ASUS Z170I PRO GAMING (LGA 1151) Motherboard Review

Introduction


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.

ASRock’s Z170 Motherboards Feature DDR4 OC With Select Modules

It isn’t always that all features in software are revealed right away and that is also what seems to have happened with ASRock’s latest Z170 BIOS. It had a hidden feature that only was revealed when certain memory modules were inserted and that is an automatic overclocking of these memory modules. Now that feature in itself isn’t new and it’s something that has been on several motherboards that I have owned, but it’s a nice one.

The feature has now been officially revealed, but not only that, it was also revealed in a very funny way. In the spirit of Halloween, ASRock made a funny video demonstrating it where you’ll meet Darth Vader as well as a Minion and more.

The automatic memory overclocking feature could get as much as 31% higher clock rates out of the memory modules used, if they are compatible. For now this seems to be limited mostly to Kingston and Samsung memory modules. One of the examples mentioned is that it can take Kingston 2133MHz modules and overclock them up to 2800MHz.

 

The above is kind off the boring news, now to the fun part: the video. I really don’t want to spoil it for you, as it should be experienced yourself. It is only 3 minutes and 30 seconds long and in my opinion it is well worth the time.

ASRock states that all Z170 motherboards will have this “hidden feature”, however at the end of the day it is still largely dependent upon the memory modules you install, which might or might not trigger DDR4 OC. It also requires you to upgrade to the latest UEFI BIOS available at the time of writing.

UEFI BIOSes Are Threatened By New LightEater Malware

While the new UEFI BIOSes are neat and come with a lot of features, they are also miniaturised OSes in their own, which makes them as vulnerable as a normal OS. Security researchers Corey Kallenberg and Xeno Kovah proved at CanSecWest how easy it is for an unskilled individual to implant a so-called LightEater malware and infect the system in a few moments.

The researchers proved that unpatched BIOSes can easily be affected with a malware and virus, they pointed out that motherboards from manufacturers such as Gigabyte, Acer, MSI, HP and Asus are at risk, especially if the BIOS is not updated to the most recent version from the manufacturers’ website.

BIOS malwares are especially dangerous since, as the researchers point out, the OS antivirus or other antivirus softwares only protect the OS it is running and not the BIOS too. The malware is said to be able to infect huge number of systems by creating System Management Mode implants, which can be custom made for individual BIOSes with a simple pattern matching. They also point out that a BIOS from Gigabyte was found to be particularly insecure.

We didn’t even have to do anything special; we just had a kernel driver write an invalid instruction to the first instruction the CPU reads off the flash chip, and bam, it was out for the count, and never was able to boot again.

While the vulnerability is said to already be exploited by the NSA, the researchers are encouraging businesses and governments to take some extra time in updating their PCs to the latest BIOS in order to plug the security hole.

Thank you Guru3D for providing us with this information

BIOS Vulnerability Still Roaming Wild despite Warnings

A multi-year effort to prevent hackers from altering computers while they boot up has largely failed and the flaws are still being exploited despite their disclosures. According to researchers from the federal founded MITRE lab, many Intel customers have still not adopted the revised security design distributed in March after even more vulnerabilities were discovered.

This could leave many newer Windows computers exposed, MITRE told Reuters ahead of their Black Hat presentation.

Intel’s point person on the issue, Bruce Monroe, said that he didn’t know how many suppliers and computer makers had followed Intel’s recommendations. “We’re not privy to whether they’ve fixed it or not. We asked them to let us know.”

The NSA Director Keith Alexander already urged the chief executives of major American technology companies years ago to do something about the boot-up procedure (BIOS). Because the start-up code is given more authority, hackers who break the code can make major changes to programs and hide their presence as well as survive power-down and reboots.

The successor called Unified Extensible Firmware Interface (UEFI) is widely adopted now and has features like secure boot where digital signatures are checked before code is run. Microsoft was one of the first to embrace the new system with their Windows 8.

