ASUS Z97-WS Motherboard Review
Features and Motherboard Layout
Courtesy of ASUS
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ASUS adorned the Z97-WS with a flat black PCB and gold-accented heat sinks and capacitors, similar in color to their channel-line boards. The gold color used on the heat sinks and capacitors is a darker, more muted color than used with the last generation boards, making for a nice contrast with the PCB. ASUS packed many features into the board, but was still able to leave sufficient room around the integrated components so that everything remains easily accessible.
Aside from the circuitry directly under the CPU VRM chips, the boards back is almost entirely clear of components and fragile circuitry. No worries in close proximity to the area behind the CPU socket either.
ASUS integrated the following ports into the Z97-WS' rear panel: two USB 2.0 ports, four USB 3.0 ports controlled by the Intel Z87 chipset (located below the GigE NIC ports), 2 USB 3.0 ports controlled by the ASMedia controller (located to the right of the buttons), dual Intel GigE NIC ports (I218-LV port is to the left of the audio ports, and the I210-AT port is to the right of the mini-DisplayPort video port), an HDMI video port, DisplayPort and mini-DisplayPort video ports, BIOS Flashback and Q-Code Logger buttons, an optical audio port, and 6 analogue audio ports. The upper USB 2.0 port located just above the eSATA port can be used in conjunction with the Q-Code Logger function. The lower USB 2.0 port located just above the eSATA port can be used in conjunction with the USB BIOS Flashback function.
The Q-Code Logger button can be used to dump all debug codes cycled through since system startup. Simply plug in a USB drive into the bottom USB 2.0 port (to the left of the button) and press the button for 3 seconds until the integrated LED blinks three times, indicating that the Q-Code Logger functionality is enabled. The BIOS will then disconnect and reconnect the attached USB drive to the system as it writes the Q-Code log file to the USB. The generated log file is named Q_CODE.LOG, is in a text format, and is written to the root directory of the attached USB device. The manual contains a detailed list of the debug codes written to the file. ASUS also provides a PDF version of the debug codes from the motherboard download site, located here.
The USB BIOS Flashback button can be used to re-flash the BIOS without having to boot the system into the UEFI BIOS interface or DOS. Simply plug in a USB drive containing the proper BIOS file in the root of the drive into the bottom USB 2.0 port (to the left of the button) and press the button for 3 seconds until the integrated LED begins to flash. As the BIOS is updated, the LED flashing frequency increases. Once the LED goes out, the flash operation is completed and the board can be booted. Note that if the BIOS Flashback LED flashes for 5 seconds and then glows solid, it means that something went wrong with the flashback operation. Check the USB drive for the the BIOS file in the root and make sure that the BIOS file is named correctly. BIOS Flashback looks for a specific filename and file format when attempting to replace the on-board BIOS. The BIOS file in the root of the flash drive must be named Z97WS.CAP for the BIOS Flashback applet to successfully re-flash the board's BIOS.
ASUS designed the Z97-WS with a total of sever PCI-Express device ports - four PCI-Express x16 slots, one PCI-Express x4 slot, and two PCI-Express x1 slots. For the PCI-Express x16 slots, the board supports full x16 bandwidth with a single card in PCI-Express x16 slot 1, x16 bandwidth with dual cards PCI-Express x16 slots 1 and 3, x16 / x8 / x8 in tri-card configuration populating PCI-Express x16 slots 1, 3, and 4, and x8 bandwidth in quad-card mode with cards populating PCI-Express x16 slots 1, 2, 3, and 4. There is sufficient space when using all card configurations to accommodate up to dual slot coolers in all slots.
To the upper right of the primary PCI-Express x16 slot, ASUS placed a 6-pin PCIe power port to provide extra power to the PCI-Express slots when using multiple x16 cards and a 4-pin chassis fan header. The power port accepts a 6-pin PCIe-style power connector (used to power video cards normally) from your PSU. To the right of the audio chipset (and above the PCI-Express slots) are two 4-pin system fan headers. The CMOS battery, a debug header (PROG_CON), and the ThunderBolt header are located to the upper right of PCI-Express x16 slots 3 and 4. The Thunderbolt header is used to connect to the optional ThunderboltEX II PCIe board using the included board adapter and USB extension cables.
