Best bang-for-buck Z77 ATX motherboard under $150
Written: Aug 15, 2012 (Updated Sep 30, 2012)
a Very Helpful Review
by the Epinions community
Pros:Tons of advanced connectivity (PCIe 3.0, USB 3.0 and SATA 6Gbps), good construction
Cons:Mediocre fan control software included; use third-party or manual control
The Bottom Line: For $25-50 more than a Biostar TZ77B (which I also reviewed on epinions), this is a good deal if you will use the extra connectivity
Asrock Extreme4 Z77 Motherboard
This is a great motherboard for the price. I reviewed a Biostar TZ77B that was the best motherboard I could find for under $100 (it sometimes dips lower with rebates). For an extra $25-50 depending on how prices are fluctuating, you can step up to the best bang-for-the-buck motherboard in the $100-150 price bracket: the Asrock Extreme4.
This motherboard has features usually found in high-end motherboards costing $200:
- Sleek looks. The black, gray, and gold look is very stylish, and Asrock claims to use 100% Japanese solid capacitors for enhanced durability and reliability.
- Z77 chipset (allows you to modify the CPU multiplier up to the limits of the CPU itself; if you have an unlocked CPU then you can set the multiplier to whatever the CPU will tolerate). I'm running this with a fully-unlocked Intel Core i5-3570K with no problems. You can use any LGA 1156 or 1155 (Sandy Bridge or Ivy Bridge, respectively) CPU in this motherboard. If you use a Sandy Bridge CPU, you lose PCI-express 3.0 but otherwise it should be the same. Note also that Asrock claims that their motherboard can unlock even locked CPUs, via "No-K" BIOS options.
- CPU and RAM Voltage regulation in fine increments (0.005v). You also get 8 4 power phases: Extra power phases help regulate electrical flow from your power supply. You want stability when overclocking, and more phases can't hurt.
- Good support for two video cards: SLI and Crossfire support up to x8/x8 PCI-e 2.0 speeds. Or a single video card at x16 PCI-e 2.0 speeds. This is more than enough bandwidth for even the most powerful video cards today and should allow you to use this motherboard with even the fastest future video cards for several more years.
- Onboard two-digit LED display functions as both a temperature readout and troubleshooting diagnostics code readout; you also have onboard clear-CMOS and power buttons if you are testing things on-the-fly on a workbench.
- HDMI 1.4a Technology with max. resolution up to 1920x1200 @ 60Hz; DVI and VGA ports. If your CPU has an embedded GPU inside of it, like most Sandy Bridge and Ivy Bridge CPUs, then the motherboard can pull graphics from the CPU and feed it directly to your monitor. Gamers will probably have discrete video cards anyway, though.
- Rear eSATA port up to SATA 3Gbps speeds. The motherboard's rear eSATA port is shared with the SATA3_A1 port on the motherboard, so try to avoid using SATA3_A1 if you wil be using external eSATA devices.
- Four SATA 6Gbps ports plus four SATA 3Gbps ports. There are two modern flavors of SATA: 3Gbps and 6Gbps, also known as SATA-II and SATA-III. Gbps stands for gigabits per second. SATA-II (3Gbps) is enough for hard drives, even in burst mode. High-end SSDs, though, will saturate a SATA-II connection, so they should be hooked up to higher-bandwidth SATA-III (6Gbps) ports to allow them to fully stretch their wings. (But see QUIRKS section of this review, regarding boot drives)
- Supports up to 32GB of RAM. Four DIMM slots, up to 8GB each, up to 2800MHz speeds if you change the overclock settings. There is enough clearance between the bottom of the RAM slots and the upper video card for you to change RAM out even with the video card still installed. This sounds like a little thing, but little things add up; after all these years, motherboard makers ought to learn from the design defects of ATX and move the RAM slots up or the video card slots down slightly, in order to not have the RAM slot bottom latches collide with the top of the video card.
- Tons of fan headers. You get a 4-pin and 3-pin CPU fan connector (though it's still better to buy a 4-pin fan splitter and cut the tachometer (yellow) cable if you want to use two identical fans in push-pull on a CPU cooler). You also get three 3-pin system fan headers and a 4-pin. The motherboard has temperature sensors and will automatically speed up or slow down fans depending on how hot it's getting (subject to your manual modifications in BIOS or via their included fan control software). If you need more fan headers, consider getting a 3-pin fan cable splitter or a standalone fan controller instead. As a last resort, you can also hook up fans to 4-pin MOLEX connectors (i.e., directly to the power supply) if you don't mind them running at 100% of speed at all times.
- Four USB 3.0 ports in the back (along with two USB 2.0 ports), with the front USB 3.0 header in front supporting up to two USB 3.0 ports = massive external connectivity. Most budget motherboards have just two rear USB 3.0 ports and a USB 3.0 header.
- The port connections are well-placed. The USB 3.0 header is near the front edge of the board, so as to not interfere with video card placement, and the SATA ports are all at the front lower edge and angled at 90 degrees (that is, you stick them in from the side, so they don't stick up out of the motherboard) so as not to interfere with longer video cards that may cover up the SATA port area. You will still need to remove longer video cards when connecting/disconnecting SATA drives, but at least the card won't be crushing the SATA connectors.
