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ASRock Z170 OC Formula Review

Ever since ASRock’s Z77 OC Formula debuted, the series has been winning the hearts and minds of overclockers with their OC centric features, easy overclocking for the beginner & excellent efficiency in the hands of top overclockers. Lets see if the Z170 OC Formula can live up to the lofty reputation of it’s predecessors.

 

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Introduction & Overview

The OC motherboard market has gone through some cyclical changes over the years. In the early days, the casual enthusiasts enjoyed overclocking their cheap chips and got some free performance and extra FPS in games. Sometimes the cheapest motherboards and CPUs could be made to outperform the highest end solutions. Moving on a few years, manufacturers clued onto this and began to introduce motherboards with sophisticated PWM systems and every feature included. Think Asus’ Rampage Extreme or MSI’s Xpower. Intel also locked down overclocking so true overclocking was restricted to high end models with unlocked multipliers. Whilst we aren’t back to the old days of where we could get 50% or more performance from our entry level CPUs, as overclockers we are in a much better position than has been the case in the past. CPU’s like the unlocked Pentium G3258, AMD ‘K’ APUs now compliment the unlocked ‘K’ models we’ve been seeing since the Sandy Bridge days. Will Intel feel charitable and release something like an unlocked i3? Perhaps another dual core Pentium? What about the future with Kaby Lake? It seems possible that a top quality Z170 motherboard might have a long life cycle.

Having seen what the OC Formula series is capable of, we were very excited to receive the ASRock Z170 OC Formula. As moonlighting overclockers, this is a board we really got excited about. It is one if the few compelling options for those who love to tweak, all the way from the casual free performance seeker to water cooling users with multiple graphics cards to those pushing for world records on liquid nitrogen cooling.

At the recent Intel Developer Forum in San Francisco, we saw the Z170 OC Formula smashing world records. Across global OC forums, we can already see the best memory tweakers showing just what this board is capable of, particularly on the memory side where the board holds many world records. Whilst much of this is down to very good binned hardware, it does show that the board is very capable at the pointy end of extreme overclocking, and shows a very high standard of efficiency and hardiness is there for those using air and water cooling, or ln2 on the CPU and memory.

Before we get into the guts of the review, let’s start with an overview of the platform.

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The most obvious difference is the the addition of DDR4 memory support and the new socket 1151 to accommodate the new Skylake CPUs. Luckily the hole dimensions are the same, so older heatsinks, even those from the older 1156 platform will be fine. Other new features include the link from the CPU to the PCH being upgraded from DMI 2.0 to 3.0 meaning 20 PCIe 3.0 lanes for auxiliary controllers (such as USB 3.1, thunderbolt or SATA controllers) can be connected to the chipset. In the case of the ASRock Z170 OC Formula, this means we have no less than three M.2 slots each supporting up to 32GB/s of bandwidth.
For a full (very long) list of specifications, please visit the ASRock site here
The key specs include Intel I219V Gigabit Ethernet, 2x SLI and 4x CrossfireX support, a Mini PCIe port for things like a Wifi card, Triple PCIe x4 M.2 slots and ALC 1150 audio with the usual extra goodies including Nichicon caps, 115Db SNR DAC, Texas Instruments headphone amplifier with 600Ohm headset support and PCB isolation.

Unboxing

The ASRock Z170 OC Formula comes in an nice looking box. No unicorns or eyeball cooking marketing overload here.The board comes in an anti static bag in a foam shell.

 

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Being an OC focused board, we don’t have too many unnecessary extras like games or WiFi antennas etc. Overclockers won’t have much to complain about here.

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Here we have the board itself. ASRock have stuck with their trademark yellow and black theme they have featured on all OC Formula boards to date.. In a market full of red and black, this board looks really nice in our opinion. It would certainly match well with a MSI Lightning graphics card. There is little to complain about with the layout.

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Here we see the memory slot area. We also see a pair of USB 3.0 headers and a regular USB 3.0 type-A port. This port should come in very useful as benchers often disable the network controller and install extra bits of software or drivers or save screenshots to USB. The voltage read points and adjacent LED status indicator are also seen on the right.

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There are no less than three Ultra M.2 slots which each run at 4x PCI-E 3.0 The 16x PCIe slots are wired to run as follows:  16x/0x/0x/0x, 8x/0x/8x/0x, or 8x/4x/8x/0x and finally 8x/4x/4x/4x. Nvidia do not allow SLI with 4x slots, so this configuration means more than 3 and 4 way SLI is not possible, but 4-way CrossFireX is. The mini PCIe port is just above the top most 16x slot.

