Asus Maximus III Formula Review

Author: Pier-Luc Gendreau
Editor: Howard Ha
Publish Date: Thursday, October 8th, 2009
Originally Published on Neoseeker (http://www.neoseeker.com)
Article Link: http://www.neoseeker.com/Articles/Hardware/Reviews/asus_maximus_formula/
Copyright Neo Era Media, Inc. - please do not redistribute or use for commercial purposes.

With Intel's recent launch of their latest Lynnfield processors using the new LGA1156 socket and P55 chipset, motherboard manufacturers have a new opportunity to win you over. If the X58 platform is of any indication, P55 motherboards should also perform very close to each other, so it will be a battle of features. This market segment is very "me too" and they often have features that tend to be more or less useful, but especially less. Fortunately, they do come up with genuine and useful features to keep us interested and a brand new chipset is a great moment to introduce them.

This brings me to ASUS' Maximus III Formula, part or theit Republic of Gamers series of products. The Maximus is their top-end mid-range, if that makes any sense, motherboard. It all started with the P35 chipset, so this is their third iteration. However, this one is quite a bit difference since Lynnfield and P55 brought some drastic changes as you most likely read in our launch article. The Maximus III Formula is packed including the usual CrossFire and SLI, but also brings along others that are unique to their RoG line. Read on to see what ASUS has in store for us.

ASUS ships the Maximus III Formula in a great looking and seemingly solid dark red box, complete with a handle so you can carry it around everywhere you go. Just as the out of place sticker claims, the board indeed works perfectly under Windows 7. Other than that, it obviously support Core i5 and i7 processors using the LGA1156 socket. Both CrossFire and SLI are supported, but only in dual-card configuration due to platform limitations.

On the opposite side, ASUS highlights some of the main features including ROG Connect, Go Button and Speeding HDD. If those sound a bit mysterious to you, don't feel bad, I didn't know what they were either. I'll elaborate on them later on. The board also comes bundled with a discrete SupremeFX X-Fi audio card, which should sound better than onboard audio.

The board definitely looks awesome. The black and red color theme with some white scattered here and there gives it an attractive look. Most importantly, the layout is excellent as well. Most connectors are exactly where we like them to be and the low profile heatsinks leave us with plenty of space to install hardware without blocking anything. There isn't anything exciting on the back of the board. I like to see heatsinks using screws instead of simple push-pins and the Maximus delivers exactly that.

The whole area around the processor socket is totally free of obstacles and the memory are far enough not to interfere with most heatsinks. The top right side of the board is home to the four dual-channel DDR3 memory slots, which can handle memory running at up to 2133 MHz assuming your processor's integrated memory controller can also handle it. The 24-pin ATX connector is right on the edge of the board, exactly where it should be. There's also one of the eight 4-pin fan headers right behind as well as two vertical SATA ports. It's an awkward location, but at least there are eight more ports, so it shouldn't be an issue for nearly everyone.

The Maximus has three full length PCI-Express slots, although only the topmost one is actually running at 16x and only if there's a single video card installed. Once you add a second one, they fall back to 8x. The white slot at the bottom is connected to four PCI-Express 1.0 lanes and is meant to be used with a PhysX card. The first PCI-E 1x slot is designed for the bundled audio card and then you are left with another PCI-E 1x slot and two legacy PCI ports.

At the bottom there is, from left to right, a FireWire and two 4-pin fan headers, handy start and restart buttons and three USB headers. Continuing at the bottom, there is yet another 4-pin fan header, eight more SATA ports, six of which belong to the P55 chip, and the header for front panel LED's and buttons. Under the large but thin heatsink is hiding the cool running P55 chip, which barely gets warm.

On the I/O side, there is a single PS/2 keyboard connector, eight USB ports, a single FireWire and eSATA port as well as a button to clear the CMOS in case the board refuses to P.O.S.T like it can sometimes happen after a failed overclock. The button and the USB port on the left are for the ROG Connect feature which I will discuss shortly.

