With the launch of new Ivy Bridge CPUs, the ASUS P8Z77 WS motherboard is a new entry into ASUS’ workstation lineup, similar to the P8P67 WS Revolution motherboard released with Sandy Bridge. ASUS targets its WS line as one that combines the ability to overclock normally seen in its high-end mainstream or Republic of Gamers (ROG) boards, with the ability to run multiple GPUs and extra validation for things such as add-on cards. As an aside, I had the P8P67 WS Revolution under stress for months, and added many add-in cards to it as a mainstay P67 testbed and it performed well. Pieter previewed the P8Z77 WS recently and I echo many of his comments. Let’s take a look at what ASUS brings to the table with the P8Z77 WS.
The trend with Z68 and Z77 chipsets are that the integrated GPUs are more than adequate for basic 2D output. If you are looking for a workstation with a lot of CPU need but where 3D GPU performance was not needed, then Intel’s on-die graphics are going to be “good-enough” for many users one one can use the third-gen PCIe slots for more I/O performance. With that being said, most Z77 buyers will still use discrete GPUs.
With the newest Intel Ivy Bridge graphics, using the onboard DVI output for 2D work is more than viable. To keep power consumption low, I have been using the onboard GPU for Z77 reviews.
The ASUS P8Z77 WS is a standard size ATX motherboard which will work in many consumer level cases. Recently, especially in the LGA 2011 space, there has been a trend to EATX motherboard sizes or even larger ones. The LGA 1155 platform allows for lower total memory configurations (maxing out at 32GB using up to four DDR3 UDIMMs) but also allows for video output from a Sandy Bridge or Ivy Bridge on-die GPU when used with the Z77 chipset. Intel also offers features to accelerate things like video transcoding with its Ivy Bridge and Sandy Bridge CPUs (that have on-die graphics) which one does not get on the LGA 2011 platform. Overall, the new Z77 chipset combined with chips such as the Intel Core i7-3770K allow users to derive a lot of value from the base platform.
Looking around the motherboard, one can see that there are a total of six 4-pin PWM controlled fan headers. Each of these headers can be controlled using the ASUS FAN Expert 2 software which is included with the motherboards for granular control of the fans. Aside from the board having UEFI control of the fan speeds, ASUS allows one to do a few interesting things such as have the software independently run each fan through its RPM range and determine optimal speeds. Here is a quick link to a video with some more on this feature:
Turning to the CPU socket area, one will notice a very similar VRM heatsink setup as was seen on the P8P67 WS Revolution. This is cooling the 16+4+2 digital phase power design similar to what ASUS uses on its high-end mainstream motherboard, the P8Z77-V Deluxe. A reason for such an extreme power delivery setup is that ASUS also focuses on overclocking with its workstation line for those looking to get just that little bit extra performance from their CPUs. To give you an idea, I normally do not overclock my CPUs, but even using ASUS’ automatic tuning features I was able to hit 4.4GHz on my Intel Core i7-3770K CPU using the stock cooler which is better than I had been able to get on another board I tested (but have not reviewed thus far.)
ASUS caters to the workstation user when they offer four PCIe x16 physical slots that share the 32 lanes of PCIe 3.0 bandwidth. It should be noted that using a Sandy Bridge CPU instead of an Ivy Bridge CPU will bring the PCIe slots down to PCIe 2.0 speeds. ASUS provides for 4-way SLI and 4-way Crossfire-X. In addition, ASUS utilizes LucidLogix Virtu MVP technology so a user has a lot of graphics options. ASUS also provides two PCIe x1 slots in between the lower (less likely to be occupied by a GPU) PCIe x16 physical slots. This layout allows one to use two PCIe x16 slots without interfering with the PCIe x1 slots.
For drive connectivity ASUS has the standard Z77 two SATA III 6.0gbps ports as well as the four Intel SATA II 3.0gbps ports and these feature SSD caching. To augment the two SATA III ports that the Intel PCH provides natively, ASUS also utilizes a Marvell 9128 controller that supports RAID 0 and RAID 1 onboard. This is similar to previous generations (e.g. what we saw with Sandy Bridge), but ASUS is moving other lower-end boards to an ASMedia controller instead of the Marvell. The ASUS P8Z77 WS does utilize the ASMedia controller on eSATA ports which makes sense since one usually does not RAID eSATA drives. To round things out, and in addition to the internal USB 3.0 front panel connector, ASUS adds an internal USB header which is an essential element for server and workstation motherboards these days.