With flaws like this, it’s no surprise that well-funded spying programs as those exposed by Edward Snowden can continue to succeed against targets that depend on a complex supply chain.

MITRE made a similar presentation at last years Black Hat conference where Corey Kallenberg and Xeno Kovah broke into Dell’s boot-up process. Since the talk they have deployed sensors to about 10.000 computers to determine whether the boot procedures were still vulnerable. A shocking 55 percent of them still were, but the actual percentage is said to be even higher as the checks were done by Intel’s old UEFI guidelines that still allowed for memory corruption.

The threat is very real as shown for recent events. The 2011 Mebromi attack on Chinese computers using the Phoenix BIOS, last years report by Der Spiegel about the NSA tool called DeityBounce and just earlier this year Reuters reported about a U.S. Defense Contractors product, priced over $100k, for “incapacitating target computers by attacking BIOS and other critical elements”.

Thank you Reuters for providing us with this information

Images courtesy of Hardware Analysis

ASUS A88X-PRO (FM2+) Motherboard Review

Introduction


With AMD’s fourth generation of AMD APUs, Kaveri, just around the corner it couldn’t be a better time to look at a brand spanking new FM2+ motherboard from ASUS. Today we have the ASUS A88X PRO motherboard on the test bench and this high-end motherboard will make the perfect home for any Kaveri based system. Of course you can use Trinity or Richland APUs too as the FM2+ socket is backwards compatible with FM2 APUs, but the main reason these motherboards have been released is to cater for the new Kaveri APUs that have more CPU and GPU performance than their predecessors.  The ASUS A88X-PRO has already been released in a few markets, including the USA, but in the UK we won’t see this motherboard until some point next month. Of course Kaveri will take until the the end of Q1 to hit the shelves so there’s no rush in that regard. The specifications of the ASUS A88X-PRO FM2+ motherboard are as follows:

ASUS is pushing its 4 Way Optimisation package as one of the key features – this includes the Digi+ power controls, TPU performance boost, EPU energy savings and Fan Xpert 2 fan controlling and monitoring software.

ASUS claim that by enabling their GPU Boost function you can boost the graphics performance of locked APUs from within AI Suite III

ASUS are also using their 5X Protection package which includes digital power stability, overcurrent protection, ESD guards, 5K rated solid caps and a stainless steel shielded rear I/O

Other features of this motherboard included a revised ASUS UEFI BIOS, ASUS Remote GO! support for an advanced home wireless management system, all the latest connectivity (USB 3.0/ PCIe 3.0/ SATA III), AI Suite III, DirectKey (a dedicated “go to BIOS” button) and 4K/Multi-monitor support with the advanced FM2+ graphics that are due to come with Kaveri.

More details can be found on the product page here.

ASUS Launch Haswell H81 Series Motherboards

ASUS have just announced their entire series of H81 chipset Haswell motherboards. The line up includes H81M-Plus, H81M-A, H81M-C and H81M-E Micro-ATX motherboards; and the H81I-Plus Mini-ITX  (from left to right). All models feature two DDR3 DIMM Slots, one PCI Express X16 slot and two SATA III slots. All models are also equipped with the latest ASUS UEFI BIOS, Realtek 7.1 audio and USB 3.0 Boost technology using a customised USB protocol.

The ASUS H81-Plus, H81M-Plus, H81M-A and H81M-E motherboards feature exclusive ASUS 5X Protection technology which is said to give ” reliable, long-term computing. DIGI+ VRM digital voltage regulation enhances system stability, while resettable fuses protect I/O ports and DIMM slots from short circuits and voltage spikes”. All of the motherboards also feature ESD Guards and 5K Solid Capacitors for over 50 years of continous usage at typical load temperatures of 65 degrees.

You will be able to find ASUS’ new H81 motherboards from retailers now, prices and availability will of course vary by region and by model.