Finally, ASUS includes a fairly generous bundle with their Maximus III Formula. Six SATA cables are bundled as well as the USB cable necessary for ROG Connect, a SLI bridge and a USB/eSATA bracket. There's also the ever useful Q-Connector that makes front panel connections so much more easier. The I/O plate is very well built and labeled and the manual provides all the information you need to get started and then some. They also provide stickers to identify SATA cables which can be somewhat useful if you have lots of drives. The disc contains a whole bunch of software including drivers for that neat 8 channel sound card.

The first tab is definitely the most interesting one for enthusiasts. It is named Extreme Tweaker and does exactly that : provide a ton of option to tweak the computer's performance. This is a one stop shop for overclockers, beginner and vetarans alike. Up top are the target processor and memory clocks, the BIOS does the math for you so there's no need to keep a calculator at hand. The first third of the page is dedicated to clock speeds, including the processor's multiplier, base clock, PCI-Express, memory and uncore clock. This is also the place to enable or disable SpeedStep, Turbo and other advanced processor features.

For beginners, the CPU Level Up feature let's you overclock up to 3.52 GHz, which worked without issues on my processors, but your mileage may vary. Memory Level Up lets you choose a memory clock up to 2133 MHz, providing your memory is capable of handling such high speeds. Both automatically increase voltages and, as of the latest BIOS, memory voltage isn't bumped above 1.65V.

The second part offers more options including memory timings and processor clock settings aimed at the select few advanced overclockers. It is also possible to use the full blown power distribution system or leaving to Auto in order to let the motherboard turn off phases when they aren't needed. ASUS has embeded voltage and temperature monitoring right there and the system's main voltages are located right below. Lower down the list, Extreme OV, for OverVoltage, allows voltage settings to be set much higher than you normally can. For example, the processor's core voltage can be set up to 2.5V, which is obviously not recommended unless the processor is under extreme cooling.

The last third of the Extreme Tweaker page has advanced memory voltage settings and provides the ability to disable spread spectrum, which tends to help when overclocking. At the bottom is ASUS' profile system.

The DRAM Timing Control page has a large array of timings that can be manually set. The most important ones are the first four as well as the DRAM Timing Mode. The others are secondary timings you can tweak to extract every last bit of performance out of the memory.

The ASUS O.C. Profile has enough space to store up to eight profiles. With this, it's possible to quickly and easily switch between very different BIOS settings without having to go through them one by one. The utility also allows you to back them up to a file.

Now comes the usual options you expect to find in each and every BIOS. The Main tab is where you can set set the time, date and language as well as display installed SATA drives.

 Next up is the Advanced tab where seven submenus are displayed, some more interesting than others. First up is the CPU Configuration page which displays information about the processor. The main purpose of that section is to enable, or disable, power saving features such as SpeedStep and C1E.

Onboard Devices Configuration is self-explanatory, it lets the user enable or disable integrated components like LAN, FireWire and SATA controllers. ASUS also provides a neat option which can be set to Standard, for day to day usage, or disabled. The latter automatically disables everything except the LAN port. This is useful to easily get a few more points out of various benchmarks.

There isn't much of anything to customize in the Power tab. However, the Hardware Information submenu provides a complete look at the computer's current status. In there, you can take a look at the current voltages, which are more or less precise but give a rough idea. It's also possible to monitor temperatures and fan speeds. The last menu, Fan Speed Control gives the option to let the motherboard automatically control the fan's speed or to set them to a certain speed.

 The Boot tab is nothing out of the ordinary. This is where, as usual, the user chooses which device to boot from and in what order.

In the Tools tab, the Speeding HDD configuration menu is used in conjunction with the hardware RAID controller. It lets you choose between RAID 0 and 1. The EZ Flash 2 utility is used to update the BIOS from a floppy, USB or hard drive or even a CD. It's also possible to update the BIOS directly from Windows. Asus O.C. Profile is pretty neat, it allows the user to save BIOS configurations so you don't have to type them back in every time you clear the CMOS.

Finally, the Exit tab is where the journey in the BIOS ends. You can either save the settings or revert back to defaults.

