Asrock should be a name familiar to most of you as their motherboards have provided the basis for many pre-built systems over the years. They have provided motherboards in the value bracket for a long time, but with the advent of many new technologies recently it's a very good time to combine everything into one high-end motherboard and really go to town.
So, does the well-known ability of Asrock to provide motherboards that undercut the competition marry well to the need for high performance?
Time to find out.
Nipping along to the Asrock website we can get a list of the specifications for the X58 Extreme3
- Supports the Core i7 980X 6-Core CPU
- ASRock DuraCap (2.5 x longer life time), 100% Japan-made high-quality Conductive Polymer Capacitors
- Advanced V8 Power Phase Design
- Supports Triple Channel DDR3 2000 (OC)
- Supports ATI™ CrossFireX™ and Quad CrossFireX™
- Supports NVIDIA® Quad SLI™ and SLI™
- 1 x Powered eSATAIII/USB Connector, 2 x SATA3 6.0 Gb/s connector, 2 x USB 3.0 Ports
- ErP/EuP Ready, Dr. Debug
- Smart Swith Design : Power / Reset / Clear CMOS Switch with LED
- Supports ASRock Instant Boot, Instant Flash, OC DNA, Multi-Speed Fan Control, OC Tuner, IES, Good Night LED
- 7.1 CH HD Audio (VT2020 Audio Codec with QSound), SRN 110dB & Premium Blu-ray audio support
- Combo Cooler Option (C.C.O.)
- Free Bundle: CyberLink DVD Suite - OEM and Trial; Creative Sound Blaster X-Fi MB - Trial
With native support for the very latest 32nm Intel processors and the 333 (eSATA 6Gb/s, SATA3 6Gb/s and USB3.0) technologies this definitely ticks all the boxes for our hardware needs. Running down the list the only thing we're slightly concerned about is the use of the VIA VT2020 instead of the excellent Realtek ALC889 found on nearly every other X58 motherboard.
Okay time to take a look at what we get.
Asrock Extreme3 Packaging and First Look
Straight away you can tell this isn't your standard Asrock motherboard. The box is about as fancy as anything we've seen with an incredible hologromatic sheen that looks amazing from every angle.
The main features of the Extreme3 are naturally the most advertised elements with the 333 support and Gulftown support writ large for all to see.
Flipping the box over and it's nice to see that Asrock have kept the colourful finish on the whole of the box exterior. The various features are also exceptionally well laid out with everything that you could want in a clear position. Motherboards, by virtue of having so many elements to convey, can sometimes have busy boxes, but here it's fantastic. Top marks Asrock.
Opening the box has a slightly less impressive effect. No seperate boxes or compartments and even the inside isn't black, but it's not a big problem. More a little disappointing after the epic exterior.
Inside we have a few full colour sheets showing the various software that's included. Along with a large multi-language manual, the obligatory driver disk, and some SATA, power and IDE cables. IDE. Huh?
Taking the Extreme3 out of the protective static bag we get our first look and can see a rather peculiar layout. Perhaps we've got used to the way 90% of motherboards are made these days, but to see a fan, a very empty area behind the SATA ports and, amazingly, both a IDE port and a floppy one really just looks jarring.
A Closer Look
So with the overview out of the way, let's see what's what up close.
Straight away we can see a nice attention to detail here with the ability to use your 775 cooler on this board without buying a new one. The CPU socket itself is fairly clear although the use of a fan on the MOSFET heatsink does mean you couldn't use really over-sized coolers.
The DIMM area is slightly more problematic if you are the type of person who runs a RAM cooler, because the top (right in this picture) side is right at the edge of the motherboard. Below them we have the standard 24pin ATX power supply and, very surprisingly, the front panel connectors.
For years front panel pins have been at the bottom right of the motherboard so to find them next to the RAM is quite a surprise. However when it comes to building the rig it makes so much sense you wonder why it's not been done before. It's certainly easier for cable-routing purposes. To the left of those is the second of the two USB headers.
