Introduction, Specifications and Packaging
The ASUS TUF line is always one of the more exciting product ranges to come out of the ASUS consumer motherboard platform, albeit a very niche form of excitement (well I find it exciting anyway…). I took a look at my first ASUS TUF series motherboard last year when ASUS kindly sent over their Z87 Sabertooth board. My general thoughts were that the board was a very good piece of kit although the monitoring, reliability and stability aspects of it seemed to be quite niche, aimed at a specific form of power user. I don’t really expect that to change given that the TUF series is still about giving you military grade reliability and stability but I am hoping there will be lots of new features on offer with the new Z97 TUF series. Today we are looking at the ASUS Z97 Gryphon motherboard which is the micro-ATX version of the TUF line. More specifically we have the ARMOR EDITION equipped with the ASUS thermal armor but ASUS do offer a version without for users who find it garish or unnecessary. The full specifications of the motherboard are fairly basic given that there’s no M.2, no SATA express, no WiFi and so on. However, for a micro-ATX motherboard it still has all the key features a desktop user would expect such as Gigabit LAN, dual PCIe 16X lanes, SATA III ports and decent spec audio.
Packaging and Accessories
The flagship feature of the ASUS TUF series is that 5 year warranty, that really is the selling point for all the reliability and stability features.
The back breaks down the key features of the motherboard, most are related to reliability and stability aspects such as reducing dust and heat.
Included is an extensive bunch of documentation including details on how to install all the extra accessories.
The “standard” accessories include a rear I/O shield, four SATA cables, SLI bridge and some Q connectors for the front panel I/O.
The “TUF” accessories include a small fan for the rear I/O (part of the Dust De-Fan feature), thermal sensor probes and a variety of slot covers for things like the unused rear I/O ports and so on. These are to prevent dust build up.
You also get dust covers for the PCIe lanes, the RAM slots and some miscellaenous screws and fittings for attaching things. The included guide explains all if you get overwhelmed by the mass of accessories.
A Closer Look & Layout Analysis
The motherboard has a great aesthetic, ASUS have really perfected the “Desert Storm” military look to match the military class components. The layout is sensible and has to be to allow for the thermal armor. ASUS have pushed everything to the edges of the board which is great for cable management and accessibility. Perhaps it was an unintentional move but either way I think it has worked a treat.
Along the bottom we fin the front panel connectors, fan headers, USB headers and so on. It’s also worth pointing out ASUS has reinstated their phase LED system whereby when the system boots an LED moves from the CPU node to the DRAM node to the GPU node to the boot device node and if it stops at any of them then that particular node is encountering an issue. I first remember seeing this on the ASUS Z68 motherboards IIRC.
Around the side we find the DRAM LED node, a memOK button, the USB 3.0 header and the SATA ports.
The CPU socket area has an 8 phase VRM design and is enclosed by a thermal armor cage. When you install the small included fan underneath that screw sealed area by the rear I/O the fan draws in cool air from outside to cool down the VRM in the shrouded area. The case airflow is then supposed to carry this hot air out via your usual exhaust vents.
The top of the board features four fan headers and an additional one for the small included fan.
The rear I/O has a rather large gap for that rear intake fan above the DVI, you can also see the heat pipe underneath. The rear I/O has the following ports:
- 1 x DVI-D
- 1 x DisplayPort
- 1 x HDMI
- 1 x LAN (RJ45) port(s)
- 4 x USB 3.0 (blue)
- 4 x USB 2.0
- 1 x Optical S/PDIF out
- 5 x Audio jack(s)
The board is reinforced by the ASUS thermal armor. This prevents PCB flexing from component weight and means you’re less likely to experience issues resulting from PCB flex such as damaged tracers or solder points. It also gives the board a nice bit of weight and a cool look.
