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ASUS Z97-Deluxe & Z97-A Review

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ASUS Z97-Deluxe & Z97-A Closer Look:

Visually, this pair of boards look similar at first glance. Both are built for use with Fourth Generation LGA Socket 1150 Core series processors with support for upcoming Intel mainstream processors and is built for use with the Z97 PCH. Both are ATX form factor boards measuring 12.0 inch x 9.6 inch, sporting ASUS proprietary fiber weave design. Sporting a black and gold theme introduced last year on the Z87 series, it's a theme where most have definite opinions for and against it. Personally, it has grown on me over the past year.

As far as layout is concerned, socket and DIMM slot location are similar, while the Deluxe sees a more robust cooling solution. Location of the M.2 slot also varies between the two boards; on the Z97-A, it is located just under the CPU socket, while the Deluxe locates it behind the SATA Express connectivity. On the back side of the PCB, more differences are evident, with the Z97-Deluxe using additional heat sinks under the Digi+ VRM with everything bolted down rather than using push pins to locate and secure the heat sinks like on the Z97-A. Looking further down the Z97-Deluxe board is a second TPU module to provide all the tuning flexibility on this board. For reference, the Z97-A will be on the left and the Z97-Deluxe NFC&WLC will be on the right in most of the images below.

 

 

 

I/O connectivity on the Z97-A is a little less robust than on the Z97-Deluxe. Left to right, you have a full size DisplayPort 1.2 port, HDMI 1.4 port, VGA port, and a single DVI-D port supporting up to three displays hooked up simultaneously. Next up are a pair of USB 2.0 ports, a combo keyboard/mouse PS/2 port, four USB 3.0 ports controlled by the Z97 PCH, a single Intel I218V-controlled LAN port, Optical SPDI/F output, and the analog connections for the Crystal Sound 2 ALC892 based audio solution. The I/O area looks a bit more crowded on the Z97-Deluxe NFC &WLC and starts with the Optical SPDI/F output over the HDMI 1.4 and full size Display-port 1.2 port. Next is a single Mini-DisplayPort, Wi-Fi 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac and Bluetooth v4.0 Wi-Fi Go module, four USB 2.0 ports, and six total USB 3.0 ports, the left two controlled by an ASmedia controller and the right four pull from the Z97 PCH. Meanwhile, the bottom right port supports ASUS USB BIOS Flashback technology. One Intel I218-V and one Intel I211-AT Gigabit LAN ports are used and support teaming. Last but not least are the analog connections for the ALC 1150 based Crystal Sound 2 sound solution.  

 

 

Expansion on both boards is up to seven slots, but how that is allocated differs between the Z97-A and Z97-Deluxe. The Z97-A features two 16x PCIe 3.0/2.0 slots that run at 16x with a single discrete GPU and x8 x x8 with a pair of cards installed. Both NVIDIA and AMD multi-GPU strategies are supported using up to two physical boards and four GPUs. A third PCIe 16x slot is available, but is a PCIe 2.0 only slot. A pair of PCIe 2.0 1x slots and a pair of PCI ports round out the expansion capabilities on the Z97-A. Where the Z97-A seems locked in a battle with the past, the Z97-Deluxe NFC & WLC has seven slots, but utilizes all PCIe connectivity starting with a trio of 16x slots, two that are PCIe 3.0/2.0 compatible that run in either 16x mode with a single physical card or x8 x x8 using a pair of cards. The bottom 16x slot is limited to 4x functionality and shares the bandwidth with the USB3_E56 and SATAExpress_E1 connections. Additionally, you have four PCIe 2.0 1x slots for use with add-in storage or sound solutions.

 

 

Right off the bat, you can see the hardware differences between the Crystal Sound 2 implementation on the Z97-A and Z97-Deluxe by looking at the bottom left side of the board. While both use shielding and separate PCB layers to transmit the audio signalling, an audio amplifier, unique de-pop circuitry, and premium Japanese-made audio capacitors, the differences are definitely more than just skin deep. Feature support is greater with the Z97-Deluxe and includes DTS UltraPC II & DTS Connect Support, along with BD Audio Layer Content Protection. The Z97-A is based upon a Realtek ALC892 codec and uses fewer capacitors, while the Crystal Sound 2 solution on the Z97-Deluxe NFC & WLC is using a Realtek ALC1150 codec like many of the enthusiast-level boards on the market.

 

 

Most of the added connectivity surrounds the boards along the bottom and right hand side of the PCB. Let's start off again with the Z97-A. From the left, there is the front panel audio and SPDI/F output, Serial port, Thunderbolt header, power button, Trusted Platform module header, six USB 2.0 ports, PWM controlled chassis fan header, and the front panel connection header. Just behind this header is the Direct key header, another chassis fan header, Clear CMOS jumper, and TPU and EPU switches, in case you dont feel like hitting the BIOS.

