Right from the very first glance you get the impression that ASUS has done something different in the form of the Maximus IX Apex. As part of the Republic Of Gamers range, the Apex is expected to be a feature filled motherboard, but rarely do we see a motherboard that’s as innovative and unusual as this one.
The ASUS Maximus IX Apex is one of the most exciting motherboards we’ve seen in a long time. The Apex draws on many of the signature ROG elements with a heavy focus on overclocking, cooling, modding and innovative features, some of which are truly eye catching.
The most obvious thing that jumps out is the PCB shape, which somewhat resembles a X, but it doesn’t stop there with a very unusual DIMM slot designed to accept M.2 drives on an add-in card. Then there’s the twin DDR4 memory slots which differs from most motherboards which have four. Check out the massive array of headers, switches and buttons which is typical of a high end ROG board, but this is on another level.
The Apex is geared as ‘one board to rule them all’ Obviously extreme overclockers will be right at home here with the fully featured BIOS and ln2 centric features, but there’s also plenty of options for water coolers with no less than 10(!) fan headers including dedicated pump headers and full speed options. Modders are also catered to with a full RGB lighting setup, customizable face plate and a neutral color scheme designed to fit a wide range of themed systems. All these markets and we didn’t even mention the gaming market. This is a ROG motherboard so gaming is a part of its DNA too.
A quick Z270 & Kaby Lake overview
Firstly, lets take a look at an overview of the Z270 platform. There are really only two improvements found with Z270 over Z170. The first of which is an extra 4 PCIe 3.0 lanes coming from the chipset itself. Z170 motherboards often had quite messy scenarios where if you used x M.2 slot, then y SATA port would become unavailable, or z PCIe slot would not function. The extra 4 lanes go a long way to alleviating these issues, allowing more devices to function without compromise. There are limits however, with some motherboards equipped with up to 3x M.2 slots or U.2 ports all requiring PCIe lanes, so careful attention will need to be paid to the individual motherboards’ specification and lane allocation to ensure it fits your desired needs, especially with multi GPU setups.
The other significant new feature is support for Intel’s Optane technology. The ultimate market implementations of Optane are still to be made known at this point, with unexciting small cache type devices being the the first to market. The technology does have potential, especially if the outrageous performance gains seen in the public teasers hold true.
Overall, there really is no need to select a Z170 board over a Z270 board if you are buying new, but on the flip side there is little need to upgrade to Z270 from Z170 unless you require an updated storage feature set. Z270 brings the latest motherboard options right up to date, with M.2, U.2 and some things like updated Realtek ALC 1220 audio.
While were talking platform comparisons, lets talk a little about Skylake vs Kaby Lake. The most notable improvement for Kaby Lake over Skylake lies with the improved 14nm+ FinFET process. This has allowed Intel to obtain higher clock frequencies without increasing power. Compared to the 6700K, the 7700K brings a gain of 200MHz on the base clock and an impressive 300MHz max turbo frequency whilst keeping the TDP at the same 91W. It’s clear that the 14nm+ process is a very good thing. For Intel to deliver the clock speed improvements with the 7700K whilst maintaining the 91w TDP is significant given the gradual TDP increases we’ve seen from previous generations. These benefits don’t just apply to the top chip. Kaby Lake replacement CPUs bring a clock speed bumps across the range whilst keeping the power usage at the same level.
With a clock speed improvement getting most of the attention, there is a significant architectural change found in Kaby Lake; The addition of a new media engine that includes fixed function HEVC 10bit and VP9 decoding. In this era of 4K and the increasing prevalence of H.265 encoded media, along with Google’s choice of VP9 for YouTube, this is significant for something like a small form factor HTPC, lowering CPU usage and improving power efficiency. Notebooks too will see battery life benefits from this.
Unboxing & Overview
Back to the main event, The ASUS Maximus IX Apex! The list of specifications is extensive. Far too many to reproduce here.
The box is a very solid with a great design. The board itself is kept secure in its own chamber, with the accessories in another. The attention to detail of the box is notable. We like how ROG’s branding tends to maintain a bit of subtlety over some brands’ tendency to go a bit over the top with their branding.
As you’d expect, the rear of the box shows off the boards’ features and key specs so the consumer knows what they are getting before they buy.
We have quite a significant bundle. Usually we can fit this into one picture, but the bundle with the Apex needs two pictures! Firstly we see a large sheet of ROG stickers, the users manual, driver and utility disk, a nicely made drink coaster, a cable mod discount card and finally some cable labels.