If ever two photos defined the Asrock, it's these two. For every bit of high end tech and latest gadgetry, there is something that makes you scratch your head. On the left we have 3 PCIe slots. Although all of them are running at 16x the blue ones are PCIe 2.0, and the white is PCIe. There is plenty of room between them so if you are the kind of person who runs SLI or Crossfire you have no heat issues. We also have the rapidly falling-out-of-use PCIe x1 slot, and two legacy PCI slots. Below those we have a USB header, front firewire header, a serial port and a floppy port. Absolutely baffling.
Again we have elements of the good and the odd. The power and reset switches are quality with a really nice feel to them. To the right of those is a dual 7-segment display that shows any error codes. At the top of the picture the CMOS reset jumper is handily right next to the battery. No more fiddling about trying to find it. You may have noticed that all six of the SATA sockets are one colour. We'll come to that in a moment. Above the SATA ports is an IDE socket, for those of you still clinging to your ancient opticals or 20GB hard-drives.
The southbridge heatsink is about the smallest we've seen in ages. So often manufacturers use this relatively empty area of the motherboard to place an extra bit of heatpipe to keep the MOSFET and northbridge cool, but here it's the tiniest heatsink attached to absolutely nothing. It's starting to become clearer how Asrock can keep this under £200. But as long as the performance is good we don't mind at all.
Staying with cooling for a moment, the X58 cooling as provided by this branded piece of aluminium. It's a very curious design. Whereas a lot of companies go for fat and low, Asrock have gone for tall and thin, with a very small fin density. This is connected via a heatpipe to the MOSFET cooler.
Unbelievably, as if to highlight the rather mediocre heatsink design, Asrock have added a fan. I thought we'd left tiny whiny fans back in the 90s, but apparently not.
The sheer size of this has to be seen to be believed and even in our huge CoolerMaster ACTS 840 we had to remove the 120mm exhaust fan to be able to fit the motherboard in the case. How anyone with more compact cases will cope we've no idea, but given the choice between a small whiny MOSFET fan and a 120mm case exhaust I know what I'd prefer.
Whilst I'm berating some abysmal design choices, look at the placement of the SATA3 ports. Vertical, and squeezed between the bottom of the ram and the edge of the top PCIe slot. What is wrong with having them next to the SATA ports? Except the decision to retain the IDE socket makes that impossible.
Probably the single worst decision is the placement of the 8-pin CPU power, and the CPU fan header. We know that nobody has yet found a pleasing place to put the 8-pin CPU power, but right at the extreme edge of the board, behind the PS2 ports and just above the razor-sharp, taller than the Empire State Building MOSFET cooler most definitely isn't the place we'd choose. Thankfully the CPU Fan header can be populated when building outside the case, but power connections need to done inside the case and trying to get the CPU power plugged in took more blood and swearing than I care to relate.
Luckily motherboards are all about performance and stability. So even these things can be overlooked as long as it performs well. Finally the IO section.
From left to right we have : PS2, CMOS Clear, SPDIF, USB and E-SATAIII, USB + Firewire, USB3.0 and LAN, and the audio.
The BIOS is the always reliable AMI BIOS we're all very familiar with now. For brevity we'll skip the stuff most people don't care about or is universal and get into the nitty gritty.
There are many ways you can overclock the Asrock Extreme3. We'll look at the in-built options in a second.
The main element you'll probably all use is the manual overclocking mode. This allows you to adjust everything you could possibly desire. The Asrock also comes with the useful "boot failure guard" which will attempt a certain number of boots before restoring previous settings. Very useful when trying to obtain the most out of your setup.
Something we always like to see on overclocking-centric motherboards is anti-Vdroop. The Asrock confusingly names the non-Vdroop setting "without Vdroop" and the setting that allows it to droop, "with Vdroop". There can't be many people who want Vdroop, and as it's a "Vdroop Control" then one would assume it was on or off. Without implies that the Asrock Vdroop control is off. Secondly we'd like for all the BIOS people to get together and decide what they are going to call the QPI voltage setting. Here it's VTT.
