Introduction, Specifications and Packaging
There are plenty of affordable Z97 motherboards on offer, in the UK they start from about £70-80 while in North America they can be had from about $110. However, these entry level Z97 motherboards tend to be fairly basic in their feature set, styling and specifications. If you’re looking for a gaming motherboard at that price point you simply won’t be able to afford one. The reason is that the Z97 chipset costs motherboard vendors quite a lot. However, H97 is a cheaper chipset so motherboard vendors can make a much higher quality H97 motherboard for the same price as an entry level Z97 motherboard because they have lower chipset costs so can afford to allocate more funds to other aspects of the board like buying better power components, better networking components, better audio components and so on. As a result gamers at the really budget price points are better off buying gaming motherboards that aren’t of the “flagship” Intel chipset. We saw this logic applied last year when ASRock released their Fatal1ty B85 motherboard for a a diminuitive £70~ and yet it contained all the “gaming features” of significantly more expensive motherboards such as a Killer NIC, high quality audio, XSplit gaming software and that typical gamer styling. Today we have something very similar to that based on the Intel H97 chipset, the Fatal1ty H97 Performance motherboard. This motherboard takes advantage of the cheaper H97 chipset to offer up a gaming motherboard at the very attractive price of $100, or about £75. If anything this board is quite a step up over the B85 Fatal1ty board from last generation coming with more CPU VRM phases, an improved audio design, Intel Gigabit LAN and more SATA III ports, all while being at a very similar price.
Packaging and Accessories
The packaging is nothing out of the ordinary for an ASRock Fatal1ty product, this board is very clearly positioned as a gaming product from the moment you look at the box.
The back details the key features of this motherboard, some of them seem a bit dubious to call “gaming features” such as Orbweb.Me cloud software or Super Alloy power components. I think ASRock would benefit more from focusing on things like the Intel networking and high quality audio as this is definitely something Gamers will find more alluring.
Included is a user guide, software user guide, ASRock Cloud setup guide, a driver/utility DVD and XSplit Broadcaster 3 month premium certificate.
The accessory pack is very basic: a plain unlabelled I/O shield and a pair of SATA cables. At this price point this is really to be expected.
A Closer Look & Layout Analysis
The eagle eyed viewer will notice that the ASRock Fatal1ty H97 Performance motherboard is a little on the “slim” side. ASRock have opted for a reduced width ATX design to save on the production costs. This means there is less space on the motherboard but less space is needed as less features are present than on a Z97 ATX motherboard for example. The layout of the motherboard has suffered a bit from the size, for example we have vertical facing SATA ports which is a nightmare for cable management and we also have a random molex in the centre of the motherboard. The “separated PCB” for the audio has also suffered, in fact it is not separated at all – the last picture on this page shows that there are just random strips of unconnected “PCB separater” which in effect renders it useless because it is not separated. I think ASRock could have designed this motherboard better than it is. If I could have my way I would reduce the size of the PCH heatsink to allow for horizontal mounted stacked SATA ports, I would move the USB 3.0 header to where the SATA ports are now and I would relocate some components towards the centre of the motherboard to allow the audio area adequate room for full PCB separation. I’d also ditch the molex supplementary because it is totally unnecessary for this type of motherboard.
The CPU VRM still gets the high quality power components ASRock use on more expensive motherboards and there are still an impressive 8 phases. We only get one CPU VRM heatsink though as this seems to be part of the cost saving exercise.
ASRock provide a generous 3 fan headers near the CPU socket which is nice if you happen to have a dual fan AIO liquid cooler.
The SATA area features upward mounted SATA ports and a seemingly oversized PCH heatsink for what is a fairly narrow motherboard.
Along the bottom we find six SATA III ports, a chassis fan header, two USB 2.0 headers, front panel connectors, a COM port, the HD audio connector, a thunderbolt connector and a TPM header.
The audio implementation sits at the back of the motherboard but the PCB separation is non-existent despite vague attempts to make it look separated. We can see the use of EMI shielding on the codec and high quality Nichicon audio capacitors which is nice for a budget motherboard.
