Solid quality and cutting edge technology with a rather special new SSD.
Standing out from the crowd can be difficult when it comes to motherboards and a quick glance over ASRock’s Z97 Extreme6 initially doesn’t seem to reveal anything particularly unusual.
Sure, it has some nice features like a couple of quick buttons on the board for turning on power and doing a quick reset. Dual BIOS is a nice touch, meaning that if something happens to corrupt the first BIOS, you have a fast way to get up and running again at the touch of a switch.
The quality of components is high, with attention paid to heat dissipation over the chips by colourful metallic blue alloy covers and more loving touches in the components all over the board – especially in the sound and power areas. Shielding aplenty (both EMI and PCB isolate) as well as both differential and headphone amps supporting up to 600ohm headsets will keep both gamers and audiophiles happy. Seeing plenty of room between the PCI-E slots is also gratifying, allowing for plenty of space to SLI or Crossfire two graphics cards.
Plenty of room is also around the 1150 CPU socket, meaning that a CPU cooler on the large size is no challenge. A debug display, power for 6 fans spread out over the whole board and easily accessible monitoring points means that overclockers haven’t been left out of the design choices either.
However, sitting just near the primary PCI-E slot is something that moves this motherboard well out of the realm of the ordinary and into the cutting edge. The Z97 boasts an Ultra M.2 slot that leaves second generation SSD’s in the dust and is creating a new third generation. Given that the M.2 standard was only announced in June 2013, moving PCI-E into the mobile space and shifting mSATA off to the obsolete, and the first revision was only released in December. That ASRock has created yet another generation of this technology less than 6 months down the track is astonishing.
The M.2 standard was designed for mobile devices, and so needed both a small form factor and the ability to give excellent throughput to a low-powered device. Putting this in a large device where space is at far less of a premium and power use is no problem is a huge win for desktop users. Then, going even further in upping the throughput by using 2 PCI-E lanes to directly connect the PCH straight to the CPU (rather than going through the Z97 chipset as is standard for M.2) is the sweet, sweet icing.
On our test Z97, we had the seriously tiny Samsung XP941 SSD plugged into the Ultra M.2 slot. This particular SSD retails between $270 for the 112GB version to $670 for the largest 512GB capacity and, while not widely available, is able to be purchased here in Australia.
In our tests we used AS SSD Benchmark to get a good feeling for the kind of speed we were being given. Our labs Intel SATA-3 SSD ran a very workman-like top read speed of 267.42 MB/s. Over at the M.2 SSD, the speed was an astonishing 1078.86 MB/s. This speed even beats out the 870MB/s peak read speed in the MacBook Pro by a considerable margin. The Air uses a proprietary Apple slot, which is setup quite differently to this “direct to the CPU” design; however is the only real speed competitor to the M.2 standard.
While the placement of the M.2 slot has obviously been given a lot of thought, close to the CPU but nicely out of the way, putting it directly under an area which will inevitably be occupied by a powerful, heat-generating card is a little concerning. We haven’t seen issues with hot SSDs in the past, though.
Samsung state that system boot from the XP941 is not currently supported in a Windows PC (although it is on a Mac) which seems to defeat the whole point of such a fast drive, although as this standard becomes more widely used that can be expected to change in short order.
ASRock have been quietly producing quality motherboards for some years now, but the Z97 Extreme6 has real potential to make people sit up and take notice. With SSD technology set to explode over the next few years, if you are looking for a future-proof solution then this motherboard, right on the cutting edge, is about as future-proof as is currently available.