ASUS Z97-AR Motherboard Review
I am always on the verge of pulling the trigger when it comes to purchasing a new motherboard. However, the dollar spent to performance gained ratio plays out like a bad commercial in my head. These days, motherboards are becoming more expensive and really aren’t offering too much in the way of shiny new features. Sure, they look cool… but do they really offer you anything over your current mobo? Simple answer… Yes… and no. Enter the ASUS Z97-AR motherboard.
Let’s face it, the motherboard market is completely saturated. In the old days (when AMD was the first to break the 1GHz barrier), abit and ASUS were the top two primary overclocking motherboard makers to choose from. Today, everyone is fighting for your nickel and the war has made them all step up their game. Unfortunately, the prices went up as the quality did too. The ASUS Z97-AR is not going to be your most expensive option in the z97 market. In fact, I would almost call this a budget board at $149.99 USD when you start to consider some of the motherboard pricing we have been seeing lately, some upwards of $500!!!!
If you have been hunting around for a Z97 motherboard, you may have seen the A version of this. The Z97-AR is not that much different than the Z97-A. The A version does have some different colors and VGA / DVI integrated… that’s it. Colors: Silver (AR), Gold (A).
If you stalk the Z97-AR on ASUS’s product page, you see things like:
- 5-Way Optimization by Dual Intelligent Processors 5 – One click, total system optimization!
- M.2 & SATA Express – Speed up your system with lightning-fast 10Gb/s transfer speed
- Crystal Sound 2 and Intel Gigabit Ethernet — a game-winning combo!
- ASUS HomeCloud – Access your PC remotely and stream multimedia content anywhere, anytime
- Proven quality – 5X Protection. 1000+ compatible devices. 7000+ validation hours.
With one click, you can achieve total system optimization.
ASUS has always been on my short list when looking for a motherboard overclocking. Over these last few years, overclocking has become increasingly easier. With the 5-Way Optimization, ASUS takes the responsibility out of the consumer and dynamically optimizes yours system based on real-time use. TPU, DIGI+, EPU, Fan Xpert3, and TurboAPP are the primary components and one click will configure the settings of all these for you. Personally, I like a little more control. Thankfully, there are always Advanced modes.
The Z97-AR doesn’t ship in a double stacked motherboard crate (like ROG mobos) and it doesn’t have 400 accessories crammed into its box either. Instead, you get the motherboard, a couple of manuals, a driver/utility disk, the rear I/O plate, a pair of SATA cables, an SLI cable and two EZ connect blocks.
||ATX Form Factor
12.0 inch x 9.6 inch ( 30.5 cm x 24.4 cm )
||4 x DDR3 supporting up to 32 GB
1333-3300 (OC) MHz
||HDMI (4096×2160 at 24 Hz or 2560×1600 at 60 Hz)
DisplayPort (4096×2160 at 25 Hz or 3840×2160 at 60 Hz)
||Supports NVIDIA Quad-GPU SLI Technology
Supports AMD Quad-GPU CrossFireX Technology
||2 x PCIe 3.0 x16 (x16 or x8/x8)
1 x PCIe 2.0 x4
4 x PCIe 2.0 x1
||4 x SATA 6 Gbps Ports
1 x SATA Express
1 x M.2 PCIe and SATA
||6 x USB 3.0/2.0 port(s) (4 at back panel, blue, 2 at mid-board)
8 x USB 2.0/1.1 port(s) (2 at back panel, , 6 at mid-board)
|Back I/O Ports
||1 x PS/2 keyboard/mouse combo port
1 x DisplayPort
1 x HDMI
1 x LAN (RJ45) port(s)
4 x USB 3.0 (blue)
2 x USB 2.0
1 x Optical S/PDIF out
5 x Audio jacks
|Internal I/O Ports
||1 x USB 3.0 connector(s) support(s) additional 2 USB 3.0 port(s) (19-pin)
3 x USB 2.0 connector(s) support(s) additional 6 USB 2.0 port(s)
1 x SATA Express connector: , compatible with 2 x SATA 6.0 Gb/s ports
1 x M.2 Socket 3 for M Key, type 2260/2280 devices
1 x TPM header
4 x SATA 6Gb/s connector(s)
1 x CPU Fan connector(s) (1 x 4 -pin)
1 x CPU OPT Fan connector(s) (1 x 4 -pin)
4 x Chassis Fan connector(s) (4 x 4 -pin)
1 x S/PDIF out header(s)
1 x Thunderbolt header(s)
1 x 24-pin EATX Power connector(s)
1 x 8-pin ATX 12V Power connector(s)
1 x EZ XMP switch
1 x Front panel audio connector(s) (AAFP)
1 x System panel(s) (Q-Connector)
1 x DRCT header(s)
1 x MemOK! button(s)
1 x TPU switch(es)
1 x EPU switch(es)
1 x Power-on button(s)
1 x Clear CMOS jumper(s)
2 x SATA 6Gb/s cable(s)
1 x SLI bridge(s)
1 x Q-connector(s) (2 in 1)
The back I/O panel has a display port as well as an HDMI, absent is the VGA port found on the A version. There are two USB 2.0 Ports, four USB 3.0 Ports, a single Intel Gigabit Ethernet port, and audio connections. There is also a PS/2 port for your trusty IBM Model M clicky keyboard!