The PCI layout is fairly primitive, I doubt we’ll see anyone needing three PCI ports. I would prefer it if ASRock had swapped the last PCI lane out with another PCI express lane of some sort.
The rear I/O contains the following ports:
- 1 x PS/2 Mouse/Keyboard Port
- 1 x D-Sub Port
- 1 x DVI-D Port
- 1 x HDMI Port
- 1 x Optical SPDIF Out Port
- 3 x USB 2.0 Ports
- 1 x Fatal1ty Mouse Port (USB 2.0)
- 4 x USB 3.0 Ports
- 1 x RJ-45 LAN Port with LED (ACT/LINK LED and SPEED LED)
- 5 x HD Audio Jacks
As I mentioned earlier from this picture you can see the fairly unfinished attempt at audio PCB separation. However, a full black PCB for a budget motherboard like this is something to be pleased with.
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.
ASRock’s BIOS is fairly traditional and intuitive in terms of the layout: it has that usual “tab” design where all the key components are grouped along the top of the screen. As a result the BIOS is fairly simple to get around and the BIOS is surprisingly attractive given its sizeable full HD resolution. This allows the BIOS to cram more options into the screen and as a result it becomes fairly easy to identify where things are. The tool tab is particularly interesting because it has a whole range of unique features like the ASRock Dehumidifier function, a system browsing utility, the ability to update the UEFI in multiple different ways and a way to contact tech support from within the BIOS. The traditional overclocking options for the CPU and DRAM are found in the OC Tweaker tab and are fairly straight forward to navigate. Even though this is a H97 motherboard ASRock still give you the option to overclock K series CPUs very easily, you can do it the “normal way” just like it is a Z97 motherboard or you can use the Non-Z OC function which has preset OC profiles for K series Haswell CPUs. Overall the ASRock UEFI BIOS is competent, attractive and easy to use and I think I prefer it to those UEFIs offered by Gigabyte and MSI although it can’t quite trump the ASUS UEFI.
The main hub of ASRock’s software is the F-Stream utility. This is the almost-unifying piece of software that allows you to access most the other main software programs through the tools tab. It also allows you to monitor and overclock your system as well as update your motherboard drivers, UEFI and even directly contact ASRock tech support. This piece of software is fairly nice to use, although it does feel a little fragmented in that most of the links to other software and tools merely launch in separate windows, not within F-Stream. It would be nice to see ASRock unify all their software programs within the interface of F-Stream so that users only need to install one centralised ASRock software.
One of the selling points of ASRock’s LAN implementation is the XFast LAN software. Explained simply this is just CFOS traffic management, prioritisation and shaping software that has been OEM produced for ASRock but it does give you a staggering number of internet management options and if you’re someone who likes this kind of stuff then it’s great.
ASRock App Shop
Next up is the ASRock App Shop which actually disappointed me a little. The range of apps are fairly mediocre, it doesn’t even have all the ASRock software available and what’s more half of it is in a foreign language. ASRock have always struck me as one of those brands who are a bit too Asian for the Western market and it’s software like this that create that impression. I think the ASRock App Shop needs a redesign, a better selection of apps and more effective language controls dependent on the user selected language. I chose English but I am still bombarded with Asian apps and languages which is slightly menacing.
ASRock offer XSplit Gamecaster and Broadcaster with this motherboard but only the Broadcaster is actually “unique” software in that you get a 3 month premium license with this motherboard. The version of Gamecaster offered is just a free version anyone can access. The three month premium version of XSplit Broadcaster ASRock are offering has a retail value of $24.95 so it’s great to see it chucked in for free. You can find out more about XSplit Broadcaster here.