The Test System and Test Software
Before we delve into any testing we would like to take this opportunity to review our test system and thank those sponsors who kindly provided us with test equipment to make our work possible. We offer our thanks to:
- Motherboard: varies by review
- CPU: Intel Core i7 4770K processor
- GPU: Sapphire R9 290 Tri-X graphics card
- RAM: Corsair Vengeance Pro 16GB 2400MHz kit (CL11, 2 x 8GB)
- Cooling: Corsair H100i with Noctua NT-H1 Thermal Compound
- Case: Lian Li PC-T60A test bench
- Storage Drives: Kingston 240GB Hyper X 3K SSD, Patriot 120GB Wildfire SSD, Kingston Hyper X 64GB USB 3.0 flash drive and Plextor 256GB M6e M.2 SSD
- PSU: Be Quiet Straight Power E9 680W
- Operating System: Windows 7 Ultimate 64 Bit SP1
- 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.
- DPC Latency Analyser – available here.
- Rightmark Audio Analyser – available here.
- LAN Speed Test Lite – available here.
- Passmark – available here.
The UEFI BIOS that the Z97 GRYPHON equips is fairly similar to those offered by the ASUS Z97-A and ASUS Z97I-PLUS. It uses the same base-UEFI design as all the Z97 channel series ASUS motherboards and as such it has the new EZ Tuning Wizard auto-overclocking feature and the new graphical fan tuning feature. The only difference between this BIOS and the UEFI of the other two aforementioned motherboards is that this one is skinned a little differently in-line with the TUF series theme and military colours. This is actually a really good thing because the current-gen ASUS UEFI is great. This UEFI demonstrates its usual flexibility towards both “basic” users and “advanced” users with a wide range of options that you can play with, or just leave on auto. Either way the choice is yours and that’s what is so important here.
The software is built around the same Ai Suite III base as the other Z97 channel series motherboards but the main focus has been moved away from the Dual Intelligent Processors 5 towards the Thermal Radar 2 tech. This is basically the software hub for all the system temperature monitoring and system fan control. As the pictures below show the motherboard gives you a tonne of temperature sensors that are built into the motherboard, 8 to be exact, and then you can add a further three temperature sensors by plugging in the include temperature probe cables. You also get the ability to control 8 fans through the motherboard headers, if you buy fan splitters you could easily control more if needed. However, for a micro-ATX user this is already a huge amount of customisation on offer in the cooling department. Once you’re out of the Thermal Radar section you’re greeted by other ASUS software mainstays like USB 3.0 boost, USB charger and so on. The Z97 GRYPHON also supports the ASUS Home Cloud software (which we looked at here) and ASUS packet prioritisation software TurboLAN (which we looked at briefly here).
Overclocking is going to be CPU-dependent so there’s nothing to worry about there. If your CPU overclocks well then this board will be perfectly capable of maxing out your chip. Remember that the Haswell CPUs are largely controlled “on-die”, motherboards only have the ability to condition and filter the input power. That said like with all ASUS Z97 motherboards the digital VRM and the high quality 8 phase design means overclocking is supported by clean and stable power. But more importantly the BIOS makes overclocking really easy and if you’re “not that way inclined” with overclocking then ASUS offer automatic overclocking utilities in the BIOS to do the hard work for you.
CINEBENCH is a real-world cross platform test suite that evaluates your computer’s CPU performance. Cinebench R15 is a totally free utility and is available for download 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.
The SiSoft Sandra Dhrystone and Whetstone benchmarks are widely used measures of compute power and performance for a wide array of real world usage scenarios. You can find out more details on these tests here or download SiSoft Sandra here.
3DMark Firestrike is Futuremark’s latest creation for testing the GPU performance of high end gaming PCs using Direct X 11 graphics. You can download a free basic version of 3DMark here.
Tomb Raider is a popular action-adventure video game published by Square Enix based on the Tomb Raider franchise. The game was released in 2013 and as of March 2014 had sold 6 million copies.
Bioshock Infinite is a first person shooter developed by Irrational Games that is the third instalment of the Bioshock series. The game is the last to be produced by Irrational Games before they announced their closure in February 2014. The game has sold over 4 million copies since its 2013 release.
