ASUS Crosshair V Formula Z Motherboard Reviewformerstaff -
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The Formula Z is a standard ATX form factor board, measuring in at 12" x 9.6", despite its lengthy list of features including four PCIE slots, massive heatsinks, on-board buttons, and debug lights. Even with all of this and more, it is an amazingly uncluttered and flowing board, that has no interference issues even when all of its capabilities and capacities are exploited. I have the advantage of owning both the Formula V-Z and it's predecessor the Formula IV and even with four graphics cards installed (yes i know it only has three double spaced PCIe slots, I will explain that later on) I had no issues with anything getting in the way of anything else.
The board is largely a black and red color scheme, with a touch of gray and white thrown in. The black is a true black, that will not turn brown from the underlying copper tracers, should you choose a well lit case. Unless you just simply don't care for these colors, it is one of the best looking boards on the market. The large heatinks are featured on the board with the VRM heatsink featuring an inset Red aluminum accent, rolled into the shape of the ROG insignia, pressed into the otherwise black heatsink.
The back of the board is a bit different from any other 990FX I have seen, in that it has additional VRM components. The back of the board also has a thick metal bracket that the heatsinks are screwed to as well. A heavy duty steel bracket for the mounting of those large heatsinks is also included. The Formula-Z is a feature rich board to say the least, and you fair reader have won a trip around the board to look at them all, starting now.
Turning to the rear I/O panel, we find a well stacked area of connectivity and a button that you will not find on any other 990FX board on the market. Here is what you have: 1 x PS/2 keyboard/mouse combo port(s), 2 x eSATA 6Gb/s, 1 x LAN (RJ45) port(s), 4 x USB 3.0, 8 x USB 2.0 (one port can be switched to ROG Connect), 1 x Optical S/PDIF out, 6 x Audio jack(s), 1 x Clear CMOS button, 1 x ROG Connect On/ Off switch. The last feature 'ROG Connect' is unique to ASUS. Through a USB cable and activation via the ROG Connect, you can monitor system conditions and make hardware level changes on the fly from a laptop or tablet a-la F1 racing. ROG Connect is meant for the hardcore overclocker and a bit of fun to use.
The connections for discrete graphic options are plentiful with the Formula V-Z. Four PCIe x 16 2.0 slots are aboard (three being double slotted) facilitates triple Crossfire and SLI. When occupying two PCIe slots, the configuration is at 16x/16x electrically. When using three of the slots the configuration runs at 16x/8x/8x. In between the first and third full length PCIe slots are two PCIe x 1 2.0 slots for sound cards, capture cards, or other devices. The full length x16 slots use a securing mechanism ASUS calls 'Q connect,' a fishtailed style locking mechanism that flips forward to a 45 degree angle when fully locked in and is pushed flat towards the PCB to release the device. New on this incarnation of the Formula V is the deletion of the PCI slots, and the two PCIe x 1 taking its place.
Along the bottom of the board are most of the front panel connections. From left to right are: the front panel audio connector, digital audio connector, optional chassis fan connector, thermal sensor connection, and a TPM connector. Next to the USB connections is a thunderbolt connector, for an optional TB expansion card and a pair of 10-pin USB 2.0 connections. The Fast Boot switch in the off position will carry out a traditional POST process where all hardware is checked before it will POST. In the on position, it will let you customize your POST process bypassing hardware checks for a speedier boot up. The third option is exclusively for the windows 8 operating system. The ASUS ROG two second boot option that will POST in well..two seconds.
The Direct Key button just adjacent to the right lets you instantly gain access to the BIOS for quick changes or overclock profiles. To the right of Direct Key are a two of the eight fan headers by my count, as well as three optional temperature sensor connections. To the right of those, sits the 20 pin system panel connector. If you look closely between the second and third PCIe slot next to the SB heatsink you can see the unusually placed socketed BIOS of the Formula Z. That's right, there is only a single BIOS chip there, however on the rear I/O panel is the BIOS Flashback feature that is capable of flashing a damaged BIOS back in shape.