ASUS integrated a Realtek audio chipset into the Z97-WS with dedicated audio hardware located along the top of the PCI-Express slots. Dedicated capacitors for processing the on-board audio are located in the upper left corner of the board. Note that there is a dedicated OP-AMP for driving headphone-based output that can be configured to work with the rear or front panel output headphone port.
To the upper left of PCI-Express x16 slot 4 are the front panel audio header, the S/PDIF output header, the power and reset buttons, the IEEE 1394 / FireWire header, and the serial port header (COM1).
Along the lower left of the fourth PCI-Express x16 slot are the two 2-digit Q-Code LED debug displays, two USB 2.0 headers, the trusted module port header, the chassis intrusion header, the CPU Overvolt jumper (enabled with pins 2/3 jumpered), two SATA-Express debug headers, a chassis temperature diode header, and a 4-pin chassis fan header. The Q-Code diagnostic display is a 2-digit hex display used for troubleshooting motherboard boot related issues. A table of codes is located in the motherboard manual to interpret the diagnostic read-out.
The front panel header, Direct Key header, chassis fan select jumper, CMOS clear button, and M.2 device port. The DirectKey header can be connected to a case button. After triggering DirectKey, the board boots directly in to the UEFI BIOS on next reboot. The chassis fan select jumper sets the on-board chassis fan headers for DC fan operation (pins 1/2 jumpered) or PWM fan operation (pins 2/3 jumpered). The on-board M.2 port and port bandwidth jumper (JM2_1) are located in between PCI-Express x16 slots 4 and 5. The slot supports both 6 Gb/s and 10 Gb/s style M.2 devices depending on the port settings in the BIOS or on the JM2_1 header state. With the header un-jumpered, the M.2 port is set for automatic configuration mode with device configuration set based on the BIOS setting or on the type of device plugged into the port. The M.2 port shares PCIe lanes and bandwidth with the Intel Z97 SATA ports 5 and 6. If a device is placed in the M.2 slot, SATA ports 5 and 6 are automatically disabled.
The Intel Z97 Express chipset is covered by a large, low profile gold-colored heat sink lcoated below the PCI-Express x16 slots. The heat sink is adorned with a white ASUS corporate logo.
ASUS includes a total of four on-board SATA 6 Gb/s ports and two SATA Express 10 Gb/s ports located just under the chipset cooler. The four SATA ports on the left are tied to the Intel Z97 chipset controller. The lower SATA Express port is tied to the Intel Z97 controller with the upper port tied to the ASMedia controller. Note that Intel SATA Express port shares bandwidth with the M.2 port with the M.2 port favored if both ports are used.
To the lower left of the Intel Z97 chipset are the Dr Power switch and a 4-pin chassis fan header. When enabled with the switch to the left, the ASUS Dr Power Windows app will show PSU-specific notification messages if power issues are detected by the board monitors.
The on-board DDR3 memory slots are located just below the CPU socket in the lower right quadrant of the board. Dual Channel memory mode is enabled by seating memory modules like colored slots with the gray colored slots acting as the primary slot set. The board supports up to 32GB of memory running at a maximum speed of 3400MHz. Note that memory speeds above 1600MHz are considered overclocked speeds and are outside of the official Intel stock memory speed specifications. Just under the memory slots are the two Intel-controlled USB 3.0 headers and the 24-pin ATX power connector. ASUS also includes 2 dedicated power phases for use by the memory.
To the lower right of the DIMMM slots are the EZ XMP switch, the MEMOK! button, a 4-pin chassis fan header, teh TPU switch, and the EPU switch. The EZ XMP switch allows you to activate the memory XMP speed and setting specifications when enabled, overriding any current active BIOS settings. The MemOK! button can be used to reset memory-related BIOS settings to defaults, useful when the system doesn't boot because of memory options set over-aggressively. The TPU switch enables BIOS assisted overclocking with two modes available. In mode 1, only the CPU ratio is auto-configured. In mode 2, both the CPU ratio and the base clock value are auto-configured. The EPU switch enables BIOS controlled power consumption optimization.
The CPU socket is clear of obstructions even with the power circuitry and VRM heat sink surrounding three sides of the socket. The board contains a total of 8 digital power phases to ensure board stability under all operating conditions.
To the right of the CPU socket along the outside of the VRM heat sink are two 4-pin CPU headers and dual 8-pin ATX12V power ports.