe x4 slot which would disable the two PCIe x1 slots leaving nowhere for the additional PCIe x1 card to be installed. To be clear, this is a very uncommon configuration and will rarely be seen on a socket 1155 system. For this type of configuration, a large amount of CPU power is usually needed to keep the CPU from becoming a bottleneck so a socket 2011 system is a much better fit. In fact, this specific configuration has not once been used on any Z68 system we have sold.
Out of all three motherboards, there is only a single component/header placement that we do not like. On the P8Z77-V Pro, the CMOS battery is located directly under the primary PCIe x16 slot. What this means is that if the CMOS ever needs to be cleared by removing the battery, the video card (if it exists) must first be removed. This is not a very big deal, but is still something to keep in mind.
All of the headers (USB 2.0, USB 3.0, HD Audio, etc.) are concentrated along the bottom and right sides which is ideal for accessibility and cable management. The 24 and 8-pin ATX power sockets are all in the standard location on Asus motherboards and should cause no problems.
At this point in our qualification process, we like to go through the data we have already collection in order to determine if the product (or in this case products) is something we are still interested in offering. It is not unusual for us to have come across something at this point that is a clear indicator that we will not want to use the part in our product line.
So far, we have not come across anything that stands out as a reason to not offer any of these three motherboards. The one issue we do have, however, is that the P8Z77-V Pro and P8Z77-V Deluxe are too similar for us to want to offer both in our product line. While we strive to offer a varied product line, we also want to keep from "overloading" consumers with many similar products on our configuration pages.
After much internal discussion, we decided that the P8Z77-V Pro was a better fit for us than the P8Z77-V Deluxe. Like we discussed in the PCI/PCIe portion of the Connectivity section, the times when the limiting PCIe lane control will be an issue is very rare. On the other hand, the single USB 3.0 header on the P8Z77-V Deluxe will be a constant source of problems now that the popular Antec P183 V3 needs two internal USB 3.0 headers for the three USB 3.0 front ports. So for every sale of the P8Z77-V Deluxe in an Antec P183 V3 chassis, the system would either have unusable front ports (which we absolutely hate doing) or the customer would need to purchase a USB 3.0 PCIe card. These cards are not terribly expensive, but in addition to the small price increase, they also add to the complication of the system. While complicated systems are not inherently bad, they have a tendency to develop more problems than a simpler system.
At this point, we have narrowed our Z77 motherboard selection down to the P8Z77-M Pro and the P8Z77-V Pro. What we want to do now is thoroughly test both motherboards to check for any unexpected issues. Since these boards are using an all-new chipset from Intel, we will be doing a bit more extensive testing than normal to make sure there are no unexpected driver issues.
Stability and Compatibility Testing
For our extended testing process, we used the following components combined into a test system for each motherboard:
|Motherboard:||Asus P8Z77-V Pro||Asus P8Z77-M Pro|
|CPU:||Intel Core i5 2500K 3.3GHz|
4x Patriot Signature DDR3-1333 8GB
4x Patriot Viper Xtreme DDR3-1600 4GB
AMD Radeon HD 7970 3GB
NVIDIA Geforce GTX 680 2GB
PNY Quadro NVS 450 512MB
|PSU:||Antec CP-1000 1000W PSU||Antec TP New Series 650W PSU|
|Hard Drive:||Western Digital Caviar Blue 500GB|
|Case:||Antec P183 V3 (case fans on low)||Antec Mini P180 (case fans on low)|
|CPU Cooler:||Puget Hydro CL3 Liquid Cooling System|
Our extended testing procedure for motherboards (see below) may at first glance seem short, but in actuality is very extensive. What you need to keep in mind is that the very first item - running the test system through our standard build process - is in itself a 98-point checklist.
The majority of the other checkpoints are designed to verify that the motherboard will function properly with a wide range of hardware. For that reason, we test using onboard video, Nvidia, AMD and Quadro based video cards in both single and SLI/Crossfire when possible. We also test the motherboard with the largest quantity of RAM we can (4 x 8GB sticks) and with the fastest RAM currently offered by Puget Systems (DDR3-1600MHz).
For the overclocking capability test, we want to make sure that our standard overclocks will still work without any problems. We have two levels of overclocking that we perform (moderate and full overclocking) so to pass this checkpoint the board must at least overclock to the same level as the motherboard it is intended to replace. In this case, we had to hit between 4.3 and 4.8GHz using the Intel Core i5 2500K 3.3GHz in order for it to pass.
|Test||P8Z77-V Pro||P8Z77-M Pro|
|Run test system through the Puget Systems build process|
|Review Device Manager to ensure all drivers loaded correctly|
|Loop test system through >50 reboot loops|
|Loop test system through >50 standby loops|
|Verify standby functionality using onboard video, Nvidia (single and SLI), AMD (single and Crossfire), and Quadro GPUs|
|Run 3d graphics testing using onboard video, Nvidia (single and SLI), AMD (single and Crossfire), and Quadro GPUs|
|Test all internal SATA controllers|
|Verify stability with the largest quantity/size of RAM available|
|Verify stability with the fastest RAM offered by Puget Systems|
|Verify overclocking capability|
|Review Event Log for any unexpected warnings/errors|
|Verify basic functionality with the latest version of Ubuntu (11.10)|
We actually had some minor issues with the P8Z77-M Pro related to the onboard video and CPU overclocking, but they were quickly determined to be caused by a faulty board. Asus was kind enough to overnight us a replacement motherboard which showed no sign of either of those issues.
With those problems resolved, both motherboards passed our extended testing with flying colors. We usually expect one or two minor (or sometimes major) driver conflicts with new chipsets that need to be worked out with the manufacture; but there were no such issues this time around. While heat has not been an issue on socket 1155 motherboards in the recent past, it was still good to see that neither board had any heat issues even with the hot Nvidia GTX 680 or AMD Radeon HD 7970 giving off additional heat within the chassis
There are always negatives to any product, and these three motherboards are no different. As we stated in the Mid-Qualification Evaluation section, the downsides to the P8Z77-V Deluxe compared to the P8Z77-V Pro (namely the lack of dual internal USB 3.0 headers) was enough for us to settle on the P8Z77-V Pro as the ATX motherboard we want to offer in our product line. The PCIe lane issues on the P8Z77-V Pro are a concern, but the likelihood of it ever being an issue is very, very small.
While the P8Z77-M Pro didn't have any active competition in this article, we still put it through its paces and had a very positive experience with it. In fact, the only negative thing we have to say about the P8Z77-M Pro motherboard is that it does not include a wireless adapter. Dual internal USB 3.0 headers would be nice, but is not nearly as critical on a Micro ATX motherboard
Both the P8Z77-V Pro and P8Z77-M Pro passed our basic qualification as well as our extended testing so it is our plan to offer both of these motherboards in our active product line.
|P8Z77-V Pro||P8Z77-V Deluxe||P8Z77-M Pro|
|Dual internal USB 3.0 headers||Minimal PCIe lane restrictions||No PCIe lane limitations|
|Included 802.11b/g/n wireless||Included 802.11a/b/g/n wireless||Three onboard video outputs|
|Four onboard video outputs||Large number of rear I/O ports|
|Limiting PCIe lane restrictions||Single internal USB 3.0 header||No wireless adapter included|
|Sub-optimal CMOS battery location||Only 2 onboard video outputs||Single internal USB 3.0 header|