Speeding HDD

Clever marketing aside, this actually provides hardware RAID capability. Once a hard drive is connected into both red SATA ports, simply hop into the BIOS, choose between RAID 0, 1 or JBOD (Just a Bunch Of Disks) and you're set. No other configuration is needed and you don't have to load drivers before installing your operating system of choice. It's all very simple, but it's not quite perfect. Unfortunately, the P55 chipset and JMicron controller taking care of the work only support PCI-Express 1.0 so there's a 150 MB/s bandwidth limitation. For regular hard drives it's not much of an issue, but in the case of solid state drives, it will without a doubt hinder performance.

ProbeIt

This is especially interesting for the hardcore overclocking crowd with a voltmeter within their toolbox. It provides hardware voltage reading points for the processor's PLL, PCH, memory, integrated memory controller and processor. They are located right on the edge of the board, beside the 24-pin ATX connector, which makes them very easy to access. They just work and provide accurate voltage readings for the most critical components. However, they could be larger to make them easier to target.

Q-LED

Although it's hardly advertised, I found this feature to be one of the most useful ones. Instead of displaying various meaningless codes you have to search for on a couple 7 segment LED displays, it simply uses four small LEDs to display the most common errors. There is one for the processor, memory, video card and boot device. When the system boots perfectly, they will light up one after the other and all is well. However, if for some reason the system fails to boot, it will remain stuck on one of the four LED's, clearly indicating what is the issue.

SupremeFX X-Fi

While many of us settle with integrated sound, the discrete card bundled with the Formula certainly adds some value to the package. I have, at best, a sub-par computer sound system so I can't honestly say I noticed any difference. However, the software bundle provides tools like an equalizer and built-in sound profiles. Pretty much what you should expect from a quality sound card.

More

Of course, the Maximus III Formula also features various other small, but notable details. Marketed as Q-Slot, the latches to release cards placed into the full length PCI-E are easily the best I ever used. Unlike other designs, their shape makes them perfectly suited for human fingers and I didn't feel like I was going to break something every time I removed a video card.

ASUS' Q-DIMM memory slots only have levers on the topmost side, making it painless to install or uninstall memory sticks even when a large video card is sitting right under. Even though they only clip on one side, they are still laying tight enough into the slot that it is impossible for them to release without human intervention.

Speaking of memory, running four 2GB sticks for a total of 8GB worked right out of the box without needing any sort of tweaking.

The board also has the now usual onboard power, reset and clear CMOS buttons. Finally, it has a whooping eight 4-pin fan connectors each supporting 24W or up to a total of 84W. Assuming you install all eight fans, this is about for each fan, which is above what most of them draw.

When it comes to power delivery, ASUS supplies the processor with a 16 phase system while the integrated memory controller and memory each get a generous three phases.

ASUS InstAll

Their driver disc is extremely easy to use and contains all you need to get started and to even to keep going. Once you drop the disc in your drive, the window below will popup and then you can use the "ASUS InstAll" button which will automatically install every single driver and software, except Creative's which you need to install separately.

In the likely case that you don't need or want every application installed, you can also choose to install them one by one.

As a side note, all onboard peripherals worked out of the box using Windows 7, while Vista simply required the network driver. However, the Sound Blaster X-Fi driver provides aditional functionality for the supplied SupremeFX audio card.

 

TurboV EVO

This application is similar to the previous one, except that it is designed to run on your local machine. Unfortunately, it's still not the all in one tool I wished for. It doesn't offer any sort of monitoring, so it has to be used in conjunction with other software either from ASUS or third-parties like CPU-Z and RealTemp.

Otherwise, it works well for what it does. Easy Mode is, well, easy, but it goes overboard with voltage so I don't find it to be a wise choice. If you have little experience and just want a quick out of the box overclock, auto tuning is probably your best bet. However, manual mode is my personal favorite as it gives the most control.

Turbo Key is basically on-demand overclocking. It allows you load a selected profile by hitting a customizable combination of buttons.

EPU-6 Engine

Nowadays, it seems like it's all about being green and ASUS is no exception to this rule. This program has built-in profiles to optimize the computer's power efficiency by changing some key settings. It can turn phases off when it detects utilization is low and only turn them back on when it figures it needs more power to achieve a task. This way, the full power delivery system is only working at full throttle when it needs to, ultimately saving some power. There is one caveat though, the processor has to be running at stock settings.