The board’s layout is excellent. Overall, nothing seems to be out of place but it does seem to remind me a fight scene in Star Wars.
The CPU socked area is clean and free from large (tall) obstructions. There isn’t much distance between the socket and the cooling towers for MOSFET and such but with so much crammed on a motherboard, there isn’t much available space. Around the socket, there is no less than 25mm of clearance, the shortest distance found just to the left. The heatsinks rise to a total height of 27mm.
There are four available DIMM slots that can support up to 32GB of RAM at speeds of up to 3300MHz (overclocked). The DIMMS are color coded black and dark grey for differentiation (dual channel memory operation). However, the grey is so dark that it can be confused. In a poorly lit room with fluorescent lighting and the motherboard already installed in a case… indistinguishable. The single sided locking mechanism for the DIMM slots has been a godsend. The days when you have to remove your overstuffed video card to switch memory around are over…
Just below the CPU socket is the M.2 socket with plenty of room. Although this board offers plenty of PCIe slots, SATA Express, and an M.2 slot, there is only so much PCIe love to go around. The M.2 slot uses the same lanes as the two PCIe x 1 slots.
The chipset rests below some decently sized passive cooling and just behind the SATA Express and four SATA ports. The Z97-AR supports all the normal RAID levels and SSD performance requirements like TRIM while SSDs are configured for RAID.
Circling around, you find the two PCIe 3.0 x16 (x16 or x8/x8), the one PCIe 2.0 and the PCI slots. Crystal Sound 2 can be found on the edges. Crystal Sound 2 here on the Z97-AR uses the Realtek ALC892 HD Audio Codec with support for DTS Ultra PC II and DTS Connect.
Additionally, you will find things like a MEMOK! Button an EZ XMP Switch, an EPU Switch, a TPU Switch, and Power-on Button.
- MEMOK! Button – When installing RAM, there are circumstances and situations that may cause a system boot failure. Pressing this button begins automatic memory compatibility tuning for a successful boot.
- TPU Switch – Allows the adjustment of CPU ratio and clock speeds
- Power-on Button – this is by far my favorite feature of the new ASUS motherboards. This allows you to boot the system without having to wire a switch or short the pins with a flat head screw-driver.
- EZ XMP Switch – This allows you to overclock the installed DIMMS.
- EPU Switch – allows the automatic detection of current settings and intelligently moderates power consumption.
The ASUS Z97-AR also supports TPM (Trusted Platform Module). TPM can store keys, digital certificates, passwords and data. More Details
The BIOS has come a long way from the blue background and yellow ANSI graphics. The UI now recognizes mouse movements and is more like an OS environment than anything I grew up on. With that said, the Z97-AR UEFI (unified extensible firmware interface) is really slick. Everything is easy to find and there are a ton of options to configure. I must confess… the color scheme, which matches the board colors, is a little nauseating.
There are two modes in which you can interact with the BIOS. There is the EZ Mode and the Advanced Mode. Upon entering, you are immediately thrust into EZ Mode and required to present the ability to press F7 to enter the advanced configuration screens.
The EZ Mode presents the user with information about your motherboard, CPU, and RAM configuration. Your temperatures and voltages are displayed in text and graph form while your DRAM Status and SATA information are displayed elegantly. Drag and drop boot priority as well as manual fan tuning function magically.
Additionally, the EZ Mode provides the burgeoning enthusiast with access to the EZ System Tuning Feature and manual fan tuning capabilities.