Combined Latency Test
SATA, M.2 and USB Performance
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 a variety of 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 Patriot WildFire 120GB SATA III SSD, for USB 3.0 testing we use the Kingston Hyper X 64 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.
LAN Speed Test Lite
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.
Passmark Performance Test 8
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.
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.
16 Bit, 48KHz (DVD Quality)
16 Bit, 96KHz (Studio Quality)
16 Bit, 192KHz (Studio Quality)
DPC Latency Analyser
Thesycon’s DPC Latency Checker 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. Available here.
Power Consumption and Thermals
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.
To measure the thermal properties of each motherboard we take the temperature of three different locations using a Rosewill infrared thermometer. We measure the hottest point on the PCH (chipset) heatsink, the first VRM heatsink (which is closest to the rear I/O) and the second VRM heatsink (which is closest to the RAM lanes). The graphs are sorted by the first VRM Heatsink temperature as this is normally where most of the CPU VRM phases reside.
In the UK the ASUS Z97 GRYPHON ARMOR EDITION motherboard can be had for £134.99 at Overclockers and £140 at Amazon. In the USA I could not find the ARMOR EDITION version but the version without the ARMOR costs $163 at Amazon and $165 at Newegg. The ASUS Z97 GRYPHON (ARMOR and Non-ARMOR editions) has a five year ASUS warranty. Pricing correct at the time of writing.
As with all motherboards there are different product niches and market segmentations. The ASUS Z97 GRYPHON certainly targets a more unusual one compared to the ROG series which targets gamers and overclockers or the channel series which targets mainstream and connectivity-demanding users. The TUF series targets one main type of user: someone who is concerned with having a stable and reliable system and someone who wants workstation-class system with advanced monitoring and tuning, but doesn’t necessarily need abundant connectivity or expansion options. Of course that’s not to say people won’t just buy this because “it looks cool” because trust me, they will. However, this board does more than just “looks cool”. It offers up premium grade hardware at a much lower cost than ASUS has ever done in the TUF series. This is largely due to the cost savings achieved from the micro-ATX form factor but other savings have been made from the omission of M.2, SATA Express and keeping the audio at ALC892 without PCB separation. That’s compared to some of the higher end ASUS ROG boards that have the ALC1150 codec, premium grade audio components and so on. This isn’t a major issue because the audio quality is still very good and ASUS isn’t targeting audiophiles or fussy gamers.
It is hard to put my finger on exactly what the Z97 GRYPHON is trying to do. The way I see it this motherboard is like an ASUS channel series motherboard but with beefed up component quality. Given how difficult it is to measure things like reliability and stability this is certainly a tough review. On specifications, performance and pricing alone the ASUS Z97 GRYPHON isn’t anything out of this world but when you see the amount of work that has gone into the “unmeasurables” like stability, reliability and quality – it makes you take a second look. Even if you find no use for the advanced cooling capabilities, extensive monitoring or even the thermal armor then you can at least rest assured knowing you have one of the most reliable Z97 motherboards on the market, probably second only to the ASUS Z97-WS which is significantly more expensive and aimed at a different user.
- Great looks
- High quality components
- Rich accessory pack
- Advanced fan and temperature controls and monitoring
- Best-in-class software package
- ARMOR and Non-ARMOR versions
- 5 Year warranty
- Tonnes of fan connectors
- No M.2 or SATA Express
- Only ALC892 audio, no ALC1150
- Fairly pricey for the spec
- Average connectivity
“Like previous TUF series motherboards that have come before it the Z97 GRYPHON continues to push the boundaries of reliability, stability and quality within the cool looks of the military class design philosophy. In terms of the ability to monitor and control your system at a hardware and software level the Z97 GRYPHON from ASUS is matched by no-one. Best of all the 5 year warranty gives you the piece of mind that this isn’t just a motherboard, but a long term investment.”
Thank you to ASUS for providing this review sample.