Looking at the rear I/O of the ASUS P8Z77 WS one can see that ASUS has added a few features this time around. The most interesting is perhaps the inclusion of the DVI-I port that can drive 1920×1200 resolution using the Intel Core series integrated GPUs. Audio is handled by a Realtek ALC898 CODEC with six mini-stereo jacks and S/PDIF optical output and supports DTS Ultra PC II and DTS Connect. ASUS also provides four USB 2.0 and four USB 3.0 ports on the rear panel and a combo PS/2 port for peripherals. The last button I wanted to talk about was the USB BIOS flashback button which allows a user to set the board to a known good BIOS without even having to power on the system and do things with DOS shells and etc. This is a feature I have used more than a few times on ASUS boards and it works well.
As noted earlier there are also two red SATA III 6.0gbps eSATA ports. For LAN connectivity, ASUS has included two Intel 82574L Gigabit Ethernet controllers which are widely supported by Windows, Linux, Solaris, VMware ESXi, FreeBSD and other software platforms.
Probably the most interesting piece of software is the UEFI interface that ASUS provides. For those accustomed to standard BIOS that have been used for decades, the ability to use a mouse is welcome. I did find though that using a mouse was almost necessary as navigating by keyboard was not as slick as old AMI, Phoenix, and Award BIOS implementations. The UEFI interface provides a simple mode (called EZ mode) that shows things like boot order, and lets a user change profiles between a power saving profile, balanced profile, and performance profile.
Beyond the UEFI interface, ASUS provides a suite of software including AISuite II and ASUS Fan Xpert2. Plenty of details can be found on ASUS’s site, but the highlights from this software are the abilities to:
Monitor system information from fan speeds, temperatures, voltages, clock speeds and etc. and set alerts. This is often an overlooked feature but ASUS puts a lot of functionality into their Probe tool.
Automatically overclock the CPU if desired either manually or using a CPU auto tuning feature. The base clock can be increased too by a small amount as 100MHz to 103MHz base clocks are generally obtainable from a 100MHz base. One can also change the CPU multipliers.
Set the EPU power saving profiles and features. The EPU is a feature of ASUS motherboards meant to intelligently reduce power consumption.
Set and test fan speeds using Fan Xpert+. This can be useful if one wants to set thresholds and test them for quieter idle fan speeds ramping up as the workload increases.
Use Network iControl to prioritize network traffic (great feature when multitasking.)
USB 3.0 and UASP
ASUS has been touting the benefits of an optimized USB interface called USB Attached SCSI Protocol or UASP for some time now and I think it is mature to the point that it is worth a serious look. I did a piece entitled USB 3.0 UASP Mode – Performance Benefit or Marketing Gimmick? recently and figured I would share the benchmark results there, as well as how one would turn the UASP mode on. Here is a quick example using AS SSD of the difference between standard USB 3.0 mode and UASP mode.
One can see that there is clearly a determinable difference in performance using UASP and I recommend it if one can purchase the necessary hardware for it.
Overall, I really like the ASUS P8Z77 WS as an overall evolution of the LGA 1155 workstation line. By adding the DVI-I out, ASUS does give the ability to utilize an extra monitor, but also makes diagnosis easier as well as provide the ability to use all PCIe slots for something other than graphics. Adding that feature really opens up the ability for the P8Z77 WS to be used as a server board after the board is no longer used in a workstation, especially with the dual Intel 82574L Gigabit NICs. I think the P8Z77 WS does fill a niche for users looking at fast CPUs and multiple add-in cards (including graphics.) ASUS does do extra validation on the WS boards and I have seen several instances where the WS boards take add in Infiniband cards, network adapters and SAS/ RAID controllers that desktop boards tend to have issues with. For those looking at a LGA 1155 workstation board, this may be an excellent choice.