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One look at the bottom right corner of the board and you know this is a board built for overclocking. Many high end boards have power, reset & CMOS clear buttons or a post code display or voltage read points. That’s just the start. There are switches allowing you to disable each of the PCI-E 16x slots. This is useful for diagnosing issues in multi GPU systems. The Rapid OC allows you to change bclk, voltages and the multipliers, There are two BIOS chips that can be switched . There is a slow mode switch, an XMP switch for enabling XMP without entering the bios, an LN2 mode switch for sub zero and a button to get you directly into the bios, and, and …did you get all that?

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There are three SATA express ports, which are pretty meaningless given the lack of devices on the market, but all manufacturers have them, and they can be used as regular SATA ports meaning up to ten SATA devices can be used. There are some inevitable bandwidth allocation factors to consider however, as when the M.2 devices are used, they disable one of the SATA Express slots (or two SATA ports) Though we think three M.2 and four SATA or two M.2 and six SATA for example is more than enough for the intended users of this board.

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The Skylake platform means the end of the Fully Integrated Voltage Regulator, so manufacturers have taken the opportunity to build new PWM systems from scratch using the latest components. ASRock have implemented a very beefy PWM system knowing that this board is likely to be pushed hard with 2.0v plus to the CPU over long bench sessions. The key controller is a International Rectifier IR 35201 along with 60A inductors,  tantalum capacitors and so called NexFET mosfet design. Suffice to say, if you want to bench the cpu killing XTU with 2.2v, you can do so all day every day, or until your golden 6700K goes up in smoke.

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The rear IO panel features a PS/2 KB/Mouse and dual USB 2.0 ports, CMOS clear button, HDMI & DisplayPort,  USB 3.1 Type-A & Type-C ports, 4x USB 3.0 ports, Ethernet port, and finally analogue and TOSLINK ports.

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BIOS

Let’s move on to a walkthrough of the BIOS.

Below is the main page seen when entering the BIOS. The basic CPU and memory information is shown here.

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Moving one tab to the right brings us to the OC Tweaker page. This, as the name suggests is where the overclocking options are contained. There are a wealth of options and sub menus, thankfully they are quite logically laid out for the beginner overclocker.

Firstly, Nickshih’s profiles are aimed at the extreme OC crowd and  provide a very good starting point for many of the most popular benchmarks. There are 8 profiles from 5.6Ghz all the way up to 6.5Ghz, which only the best CPU’s are likely to need. The menu below, the ‘optimized OC setting’ are for the air and water coolers and contain profiles for 4.4Ghz up to 4.8Ghz.

We tried the 4.8 Ghz profile and were able to get straight into Windows and run a fairly demanding benchmark like the 3DMark Vantage CPU test, albeit with more CPU voltage than our sample requires. It’s nice to see very aggressive options in the BIOS for those who don’t have the knowledge to tweak themselves.

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This page below is the CPU configuration page. The key BCLK, and CPU and uncore multiplier controls are found here as well as  Turbo and Speedstep controls and other advanced controls.

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Here we have the DRAM configuration page. Overclockers know that a weak memory overclocking board means it’s a weak board. It’s clear ARock have placed significant time, research and resources into the settings on this page, along with memory tuning capabilities and efficiency in general. Everything from XMP (which worked with our G.Skill 3000C15 kit effortlessly) to page after page of subtimings. Have a look below, we don’t have just tertiary timings, ASRock have added a ‘fourth timings’ and then an advanced list beyond that. You can see by the scale of the yellow bar at the right of the menu that the OC formula has more memory tweaking options than any other board, perhaps ever.

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The advanced tab is where most of the board and CPU configuration options can be found along with options for the multitude of auxiliary controllers.

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The tools tab contains many useful and interesting features. There’s ASRock’s OMG feature which is like a parental internet control feature while the dehumidifier function powers up the PC periodically to keep the motherboard at or just above ambient temperature to prevent any moisture buildup. The BIOS flash function is also found here.

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An extra couple of those feature pages can be seen below. The first is the ‘system browser’; a graphical representation of the board. Hovering the mouse over a port tells you what is connected to it. The second interesting feature is a tech service page built right into the BIOS, where a user can contact ASRock tech support complete with attachments. Nice service there ASRock.

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As we move further to the right of the available tabs, we come to the HW Monitor page where a whole load of temperatures and voltage readouts are shown. The fan controls and monitoring is also found here, aptly named FAN-tastic.

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Next is the security page for setting passwords.

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The boot page is pretty self explanatory.

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The last tab is the exit tab.