PC Probe II

This is ASUS' main hardware monitoring utility. It covers about every important voltage in the computer, fan speeds and temperatures. It is also possible to trigger alarms when one of them falls below or rises above a custom threshold. From the main window, you can choose which sensor to display or not. Each of those sensors you enable will then appear in a small box, as shown below. They can then be placed exactly as you wish to, the magnet feature will automatically make them stick to eachother so they can easily be located and moved as a group.

Update

It may not be the best looking application, but it's certainly one of the most useful. It allows you to update the BIOS either from a file you downloaded off their website or it can automatically find the board's latest BIOS for you. Then, it will flash it and prompt you to restart. That's all, it just works. I used it three times without any issues whatsoever and needless to say that it's much easier and quicker than updating from a bootable device.

AI Suite

This is the application is an attempt to sort of brings everything together. It works more like a control center to launch every other application, so you still end having to open many different programs to get all the functionality. Hopefully future versions bring those six programs together in a more streamlined manner.

ROG Connect

Not only this feature is unique to ASUS, it is also a really interesting one that is genuinely useful. After installing the software on another computer, enabling it is as simple as the push of a button located on the back of the board. Then, simply plug the supplied USB cable between the Maximus and your other computer, fire up the software and enjoy.

The RC TweakIt application gives nearly BIOS-like control over your hardware right from within your other computer's Windows. The only thing missing is any sort of control over memory speed and timings. Other than that, you can monitor voltages, temperatures and fan speeds, but not overall processor and memory frequency which is a shame. It's also possible to save and load profiles.

Test Setup

To test ASUS' Maximus III Formula, I will be using Intel's Core i7 870 paired with 4GB of memory running at 1600 MHz. The same platform is used for past and upcoming products as well. Turbo Boost will be disabled during testing in order to ensure consistent benchmark results and provide reliable comparisons between the motherboards.

Intel Core i7 "Lynnfield" (Socket LGA1156)

Settings

Here is a CPU-Z screenshot showing all the exact settings that are going to be used in this review.

Comparison setups

Intel Core i7 "Bloomfield" (Socket LGA1366)

AMD Phenom II "Deneb" (Socket AM3)

Benchmarks used

There is be a set of system benchmarks and the other half is gaming oriented. Bioshock requires a custom run since it does not have a benchmarking tool. For this one, Fraps will be used to record the framerates, while for all the other gaming tests, the built-in benchmarking tool will be used. For all of these, the tests will be ran at three different resolutions : 1280x1024, 1680x1050 and 1920x1200.

Overclocking Asus' Maximus III Formula was an awesome experience. The board behaved extremely well and never had issues recovering from over-enthusiastic overclocks. With the processor's multiplier down, I was able to hit an impressive 230 MHz baseclock with full stability. Past that, the system would crash, but it's hard to tell whether it's the board or the processor who just wouldn't go any higher. Whichever is the limiting factor, it does not really matter since 230 MHz is enough to hit 5 GHz on a Core i7 870, which is just not going to happen on air or even water cooling.

Now that I knew the maximum baseclock, I set the processor's multiplier back up to 22x and started clocking it up. I went past the 4 GHz mark with ease and then slowly made my way up to right above 4.3 GHz. Using ROG Connect made that journey painless. While the stress-testing was running on the Maximus, I could tweak settings without having to reboot endlessly.

In the end, I settled for a 196 MHz baseclock which translates into a healthy 4.3 GHz overclock. Spending a little more time tweaking let me drop the processor's core and uncore voltages down to 1.37 and 1.22, respectively.

Going just a few MHz higher than that speed required a lot more voltage on the Core i7 870 showing that it had reached its maximum clock speed.

Settings


Sandra, by SiSoftware, is a tool capable of benchmarking about every component found inside a computer. The processor arithmetic and multi-core efficiency will be ran as well as the memory bandwidth and latency benchmarks.

ASUS's Maximus III Formula is faster than Intel's own P55 board in processor intensive tasks. However, it loses some of its momentum in memory benchmarks where the Intel board comes out ahead.

HandBrake is an open-source application used to transcode media files to other formats. It is multi-threaded so it exploits the power of modern quad-cores really well.

POV-Ray, for Persistence of Vision Raytracer, is a 3D rendering software that has impressive photorealistic capabilities.