Image courtesy of ASUS

Flaws In UEFI Can Be Abused To Install UEFI Bootkit

According to a PC World report, via Softpedia, three researchers demonstrated a UEFI vulnerability at the 2013 Black Hat conference. Andrew Furtak, Oleksandr Bazhaniuk and Yuriy Bulygin demonstrated two attack methods that can be used to bypass the secure boot to install a UEFI bootkit.

One of the attack techniques relies on a hole in the Unified Extensible Firmware Interface (UEFI). However, the particular attack requires access to the Kernel mode to launch which is difficult to do as it has the most privileges to contend with. This exploit was reported to have affected several vendors including ASUSTek though in most cases and products BIOS updates have fixed the flaw. Though the ASUS VivoBook laptop, which the presentation was given on, still has the vulnerability.

The second vulnerability which is much easier to do involves exploiting common applications such as Microsoft office, Java and Adobe Flash to bypass the Secure Boot. All security flaws revealed are recent discoveries and so vendors have been given time to address and provide details of the vulnerabilities and any fixes.

Despite the vulnerabilities of the BIOS the UEFI secure boot system is still the best way to keep computers bootkit free.

Image courtesy of Dell

Computex: Gigabyte Show Off Z87X-UD7 Thunderbolt Motherboard

When Intel released Ivy Bridge and Z77 we were very surprised to see that Gigabyte didn’t opt for a UD7 motherboard, instead we can assume the Z77X-UP7 was probably the UD7 equivalent. Yet with Haswell and Z87 Gigabyte have gone back to the UD7 naming scheme and have unveiled a rather sexy looking Gigabyte Z87X-UD7 motherboard that has full Thunderbolt support.

Unlike the OC series and G1.Sniper series the GA-Z87X-UD7 TH is a bit different as it isn’t really targeting gamers or overclockers. The Z87X-UD7 TH is targeting the more general computer user who wants premium performance and functionality but isn’t really interested in gaming or overclocking specific features. That said Gigabyte certainly haven’t skimped on anything and the GA-Z87X-UD7 TH looks like an absolutely fantastic motherboard.

Firstly it will be supporting Intel Haswell CPUs and it has a gold plated CPU socket and Ultra Durable 5 components to allow for enhanced overclocking. You can also see a rather meaty heatsink design that will be sure to allow you to push this motherboard to its limits as well as an intuitive dual UEFI BIOS. Additionally there are 9 system fan connectors meaning Gigabyte expects most users to put this in a pretty big case. There is multi-GPU support so you can run up to four way SLI or CrossFire which will be great for content professionals looking to use OpenCL or CUDA acceleration.

Gigabyte have added 10 USB 3.0 ports as well as dual Intel Thunderbolt ports, both excellent features for content professionals who need to move lots of data to and from their PC in a quick and easy way. Gigabyte On/Off charging is supported, a Bluetooth 4.0 and Wi-Fi module is provided and there is Intel LAN with high ESD protection. The audio, like all other premium Gigabyte motherboards shown at Computex so far, is provided by Realtek ALC898.

Stay tuned to eTeknix for more Computex coverage in our Computex section.

Image courtesy of eTeknix at Computex

Computex: Gigabyte Display Z87 OC and OC Force Overclocking Z87 Motherboards

For Z87 Gigabyte has a couple of high end motherboard series in addition to the usual UD3/UD4/UD5 and UD7 models. We have already taken a look at the Z87 G1.Sniper motherboards Gigabyte have on show at Computex 2013 here. Now it is time to take a look at that other high-end motherboard series the aptly named “OC” series. First up we have the GA-Z87X-OC Force motherboard which is designed to be the best of the best of Z87 and LGA 1150 overclocking. This motherboard boasts four way GPU support, Ultra Durable 5 components, an all IR digital power design, dual UEFI BIOS and an extreme heatsink design that features a fan over each. Additionally, the VRM heatsink can be water cooled for even better overclocking cooling.