If you are the adventurous type, F7 will bring you into the advanced mode. Here, you can tweak endlessly. The Favorites menu allows you to tag frequently accessed settings to one location for quick access.
Beyond favorites, in order from left to right, Main:
Overclocking is handled through the Ai Tweaker menu section and allows fine tuning of your system.
To get a quick look at all the screenshots, click on an image below and either use the arrow keys on your keyboard to scroll through, or click the images.
Tool & Exit:
ASUS has packaged their well-known AI Suite 3 to bring customization and overclocking out of the BIOS and onto your desktop. AI Suite 3 offers a ton of configurable options, included the 5-Way Optimization button. According to ASUS, this will detect the best settings for the way you use your computer.
Along the bottom of the application, you have an information panel that tells you your CPU Frequency (per core), Voltage, Temperature, and Fan information. Each of these fly-out to provide a greater level of detail.
Within TPU you can tune a number of elements. These range from BCLK frequency and CPU Cache ratio to Core Voltage and more. A second tab offers tuning of the CPU Strap.
Fan Xpert 3 brings cooling management under control. You can assign visual locations to your fans within the application and tune them for usage.
DIGI+ VRM can control things like CPU Power Phase control and VRM switching frequency.
TurboApp brings the ability to tweak system performance based on the application you are running. For things that don’t require much, like office, you can tune the system down using less power and creating less noise. When things need to heat up, like during a late night fragging session, then tune everything to the MAX.
EPU allows you to create and set power presets.
||Intel i7 4790K
||2x8GB Crucial Ballistix Sport DDR3 PC3-12800
||OCZ Vector 256GB
||Gigabyte R9 170
||Windows 7 Professional 64-bit
For testing the Ethernet Performance, we transfer a 2GB file from the workstation to a NAS and back five times. We pipe the transfer speeds during the benchmark to a .csv file for charting.
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CrystalDiskMark is a benchmarking utility that determines speeds by measuring 512KB, 4KB, and 4KB (Queue Depth 32) sequential and random read and write speeds. Test data can be Random, 0Fill, and 1Fill. For our purposes, we left the test at Random.
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CPU Queen Benchmark
This simple integer benchmark focuses on the branch prediction capabilities and the misprediction penalties of the CPU. It finds the solutions for the classic “Queens problem” on a 10 by 10 sized chessboard. At the same clock speed theoretically the processor with the shorter pipeline and smaller misprediction penalties will attain higher benchmark scores. For example — with HyperThreading disabled — the Intel Northwood core processors get higher scores than the Intel Prescott core based ones due to the 20-step vs 31-step long pipeline. CPU Queen test uses integer MMX, SSE2 and SSSE3 optimizations.
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CPU PhotoWorxx Benchmark
This benchmark performs different common tasks used during digital photo processing.
It performs the following tasks on a very large RGB image:
- Fill the image with random colored pixels
- Rotate 90 degrees CCW
- Rotate 180 degrees
- Color space conversion (used e.g. during JPEG conversion)
This benchmark stresses the SIMD integer arithmetic execution units of the CPU and also the memory subsystem. CPU PhotoWorxx test uses the appropriate x87, MMX, MMX+, 3DNow!, 3DNow!+, SSE, SSE2, SSSE3, SSE4.1, SSE4A, AVX, AVX2, and XOP instruction set extension and it is NUMA, HyperThreading, multi-processor (SMP) and multi-core (CMP) aware.
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CPU ZLib Benchmark
This integer benchmark measures combined CPU and memory subsystem performance through the public ZLib compression library. CPU ZLib test uses only the basic x86 instructions, and it is HyperThreading, multi-processor (SMP) and multi-core (CMP) aware.
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CPU AES Benchmark
This benchmark measures CPU performance using AES (Advanced Encryption Standard) data encryption. In cryptography AES is a symmetric-key encryption standard. AES is used in several compression tools today, like 7z, RAR, WinZip, and also in disk encryption solutions like BitLocker, FileVault (Mac OS X), TrueCrypt.
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CPU AES test uses the appropriate x86, MMX and SSE4.1 instructions, and it’s hardware accelerated on VIA PadLock Security Engine capable VIA C3, VIA C7, VIA Nano and VIA QuadCore processors; and on Intel AES-NI instruction set extension capable processors. The test is HyperThreading, multi-processor (SMP) and multi-core (CMP) aware.