Back to the in-built settings. You can overclock your system either based upon CPU speed, or DDR3 speed. Your success is greatly dependant upon the quality of your components, as any overclock is. So if you've got a very bad CPU don't expect the 4.2 setting to bring much success.
All of the various configuration options are handily under one menu which saves a lot of faffing about.
Finally unlike many motherboards that have "load defaults" and "load optimised defaults", Asrock provide us with a multitude of storage based options. Handy for those of you who just like to get up and running with the minimum of fuss.
Software and Overclocking
Asrock provide a few nice utilities with the Extreme3.
We'll start with easily the most startling. When looking through the bumpf for the Extreme3 we saw that there is an Instant Boot that promises to boot your PC in under 10 seconds. To Windows no less. No Linux distro's here. With great skepticism it was installed and, sure enough, when we saw that you have to keep the AC Power on our minds instantly flashed to Suspend mode. Now that's all well and good if you don't mind your fans whirring away, but that isn't instant boot.
However, and it's a 10 story however, it isn't that at all. Oh no sirree. You install the program, click Fast Mode, turn your PC off via the shutdown command. It shuts down, reboots and shuts down again. Once off it is as off as if you'd shut it down any other time. No lights, no fans. Basically a PC that happens to be plugged in, like they pretty much always are.
But upon hitting the power button magical things occured. I'm sure you're all aware that sometimes your monitor can be slower to power on than your POST screen, which makes diagnosing things difficult. With Asrock Instant Boot by the time my monitor had given me a picture I was at the Windows desktop and ready to go.
Before the naysayers proclaim it's a fanless version of suspend mode, I left a few applications open that would, in suspend mode, reappear. But nope. It's just a stupidly fast boot. Incredibly impressive.
So impressive you need a graph to understand it. These timings are the average of five runs. The time is recorded from the pressing of the power button, to a text document saved in the startup folder, appearing on screen. So this is cold boot, to fully operational Windows 7 desktop.
Feel free to pick your jaws up off the floor. The best thing is, there is no caveat here. No "but". Brilliant.
OC DNA is much less impressive, but useful if you need to share your own settings with people. You can save and load from the three banks of save-slots within the BIOS, which could be useful for those of you who want to setup a swathe of PCs at once, or share that major overclock with your friends.
The OC Tuner is a fairly standard overclock and monitoring utility. The good part is that it's always easier to push your system hard once you've past the POST and Windows loadup. The bad part is there is no way to actually check you've got a stable overclock from within the utility. Because applying the changes freezes everything for a few seconds, sometimes you hit apply, freeze, and off you go. Sometimes you hit it and freeze and wait. And wait.
The "level"s of the fans appears to be roughly in 10% lumps. A quick glance at the speed of the NB fan, taken with the size of it as seen on the previous page, should give you an idea of how loud it is.
Overclocking on the Asrock Extreme3 was a fairly simple affair to begin with, but with a few curious quirks.
Firstly we tested all the in-built overclock settings and our C stepping i7 920 managed 20x200 fairly happily with lowered RAM speeds. Moving the RAM towards its rated 2000MHz speed however quickly saw much locking up of the system.
Backing off a little to 190 and increasing the multiplier to 21 gave us the 4GHz we required and allowed us to hit 1900MHz on the RAM. Something it was happy to run all of our tests in without a hitch.
The main quirks are that the motherboard was absolutely unable to hold 200BCLK with the RAM set to its rated speed. Even with insane amounts of voltage running through the QPI it just wouldn't hold fast. There also appear to be some settings of BCLK it just doesn't like. Before achieving stability at just over 4GHz it was stuck at 3.9 for ages and nothing we tried would get it stable. It seems to like either 200BCLK, or 190, but not much inbetween.
Anyway our final overclock was 4016MHz on the CPU and 1900MHz on the DDR3. Not too bad at all despite it needing pretty heavy volts to get there. Certainly we wouldn't want to run this 24/7 at these settings.
For our test setup today we're going to be using a fairly standard setup that is probably common across most peoples systems. We could of course populate this with extremely high-end components, but as it's a motherboard based upon good value and high performance, we're following that ethos.
