The capabilities of ITX motherboards have progressed at an exponential rate and easily provides the overclocking prowess, connectivity and stability required without making too many concessions compared to their ATX counterparts. Furthermore, the huge popularity of small form-factor LAN cases like the BitFenix Prodigy have made ITX systems a more viable proposition. However. feature-laden ITX motherboards traditionally incur a significant price increase as consumers pay for the convenience of more compact PCB designs.
ASUS has bucked this market trend and launched the aesthetically pleasing Z170i PRO GAMING motherboard around the £130 mark. This is an alluring price, given the SupremeFX audio, excellent software package and intuitive UEFI BIOS. Additionally, the 1151 chipset allows for large frequency overclocks and massive DDR4 memory speeds. When the single PCIe x16 slot is populated with a premium graphics card, you should be able to create a stunning portable gaming system which ekes out every inch of performance. Size isn’t a contributing factor during synthetic benchmarks and I expect the Z170I PRO GAMING to be quite competitive when compared against its ATX-based larger brother.
Packing and Accessories
The Z170I PRO GAMING packaging coincides with a World of Warships promotion and includes an exclusive invite code and 15-day premium account. From a visual standpoint, the box’s red and black theme fits with ASUS’ PRO GAMING branding.
On the rear, there is a brief synopsis of the motherboard’s flagship components, back I/O and main specification. The clear diagrams explain each notable feature in a clear and concise manner.
The Z170I PRO GAMING includes an I/O Shield, Cable Labels, user guide, driver disk, M.2 mounting hardware and WiFi antennas.
There is also an LGA1155 CPU holder and ample supply of SATA cables. The CPU holder is an ingenious tool which ensures the end-user avoids prolonged contact with the CPU. This reduces the chance of pin damage and offers a virtually foolproof installation procedure.
A Closer Look
The Z170i PRO GAMING adopts an uncluttered design and utilizes every inch of the PCB’s surface area. Notice the two conveniently placed fan headers near the 8-pin EPS connector and two DIMM slots. The motherboard supports a maximum of 32GB RAM and speeds in excess of 3400MHz. Other features include a single PCIe x16 slot, diagnostic Q-LED and gorgeous heatsink design. In terms of the board layout, everything is positioned to make the building process remarkably simple.
ASUS managed to incorporate an extremely capable 10-phase DIGI+ VRM which provides reliable power delivery. This is vital when trying to reach the maximum frequency potential of your CPU. On another note, overcurrent protection on each connector reduces the probability of short-circuit damage and helps to prolong the motherboard’s lifespan. ASUS TurboV Processing Unit (TPU) and Pro Clock technology are used to enhance stability at high frequencies. Although, the silicon lottery will be the determining factor when overclocking your processor.
On the rear, we can see the LED audio path, heatsink screws and M.2 connector. When handling this section, the motherboard’s rigidity and reinforced construction becomes quite evident.
In terms of connectivity, the motherboard contains a straight USB 3.0 header, SATA Express, four SATA ports, 24-pin connector and 3 fan headers. This provides enough options to connect a boot SSD and selection of high-capacity mechanical disk drives. From this image, we can admire the premium capacitors which can withstand temperature variation between -55°C and 105°C. This is a staggering 110% better than the industry standard and prolongs the motherboard’s longevity under stress.
The back I/O features a PS/2 port, two USB 2.0, DisplayPort, HDMI, RJ45 Ethernet, two USB 3.1, WiFi, and standard audio connectors. I’m pleased to see the emergence of multiple USB 3.1 ports given the staggering maximum bandwidth of 10Gb/s. The i219-V Ethernet is protected by ESD guards and reduces CPU workloads compared to other networking solutions.
ASUS’ SupremeFX audio is based on the Realtek ALC1150 chipset while opting for premium Nichicon Japanese audio capacitors and a stainless steel EMI protection cover. Additionally, the SupremeFX shielding divides the PCB into two sections to reduce electrical interference. The integrated headphone amplifier supports audio hardware with up to 300Ω load impedance and offers superb clarity under high volume. Overall, the audio is stunning for a motherboard of this price and negates the need for a dedicated soundcard. This is essential when you factor in the ITX form factor’s limited room for only one PCIe slot.
Testing & Methodology
Before we delve into any testing we would like to take this opportunity to review our test system. All tests are conducted three times and the average taken to use in our charts.