ASRock claim to have given their cloud management software a huge overhaul by moving their software to Orbweb.ME developed by Kloudian instead of using their previous ASRock Cloud software. ASRock go over and explain the features on their website here. Yes, the explanatory video is fairly cringe with its interesting mix of chinglish and bad dub-overs but you get the idea. ASRock claim the three year subscription to Orbweb.ME that they offer is worth $150 USD ($50 per year) based on current pricing. Some of the features the software includes are:
- Remote desktoping
- Wake on WAN
- File explorer and transfer
- Browser based access
- Media library sharing
Overclocking was a fairly simple process, dial in a 48X multiplier (which is the maximum our chip does) and dial in 1.275 volts. The overclock was stable and worked fine but for some reason the motherboard kept forcing the voltage up to 1.35v even though I set manual override of 1.275 volts. I’m not quite sure why this was happening as both other ASRock motherboards I used, which incidentally have identical BIOSes, did not have this same problem. The 1.35v caused the CPU to overheat in some extended tests so this was quite disappointing. Either way it is important to make it specifically clear that you can overclock K series unlocked CPUs on this motherboard. Most people will likely use a Core i5 4670K on this motherboard and this will overclock just fine. Don’t believe any of the drivel people are spreading about you not being able to overclock on any Haswell chipset other than Z97, it simply isn’t true.
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.
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, 44KHz (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.
The ASRock Fatal1ty H97 Performance motherboard is currently retailing for $99.99 at Newegg and $109.99 at Amazon. In the UK the motherboard can be found on Amazon for £88.99, at Kikatek for £80, at Ballicom International for £77.50 and at LambdaTek for £74.33. I therefore expect the MSRP is $99.99 and £74.99 respectively. The ASRock Fatal1ty H97 Performance motherboard comes with a 3 year manufacturer warranty.
The ASRock Fatal1ty H97 Performance motherboard has proved itself an impressive motherboard for its price point. Sure this motherboard has to make some compromises to be so affordable, which we’ll cover in a minute, but on the whole the performance offered is broadly identical to Z97 equivalents. Furthermore, overclocking allows this platform to stay on level pegging with gaming Z97 motherboards despite it being £50-70 cheaper than these rival boards! If you’re not into all the extra storage options of Z97, such as M.2 and SATA Express, then H97 is a great platform. You get PCIe 3.0, USB 3.0 and SATA III still which are the main ones most people will actually use. Additionally ASRock have equipped the best audio codec, Realtek ALC1150 and Intel Gigabit ethernet (which I think is better than Killer ethernet in terms of compatibility, features and CPU usage) so you get a fairly premium motherboard for a not-so-premium price. This motherboard also gets a nice UEFI BIOS that is standard across the ASRock 9 series range and it gets a variety of useful third part software like XSplit (game/program streaming), XFast LAN (CFOS packet prioritisation) and Orbweb.ME (cloud creation and management).
The motherboard does have some drawbacks though. The first of these are chipset related: H97 limits memory speeds to 1600MHz so memory performance suffers and H97 has less PCIe lanes than Z97 so multi-GPU options are limited, so is the ability to run M.2 and SATA Express because H97 does not support these storage standards. ASRock have also not done themselves many favours with the overall design. The placement of the SATA headers and the random supplementary molex baffled me slightly. As I discussed further on page 2 there are ample things I think ASRock could improve with regards to this motherboard. It is possible to overlook these things because of the price and the fact I do not see other vendors doing any better at the same price point, however, I do think ASRock could make a better motherboard without increasing production costs of the motherboard. In the grand scheme of things though I think ASRock deserve kudos yet again for bringing a gaming motherboard to the masses by using the cost savings of a cheaper chipset to their advantage.
- Competitive pricing
- Intel Gigabit
- High quality audio (despite poorly separated PCB)
- Good overclocking
- 3 year warranty
- 8 phase VRM
- Well laid out and visually pleasing UEFI BIOS
- Memory and PCI Express limitations (A result of the H97 chipset)
- Some questionable layout decisions (SATA placement, supplementary molex, etc)
- BIOS adds extra voltage when overclocking
- Sparse bundle
“Like with the ASRock H87 and B85 Fatal1ty motherboards from the last generation this ASRock Fatal1ty H97 Performance motherboard offers excellent value for money. ASRock’s decision to offer a gaming motherboard on a lower end chipset makes sense and has been executed well. There are areas for improvement but at this price segment you cannot complain too much.“
Thank you to ASRock for providing this review sample.