CPU : Intel Core i7 920 @ Stock and 4GHz OC
RAM : 6GB Corsair Dominator @ 1600MHz Stock and 1900MHz OC
GPU : XFX HD5870 XXX
PSU : OCZ Z1000M
Storage : 64GB SSD and DVD-RW Optical
OS : Windows 7 64 Bit
Motherboard : Asrock X58 Extreme3
Everest is a great suite that tests both the memory and CPU without relying too heavily on the other elements of your system. The increase we can see from the overclock is in line with what we'd expect to see and around the average for a stock system too.
When overclocking the Asrock Extreme3 there is a balancing act between going mad with the CPU but keeping the memory in check, or going mad with the memory. The insane score improvement we can see from the memory, especially in the copy test, really make us wish that we could have got it stable at its rated 2000MHz.
Sandra uses Dhrystone and Whetstone tests to rate the computational speed of the processor. Our results here are a mixed bag with the stock speed giving fairly disappointing results, and the overclocked result being quite good. Fair to middling shall we say.
The Processor Multi-Media test has the Extreme3 give a much better showing of itself. However despite our 33% increase in clockspeeds we only see around a 25% increase in the results. That's quite an overhead especially given the increased RAM speeds too.
Futuremarks PC Mark Vantage comes complete with a raft of in-built applications to test the all around capabilities of your system. Although it has many suites available today we're concentrating on the ones that test the motherboard the most.
Our scores here are not too bad at all. The main thing to note if you're planning to compare against some of our previous results is the difference the addition of a SSD makes to the score. You gain thousands.
Once you take the results as they are you can see that again we find the enormous overclock doesn't really provide the end product we'd expect.
Trans-coding is the conversion of a media file from one format to another. It's very CPU and Memory dependant so should hopefully finally give us the result we're seeking. The Wav to WMA result is impressive indeed with the 33% improvement we're hoping to see from our 33% overclock.
VC-1 to WMV9 gives us a very bizarre result in that the stock is faster than the overclock. No we don't understand it either.
DV to WMV9 again returns to the 33% increase we expect.
7zip is a freeware decompression program that supports all archive types. Utilising the in-built benchmark we can see a comprehensive improvement from the overclocked system, with the stock combination of i7 920 and Asrock Extreme3 being very consistent.
wPrime uses a very complex mathematical test that I wont begin to pretend I understand, so I'll leave it to its creator.
"wPrime is a leading multithreaded benchmark for x86 processors that tests your processor performance by calculating square roots with a recursive call of Newton's method for estimating functions, with f(x)=x2-k, where k is the number we're sqrting, until Sgn(f(x)/f'(x)) does not equal that of the previous iteration"
So I hope we're all clear on what it does. The important thing is the results. Once again a mixed bag as when at stock it's slower than we'd expect but the overclock shows good promise.
Finally we'll have a look at the 3D side of things.
This is very frustrating. You know what is possible. You know the kind of scores you should achieve. And then you just don't.
5 for CineBench CPU test is pretty woeful. Yet 40 for the OpenGL test is pretty impressive.
3D Mark Vantage
Vantage on performance mode once again gives us a very average result. The CPU overclock shows up in the CPU score, but this configuration has achieved nearly 22000 on another board with only 3.6GHz on the processor.
Need For Speed Shift
Finally the ever wonderful Need for Speed Shift. With all the eye-candy around Brands Hatch Indy we get pretty good frame-rates. Although by this point I've nearly lost the will to live because of the on-board sound, which I'll get to in the conclusion.
Oh dear. It all started off so well.
When we first received the Asrock Extreme3 in its shiny box we really we hoping this was the dawn of something special from Asrock. For a long time they've been holding the budget end of the market up with solid, if unspectacular, motherboards. So when we got this beast, all bristling with the latest technology yet at a sensible price, we really thought this could change the marketplace. Why pay £250+ for a high-end board if you can get one under a couple of hundred? Sadly the answer is all too clear. You can't get one under £200. Or at least not a good one.