- Motherboard varies by review
- CPU: Intel Core i7 6700k
- GPU: NVIDIA GTX 980Ti
- RAM: Crucial Elite 16GB (2x8GB) 2666MHz
- Cooling: Thermaltake Water 3.0 AIO with Gelid GC-Extreme
- Case: Lian Li T80 Test Bench
- Storage Drives: Main storage: Crucial MX200 250GB, Test Devices: SanDisk Extreme Pro 240GB SSD, Plextor 256GB M6e M.2 SSD and Patriot SuperSonic Magnum 256GB USB 3.0 Flash Drive
- PSU: be quiet! Dark Power Pro 11 850W
- Operating System: Windows 8.1 64-bit
- Networking: ASUS RT-AC68U router
- SiSoft Sandra Engineer – available here
- WPrime – available here
- Cinebench – available here
- 3DMark – available here
- Bioshock Infinite – available here
- Tomb Raider – available here
- AIDA 64 Engineer – available here
- Latencymon – available here
- Rightmark Audio Analyser – available here
- LAN Speed Test Lite – available here
- Passmark – available here
To test the storage performance in our motherboard reviews we use AIDA’s Disk Benchmark utility built into their AIDA64 Engineer Edition software package and run linear read and write tests. We run each of the benchmark tests on a SATA III, USB 3.0 and M.2 device. For SATA III testing we use a SanDisk Extreme Pro 240GB, for USB 3.0 testing we use the Supersonic Magnum 256 GB USB 3.0 flash drive and for M.2 testing we use Plextor’s 256GB M.2 M6e SSD. The drives are always formatted before use.
For our networking tests we connect the test system up to our Intel Gigabit-enabled ASUS Rampage IV Extreme X79 motherboard test system through the ASUS RT-AC68U router and run our tests. We opted for this over a direct point-to-point connection because we wanted to simulate real-world performance. For our WiFi tests we do the same except we connect the test system to the ASUS RT-AC68U router via WiFi at a distance of 2 metres from the router. The testing software we use for these are LAN Speed Test Lite and Passmark, available here and here respectively.
Lan Speed Test
LAN Speed Test was designed from the ground up to be a simple but powerful tool for measuring file transfer, hard drive, USB Drive, and Local Area Network (LAN) speeds (wired & wireless). It does this by building a file in memory, then transfers it both ways (without effects of windows file caching) while keeping track of the time. Download the free Lan Speed Test Lite utility from here.
The PassMark Advanced Network Test (which is part of PerformanceTest) is designed to test the data transfer rate between two computers both of which must be running PerformanceTest. One of the computers must act as the server and will sit waiting for a connection. The other computer acts as a client. It connects to the server machine and sends data to it for the duration of the test. You can download a trial version of PerformanceTest from here.
To measure power consumption we, use a “killawatt” meter and measure the total system power draw at the wall. We run three different use-case scenarios for 5 minutes and take the average reading.
RightMark Audio Analyser (RMAA)
RMAA suite is designed for testing quality of analog and digital paths of any audio device. The results are obtained by playing and recording test signals passed through the tested audio path by means of frequency analysis algorithms. A more common mark is also provided for those unfamiliar with measured technical parameters. Available here. We run the RMAA test using a 3.5mm to 3.5mm cable connecting the line out to the line in to test the quality of the motherboard audio codec not any external audio devices. We run the complete playback and recording test at default settings and then get RMAA to interpret the results giving the below outputs. We sync the playback and recording audio devices to the same setting as the test for accurate results.
DPC is a Windows tool that analyses the capabilities of a computer system to handle real-time data streams properly. It may help to find the cause for interruptions in real-time audio and video streams, also known as drop-outs. This software is available for download free here.
wPrime is a leading multithreaded benchmark for x86 processors that tests your processor performance by calculating square roots with a recursive call of Newton’s method for estimating functions. wPrime is a free utility that is available for download here.
Cinebench is a widely respected benchmark for testing the performance of x86 CPUs. The program allows you to test single and multi-threaded performance as well as GPU performance by rendering with Open GL. Download here.
The new 3DMark includes everything you need to benchmark your hardware. With three all new tests you can bench everything from smartphones and tablets, to notebooks and home PCs, to the latest high-end, multi-GPU gaming desktops. Download here.
In Tomb Raider, the player is confronted with a much younger Lara Croft who is shipwrecked and finds herself stranded on a mysterious island rife with danger, both natural and human. Tomb Raider is a demanding game offering up ultra quality textures, full DirectX 11 support, SSAA, FXAA, MSAA and AMD TressFX technology.