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Software

ASRock includes a simple and unobtrusive suite of software with all their motherboards.  We are grateful that they have not gone down the path of some other manufacturers and offered garish eyeball burning apps that look like they were designed by a schizophrenic LSD addict.

It’s easy to check for updates to a range of different apps and drivers easily from within this one program. Here we show the BIOS and Drivers tab. The Apps tab is something that could really add value to ASRock boards if they were able to add some killer apps here. While we don’t see this feature rivaling the Apple or Google stores anytime soon, perhaps there could be some expansion of what is available. Perhaps adding options for Steam or Skype, Line, Irfanview etc. Though we concede this is probably easier said than done due to commercial considerations. It would make a new system installation easier than having to navigate to a bunch of different sites for the most common PC apps though.

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Next we move onto the Formula Drive. This is ASRock’s Windows based configuration tool, offering all sorts of OC options, monitoring and fan control. Again we like the professional and subtle design of the app. AS we saw in the BIOS, ASRock have implemented a tech support page here too, where the user can get in touch with tech support directly.  It’s a nice peace of mind feature and a clear indication that ASRock is placing strong emphasis on customer service.

We messed around a little with the voltage and multipliers and found they work as advertised.

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The Rapid OC Configurator is a feature essential to any 3D overclocker. With modern benchmarks placing different loads at different stages of the benchmark, the best scores must be able to adjust frequencies on the fly. Take a benchmark like 3DMark Vantage. Its possible to run the CPU at a higher frequency during the game tests vs the CPU test. This simple ‘tweak’ can dramatically affect the end score.

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ASRock have long been praised for their Timing Configurator tool, which is another essential piece of software in low clock challenges. OC Formula boards are often seen at the top of these lists thanks to very well implemented memory tweaking abilities.

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ASRock also have a custom skin for the omnipresent CPU-Z tool which is essential for every overclocker.

Test Systems

For comparisons, we benchmarked a 4770K/Z97 System, a 5960X/X99 and a 3770K/Z77 system. We set all CPU’s to run at a flat speed of 4Ghz. This takes any fluctuating turbo or speedstep modes out of the equation and allows a better clock for clock comparison. Other than the hardware in the following list, all hardware and software was identical, including the driver versions. Note that benchmarking DDR3 and DDR4 systems presents a bit of a headache as far as apples to apples comparison goes, so for the DDR3 systems we settled on 2133Mhz  9-11-10 which represents a good fast system without being a bottleneck or an overclock that’s too unrealistic. The DDR4 was run at its rated speed of 3000Mhz at 15-15-15-35.

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Benchmarks

Metro Last Light is a post apocalyptic first person shooter created by 4A Games. It was released in May 2013. It presents a very stern test of even the highest end GPU’s with its advanced DX11 features. We test with every graphical option at its highest setting, with the exception of Super Sample AA. With SSAA enabled, the performance hit is severe. As expected in a graphically demanding GPU limited game, all the systems score pretty the same.

 

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3DMark 06? Why use that ancient piece of software? Actually it functions as more of a CPU test these days so it is useful for comparing different platforms. The 5960X gets its nose ahead by virtue of its superior CPU score, but the 6700K and OC Formula are well ahead in the graphics tests.

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Company of Heroes 2 is a World War II themed real time strategy game created by Relic Games. Modern RTS games usually respond well to increases in CPU performance, though as we see, it is a great stress tester of GPUs as well. Relic claim that the in game benchmark is designed to be a worse case scenario, meaning that your actual in game performance is going to be better than what you see in the benchmark itself. We set every option to its maximum setting. While not a massive win for the 6700K over the 4770K, its clear that RTS games, even with maximum eye candy can make use of the extra CPU power.

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Tomb Raider is an action adventure game developed by Crystal Dynamics. It remains a difficult game to run with the TressFX enabled. We ran with the ultimate preset and TressFX enabled. All the systems are more or less equal here as we are yet to hit a CPU bottleneck at 1080P in this game.

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SuperPi 32m is a strange one in that the expected IPC improvement over Haswell does not manifest itself in testing 32m. Though in reality it is an ancient benchmark relying in instructions since deemed obsolete. Perhaps some optimized bios or super memory IC may come in the future to get the 32m overclockers really excited.

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Here we see the 6700K system well ahead of the 4770K. The 5960X is miles ahead thanks to it having double the cores.

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It’s a similar story with the popular Intel XTU benchmark, though the 6700K really shines here thanks to its multithreaded prowess. It’s over 20% faster than the 4770K.

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Cinebench is somewhat similar. These two heavily threaded benchmarks are very popular among Skylake overclockers with the Z70 OC Formula showing fantastic scores from some of the worlds best overclockers.