Gigabyte have really gone to town on the OC Force in terms of overclocking features offering OC Touch, OC Ignition and OC Brace features. Furthermore the DDR3 and PCI Express slots are all gold plated for better conductivity. Despite being an overclocking oriented motherboard Gigabyte have still included other general features such as improved USB charging, dual Intel LAN, Realtek ALC898 audio, a Bluetooth 4.0 and WiFi card and nine system fan headers.

The Gigabyte GA-Z87X-OC is a more “toned down” version of the OC Force. It utilises broadly the same feature set yet this one is more designed to be “less extreme” or more useable as a normal motherboard. As you can ssee the design is a lot more clean and features a lot less heatsink cooling. Yet this motherboard will still overclock very well and you can see just like the OC Force it is decked out with OC buttons, voltage check points and additional power connectors allover the motherboard. This model features only single Intel LAN but has more USb 3.0 ports. It features one less system fan header with 8 and loses the heatsink cooling fans.

Stay tuned to eTeknix for more Computex coverage in our Computex section.

Images courtesy of eTeknix at Computex 2013.

Computex: Gigabyte Shows Off G1. Sniper 5 and M5 Z87 Motherboards

So far at a pre-Computex event Gigabyte have shown us their G1.Sniper FM2/A85X and B85/LGA1150 motherboards. Now they are showing us the more “enthusiast” orientated motherboards that we would more typically associate with the Computex event. These are the G1.Sniper 5 and G1.Sniper M5 motherboards both of which reviewed, here and here respectively. As a result I won’t go into too much detail about each motherboard as you can read our reviews on them written by Andy.

The G1.Sniper 5 is one of Gigabyte’s top Z87 motherboards that is designed with Haswell CPU overclocking and multi-GPU configurations in mind. You get support for overclocking with Gigabyte Ultra Durable 5 components and their is support four 4 way graphics.  In addition their is an improved Gigabyte audio package, with a Creative Sound Core3D quad-core audio processor, which you can read about here and Gigabyte have implemented an improved USB charging capability to this motherboard that allows for faster device charging. Gigabyte have added a Bluetooth 4.0 and Wi-Fi module as well as dual LAN (one is Killer E2201) with high ESD protection.

The G1.Sniper M5 on the other hand is a more compact version of the G1.Sniper 5. It features all the same good stuff as the Gigabyte G1 Sniper 5 except comes in a more compact micro-ATX form factor. As a result you’ll only really be able to run two GPUs on this motherboard but it still has all the high quality components, dual BIOS, improved sound, the gold plated CPU socket and improved USB charging.

Stay tuned to eTeknix for more Computex coverage in our Computex section.

Images courtesy of eTeknix at Computex 2013

 

Gigabyte Reveals Customisable High-Resolution UEFI For Haswell Motherboards

In the last few years we have witnessed something of a BIOS revolution with the introduction of a UEFI graphical interface. Interestingly it looks as though that revolution is going to continue with the arrival of Haswell as Gigabyte have revealed their latest UEFI BIOS design. As you can see from the above image (click on the image for an enlarged version) the new Gigabyte BIOS uses a full 1080p resolution layout. The “Resolution” selection area at the bottom right would suggest that you can even change the UEFI resolution depending on your own preferences.

You may have noticed a lot of things are blurred out, this is because Gigabyte has to abide by Intel NDA rules on Haswell and Z87, but we can still see fully the rest of the UEFI design. Around the edges we get real time CPU, memory and system status updates, a pretty nifty feature when you are playing around with settings in the UEFI. As far as the options go you can see for yourself, but there are huge number of customisable options that are sure to satsify the needs of the most basic all the way up to the most advanced Haswell user.

We will be sure to bring you full coverage of Gigabyte’s new UEFI BIOS when we get a Haswell Z87 motherboard out for review at some point in the not-so-distant future. What are your thoughts on the appearance and functionality of Gigabyte’s new UEFI BIOS?

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