BioShock Infinite is the third and last game in the BioShock series. It is a first-person shooter video game developed by Irrational Games and published by 2K Games. BioShock Infinite supports dynamic shadows, post-processing, light shafts, ambient occlusion, object level of detail, Diffusion Depth of Detail, FOV adjustment controls and other advanced DirectX 11 features.
BIOS and Overclocking
ASUS’s award-winning UEFI BIOS is remarkably simple to navigate and categorizes common tasks into the EZ Mode for beginners. Here, you can monitor the CPU core voltage, temperature and adjust the boot priority. Furthermore, XMP is enabled within two clicks and each fan’s RPM values can be tweaked using the QFan control software.
There is an EZ Tuning Wizard which asks a number of basic questions about your system and sets parameters to automatically set a sensible overclock. Although, finding the limit of your CPU manually and adjusting the voltage is highly recommend. Nevertheless, it’s a great option for users who feel uncomfortable with the overclocking process.
The BIOS gauges the required performance enhancements depending on your typical usage scenario.
Once complete, you need to select your system’s cooling apparatus which gives an indication about typical load temperatures.
Then, the software explains the CPU and memory performance enhancements in a statistical way.
ASUS’ Q-Fan control is an absolutely wonderful addition and contains a number of profiles designed to optimize fan RPM values. The options means you can prioritize silence over raw cooling performance or allow the BIOS to determine a suitable balance. Additionally, the BIOS features a manual mode and graphical chart to easily set a customized fan curve.
The BIOS utilizes the three default profiles which alters noise, power consumption and performance.
The first primary tab lists key information about your system, the BIOS revision and other rudimentary tasks. Also, the Hardware Monitor on the right is beautifully positioned and constantly in view while adjusting settings.
In terms of overclocking options, the AI Tweaker is extraordinarily detailed and features a number of advanced overclocking tweaks. While this isn’t necessary for most people, the BIOS caters to extreme overclockers without making the menus too daunting.
Further down the menu is a section for voltage control to maximize stability when benchmarking and making acute BLCK adjustments.
The Advanced tab houses a number of settings if you want to change the attributes of many integral devices. Personally, I would leave the majority of these on the default setup.
The Monitor tab displays a comprehensive array of voltages, fan speeds, and various temperatures. This is useful when performing diagnostics and maximizing your CPU’s potential.
Disabling Fast Boot is recommended if you spend a lot of time in the BIOS working towards a very ambitious target frequency.
Updating the BIOS via ASUS EZ Flash 3 Utility is a breeze and should only take a few moment to complete.
You can either manually download the BIOS file and transfer it to a USB stick or proceed with the update directly over the internet.
The Exit tab allows you to restore the BIOS to default values or save any changes.
In addition to the predefined tabs, you can fully customize the Favorites menu to quickly access essential commands. This is fantastic if you only want to focus on the Multiplier, core voltage and CPU monitoring to perform a fast yet stable overclock.
If I was using the motherboard on a daily basis, the Favorites tab would dramatically reduce the average time when fine tuning a manual overclock.
The Quick Note overlay is incredibly useful when noting down small voltage adjustments and memory timings.
The overclocking procedure is a doddle and revolves around a multiplier increase of x48 and core voltage bump to 1.504v. I did attempt to reach a frequency of 4.9GHz but this was beyond the thermal limitations of this chip due to too much voltage. Additionally, the CPU requires over 1.5v to remain stable but this follows the pattern of the latest motherboards we’ve previously tested. Thankfully, the process is so simple, anyone could do it with a patient and analytical approach.
AI Suite 3 features a wide array of tools to monitor system performance and adjust specific variables when fine-tuning a particular overclock. For example, the 5-Way Optimization finds a potent overclock which suitably matches your hardware. The software’s user-interface makes the overclocking process easy to understand even if you’re a novice. On another note, ASUS bundles every feature into a single client instead of using multiple windows.
ASUS’ AI Suite 3 also contains a host of settings to manually adjust the core voltage, BLCK frequency, and multiplier directly from the desktop.
The turbo app allows you to list various applications in order of preference to enhance system performance.
This tab is relatively basic and only features minor adjustments to the power plan.
In this section, there is a more detailed version of Fan Xpert 3 from the first page. You can edit each fan individually, set an overall profile or even allow the system to tune the fans to the best possible setting, running through each speed to determine what each fan can run at.