Moving onto the accessories, we have the standard four SATA cables, I/O plate, M.2 screws and a Q connector for easy connection of the case connectors.
Then we have some of the cooler things. including a High Bandwidth SLI bridge which is worth more than a few pennies on its own. Theres a CPU insertion tool for the butterfingers among us, RGB extension cable, a customizable plate which can be placed over one of the RBG lights for a unique touch and finally the DIMM.2 daughter-board which is used for adding M.2 drives to the unique memory slot.
Perhaps you might have noticed the additional ‘memory slot’ next to the two main slots? ASUS calls this the DIMM.2 slot. It is actually a DDR3 slot, but with a difference. It is designed to accept a riser board (seen below). You can install one M.2 SSD on each side M.2 SSD. At first you may think this concept is slightly gimmicky, and maybe it is, but the truth is some of today’s high speed M.2 drives can get very hot, especially if they are sandwiched under hot graphics cards where they can get very little airflow. This can lead to throttling, lower performance and possible reduced lifetime.
We’ve seen MSI introduce a cooling shield to address this problem, but ASUS have gone a couple of steps further and put a major engineering effort to place M.2 drives adjacent to any CPU or memory cooling, keep them away from hot components and have them running on a very fast interface. Innovative indeed!
Now we move onto the board itself. We mentioned several of the key standout features in the introduction, including the ‘X’ shaped PCB, dual memory slots and massive numbers of headers and switches. The board uses the Extended ATX Form Factor at 12 inch x 10.7 inch ( 30.5 cm x 27.2 cm ). This means it will not fit in many compact cases. Do note this.
The PCB really does look cool. There’s nothing like it on the market really. The heatsink design looks great, ASUS mentions they used a military plane as the inspiration for the design. The gun metal grey heatsinks look subtle and neutral, as we’d expect to see on a fully RGB featured motherboard. We’re glad that motherboard manufacturers are slowly moving to neutral color schemes for choosing your own RGB themes. ASUS includes a set of customizable plates that can be placed on the board instead of the ROG one, so you can add your own personal touch to the motherboard.
There are a total of 10(!) fan headers. Seven of these are PWM controllable and another 3 are full speed options. If you want to get rid of ln2 vapor, these are what you would use. There’s also dedicated water pump headers providing extra power. Perdect for everything from a small all in one to a full custom loop. (which would look pretty sexy on this board!)
Where do we start with this section of the board?! In addition to a top quality 8+2 phase VRM configuration, the Apex has the kitchen sink, plus more OC features, buttons, headers and bells and whistles than you thought possible. Firstly, there are the obvious ones, like get the power and reset buttons, voltage read points, and POST display.
Then we get to some of the cool ones. There are switches for disabling the each of the PCI-E slots and RAM slots, then there are switches for LN2 mode, cold boot bug, and a pause switch, which is really cool and does exactly that, pauses the whole system. There’s also a ReTry button which tries previously good CMOS settings, and a safe boot button, which defaults to a known good profile for a safe and sure boot. There’s also a RGB header, condensation detection LED’s and a basic POST set of LED’s.. whew!
The PCIe layout is pretty standard for a high end multi GPU capable board. There is no bridge chip, so you’re looking at 8x/8x for dual GPU.
Like most of the decent Z270 motherboards, audio has been upgraded to the Realtek ALC1220 codec. While onboard audio will never match DACs costing hundreds of $$ or more, it has come a long way. We now have a 120dB SNR output, which is a lot better than some of the low end stuff that’s been around for years. Since this is an OC focused board, the implementation isn’t as crazy as you’ll see on some boards. ASUS has added Nichicon Gold capacitors and PCB isolation to improve audio quality.
On this part of the board, we see only four SATA6Gb/s ports, a single USB 3.0 internal header, and a MOLEX plug that is designed to provide additional power to the PCIe slots when using multiple GPU’s. Why only four SATA? if we had to nitpick, we’d like to see 6, but don’t forget there are options for two M.2 drives. If you must have more SATA you’ll need to look elsewhere.
Lastly, lets take a look at the rear I/O of the board. On the left we have BIOS Flashback and clear CMOS buttons, PS/2 keyboard and mouse ports, DisplayPort & HDMI ports, then six USB 3.0 ports, USB 3.1 type-A & USB 3.1 type-C, Intel LAN and finally the analogue audio ports and S/PDIF optical output.
Why two PS/2 ports on a 2017 motherboard? Actually, overclockers prefer these ports as they use less CPU overhead compared to USB, which polls the CPU. With PS/2, overclockers can disable the USB entirely, improving benchmark efficiency that tiny little bit.. every bit counts.