The Maximus is very slightly slower in HandBrake compared to the Intel board, but nothing to worry about. It makes up for that loss in POV-Ray where ASUS scores a bit over 100 points higher. Overclocking leads to massive improvements in both benchmarks.

Using WinRAR, I will compress our custom 100MB, 500MB and 1000MB files using the best compression setting in the ZIP format and time how long it take to do so.

Cinebench 10 is another rendering program, also optimized for many-core processors. I will run both the single-threaded benchmark as well as the multi-threaded.

ASUS' top-end Republic of Gamers P55 motherboard once again takes the crown in both WinRAR and Cinebench. Not by much, but a win is a win. Cinebench scales extremely well with the additional clock speed gained in overclocking.

HD Tune is a benchmarking program for hard drives. Beside the drive itself, their speed they can reach heavily depends on the chipset.

PCMark is a benchmarking suite from FutureMark, who also make the reknown 3DMark. It includes many tests to calculate overall system performance like hard drive speed, memory and processor power. It is a fairly good indicative of general real-world performance.

Hard drive performance is fairly consistant across all the motherboards, nothing to report on this end. PCMark constantly gave the Maximus beyond excellent results, but it should be taken with a grain of salt.

Crysis Warhead is a standalone expansion pack of the original Crysis. It uses an enhanced  and optimized version of the CryEngine.

Bioshock is a creepy first person shooter. It is the oldest of the games in our benchmarking suite, hence the high framerates.

Performance in both games is fairly equal at all three resolutions between our different hardware configurations.

Far Cry 2 is yet another first person shooter, but this one has been developed by Ubisoft. The story takes place in Africa, where the ultimate goal is to get rid of an arms dealer.

Left 4 Dead is a first-person shooter developed by Valve. It uses the Source Engine. Four survivors must fight against infected people in order to reach a safe area.

Once more, our testing platforms all score pretty close to eachother, although the AMD system does pull ahead in Far Cry 2. Even then, the few frames differential won't make or break your gaming experience.

The Maximus III Formula is an excellent motherboard out of Asus' Republic of Gamers lineup; it includes all of the features you expect a board of this caliber and then some.

The motherboard's layout is very good, nearly everything is right where you want it to be. The white and red SATA ports controlled by the JMicron chips would have been easier to access if they had been angled on the edge of the board like the six others, although it's far from a deal breaker.

On the brighter side, the start, reset and clear CMOS buttons are really handy, while the eight fan connectors scattered all over the place make it easy to find the perfect spot for each and every fan you wish to install. Capable of handling up to 84W of power, the connectors will be more than enough for the vast majority of users.

The amount and quality of bundled accessories is, as expected, excellent for motherboard of this price. It comes with all the cables you will need to get and keep going. The SupremeFX X-Fi audio card is also a nice touch, superior to the usual on board sound found on most other competing boards.

Asus has also introduced a very nifty and unique feature, ROG Connect. It enables you to overclock remotely and without having to go back and forth between the BIOS and Windows, which is incredibly useful when aiming for the highest clock. Other than that, Asus' software suite is complete and works as advertised. However, it is a bit of a mess since you have to install many applications to get all the functionality. An all-in-one package to bring everything together would ensure a much smoother experience.

In our benchmarks, it performed very well even though it did not blow away the Intel DP55KG board. Now that the memory and PCI-Express controllers are embedded onto the processor's die, there are very little performance improvements motherboard manufacturers can introduce.

When it comes to overclocking, this Asus motherboard is about as good as it gets. On a standard air cooled heatsink, it reached a rather impressive 230 MHz base clock. This is actually higher than what many X58 boards were able to hit. Using the Core i7 870, I was able to clock it a hair over 4.3 GHz, which is 300 MHz higher than the Intel DP55KG could hit in my testing.

Overall, this new Republic of Gamers P55 motherboard from ASUS is certainly among the best there is on the market right now. They have unleashed yet another solid board geared toward the most demanding enthusiasts. Whether you need Crossfire, SLI or even a physics card, this board as all the slots you will need. While it is certainly not the most affordable P55 motherboard, it is without a doubt worth every penny.

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