CPU Hash Benchmark
This benchmark measures CPU performance using the SHA1 hashing algorithm defined in the Federal Information Processing Standards Publication 180-4. The code behind this benchmark method is written in Assembly, and it is optimized for every popular AMD, Intel and VIA processor core variants by utilizing the appropriate MMX, MMX+/SSE, SSE2, SSSE3, AVX, AVX2, XOP, BMI, and BMI2 instruction set extension. CPU Hash benchmark is hardware accelerated on VIA PadLock Security Engine capable VIA C7, VIA Nano and VIA QuadCore processors.
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PCMark 8 Home
PCMark 8 Home benchmark measures your system’s ability to perform a series of common tasks typical of daily home use. The Home workloads generally have light computational requirements and are ideal for testing low-cost tablets, notebooks and desktop home PCs.
The PCMark 8 Home benchmark test contains the following workloads.
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- Web Browsing
- Casual Gaming
- Photo Editing
- Video Chat
PCMark 8 Creative
PCMark 8 Creative benchmark measures your system’s ability to perform a series of entertainment and media tasks. The Creative workloads generally have demanding computational requirements and are designed for testing mid to high-end notebooks and desktops. Your system must have a GPU with full DirectX 11 support in order to run all the workloads in the PCMark 8 Creative benchmark.
The PCMark 8 Creative benchmark test contains the following workloads:
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- Web Browsing
- Photo Editing
- Batch Photo Editing
- Video Editing
- Media To Go
- Mainstream Gaming
- Video Group Chat
PCMark 8 Work
PCMark 8 Work benchmark measures your system’s ability to perform a series of basic office and work tasks. For more demanding office use, run the Creative benchmark test. The Work tests are designed for testing typical office notebooks and desktop PCs that lack media capabilities.
The PCMark 8 Work benchmark test contains the following workloads:
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- Web Browsing
- Video Chat
Handbrake is a widely used media encoding platform. We took a standard DVD (A Bronx Tale) and used the preset for “normal” conversion. Encoding is a CPU intensive task that can reveal a lot about your particular system and FPS (Frames per second) in the encoding results is a key indicator to the performance of your system.
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CINEBENCH is a real-world cross platform test suite that evaluates your computer’s performance capabilities. CINEBENCH is based on MAXON’s award-winning animation software CINEMA 4D, which is used extensively by studios and production houses worldwide for 3D content creation. MAXON software has been used in blockbuster movies such as Iron Man 3, Oblivion, Life of Pi or Prometheus and many more.
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Hyper Pi is a front end for Super PI. Super PI is a single threaded benchmark that calculates pi to a specific number of digits. It uses the Gauss-Legendre algorithm and is a Windows port of a program used by Yasumasa Kanada in 1995 to compute pi to 232 digits. In our case, Pi is calculated to 1M using all processors available and high priority.
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Overclocking seems to be more challenging for the CPU than the motherboard these days. The Z97-AR offers much in the way of configuration, but if the CPU isn’t willing, then your options are limited. Overclocking the Z97-AR through 5-way optimization yielded only a 0.9% increase in performance and quite frankly, it was unimpressive. However, when we got down to brass tacks we were able to push our i7 4790K processor to 4.7GHz without much issue (and stable). Granted, the temps got pretty high, but that has little to do with the motherboard. Beyond 4.7GHz, the system became unstable and the famed BSOD presented itself regularly during stability testing at any speeds beyond 4.7.
If you are looking for some ground breaking innovations in the Z97 chipset over its predecessor (Z87), get your magnifying glass out as they are hard to find. The chipset does offer some enhancements over its older brother, but does that mean you should ditch your Z87 board for a shiny new one? Well, if things like M.2 support and SATA express are key drivers in your buying decision, then yes. If you have an older motherboard, then the choice to upgrade is easy.
Ultimately, the motherboard here offers a lot of bang for your buck. Overclocking was easy enough for the novice and robust enough for those that like to tinker a bit more. Crossfire and SLI compatibility for the gamer, overclocking for the enthusiast, and a price tag that everyone can afford makes this motherboard a good option for just about everyone. The UEFI BISO is pretty slick and the included Asus software is hard to beat.
The Z97-AR offers the looks, the features, and just about everything you need rolled up into one happy little package. Team this board up with some quality components and you can build one heck of a rig. Bottom line, would I buy one? Yes… and I would stamp this one with the Editor’s Choice Award based on the amount of bang for you get for your buck.