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August 12, 2011

Asus Maximus Iii Gene Motherboard Review

Asus Maximus Iii Gene Motherboard Review

Introduction

Buying a motherboard these days is quite a difficult task since, in terms of performance, there is very little to choose between the top contenders. Brand loyalty is one route but leaves the feeling that something good could be missed out on through lack of awareness of the various offerings. Manufacturers have had a tricky time and most have been forced into an “arms race” of adding more and more features to make their boards stand out. A recent example is the trend towards putting large amounts of copper onboard with little performance gain to show for it but at a disproportionate cost. Why did they do it? Simply because people choose motherboards based on reading the specifications in a quantitative fashion. We think that far greater value for the customer can be attained by putting features (software and hardware) in the package that gives them tangible benefits.

ASUS are a prime example of this. Their strategy is to lead through innovation and not follow the herd. Readers will already be familiar with products such as the Eee range and other home entertainment products they have developed. The ROG (Republic of Gamers) brand is rapidly gaining popularity with extreme gaming and overclocking workshops and seminars being held in many countries. The selection of prizes given out at these events shows how closely ASUS understand the needs and aspirations of their target audience. We’ve been impressed for some time now with the feature set of ASUS motherboards and think it’s now time to review them with a focus on those features and not a plethora of benchmarks comparing 20+ boards that happen to perform within 1% of each other. Today the board in question is the Maximus III Gene, a flagship socket 1156 product for Intel i5 and i7 (8XX series) processors.

Board Layout

The box comes in a nice package that prominently displays the ROG logo showing that this is an enthusiast and gamers motherboard.

It truly is Windows 7 ready and everything was detected correctly during our 64-bit Windows 7 Pro setup. Installing the additional drivers and utilities that come with the enclosed CD is still highly recommended though.

The onboard X-Fi supports EAX 4.0 for advanced HD sound and comes with a filter to eliminate background noise while recording. We tested in both 5.1 and 7.1 channel modes with no distortion and good separation of channels.

There are so many features that the front and back of the box are not enough and an extra flap is used to elaborate further. It also adds to the “gift box” effect and may make a nice present this holiday season.

All these features on a board that’s not cluttered and is mATX! As well as the SLI/CrossFire capabilities we can see that it is passively cooled with a big heatsink in the bottom right. There is a twelve phase power design consisting of eight phase CPU power, two phase VTT power and two phase memory power. There are 7 SATA-2 ports and an E-SATA port header. The four DDR3 slots operate in dual channel mode and support memory up to 16GB DDR3-2133 through the BIOS. The red button allows for recovery without clearing the BIOS if settings are too extreme during overclocking. The addition of an on/off switch helps testers or those not using a traditional case. A legacy PCI slot is there for that old PCI RAID controller etc. you just cannot bear to part with. RAID 0 and 1 is supported on the SATA-2 ports and will be cost-effective until SSDs become mainstream.

PS/2 keyboard connectors are the only look to the past and 8-channel audio is fully supported and configurable when the full audio drivers are installed. The USB port on its side is actually the ROG connector and allows a notebook to monitor and configure the PC remotely. In practice this worked well with our Eee PC 901 using the supplied cable. Firewire and E-SATA (there’s another E-SATA and Firewire connector on the other side of the board for cases which have those connectors on them) are included. The addition of a CMOS clear button on the back panel will please overclockers and save tension reaching for a jumper with a pair of long-nosed pliers while holding a torch between teeth and aiming it with tongue manipulation….

Included in the box are SATA cables with metal bars to make them easy to remove and still keeping them securely in place against accidental removal – a long way from the first SATA cables which are still supplied with many motherboards today. The ROG cable is just a USB (male to male) lead. Padding on the back shield forms a snug fit with the edge of the board and it is thickly constructed making it easy to fit and remove without bending. The SLI bridge is easy to install and the most notable thing is the Q-Connector for case wires (HDD, power, rest switch etc.) so that they can be fitted there and the entire connector taken out as needed for access. This is the sort of time saving feature that leaves people wondering why no-one has thought of it before.