The single network controller is a Intel i219V. They have added what appears to be an additional ESD protection controller of some sort. Good to know if you live in an area with frequent storms.
Upon entering the Maximus IX Apex UEFI for the first time, we go straight to the default ‘EZ Mode’ which shows the most commonly accessed settings and basic information. We have XMP profiles, boot device selection and fan speed controls.
Pressing F7 takes the user to the default page of the main BIOS, called ‘My Favorites’. Here you can add the settings you frequently access rather than have to navigate to them in the different sub menu’s all the time. A memory tweaker might add the DRAM timings menu here for example.
Moving over to the next menu brings us the ‘Main’ page Here is where you can see basic system information.
Here we have the ‘Extreme Tweaker’ menu. There are a massive amount of overclocking settings to be found here. Pretty much every feasible OC setting relating to the CPU, memory, voltages, features. It’s all found here.
There is a sub menu called ‘Tweaker’s Paradise’ where you can find further esoteric settings.
Asus’ ROG motherboards have always been overclockers favorites, and several overclockers have provided profiles that the end user can try out. There’s also profiles for various DRAM speeds and types. For example, the 4000Mhz memory setting results in 15-15-15-36 at 1.5V which we’re happy to to say, our memory was able to do.
Further memory presets are available for different common memory IC’s. Hynix, Samsung & Micron all have presets to try. The Apex is full of memory subtiming settings. To get an idea, have a look at the scale represented by the page slider towards the right. There are dozens and dozens of timings available, something that overclockers will love.
Moving away from the Extreme Tweaker page, we come to the ‘Advanced’ page. Most of these settings relate to the onboard devices and peripherals. including the USB, storage, networking and a whole lot more.
The ‘Monitor’ tab is where you will find real time reporting of voltages, temperatures and fan speeds. Quite a lot of these can be configured, for example, a warning when a temperature goes above a desired level, The boards’ extensive watercooling options can be set here along with the QFan control which sets your fan speed and temperature targets.
The ‘Boot’ tab is fairly self explanatory. The boot order, overrides and startup settings are found here.
Next up is the ‘Tools’ tab. Here you can set OC profiles and update the UEFI. Note that the graphics card information selection only shows the information of ASUS graphics cards.
Finally there is the ‘Exit’ menu.
Overall, ASUS continues to provide an intuitive and well laid out UEFI that will appeal to the average user all the way to ln2 overclockers. ASUS hasn’t really changed their layout for a few generations, so users of ASUS boards will feel right at home.
ASUS’ software, and in particular the ROG software is one of the strong additions to the overall product. There is a vast range of software available with many apps dedicated to overclocking, monitoring, utilities and extras.
The core utility is the Asus AI suite. Here you can control just about every UEFI setting that is possible to control from within Windows. As we see here, the TPU settings allow for CPU and cache OC and voltage control
There’s total fan control with presets available or temperature hysteresis.
Next up is the AURA software that controls the RGB lighting of the motherboard. It seems every high end motherboard has RGB lighting these days, and so the control software is of vital importance. For the most part the software works well, but we did have the odd strange experience where applying a color didn’t work the way it should, but trying again made it work. Perhaps there are a few niggles to work out. With the Aura software, you can control other company’s RGB solutions, such as cases, RGB strips and even keyboards and mice.
One of the things we really liked was the option to link the RGB lighting to the motherboards temperatures. Green for cool and red for hot. Simple, but effective!
The apps are really just scratching the surface. ASUS also offers apps for cloud storage, a ROG skinned CPUZ, ROG Connect for controlling settings via a laptop, a RAMdisk app, a drive clone utility, fast charge app and even a windows system cleaning app.
Test Setup & Benchmarks
Our test setup configuration can be seen below. Comparing different CPU’s and platforms can get a bit tricky. Our method is to apply the highest turbo modes, set them to all cores and disable SpeedStep to keep frequencies constant. In this case the 7700K is at a flat 4.5Ghz, the i7 6700K at 4.2Ghz and the i7 5960x at 3.5Ghz. All compatible parts are identical between systems, except the X99/5960X system which is running 4x8Gb of DDR4 at 2666Mhz 15-15-15-35 2T.
We expect every benchmark run with a 7700K to be within a fraction of each other and this is what we see across our tests. The 7700K is king in single threaded performance, with the 6700K behind only due to its lower clock speed. There are no architectural reasons. the 5960x rules multithreaded benchmarks with its eight cores despite its clock disadvantage. Note that the MSI board clocks itself a few Mhz higher via a tiny bclk increase, which is a little cheeky. Despite this few Mhz clock disadvantage, the Apex shows itself to be very capable and is bang on leading the Z70 motherboards, or very close to it.