Starting with the design. This seems to have been designed by two completely different teams of people. One of whom had a bunch of fantastic ideas and the other tossed parts in the air and soldered where they landed. The on/off and reset buttons have a real air of quality. The PCIe slots are nicely spaced apart allowing for good airflow in twin card systems. The relocation of the front panel header to next to the ATX24 makes for vastly easier cable management.
Unfortunately those good elements are bludgeoned by the terrible ones. Despite the southbridge not being part of the main heat dissipation via heat-pipe linkage, or even having either a large heatsink, the bottom right quarter of the board is very empty indeed. This space could so easily have been used to many of the parts that have been squished to the edges. The bottom edge of the board in particular is awash with pins and headers. The inclusion of a floppy header on a motherboard that supports 32nm Hex-Core i7s and USB3.0 is frankly ridiculous. Nobody should still be using floppies. Even Sony are about to stop making them. Equally bizarre is the inclusion of two legacy PCI slots. Sure one is understandable but two?
The appalling design doesn't stop there though. The placement of the SATA3 ports is equally ludicrous. To make room for the unnecessary IDE socket they have been placed, almost haphazardly, right in the centre of the board. Anyone fancy hot-swapping their drives? Thought not. The 8-pin CPU is nearly impossible to plug the power into unless your fingers are 10 inches long and have pipe-cleaner flexibility. And that's assuming you've already plugged the CPU Fan in, because otherwise it's not happening.
Finally the two most absolutely unforgivable aspects. The Northbridge/MOSFET cooler is so tall it has snow on the top. The fan is loud and whiny. Plus anything so overly large it requires the removal of the exhaust fan from the not-inconsiderably proportioned ACTS 840 is worthless. You'd be forgiven for thinking that it couldn't get any worse. And then you come to the sound.
For many years we've all owned external soundcards. From the humble Creative AWE32 and Turtle Beach efforts, a soundcard has been a must to move away from the beeps we were limited to. Then as time moved on they were important because on-board sound was so woeful. The Realtek ALC889 pretty much sorted all that out by being, for on-board sound at least, stupendous. So good is it that it's tough to find a motherboard that doesn't use it. Hello Asrock and the VIA 2020. The actual sound it produces your system is producing audio is alright. Nothing special. But it's the sound it makes when you're NOT that is the problem. It constantly squeaks and whines and produces all sorts of high-pitched nonsense. You can hear the mouse being moved. When running some of the tests such as 3D Mark it sounded exactly like the old cassette loading noise from the Spectrum and C64 days, or dial-up for those more modern of you.
With so many things wrong in a usability and design way, the actual testing results are almost secondary. It overclocked well enough, although the much advertised DDR3 2000 proved to be somewhat of a false dawn. We managed to test perfectly well at 4GHz and 1900MHz which sounds like quite a good overclock. In a lot of ways it was except the QPI voltage was near its 1.6v limit and it would still randomly freeze if you'd had the PC on for a long while. It worked well enough I'd call the overclock stable, and certainly didn't crash with any obvious pattern. So it's not the most reliable motherboard either.
The Instant Boot is brilliant. Make no mistake about it. Brilliant. The question is, when this is what you have, do you want to instantly boot?
There currently isn't a UK retail price available for the Asrock Extreme3, but judging from US retailers and the word floating around it is expected to come in at around £170 to £180. At that price it's not even the cheapest 333 motherboard, much less the cheapest X58.
- The included software is excellent
- The BIOS pre-overclocked settings work well
- Elements of the board design
- The manual is poor
- Still using Floppy and IDE?
- SATA3 location
- Onboard sound is worse than useless
- Northbridge cooler is far too big
Sadly whilst the box is nice, the board isn't and so it takes a hammering on the presentation score. Despite it overclocking well, the sound is beyond awful and so the performance isn't too good either. Back to the drawing board for Asrock sadly.
The most irritating part is that with a more standard heat-pipe arrangement, some sensible moving of the parts around and culling the useless technology, and joining everyone else with a Realtek ALC889, this could be very good. But it isn't.
Thanks to Asrock for providing the Extreme3 for review. Discuss in our forums.