 

 

The connectivity on the Z97-Deluxe NFC & WLC only expands on what you get on the Z97-A. Starting at the left is the front panel sound connection and SPDI/F output connection, Thunderbolt header, BIOS Flashback and Clear CMOS buttons,Q-Code diagnostic LED, power and reset buttons, TPM header, USB 2.0 headers supporting four additional ports, chassis fan header, and the front panel header. Behind the headers are the Clear CMOS jumper, TPU and EPU switches, and last but not least, the M.2 socket.

 

 

When you look at drive connectivity, the Z97-A offers fewer ports overall than you get with the Z97-Deluxe NFC&WLC. On the Z97-A, you get a single SATA Express port capable of 10GB/s and four SATA 6GB/s ports provided by the Z97 PCH. The four SATA 6GB/s ports support Raid 0, 1, 5, 10 configurations as well as Intel® Smart Response Technology, Intel® Rapid Start Technology, and Intel® Smart Connect Technology. Drive connectivity differs quite a bit on the Z97-Deluxe NFC&WLC. You get a pair of SATA Express slots, one controled by the Z97 PCH and one by an ASMedia ASM106SE controller. You get the same four SATA 6GB/s ports that support Raid 0, 1, 5, 10 configurations as well as Intel® Smart Response Technology, Intel® Rapid Start Technology, and Intel® Smart Connect Technology. There's also an additional pair of SATA 6GB/s ports in black that are also managed by an ASMedia controller. By incorporating SATA Express connectivity, you have an option that is not subject to the limits of the SATA 6GB/s bus. One item of note is that SATA Express Port 1 shares bandwidth with the M-2 slot.

 

 

Climbing further up the right side of the PCB, there are still similarities in the layout, but you see a bit more hardware with the Z97-Deluxe. On the Z97-A, there is a single USB 3.0 header that supports up to two additional ports, while on the Deluxe you have a pair of USB 3.0 headers supporting up to four USB 3.0 ports. The difference here is that the -A ports are controlled by the Z97 PCH, while the Deluxe has its mid-board ports controlled by an ASMedia USB 3.0 controller. Memory support is almost identical, with up to 32GB of DDR3 memory in dual-channel configurations. One channel is in black and one is in gray so the user can populate the correct sockets when running less than the full memory load of four DIMMS. Memory speed support is different on the two boards, with the Z97-A supporting speeds up to 3200MHz (OC), while the Z97-Deluxe supports speeds of up to 3300MHz when overclocked right out of the box. Intel Fourth Generation Core series processors are known to have exceptional memory overclocking potential.

Thanks to ASUS' T-Topology layout, both the Z97-A and Deluxe are well prepared to allow the end user to maximize memory bandwidth and overall clock speed. Near the top corner of the PCB is the EZ XMP switch that sets the appropriate settings in the BIOS according to the installed DIMMS SPD settings without having to enter the BIOS. Both also have a Mem OK button that when pressed allows the BIOS and board to run a series of algorithms, including managing the timings, speed, and voltages to reach a successful boot if the memory is the cause of a failed boot. Just a few more added value features seen on ASUS boards. A CPU Overvoltage jumper is used to enable this functionality in the BIOS of the Z97-A.

 

 

Across the top of the PCB, connectivity is almost identical between the two boards. Outside of the overvoltage jumper on the -A from the left you get the primary and optional CPU fan headers, the heat sink covering the Digi+ VRM circuit, and an 8-pin Auxiliary power connection to round the trip out. It's easy to see the consistency of the board design in these two boards when they are compared. This contributes to having the same performance experience from the bottom to the top of the mainstream product stack.

 

 

 

Another area we see some variance in is around the CPU socket and how the Digi+ VRM circuit is set up, including the amount of power phases and the types of components used. The Z97-Deluxe NYC & WLC uses what appears to be the same 60A Ferrite chokes seen on the ROG boards as part of the all-digital 16-phase Extreme Engine Digi+III VRM circuit, while the Z97-A appears to use a less robust, but fully capable choke in its 8-phase all-digital VRM implementation. Each board uses the same 5K hour capacitor as part of the all-digital power supply system for the CPU and DRAM. The LGA 1150 socket is designed for use with the latest Fourth Generation Core series processors from Intel. Around each socket, an area is highlighted that you would think would be a no man's land on the PCB, but capacitors do intrude into this space. Even so, I found that there was no interfence with several cooling solutions.

 

 

The cooling solutions for the all-digital Digi+ VRM circuits are matched to the phase count with the Z97-A using a two-piece heat pipe interconnected cooling solution that is mounted to the PCB with push pins rather than screws. The 16-phase power circuit on the Z97-Deluxe NFC&WLC is significantly more robust, using a three-piece heat pipe interconnected design that is attached with screws and features a back plate under the rear and top heat sink for added cooling of the VRM and stability of the mount. The Z97 PCH is covered with a round low profile heat sink with fins on the left and right side to take advantage of any incoming airflow from the front of the chassis or an installed discrete GPU.

 

 

While there are some significant differences between the -A and -Deluxe NFX&WLC as far as the expansion, storage, and feature set configurations, we still see that the boards maintain a similar layout and baseline feature set between the two boards.




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