ASUS Prime Z490-A Review
We always used the ASUS Prime as our baseline motherboard in previous new chipset/CPU launches. It reminded us of the old Workstation boards you used to be able to get in that it provided you with all the tools and reliability necessary to extract the maximum overclock from an unfamiliar processor, whilst also giving you a wealth of monitoring options and solid benchmark results so that you could see how much extra horsepower you could obtain from spending more, or how near you could get to the average by spending less.
This time around with the Z490 we took a different path, reviewing the flagship motherboards first and coming back to the more affordable ones later. With the Prime Z490-A being the frustration fest it was we're glad that we came back to it with a little more experience under our belts. There was a time a little while ago when ASUS started hiding their VRM temperatures, for reasons we didn't understand at the time and that haven't become any clearer further down the line. With the Maximus XII Extreme and Strix-E we could see them again, so we'd hoped that this odd decision had passed, but nope. The Prime hides its VRM temperatures to both monitoring software and in the BIOS too. If ASUS are confident that the cooling is enough, then show the temps to the world, and if they aren't - we definitely aren't suggesting it isn't, just postulating - then let the user see them to know that they need more aggressive cooling. Taken alone this would be irksome but not the end of the world. However, we also found the VCore to not match in our monitoring software what they BIOS claimed we'd set it to. Often things seemed okay as our results bear out, but sometimes the scores were sufficiently hampered we wonder if there is some Vdroop going on behind the scenes that affected the clock speed.
All of our Z490 results are incredibly closely matched, without any great gaps to be found in any of our tests at all. Therefore we have to look at how a motherboard performs on average against its competition, and the Prime is usually down near the bottom of our graphs when we're running it at stock, with a few results being a bit closer to those we'd anticipate from our previous Z490 experience. Overclocked performance either matched the others we've tested - AIDA64, Cinebench R15, Sony Vegas - or was a surprising amount off the pace - Sandra, Cinebench R20, Blender.
With consistency being the strong suit of the ASUS Prime range of motherboards in the past these results were a bit of a shock. As we say, any Z490 performs close to others available, but whereas before the Prime range made you wonder why anyone would spend more on a flagship model, this particular one is sufficiently irritating to work with in the BIOS, and monitor that it becomes less attractive. We'd usually say that it's perfect for those who just want to run at stock and let the chipset sort out the turbo boosting, but the stock results were generally not good enough. So this is a motherboard you need to overclock to get the most out of, but the monitoring functionality is flaky enough that we wouldn't want to put our £500 Core i9-10900K processor in such a precarious position.
This was the one motherboard we were most looking forwards to, like putting on your favourite item of clothing. We've loved every iteration of the ASUS Prime, but, to continue that metaphor, we've discovered that the wool has become itchy since we last wore it and it isn't as nice as we remember. Maybe a BIOS update will fix these issues and unleash its potential. In its current form it's fine enough but you'd have to be desperate for a white motherboard and willing to put up with its quirks. With every other Z490 we've reviewed so far being smooth sailing it's tough to recommend this to anyone but the most committed. After all, if performance across the LGA1200 offerings is so close, a hassle-free user experience becomes the defining factor. But then at this price point maybe some pointy bits are to be expected?
If you must have a white motherboard and also have a limited budget, the ASUS Prime Z490-A has enough to keep you happy whilst freeing up funds for a meatier GPU.