Oh yeah, how does the DIMM.2 design work? The Samsung 960 Pro M.2 drive is the fastest SSD you can buy and it shows.
ROG motherboards are especially known for their overclocking prowess. The Apex, as a very much OC themed motherboard sits at the top of the stack, so obviously our expectations were very high. We were not disappointed.
The Maximus IX Apex, with its dual slot design, is aimed at providing the simplest and cleanest signalling possible. By keeping the memory slots as close as possible to the socket, the trace lengths are minimized, and of course there are only half as many traces compared to a four slot board. This means the Apex, similar to what we’ve seen with other dual slot boards such as the ITX Maximus Impact series, should have best in class memory overclocking capability.
Special thanks to G.Skill for providing one of their amazing high speed kits. Prior to testing the Maximus IX Apex, we were not able to hit DDR4-4000 on any motherboard, but with the Apex, the kit of G.Skill Trident X 3866-18-19-19 was able to truly fly. DDR4-4000 12-12-12-28 1T. Thank you very much! Let’s just say this is probably the best memory overclocking motherboard we’ve ever tested. Memory OC abilities are a true separator of the wheat from the chaff.
Of course this is not a setting you’d run 24/7. It’s strictly benchmarking only. Due to the many built n memory OC profiles, you don’t need to be an elite overclocker to hit these kinds of numbers.
Benchmarking above 5Ghz is certainly possible if your CPU is good enough and thermals allow it. As always, your mileage will vary depending on your CPU core quality, memory controller quality and ambient temperatures. If you have a good sample, we are positive the Apex will run it to its maximum on air and water cooling. You will run into thermal limitations long before the board even breaks a sweat.
Our CPU hits a bit of a voltage wall at 5.2Ghz under a triple fan AiO watercooler. Beyond this, diminishing returns set in and it is difficult to run multithreaded benchmarks without temps really spiking. 5.2Ghz with DDR4-4000 is pretty cool though! If your CPU is capable, The Maximus IX Apex will deliver 5Ghz+ 24/7 and be a walk in the park if your cooling is good enough.
The ASUS Maximus IX Apex is one of the few truly innovative motherboards we’ve seen in some time. It is the current motherboard of choice for overclocking Kaby Lake CPU’s and pushing DDR4 memory to the limits. It’s not exactly cheap, and its missing some otherwise typical high end features, but this board is anything but typical. If you want the best performing Z270 motherboard, here it is. We love it. At around $559 SGD it isn’t cheap, but we think its acceptable and there are boards that are quite a bit more.
That doesn’t mean its limited to extreme overclockers. The array of watercooling headers and features will appeal to all types of overclockers. If we had to nitpick, we’d say its lacking some of the ‘regular’ features that a high end motherboard might otherwise have, The audio could be beefed up a bit, we could use some extra SATA ports, but that’s what the other ROG boards are for, so we don’t view this as a negative. OC has always been a part of ROG DNA, and we’re thrilled to see ASUS has not abandoned this part of the market in favor of top to bottom ‘gaming’ boards.
Some folks may complain at the limitation of dual slots, however, those who understand how high end memory works will be thankful for this. As DDR4 memory speeds get ever higher, it becomes apparent that quad slot motherboards are simply not able to match their dual slot brethren. The best DDR4 memory OC motherboards (and those you see the most on QVL lists of high end memory kits) are dual slot boards. Think ASRock Z170M OC Formula, Asus Maximus XIII Impact and now the Maximus IX Apex. If you are thinking of buying some very fast DDR4-4000+ memory, you’ll likely need a dual slot board.
It seems like RGB and more RGB has become a meme among the PC enthusiast crowd, and while the Apex is not immune to this trend, it does offer some very attractive features for the modders. Consider the X shaped PCB or the subtle but stylish heatsinks, dual RGB LED headers, the customizable nameplates, and the surround glow of the RGB’s around the back of the PCB. Chuck in the class leading water cooling features and how awesome the Apex looks on display and its clear we have a board that modders should have a lot of affection for.
The bottom line: We’ve found our new Z270 reference motherboard.
Probably the best DDR4 overclocking motherboard available
OC ability with wide range of functional presets
RGB setup looks cool. One for the modders
DIMM.2 works well
Tons of fan headers and watercooling options
Top shelf build quality – designed to be punished
Consider the Maximus IX Formula if you want more SATA, memory or super audio etc