Date: Monday , June 03, 2013
ASUS is a world leader in the computing industry. It is known for building excellent monitors, laptops, tablets, networking equipment, and more. What ASUS is best known for, above all else, is its motherboards. ASUS has quite a diverse lineup of motherboards to hit multiple price points for multiple markets.
Since Intel has launched a new CPU and a new chipset new motherboards are needed to take advantage of the newer technology. To that end ASUS replaces the venerable P8xxx line with the new Z87 line. Naturally as the name implies, the Z87 line is based on Intel’s new Z87 Express chipset. The chipset itself is almost identical to the Z77 Express chipset which preceded it. Functionally there are two main changes to the chipset. The most important change is that Intel finally decided to get with the times and make all the SATA ports 6Gb/s capable. This is a change that’s welcome but long overdue. The second change is the inclusion of two more USB 3.0 ports.
I am not going to rehash Kyle’s excellent coverage of the Haswell processor. What I will say is that the built-in voltage regulators of the Haswell architecture required a radical redesign of the electrical subsystem of the motherboard. This is why you’ll need new motherboards for Haswell, and thus why Intel chose to change the CPU socket yet again. The lack of pin compatibility is more of a safe guard than anything. Many people will be upset about this given the lack of improvement at the chipset level. Fortunately ASUS has done a lot more with the Z87 line than just what was required to make motherboards for Haswell compliant.
ASUS has improved on the previous generation’s designs in a lot of areas. ASUS has improved its digital power design. One of these improvements is with the use of 5k capacitors. These capacitors are rated at 2.5x longer life than the previous capacitors ASUS used. According to ASUS this translates to 5,000 hours @105c or 50,000 hours @65c. ASUS also introduces ESD guards and enhanced DRAM overcurrent protection. The Advanced DRAM overcurrent protection feature is literally a polyswitch or resettable fuse which prevents overcurrent conditions from damaging hardware. Think of it as a circuit breaker for your DRAM. The ESD guards are special ICs embedded on the motherboard near I/O ports and connectors. ASUS even has a new type of fan header for the CPU fan. The redesigned CPU fan header to allows for the same level of control with 3 pin fans as you’d get with 4 pin CPU fans. ASUS didn’t stop there. Many models in the Z87 line will use the Realtek ALC1150 instead of the ALC892. While low end motherboards will still use the Realtek NICs many boards get the new "I series" Intel NICs. Many models will get upgraded wireless network hardware supporting the 802.11 AC standard.
Specifically this article will focus on the Z87-A which is one of the lowest end motherboards in the Z87 line, which has a street price of $150. It’s a lower priced motherboard and naturally features the Realtek NIC and ALC892 CODEC. The Z87-A uses an 8-Phase power design. Like all motherboards in the Z87 lineup it features a dedicated 2-phase memory power setup. Z87’s increased number of native USB 3.0 ports and SATA 6Gb/s ports also spares ASUS the need to use additional 3rd party controllers like ASMedia’s 1042 and 1061 respectively to achieve the same feature set.
Main Specifications Overview:
Detailed Specifications Overview:
The Z87-A ships in a very slim and basic package. ASUS had kept the same box artwork going all the way back to the P67 Express chipset days. Our sample arrived in good working order with the following accessories: I/O shield, SLI bridge, SATA cables, Q-connectors, user guide and driver disc. The Z87-A is a lean bundle and doesn’t include much. Aesthetically you may have noticed ASUS’ new color scheme. ASUS were shooting for a black and gold color scheme which is certainly a good look. Unfortunately it’s hard to color-match gold colored anodized metal and plastic parts. So the color scheme looks a bit off with the RAM slots and some expansion slots actually appearing a yellow / brown color. With DIMMs installed and graphics cards taking up these spaces, all you will see is the gold colored MOSFET cooling, which looks pretty damn good with a black PCB.
Generally speaking I do like the color scheme even if it is a bit off simply because it’s different than the standard black and red scheme seen so often now.
ASUS has been at this game for a long time and as a result its knowz a thing or two about creating a solid motherboard layout. There are some rare instances where ASUS drop the ball somewhat. Unfortunately the Z87-A is one of those examples. The motherboard stops short of being masterfully designed thanks to a couple of design choices. For the most part though, careful thought is given to the location of everything. I’m undecided on the location of the CMOS battery. The CMOS battery is in a unique location around the CPU socket area. I had never thought of this before but with today’s closed loop water cooling solutions this location makes perfect sense. In cases where large air coolers are employed this could backfire as a large cooling solution isn’t always easily removed with the board installed into a chassis. While annoying, locating the CMOS battery under the video card makes for an easier change out should it be necessary. My only other complaint is the location of one of the legacy PCI slots. I’ll talk more about this a bit later on. Aside from that the TPU switch, SATA ports, and all other connectors are well placed.
The CPU socket area is clean. The DIMM slots are closer to the CPU socket than I’d like as always. Even if signaling did allow for longer trace paths between the CPU socket and DIMM slots, the PCB on the Z87-A is so small that it wouldn’t matter. In any case all-in-one water cooling solutions and low profile DIMMs resolve clearance issues that one can encounter with RAM and CPU cooling solutions. So choose wisely if these factors concern you.
The Z87-A has four DIMM slots supporting a total of 32GB of RAM. These slots are color coded black and gold to denote dual channel memory mode operation. These use ASUS single sided locking tab slots across all models even though this particular model doesn’t need that. I’ve come to like this feature and I’m glad to see it continue in this new generation.
The chipset is located in the usual space in front of the expansion slots. The cooler on the Z87-A is actually "dinky." It’s flat and uses plastic push pins with a tension spring in each. I’d rather have seen real screws here but this board is relatively inexpensive so I’m not shocked by this. One point of interest is the SATA ports which are all 6Gb/s capable now. You may have noticed that only two of these right angled ports are stacked vertically. The other four are single right angle ports. This is weird looking and something I wasn’t sure about at first but as I did my drive testing I came to love these ports as I didn’t have to pull the top cable out then the bottom even when I only needed the bottom one as I’ve had to do in the past.
The expansion slot area is good. As is customary for lower end boards, the Z87-A includes legacy PCI compatibility. This capability comes from the addition of the ASMedia ASM1083 PCI bridge chip. I’m not a fan of maintaining legacy ports after so long but I do understand that some people still find this valuable and as a result ASUS has to offer it on select models. The reason I mention this is because the location of the top most PCI slot really isn’t all that sensible given that it’s a shared slot with the primary PCIe x16 slot. I do like having some legacy PCI support but I don’t understand location of this slot at all. (Editor's Note: It makes a lot of sense to me, seeing that someone using this motherboard for PCI support would likely not have a need for a newer PCIe double-slot video card, and would be using the Core i7/i5/i3 onboard graphics.)
The I/O panel features a corrosion resistant coating to prevent rust from humidity or salt water exposure. While generally not much of an issue in most areas there are some places where this does come up and I’ve seen this mentioned even in our forums from time to time. So this is a welcome feature for some I’m sure. The back panel features a combo keyboard / mouse port, 2x USB 2.0 ports, 4x USB 3.0 ports, 1x optical output, 1x mini DisplayPort, 1x HDMI port, 1x DSUB port, 1x DVI-D port, 1x RJ-45 port, and finally 6 mini-stereo jacks.