- Asrock claims to use 100% Japanese solid capacitors for enhanced durability and reliability. Many Z77 motherboards use solid caps, but the cheaper ones are made in China and the better, more expensive ones are made in Japan. Solid caps of any country of origin are preferable to liquid caps, though, which are not quite as robust.
- It hasn't died after several weeks (knock on wood). Usually if a piece of electronics dies, it's within the initial period. If it survives a month, it'll probably survive a decade or more.
- The motherboard's rear eSATA port is shared with the SATA3_A1 port on the motherboard, so try to avoid using SATA3_A1 if you wil be using external eSATA devices. I accidentally did this with the result being unbearable stuttering.
- No IDE port. Almost all Z77 motherboards do not support IDE, because Intel has deemed it superfluous for the Z77 chipset, and most motherboard makers have followed suit. So if you were using an old IDE DVD drive or something, you won't be able to use it with this motherboard. You'll either have to upgrade, or get an enclosure. I'd recommend upgrading to a decent SATA DVD-RW drive for less than $20. Maybe even Blu-Ray if you think you will need it.
- Like many alleged ATX motherboards these days, the motherboard is a little skinnier and doesn't go all the way to the last set of ATX screws. This is to shave off unnecessary costs, as chipsets have shrunken over time. The northbridge and southbridge have shrunken or been absorbed into the CPU, for example. As a practical matter, this means you should take care when plugging stuff into the motherboard's edges, such as the motherboard power supply connector, as the motherboard may flex/bend which is NOT good for its long-term health. My suggestion is to ground yourself against static electricity, then tug upwards on the motherboard edge while pushing down with the power supply connector.
- Boot drive must be on one of two SATA ports or else boot-up time suffers. The motherboard comes with a sticker near the SATA ports telling you that your boot-up drive must be on the 0-1 SATA connectors. Listen to it. If you try to connect your boot drive to one of the other SATA connectors, it will make your boot time much slower. And by much slower I mean like 20 seconds slower.
- Internet BIOS flash might not work. People are reporting that this feature is hit-and-miss, so the recommended way to update your BIOS is to do it via download from Windows. But in theory you can plug the board to the internet and download the latest BIOS that way, without firing up your OS.
- Fan controls are mediocre at best. After much trial and error, I think the way it works is this: You have a temperature threshold and a target fan speed setting. If you set the target speed high, it will be high no matter what you set the temperature threshold. But if you set the target speed to something moderate like 4,5, or 6, the fan will only speed up if you go higher than your temperature threshold. As an example, if you set target fan speed to 5 and temperature threshold to 55C, your fans will loiter at 50% speed up until 55C, beyond which your fans will speed up to 100%. You apparently don't get to set the exact fan curves. After messing with this I just gave up and used a NZXT Mesh controller for everything other than the CPU. That removes the guesswork out of it, as I have 100% manual control via the fan controller front panel. I recommend using the included AXTU software (a sort of all-in-one overclocking and fan control program in Windows) to experiment with the motherboard's fan settings rather than changing BIOS settings and rebooting over and over again. When you find a setting you like, remember it, reboot, change it in BIOS, and reboot again. Now you are done and don't need to fire up AXTU to set fan controls.
- Comes with just two 6Gbps SATA cables, which is a little stingy given its price point, but it's industry standard, so I can't really complain. You can buy them for under a dollar each at monoprice or something if necessary, anyway.
- Comes with abundant software, including LucidLogix Virtu MVP (Windows 7 or later, only) and some XFast software that is supposed to speed up your video card responsiveness and USB and LAN performance but makes little difference in real life. There is also an XFast program to make a RAM drive out of spare RAM you have, but many programs that could use a RAMdisk as a scratch drive already do so automatically.
COMPARED TO BIOSTAR TZ77B (best Z77 motherboard under $100)
I reviewed Biostar's TZ77B on epinions recently, and I think it is the best Z77 board under $100. That review is located at:
http://www.epinions.com/review /biostar-tz77b-lga-1155-intel-z77-hdmi-sata-6gb-s-usb-3-0-atx-intel-motherboard/ content_597976059524 (remove the spaces; epinions won't let me post the entire URL in one word; or try this: http://www.epinions.com/content_597976059524 )
The Asrock Extreme4 is $25-50 more expensive than the TZ77B. Is it worth it? You be the judge.
The main advantages of the Asrock Extreme4 board are more fan connectors, a little better build quality (Japanese vs Chinese solid capacitors), SLI support (can run multiple Nvidia graphics cards), higher-speed PCI-express support (x8/x8 vs x8/x4, in PCI-e 2.0 speed terms), better-positioned and angled SATA and USB headers, two extra SATA 6Gbps ports, an eSATA port shared with one of the internal SATA ports, and 4 USB 3.0 rear connectors 2 USB 2.0 connectors in the back (as opposed to 4 USB 2.0 connectors and 2 USB 3.0 connectors on the TZ77B).
None of those is a dealbreaker unless you must have eSATA support via the rear port. Many cases have eSATA ports on the front panel where they hook up to an internal SATA port, though.
All in all I think the Asrock Extreme4 is a worthy step up from the TZ77B if you will use some of those advantages; else, get the TZ77B which is still a good motherboard and pocket the $25-50 difference, or spend it on something else like a better CPU or RAM or SSD.
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