Here, you can adjust the CPU’s Load-Line Calibration and Power Phase Control. This provides a huge amount of tweaking for the more advanced overclocker.
The AI suite also contains a utility to clean up your system and remove unnecessary files. This includes temporary folders, cache history, downloaded program files, and more.
The AI Charger+ offers significantly reduced charging times when paired with compatible smart devices.
ASUS’ System Information page is awash with DRM timings, memory bandwidth, module sizes and other data revolving around the CPU and motherboard.
The Mobo Connect feature allows you to control a smartphone device with your PC’s keyboard and mouse. I’m not entirely convinced why anyone would need this, but it’s a fascinating addition.
The dramatic explosion of competitive gaming has resulted in a greater demand for improved traffic prioritization. ASUS GameFirst III includes a network monitor and easy setup to reduce latency during intense multiplayer games.
ASUS RAMCache offsets a portion of system RAM to create an ultra responsive RAMDisk. Theoretically, this prolongs the lifespan of your boot SSD and provides superior performance.
Sonic Radar II displays an onscreen overlay that visually represents sound activities according to their positional location. Subsequently, you can track the movement of competitors in multiplayer games. However, some players have argued this creates an unfair advantage.
CPU & GPU Performance
At stock values, the Z170I PRO GAMING surpassed its ATX counterpart and attained solid results in multi-threaded workloads.
Once overclocked, the motherboard performs superbly and is within touching distance of the top spot.
In WPrime, the stock scores once again outperformed the Z170 PRO GAMING, but struggled to match a number of competitors.
The motherboard fared much better with a frequency boost and managed to remain in a mid-table position. Additionally, it’s only a minuscule amount off second place and illustrates how capable the motherboard is under extreme stress.
The Z170I PRO GAMING struggles to compete in this particular benchmark and posted fairly mediocre numbers.
However, overclocking the CPU has a dramatic effect and scores 238, the joint-highest we’ve recorded so far.
Moving onto 3D testing, the motherboard attains astronomical stores and easily reigns supreme. Although, this large gap could be down to a graphics driver update.
The motherboard reported a huge boost at 2560×1440 compared to the rival offerings and managed an improvement in excess of 10 frames-per-second. Clearly, when the Z170I PRO GAMING is paired with a top-end card, the gaming results are phenomenal.
In Bioshock Infinite, the gap is less pronounced on higher resolutions but still manages to reach the top figure. However, the 1920×1080 benchmark contained a fairly disappointing run of 130.8 frames-per-second. This is the lowest result so far. Although, the 980 Ti’s performance at 1440P is more relevant given its price point and graphical horsepower.
The memory bandwidth scores contain good write, read and copy rates although there is some room for improvement.
When the CPU is overclocked, we encountered a less than stellar memory bandwidth speed. However, it’s only a small margin and doesn’t effect real world scenarios.
The results in Sandra correspond with other memory graphs and illustrate the motherboard’s positioning. As always, the minute variation is within a margin of error.
The overclock Float rate is excellent but Aggregate and Integer tests reported average scores.
Combined Latency Test
In terms of latency, the Z170I PRO GAMING performed admirably and within 1 nanosecond of first place.
Its position stays pretty consistent when overclocked although there is a more pronounced gap in Aida64.
Moving onto the storage benchmarks, we can see the M.2 drive almost reached 660MB/s and greatly surpasses the ATX-based Z170 PRO GAMING. On another note, the USB and SATA results are excellent.
In terms of write speeds, the Z170I PRO GAMING matched the majority of previously tested motherboards but the M.2 results could be slightly better.
LAN Speed Test Lite
The motherboard’s network capabilities fell behind the competition in both read and write tests. Although, the difference wasn’t as dramatic as the ECS Z170-Claymore.
Passmark Performance Test 8 – Ethernet
In Passmark, the results are quite baffling due to the large disparity between TCP and UDP. The motherboard’s UDP score is within an expected range but despite running the benchmark multiple times, I couldn’t get the TCP to run at a higher rate. I can only imagine this is down to a strange network anomaly and nothing to do with the motherboard’s networking.
Passmark Performance Test 8 – CPU Work Load
The CPU load utilization hit a maximum of 3% under TCP which is a huge improvement compared to the Z170 PRO GAMING.