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7Zip is a winrar and winzip alternative and strongly relies on memory bandwidth and core count.

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In these platform comparison benchmarks, we see the 6700K and ASRock Z170 OC Formula doing what we’d expect over Haswell. The days of revolutionary performance jumps are gone (perhaps until AMD is competitive!) It is clear that Skylake and Z170 is a compelling platform that in many cases can beat the much more expensive X99 platform, especially in gaming and single or lightly threaded applications.

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The Z170 OC Formula, being an overclocking board, does show good behavior when recovering from a failed OC. In our case, pushing memory too hard resulted in the dreaded 55 post code, but a power off and restart took us straight back to the failed OC BIOS warning, where from there you can make adjustments. There is nothing more frustrating than repeated on/off power cycling followed by a CMOS clear, so we are very pleased to see ASRock get this right.

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For stability testing, we have our CPU dialed in at 4.8Ghz with 1.38v and the cache at 4.2Ghz with just a slight bump to VCCSA and VCCIO voltages. The Z170 OC Formula settled on this at the first try. We use HyperPi because it is a quick, simple test of the memory and cache subsystems. We’ve found other programs a touch better at catching pure CPU stability though.

5ghz was easy for a quick screen grab, though as always, your mileage may vary and overclocking is a function of cooling and individual samples. Its great to know that the OC Formula will laugh at your attempts to challenge it on air cooling. This is a board designed to take the punishment of ln2 cooling. We’ve seen some crazy results from well know overclockers such as Splave and Nickshih himself with this board holding many Skylake world records.

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We had a bit of a play with the LLC levels which are listed from levels 1 to 5. Level 1 was a bit too aggressive, shooting over 1.4v from our 1.38v setting in the BIOS. We’d only use that for sunbzero and benching sessions. Level 2 resulted in 1.392v which is what we used for our 4.8Ghz test above. With more testing time, we’d expect level 3 to be about bang on what you set in the BIOS while under load, with levels 4 and 5 being close to the Intel design, with vdrop to allow for transient overshoots.

Our G.Skill 3000Mhz kit is a first generation quad channel kit, not developed on the Z170 platform. We were still able to have a tweak though, and after a few successful and unsuccessful attempts, we gave on the the presets a try resulting in a more than decent 3000Mhz C12 with tightened sub timings. We’ve seen what the Z170 optimized IC’s can do on this board and can’t wait to try ourselves.

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Overall, overclocking was a real joy on this board, Everything seemed to work without issue. Obviously ASRock have been hard at work making sure the BIOS is really polished and believe us, it shows. Strong memory overclocking makes a strong overclocking board in general. Nailed it.

Conclusion

As moonlighting overclockers, we really have a soft spot for OC themed boards and have developed a kind of understanding about what makes a good board or more importantly, how a good board should feel. Some boards really have stood out to us in the recent past, for example the Asus Rampage IV Extreme (X79) and Gigabyte X99 SOC Champion. We think we can include the Z170 OC Formula alongside those boards. Everything just works the way it is supposed to, and when it didn’t clearly we were pushing the CPU or memory too hard. Recovery from a failed OC is excellent. We never once had to reset the BIOS. The OC profiles are excellent, the memory presets suited our kits. The whole OC experience just felt polished and refined. At no stage did we ever feel like we were fighting the board. This is one of the truest indicators of a quality motherboard.

While we have yet to test upcoming flagship boards like the Maximus VIII Extreme or Gigabyte SOC. We know those boards are really going to be something special for us to favor them over the OC Formula.

If we had a criticism (and its not even really a criticism) its that the board is loaded with features, many of which a competitive ocer will never use. We understand that ASRock has to cater for the very large casual ocer market too. Perhaps there is scope for a Formula Lite or something. Nevertheless, the board is truly loaded and will make a gamer very happy with a plethora of storage options, one or two GPUs and a rock solid overclock of 4.5 Ghz and well above.

The ASrock Formula series continues to go from strength to strength. We have no hesitation in recommending it to any user wishing to overclock their new Skylake system. This is one of the easier Editors Choice awards we’ve ever given out. Well done ASRock.

The ASRock Z170 OC Formula is currently selling for #252.99 on Newegg

 

Pro’s

Feels very refined

Polished software bundle

Plethora of storage options

Excellent range of OC profiles for the newbie to the expert

Great recovery from a failed OC

Good looks

Loaded with features – as long as you can make use of them.

A tweakers delight

 

Con’s

A bit too feature rich from a benching POV

 

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