The BIOS Flashback feature can be used to update or recover a damaged BIOS. Using only standby power, you can update or re-flash your BIOS, or try out a new BIOS with a flash drive containing the BIOS version you wish to update to. Upon inserting the flash memory, you just press the BIOS Flashback button, hold it for three seconds, and the BIOS will be automatically updated. BIOS Flashback can even update the BIOS without a CPU or memory installed.
Moving to the lower right side of the PCB we find the eight SATA 6Gb/s ports to go with the two eSATA ports on the rear I/O panel. This is up from the previous version of the Formula V with 7 SATA 6 ports and a single eSATA. Six of these are AMD SB950 controlled and support RAID function 0,1,5,10 while two of the SATA 6Gb/s are controlled by ASMedia ASM1061 controller. The layout of the SATA ports is very good and cause no interference when three graphic cards are installed
Higher up from the SATA 6Gb/s ports are the quad DIMM slots of the Formula-Z. The dual channel architecture supports 32GB of DDR3 of speeds of 2400(O.C.(and beyond) /2133(O.C.)/2000(O.C.)/1800(O.C.)/1600/1333/1066 MHz ECC, Non-ECC, Un-buffered Memory. The DIMM(s) use what ASUS calls Q-DIMM. In essence this is a operating lock-down on only one end of the DIMM. This makes for an easier installation with a better positive lock on the memory modules. On the outside edge of the DIMMS, are the dual inductors for the Formula-Z dedicated two phases of power delivery for the system memory.
If you own or have considered a Crosshair V Formula and wonder if the 'Z' revamp is a meaningless and cosmetic only makeover, the answer is no. One of the additions in the Z model is the incorporation of the DDR3 'T-Topology' design. This means that ASUS has made the DIMM tracer distance the same for all four DIMMs. This helps with latency issues and aids in more stable overclocks. ASUS claims an average of 15% additional overclock headroom for the system memory. In turn higher and more stable memory overclocks means higher overall overclocks. Also new in the Z edition is support for 2400MHz (OC) memory. The 990FX chipset supports Hyper-transport 3.0 and a transfer rate of 5.2 MT/s
On the outside of the four DIMMS are the 20 pin USB 3.0 connector and the larger black connector of the 24-pin main ATX power. This is one of four power connectors found around the Formula-Z. It quickly becomes clear that the ASUS engineers have gone to great lengths to make sure that there is sufficient power for a heavily overclocked processor, memory, and multiple graphics processors to all be under demanding loads simultaneously. ASUS has also deployed this design into the Audio components, as we'll see a bit further down with the inclusion of a massive 1500uF capacitor to ensure that the audio has plenty of power to make sure the 'big sounds' do not get distorted or experience clipping..
Moving along to the top of the Formula-Z PCB, we get more indication of how serious the ASUS engineers are about the Formula-Z power delivery and the ability to manage it. On the top left, we spy the 8-pin CPU power connector, nicely placed at the very edge of the board. I have run into many boards over the last two years that had CPU power connections that were placed just a centimeter short of being reached by the power supplies connection. On this board, they would have all reached and avoided the use of an extension.
Moving right, to the other side of the top heat sink, is another 4-pin ATX 12v connector. This 4-pin connection is not necessary for operation, but does provide extra voltage and stability for heavy overclocks. The power connections are rounded out by a fourth 4-pin molex behind the rear I/O panel. This connector is for additional stability when running multiple GPU's. It helps with heavy GPU overclocking and the power hit from having say four GPU's all going into 3D gaming or benchmarking mode simultaneously.
At the upper left corner of the Formula-Z are the on-board buttons, moved from the bottom edge where they were located on the Crosshair V Formula. This is a much better location, as they are no longer blocked by multi card use and keeps them in play no matter how you exploit the PCIe slots. In the image below, above the LED Debug display is the 'Slow Mode' switch that assists in better overclocking when using LN2 or other exotic sub-zero cooling methods. When engaged, the slow mode enables the system to make adjustments by slowing down the CPU and avoiding crashes. Right next to the slow mode switch is the LN2 jumper, which allows the system to eliminate the cold bug and run at extremely low temperatures.
Below the Slow mode switch is the Q-Code display. Essentially, a debug post code is displayed and can be looked up in the manual to aid in troubleshooting POST issues. Next is the on-board power and reset buttons. These have been relocated to a much better place than previous generations of the Crosshair Formula and are not blocked by multi GPU setups. To the left of these is the 'GO' button. The GO button serves a dual purpose. When pressed before POST, it activates one of the niftiest features ever on a motherboard I think in 'Mem-OK'.
