There is no doubt that whilst the regular Z97s might be the overall volume sellers because of the pre-built system market, the majority of motherboards that ASUS sell separately come from their Republic of Gamers range. Until the last generation these were broadly split into three main types. The Gene, for those who want an iTX board; the Extreme for everyone who was determined to have the very best regardless of cost; and the Formula for everyone else.
With the release of the Z87 Maximus VI Hero ASUS brought a new variation to the marketplace. Tightly focussed upon the needs of gamers the Hero proved extremely popular and so it's no surprise to see it return as an option on the Maximus VII. Indeed the Formula and the Extreme have, for the moment at least, seemingly been replaced by the Maximus VII Ranger, which is aimed at the gamer on a budget, and today's preview model the Maximus VII Hero which has all the bells and whistles a gamer could need, without piling on frivolous features for the sake of it.
With such a tight focus, and a rumoured £200 price tag, the Hero could be exactly that. So let's delve into what's on offer.
ASUS have helpfully compared the Maximus VII Hero to their preceding Maximus VI Hero, which was certainly one of the better Z87 motherboards around. By putting the major changes in red it allows at 'at a glance' checklist of what is new. Which, as you can see by casting your eyes through the list, is support for the forthcoming 5th Generation Intel CPUs, higher memory overclocking (up from 3000MHz to 3200MHz), improved network hardware and configuration and superior audio options.
Everything else has, as you'd expect, been tweaked and refined with more upto-date ROG Gamefirst and better fan control options, alongside the M.2 Socket 3 support. Surely you're gagging to see how it looks, so let's move on to the board itself.
With brand identity being such a key element in any business strategy it makes perfect sense for ASUS to retain the ROG colour scheme and box art for the Maximus VII Hero. Everything is clearly laid out with all the key points highlighted. Nicely done.
There is the usual collection of accessories in the Maximus VII Hero box, included their now famous smooth-backed IO shield. We know we're not the only people who've lost countless layers of skin on sharp, poorly designed shields, so a smooth one is a godsend.
The Maximus VII Hero itself follows the market dominating red and black colour scheme that has made the ROG boards so famous. With such a tight focus on the needs of a gamer and a lack of features for the sake of them, the Maximus VII Hero has a very purposeful look that we really like. Plenty of room around the graphics card slots for maximum cooling potential.
This almost minimalist approach extends to the VRM heatsinks, with ASUS giving them a chunky look that we find very easy on the eye. Simple but effective seems to be the mantra.
The Maximus VII Hero comes with eight SATA 6Gb/s ports. Given that every board we've looked at so far in the forthcoming Z97 range has had SATA Express ports too we have to say that we're surprised the Hero hasn't. Although, similarly to Intel's Thunderbolt technology, it might be sensible to keep them for a future update depending upon how well the technology takes off. It's stripped down without being shorn of features for the majority of users.
Two of the big new features on the Maximus VII Hero are in the bottom right picture and yet not obvious. The USB port below the combined PS2 port is there for ASUS's KeyBot technology, which promises to turn any keyboard into a modern gaming one, and the Ethernet port promises to give the lowest gaming latency of any solution on the market. Read on to see how this is achieved.
Networking is still, to some people, a bit of a dark art. So let's bring in a comparison that we're all more familiar with and hopefully that will assist you in understanding what the Intel I217-V LAN does to keep your latency at rock bottom. When advertising SSDs the manufacturers nearly always quote a large data block sequential test as that has the highest result and so makes for the most attractive eye-grabbing number. We know from our testing though that the real difference between a quick one and a blisteringly fast one is the handling of small data block sizes, because those are the ones that form the majority of read/write actions. Similarly the majority of your gaming traffic comes from small packets that update the game with your position or actions or what have you, rather than enormous data chunks that you might have to get from a custom skin someone is running.
Intel have focussed their attention on handling these small data packets as well as possible to give double the performance of certain other gaming focused networking solutions. A fun game you can play at home is try and work out what the mysterious KxxxxR E22xx chip ASUS are being so coy about might be. No it didn't take us more than a nano second either.
Finally an upgraded GameFirst III further fine-tunes the handling of these gaming data packets at the software end to help gain that bit of an edge. As we all know, on such fine margins can games be won and lost.
The newly updated SupremeFX 2014 promises to bring some of the best onboard sound you could hope to hear. Indeed it offers so much performance and tweakability that it's in danger of putting ASUS' own Xonar range out of business. Now that's dedication to providing the best solution for your userbase. The one feature that most made us raise our eyebrows in surprise is the Sonic Radar II which promises to deliver an onscreen representation of an audio source. This feature and its potential in first-person shooters could be truly game changing. If it was any more of an advantage it would be an aimbot.
The most useful element of this is one that ASUS themselves haven't explored in their documentation, and that's the ability to put people with impaired hearing on a level playing field. If it does no more than that it will be a roaring success and rightfully so. Too few manufacturers consider such needs, and even if it's a side-effect of providing the best gaming experience we still applaud it.
We're so used to the excellent PCI Express release switch and single-sided DIMM clips that we've almost forgotten how useful they are. If you've ever removed all the skin from your knuckles on a heatsink whilst trying to remove your GPU from the first slot, then the ASUS Q Slot is a boon. Power delivery will be one of the biggest areas of change with the 5th Generation Intel CPUs and the Extreme Engine DIGI+ III with a total of 13+2 phases could really make a difference to the overclocking potential and system stability of the Maximus VII Hero.
The new UEFI BIOS is even sleeker and faster than it was before, and it was already excellent. Everything is where you expect it to be, and clearly laid out. Going back to a regular BIOS is like returning to the days of AGP and Serial Ports such is the difference. The Maximus VII Hero also allows full fan control on every connector. No longer do you have to make careful note of which fan should go where to maximise its potential.
The SSD Secure Erase feature is one that we're sure certain members of the audience will be glad to have. Certainly it allows you to clear out an OS drive without fear that it is recoverable, or without having to go through the hassle of creating a boot stick/floppy/CD.
Lastly the ASUS KeyBot should allow you to rescue that dusty old keyboard and bring it screaming into the 2000s with media controls and macro functionality. Okay we confess that we don't know of anyone who has a keyboard which doesn't support these features, but maybe you have a favourite you've been loath to move on from and, at the very least, an extra feature can't hurt.
There is certainly a large amount packed into the Maximus VII Hero. Let us know your thoughts in the OC3D Forums.