Overclocking

Socket 1156 processors, like their socket 1366 siblings are renowned for their overclocking capabilities so we started with high hopes for our i7-870 on this board using the extensive options available in the BIOS. The BIOS is too detailed for us to explore in this review but we recommend viewing this YouTube video here and if your appetite is whetted for more information you can download the manual from the ASUS Support Site.

Our first target was 3.5GHz and this was achieved without any noticeable increase in temperatures (the Corsair H50 sealed processor watercooler is truly remarkable and completely silent). All benchmarks were run without problems.

Incredibly, the system posted and booted into Windows at 4GHz on stock voltage. Running the Far Cry 2 benchmark caused a lockup though and we increased the processor voltage to 1.35V before the CPU completed all tests without any problems. Even so, 1.35V is still on the low side compared to some extremes we have seen with simple cooling.

We conducted our tests at stock speeds though to allow readers to make comparisons on a fixed baseline.

Test Results

We should explain why we have selected certain tests and why we repeated them for 1, 2, 3 and 4 cores. People buy motherboards for different uses and whether you are a gamer who can make do with 2 cores or an avid video editor who will max out 4 cores determines which processor you will pair the board with.

We always advise not skimping on motherboard selection and purchasing a high end, fully featured one like the Maximus III Gene (high end by socket 1156 standards – half the price of a socket 1366 board) provides the greatest flexibility as we will see. The benchmarks will show which processor is best suited for particular uses. We are comparing the ASUS Maximus III Gene with the ASUS M4A79T Deluxe.

The advantage of DDR3-2000 versus DDR3-1600 and the Dual channel memory can be clearly seen. Synthetic benchmarks eliminate other bottlenecks and show the true potential of increasing cores. Only users of the AMD platform will be able to replace their current CPU with a 6-core “Bulldozer” one next year. There are no plans for 6-core “Gulftown” (aka i9) processors able to fit in a socket 1156 motherbaord.

Similar situation with very linear scaling.

The number of cores has no effect on memory bandwidth (fortunately there are no single core Athlons in the AM3 configuration).

The results here are quite interesting and a leveling off after 2 cores for the i7-870 but more linear for the slower AMD X4 CPU. The results are above average for boards of these chipsets.

Far Cry 2 is widely acknowledged as being the game to bring any system to its knees and we deliberately tested at the highest settings for each resolution and with 8x anti aliasing. Frame rates are perfectly playable at all resolutions (we don’t have a 30″ monitor for the ultra high resolutions).

Contrasting the FPS of Far Cry 2 is Tom Clancy’s HAWX which is a cross between flight simulator and air combat game and we achieved over 60 frames per second at all resolutions.

Horror games are currently popular and Resident Evil 5 has a great benchmarking function built in. The board performed very well in this test.

Conclusion

We’ve deliberately avoided getting bogged down with dozens of benchmarks comparing many motherboards as this is one component where the performance varies by usually less than 1% across the range. Readers looking to see these types of benchmarks are pointed in the direction of AnandTech and similar sites. We have already explored in depth and rest assured that the Maximus III Gene is in the top 3 in virtually every test in available benchmarks. Instead we are focusing on the added features and bundled software that add unique value to each motherboard.

ROG motherboards have never disappointed in terms of features and the Maximus III Gene is no exception despite its mATX form factor which puts a pressure on available “real-estate”. The choice for this seems to be to allow the board to be used for small form factor and easy to carry systems for gamers to use in LAN parties and gaming conventions etc.

Overclocking used to be the realm of the connoisseur requiring great skill/experience and tenacity with nerves of iron required and the constant danger of equipment destruction adding tension over the hours it took to get a stable overclock. No longer is this the case now that ASUS have made it easy for everyone (and no longer can we impress women at parties by introducing ourselves as PC overclockers….) with PC stepup, iROG connect, MemPerfect and a host of utilities within Windows making it easy to get professional results in a fraction of the time and with little or no risk.

When everything is taken into account we are convinced that the ASUS Maximus III Gene is the best socket 1156 motherboard currently available and is keenly priced for its target market.

 

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