Mem-OK will patch any memory issues or conflicts present and allow the machine to POST and boot. I have had occasion to use Mem-Ok and can report that it does indeed work. I have not been able to find an answer as to exactly how it works, so if you will grant me a pass on this one, I am going to throw "a complex set of algorithms" at it and leave it at that. When the 'GO' button is pressed quickly after post, it allows you to access and load a preset OC profile.
Rounding out the perimeter of the board is the on board sound of the Formula-Z, the Supreme FX III, an updated version to the Formula V's Supreme FX II. The Supreme FX III is an 8 channel HD audio solution using Realtek ALC889 codec. The audio components are isolated on the board and the Supreme FX III has a special EMI shielding cover to reduce interference. The Supreme FX III separates analog and digital signals for extremely clean sound and the elimination of ripple. This is also paired with a 'new on this version', high quality 1500uF capacitor that eliminates clipping and allows extreme high and low frequencies to complete their wave, by making sure that ample energy is always at the disposal of the audio components.
Like a little bling on board? If you look closely you can see a grayish line that looks like a topical tracer that cordons off the sound components from the rest of the board. What it is actually, is a LED lit tracer that makes a crooked beeline up to the I/O outputs and lights up very nicely when powered on. What looks like a cool effect, but superficial attempt to cordon off the 110dB SNR audio are actually tracers and connections that are buried in between the multi-layered PCB to keep interference and distortion out of the equation. It is called 'Redline Shielding and actually isolates the Supreme FX III digital components from analog signals and EMI distortion inside the layers of the Formula Z PCB. Gold plated contact points add to better conductivity and lessen distortion.
At the heart of the Formula-Z is the AM3+ or AMb3 black socket that supports AMD processors up to 140w rating. The pin outs on the 990/950 chipset boards have been increased from .047 to .053 inch, with the 990 chipset ostensibly, to provide better compatibility with pre-FX CPU's and better contact. Presumably those considering a board of this caliber and price range will be purchasing an FX processor or carrying over a previous flagship CPU and the likes of the Phenom II 970, 1100T, and the Bulldozer FX models are all compatible with the Crosshair V Formula Z. The standard lever and tension plate is employed here, along with gray mounting brackets for various heatsinks.
Surrounding the AM3+ socket we can see the 8+2 portion of the 8+2+2 digital power delivery called The Extreme Engine Digi+ II. It is a combination of digital and analog power components that have been reworked for the Formula-Z and allows adjustable power frequencies for both the CPU and the memory. New to the Z edition in the VRM architecture are the addition of two additional phases, dedicated to the system memory, for more tuning control and higher overclocking. The entire power delivery is made up of extremely high quality components that we have come to expect from ASUS (chokes/inductors, capacitors, controllers, etc.). Highlighted in the bottom right image, are the digital controllers that are part of the Extreme Engine Digi+II VRM and part of the reworking of the Formula Z.
Topping off all of the heat producing components are the heatsinks. Not even the heatsinks of the Formula-Z have escaped scrutiny and re-engineering. They have all been covered in a special ceramic coating called 'Ceram-Mix' that is rough in texture and creates more surface area to disburse the heat away from the VRM and chipsets even faster. The top heatsink is found on the VRM and is connected by heatpipe to the vertical VRM/northbridge heatsink. Along the length of the vertical VRM heatsink, is a separate red accent piece that is fashioned into the shape of the ROG emblem. The lower heatsink covering the less demanding southbridge is about half covered with a ROG placard. The heatsinks on the Formula-Z have shown very capable and effective, as well as good looking.
Well there is a look at the components and hardware of the Crosshair V Formula Z. At first glance it may have looked like a cosmetic makeover for the Crosshair V Formula, but in fact it is an all new ground up effort. Much like the previous Formula V, ASUS has equipped the Formula Z to be a real ripper in the performance department. Now a look at the software and BIOS, to see how all of this hardware can be manipulated and adjusted to exploit all of the high test components soldered to this black and red PCB.