We’ve recently transitioned our WiFi testing procedure to Performance 8.0 given the accuracy of recorded statistics in system reviews. Compared to other WiFi interfaces, the results at 5GHz are decent but I would have preferred a rate above 300mbps. However, the testing was conducted on an early review sample which features a Qualcomm Atheros instead of a Broadcom WiFi module. ASUS decided to change the WIFi adapter on retail samples due to improved performance. As a result, the retail WiFi performance should fare much better.
The motherboard exhibits great audio quality across a wide range of bit-rates. Although, the performance at 16 bit, 44KHz has some room for improvement. Despite this, the overall picture is good and provides superb clarity for a wide range of audio tasks.
16 Bit, 44KHz (DVD Quality)
16 Bit, 96KHz (Studio Quality)
24 Bit, 96KHz (Studio Quality)
DPC Audio Latency Analyser
In terms of latency, the audio interface attained fairly modest results and fell within my expectations.
The i7-6700K’s stock frequency combined with the motherboard to achieve fantastic idle, load and 1080p playback wattage demands.
When overclocked, the Z170i PRO GAMING only utilizes 379 watts during full load testing which makes for an incredibly efficient Skylake system. This is astonishing given the 4.8GHz frequency and top-of-the-range graphics card solution.
The ASUS Z170I PRO GAMING is currently available from SCAN for just £131.96 and costs less than its nearest rival, the MSI GAMING Z170I PRO AC. Furthermore, this ITX version only incurs a £11.97 price increase compared to the larger ASUS PRO GAMING. This is astonishing value and exemplifies how viable the ITX form factor is becoming.
ASUS have excelled themselves in manufacturing an absolutely breathtaking ITX motherboard which fully complements Intel’s latest 1151 chipset. The red and black gaming colour scheme is accentuated by a striking heatsink design and looks phenomenal in a small form-factor chassis. Additionally, the PRO GAMING series has established itself as ASUS’ budget range which nails the price to performance ratio whilst offering enough visual exuberance to please core gamers.
The motherboard’s UEFI BIOS is beautifully laid out and offers functionality to please both novices and hardcore overclockers via the EZ/Advanced tab. Overclocking the i7-6700K was incredibly straightforward and managed to remain stable at 4.8GHz without any problems whatsoever. Inputting the voltage, multiplier, and BLCK takes a matter of seconds and the BIOS’ visual feedback makes it easy to monitor various parameters.
During the rigorous testing procedure, the motherboard consistently outperformed its larger brother. Furthermore, the astonishing gaming benchmarks indicates how amazing the experience can be when paired with a top-tier graphics card even at extreme graphical presets. The Z170I PRO GAMING reported astonishingly low power consumption when overclocked to 4.8GHz. As a result, the power to performance ratio is difficult to beat and demonstrates how amazing ASUS’ power regulation is.
The hard drive benchmarks could have reported better results especially in M.2 write tests. Although, the gap wasn’t a major cause for concern and within the confines of a margin for error during multiple runs. Similarly, the Ethernet performance felt a little underwhelming but I can probably pinpoint this down to a strange background task reducing the minimum networking speed. Once again, in real world scenarios, I highly doubt the average user will notice this.
ASUS’ software package contains a number of useful tools including Sonic Radar II, 5-Way Optimization and GameFirst III to prioritize network traffic. This collection of utilities is presented in an easy to understand interface and explains what each tool does. Additionally, the RAMCache tool is a fantastic way to reach amazing read/write speeds without having waste time looking for a free alternative. Many pieces of software which provide a similar service can cost between £10-£20.
In conclusion, the motherboard’s fantastic layout helps with cable management, and embeds a wonderful specification for the money. While it’s not perfect, ASUS have produced a marvelous, feature-rich motherboard which is accessible to the majority of PC gamers. This is certainly the best ITX package I’ve seen so far and deserves our Editor’s Choice for that reason alone.
- Attractive colour scheme
- Competitive price
- Comprehensive array of settings to suit the advanced overclocker
- Extensive software suite
- Intuitive BIOS
- Logical motherboard layout
- Low power consumption
- Relatively good sound across various bit-rates
- Superb gaming results
“The SupremeFX audio, ample connectivity and overclocking prowess makes the ASUS Z170I PRO GAMING one of the best choices for smaller builds and even encourages ATX fans to make the switch.“
ASUS Z170i PRO GAMING (LGA1151) motherboard Review
Thank you Asus for providing us with this sample.